A Little Known, but Powerful Technique to Fast Track Your Career: Theo Epstein’s 20 Percent Rule

Lessons on Career Advancement from 43 Year-old Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein

Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein's 20 Percent Rule for Career AdvancementTheo Epstein (b.1973), president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs, has thus far had a stellar career as a sports executive.

As a freshman at Yale, Epstein was assertive enough to flaunt his role as a sports editor for the Yale student newspaper. After cold-contacting many professional sports teams to express interest in working for them, he grabbed the attention of a Yale alumnus at the Baltimore Orioles. This stroke of luck led to three consecutive summer-internships at the Orioles with increasing responsibilities.

After graduating from Yale with a degree in liberal arts, Epstein joined the Orioles full-time as a public relations assistant. His ingenuity caught the eye of Orioles President-CEO Larry Lucchino, who took Epstein under his wings. When Lucchino became team president of the San Diego Padres, he took Epstein and made him director of player development.

At Lucchino’s suggestion, Epstein also attended law school full-time whilst working 70 hour-weeks at the Padres. At that time, nobody on the small Padres’ management team had a law degree. By going to law school and getting a Juris Doctor degree, Epstein could help review players’ contracts. “Getting that seat at the table gave me the opportunity to be involved, and then my responsibilities grew from there,” he once recalled.

At age 28, Epstein moved again with Lucchino and joined the Boston Red Sox as general manager. In doing so, he became the youngest general manager in the history of Major League Baseball. Ten years later, in 2011, Epstein became president the Chicago Cubs.

At both the Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, Epstein intelligently used complex statistical analytics to oversee the teams’ curse-breaking championships. In 2004, Epstein supervised the Red Sox’s sixth World Series Championship and ended their 86-year drought. And in 2016, when, under Epstein’s presidency, the Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series Championship 108 years after the previous time they did, their triumph ended the longest drought in professional sports.

Theo Epstein’s 20 Percent Rule: Undertake Your Boss’s Less Glamorous Responsibilities

In a recent interview (22:31-minute mark in this “The Axe Files” podcast) with the University of Chicago’s David Axelrod, Epstein revealed a career advancement technique that helped fast-track his career at the Orioles, the Padres and the Red Sox:

Whoever your boss is, or your bosses are, they have 20 percent of their job that they just don’t like … So if you can ask them or figure out what that 20 percent is, and figure out a way to do it for them, you’ll both make them really happy, and improve their quality of life and their work experience. And also gain invaluable experience for yourself. If you do a good job with it, they’ll start to give you more and more responsibility.

Idea for Impact: Those Who Raise Their Hands Climb the Ladder Faster

Theo Epstein's 20 Percent Rule: Undertake Your Boss's Less Glamorous ResponsibilitiesHuman nature is such that everyone likes to do what he/she likes and not what should be done. If you can determine those aspects of your boss’ job that she hates and volunteer to help her with those responsibilities, you can expand your job’s horizons.

When you can seize such opportunities to raise your hand and sign up for tasks and responsibilities that aren’t particularly attractive, you not only learn by way of broader experiences and gain confidence, but also become more visible to management and situate yourself for a promotion. As I’ve written previously, before you can be seen as eligible for promotion, you should have demonstrated competence in doing a part of the new job you aspire to.

Seek out projects, prove that you’re eager and able to go the extra mile, and gain valuable face time with top executives.

The Cost of Leadership Incivility


Steve Jobs’ Misguided Advice for Being a Good CEO: “Throw Tantrums!”

Indra Nooyi got Advice from Steve Jobs: Throw Tantrums

When Indra Nooyi became CEO of PepsiCo in 2006, she met with Steve Jobs, the famously driven but short-tempered and ruthless leader of Apple. One advice Jobs had for Nooyi on being a good leader: “throw tantrums.”

During this 2016 interview at the Stanford Business School (YouTube video), Nooyi acknowledged Job’s advice as “a valuable lesson.” She elaborated that Jobs advised, “don’t be too nice … when you really don’t get what you want and you really believe that’s the right thing for the company, it’s OK to throw a temper tantrum. Throw things around. People will talk about it, and they’ll know it’s important for you.”

During another 2016 interview, at the New York Times’ DealBook Conference (YouTube video), Nooyi recalled Jobs advise again. “If you really feel strongly about something—if you don’t like something people are doing—throw a temper tantrum. Throw things around, because people have got to know that you feel strongly about it.” Though Nooyi hasn’t gone as far as to throw things around, she disclosed, “I’m beginning to use certain words a little bit more freely and I am screaming a bit more, pounding the table … which is really not the way I was … it is effective. It shows the passion that I have for what I’m doing.”

No Need to Ape the Style of the Icon-of-The-Moment

Leadership Throw TantrumsPeople will go to extraordinary lengths for causes they believe in. Nonetheless, this advice of throwing tantrums and using “certain words a little bit more freely” to express passion is abhorrently misguided, even if it worked for Steve Jobs and Indra Nooyi!

The ultimate impact of a leader hinges on his/her enthusiasm to make the organization’s endeavors personal, to engage others openly, and to draw attention to successes as they emerge. For that reason, Nooyi’s anecdote is demonstrative of Jobs’ passion for building great products.

My primary protestation relates to the reality that leaders model the behavior they want in their organizations. Admissibly, there may be a time and a place to throw temper tantrums at Apple, PepsiCo, or at your organization. However, unchecked and unhindered outbursts of passion, and cursing and incivility are certainly counterproductive.

Steve Jobs could throw temper tantrums because he could! As I have written in previous articles, brilliant men and women can get away with fanatical pride, temper, abuse, and other disruptive behaviors because their spectacular success can and does cover many of their sins, even in the eyes of those at the receiving end of their crudeness.

Aggressive—and successful—managers and leaders can pressurize, scream, intimidate, and even terrorize their employees. They vindicate that their offensive behavior works because they “deliver the numbers.” Others rationalize their behavior by exclaiming, “Yeah, he’s tough on his people, but judge his abrasiveness in the context of everything he’s achieved.”

The Leader Sets the Tone for Workplace Culture

Workplace incivility can take many subtle forms and it is often provoked by thoughtlessness more willingly than by actual malice. A leader’s behavior tells employees what counts—and what’s rewarded and what’s punished. Leaders are role models. Therefore, others pay attention to everything they say and every move they make.

The tone at the top is the foundation upon which the culture of an organization is built. A leader is the face of an organization and the figurehead to whom employees ultimately look for vision, guidance, and leadership. When leaders throw temper tantrums, swear, or engage in appalling behavior, the message they convey within their organizations is that such behavior is acceptable.

The human brain is wired to learn by imitation. For instance, a child is wired to mimic the behaviors of higher status individuals like parents and teachers. Similarly, adults emulate the behaviors of those they deem of higher status—employees look at their boss to determine how to behave in the organization and what it takes to be promoted. In competitive work environments of the modern day, when employees see that those who have climbed the corporate ladder tolerate or embrace uncivil behavior, they’re likely to follow suit.

'Steve Jobs' by Walter Isaacson (ISBN 1501127624) Postscript: Don’t blatantly imitate a hero. Those of you who worship Steve Jobs had better perceive his operative style as an anomaly rather than as a model of leadership worth imitating. Simply lifting his methods from anecdotes such as Indra Nooyi’s and the Walter Isaacson biography and imposing them on your employees will not necessarily yield Jobs-like results. As I’ve written previously, the career advice that works for the superstars is not necessarily what will work for most ordinary folks. So, don’t be misled by their “it worked for me” advice.

Lessons on Adversity from Charlie Munger: Be a Survivor, Not a Victim

Lessons on Adversity from Charlie Munger: Be a Survivor, Not a Victim

Munger: One of the Most Respected Business Thinkers in History

Berkshire Hathaway’s Vice-Chairman Charlie Munger (b. 1924) is a distinguished beacon of rationality, wisdom, and multi-disciplinary thinking. As Warren Buffett’s indispensable right-hand man, Munger has been a prominent behind-the-scenes intellectual who has created billions of shareholder wealth.

'Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger' by Peter Bevelin (ISBN 1578644283) The story of Charlie Munger’s life is an archetypal American Dream: a hardworking, principled young man overcomes life’s trials and tribulations, and builds a billion-dollar fortune through industry, diligence, candor, and an obsession with self-improvement. Munger is also a prominent philanthropist. He preferred to donate his money now rather than give it as a bequest with the intention of appreciating the results of his giving. After donating $110 million to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Munger said, “I’m soon going to be departed from all of my money, why not give more of it away while I get the fun of giving it?”

“Horrible Blows, Unfair Blows” on the Road to Success

Munger’s sharp mind, irreverent, outspoken outlook, and commonsense-thinking are legendary. For fans who flock to Omaha to witness him and Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting, the 92-year old Munger remains a cult figure.

At age 17, Munger attended the University of Michigan but dropped out to enlist in the military during World War II. After the war, he entered Harvard Law School without an undergraduate degree and graduated in 1948 with a J.D. magna cum laude. He started practicing law in Los Angeles, but gave up his practice at the urging of Warren Buffett to concentrate on managing investments and developing real estate. He never took a course in business, economics, or finance but became a billionaire. He ascribes most of his “worldly wisdom” to his zeal for self-improvement (identical to his idol Benjamin Franklin) and plenteous reading. He once said, “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time—none, zero. … My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”

Even if Munger remains an inspiration for a life well lived, his life has not been entirely perfect. Consider some of the struggles he coped with on his pathway to success.

  • 'Damn Right - Charlie Munger' by Janet Lowe (ISBN 0471446912) At age 29, in 1954, Munger got divorced from his wife after eight years of marriage. Munger lost everything to his wife including his home in South Pasadena. According to Janet Lowe’s insightful biography Damn Right, Munger moved into “dreadful bachelor digs” at Pasadena’s University Club and drove an “awful” yellow Pontiac with a shoddy repaint job. That car made him “look as if he had not two pennies to say hello to each other.” When daughter Molly Munger probed, “Daddy, this car is just awful, a mess. Why do you drive it?” The impoverished Munger replied, “To discourage gold diggers.”
  • The financial pressure came at a testing time. A short time after the divorce, Munger’s 9-year old son Teddy was diagnosed with leukemia. At that time, cancer survival rates were insignificant and Munger had to pay for everything out-of-pocket because there was no health insurance. According to his friend Rick Guerin, Munger would visit the hospital when his son “was in bed and slowly dying, hold him for a while, then go out walking the streets of Pasadena crying.” Teddy died a year later in 1955.
  • Many years later, Munger had a horrific cataract surgery in his left eye that rendered him blind with pain so severe that he eventually had that eye removed. Recently, when doctors notified Munger that he had developed a condition that was causing his remaining eye to fill up with blood, he stood the risk of losing his vision in his other eye too. Being the obsessive reader that he is, the prospect of losing eyesight entirely made Munger comment, “Losing the ability to see would seem to be a prison sentence.” Undeterred, Munger was ready to brace himself for what life had to offer. He told a friend, “It’s time for me to learn braille” and started taking lessons. As luck would have it, the worrisome eye condition has since receded.

Charlie Munger on Confronting Adversity and Building Resilience

  • Adversity, hardship, and misfortune can cause people to conceive themselves as a victim of circumstances. Munger once remarked, “Whenever you think that some situation or some person is ruining your life, it’s actually you who are ruining your life. It’s such a simple idea. Feeling like a victim is a perfectly disastrous way to go through life. If you just take the attitude that however bad it is in anyway, it’s always your fault and you just fix it as best you can … I think that really works.”
  • People who choose to react as victims surrender themselves to feelings of being betrayed or taken advantage of. The resulting anger, repulsion, fear, guilt, and inadequacy are futile. Munger once said, “Generally speaking, envy, resentment, revenge, and self-pity are disastrous modes of thought; self-pity gets pretty close to paranoia, and paranoia is one of the very hardest things to reverse; you do not want to drift into self-pity.”
  • Feeling victimized and the ensuing negative thinking patterns are hard to break, but the recovery process encompasses disremembering and forgiving the past, regulating the flawed perspective of the routine ups and downs of life, and taking control and gaining power. In his 2007 commencement speech at University of Southern California’s Law School, Munger said, “Life will have terrible blows in it … horrible blows, unfair blows. And some people recover and others don’t. And there I think the attitude of Epictetus is the best. He said that every missed chance in life was an opportunity to behave well, every missed chance in life was an opportunity to learn something, and that your duty was not to be submerged in self-pity, but to utilize the terrible blow in constructive fashion. That is a very good idea.”
  • In a 2011 interview, CNN journalist Poppy Harlow asked if Munger felt betrayed by David Sokol, Buffett’s then heir-apparent who violated company standards during Berkshire Hathaway’s purchase of Lubrizol and was let go. Munger conceded that Sokol’s conduct left him sad, but not let down. “It’s not my nature … when you get little surprises as a result of human nature … to spend much time feeling betrayed. I always want to put my head down and adjust. I don’t allow myself to spend much time ever with any feelings of betrayal. If some flickering idea like that came to me, I’d get rid of it quickly. I don’t like any feeling of being victimized. I think that’s a counterproductive way to think as a human being. I am not a victim. I am a survivor.”

Playing a Victim is by No Means Beneficial or Adaptive

'Poor Charlie's Almanack' by Charlie Munger (ISBN 1578645018) Even in the face of some of the worst misfortunes that could strike you, suffering the resentments and attempting to endure pain are far superior choices than getting absorbed in feeling victimized and powerless.

Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl described how his fellow captives in Nazi concentration camps survived by enduring their sufferings and refusing to give in to feeling victimized. Even when stripped of all their rights and possessions, they exercised their enduring freedom to choose their attitudes and harnessed this freedom to sustain their spirits.

In his inspiring Man’s Search for Meaning (which is one of Munger’s many recommended books,) Frankl wrote, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. … Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Lessons on Adversity from Charlie Munger

Idea for Impact: Come what may, you’re not a victim. It is up to you to determine your response.

  • Don’t operate life on the assumption that the world ought to be fair, just, and objective. You are neither entitled nor unentitled to good treatment.
  • Recognize that you cannot control, influence, or affect in any way the inequities, injustices, discriminations, and biases that populate the world. You have power over only your life and the choice of your attitudes.
  • Never feel sorry for yourself or engage in self-pity. Don’t dwell on a “poor-me stance” and consider yourself unfortunate. Don’t become loath to taking responsibility for your actions and the consequences. Stop playing the victim by recognizing and challenging those negative voices in your head. As the Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, “Put from you the belief that ‘I have been wronged’, and with it will go the feeling. Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”
  • When life knocks you over, allow yourself a modest amount of grieving. Then, gather yourself back together, get up, dust yourself down, renegotiate your hopes and dreams, align yourself with reality, put yourself back in the saddle, and get on with life. The ability to rebound quickly from failures and disappointments is one of the key differentiators between successful and unsuccessful people.
  • What’s important in life is not what happens to you but how you react to what happens.

Leadership Lessons from the Spectacular Rise and Fall of Avon’s Andrea Jung / Book Summary of “Beauty Queen” by Deborrah Himsel

When companies do well, their CEOs are often heralded as outstanding visionaries and brilliant innovators. In particular, when macroeconomic conditions are favorable, these CEOs are sheltered from scrutiny because the spoils of their success deflect attention from their leadership shortcomings (see my previous article on how success often conceals wickedness.) When the tide turns, however, the leadership deficiencies are exposed for all to see. The CEOs are the first to get the blame, even if they may not merit it.

Deborrah Himsel’s Beauty Queen offers an insightful tale of the spectacular rise to the top and the tumultuous fall from grace of Andrea Jung. Beauty Queen divides Jung’s tenure as the CEO of cosmetics company Avon from 1999 to 2012 into two halves: Jung led six consecutive years of double-digit growth initially and then presided over a series of operational missteps that led to her resignation. Alas, Avon has never since recovered—its numerous restructuring efforts have failed, and its strategic and financial performance has severely deteriorated.

The Rise of Andrea Jung and Avon (1999–2005)

'Beauty Queen: Inside the Reign of Avon's Andrea Jung' by Deborrah Himsel (ISBN 113727882X) Promoted at age 41, Andrea Jung brought glamour, charm, and personal style to her CEO’s role. She quickly reshaped Avon’s image and articulated a powerful purpose for the company. She injected energy into a decaying cosmetics brand and pushed Avon into new profitable markets in China, Russia, and other countries. When Jung became CEO, 60% of Avon’s sales were in the United States; by 2011, only 17% of sales were in the United States and 70% were in developing markets.

Jung’s revival of Avon’s fortune catapulted her fame; she became one of America’s most recognized chief executives. Fortune magazine named her one of the most powerful women in the world. Jack Welch recruited her to General Electric’s board of directors.

Beauty Queen attributes this initial success not only to Jung’s inherent strengths in marketing and branding, but also to her right-hand person Susan Kropf. Kropf was a brilliant operations person, who balanced Jung’s acute lack of skills in running the day-to-day operations of a global company.

The Fall of Andrea Jung and Avon (2005–2012)

Avon’s sales started to slow down in 2005. And, Susan Kropf’s exit in 2006 corresponded with the dawn of Avon’s misfortunes. Andrea Jung never replaced Kropf; Avon was left without a chief operating officer.

As Avon started to struggle, Jung’s inadequate operations experience became a serious liability. A streak of self-inflicted problems resulted in strategic and operational disasters that took a huge financial toll and resulted in a flight of Avon’s top talent. Jung failed to deal effectively with failures of computer systems in Brazil, inadequate inventory and supply-chain management, poor management of working capital, and a staggering bribery scandal in China.

Jung’s lack of expertise to deliver results went up against her bold projections about the business’s future. Straying from Avon’s door-to-door direct selling roots, Jung experimented with a direct-selling channel, but quickly abandoned her strategy of running Avon retail stores. Her attempts to start baby-goods and other new product lines foundered after just two years. Avon’s many acquisitions failed; a silver jewelry company (Silpada) that Jung bought for $650 million had to be sold back to the original owners for $85 million.

Avon never recovered from the blunders that Andrea Jung presided over

Avon Beauty Products After Jung’s several turnaround efforts had failed to take hold, she resigned in 2011. Her replacement, former Johnson & Johnson executive Sheri McCoy, has since struggled to turn the company around.

The bribery scandal in China impaired Avon. In 2014, Avon settled the case with the Justice Department and the SEC for $135 million. To boot, Avon not only spent $350 million on legal fees, but also lost ground in the burgeoning cosmetics market in China.

Avon’s market value fell from $21 billion (1-Mar-2004) at the height of Jung’s success to $1.1 billion (15-Jan-2016). The company’s stock price fell from $44.33 to $2.50.

Lessons from Andrea Jung’s Leadership Style at Avon

Some of the most instructive leadership lessons from Beauty Queen are,

  • “Studying the trajectory of the Avon CEO is a great way to learn leadership. Andrea’s career … offers invaluable lessons about finding the right balance between substance and style.”
  • “Her story is a cautionary tale, one that suggests the critical importance of being aware of your weaknesses and how they can sabotage you.”
  • Leaders should know when to go. “If Andrea had departed in 2008, she would have left with her reputation and halo fully intact … CEOs that are successful early on often err on the side of staying too long.” [See my previous article on why leaders better quit while they’re ahead.]
  • Companies should pair up their leaders with deputies who have complementary skills to offset the Achilles’ heels of the leaders.

Recommendation: Skim through the first six chapters of Beauty Queen for an informative quick read on Andrea Jung’s rise and fall at Avon. Thumb through the next five chapters for an uninteresting discussion of broad leadership lessons and action lists in dry PowerPoint style.

The Truth Can Be Bitterer than a Sweet Illusion

Bitter Pill - The truth can be bitterer than a sweet illusion

In 1998, as CEO of 1-800-Flowers.com, Jim McCann could not bring himself to let one of his senior executives go. McCann and the rest of his leadership team understood that this senior executive was neither right for the job nor performing well.

For McCann, the biggest hindrance was that he was friends with this executive and had spent time with his family. McCann agonized over being heartless to a friend and couldn’t bring himself to dismiss the executive.

Unexpectedly, McCann met General Electric’s CEO Jack Welch at a dinner party and discussed this dilemma. Welch advised, “When was the last time anyone said, ‘I wish I had waited six months longer to fire that guy?’ Always err on the side of speed.”

Urged by Welch’s counsel, McCann deftly dealt with the situation. Initially, McCann felt that being tough was unjustifiable and was pained by the loss of a friendship. He was hurt but relieved because firing the executive was the right decision for everyone.

On a happier note, the former executive soon got a new job that better suited his background. Their friendship stood the test of time and they eventually made up.

Firing is awful—indeed, it’s the most difficult thing managers have to do, especially for those who encourage camaraderie and treasure loyalty. As in McCann’s case, if you think an employee isn’t up to par and you may fire him/her within the next year, it’s always better for management, the employee in question, and other employees to take the right actions promptly.

Idea for Impact: Don’t Be Conflict-Avoidant

Confront the Bitter Truth The truth is that the truth hurts sometimes. Even if the truth can be bitterer than a sweet illusion, delaying action will only make things harder.

Making the right decision and taking the action may involve unpleasant confrontations. Though conflict can be emotionally distressing, being decisive and doing what’s best eventually works out well for everyone.

Instead of being hyperconscious of other’s possible judgments and avoiding conflict, do difficult things as soon as practically possible.

When dealing with difficulties involving others, there is nothing more insidious than unresolved conflict and inaction. Read “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” (by Patrick Lencioni) to understand how to engage in conflict in a way that nurtures (rather than harms) relationships. Also, read “Crucial Conversations” (by Kerry Patterson, et al.) on how to conduct effective discussions by stating the facts, speculating possible remedies, and then skillfully leading the other person to a course of action. Stick with facts to reduce defensiveness. Have the other person develop and commit to a course of action on his/her own.

Lessons from the Biography of Tesla’s Elon Musk

I recently finished reading Ashlee Vance’s riveting portrait of Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, CEO of SpaceX, chairman of SolarCity, and previously the founder of PayPal and other companies.

Musk has emerged as the foremost superstar/visionary-entrepreneur of Silicon Valley since Apple’s Steve Jobs passed away in 2011.

'Elon Musk' by Ashlee Vance (ISBN 0062301233) Vance’s biography reveals how Musk’s “willingness to tackle impossible things” has “turned him into a deity in Silicon Valley.”

Vance’s biography portrays Musk as an obsessively focused and a remarkably driven entrepreneur, but one who is almost unbearably difficult to work with. Musk is tirelessly demanding of employees, has low tolerance for underperformers, and does not like to share credit for successful ventures.

The book’s key takeaway is actually an admonitory lesson: Elon Musk may well be one of the most successful entrepreneurs of all time—if your characterization of success is rather narrow. However, having an extreme personality and attaining great success come at the cost of many other things. In his drive to win, Musk sacrifices friends, business associates, and even his family to get what he wants. The story of Elon Musk exemplifies what happens when an overachieving leader regards individuals as tools and attaches more importance to his projects than to his people.

Complement Ashlee Vance’s “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” with biographies of two other entrepreneur-visionaries with aggressively competitive personalities: Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” and Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store” Like Elon Musk, both Jobs and Bezos are reputed for their personal influence on every aspect of Apple and Amazon’s products and services. They are described as being demanding and demeaning to people who helped them realize their visionary aspirations.

Starbucks’s Comeback / Book Summary of Founder and CEO Howard Schultz’s “Onward”

Starbucks founder, Chairman, and CEO Howard Schultz’s “Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul” is an interesting case study of organizational change as orchestrated by a passionate entrepreneur. The book covers the first two years of the turnaround of Starbucks after Schultz returned as CEO.

'Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul' by Howard Schultz, Joanne Gordon (ISBN 1609613821) In 2007, in the face of falling consumer spending and the upcoming Great Recession, the consumer discretionary sector was hit hard. Like other companies in that realm, Starbucks’ sales and profitability had dropped. The company’s stock price plummeted after Wall Street pared the rich valuations (high price-to-earning) of the company’s once-hot growth stock. Through these trials, Schultz worked at the company’s Seattle headquarters as chairman. Even after retiring as CEO in 2001, he had never left the company entirely and had even interjected often during Starbucks’ presentations to investors.

Starbucks’ financial under-performance was likely as much due to the economic slowdown as it was self-inflicted. In an apparent instance of misplaced cause-and-effect, Schultz blamed the company’s leadership for focusing too much on rapid expansion, opening too many stores, and diluting the in-store Starbucks experience. Behind the CEO’s back, Schultz started working with strategy consultants and other board members to develop a “transformational agenda” centered on the core values of the company he had founded in 1982.

In January 2008, Schultz invited the CEO home on a Sunday evening, fired him, and assumed the CEO position for a second stint. Over the next two years, Schultz rejuvenated the company’s mojo by making operational improvements and focusing on employee engagement, Starbucks’ specialty coffee products and its distinctive in-store customer experience.

Schultz’s vision, focus, and execution of this transformation makes up the bulk of “Onward”. One dominant theme in the book is founder’s syndrome—the intense reluctance of entrepreneurs like Schultz to cede control of their businesses.

Starbucks founder, Chairman, and CEO Howard Schultz

Towards the end of 2009 (when “Onward” was authored,) the economy started to improve. A measured recovery in consumer confidence invigorated the fortunes of most consumer discretionary companies that had suffered during the downturn. At Starbucks, customers returned to stores and spent more. Sales and profitability improved. The company’s valuation on Wall Street soared again. Conceivably, Starbucks may have enjoyed a comeback even if Schultz had remained just the chairman, retained and supported the CEO, and worked with the company’s leadership team to initiate course corrections.

That Starbucks continues to be an American success story and has done extraordinarily well to date under Schultz’s leadership is one more instance of a beloved fairy tale in the world of business—that of a company in distress rescued by the return of its visionary founder.

“Onward” is Schultz’s somewhat grandiose narrative of his return as CEO. The 350-page book is brimming with peripheral details, self-congratulatory superlatives, recurring claims, and Pollyanna-isms that are illustrative of a charismatic entrepreneur and a brilliant corporate cheerleader.

Recommendation: Skim. (For Starbucks aficionados: Read.)

Lessons from a Social Media Disaster

30-year-old Justine Sacco made headlines in December 2013 for insensitive remarks on Twitter during her journey to visit family in South Africa.

  • Sacco tweeted about a fellow passenger on her flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, “‘Weird German Dude: You’re in First Class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant.’—Inner monologue as I inhale BO. Thank God for pharmaceuticals.”
  • And then, during her layover in London, she tweeted, “Chilly—cucumber sandwiches—bad teeth. Back in London!”
  • Subsequently, before boarding her aircraft for the final leg of her trip to Cape Town, she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Justine Sacco published a tweet: 'Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm White!'

Sacco Should Have Known Better

Justine Sacco was the senior director of corporate communications at the digital media conglomerate IAC/InterActiveCorp. Her career centered on managing the intent and vocabulary of internal and external communications at a large multinational company.

Sacco’s last tweet sparked an immediate furor. By the time she landed in South Africa, thousands of angry tweets responded to her remarks. Reactions ranged from “Sorry @JustineSacco, your tweet lives on forever” to “How did @JustineSacco get a PR job?! Her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News. #AIDS can affect anyone!” to “I’m an IAC employee and I don’t want @JustineSacco doing any communications on our behalf ever again. Ever.”

IAC/InterActiveCorp, her employer, tweeted, “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.” By the time she landed in South Africa, IAC had fired Sacco and released a statement saying:

The offensive comment does not reflect the views and values of IAC. We take this issue very seriously, and we have parted ways with the employee in question.

There is no excuse for the hateful statements that have been made and we condemn them unequivocally. We hope, however, that time and action, and the forgiving human spirit, will not result in the wholesale condemnation of an individual who we have otherwise known to be a decent person at core.

That One Stupid Tweet Blew up Justine Sacco’s Career

Lessons from Justine Sacco's Social Media Disaster Justine Sacco later apologized for her insensitivity and stated, “Words cannot express how sorry I am, and how necessary it is for me to apologize to the people of South Africa, who I have offended due to a needless and careless tweet. … For being insensitive to this crisis … and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed. … This is my father’s country, and I was born here. I cherish my ties to South Africa and my frequent visits, but I am in anguish knowing that my remarks have caused pain to so many people here; my family, friends and fellow South Africans. I am very sorry for the pain I caused.”

Sacco is now a communications manager for a small startup in New York. Even if she realized social media’s power in the most awful way possible and learned her lesson the hard way, the chances of her ever getting another significant job in corporate communications or public relations are remote. Presumably, it will take a long time for her to rebuild her career.

Alas, Humor is a Difficult Thing

Sacco probably isn’t racist or one who doesn’t sympathize with people with AIDS. Her tweet was simply a bad tweet.

Sacco, who deleted her Twitter account right away, had a history of tweeting sarcastic remarks and offensive little jokes. “I was so naive,” she later admitted to a Gawker columnist, claiming she never expected that her tweet would be misunderstood and misconstrued in such a way. She insisted her message was an attempt to mimic what a truly racist or ignorant person would say.

The Pitfalls of Social Media

Three Lessons from Justine Sacco’s Tweet: The Pitfalls of Social Media

  • Companies, publish social media guidelines for employees: Social media users easily blur the lines between their personal and professional personalities by openly declaring their affiliations on LinkedIn, Twitter, and other sites. Consequently, when they use social media in their professional or personal capacities, they can seriously harm their employer’s reputation. Whereas policing technology use or monitoring all published content is impractical, companies must educate employees about the pitfalls of social media. For example, the U.S. Air Force has a thorough handbook to help its employees engage online (and offline) communities in a positive way.
  • Folks, be mindful of your digital footprint; watch what you write. Social media has not only made us more accessible to one another, but also more accountable. Many prospective employers search social networking websites and the internet for more information on job candidates. Your online presence can be an asset or a liability. Any remark you post in the public domain can be distorted or misinterpreted. Refrain from venting complaints, writing crude posts, portraying organizations and individuals in negative light, bad-mouthing, and posting opinions on sensitive topics. Maintain a professional tone and post insightful content that appeals to prospective employers.
  • Be cautious with humor and sarcasm. “Humor is inherently ambiguous. That’s how it works. You’re saying more than one thing, and it’s never clear exactly what the message is,” says Prof. Rod Martin, who has researched the nature of humor at the University of Western Ontario. It’s amazing how quickly a well-intentioned remark or an offhand comment, when taken the wrong way, can completely derail communication. Humor and sarcasm are complicated. No matter how funny you think you are, you’ll stand the risk that people won’t “get it.” This is especially true in written form, which lacks the helpful subtext of tone and facial movement. It can be very difficult to foresee how others may receive humor or sarcasm: as a clever comment, show of callousness, or as passive-aggression. Exercise caution when it is necessary to use humor; don’t let it get out of control.

Idea for Impact: Social media mistakes may have serious consequences. Once made, those mistakes are not easy to fix. Be mindful of what you share on social media.

Postscript: While I understand the power of social media as an efficient medium for how our world currently interacts, I must admit I don’t understand why intrusive micro-blogging on Facebook (and worse, Twitter) is interesting. Personally, I find social media a gross distraction and invasion of privacy. This is besides the fact that, frankly, nobody cares where I am or what I am doing on an hour-by-hour basis. I deliberately choose to reduce my technological footprint and connect with people in more thoughtful and meaningful ways.

Wife asks “When is it going to be time? Our time? My time?” and Google CFO chooses to retire

To supplement yesterday’s article, “When Can Your Loved One Become an Important Client?” on making time for ourselves and our loved ones, here’s a memo published yesterday by Google CFO Patrick Pichette announcing his retirement after a 30-year career that he deemed left him with too little time to pursue anything else.

Google CEO Larry Page called the memo “a most unconventional leaving notice … Well worth reading — it will warm your heart.”

Google CFO Patrick Pichette and wife atop Mt. Kilimanjaro

A trip to Africa in September 2014 was the genesis of Pichette’s choice to retire at age 52. One morning, Pichette and wife Tamar were watching the sunrise from the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and appreciating the expanse of the Serengeti Park beneath. Then,

And Tamar out of the blue said “Hey, why don’t we just keep on going”. Let’s explore Africa, and then turn east to make our way to India, it’s just next door, and we’re here already. Then, we keep going; the Himalayas, Everest, go to Bali, the Great Barrier Reef… Antarctica, let’s go see Antarctica!?” Little did she know, she was tempting fate.

… then she asked the killer question: So when is it going to be time? Our time? My time? The questions just hung there in the cold morning African air.

A few weeks later, I was happy back at work, but could not shake away THE question: When is it time for us to just keep going? And so began a reflection on my/our life.

… I am completing this summer 25-30 years of nearly non-stop work (depending on how you wish to cut the data). And being member of FWIO, the noble Fraternity of Worldwide Insecure Over-achievers, it has been a whirlwind of truly amazing experiences. But as I count it now, it has also been a frenetic pace for about 1500 weeks now. Always on – even when I was not supposed to be. Especially when I was not supposed to be. And am guilty as charged – I love my job (still do), my colleagues, my friends, the opportunities to lead and change the world.

Third, this summer, Tamar and I will be celebrating our 25th anniversary. When our kids are asked by their friends about the success of the longevity of our marriage, they simply joke that Tamar and I have spent so little time together that “it’s really too early to tell” if our marriage will in fact succeed.

If they could only know how many great memories we already have together. How many will you say? How long do you have? But one thing is for sure, I want more. And she deserves more. Lots more.

Allow me to spare you the rest of the truths. But the short answer is simply that I could not find a good argument to tell Tamar we should wait any longer for us to grab our backpacks and hit the road – celebrate our last 25 years together by turning the page and enjoy a perfectly fine mid life crisis full of bliss and beauty, and leave the door open to serendipity for our next leadership opportunities, once our long list of travels and adventures is exhausted.

… In the end, life is wonderful, but nonetheless a series of trade offs, especially between business/professional endeavours and family/community. And thankfully, I feel I’m at a point in my life where I no longer have to have to make such tough choices anymore. And for that I am truly grateful. Carpe Diem.

Pichette has sounded affable when I’ve heard him lead recent Google corporate earnings calls. CEO Larry Page hasn’t been talking at events since 2013 because of vocal cord troubles; Pichette has been the one to answer for Google’s large spending and disappointing earnings numbers. He has persistently defended Google’s moonshot projects and speculative investments in many new products and acquisitions that haven’t made money for stockholders.

Pichette’s memo is perhaps the finest “spend more time with family” message ever written in announcing a retirement (or resignation.) Although it’s “carpe diem” for the immediate future, he’s left the door open for more opportunities “once our long list of travels and adventures is exhausted.”

Idea for Impact: Get Your Priorities Right

Undeniably, Pichette’s decision to retire and my own ‘retirement’ for identical reasons (my decision came about on a trip to Alaska in March 2009) are outside the realm of possibility for 99% of people. Yet, this inspiring memo serves as a reminder to us to invest more time on our loved ones and on ourselves. We don’t need to constantly succumb to the demands of the world at the expense of the needs of our loved ones and our own deep-held aspirations.

Better to Quit while You’re Ahead [Leadership Lessons]

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO If you are the CEO of a large public company and the news of your exit causes your company’s market cap to swell by $24 billion on the morning of this announcement, you’ve made the right call.

On 23-Aug-2013, Microsoft’s shares gained 8.9% in pre-market trading when the company announced that Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer would retire within the next twelve months. During Ballmer’s 13-year tenure as CEO, Microsoft continued its dominance over the traditional segments of computing, but could not grasp changing consumer preferences. Despite stellar profitability, strategic missteps have forced Microsoft to play catch-up as Apple, Google, and other competitors dominated the new world of mobile devices, social media, search, and internet advertising.

In interviews with Wall Street Journal, Ballmer admitted: “Maybe I’m an emblem of an old era, and I have to move on … As much as I love everything about what I’m doing, the best way for Microsoft to enter a new era is a new leader who will accelerate change.”

Successful professionals know when to make the move: While they are ahead

There is a time limit to success at any leadership position. If a leader is any good, after the initial rush of process improvements, business turnarounds, organizational transformations, and program initiations, familiarity sets into his job. At that point, diminishing returns set in: established routines, processes, and employee networks take over the execution of the change the leader might have initiated.

There is a natural cycle of rapid growth and sustenance to most leadership roles. Stay as long as you need to establish direction, put your ideas into action, and institute the momentum of change. Then, undertake new challenges in your existing job or explore new career opportunities. Plan ahead—the right opportunity may not emerge quickly.

Don’t Hang on

Another lesson from the imminent transition at Microsoft: when you find yourself in trouble and can’t seem to make an impact despite persistent attempts at change, do not wait to get the push. It may be difficult to let go, but don’t hang on.