Friday, November 26, 2010

Writing an Article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review - Stay Tuned

We recently teamed up with Perla Ni, founder and former managing editor of the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), to write an article on the social purpose movement. Specifically, we aim to:
  • Uncover the drivers of the movement's recent growth
  • Explore its long-term prospects
  • Determine the corporation's role in driving and sustaining it
Currently, we're interviewing innovators in the social purpose space - both inside and outside of the corporation. The article will be published in the 2011.

When complete, we'll post a link to the article here... and get back to our regularly scheduled posts for The Popped Kernel.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Nando Parrado: Survival is a Choice

Nando Parrado blew us away on Wednesday at the World Business Forum. His speech caught most everybody by surprise – amidst talks on leadership and management from some of the world’s brightest luminaries, Nando’s incredible story of survival (as captured in the movie Alive (1993)) and powerful lessons on humanity, put the entire Forum in context.

“I’ve run companies,” he said, with a seasoned levity, “but there are no challenges in business – only issues.” The audience responded with enlightened chuckles. “This,” he continued, referring to his 72 days in the Andes – hungry, freezing, and left for dead – “was a challenge.”

On Friday the 13th, October 1972, a plane - carrying Nando, his rugby team, and loved ones - crashed into the Andes mountains – 14,000 feet high, deep in snow. Nando survived the initial impact – he was in row 9, the last row still attached to the plane. His mom, his sister, and his three best friends were sitting behind him - they did not survive. Over the next 72 days, the survivors rationed food (in one three day period, each survivor had only one chocolate-covered peanut to keep them from starving); they heard on a radio that the search for them had been called off; and they lived through an avalanche that took more lives. Temperatures would reach as low as 35 degrees below zero.

Two months into the 72 day ordeal, Nando could no longer sit still. “I’m not going to die here,” he would say. He knew it would be up to them (really, him) to get out alive. He wanted to summit the mountain they crashed into, in the hopes he would see the green fields of Chile on the other side, and find a path to rescue. He took a friend with him. In three days they reached the top. From the summit, they saw nothing but snow-covered mountain ranges in all directions. His friend cried: “We’re going to die, Nando.” Again, Nando said, “I’m not going to die here.” He then “took the biggest decision of (his) life” – he decided to just walk, walk until he took his last breath in search of rescue. Nando and his friend proceeded to trek 65 miles over 10 days. Nando lost 90 pounds. Finally, they ran into a man near a river, who took them in and helped facilitate the rescue of the others. In all, 29 would die; 16 would survive.

What is it about Nando that drove him to trek 65 miles across the Andes mountains in 10 days, losing 90 pounds along the way, after having already spend two months stranded and starving and freezing, without hope of rescue, hovered in the small space of the fuselage of the crashed plane that his mom, sister, and three best friends perished in? Simply put, what drove Nando to survive?

In a word: commitment. A commitment to survive; a refusal to die. “I’m not dying here,” Nando would say, “Not now.” When others lost hope, he chose to keep going until death or rescue. His fellow survivors have said that it was Nando’s confidence in their survival that kept them alive.

This experience helped Nando understand what was truly important in life – the love of those around him. As he told the audience: Never lose connections. Embrace those around you. Love is the reason for living.

He ended with: “Life is not measured by number of breath you take, but the moments that take your breath away… and those moments are connected to love.”

He walked off stage to a roaring standing ovation – the only one in our two years at the Forum.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Steven Levitt: Find your niche

Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics and celebrated economist, kicked off the second day of the World Business Forum inside New York's Radio City Music Hall. He engaged us with his Malcom-Gladwell style of storytelling (“I want to start by telling you story about a man named John Salvaggio…”) and self-effacing humor (“I’m an irrelevant economist.”). He told entertaining stories that ranged from the IRS to prostitution to convey his key messages – innovative ideas are simple and obvious, admit you don’t know when you don’t know, people in business need to think more, social incentives are usually more effective than financial incentives. But it was his personal story about how he got to where he is today – and the key learning we can all pull from it – that most grabbed us.

Steve had dreamed of becoming an important economist – an economist like Alan Greenspan who could move markets with mere words. But there was one problem – he wasn’t good at math. His high school teacher told him that his AP math score was the lowest of any of her students… ever. (He still doesn’t know how he got into MIT’s graduate economics program, having only taken Math 1A at Harvard as an undergrad). Soon after entering MIT, he knew he was in over his head. He seriously considered a different path.

His father gave him an inspirational talk, Steve said, “for the first and only time” of his life. His father said that when he began his own career as a medical researcher, his boss, a well-renowned doctor in medical research, told him he didn’t have what it takes to be a medical researcher. Then, the renowned doctor advised Steve’s father to focus on an area of research that nobody else was focusing on – intestinal gas (true story). Steve’s father did just that – and became the world’s foremost expert on intestinal gas (when Steve was in high school, GQ featured his father in a two-page spread entitled, much to Steve’s chagrin, “The King of Farts.”).

With that, Steve received the moral of the story from his father: “I have no talent. You have no talent,” to which the audience erupted in laughter. Steve, channeling his father, continued, “If you want to succeed, you’ve got to find topics that are so embarrassing, so undignified,” the crowd roared again, “that other more talented people in your field wouldn’t do it.”

As entertaining as Steve’s story was, it contains a powerful message – to be successful, you’ve got to find your niche. In fact, the message was similar to one of the many insights Jim Collins highlighted the day before. Jim had described the hedgehog concept, the idea that a fulfilling career is one in which you:
* Do what you love (What do you love?)
* Can be the best in the world at it (When you do it, do you feel you are made to do it?)
* Drive our economic engine (Are you useful in a way society values (not necessarily profit)?)

Steve Levitt, while not Alan Greenspan, has become famous for making economics mainstream with accessible language and engaging stories. He’s also a lot smarter than he gives himself credit for. He found his niche, and he’s an incredible success because of it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

World Business Forum: Themes from Day One

Wendy Kopp, CEO of Teach for America, was the breakout star today at the World Business Forum inside New York’s Radio City Music Hall – and she wasn’t even presenting. Jim Collins and David Gergen, independently, called Wendy out as one of the best leaders of a generation. Coming from these two men – Jim Collins, who has researched a combined 6,000 years of history in business leadership, and David Gergen, a witness to four decades of political leadership serving presidents Nixon through Clinton – that’s quite an endorsement.

And that leads us to the first of three main themes of the day:

1. Social enterprise

Jim Collins, former faculty at Stanford's Graduate School of Business and author of classic business books Built to Last and Good to Great, set the tone early in his speech when he asked members of the audience if they were involved in a social organization, a charity, a group outside of work that helped the community. He stressed the importance of being involved. “We have come to believe,” he said of himself and his staff, “that if all we have is great companies, we may have a prosperous nation, but not a great nation.” He continued by implying that what makes a great nation is the success of building society outside of the board room – the need to build and deliver social good, the need for “great K-12 education… and not just for some.”

David Gergen, former advisor to four US presidents and now a CNN analyst and professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, made clear his optimism for the next generation of leaders – the Millennial Generation (those born between 1977 and 1998) – the generation of young people who are more concerned with serving their country than any generation since the WWII generation, what Tom Brokaw calls the “Greatest Generation.” And while these Millennials aren’t necessarily as interested in serving in uniform, they are very interested in serving nonetheless in the social and civic sphere. (Bill George, professor at the Harvard Business School and former CEO of Medtronic, shared a similar point with us in Davos, Switzerland earlier this year at the World Economic Forum).

Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, in a wonderfully direct interview with Alan Murray of The Wall Street Journal, raved about Waiting for Superman, the new documentary, made by “this Liberal producer” of An Inconvenient Truth, which highlights the plight of public education in the US. Asked by an audience member (a Millennial who used to work in finance and is now a teacher) what he would do to fix the education system, Welch said he would challenge the tenure system, reward teachers on merit, and weed out the weak. He reminded us that in education, students are the product, not the teachers. (The audience applauded).

Overall, the trend toward social enterprise will likely only grow as Millennials come of age and take on more leadership roles.

Which leads us to the second theme of the day:

2. People

Jim Collins, with mounds of business leadership research behind him, said the single-most important skill of a great leader – hands down – is the ability to pick people… and put them in the right seats. In fact, he said that 6 to 7 of a great leader’s top 10 career decisions will be people decisions – or should be.

Jack Welch put it another way: “You gotta hire people smarter than you are.” He also took a shot at the Hewlett-Packard board for not developing leadership within the company (HP has had a recent history of shuffling through one outside CEO after another). He went so far as to say, “The Hewlett-Packard board has committed sins over the last 10 years. They have not done one of the primary jobs of a board, which is to prepare the next generation of leadership.”

David Gergen talked about President Obama’s senior team and suggested the need to include people outside his Chicago inner circle, particularly to add some business “heavyweights” to the team.

Charlene Li, social media expert and co-author of best-selling book Groundswell, framed it in terms of relationships – with employees and customers. She cited companies like Best Buy that understand the true purpose of social media – to create new relationships that didn’t previously exist and to strengthen ones that already did.

People are critical. Our ability to choose and place them will color our own and our company's success.

And if people color our success, then passion drives it, which brings us to the third theme of the day. Not only was it talked about by today’s speakers, but also on display by them:

3. Passion

Jim Collins speaks as if he’s on fire. With big eyes that buldge in moments of excitement and precise body movements that struggle to control a fierce internal fire, Collins cited one of the key traits of a great leader – not just regular ambition, but extreme passionate ambition for the cause (or company), not oneself.

Jack Welch talks with an energetic and snapping wit. He spoke about the importance of "nuts with ideas." In not so many words, he said that passion drives enterpreneurs, and entrepreneurs will drive us out of this economic rut. What logically follows is that passion is the spark of the economy.

Charlene Li speaks with a constant smile and impassioned calm, as she shares how companies can leverage social media. She told a story about a Best Buy employee who responded personally to a tweeted question of hers. The employee was going to be at Charlene's nearby store in a few days and offered to meet Charlene there in person to discuss her product inquiry further. She was blown away by this employee's ownership of her question. That ownership comes from somewhere - passion for the customer.

These speakers are all at the top of their game, and they’re all passionate about what they do. That's not a coincidence.

Come back tomorrow to find out what emerges from the speeches of Steve Levitt, Al Gore, James Cameron and others, as our coverage of the World Business Forum continues.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

World Business Forum: Here We Come!

We are thrilled to be a featured blog of the World Business Forum again this year.

*Impressive is the lineup of speakers: Al Gore, Jack Welch, Jim Collins, David Gergen, and James Cameron, just to name a few.

*Spectacular is the setting: Radio City Music Hall in New York City (See picture at right).

*Relevant are the themes: Leadership, Strategy, Innovation.

Visit us on October 5 and 6 for live coverage. We’ll share insights from luminary leaders and buzzing bloggers.

This year, we will be blogging alongside The Wall Street Journal and other major news outlets. We’ll also be joined by some of the best blogs in cyberspace. A few bloggers I’ve been following since meeting them at last year’s Forum include:

Be sure to check them out.

For a complete list of speakers at this year’s Forum, you can visit the World Business Forum website. As you enter the site, you’ll also get a multi-media flavor for the event.

The World Business Forum never fails to wow. Simply put, it's one of our favorite events of the year.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Conversation with Parag Khanna, Foreign Policy Wunderkind

We recently sat down with Parag Khanna to kick start our “Up and Comers” interview series, in which we talk to up-and-coming luminaries in business and politics. They aren’t yet household names but one day will be.

As we spoke to Parag at New York’s Science, Industry and Business Library, he had just finished an 8,000-mile trek from London to Mongolia – it took him one month to complete. Within the week, he was headed to China, for another month. Parag gets around. And he’s able to do it while married-with-kid, leading the New America Foundation’s Global Governance Initiative, running his own consultancy, and writing an international best-seller (The Second World: How Emerging Powers Are Redefining Global Competition in the Twenty-first Century). He’s also advised the US Military and Barack Obama, as well as held stints at renowned think tanks - the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution.

At 31, Parag was named one of the 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century, alongside Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs, David Petraeus, and Jon Stewart (Esquire magazine, 2008). We wouldn’t be surprised if he one day occupies a top post at the US State Department. Needless to say, Parag is an “up-and-comer.”

Watch our interview in full, when we post it (soon). In it, you might be struck by the same things we were:

  • How he deflected the pressure to enter the world of high finance and follow his passion for travel and government
  • What city he thinks is the most dangerous in the world - more dangerous than Iraq in 2005
  • How he thought through an opportunity to work in the Obama administration (and ultimately turned it down)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Up and Comers: A New Interview Series with Young Influentials

Today we’re launching “Up and Comers” - a series of interviews with young influentials (think Crain’s Business 40 under 40) in business & politics and arts & entertainment. These “up and comers” are people who might not yet be household names, but will be in time.

Check back in soon to watch our interview with Parag Khanna, one of Esquire magazine’s 75 Most Influential People in the 21st Century, who at 30 published best-selling book The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. In the interview, you’ll find out why he chose the less trodden path of foreign policy over the more proven (and lucrative) one of high finance. You’ll also hear about some of his favorite – and most harrowing – moments traveling the world, while on his two-year research tour for The Second World.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Clay Christensen: How Will You Measure Your Life?

Here at The Popped Kernel, we aim to humanize leaders in business and government by understanding who they are as people. So when we heard that famed Harvard Business School (HBS) professor, Clay Christensen, uses his last class of the semester to urge his students to apply theories from class to better find out who they are as people, we took notice.

Professor Christensen recently repurposed his lecture for an article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) entitled "How Will You Measure Your Life?" We recommend that you read it in full - it's fantastic.

Christensen's message is partially premised on the fact that "more and more of (his HBS '79 classmates) come to reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children" because "they didn’t keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy."

To avoid the same fate, students in Christensen's class are asked to reflect upon three questions:

1. How can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? Hint: it's less about money and more about people. As Christensen puts it, "More and more MBA students come to school thinking that a career in business means buying, selling, and investing in companies. That’s unfortunate. Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people."

2. How can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? Here, Christensen alludes to the theory of resource allocation. That is, students must invest the appropriate amount of time into the things in life that are most important to them in order to yield fulfillment in the long term. Christensen even suggests to his students spending an hour each day reflecting upon their purpose - reading, thinking, experiencing (and in Christensen's case, "praying" as well). Afterall, as he says of his students, "Clarity about their purpose will trump knowledge of (business concepts)."

3. How can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail? Put another way, "How can I ensure that I do the ethical thing in business and in life?" Christensen advises his students to not compromise personal values on the little things, as doing so will snowball into compromising values on the big things later on, which can - and often does - get you in trouble. (Two of the 32 people in Christensen's Rhode Scholar class ended up in jail - so did one of his HBS classmates, Jeff Skilling, former CEO of Enron - all of whom Christensen calls "good guys," but "something in their lives sent them off in the wrong direction.")

How will you measure your life? Comment below or write us at

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Conversation with Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia

We recently sat down with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, the fifth most popular website – only Google, Facebook, Youtube, and Yahoo are bigger. We talked about Wikipedia’s role in society as well as how and why Jimmy “made it.”

Watch the interview below, OR read the interview in its entirety – the transcript of the interview is below. (We’re trying this out for the first time. If you like the transcript idea, let us know, and we’ll look to do this for future interviews).

Before we go to the interview though, we’d like to highlight a few takeaways from our conversation with Jimmy, as it relates to failure.

As with the luminaries we’ve previously interviewed, Jimmy Wales is no stranger to failure.

In 1996, he tried to launch an internet-based lunch ordering system in Chicago, but it went nowhere. The people who needed to buy into his vision simply didn’t. As Jimmy put it, “If you (told a restaurant owner in the Chicago Loop in 1996 that) you were from the Internet, you might as well be from Mars. They had no idea what I was talking about at all. Nor did they care.” Jimmy still believes “ it’s a brilliant idea, it just didn’t work.” Well, not in 1996, it didn’t. But the idea is, empirically, a brilliant one – it’s made an incredible success out of Seamless Web in New York. Jimmy was simply ahead of his time (we joked about that in the interview, but it’s true.)

Later, he launched Nupedia, a precursor to Wikipedia. Jimmy readily admits that it failed. He also recognizes that this particular failure was a requirement for Wikipedia’s success. When Wikipedia launched, Jimmy already had an existing community in Nupedia, a group of loyalists to Jimmy’s vision – “a free encyclopedia for every single person on the planet” – a group that would not only help create Wikipedia’s content but also evangelize on its behalf.

Again, through Jimmy’s story, we see that not only was failure important to his success, but so too was his approach and attitude towards it. As Jimmy tells others, “I just say, ‘Follow your passion. Do something you think is super interesting. And if it fails? Hey, whatever. You spent a year doing something you loved.’"

Watch (or read) the interview to find out:

* whether the urban myth of Wikipedia’s Britannica-like accuracy is true

* how Jimmy stays relaxed in job that would drive most people crazy

* what he found when he entered a school unannounced in the Dominican Republic

* who the smartest person he knows is


The Popped Kernel (TPK): Today, we’re talking to Jimmy Wales, founder of Jimmy, Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today.

Jimmy Wales (JW): Sure. Great.

TPK: What role do you see Wikipedia playing on the internet and on society overall?

JW: On the Internet, we’re now the fifth most popular website and have been in the same slot for a couple of years. We’re probably the most linguistically diverse site. We’re in over 175 languages that have at least 1,000 articles. And we’re really focused on our role in the developing world, in the languages of the developing world, and in that space online in many cases we’re going to be one of the first major websties to be there because we’re so supportive of that part of the world, and we can afford to be supportive whether that makes economic sense or not.

TPK: What do you mean by supportive?

JW: Our software’s translated into multiple languages. We have volunteers who are out there working to try to find people to work in those languages. I would say in a lot of the languages, there aren’t that many websites available. Some smaller local content but your Microsofts, Yahoos, Googles of the world, they – you know, it’s not a criticism of them – they really can’t afford to pay that much attention to smaller languages in a way that our community can, so that’s a part of the role that we play on the Internet.

And then in society more generally, I think everybody who is likely to see this video has had their life affected by Wikipedia and uses it on a regular basis. But I think that there’s a second wave of impact that I think we’re going to have that is kind of interesting, so if you’re speaking English or German or a European language or Japanese, Chinese, the biggest problem that you face with information is actually an overload of information. You go to a search engine and you type “Washington, D.C.” and you get back millions of things when maybe you just need the basic summary. And that’s what Wikipedia really can give you is a quick orientation to the subject.

But in a lot of languages the real problem that they face is lack of access to information at all. Just one statistic that I’ve heard, and I don’t know if this is still true but a few years ago it was said that the number of books translated into Arabic every year is about the same as the number of books translated into German every day. Even though it’s a much larger population of people speaking Arabic, there’s just a real lack of flow of information into Arabic. It gets much worse when you think about a language like Swahili or Wolof – one of my favorite small Wikipedias now. We have 1,000 articles in Wolof, which is a language in Senegal. And in these languages, the access to information that people have in their mother tongue is just incredibly small.

So as we build Wikipeida in those languages, in many cases, it’s going to be the first opportunity that people have to get access to information about whatever a topic that they might be interested in. You can imagine that in Swahili, it’s probably not that hard to find information about London or New York, but it may be hard to find information about the USB standard and so your trying to learn technology, your trying to learn computers and you just have no information unless you learn English or French and that’s a big barrier to getting people online, getting people integrated with the global conversation, so I think that linguistic diversity is something we bring to the table that’s really important.

TPK: And is Wikipeida really more accurate than the Encyclopedia Britannica?

JW: (Laughs) Well, it varies…. The best academic evidence we have is, unfortunately, more than three years old now, and this was a study that was published in Nature. They sent a group of articles out from Britannica and from Wikipedia of similar length, similar topic. Experts reviewed them. And they found that Wikipeida had, on average, around four errors per article and Britannica had, on average, three. So three years ago we weren’t quite as good as Britannica. I think for a lot of people what was surprising about that wasn’t that there were four errors per article in wikipedia but that there were 3 in Britannica. Because people thinkg of britan as somehow handed down from on high and perfect. But it isn’t. and it’s a great encyclopedia but it’s full of errors, as all reference works are. That’s just the nature of the difficulty of doing good, quality reference work. These days I think with certain topics we’re definitely better than Britannica just because we cover the topics in a much more comprehensive way. But you know there’s still errors in wikipeida unfortunately and we’re doing our best to fix them but it takes time.

TPK: How did the idea for Wikipedia start?

JW: I was watching the growth of the free software movement - open source software, as most people know. And I saw that groups of programmers were coming together online to collaborate to build really largescale software projects, very successful, very high quality software. And I put a lot of thought into that. How is it possible? What makes that work? And as it turns out, the free licensing model is really important. You have to deal with certain incentives issue. When you have a group of people working on a project, they want to make sure that their work doesn’t get locked up and that it’ll always be free, so they need that license structure that gives everybody a comfort contributing to the commons. So that’s a big part of it. I was thinking well what – seeing this and seeing that it was really an important phenomenon in software made me realize that this could be apllied more broadly than just software. And realized that it makes sense that collaboration would start first with programmers because if they need a tool to be able to collaborate, they just build their own tools which is what they did. So they built CVS – converter versioning system – where they can check in and out code, and so different people can be working on the same project globally in different time zones. Those kinds of tools and coordination they built for themselves and I realized, "Hey, if I look at those kinds of tools, we could work together on all kinds of things." And that was kind of the early beginnings of the idea.

TPK: Now, you could have applied that to a lot of different contexts. What made you think of the online encyclopdia?

JW: Well, I think the main things is that encyclopedias seem easy to collaborate on and I still think that’s true. In fact, when I first had the idea, I was in a panic because I thought it was so obvious that everybody was going to do it, and two years later, nobdy else was doing it still. But the main thing about it is - if I say - encyclopedia article about the Eiffel tower, pretty much everybody knows what that is - what it’s supposed to be like at the end of the day. I mean we can quibble over the details but you pretty much have a good idea of what you’re trying to create and that gives you certain inherent standards, quality standards, direction. It just seems like a very easy thing. And also it’s a defined unit. It becomes useful very quickly. As opposed to if I said, "Let’s collaborate on wirting a novel" Right? A novel isn’t very useful until it’s done. It’s also a long sustaining road. It’s also - if I tell you that it’s a novel about pain and redemption, we have no guidance whatsoever. we have no idea what we’re doing. And so it’s just a fairly straightforward thing to write an encyclopedia article. So that was kind of it.

TPK: And then how did you go from this idea of open-source-software-meets-encylcopedia to making it happen? and then from making it happen to making it big? Because those are two big jumps.

JW: Well, the first attempt to build the free encyclopedia was a failure. This was called Nupedia. It was a project that Wikipedia grew out of later. And basically, the issue was - I didn’t really understand about communities. There were a lot of things that nobody really knew at the time and so Nupedia was a very top-down, very highly structured, very academic project and one which in the end didn’t work because it was such a burden for the contributors to be able to participate. Wikipedia grew out of that - once we had the idea of the "wiki," which had actually been around since 1995 - invented by a guy name Ward Cunningham - and Wikipedia started in 2001. So for 6 years, wiki’s were a small underground phenomenon – this idea of website that you would then edit had been out there but nobody had really harnessed it into a big thing. So once I gave up on the Nupedia concept and launched the wiki, then it actually took off very quickly. We had more work done in two weeks than we had done in two years - still a very small community but it was pretty evident pretty early on that this was actually a great tool – you’re able to write; you’re able to correct each other’s mistakes; you’re able to expand. Somebody could start something by writing two sentences and somebody else could write two more sentences and someone else would look up the references and pretty soon we started to see something take shape. After that, it just was really a long, continuous road. Basically, our traffic was doubling every three or four months for a few years. We would see occassional spikes, when we grew fast, and occasional slowdowns, depending on school holidays and things like this. But overall, it was pretty steady. People always want to know, “What was the tipping point?” There wasn’t really a tipping point that I can identify, unless you say the day I put it on the web.

TPK: So you just put it on the web and sat back and said, “Let’s see what happens with this?” and it just took off?

JW: We were’t sitting back, no. We already had the existing community, the Nupedia community, so this was actually – when I say Nupedia failed, I should say it didn’t really fail, it grew into something else in the sense that we had a couple hundred people active on the mailing list who were excited about the prospects of building a free encyclopedia. And so essentially, we spent two years talking about how to make an encyclopedia and what it meant, what kinds of tools we would need, before we actually got started with Wikipedia. And so there was already an existing great community of people and then it just grew - it grew over time.

We got a lot of early press from the free software community. Sites like Slashdot covered us and sent us a lot of traffic. We were very active in terms of meeting volunteers and talking to people and evangelizing even in the early days. And then also, as the content grew, we would get more organic traffic from the search engines. They would crawl the site and find us and we would start to have kind of obscure topics that nobody else really had much on.

And other little things that I think we did right – the URL structure is super simple, so everybody knows exactly how to write down a URL for a wikipedia page. If you’re a blogger, I mean it’s really easy for you to link into us. You can say, “I’m going to mention Thomas Jefferson, so how do I link to that?” Well, you pretty much know how to write that URL, boom you’re there and that brought in more traffic.

TPK: What did you do before Wikipedia? Before Nupedia?

JW: Well, I used to be a futures trader in Chicago. Befre that, I was an academic in finance. So, pretty obvious.


TPK: So how did you go from being an options trader to then making a pretty big jump into something so different and doing quite well? What was that like? Can you take us into the psychology of what making that kind of jump is like?

JW: Yeah, well, that jump’s a little stark because I did – I was doing different things on the Internet and it grew organically, and so it wasn’t like one day I just walked off the trading floor and said let’s start an encyclopedia. But there actually are a fair number of things that did carry over. So in my academic career, I was very interested in game theory and modeling interactions. And that’s actually the way I think about the world in many cases, in a game theoretical way, so when I think about people coming together to collaborate - what are some of the incentives that people face individually? How do you harness those incentives in a healthy way? All the kinds of things when you think about institutional design and things like that. Some of it’s very basic economics – just as – we know in economics that just because you pass a law against something doesn’t mean people stop doing it – it’s the same thing - we can say, “Well, you have to cite your sources.” Right? But just saying you have to cite your sources doesn’t actually lead to sources cited. You have to have incentive structures in place and whole mechanisms for making sure that happens. So there’s a lot of overlap in the economic way of thinking about the world and human interactions.

TPK: So you started in the academic world, then you became an options trader, then you started Wikipedia. How did you come to the conclusion that you would stop what was probably a more secure gig in the options trading world to pursue something that was a lot more unpredictable in Wikipedia?

JW: Well, I mean, I was doing stuff on the internet by this time.

TPK: And was it for a job or was it for personal interest?

JW: No, I had a company, an internet company, a search engine that wasn’t very successful but it did ok and, you know, in the Boom, everything did ok. But it’s funny – I just don’t think in those terms. I never have. I just get up everyday and do whatever seems like the most fun thing to do. So once Wikipedia started, I was pretty obsessed with the idea. And Nupedia – I was obsessed with it, but I didn’t know what to do. Once Wikipedia started I was pretty obsessed with the idea and pretty much devoted myself to it in a really serious way, but just because that was the most interesting thing I could think of to do each day, and I just trusted I would find someway to make a living of it somehow.

TPK: So you just decided, “This is fun. I’ll figure out a way to make a living from it”?

JW: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And, I actually think if - I’m asked by young people, “What should I do?” I just say – it’s the cheesiest, the most cliché advice possible but it’s actually true – I just say, “Follow your passion. Do something you think is super interesting. And if it fails? Hey, whatever. You spent a year doing something you loved, and now, you can always get a job at Procter & Gamble or wherever" – no offense to Procter & Gamble; it’s a lovely place to work, but it wouldn’t be many people’s first choice if their dream was something entrepreneurial.

And I think one of the great things – and I see this actually culturally in different parts of the world, it’s different. So one of the great things – there’s many things we can criticize about American culture – but one of the great things about American culture is this high tolerance for failure, this idea that you can step off a career track and do something interesting, entrepreneurial, (and if) it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t really damage your long-term prospects. Whereas in Korea, for example, I was meeting with some young entrepreneurs in Korea and they said it’s completely terrifying to them because if you start a venture, first of all, everybody is against it when you start it and then if it fails, it’s a huge black mark on your record. And people think it’s horrible, especially your mother-in-law or what have you. Families don’t necessarily support in the same way. And so I think it costs in a lot of places, it costs innovation.

TPK: What do you tell those Korean entrepreneurs? Because I’m sure there are some folks in America who have the same mindset towards entrepreneurship and failure.

It’s a spectrum everywhere, right? I mean everywhere there are going to be people who want to do something and they don’t feel like they’re going to get support from their family, their friends. Their current employment is going to look down on it. They’re going to risk a certain career track, and those are tough things. I mean you have to respect that. People have very tough decisions to make. Still for me, I just say, “At the end of the day, you only have so many years on the planet. You got to spend them somehow.” And if you try something, it might succeed and be something you’re really proud of or it might fail and be something you’re really proud of. Then you did it at least. I don’t know, that’s just my ethic.

TPK: You mentioned Nupedia before as being a failure or the perfect step in creating Wikipedia. Outside of that, do you consider yourself having ever failed at anything?

JW: Oh yeah.

TPK: At what? And why?

JW: Well, my internet company. We went from 16 employees at the height of the Boom and then when the crash came, I did the classic young entrepreneur thing, which is I didn’t recognize reality for too long. I should have laid off half the staff immediately when we lost our first big ad contract, which was supporting us. Instead, I just kept believing it was going to come back. I didn’t want to face up to the fact that the Boom was over and that it was actually a real crash. And so I ended up a year later essentially running out of money and having to go from 16 people down to 4, put the thing on bare bones. That wasn’t a good idea actually. But then even within that, different projects, different things that we attempted that even today – we attempt stuff all the time that fails. I mean I just –

Recently, I was giving a talk to some teenagers from junior achievement. They’re all interested in starting businesses and things like this. And so I just decided that the most inspirational talk I could give was a series of slides of all these different projects that I had tried and failed. I remember I had a website – my first commercial website was – I still think it’s a brilliant idea, it just didn’t work – was called Loop Lunch. So I was working in Chicago and the downtown area of Chicago is called The Loop. And I saw all these people eating lunch everyday and there should be an online ordering system and so started setting it up. Did the programming. Contacted restaurants. This was back in 1996 or so I think. And let me tell you, small restaurant owners in the Chicago Loop in 1996 – if you said you were from the internet, you might as well be from Mars. They had no idea what I was talking about at all. Nor did they care. And it was just a tough slog. And basically, we couldn’t get customers; we couldn’t get traction. Even the software we wrote was pretty bad and didn’t work. And it failed. And now – I don’t know about Chicago – but in New York, there’s Seamless Web which is fabulous. You go on; there’s hundreds of restaurants; you order; they bring the food to you. It’s perfect. It makes perfect sense. I invented that idea (said with sarcastic smile) .

TPK (Laughs): You were ahead of your time.

JW (Laughs): Ahead of my time. Right. I also had no clue what I was doing. I actually think we failed not because it was ahead of its time, but also just because the thousand things we did wrong at the time. So, whatever - I’m proud of Loop Lunch. It was a cool failure. But I mean I think that’s - for me, that tinkering, experimenting, trying something fun, interesting, new – that’s always more interesting than – so I’ve, in recent years, started a search engine project that we had to close down, mostly because of the economy – I was actually happy with the progress of it. But when the economy went to hell, there was just no – it was not obvious how we were going to raise the money to continue to fund the research for two more years, so we closed it down, and some different critics of mine, giving grief on the internet, “Ah, yet another failed project.” I’m like, “Hey, I tried. I didn’t see you start a search engine.” So, whatever.

TPK: Have you noticed a theme that through failure comes some moniker of success?

JW: Yeah, sometimes. I mean, sometimes it just sucks. I think there’s always an opportunity to learn something. And many things – I think that – also a very common cliché, but whatever – you sometimes learn more from a failure than a success. So, you know, there’s a lot of things that worked about Wikipedia that we’re not – even to this day, nobody quites knows everything about why it worked, right? What degree this factor and that factor played in the whole thing. Because it worked, we just kept doing what was working. Some of it was probably just pure superstition. It’s like, “This is working. Let’s keep doing it.” And meanwhile, it’s going for some unrelated reason we don’t even understand. But then, when there’s a failure, you often know exactly what went wrong and you can kind of say, “Oh, OK. This doesn’t work because the restaurant owners don’t know about the Internet yet. They just don’t care. And we can’t convince them to pay us anything to do this." So, it just depends.

TPK: If you don’t mind switching gears a bit – and just ask some questions about you.

JW: Mm Hmm.

TPK: Some might be a bit quirky, but just to get at who you are…

JW: Mm Hmm

TPK: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

JW: Oh, a scientist. Maybe that or an astronaut, but scientist seemed more interesting. I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, which is where the space program was headquartered. That’s where the rocket scientists were, inventing the rockets to go to the moon, and things like that. And when I was a small child, sometimes the windows would rattle on the house when they were testing the rockets, which was pretty inspirational in a way – this idea of astronauts going to the moon – it’s a big deal. So I was also very excited about science and technology and things like that. So, yeah, scientist.

TPK: And you ended up following that path.

JW: Kind of. Yeah.

TPK: You’re a computer scientist at heart, it sounds like.

JW: Yeah, I’m a really bad programmer (Laughs), which is as close as I got to computer scientist.

TPK: What are you passionate about?

JW: Well, these days I’m really passionate about the growth of the Internet, Wikipedia in particular, in the developing world. To me, that’s a really exciting development that’s going to be – I think we don’t even really understand all the ramifications of what’s going to happen as the next billion people come online, partly because, right now, so far, the first 1.8 billion people who’ve come online, well, increasingly they’re from places we don’t interact with and cultures we don’t know much about but in the first wave, it was, you know, US, Europe, Japan. And now we’ve got hundreds of millions of people coming online – China, in South America, all over the world. And I think that’s really interesting. And I think we don’t really know all the dynamics of what that’s going to imply in terms of culture, the transmission of ideas across cultures. I mean it’s really interesting. I’ve traveled a lot all over the world. And just had some really amazing and interesting experiences.

Just not long ago, I was in the Dominican Republic and they took me out for a school tour with the Minister of Education, which was a fairly ridiculous show. We went to the best high school and the poor kids – they made them stay after school the day before until 6pm working on a presentation about wikis for me, and then I came in; they gave the presentation; a girl sang; and it was ridiculous. And I was like – it was very sweet of the kids, but I mean basically I didn’t learn anything about education there.

So then I went sort of unannounced with someone from the First Lady’s office who took me, and we just drove out to one of the slums just outside the city where they’re building computer labs. And there’s a computer lab there where the kids come after school, and they can do their homework, and they can get on the internet. And they just built this. And, it’s an area with – they’ve had electricity – legal electricity – for a couple of years now. It’s tin roofs, shacks, and so on. And, I walk into this computer lab completely unannounced and there’s [sic] the kids online doing IM, and they’re on Google, and they’re on YouTube, and they’re on Wikipedia. And talk to some of the kids – they were completely gobsmacked that I was there. They loved Wikipedia - they use it everyday for their homework and things like that. And you start to realize, “Hey, there’s this whole generation of kids who, 40-50 years ago - they would have been sitting with no text b--- you know, very little of anything, and now they have - the world is open to them. And yeah, they don’t have a computer at home; they don’t have a laptop. But hey, every afternoon, they can go onto the computer and they can find out about the world. I think that’s really powerful. They also all have cell phones, of course, and wanted to take pictures with their cell phones.

So that kind of penetration of IT throughout the world – I’ve seen the same kinds of things in India, the slums of India. You’ll see people who are online. Maybe it’s slow, but it’s coming there very quickly. And I think that’s pretty transformative in lots of ways that are very subtle. You can’t really say exactly – simple things, “Well they can get an education, get a better job.” Yeah, sure, but they can also just have a level of learning and actually get the idea that there’s something really amazing about reading and learning stuff about the world and getting excited about that. That’s really powerful in ways I think that are hard to predict.

TPK: Did you ever think that Wikipedia would be as big as it is today – the fact that you can go into a village in the Dominic Republic unannounced, and the kids are on Wikipedia?

JW (laughs): It’s funny because I was very optimistic. You know, the big picture vision is a free encyclopedia for every single person on the planet – in their own language. So, that’s a pretty big concept. But I thnk it never – it’s not real to you until you’re there and can see it and realize that you go into a college class in India or in a computer lab in the slums in the Dominican Republic and see that people are using it. That’s pretty powerful. That’s pretty amazing. And even today, I get a kick out of it. And I actually get a bit of a funny kind of – interesting thing, so in China, we were banned for three years. So whereas most places around the world we’re like in the top 10 anyway, but normally we’re like number four, number five in terms of the popularity of the website, in terms of the number of people who come on in a month. In China, we’re still – we’re number 60.

TPK: What relaxes you? What allows you to unplug and recharge?

JW: Well, I’m a pretty relaxed guy, so I don’t really get stressed.

TPK: You never get stressed.

JW: Not much.

TPK: Is that right?

JW: I mean, of course, everybody does but – I mean I have to have certain zen-like calm to live my life the way I do, which is in airports a lot, which is – you know, if you can’t let go and sort of go with the flow in an airport, you’re just going to kill yourself, so –

TPK: So where does that come from – the ability to – because I think a lot of people in your position would be stressed pretty often and the fact that you’re not is admirable. If someone wanted to tap into that, how would you...

JW: Well, part of it, for me, I think is, I’ve been pretty good about realizing what kinds of stuff I really suck at and I try not to do those things, so, in terms of both my – Wikipedia, the nonprofit, Wikimedia, the for-profit, there’s a CEO who actually runs things on a day-to-day basis. So nobody’s reporting to me. I try not to be a bottleneck in any process. This gives me the freedom to go out and evangelize. These are things I’m good at - talking to people and getting people excited about our work and what we’re trying to accomplish. And that’s kind of important. That means that most of the headaches belong to somebody else – thank – there are people who are actually good at these things. So that’s a part of it. And I think that’s applicable more generally than just me.

I think everybody should assess what they’re doing and if something’s causing you a great amount of stress, try to find a way to rearrange it, so you’re doing a different part of the work, or something, that doesn’t freak you out. I mean a lot of people just beat their heads against the wall for decades of their life doing something they pretty much hate, when they could make some modification and probably have a much happier life.

TPK: Are there certain things that clear your head – a good book, a good movie, a good glass of wine, a hike?

JW: Yeah, I mean you’ve listed a few things there. I do like a good glass of wine.

Well, my daughter is actually – so I go to Florida where I live, and my daughter lives there with her mom, and I have her on the weekends, every other weekend, so I go and spend time with her and talk to her and we do projects together. She’s learning programs, so we do programming, which is fun for me; I never get to code anymore, so that’s kind of fun teaching her programming – we’re doing that together. And so, things like that are pretty good.

And hiking. We just went this summer. We went into the woods. We went deep into the back country. We were there for five days. No cell phone access, no nothing. Just hiking through the woods with backpacks and the whole thing. And she’s a real trooper; she’s only – 8 at the time – she’s 9 now, but had her backpack, did a great job. So that was good, getting offline for a little while was good.

But I, I also just – I’m really lucky, in a sense, that I’m addicted to the internet and somehow turned that to good purposes. So I avoid things like – I don’t play World of War Craft or anything like that because I know that would be – I have actual work to do in the world – I’d be sucked in for a year, so I just avoid that. But the things I enjoy doing are getting online and talking to people and that’s my job, so it works out pretty well.

TPK: Now, since you’ve become “Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia”…

JW: (Laughs)

TPK: … has anything changed in terms of the interaction you have with people?

JW: Umm. Not really. I mean, there is [sic] some aspects of life that are different – you meet somebody and they’re like, “Oo, wow” - but mostly no. I mean, people get used to me pretty quickly. I’m just a guy – some guy from the Internet.

TPK: Some guy from the Internet who has the top 5 website in the United States.


JW: Yeah, well.

TPK: Do you think that is a result of hard work or luck or skill?

JW: Which is?

TPK: The face that Wikipedia is what it is.

JW: All three. All three. I mean, I can say with no false humility that there was a lot of luck involved, right? And I would be an idiot if I didn’t think that, right? It’s absolutely true. At the same time, I think it’s ok for me to say, “You know what? I actually had a good idea and I worked really hard on it. And I’m proud of that.” Lots of things could have gone wrong, but some of the things that could have gone wrong, I fixed, right? And I’m proud of that. Some of the things that could have gone wrong did go wrong because I didn’t fix it, right? So, I mean, I think it’s really all of those things. I’m proud of my work, but at the same time, I’m not dumb enough to think I did anything super powerful or anything. I mean, I did a decent job.

TPK: When you wake up every morning, what’s the first thing you do? Do you have a particular routine?

JW: Well, I check email. That’s probably the first thing I do

TPK: On a Blackberry or…?

JW: No, I normally get on my computer. I don’t have – my work email doesn’t come to my phone. My personal email comes to my phone. And a few people have that for work purposes, if they really need me, but – yeah, I find that having my work email put on my phone would be a bad idea. You know, it’s just too much. No, I hop on my computer and check email. Lately I’ve been trying not to do that as much. I actually think it’s a bad idea to check your email first thing in the morning. I think you should do something else for a little bit.

TPK: Why is that?

JW: Because the next think you know it’s noon and you’re just doing email and whatever it was you planned to do, you didn’t actually do, so – and a lot of it can wait; a lot of it doesn’t need doing. There’s a lot – email is very dangerous; it can really suck you into all kinds of time sinks. And I’ve actually gotten much better over the years at things like - things I recognize as a procrastinator several years ago I don’t do anymore, so getting involved in long, philosophical discussion and debate on a mailing list, I just don’t do that anymore. Actually, that’s part of the benefits of having become “Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia” is that I can’t just go onto a public mailing list and start yapping with people because then it ends up in the newspaper. So, it’s like, at least I don’t waste time with that anymore. So I do private emails, but even then I’m much more resistant and resilient than I used to be about getting sucked into things that are just super interesting, really valuable, but not actually on point of what I’m trying to accomplish.

TPK: How do you determine…?

JW: Judgement.

TPK: Judgement.

JW: Yeah, just over time – sometimes – you still want to have – I mean, I would foolish if I didn’t engage in any kind of philosophical discussion or debates. I’m just more choosey about them now.

TPK: So when you don’t go to the Internet first thing in the morning, what do you do? however mundane or ordinary.

JW: (Laughs) Yeah. I do actually go on the Internet. Well, I do go on my computer anyway, but I just shouldn’t be doing email. I should be working on a project, reading something important that somebody has sent me, and things like that.

TPK: Do you eat breakfast?

JW: Yeah, yeah. I eat breakfast.

TPK: Religiously?

JW: No. So when I’m in Florida – I guess we have to divide my lifestyle up into when I’m at home which is a rarity and when I’m on the road. So when I’m in Florida. I do. I get up. I have my daughter. We make breakfast. We sit out – we live in Florida, so we can sit outside on the patio and have breakfast and plan our day and things like that and drink coffee. I drink coffee; she doesn’t drink coffee, but – when I’m on the road, it’s very – it’s highly volatile. I just depends on – sometimes I have to get up – well, you met me in Davos, where it’s like basically, you get up and you’re rolling to some breakfast, lunch, dinner, night cap – you know, the whole thing is an intense period of time. But other things are like that too – I’m somewhere. I get up. I have a speech at 9am, so I’ve got to get up and get ready and review my slides, and things like that. It just varies. My favorite thing to do it sleep, so...

TPK: Is that right?

JW: Whenever I can.

TPK: Do you actually get more than 8 (hours) a night?

JW: I try. Yeah.

TPK: Really?

JW: Yeah, I mean, I really – I often do – I mean, this is one of the techniques I have for dealing with jet lag is that I’m really, really lazy, so just sleep a lot.

TPK: Jimmy, you’ve been gracious with your time – just have one last question.

JW: Yeah.

TPK: And that is: What inspires you? What gives you great ideas?

JW: Umm. I would have to say my daughter actually. Yeah, she’s – I’m famous for the neutrality of Wikipedia. I’m very, very neutral - and she’s the smartest person I know. She’s not well-educated yet – she’s only 9 – but it’s really interesting watching her as a – I consider myself a digital native, if you want to talk about that term. I’ve been on the Internet since – I’ve been on the computer since I was 13. I consider myself a native. But 13’s not really native, right? When I was her age – and she’s 9 – I had never touched a computer. We didn’t have computers then. And so watching her and the way she uses her computer and the way she expects things. She blogs. She’s composing movies on iMovie. She’s doing all kinds of things that are completely natural and normal to her. And she’s 9 years old. I mean she’s not a normal person; she’s like super smart, but – still, part of it is she’s had a computer since she stole her mom’s laptop, when she was about four, and she never gave it back. So she’s been online basically her whole life, and that’s a part of it. But that’s also part of why she’s so smart I think. She really is exposed to technology and information and loves to really deep [sic] into things. So it’s always interesting talking to her. She always has a bunch of great ideas.

TPK: Excellent. Well, we’ll leave it there.

JW: Super.

TPK: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us.

JW: Yeah. Great.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Conversation with Alex Counts of Grameen Foundation

We recently sat down with Alex Counts, President and CEO of Grameen Foundation. If "Grameen" sounds familiar to you, that’s because it is (or, at least, should be). Grameen Bank was started by Muhammad Yunus, the oft-credited forefather of micro-finance. In fact, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his founding of the bank. Because of Yunus and many others – including Alex – who helped him along the way, people who live in poverty now have access to money (or, credit) to start their own businesses. They also now have access to the hope it grants.

Alex loves what he does. He’s curiously both measured and impassioned when he talks about it. We asked Alex what drove him to go into this line of work.

His Path

At age 20, Alex’s life path was taking shape. As a junior at Cornell University, he took to heart some advice from a college mentor: “all problems have a solution… that solution just isn’t getting to all problems.” Alex was on a mission – to scale solutions globally, so that they reached localized problems. So, he wrote a letter to Muhammad Yunus to better understand Grameen Bank. Really, he wanted to understand if he could play a role in scaling Yunus’ approach to poverty reduction. He wanted to see firsthand whether Grameen’s impact was possible in countries other than Bangledesh.

His Fulbright scholarship, post graduation, took him to Bangladesh for six of his first nine years out of college. He worked closely with Muhammad Yunus for many years (In Alex’s office hangs a framed picture of Yunus and a post-grad version of himself sitting at a table in conversation with others. The photo smacks of collaboration and impact). In 1997, Prof. Yunus funded Grameen Foundation – with $6,000 (interest from prize money Yunnus had previously won). Convinced of micro-credit’s global potential, Alex now had a platform of his own – as head of Grameen Foundation – to scale an impactful solution to poverty reduction. In the process, he became a full-fledged social entrepreneur.

Key Lessons

Today, Alex Counts is a force in the non-profit world. The risks he took to become a social entrepreneur have paid dividends. We can learn a lot from his path, its uncertainty, and his ultimate success.

The work of a social entrepreneur is truly noble. But how difficult it must be to start your own (non-profit) business if you can’t promise returns to investors… or even yourself (in the traditional sense of “returns” anyway). How did Alex do it?

He talked to people. Lots of people… for funding. The more he talked, the more he was rejected. But the more he also stumbled upon others willing to pony up. His persistence paid off. As he put it, “The more you talk to people, the more you get of both” (‘no’s AND ‘yes’s).

He also took a leap of faith. When he and Yunus started Grameen Foundation, they didn’t know how they were going to get the necessary funding and resources to launch and sustain it. They simply believed that if they started it, then the money and people would follow. That's exactly what happened.

A steadfast belief in their work sustained them. That belief, and the passion that it stirred within them, breathed constant life into their idea and their work.

When asked where that faith, that confidence, came from, Alex again quotes a mentor who once told him, “Even if you play and lose, you’re still in paradise.” In stark contrast to the people whom Grameen Foundation helps, Alex was lucky at birth to have been born where he was (as are most of us who read (or write) blogs).

Grameen Foundation had setbacks, but Alex looked at the silver lining of every dark cloud that came his way. The organization learned. It improved. In short, Alex used the Foundation's failures as “springboard(s) to achievement.” (How many times have we seen this theme of ‘failure as springboard’ emerge? Hint: every time).

One exchange from our conversation, seemed to capture Alex's formula for success. That is, if you “work hard,” use the “gifts” you’re lucky enough to have, and do it all with “ethics,” then “it’s only a matter of time” before your work starts yielding results (“beyond what [you] could have [ever] imagined”). Alex added: Only two things get in the way of this. Either, you’re doing something you’re not good at. Or, you’re not doing what you love.

Listen to the interview in full - You’ll find out:

* What Alex wanted to be when he grew up (and why)

* What Alex does to unwind and detach from his work’s stress

* Who he credits with granting him the freedom to pursue his true calling

Interview, Part 1 of 6

Interview, Part 2 of 6

Interview, Part 3 of 6

Interview, Part 4 of 6

Interview, Part 5 of 6

Interview, Part 6 of 6

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Success: Gold Medal v. Happy Heart

There's quite an uproar in Canada right now. A lot of Canadians disagree with their country’s Olympic motto: “Own the podium.” Behind the slogan is a stated desire to win more medals at the 2010 Games than any other country. Many Canadians – including former Olympians – find the approach too aggressive. This is not surprising in a country where “doing your best” has been the historical measure of success. Other Canadians, however, believe the slogan’s more aggressive tone is precisely why it’s effective. These are likely the Canadians who can’t stand the fact that their country is the only one in the history of the Games to never have won a Gold while hosting (Ottawa ’76 and Calgary ’88).

On the surface, the controversy appears to be nothing more than fodder for inconsequential chat around the Canadian water-cooler. But below the surface lies a fundamental question – for Canada as a country and for us as individuals:

What kind of success do we value? Put another way: What should success look like – A Gold medal? Or being content with doing our best?

Kevin Hall, in his recent book Aspire, recalls the story of Henry Marsh. In 1984, Henry Marsh was poised to win Gold in the 3,000-meter Steeplechase. Heading into the Olympics, he was ranked #1. For the previous seven years, he finished first at the US Championships. He was the hands-down favorite in the event. Nobody questioned it. Then, everything changed. Days before the race, he contracted a serious virus. He didn’t take medication for fear of failing Olympic drug testing. In bed is where he spent the days leading up to the race. He was in no shape to compete. Nevertheless, he willed himself onto the track on race day. In breathless anticipation, people watched the race begin. Henry was doing fine. He and another competitor led the pack… until the final stretch of the race, when his competitor pulled away, and two others passed him. Henry finished fourth – no medal.

This year’s Canadian slogan does not shed a winner’s light on Henry Marsh. But when you talk to Henry, a different story emerges. As Kevin Hall tells it: “Henry had a talk with himself before the (race) and promised that if he gave the race everything he had, then he wouldn’t be hard on himself, no matter where he placed…. (After the race,) he received thousands of sympathy cards and letters … for what (people) saw as colossal bad luck. But to Henry it was a triumph…. He had entered a race and given it everything he could give…. He saw it as a personal victory.”

Olympic Gold eluded Henry Marsh. So did Silver and Bronze. But he seemed to be at peace with the outcome. His mind was strong. And his heart was happy.

It just so happens that the following year was the best of his career. He won another US Championship and set a Steeplechase record that would not be broken for another 20 years. Today, he’s reached enviable levels of business success as a speaker, trainer, and marketer.

So, what kind of success do you value: a Gold medal regardless of circumstance or a happy heart regardless of outcome?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Nature v. Nurture

One thing we often ponder – and that our conversation with Dominic Barton surfaced yet again – is the question of nature vs. nurture. These luminaries – Are they born with "it"? Or is "it" learned? Our hunch is a bit of both. But to what degree is each at play?

Here’s the thing – it might not matter. What if success is simply a conscious choice? What if being born with “it” doesn’t matter, but choosing to believe that you can attain “it” does?

We plan to explore this further in subsequent posts. For now, it's an emerging thought born of meaningful conversations with captains of industry who have reached heights of success that many of us aspire to.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Conversation with Dominic Barton of McKinsey & Company

We recently sat down with Dominic Barton, the Worldwide Managing Director of consulting firm McKinsey & Company (that’s the firm’s de facto title for CEO). We spoke to him on topics ranging from the 2010 World Economic Forum to what he does first thing every morning to his personal experiences with success and failure.

The complete interview is embedded below. Before we get to it, we wanted to highlight some things from our conversation that we found particularly striking.

It boils down to one question: How did a small-town Canadian farm boy grow up to lead the world's most influential consulting firm?

There’s a “special sauce” to Dominic’s success. And while we don’t have the complete recipe (nobody does), we did uncover a few key ingredients. First, let’s set the context – Where did Dominic come from?

Growing Up
Dominic was one of only six people in his high school (of 200 students) to attend college. Early on, almost as if by natural selection, he was part of an elite group. It was a small group of driven individuals who “helped push each other.”

There was also that one teacher who saw potential in Dominic and told him so. She was one of what would become many mentors in Dominic’s life. She convinced him to join the debate team, where Dominic honed his communication and analytical skills. It was also his first real opportunity travel, exposing him to different people and places – it really “opened up [his] aperture.”

He must have done something right because he eventually received a coveted Rhodes Scholarship, which “made a big difference in terms of where [he] went to university (and) the path [he] took.” He attributes some of it to luck. But he also believes “you can make your own luck.” With characteristic Canadian humility, he quickly added, “[It’s] a strange thing to say.”

While he didn’t say much more on making your own luck, there seems to be a common belief, among the luminaries we speak with, that luck can be made. As Oprah put it, luck is simply “preparation meeting opportunity.” What Oprah’s quote does not include though is an important pre-requisite: knowing what you want. Having a clear sense of what you want allows you to prepare with focus and recognize an opportunity when it arises.

Dominic’s father, a clergyman, was influential in clarifying for Dominic what he wanted to do (or not do, in this particular case). Dominic considers his father to be one of his most important mentors and “the smartest person” he’d ever met. But Dominic didn’t want to be like him – a man offering brilliant perspective on the sidelines. No, Dominic wanted “to get stuff done, not talk about what other people [were] doing.” Something in Dominic’s DNA, ironically, rejected his father’s approach to life. Dominic, unlike his father, wanted to “get into the arena.”

He is very much there now; and he likes it. It wasn’t a linear path, and there have been bumps along the way. How he’s dealt with those bumps is particularly telling. Whether innate or nurtured, he’s demonstrated particular characteristics that have largely contributed to his success.

These characteristics become clear when we ask him how he found his way to Asia more than a decade ago – in retrospect, a defining moment in Dominic’s career (many consider his Asian experience to be chief among the reasons he was elected to the top post of McKinsey in 2009).

Defining Moment
In the late 90’s, Dominic was a partner in McKinsey’s Toronto office and was doing well, but he was in a rut (albeit “a comfortable rut,” as he acknowledges). He thought his growth had reached a plateau. He felt the need “to change it up and push it.” An opportunity came up in Korea – the office there was in desperate need of partners and it was a real chance to build something, do something new.

Sounds like nothing special really, but here’s what’s telling about Dominic and sets him apart.

His mentors told him not to do it! They “thought it was a stupid idea.” They said, “You’re going to kill your career.” “It’s a difficult place.” “Why are you doing this?” “Why would you ever want to think about (this)?”

That only made Dominic “more excited” to go.

Dominic told himself, “I’m going to go. I’m going to be tested like I’ve never been tested. I’ll learn some things. And if it doesn’t work out at McKinsey, I can live with that. But I know I’m going to grow.”

If not for this move, Dominic would not be running McKinsey & Company today.

Key Lessons
Here we have a few key ingredients to Dominic’s success. In addition to personal drive and a passion to grow, on clear display is Dominic’s strong gut feel, comfort with the unknown, and acceptance of potential failure. It sounds trite on the surface. But upon deeper inspection, it’s not.

Dominic needed not only a strong gut feel, but also one that he could consciously tap into and trust. In this case, he knew, or rather he felt, that he needed a change. The Korea opportunity spoke to him louder than any of his mentors – and he listened.

He needed not just a comfort with the unknown, but to be OK with not having all the answers before acting. That is, he couldn’t quite put his finger on why he had to go, but that didn’t stop him from going.

Finally, he needed not just an acceptance of potential failure, but a certain faith that things would work out, even if Korea didn’t. That is, he was OK with the possibility of things not ultimately panning out at McKinsey – he had accepted the potential negative consequences of his decision.

Where did these characteristics come from? What gave him the strength to make such a jump, in the face of strong discouragement, with no apparent upside?

In going against his mentors, Dominic said, “I’ve always had mentors. They’ve been extremely important to me even before McKinsey…. (But) just because you get advice (doesn’t mean) you … have to listen to it.”

He said that two things, in particular, made him more comfortable with the entire situation.

First, he referenced advice that he received from a mentor in the Indonesia office, who told him, “There’s a sixth muscle we all have, and that’s instinct. We don’t play it up enough, but it’s actually a very important piece of our thinking arsenal. ‘What’s your feel? What’s your visceral reaction to something?’”

Dominic continued, “He would literally try to train me on this. He’d say, ‘I don’t want you doing an analysis. I want you to go away and think about this and come back with what’s your feeling about this.’”

Dominic’s initial reaction was “What the hell is this?” He seriously questioned whether clients would appreciate his “feeling” on an issue. He thought clients would look at him and say, “You don’t get it.”

Imitating his mentor, Dominic went on, “‘What’s your feeling? It’s going to be very important, as you get more senior – you’re not going to have time to analyze everything. You’re going to have to have an instinct towards it.’”

Dominic makes clear, “Instinct is something I (started to) consciously (think) about.”

That was the first thing.

“The second one was failure.” Dominic started talking about his experience with failure at McKinsey and how it actually helped him – as a person and as an executive. “It took me three times before I was elected a partner at McKinsey. And it was a very painful process.... I hadn’t experienced a lot of failure. I had worked hard and you know, if you work hard, you do well. Here I was. I was working hard and I was rejected…. ‘You’ve got some serious issues you’ve got to deal with.’ One of them was very painful. It was ‘We’re not sure about your problem solving skills’…. That’s like telling an astronomer they [sic] can’t do math… it was a bit of a slap in the head.

“I got angry. I thought it was unfair.”

But the whole experience had a profound effect on Dominic. In his words, “It gave me the strength to say ‘You know what? I’m not going to define myself by someone else’s standards… or by what other people think.’”

Dominic started seeking value internally rather than externally. He’d ask himself, “What do I want to accomplish in my life, if not in the world?” Then he’d convince himself, “That’s what I should focus on…. There’s going to be times where it works and there’s going to be times when it doesn’t. But I’m going to be comfortable with that.”

The more we talked to Dominic, the more we realized it’s not just his knowledge of Asia that helped him get elected to McKinsey's highest post, but also his zen-like knowledge from there.

Listen to the interview in full to find out more about Dominic, including:
*How he handles bad luck
*What he looks for when recruiting new talent
*What he thinks is just as good as five hours of sleep

Interview, Part 1 of 7

Interview, Part 2 of 7

Interview, Part 3 of 7

Interview, Part 4 of 7

Interview, Part 5 of 7

Interview, Part 6 of 7

Interview, Part 7 of 7