The Maturation of a Leader

Joe Flacco

Football has a striking resemblance to business sometimes.

Despite moving to Austin, my allegiance to the Baltimore Ravens remains as strong, and maybe stronger, than ever. It’s been an exciting offseason with lots of power moves and now training camp is in full swing.

For third year Quarterback Joe Flacco, this appears to be his coming out year. The Baltimore Sun ran a story about him the other day noting that this offense is now Joe’s offense. He’s taking command. He’s inheriting responsibility. He’s taking ownership.

He’s taking more command and making more adjustments at the line of scrimmage. He’s looking to become more effective in the red zone. And he’s tutoring new backup quarterback Marc Bulger when everyone thought it would be the other way around.

“I want to be able to just run the show and go up and down the field, blow out points on the board and come out successful,” Flacco said after a 75-minute practice featuring rookies and veterans coming off injuries. “That’s what it’s all about.”

That’s the mark of a leader and something that anyone who aspires to leadership is required to do at one point.

Since being in Austin, I’ve been exposed more and more to the startup life – something I used to live in as the Director of Technology at b5media, a company that used to be a blog network but now is something, well, frankly, unidentifiable.

As a result of my new exposure to a startup culture, I’ve already talked to a few companys to get a feel of how they do business. It reminds me of those early days at b5media. Four founders, making decisions by committee, and hoping for the best. Sometimes consensus was a blocker to real innovation.

This mode is common for early companies. Small group. Everyone needs to be on the same page to do anything. And they suffer from paralysis of no decisions. No one is willing to take charge and lead.

At b5media, once we took our first round of VC money, Jeremy Wright, became the CEO. He was forced into a role of trying to get consensus but not suffering from the paralysis of required consensus. Many times, those of us in those leadership roles diverged in opinions and advocated different directions. It was Jeremy’s role to distill this feedback, foster the discussion, and then ultimately take ownership of the situation and make his call.

Sometimes it was the right choice. Sometimes it wasn’t.

Imagine this. It’s a third and long situation. The Ravens offense is backed up on their own 10 yard line due to an unfortunate series of downs involving an incomplete pass and an offensive holding penalty. They are down by 13 points with 6 minutes left in the game. The safe call, and the one called in to Flacco by Cam Cameron on the sideline, would be a slant play down the middle to a slot receiver or tight end.

As the offense lines up, Flacco sees the defense showing blitz and crowding the middle. Understanding from experience that this is a situation fraught with disaster and the need for a big breakout play to energize his offense, he calls an audible. Ray Rice on a draw play – bait the offense to continue to see the pass, but then destroy them with an off tackle run. Rice runs for 24 yards and gets the first down and better field position.

If it wasn’t for the leader having the confidence and insight to see the minefield upon him, he might just go with common wisdom or, more naturally, the wisdom of his advisors. However, he decides that he has the information he needs to make a big play, owns the call and gets a win.

While it’s common for young startups to operate on consensus, sometimes it requires someone with enough balls to make a tough call and own it. A good team will support that and have their leaders back regardless. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be on your team.

Photo credit: Keith Allison

The Greater Good: Entrepreneurship, Open Source, and a Better World

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Last night, I was catching up with a friend who is as far from me in lifestyle outlook as you could possibly be. She is a extremely left wing type working for an environmental advocacy organization in DC. I, on the other hand, am an entrepreneur with one foot planted firmly on the right and one foot firmly planted on the left.

The conversation came to an issue that I’ve only marginally thought in great detail about. I had made the comment about how I am potentially looking to leave the DC area because, as I put it, it’s not my scene. I feel like a square peg trying to be fit into a round hole. While I certainly have political views and will sometimes voice them, my life does not revolve around politics, policy and advocacy as it does in Washington. In fact, when pressed to explain my feelings around why I dislike DC, I described myself as a regular guy wanting to live a regular life in a regular town.

Defining that more explicitly, I appreciate town like Baltimore, where I was raised and lived most of my life, because it’s filled with people who go about their normal everyday lives. No one is trying to “save the world” as seems to be the case in DC. Certainly, there are people and companies (hopefully many) who take a balanced position in life to be good stewards of the earth, energy and the planet. Certainly, many are socially conscious in how they live their lives. But it isn’t an all consuming agenda such that you find in DC.

I love Austin too. Why? Well, it is the self described live music capital of the country. On any given night, from my experience, it is not difficult to find bars that have a good live music set that is original and that doesn’t carry a cover charge. Outside of a handful of live music venues (DC9, 9:30 Club, Velvet Lounge, Madames Organ to a degree, Rock and Roll Hotel, etc) it’s hard to find a burgeoning music scene in DC.

Even with sports, which consumes a fair bit of my life, it’s hard to find supporters of the home team. No one, it seems, is from DC. They all came here with an agenda. You have to go out to Maryland or Virginia to find real hometown fans.

This is not my scene. This is not what I like. I am an entrepreneur because, first and foremost, I want to make money. When I made a break from my former corporate job, it was after becoming aware of how much my employer was billing our customer for my services and realizing that if that was how much I was worth, I could damn well do that on my own.

But that’s the crux. As entrepreneurs, our general purpose is not to do social good (though there are exceptions). Not that there is anything wrong with that. There isn’t. But entrepreneurs get our kicks from building something. From doing something. And of course, from making money. Who starts a company with the intention to not increase profit margins? You show me that entrepreneur, and I’ll show you an entrepreneur who will fail within a year.

There, of course, is a balance. Like Geoff, Beth and Kami are doing at Zoetica, there’s a balance between making money and doing good. The more I had this conversation with my friend, the more shallow I realized I sounded.

But as I thought some more, the more I realized that doing good is not something you do. It’s something you are. Based on the integrity and character of the entrepreneur, the decisions that are made, whether geared for profit or for building a product or spinning it up into an acquisition by Google, become decisions made out of the character and integrity of being “good”.

Frankly, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that even what I do as an entrepreneur creating services and products around WordPress, (and yes, even sometimes writing patches for WordPress core itself) is done to make the world a better place. Even writing a book on WordPress and travelling to San Francisco, Dallas, New York, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago and Raleigh speaking to WordPress users, developers and designers is done to extend the platform, thus extending the reach and improving on the largest self-hosted blogging platform on the planet.

Think about why this is important. It’s not just about WordPress. It’s about enabling voices. Giving those who never had a chance to speak before the opportunity to be heard. We’ve heard as recently as this week about the man who used an iPhone app to figure out how to treat his own wounds while buried under the rubble in Haiti.

The Chinese government is so threatened by web technologies, and blogging in particular, that they have banned WordPress.com in China.That is not likely to be lifted anytime soon, especially as the government lockdown and censorship of the Chinese people is thrust back into the limelight with the latest Google-China fallout.

Even the internationalization efforts in WordPress is putting WordPress into the hands of more people in more countries and making it possible for voices to be heard, not only in the United States, but in the Sudan and Kurdistan as well.

As an entrepreneur with integrity and character, even the mundane decisions that go into building a company can be seen as social good. This is not intended to diminish the efforts of those who explicitly set out to do social good, but with the right mindset, the things that make us successful can also make the world around us better.

It's Not Necessarily Who You Know

In the world of social media, there has been a dramatic shift in how business ideas and implementations get done. David Armano touches on it today where he suggests that knowing the influencers will get you much farther in your effort.

In that case, it’s up to all of us to find them. Perhaps take a look at something like the Power 150 and start the list backwards (or maybe get out of the marketing echo chamber all together).  If you yourself have become the new breed of “gatekeeper”””ask yourself “is it who I know, or what they know?”. Ideally, its both””but up to us individually to strike the right balance.

Armano and I proceeded to have a lively discussion on Twitter over this idea. I agreed with his assessment  that the current landscape of the social web does cater to the idea of knowing people being more important than having a good idea. I disagreed on his conclusion that people should seek to extend their influence by knowing more of the top people on the web.

On principle, the “top people on the web” is a bit elitist and self serving. Both Armano and I enjoy being “top people on the web”, yet, I know my ability to scale is small compared to the ideas and conversations being pushed around. The web is bigger than me. It’s bigger than Armano. We both enjoy large networks of people that we know, and I don’t mean six degree of separation type stuff. We both can show you 10,000 or more collected business cards from over the years. At least I can. I presume it is the same for him.

I can brag about knowing over half of the Technorati Top 100 bloggers personally. I can point to the multitude of networking events that I attend (at least one major one every month) where I have a difficult time talking to everyone who wants to share their ideas and thoughts with me.

The problem is scale. The web is bigger than we are. You can put a gallon or five gallons or ten gallons of water in a sink, but if the drain is only an inch thick, you won’t be able to process more water out of that bin. You need a bigger drain to do that. In fact, it will take longer to drain that bin with increasingly more water. It’s physics.

Unlike Armano’s assessment that communicators, entrepreneurs, and brands should exploit the current landscape that values the personal connection over the business process (that is, good ideas can thrive on their own if they have merit), I see it as a hybrid. You must have a one-to-one network and you must have a one-to-many network, but your many-to-many network (the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th degree of separation) becomes fairly useless fairly quick. Good ideas cannot thrive in a vacuum.  However, simply knowing influencers aren’t going to make it fly either.

I can’t tell you the number of people who are friends, not just business network contacts, who have talked to me with great gusto and passion about an idea and I simply look at them blankly. They know me personally, but realistically, they have a sucky idea. It’s not going to fly and no amount of knowing the right people is going to make it fly.

On the flip side, having a great idea and knowing the right people can make all the difference in the world. This is a reflection of the truth that many of the worlds greatest idea people don’t have the communication prowess to “sell” that idea and make it work. Likewise some of the greatest communicators in the world have great bullhorns, but suck at innovating themselves. So we end up in a world where we all need each other for something.

This blend of traditional (networking) and innovation is really where we need to be. We’re getting there, but we ain’t there yet. Reinforcing an unscalable paradigm of who you know as the primary enforcer of innovation is a dangerous trend that really does need to be changed. Sometime. Hopefully soon.

Update: Armano chimes in in comments and corrects the record. He is recommending a balance, as am I. Different slants on the same issue.