30 November 2009

Scarred for Life by a Moment's Folly

Reputation, like credibility, is something that is earned over time. It does not come with the job or title. It is built, day by day, brick by brick. Yet a moment's folly can bring down a lifetime's work.

Just ask Thierry Henry. A professional soccer player, and the most capped and highest scorer in French history, Henry knows just how much it's taken to put together a 15-year body of work that's brought him away from a childhood of poverty to his stratospheric standing - as of last month -- at the pinnacle of soccer immortality.

But that edifice was dealt a severe body blow just over a week ago during a critical World Cup second leg qualifying match against Ireland. With the aggregate score tied at 1-1 and the game in injury time, Henry handled the ball twice with his hand before delivering a cross to William Gallas to score the winning goal for France and send Ireland tumbling out of the World Cup finals in 2010.

Was it an instinctive, accidental handball? Probably. No less a soccer legend than Pele has come out to publicly defend Henry. And the man did lobby for the match to be replayed -- albeit a day later. But all this is scant consolation for the Irish -- some of whose players have lost their only reasonable chance of playing in a World Cup finals.

What Henry should have done -- and what he'll regret not doing for the rest of his life -- is stop the match and overrule the referee. There's been ample precedence in the annals of sport.

In Mats Wilander's very first semi-final appearance in a Grand Slam tennis event (the 1982 French Open), Wilander overruled the chair in a call on match point, giving another lease of life to Jose Luis Clerc. Interviewed after the match (which he eventually claimed), he said, "I didn't want to win like that." For the record, Wilander went on to the win the event, the first of his 7 Grand Slams.

Thierry Henry's personal brand took a severe beating that fateful day -- one from which he may never recover. Instead of Kaka and Messi, his name is going to be more linked with Maradona, the original 'hand of God' perpetrator whose disputed goal helped Argentina beat England 2-1 in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final.

Great brands -- corporate and personal -- hold themselves to high(er) standards. They know that faith is hard won, but easily lost. In a Premier Leage match between West Ham and Everton in 2000, Everton goalie Paul Gerrard went down injured in the penalty box in the dying minutes of the game. Unfortunately, play went on, and the ball got crossed to West Ham's Paulo Di Canio in front of an open goal. Instead of tapping it in, Di Canio caught the ball, and signalled that Gerrard needed attention. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

We should all be so blessed to have the same presence of mind in such a defining moment.

29 November 2009

What Do You Stand For?

Yesterday I attended a TED talk -- the first of its kind organized by the TED community (http://www.tedxsingapore.com/) in our island nation -- and learned about aerialist Ueli Gegenschatz, expert paraglider, skydiver and base-jumper extraordinaire. The audience was treated to video footage of his jaw-dropping flights in a wingsuit: a high-tech, flying-squirrel-inspired getup that enabled him to soar as close as humanly possible to our shared dream of human flight. (To view his 12-minute TED talk including a clip of his daredevil wingsuited jump, click on http://www.ted.com/talks/ueli_gegenschatz_extreme_wingsuit_jumping.html

In an accompanying clip of an interview with Ueli, he mentioned plans were in motion for his next record-setting endeavour. It was only when the clip ended that we were told Ueli is no longer with us. On 11th November, he had attempted a base jump off the Sunrise Tower in Zurich. A gust of wind hit him, casuign him to lose control of his jump. His parachute failed to deploy in time and he hit the ground almost at full speed, seriously injuring himself. He died in hospital two days later.

We made out worksheets into paper planes this morning; and on the count of three, 200 winged prayers launched across the SMU hall in celebration of the life of a man who dared to dream, stood for something, and pursued it with all the God-given talent he had been blessed with.

Now, some might question the wisdom of this extreme sport and say he brought his end upon himself, pushing his luck too far in pursuit of, what -- an adrenaline rush? Fame? (Certainly not fortune.) A few might quote Einstein: "Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile."

I think, however, that Ueli lived by the discipline of operating within boundaries he felt he could control. At 11:45 of the TED clip, he was asked if there is anything he would not attempt, and his answer was spontaneous, "Yeah, some people have crazy ideas ...!" Ueli had a finely honed sense of what he was put on this earth for -- and in his own way, he inspired countless others to find and pursue their purpose in life. As Abraham Lincoln said, "It's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years."

How many of us are honing our personal brands with such clarity, consistency and visibility?

28 November 2009

Carly for California?

Big brands tell a never-ending story. Earlier this month, a brand from my past resurfaced with a new chapter, when Carly Fiorina announced she was running for the US Senate. Now anyone who's been around IT or lived in Silicon Valley recently will recall the high-profile celebrity CEO of Hewlett-Packard whose tenure from 1999 to 2005 was exhilarating and yes, excruciating at times, for HP employees of that era. I vividly recall her story; I am one of the survivors.

Carly oversaw arguably the most audacious merger in business history to that point in time, when HP acquired Compaq over a long-drawn campaign in 2002. The merger was approved at a watershed EGM by the narrowest of margins (less than a percentage point, if I recall correctly); and the company spent the next 3 years fighting to prove the wisdom of the strategy.

Sadly our progress wasn't quite enough or fast enough for Wall Street; so in 2005 Carly
was given the boot. In
the intervening years, Mark Hurd has come in and
delivered what Carly could not -- operational efficiency and subsequent marketplace success. Carly, for her part, has had to contend with an even larger, more personal battle -- with cancer. She has reportedly come through it, and is now ready to represent the people of California.

It isn't going to be smooth sailing. The reception to Carly over the past few weeks has been, well, frosty and skeptical. Some more vocal bloggers & commentators have hauled her over the coals with seeming relish. (By the way, notice how that's the way with many high-profile brands? They are not shy of -- and indeed polarize -- public opinion. You either love them or loathe them: think about Microsoft or Nike of a few years back.) Yes, she made some gaffes when announcing her intentions and in follow-on interviews. And yes, her campaign website, http://www.carlyforcalifornia.com/, gives a little too much credit to herself for HP's current standing and not enough to Mark Hurd. But I wouldn't be too quick to write her off as an unworthy candidate.

This is the CEO who inspired a whole generation of HP employees to believe, to give of their best, and who came along with her on that incredible journey to preserve the best and reinvent the rest of the proud HP legacy. (She made it easy for me to conduct brandjams across the Asia-Pacific by providing an inspiring keynote that rallied our troops around the cause -- first time I've seen an intelligent audience give a videotape a standing ovation.) While history has shown -- through Mark Hurd's success -- that Carly was probably not equipped with enough operational savvy to execute her grand plan ... it is clear to me that Mr Hurd (with due respect) would probably not have been able to get the merger approved in the first place. It needed someone with the personal charisma and communication skills of Carly to seal the deal. In summary, Carly was the right leader for HP then; as Mark Hurd is absolutely right for HP today.

So. What are the chances of Carly bringing some change to California? I'd say, let's give her a bit of room to flex and engage. Good leadership is hard to come by. My only caveat, is this: That government doesn't go out of business -- whereas employees in private companies realize their jobs depend on executing the leader's strategy flawlessly. Civil servants, speaking bluntly, have a more iron-clad ricebowl. They may be unwilling to accept the need for change.

Carly may yet find this hill even harder to climb than HP.