07 October 2011

Two Steves, One Legacy

You'd think he knew everybody in the world.

Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter were awash yesterday in black turtlenecks and sombre RIPs as the news of Steve Jobs' passing spread like wildfire across the globe.

Grown men admitted to crying. Skeptics found strange praise peppering their commentary.  People who had never met Steve, felt as if a close friend had died.  Such was the influence of the man, through the iconic products he unleashed on an unsuspecting world, that changed our world forever.

I'm one of the few people I know who's never owned a Mac. (Eight years at HP and another three at Lenovo have left me not so much brandwashed as psychologically challenged at stumping for one of Steve's sleek machines.) Yet I've willingly bought MacBooks for the rest of my family. And vividly recall the day I caught grief at the office when I brought a MacBook box to a team meeting and challenged them to design packaging that was half as elegant. 

Steve cared about the little things, you see. He possessed an uncanny ability to look at his company's products from the outside in. He believed that "Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works." 

So do I think this is the end of an era, and the beginning of a slippery slide for Apple?

Well, yes and no.  There will never be another Steve. They broke the mold when his birth was done. Nobody else, I daresay, will approach his (her) life's work with the clarity of vision, the power of purpose, the instinctive decision-making and tolerance for risk-taking as Steve possessed.

But, as Steve said 10 years ago, "You’re missing it. This is not a one-man show. What’s reinvigorating this company is two things: One, there’s a lot of really talented people in this company who listened to the world tell them they were losers for a couple of years, and some of them were on the verge of starting to believe it themselves. But they’re not losers. What they didn’t have was a good set of coaches, a good plan. A good senior management team. They have that now."

The legendary CEO left more than an able deputy to take over the reins when he relinquished his position, with impeccable timing. Steve etched an imprint of his values along the hallways of 1 Infinite Loop. His persona is indelibly seared into the personality of the company. His spirit will forever be the foundation of Apple.

Today, I also think about another Steve. (Sorry, it's not Wozniak.)  Steve Prefontaine was arguably the greatest American middle-distance runner in history who, at the height of his career, held every American track & field record from the 2,000 metres to the 10,000 metres. He was recruited to the University of Oregon in 1969 and trained under legendary track coach Bill Bowerman, who had just founded a running shoe company called Blue Ribbon Sports with Phil Knight, a solid if not spectacular athlete under his charge. (In 1978, the company was renamed Nike.)

"Pre", as he was affectionately called, was an aggressive runner, insisting on going out hard right from the gun, and not relinquishing leads. He once famously said,  "I'm going to work so hard that it becomes a pure guts race. If I can do that, at the end, I'll be the only one who can win it". And win races he did... by hanging on while others faltered and faded. His rare defeats included the thrilling 5,000m final at the 1972 Munich Olympics -- a race he led until the last 150m when he was passed by hard-charging Lasse Viren, Mohammed Gammoudi and Ian Stewart. 

Stadiums would erupt with cheers whenever Pre stepped onto the track. You couldn't help but watch Pre run with your heart in your mouth: He was totally committed in every race; 100% in. He liked to say, "To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice your gift."

Pre died in 1975 in a tragic car accident, on his way home from a party. He was 24 years old.

Such was the loss to the racing community, and the strength of his personal brand, that roadside memorials sprang up spontaneously. Two movies and a documentary were made about him. And Nike's leaders, who instinctively understood the enduring appeal of his humanity, created TV spots and named a building in their Beaverton headquarters after him. Pre stood for the triumph of the human spirit; and inspired a whole generation of Nike employees to regard their work and their products with more purpose and meaning.

Two Steves, with one legacy: They stood for something, and burned bright. Each in his own time made a difference in his world.  And the brands they are associated with, the people who have been inspired by them, are the better for it.

27 September 2011

The Poison of Presenteeism

Source: www.tonystone.com
You'd think we'd learn by now.  But history has a history of repeating itself.

Organizations change their leaders in a desperate attempt to goose their numbers.  Wall Street's impatience fuels the tyranny of the quarter.

Less than a year after firing Mark Hurd and eventually replacing him with Leo Apotheker, the Hewlett-Packard board has now let Apotheker go and hired former eBay chief Meg Whitman as CEO.

While intense scrutiny is expended on the words, actions and first impressions of new leaders -- who are understandably focused on external communications -- not nearly enough consideration is given to what's said and shared within the company, to shore up the impact of the upheavals on employee morale.

Half the employees within HP's PC division must be wondering if they're coming or going.  But there's no doubt where their motivation and productivity is going: down the tubes.

The contagion is universal. I'm reminded of an article in Campaign Asia which caught my eye when it came out half a year ago.  A top-10 advertising agency in Singapore had announced the hire of a new Executive Creative Director.  While I have nothing but respect for the man's creative credentials, I recall his joining remarks giving me some discomfort:

"In Singapore, we have a new CEO, client service director, and now myself as ECD. It really doesn't get any fresher than that, working together as we rip up the plan, start anew and maintain the positive feeling that comes with change."


For all
 the survivors of that beleagered agency, a new leader had arrived to make his mark, never mind if it unravelled the good work of the past 18 months.

The fact is, change is uncomfortable. Our head tells us it is a necessary part of personal growth and remaining relevant to our organizations, but our heart rebels at being dragged outside our comfort zone.  People often resist change because of one or more of the following reasons:

1. They don’t see a burning platform for change.
2. They’re not convinced that the benefits of change will outweigh the costs.

3. No one has made the effort to paint a clear description of the end-goal for them.
4. They fear change because of perceived loss (loss of control, of credibility and power, of confidence and competence, of physical space, relationships, even jobs).
5. There is inadequate leadership at the top (change leaders don’t walk the talk, or are too pre-occupied with their own future).
6. There is a lack of transparency and proactive communication.

I suspect some of my friends at HP are hurting right now, and oozing the 'poison of presenteeism'.  I sincerely hope Meg Whitman, through the sheer force of her dedication and personality, will be able to render some first aid to staunch the flow.

Because at the end of the day, it's not the people who quit and leave that you should be worried about. 

It's the people who quit and stay.

27 August 2011

Nation Branding: Japan Stands Tall

Hot on the heels of the London riots and despairing stories of organised crime in Rio de Janeiro, comes this inspiring account of honesty and extraordinary civic-mindedness from the other side of the globe: the return of hundreds of safes and valuables to their owners in the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami.

Thousands of wallets and purses containing almost $30 million have been found in the debris and turned in by rescue workers and residents scouring the devastated prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima ravaged by a mighty tsunami that hit Japan on 11th March. 5,700 safes have also been washed ashore during that time. To date, about $78 million in cash and valuables have been reunited with their owners, often after arduous efforts to crack open the safes, dry and document the contents, then painstakingly track down the owners housed in hundreds of temporary shelters.

Japan Inc. may be battered and its credit rating downgraded; but its people have made the country proud and the world sit up and take notice of:

1. The Calm: Not a single image of chest-beating or wild grief captured by any newspaper, who showed magnificent restraint in their bulletins. No silly reporters. Only respectful reportage. Sorrow itself was elevated.

2. The Dignity: Disciplined queues for water and groceries. No honking and no overtaking on the roads. Not a rough word or a crude gesture. Just patience, courtesy and fortitude in the face of catastrophe.

3. The Grace: Restaurants cut prices. The strong cared for the weak. No looting in shops. People bought only what they needed for the present, so everybody could get something.

4. The Training: The old and the children, everyone knew exactly what to do. And they did just that. Hundreds of telephone agents from insurance company Aflac in Tokyo stayed at their stations and responded to customer calls from under their desks even as their office tower shook violently from the earthquake that followed the tsunami. 

5.The Sacrifice: The Fukushima Fifty stayed on selflessly at their stricken nuclear plant to pump seawater to cool the reactors, in spite of the grave risks to their own lives. How will these courageous workers ever be repaid?

6.The Honesty: When the power went off in stores, people put things back on the shelves and left quietly. Now with the return of the safes and valuables, ordinary Japanese citizens, in demonstrating their social and cultural values as a nation, are bringing out their best selves.

We should all be humbled and inspired.

21 August 2011

HP Ditches Its Most Personal Brand Asset

I vividly remember the goosebumps I felt while working late at the office one night almost 10 years ago, when I first read a memo from my then-CEO Carly Fiorina about HP's big, hairy, audiacious goal to acquire Compaq. As we know, HP went on to complete the deal, laying the strategic foundations for subsequent CEO Mark Hurd to execute and drive HP to its market-leading position today.

So you can imagine my surpise and sadness to read, two days ago, of HP's plan to shed its mobile devices and PC businesses.

Now this isn't some rinky-dink wannabe trying to stand toe-to-toe with the PC giants out there. We're talking about a company that sold US$41 billion worth of PCs in 2010, and achieved an 18% market share in the 2nd quarter of this year (which, incidentally, made it the market leader by far -- Dell came in at #2 with a 13% share).

Why would an undisputed market leader surrender its dominance while seemingly at the top of its game?

Industry analysts trot out a justification cribsheet that seems, at first glance, to make sense: Razor-thin margins in a largely commoditized market; abysmal sales of its TouchPad tablet launched in July; a predisposition by current CEO Leo Apotheker to bare his software fangs and move HP to a higher-margin business and (to use that odious euphemism) "unlock shareholder value".

And yet -- I wonder if those who hail this move have fully considered two things:

The first, is what I'd call negative ROM (return on morale).  HP's Personal Systems Group (PSG), who up until this week were internally regarded as rock stars for turning around a struggling division by "making the computer personal again", have had the wind knocked out of their sails. Why, the company has discontinued its much-touted TouchPad, introduced only last month; and pulled it off the shelves in Australia just four days after their national launch.  You don't change tack so abruptly externally without torching the ground internally. A whole bunch of demoralised employees are going to quit and leave -- or even worse, quit and stay.

The second observation, is that HP is jettisioning its most critically vital brand touchpoint. For the past decade, HP has arguably been the only technology company with the breadth of products and services to engage consumers, SMEs and the enterprise segments. But the bulk of its brand-building potential has always resided in the consumer space. This business is transactional in nature (win a prospect over quickly, and repeat millions of time over; as opposed to clinching a BPO contract with one corporation after an 18-month pursuit). But perhaps even more importantly, SME and enterprise decision-makers are also consumers after hours; and they interact with their consumer products far more frequently (how many times have you used your smartphone today?) than with their corporate purchases (how many times have you pulled out your outsourcing contract lately to admire the fine print?)  By ditching its PC business, HP is relinquishing the countless opportunities it would have, each and every day, to delight its customers and exceed their expectations through the most personal of devices in its armoury. (Next to the mobile phone, a PC has the best chance to be at arm's length, more so than a printer or blade server.) 

Banks demonstrate their grasp of this fundamental tenet when they put real effort behind their credit card business. They know that in a world of 360-degree branding, it pays to know which 36 degrees count the most.

Will HP turn around its supertanker, and find traction with this new strategic tack?  To be clear, computing will carry on.  It's just that increasingly, it won't be on a computer.

The hallways of history are filled with portraits of companies which have turned their brands and businesses around (think Apple, Xerox, Target, Gillette, Tesco, Burberry, Samsung, Nissan and Ford, to name a few) and littered with the remains of several that haven't (Digital, Wang, Ericsson, Polaroid, Sunbeam, Saturn, Borders and Blockbuster come to mind). Time will tell if HP's big bet on business strategy is founded on a compelling brand strategy.  I have to admit, I can't seem to find any.