A while back I read a piece about President Obama as an author. He has written two books — and his memoir is considered one of the best written. I have read it — and I agree, it is very well-written.
Well, here’s a look at his editing hand. It is pretty clear that he asked, “how can I make this better?” A pretty good visual for any writer to look at. (Click here for full image)
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Some companies are addicted to hiring. Some even hire when they aren’t hiring. They’ll hear about someone great and invent a position or title just to lure them in. And there they’ll sit – parked in a position that doesn’t matter, doing work that isn’t important.
Pass on hiring people you don’t need, even if you think that person’s a great catch. You’ll be doing your company more harm than good if you bring in talented people who have nothing important to do.
Problems start when you have more people than you need. You start inventing work to keep everyone busy. Artificial work leads to artificial projects. And those artificial projects lead to real costs and complexity.
Don’t worry about “the one that got away.” It’s much worse to have people on staff who aren’t doing anything meaningful. There’s plenty of talent out there. When you do have a real need, you’ll find someone who fits well.
Great has nothing to do with it. If you don’t need someone, you don’t need someone.
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I agree with Fried and Hansson. After making quite a few mistakes over several years when interviewing and hiring candidates, I decided that henceforth I would hire only for redundantly verifiable character and attitude, and then train for skills. For example, if there was menial, repetitive work to be done, I hired someone whose temperament was best suited to complete it without resentment. The total cost of hiring so–called “A” players to get on what Jim Collins calls a “bus” is prohibitive. At least what I’ve found is that getting a person’s skills and temperament in proper alignment with the work to be done seldom produces an “A” player but almost always an “A” performance.
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Over the past few months there has been growing anger and frustration about outsized Wall Street bonuses awarded by institutions that were rescued by taxpayer funds. At the core of this anger is the feeling that the pursuit of big payoffs caused bankers to develop complex products and take big risks which ultimately caused the financial system to crash — and if this dynamic is not curbed, it will happen again. At the same time, there is also a feeling, reinforced by President Obama, that Wall Street bankers have not really been held accountable for their risky actions and, in fact, are being unduly rewarded while everyone else continues to suffer.
Unfortunately, the focus on Wall Street masks a more dangerous pattern of rewarding failure that is deeply embedded in the highest levels of corporate and governmental culture. For example, President Obama’s point person for reforming Wall Street is Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. But somehow Geithner himself has not been held accountable for the financial crisis. This is despite the fact that as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Geithner was responsible for the supervision of Wall Street banks. His reward for allowing these banks to create unsustainable balance sheets: He was made Treasury Secretary.
Similarly Geithner’s boss in the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, was not held accountable for the interest rate and regulatory policies that some say caused the crisis. Instead, he was confirmed for a second term by a wide margin in the Senate. And to complete the failure trifecta, Lawrence Summers, who supported many of the policies that caused the financial crisis and resigned from his position as President of Harvard after making unfortunate statements about the capabilities of women, was given a senior role as a White House economic policy advisor.
But this culture of rewarding failure is not limited to the highest levels of government. Virtually every senior corporate leader of a failed institution walks away with millions of dollars. Many move on to other senior corporate jobs or board positions. Take Robert Nardelli as an example. After not getting the top job at GE in 2001, Nardelli became the CEO of Home Depot where he made a series of strategic missteps and displayed an arrogance that alienated employees and customers. After being ousted from that job (with millions of dollars) he was hired by Cerberus to turn around Chrysler — another failure which ultimately resulted in its acquisition by Fiat. And while thousands of Chrysler employees and dealers lost their jobs and their incomes, again Nardelli walked away with his fortune intact and enhanced.
None of this is to blame Geithner, Bernanke, Summers or Nardelli. The point of this argument is that at the highest levels of government and corporations, we have accepted a culture of rewarding failure. That is why perhaps the best job in America is to be a failed CEO. You receive millions in severance and are once more given opportunities to either try it again, or serve on a board of directors where you can again escape accountability for failure. In fact, while President Obama calls for “clawbacks” of banker’s bonuses, nobody seems to be calling for directors to return the compensation that they received for poorly “supervising” financial institutions and other corporations that struggle or fail.
Steve Kerr, former chief learning officer of GE and Goldman Sachs, notes that the biggest problem with compensation is what he calls “asking for A while rewarding B.” If we are serious about asking for excellent performance, then we have to stop rewarding failure. It’s a simple equation — and until we get it right, the President’s calls for greater accountability will have a hollow ring.
What do you think?
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Ron Ashkenas is a managing partner of Robert H. Schaffer & Associates and a co-author of The GE Work-Out and The Boundaryless Organization. His latest book is Simply Effective.
What books have had the greatest influence on your thinking, and your life? This is a commonly asked question, and at the moment it is “flying” around the blogosphere. A number of well-known bloggers, many of them so known for their political views, have answered this question.
Here is Andrew Sullivan’s compilation of the responses by a sampling of bloggers. The list includes:
John Stuart Mill, Autobiography
Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals
Dune by Frank Herbert
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns — Frank Miller
Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars
Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man
Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained
George Orwell’s essays.
It is worth reading. (I especially liked the reference to Orwell’s essays).
But it was this response that especially intrigued me. It came from the young columnist for the Washington Post, Ezra Klein, age 25 (the same age as my youngest son), and rapidly rising in influence. I suspect his age has plenty to say about what shaped these paragraphs, and it definitely indicates a shift from books to other types of material. The premise is the same – somebody wrote words strung together in sentences that had an impact of the reader. But in this era, the delivery mechanism may be less and less that of a book. Here’s what Klein wrote:
I’ve written this sort of thing before. The mainstays on my list are John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” Tom Geoghegan’s “Which Side Are You On?,” Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity,” Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes” and maybe a handful of others.
But I always feel like a fraud.
These books meant a lot to me, but they were much less influential in my thinking — particularly in my current thinking — than a variety of texts that carry consider less physical heft. Years spent reading the Washington Monthly, American Prospect and New Republic transformed me from someone interested in politics into someone interested in policy. So, too, did bloggers like, well, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum and Tyler Cowen. In fact, Cowen, Brad DeLong, Mark Thoma and a variety of other economics bloggers also get credit for familiarizing me with a type of basic economic analysis that’s consistently present in my approach to new issues.
Much of my emphasis on the institutions of American government and the processes by which they work (or don’t) came from my relationship with Mark Schmitt, first through his blog and then through his editorship at the American Prospect. That was cemented, of course, by reporting deeply on health-care reform, which is an opportunity that TAP gave me but that few other outlets would’ve been even mildly interested in letting me pursue. I consider reading the blogger Demosthenes use the word “props” in relation to politics as something near to an epiphany; it was the first time I realized that I could speak about Washington in a language I recognized.
Going forward, I wonder how common canons like mine will become. Twenty years ago, someone with my interests would’ve spent a lot more time reading books because blogs simply didn’t exist yet. Magazines were around, but the advent of the Web led to daily content, so I’ve also spent more time reading those. But I can’t deny it: So much as I love my favorite books, the biggest influences in my thinking have been the continuous intellectual relationships I’ve had with blogs, periodicals and other people. Books aren’t even that close.
So, I ask myself – are books, or other means of thought delivery, having the most influence on my thinking these days? I’m not sure.