The time of crisis

In good times and when the sea is calm, everyone can sail the ship. Not everybody can when the sea is rough.

The last few weeks has been nothing, but extremely challenging. Uncertainty and fear take hold of our society. Stock markets suffer beating after beating, dragging along with it our 401k or saving with no signs of the plunge abating. Lives are disrupted or, worse, lost.

In times like this, we need leadership, starting with looking the truth in the face. Germany’s Chancellor honestly told everyone that 70% of the German population would be affected. Whether the citizens approve of the German’s government’s reaction to the crisis is another matter. Nonetheless, at least the head of the state didn’t lie or mislead its citizens. Another example is Dr Fauci. He admitted that the US’s healthcare setup was inadequate to handle the mass testing at the moment. That’s the honesty we need. No spinning. No lies. No misleading information. No claiming that we have nothing to worry about when the crisis is upon our door.

If you watched the series Chernobyl on HBO (if you haven’t, I highly recommend it since we are staying at home anyway), the nuclear disaster could have been prevented. However, lies and denial led to one of the worst catastrophes in humans’ history.

From the enterprise perspective, some CEOs and companies took little time in setting an example and helping out. Aaron Levie and Box are an example:

Or Zoom and its CEO:

Or from a Chinese that wants to help out fellow human-beings, despite the difference in nationalities

On the other hand, there are companies whose behavior in crises like this is highly questionable and deserves scrutiny. Take Whole Foods as an example:

On Wednesday, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey sent out an email to grocery store employees with a list of benefits and options for those who fall sick during the coronavirus pandemic. Among his six suggestions was an option for employees to “donate” their paid time off (PTO) to coworkers facing medical emergencies.

“Team Members who have a medical emergency or death in their immediate family can receive donated PTO hours,” Mackey wrote in an email reviewed by Motherboard, “not only from Team Members in their own location, but also from Team Members across the country.”

In that same email, Whole Foods also said that it will offer unlimited, unpaid time off during the month of March and two weeks of paid time off for workers who test positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus—a policy announced this week for all Amazon employees and contractors that has also been adopted by tech companies like Uber, Lyft, and Instacart.

Source: Vice

I believe that eventually we’ll come out of this and get back to where we were a few months ago. At the end of the day, this is not the first disaster humanity has faced in the last hundreds or thousands of years and we’re still here, more advanced than ever. The issue is whether we’ll be more prepared for the next disaster. Since 9/11, we haven’t had a similar incident like that, but we have had SARS, Ebola and Swine Flu and look how prepared we have been for Coronavirus.

This is a golden time for true leaders to show their worth as well as for us to know who are not.

Manchester United’s defining challenges

Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Manchester United has been falling from glory to what seems to be a bottomless hole of troubles. The club has had 4 managers in the span of 7 years while Sir Alex managed the club for more than 2 decades. Presence in Champions League that used to be a default is a luxury these days. Once a contender for important titles such as Premier League and Champions League, we are reduced to aim for Top 4 finish every year in the national league. The club is in shambles and faces defining challenges

Wrong coaches

I believe that we have had coaches that don’t fit with the club’s culture since Alex Ferguson’s retirement. David Moyes wasn’t good enough. Van Gaal wasn’t who he used to be. Mourinho was world class tactically, but he didn’t have the attacking mindset that the club is known for. Ole Gunnar Solskaer is a legend and familiar with the club’s culture. But he hasn’t shown that he has the tactical prowess to bring the team back to its former glorious self. We need a manager who is not only a household name, but also a great tactician and manager. As the club doesn’t have the appealing standing any more, another way to attract talent is to have a world-class coach that players admire. The coach also favors home-grown talent, a tradition that MU has carried for decades. Our current manager, unfortunately, doesn’t fit the bill.

An egregious transfer policy and a roster of insufficient players

The club was blessed with world-class players in the past, including Giggs, Vidic, Rio, Scholes, Ronaldo, Tevez, Rooney, Van Persie, Carrick, just to name a few. We also have excellent role players who are willing to step up to the plate when needed such as Chicharito, Fletcher, Anderson, Nani, O’Shea. Nowadays, players that meet the standard at MU are in short supply. We have players who have the potential to be excellent such as Rashford, Martial, Scott, Greenwood, De Gea, Maguire, Wan-Bissaka and Pogba, but they need help and a coach to realize the full potential. Other players are simply just not good enough. The bench is thin and features players who should have been shipped out of the club a long time ago such as Young, Matic, Rojo and Jones.

We made seriously expensive mistakes in the transfer policy such as Alexis Sanchez. The failure to attract players with merit was offset by the willingness to overpay. To some extent, I was pleased to hear that we pulled out of the deal with Haaland due to the excessive demand from the player’s camp. We can’t keep overpaying for players to come to the club so that they succumb to pressure from a high price tag and flounder.

The current struggles can be a blessing in disguise. The club needs to develop home-grown talent and improve the scouting system. We need to get back to the basic by promoting potential young players and identifying gems that can be polished. A resource-rich club like MU, I firmly believe, is capable of discovering inexpensive potential players like we did with Evra, Vidic, Kawaga or Chicharito. That’s not to say that we can’t open the cheque book when necessary. The journey will take time, but I’d rather see that get started sooner or later.

Ed Woodward needs to go

A CEO either resigns or is let go if he or she doesn’t bring the required results. Hence, I am baffled and disappointed that Ed Woodward manages to keep his job after years of absolutely embarrassing performance on the football side. He may increase the revenue for the club, but what good does it do if the long-term sustainable state of MU is in danger. We need a better executive who knows football and cares more about our on-pitch performance.

Manchester United is blessed with a huge base of dedicated fans like myself, a household name, a great tradition and a lot of resources. We can return to the top, but we need much better leadership on and off the pitch.

Book: The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company

Admittedly, before reading this book, I already had vested interest in Disney. I am fascinated by the transformation that the company has been going through and I own its stock in my humble portfolio. Nonetheless, it is one of those books that I have read with more focus than I have others.

The book offers interesting insights into the transformation Disney had to go through to revive its Animations and fend off the disruption in the Entertainment industry. Through the words of Bob Iger, the delicacy of M&A negotiations is put on display, including prices paid for companies, the process to get the sellers to sell and the politics that come with acquisitions. To a fan of business strategies and technology, it’s fascinating to read.

One of the things I like about the book is the relationship between Bob Iger and the late great Steve Jobs. Bob repeatedly mentioned his admiration and love for Steve, even long after the late co-founder of Apple died. If you live your live so well that people fondly remember you long after you die and that you change lives while you live, it’s a life magnificently lived. Almost 10 years since his death, Steve is still an inspiration to me.

Bob’s account is an example of how patience and hard work can be rewarding in the long run. He used to be a guy grabbing coffee for Frank Sinatra. In his 50s and 60s, he ran one of the most iconic and influential companies in the world. He also gives away his leadership lessons which I will quote below.

All in all, if you are looking for an easy and good read, you won’t be disappointed with this one.

Decades after I stopped working for Roone, I watched a documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about a master sushi chef from Tokyo named Jiro Ono, whose restaurant has three Michelin stars and is one of the most sought-after reservations in the world. In the film, he is his late eighties and still trying to perfect his art. He is described by some as being the living embodiment of the Japanese word shokunin, which is “the endless pursuit of perfection for some greater good”

When Iron Man 2 came out, Steve took his son to see it and called me the next day. “I took Reed to see Iron Man 2 last night” he said “It sucked”

“Well thank you. It’s done about $75 million in business. It’s going to do a huge number this weekend. I don’t take your criticism lightly, Steve, but it’s a success and you’re not the audience” (I knew Iron Man 2 was nobody’s ida of an Oscar winner, but I just couldn’t let him feel he was right all of the time

Later, after we’d closed the deal, Ike told me that he’d still had his doubts and the call from Steve made a big difference to him. “He said you were true to your word” Ike said. I was grateful that Steve was willing to do it as a friend, really, more than as the most influential member of our board. Every one in a while, I would say to him, “I have to ask you this, you’re our largest shareholder” and he would always respond, “You can’t think of me as that. That’s insulting. I’m just a good friend”

After the funeral, Laurene came up to me and said, “I’ve never told my side of that story.” She described Steve coming home that night. “We had dinner and then the kids left the dinner table, and I said to Steve, ‘So did you tell him?’ ‘I told him’. And I said, ‘Can we trust him?’ ” we were standing there with Steve’s grave behind us, and Laurene, who’d just buried her husband, gave me a gift that I’ve thought about nearly every day since. I’ve certainly thought of Steve every day. “I asked him if we could trust you” Laurene said. “And Steve said, ‘I love that guy’ “

No matter who become or what we accomplish, we still feel that we’re essentially the kid we were at some simpler time long ago. Somehow that’s the trick of leadership, too, I think, to hold on to that awareness of yourself even as the world tells you how powerful and important you are. The moment you start to believe it all too much, the moment you look yourself in the mirror and see a title emblazoned on your forehead, you’ve lost your way. That may be the hardest but also the most necessary lesson to keep in mind, that wherever you are along the path, you’re the same person you’ve always been

Value ability more than experience, and put people in roles that require more of them than they know they have in them

“Avoid getting into the business of manufacturing trombone oil. You may become the greatest trombone-oil manufacturer in the world, but in the end, the world only consumes a few quarts of trombone oil a year!” He was telling me not to invest in small projects that would sap my and the company’s resources and not give much back.

At its essence, good leadership isn’t about being indispensable; it’s about helping others be prepared to step into your shoes – giving them access to your own decision-making, identifying the skills they need to develop and helping them improve, and sometimes being honest with them about why they’re not ready for the next step up

Technological advancements will eventually make older business models obsolete. You can either bemoan that and try with all your might to protect the status quo, or you can work hard to understand and embrace it with more enthusiasm and creativity than your competitors.

Deadlines and leadership

I came across this insightful and engaging read from a PhD in clinical psychology on the impact of deadlines and leadership. If you care about these two issues, I urge you to have a read.

I am usually baffled by all the fancy recommendations on how to be successful. To me, it’s very simple. First and foremost, don’t be an asshole. If you manage to do that, you already go a long long way. If you grow old and don’t realize you are an asshole to others or don’t have family or friends tell you that, you’ll have a bigger problem than your career.

Furthermore, in my book, leadership is not about age or title or years of experience. It is about nurturing others, being the last to take credit and and being the first to shoulder the blame. Otherwise, why would others put you in a position of authority? If a manager never grows you, doesn’t acknowledge your work and always places the blame on you, will you consider manager a good leader? Or will you just deride the person as someone that just happens to have authority over you?

In addition, I believe leaders should also have compassion and interpersonal skills. I remember the time when I was lucky enough to be in a managerial position in Vietnam. While I received positive feedback on being a leader, I admittedly failed spectacularly as managing my staff and firing one of them. The experience taught me how difficult it was to have leadership skills. It’s not just about “being the head of a team or an organization”. It’s about how you took a bullet for the team, how you nurtured your folks, how you shared the credit, how you managed the interpersonal relationships and how you dealt with difficult conversations.

I know I failed, at minimum, at two of those. But I would love to have a chance to be in a managerial position again, this time in the US.

Jose Mourinho – A case of cultural mismatch and failed leadership

Jose Mourinho has been the manager at Manchester United for the last 3 years. The team is my childhood team and I have been a fan for more than 20 years. The last domestic Premier League win we had was in 2013 and the last Champions League we had was in 2008. Since then, it has been a rough 5 years to be an MU fan, but it has reached a breaking point for me under Jose Mourinho, a case of cultural mismatch and failed leadership. It goes to show that no matter how much the talent is in question, without a cultural fit and leadership, the hiring won’t just work.

Cultural Mismatch

Manchester United had been known for attacking football and flair. We were never that good on the defensive side. Otherwise, we would have won more championships, even though the collection over the past two decades was truly remarkable. Our style was always to dominate the ball and attack to win. Mourinho’s style is completely opposite. His mantra is to not lose first and foremost. Hence, the games are dull and boring. You can see the fear in players’ eyes and behavior on the pitch. They don’t want to attack. They just want to defend and avoid mistakes. There is no creativity in Manchester United any more. Defenders don’t dare to move forward. Midfielders’ priority is to hold position and not lose the ball, instead of creating innovative passes or plays. Strikers are asked to pull back when not having the ball. As a result, when MU wins back possession, there is no one up front to threaten the opposition. 

Additionally, Manchester United was known for promoting young players. Mourinho is not a believer in that, as far as I am concerned. His preference is always established players who are usually around 30 years old and very expensive.

We were always a team of class. However, his media handling has been increasingly ridiculous; which becomes a bit shameful for the team. Even though he was harassed by some fans, as the team manager of one of the biggest clubs in the world, he shouldn’t have some of the irritating and distasteful he has. 

The hiring of Mourinho is against every thing that Manchester United stands for. I’d rather have the team stick to our traditions and lose more than win a few games by not being ourselves.

Failed leadership

I am a big believer of the idea that leadership is about taking the bullets for the team. Mourinho isn’t like that. He chastises the players publicly and throws them under the bus. Sure, some players have an attitude issue, but managing them internally and discreetly is his job. Instead, he regularly complains about the players and singles them out in the press. He lost the locker room at Real Madrid and Chelsea badly. It seems that he is losing the one at MU as well. It is, first and foremost, his fault that the team doesn’t perform well. As the team manager, it is hard to deny his accountability. 

A manager in sports should be similar to a manager in business. When the team succeeds, you bask in the glory with everyone, but the credit should go to those around you. When the team hits trouble, you are the first in line to take the bullets. That’s what I believe leadership is, no matter what other definitions of the term say. Also, the manager has to fit the culture of the team. In some cases, an outliner may bring unexpected changes, but it’s not what usually works. In that sense, Mourinho is clearly a failure stemming from cultural mismatch and poor display of leadership. He has to go and the sooner that happens, the better it is for everyone, including himself. 

Leadership

Leadership is a topic that I am very interested in. It’s often mentioned as a desired trait in many job advertisements. You also hear it a lot in our normal life, be it in sports, politics or in office. But what is it exactly?

I used to think that leadership referred to being in the position of authority, talking the loudest and telling people what to do. Fortunately, my view on leadership changed and evolved over the years.

In my opinion, a great leader usually does the following:

  • Grow the team by giving directions, assistance and especially increasing responsibilities. I believe that deep down, every person craves for personal growth. Given tools and meaningful challenges, each of us will be glad to work beyond normal hours and go above & beyond. Some managers just look at their staff as somebody who does the dirty work and mundane tasks
  • Distribute credit when things go right. How deflating must it be when your effort doesn’t get recognized?
  • Take blame when things go wrong. If all that you do in the position of authority is to reap rewards and point fingers, how can others follow you?
  • Cultivate trust and transparency

Sure, great leaders also have other great qualities such as:

  • Technical expertise – The Internet is a powerful tool. You can learn a lot, even tribal knowledge by yourself. If you consistently do it day by day, you will likely have the same or probably more technical knowledge than some senior colleagues who don’t put in the same work as you do. Remember the power of compounding interest when applied to knowledge
  • “Big picture” outlook – Truthfully, some have a better long-term view on things than others. Nonetheless, in some cases, the lack of access to information also plays a role here. A junior staff with long-term perspective but no access to information can hardly make a suggestion as good as a C-level executive, can she?
  • Decisiveness in decision-making – This is different from one person to another. It is easy to say but exceedingly difficult to prove
  • Communication – you don’t need to be a CEO to be required of communication skills. It’s in almost every job ads.

If you need a model, I’d suggest the character Harvey Specter in the series Suits. He grows Mike professionally by giving him more and more challenging cases. When things go wrong, Harvey takes the blame in front of clients and doesn’t throw Mike under the bus. When things go right, he makes sure his subordinate gets the credit financially and position-wise. Finally, there is trust as well as loyalty between them. This clip resonates with me very well.

Jon Snow in the battle with wildlings before he made Lord Commander or Tyrion in the Black Water Bay battle also serves as examples of leadership.

In short, I don’t believe that titles make leaders. On the contrary, leaders make titles. Regardless of where you are on the hierarchy, you can be a leader.