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Sunday 5 February 2012

The Innovative Leader

Here is a speech I gave at my Toastmaster club on the 25th of January. I just added some links for readers to be able to get more information about some topics or ideas.

There is a quote about leadership that I like very much. It is: "Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff."

This year is an election year in France and the US. And Toastmaster has a new motto that is all about leadership. So for our leaders and ourselves, because we are at least a little bit leading ourselves too, hopefully, it's a good time to ask us some questions about leadership. Especially how can we make sure that leaders are innovative enough to be able to find new directions, and if possible directions that are not heading toward the cliff?

I am going to talk about this, first in the corporate context, then in the indivual context, and eventually in the context of a country too.

More than 10 years ago venture capitalists used to often replace the founders at the top of some startups they controlled after having invested in them. And they often put people with a managing background in charge of these startups.

But over time they realized that it was very often a disaster. They thought that by putting someone with a good track record of managing people or money, they would optimize the growth of the companies they had just acquired. But the reality was that the new leaders were most of the time unable to make good strategic decisions.

Now the smart venture capitalists don't replace the founders at the top, and they explain it by saying that "innovation is the most difficult core competency to build in any business".

Especially innovation is the most difficult thing a startup has to do, and innovation is at the heart of a startup. It can only succeed by out innovating its often more powerful and more entranched competitors.

By the way, that's what Apple and Steve Jobs did with the iPod, iPhone and iPad. When Apple was not run by Steve Jobs it didn't succeed at innovating and lost money and market share.

So what are the characteristics of an innovative corporate leader? Well the most important thing is of course having a good track record of successfully innovating in the main domain of the company.

Now let's talk about ourselves. At our individual level, innovating means that we have to take risks. It is often very difficult to successfully innovate and it takes time. There is a very high risk of failure too. But we can learn from these failures and try again.

For example I started working on a free software project on my free time in 1999, and in 2002 I stoped working on this project because it was stagnating and I realized that it was not really possible to innovate on it. Then I worked for around one year on another free software project but it was a complete failure. It was only in 2006 that I started to work on a new project that let me and others innovate and finally became very successful around 2009. So it took me 10 years.

Indeed many people who are working with startups say that persistance, resilience and the ability to pivot, which means to change course while still trying to innovate in the domain you chose, are the most important qualities of startup founders. That's because they are the most important qualities that innovators need.

Now about countries, many economists, politicians and journalists make an anology between countries and companies. For example they talk about "Made in France" or "Made in America" or about "Factory France" as if countries were very big factories. It follows that, if we think successful innovators are good leaders for companies, then they should also be good leaders for countries.

Unfortunately, most leaders in most coutries are professional politicians, this means they are not likely to have a good track record of innovating in the domains, especially in high tech, that are likely to create many high salary jobs and to increase growth.

But let's look at the background of the people in charge in some countries. For example if on one side you have a country with 8 engineers in its government and on the other side you have a country with not even one engineer or scientist in its government, which country do you think is more likely to become a technology leader in the future? So in case you wondered the country with 8 engineers is China and the country with no engineer is the UK. And no, neither France nor the US approach China in this regard with at most 2 scientists or engineers.

To conclude, these days, with the Internet, smartphones, tablets, new software, and many other new things are coming every day in our lives. Innovation is everywhere, and everyone - that means people, companies and even countries - has to at least adapt and follow these innovations.

It is even much better of course when you can successfully innovate yourselves instead of just adapting to and following innovations created by others. Because when you successfully innovate, you get an edge, and often a very big one, over your competitors.

For example, as you know, Steve Jobs died last year. And nearly at the same time his company Apple became the most valuable company in the US.

So if I could choose one thing for us to remember about Steve Jobs and about this speech, it would be what a difference an innovative leader can make.

Friday 7 October 2011

Steve Jobs

As other people have done after Steve Jobs' death, I am going to talk about his famous commencement address delivered at Stanford University on June 12, 2005. There is a transcript on their web site, and of course it's better to see or read it all rather than just what I am going to excerpt.

He tells 3 stories. The first one is about "connecting the dots":

Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

The second one is about "love and loss":

I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.

The third one is about death:

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

... It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Friday 13 August 2010


The last very interesting blog post by Paul Graham is What Happened to Yahoo. It describes and explains the strategic errors made by Yahoo.

As they were first in the market at the time (Internet boom) when it was really easy to get a lot of money. They didn't have to do much to succeed so they didn't focus much about improving their technologies. That was their first problem, but it isn't really a strategic mistake, because, as they got a lot of money, they could have used it to improve their technologies later if they needed.

The other problem is that they insisted on calling themselves a "media company." They did so because they sold adds and because this way they could appear not to be competing against Microsoft. But as Paul Graham says it was a very bad idea to really try to be a media company when most of the people were working like in a technology company:

If you walked around their offices, it seemed like a software company. The cubicles were full of programmers writing code, product managers thinking about feature lists and ship dates, support people (yes, there were actually support people) telling users to restart their browsers, and so on, just like a software company.

And this one was a real strategic mistake made by top management. Why? Because:

  • they treated programming as a commodity
  • so they hired bad programmers
  • and they soon got taken over by suits and middle managers
  • and without good programmers you won't get good software, no matter how many people you put on a task, or how many procedures you establish to ensure "quality."

So by losing their hacker-centric culture early, they prematurely sunk into mediocrity.

On the contrary Microsoft (back in the day), Google, and Facebook have all been obsessed with hiring the best programmers.

It reminds me of a blog post I saw but cannot find it anymore, where they tell the story of one business guy coming to Google during the early days and asking So who will run this company? Sales or marketing? and laughing when he was told Engineering! (Update: I eventually found the Slate interview where this comes from.)

The end of Paul Graham's blog post is really wonderful:

Hacker culture often seems kind of irresponsible. That's why people proposing to destroy it use phrases like "adult supervision." That was the phrase they used at Yahoo. But there are worse things than seeming irresponsible. Losing, for example.

Monday 9 August 2010

Founding CEOs

Related to my last post about "Solitude and Leadership" is this "Why we prefer founding CEOs" blog entry by Ben Horowitz.

In short most great technology companies have been built by their fouding CEOs, and there is data that shows that this is not only true for technology companies.


"The reason is that innovation is the most difficult core competency to build in any business."

And there are "three key ingredients to being a great innovator:"

  • Comprehensive knowledge
  • Moral authority
  • Total commitment to the long-term

But it all boils down to the fact that founding CEOs are more able to properly think about the future of the company:

  • Comprehensive knowledge of founding CEOs "enables new, unique innovative thinking".
  • Moral authority is important because "Often, true innovation requires throwing out many of the foundational assumptions of the company."
  • And "founding CEOs naturally take a long view of their companies".

And to the fact that they have more courage to do the right thing:

  • Without comprehensive knowledge, "thoughtful people lack the courage to bet the company on entirely new directions."
  • Total commitment to the long term means that founding CEOs' "emotional commitment exceeds their equity stake."

There are many other great quotes, ideas and examples in the blog post.

Saturday 3 July 2010

William Deresiewicz's "Solitude and Leadership"

Here is a really good article I really want to blog about.
It is full of great quotes like this one:

That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders. Educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.

Or this one:

We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. [...] What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.

I think the author is right to the point here. The future has to be invented, so leaders must be able to do that, and unfortunately in most countries the best universities don't teach that. Let's not even talk about MBAs!
Here is what the author says about thinkers —in the article this is about General David Petraeus, but he could as well have used Steve Jobs as an example:

No, what makes him a thinker—and a leader—is precisely that he is able to think things through for himself. And because he can, he has the confidence, the courage, to argue for his ideas even when they aren’t popular. Even when they don’t please his superiors. Courage: there is physical courage, which you all possess in abundance, and then there is another kind of courage, moral courage, the courage to stand up for what you believe.

The next part of the article is about how people can learn to think.

[...] Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it.

[...] Concentrating, focusing. You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Think about what the word means. It means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like duty, honor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?

And I love this one:

Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.

In the end, the author did not explicitly include developing free software or blogging as a way to learn to think, but it seems to me that these activities qualify:

So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship. Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other people. But I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person.

So go ahead and read the full article. It's worth it!
And by the way this one from the same author is great too!