Keith Cowing

Keith Cowing

Product guy. Entrepreneur.
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November 18, 2014

quarterback-on-field

I’m a football junkie and a lifelong student of leadership in business. So I make a lot of analogies between the two.

One great comparison starts with a football team’s film room. During the season, a team goes to the film room after every game to watch the game tape and evaluate what worked, what didn’t, and what adjustments need to be made. Top teams develop an intense and productive rhythm. Film room, game plan, practice, game. They improve in some finite way every single week.

In business, it’s important to have something that acts like a film room. It’s a place for immediate and honest feedback. It’s important to have objective measures (precise metrics) and an outside view whenever possible. But it’s also critical to never mistake “performance” in the film room for performance on the field.

In business school, for example, 80% of your time is spent in the equivalent of a film room (discussing a case study and commenting on what a CEO should do in a given situation). You’re drawing up game plans, but you are never executing a single play. The film is the feedback loop. It is the homework and the coaching – not the test. You don’t actually forge your leadership skills until you get on the field. Making reasonably intelligent comments in a discussion about strategy is interesting. But executing on strategy is everything – that’s what builds careers.

Here are a few points to keep in mind:

Film room

  • A scheduled time and place to to perform honest critiques
  • A feedback loop to drive small, continuous adjustments
  • Best applied in a cyclic rhythm (film room, game plan, practice, game, repeat)

On the field

  • Where you test and develop your toughness
  • Where you test and develop your decision making
  • Where you forge your leadership and others decide if they believe in you
  • Where the game tape becomes your resume (true success is measured by results)
June 26, 2014

1. The level of brand loyalty is obscene

brand-loyalty-cigs
brand-loyalty-phone

2. They represent standard social behavior in bars

bars-cigs
bars-phones

3. They’re prohibited in some public places

public-places-cigs
public-places-phones

4. They’re the last thing you spend time with before bed

bed-cigs
bed-phone

5. Sometimes you have to bum a light

bum-light-cigs
bum-light-phone

6. They are a marketer’s dream

marketer-cigs
marketer-phone

7. We stuff them in our clothes

clothes-cig
clothes-phone

8. They drive some people crazy

drive-crazy-cigs
drive-crazy-phone

9. You just can’t put them down

put-down-cigs
put-down-phone

So how do we manage our addiction?

I love my phone, I use it constantly, and I have no desire to give it up. But maybe tonight we should all turn off our phones for 3 hours. We could spend un-interrupted time talking face-to-face with other humans. Don’t worry, our phones will be on our nightstands in the morning.

April 29, 2014

Master Of Business Administration

Too many MBA programs are built around 80% talk and 20% action. The best leaders acquire their skills through the reverse, 80% action and 20% talk. Spending time in the film room is part of the puzzle (like preparing for a Monday Night Football game) – but you cut your teeth when you’re actually on the field.

So in the spirit of taking action, I have summarized 7 steps you can take today to help you land your dream job. I have found them to be true whether you’re in business school, considering business school, or skipping the MBA all together.

1. Define your end game

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care where –”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

It’s important to start every career decision with introspection about what you truly want in the future. Debating options is pointless if you haven’t defined your end game. Once you decide where you are going, you can determine the best path to get there.

It’s OK if you don’t have a specific career calling yet. You can still define the characteristics of your perfect role. I suggest writing down the 3-5 things that would make a job rock your world. That will help you frame career decisions and measure your progress.

2. Find your edge

The NFL draft is coming up and you hear a lot of sound bites about the prospects. Jadeveon Clowney is a ridiculous pass rusher. Johnny Manziel is agile and elusive. Sammy Watkins is a speed demon with good hands. What you will never hear is a player described in more than 2 sentences. Every player that’s drafted high has an edge that can be described in simple terms.

The same is true for business careers. If you can’t describe your edge in two sentences – nobody will remember why you’re great. So practice describing your edge (even if it’s aspirational for now). Everything else (your resume, your LinkedIn profile, your projects, etc.) should simply provide supporting evidence for that reputation. For example, Steve Jobs was a genius product designer. Alan Mulally is a great leader and crisis manager. Jamie Dimon is a shrewd deal maker.

Keep it simple, memorable and authentic. If I was writing Neil Armstrong’s resume it would only have 5 words: “First man on the moon.” Figure out exactly where you have an edge, or where you stand a fighting chance to develop an edge, and put 80% of your career effort into making it deeper.

3. Become a storyteller

Human beings hate boring lists and bullets, but we love narratives. So to turn your resume and background from a textbook into a story. Then tell your story.

I’ll use myself as an example

Take 1
I grew up in New Hampshire. I studied Electrical and Computer engineering at Cornell, then I worked as a Product Marketing Engineer at Cypress Semiconductor, and also spent time at Lockheed Martin and Goldman Sachs. I went to business school and focused on entrepreneurship, I…STOP…nobody cares. They just don’t. You would fall asleep if I continued.

Take 2
I’m a tech geek and I love building things. After business school I started a company and in 2 years of running a business I learned 10x what I learned in business school. So I became passionate about driving change in business and career education, which brought me to LinkedIn.

Take 2 isn’t perfect, but it is a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is also authentic and easy to remember.

4. Build relationships

One of the most valuable things you get out of business school is the opportunity to build relationships. The evil word networking is tossed around a lot, but there is one key point that is overlooked. The value in relationships usually comes from deep relationships with a small but valuable group of people. It’s quality over quantity.

Was Zuckerberg better off shaking hands with hundreds of people across the industry, MBA-style, or building meaningful relationships with Sean Parker, Peter Thiel, and Reid Hoffman, who could then open any single door in Silicon Valley?

Think about exactly who you want to build relationships with (probably people who have the edge you’re trying to build). Also think about how you build relationships. I’ve found that cocktails and intros are pleasant, but deep bonds are only built when you go to war together (think military units, sports teams, projects where you stayed up all night, etc.). Working together to make something happen is the best way to build a relationship.

Also, don’t be selfish. Be a mensch and you will end up building good relationships with good people. That yields huge dividends.

5. Build proof points

When hiring managers look at you, they will immediately ask themselves four questions:

Do you know the industry?
Do you know how to perform the role?
Are you a high performer?
Do you fit the company’s culture?

If you can show (not tell) that the answer to each of these questions is yes – then you are in the game. So how do you show it? Well, business school is one path. If you go to Harvard Business School simply getting in is a huge gold star in terms of performance. Then informational interviews let you display your industry knowledge. A successful internship seals the deal by showing that you fit the company’s culture and can execute in the role. By the time you get a full-time offer you have systematically checked off the four questions above. Getting an MBA is one way to prove that you can take on a new role.

But business school is not the only way. For example, I have a friend who is transitioning into consulting (he was originally an engineer with a PhD doing technical research). He performed well in school and in his job, then started taking on client engagements. He wasn’t a consultant yet, but he could demonstrate his ability to work in a consultative role with demanding clients. Then he started his own consulting firm (bingo) and started securing gigs. He started out slow with unpaid work from local startups and then quickly accelerated his work and experience. Now he’s interviewing at prestigious management consulting firms and is ready to make the jump.

The same opportunity is available in other industries. If you want to be a marketer – simply start marketing. You can create a blog, write an eBook, and do all kinds of meaningful activities on the web for very low cost (and ultimately for a profit if you’re good at it). If you want to be an entrepreneur or run a tech company – then start building a company. Starting something will show (not tell) future managers that you’re able to succeed in your dream job. In today’s world anybody with the proper hustle can make this happen.

6. Tune out the noise

If you want to be a player in the financial world it’s important to live in one of the world’s power centers, like Manhattan, London, or Tokyo. But the funny thing is, the most successful investor in the world is Warren Buffett. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska and it’s not a coincidence. Buffett’s mantra is to be fearful when others are greedy and be greedy when others are fearful. It’s very hard to pull that off when you live in the middle of the noise, seeing traders on the train, at lunch, on the golf course, and at neighborhood parties. Herd mentality is something that’s very very hard to turn off. It’s actually a primal human instinct to crave acceptance. In caveman days people had to band together to survive. If you became an outcast you’d die – so it was a life or death matter to be accepted.

But if you can turn off the herd mentality – the benefits are phenomenal. For Warren Buffett, living in Omaha makes it easier for him to ignore the noise and trust his own decision-making. A lot of the activity in our world is pure noise with no signal. If you watch CNBC or read TechCrunch or follow the headlines in your industry you will see many stories that attract your attention but focus on the wrong things (random stock market variations, stories about people raising funding instead of building true businesses, etc.). It’s sooooo easy to listen to the noise.

WhatsApp raised almost $60M from Sequoia and chose not to announce most of their funding (noise), present at dozens of conferences (distraction) or focus on the “hot” things that were driving Silicon Valley. They just kept their heads down and built a great product. In retrospect, their outcome was not a coincidence either.

Tune out the noise as best as you possibly can and you will be happier and more successful.

7. Rock your rhythm

There is a concept in physics called resonant frequency. If you rock or vibrate something with just the right frequency – your inputs will add up exponentially and crazy things will happen. Take a look at this video of the Tacoma Narrows bridge in Washington. A simple wind hit the resonant frequency and turned a steel and concrete structure into a piece of rubber.

Before I had kids, I used to live parts of my life “in debt.” I would work late knowing that I could catch up on on everything else over the weekend. But with kids in the house that safety blanket is gone. I can either build everything I want to accomplish into a sustainable rhythm or not do it. I can’t insert more hours or catch up, I have to focus just on the highest priority stuff. But that focus has made me more in-tune with my priorities and my personal rhythm. Just like the bridge, if you rev something just right – you can get results that are exponentially bigger than your inputs.

So I highly suggest you work on your rhythm and optimize your life around it, from what and when you eat, to how much you sleep, to when you get to work, to your routines at home, to how frequently you socialize. Everybody has a different rhythm and it takes you awhile to learn yours. But once you nail it – it feels amazing.

***
This post isn’t pro-MBA or anti-MBA, but it’s about understanding the precise things you need to accomplish your goals. Only then can you can properly analyze options in your life and make decisions that will lead to happiness and success.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn and is part of a project I started called MBA Madness.

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