The Happiness of Pursuit

Despite their amazing foresight, I always thought the founding fathers were just slightly off when they wrote…we are endowed by our “creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.  The problem is that I believe we get confused when we pursue happiness itself as a goal.  Typically we imagine some state of being – for instance being accepted to a certain school, living in a beautiful home or attaining a certain financial status as being synonymous with happiness.  It rarely is.

By contrast, working intensely on an interesting project, using your hard-earned skills to build something you are proud of – that can feel really good.  Doing it as part of a team of similarly skilled, committed people – that feels even better.  Sure you are pursuing a goal, hopefully a very worthy one – that makes the work even more gratifying, but you are not pursing the gratification itself.  Most of us typically find our gratification and reward in the work and the process.  That is what I mean by the “happiness of pursuit”.  Beyond family, this is what I believe truly leads to happiness.

Last week, at SugarSync I witnessed and participated in this pursuit.  Both the technical and business teams came together to prepare for an important demo for a prominent journalist.  The timeline was extremely aggressive and it was a real push to be fully prepared.  The team actually added components to make the goal even more challenging.  I couldn’t help but notice the buzz and excitement in the office – it was about working hard and seeing those results turn into something tangible and cool.  Interestingly this way overshadowed the specifics of how the meeting went.

I believe the best part of working in a startup is this happiness of pursuit.  The work is challenging, the contribution everyone is making is visible, the team is tight (no room for slackers) and the goal is clear.   Of course we want that work to be rewarded with a great financial outcome for the team but the day-to-day motivation has got to be from satisfaction and happiness in the pursuit of that outcome.

Career Choices and Insidious Bias

Continuing on the topic of the WSJ conference, I found one of the most thought provoking speakers to be Geena Davis.  She founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media http://www.seejane.org.   The institute describes itself at “the only research-based organization working within the media and entertainment industry to engage, educate, and influence the need for gender balance, reducing stereotyping and creating a wide variety of female characters for entertainment targeting children 11 and under.”   I found this work so interesting because it is directly related to two topics I’ve written about on this blog.  One is the insidious biases – these unconscious preferences we have and two – the lack of women entering the technology fields. This research uncovers a potentially major source of these biases as well as job preferences.  According to her institute’s research:

  • Males outnumber females 3 to 1 in family films…this ratio, as seen in family films, is the same as it was in 1946.
  • Females are almost four times as likely as males to be shown in sexy attire…Generally unrealistic figures are more likely to be seen on females than males.
  • From 2006 to 2009, not one female character was depicted in G-rated family films in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in law, or politics. In these films, 80.5% of all working characters are male and 19.5% are female, which is a contrast to real world statistics, where women comprise 50% of the workforce.

To summarize, using the infamous words of Woody Allen in Annie Hall – not only is the food bad (the main occupation for women in animated films is princess) the portion are small.

I found the 19.5 (call it 20) % number very sobering.  It seems that once we get to that level of penetration by women in particular fields or even levels the urgency for change goes away.  No wonder we have become so accepting of this 20% number and even consider that success – subconsciously that’s what we’ve been trained to accept as a norm.

Fortunately Geena Davis has good company working on exposing this issue – Misrepresentation http://www.missrepresentation.org/ is doing a great job exposing issues of gender bias in the media – I love their tagline “you can’t be what you can’t see” – we need to help girls imagine themselves as engineers, programmers and even VP’s and CEO’s

As I’ve found myself concluding in other blog posts where the personal action items is not clear, I’ll wrap up with the point that awareness is the first step.  Personal awareness as we consume media (and accompany our children as they consume it) and awareness of how this is impacting our society.

Competitive Energy

It’s been an exciting week in the Cloud business.  Microsoft and Google both entered the market to compete directly against SugarSync with new products.  I wrote about the Google Drive offering here.

Despite being physically tired from the wedding I worked late the last couple of nights writing the blog post, responding to questions, and talking to everyone about the state of the cloud market from journalists to board members.  I reflected on it as I went to bed last night and I realized how competitive market challenges are energizing to me.  This is in contrast to the typical big-company, political people challenges that consumed lots of my time earlier in my career – those seemed to sap my energy while this one sparks it.

I think we had some of our most thoughtful, creative and strategic discussions at SugarSync in the last few days prompted by these competitive actions.  Maybe this is obvious but it points to why competition is good and why the wealth of competition has led to so much innovation in the technology industry.  When an industry has many players all trying to out-innovate and out-perform each other we are kept on our toes and it is the customer who wins.

Competition also adds energy and even growth to the market.  Yesterday was our biggest day of signups in our history.  Game on!

In the Place Just Right

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

Elder Joseph of the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine was correct:
When we find ourselves in the place just right, ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

I was in that place this weekend, in that valley.  With my husband, walking my son down the aisle to marry his beloved, a young lady we adore.  All of our children participating and supporting their brother and sister-to-be.  Our parents, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews all there with us. Surrounded by the love of our extended family and dear friends.

It is hard for me to imagine life being sweeter. Sure there were wonderful extras, a beautiful setting, music, food etc.  But that valley of love and delight is created by family and friends.  I’m sure I will be visiting this valley in my memories in the days and years to come.

I’m not sure who to thank for this good fortune but I am truly grateful.

The Label or the Characteristic?

This headline caught my eye last week: “The Marriage Plot: Single CEOs Make for Riskier Investments”.

The article, which appeared on CNNMoney summarized a study conducted by two Wharton professors and released by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study tracked 1500 public companies and found that the stocks of companies headed by executives who are single are riskier than shares of companies run by married CEO’s. “The companies with an unmarried CEO tended to spend more money on things like R&D, acquisitions and other investments that could more rapidly increase the size of their businesses, but also had a higher chance of blowing up. The result was a more volatile stock price.”

At first I found myself smiling reading this – after all, being married for 27 years and seeing a study that has data showing that marriage is tied to positive business results was appealing. Even the thesis that tied that better performance to a steadier, more spendthrift and less impulsive hand at the tiller felt good.

But I stopped myself – doesn’t this pose a risk of leading to the same bias issue I’ve written about? Where does one go with a study like this – should a board of directors therefore give preference to married CEO’s in their hiring? The problem, of course, is it focuses on a demographic label rather than the person’s individual characteristics. The board needs to assess the appropriate degree of growth through acquisitions, investments in R&D and other types of leadership that are needed by the company. They should combine this assessment with the other objective factors in their CEO selection and chose accordingly.

Furthermore, the best CEO’s will modulate their propensity to take risk to be appropriate to the company and it’s situation. Those CEO’s skills will be flexible for the situation. For instance HP today requires different strategies than those required of Meg Whitman at EBay in 1999. Maggie Wilderotter (CEO of Frontier Communications) is leading a >$4B market cap communications company while she previously lead a venture back startup – Wink Communications.

Timing also affects these assessments. When I worked at Check Point, pundits would often criticize the company and its CEO Gil Shwed for not being aggressive enough either in terms of marketing and R&D spend or acquisitions – and as such comparing the company unfavorably to Cisco or Juniper. A quick check of the Nasdaq shows how temporal these views can be. Check Point was able to cleanly weather the economic downturn and is now well positioned for growth significantly outperforming those company’s stocks over the last 5 years.

As I look back on my three years as CEO of SugarSync I believe that in the first year, stabilization and conservative management were particularly important to build employee and customer confidence. In hindsight, during the following two years I think we probably could have handled a bit more risk and aggressiveness and I am changing some of our strategies accordingly. How correct this assessment is won’t be known for some time.

Avoiding the Power Poison

I’m enjoying reading “Good Boss, Bad Boss” by Robert Sutton. He is well known for his book “The No Asshole Rule”. There is a new chapter in it that was excerpted on Fast Company. The basic premise is that the very fact of being in a power position for any length of time amplifies our tendencies to be blind to our weaknesses and dehumanize others who do not have as much power.

I remember thinking about this a lot during the Mark Hurd and Elliot Spitzer scandals. I found the Mark Hurd situation so surprising because he had a long-standing reputation for strict policy adherence, conservative demeanor etc. while at NCR. The WSJ had a great article at the time on this topic. It’s not that the people in power started off Machiavellian or unethical. In fact the research shows the opposite. Nice, ethical people are more likely to rise to power. But, unfortunately, those traits that helped them accumulate power, tend to disappear once they rise through the ranks.

Why is this and how can we counter this tendency? First the why. According to the psychologists one issue is “feelings of eminence” e.g. while others shouldn’t speed, they are important people with important things to do so it’s ok for them to speed. Power makes people myopic and less empathetic – it’s harder to imagine things from another’s perspective. And of course, the people surrounding those in power may contribute to these trends – telling them they are right and important.

Given the very real negative business and personal consequences of this power poisoning it’s worth thinking about how to counter this trend. I love the findings of Stanford researcher Hayagreeva Rao that “bosses who still are married to their first spouses (rather than a “trophy” husband or wife) and have teenage children are less prone to such delusions, because no matter how much their underlings kiss up to them, the people at home don’t hesitate to bring them down a notch when required”.

This correlation or causation is well and good but obviously not every person in a position of power will be in this family situation and we need other tools to buck the poisoning trend. One tool that I believe in is the “360 Review”. Scott Weiss wrote about this on his blog. It’s something I’ve been doing yearly since joining SugarSync. The key is anonymity – staff members can tell the third party what they really think. Hopefully they can tell their boss to their face but in case not – there is another mechanism. Of course there is no guarantee of action or change from the 360 but it’s a very useful tool.

Ultimately we need to consciously encourage dissent and feedback and not punish it. When a conclusion is forming, solicit the perspective of the other side. Highlight the importance of the contribution of the dissenter. I often think of our nation’s practice on the supreme court – minority views are highlighted even though they are not the law of the land.

Finally, I don’t mean to imply by this blog post that I think I have so much power :-).  SugarSync is a fast growing but still small company. That being said, there are 55 people who are investing a big chunk of their life in SugarSync and I want to be sure not to drink the poison so that I can help their jobs be as productive and enjoyable as possible. So to that end, to my friends, family and team here I ask you to keep me honest.

Hit me with your best shot!

Benefits to Kids of Mom’s Career (part one of two)

When we discuss the challenges of balancing family and a career and the desirability for a mother to work full-time outside the home we often hear about the negatives.  In my experience as a daughter and a mother I must say that I see many positives.  I’m not talking about the ones the psychologists study and report on (e.g. that children of working moms have higher reading scores and better social skills – there are negatives on this front as well).  What is on my mind are the specifics – what specific experiences did my children have because of my career.

The one that is most obvious for our family is travel and international experiences.   I was interested in international relations since college and international marketing and sales since I started my business career.  When I started my career here in the valley I wasn’t able to find a position focused on international marketing from the start so I began in product and channel management but I was looking for international opportunities from the start.

I worked quite a bit with the European sales teams at Informix then when Informix started its Latin American division I joined.  I ended up moving to Sao Paolo for six months to open the Informix office and Derek (6.5), Todd (4) and our nanny Susan came with me.  It was an incredible experience for all of us.  The boys got to experience school in Brazil, play on a local youth soccer team and briefly live an urban lifestyle.  We traveled every other weekend all over the country.  The school was an international one so we made friends with people from all over the world.

Steve and his partner Gus Spanos had just formed a company to purchase 2 Miller beer distribution franchises so they were incredibly busy.  Of course the separation was very hard on all of us, especially the boys, but Steve was able to come down and spend 2 weeks with us in the middle.  We took a great trip to the Amazon and several other regions of Brazil.

I wrote previously about my experiences traveling with Margot in Latin America. I continue to take the kids with me when possible.  Margot joined me at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona two years ago and last year Adam, Margot came with me to Tokyo.  We’ve also had innumerable international visitors to our home for dinners and meetings and the kids have gotten to know them.  I believe that there is something different and more educational being exposed to a foreign country and culture when connecting through work (or volunteering) rather than simply as a tourist. You get to know people and about their day-to-day lives – not just the tourist sites, although those are great too which brings me to my next point…

There is that second order benefit.  I’ve racked up literally millions of frequent flyer miles – it’s been several years since I received this card in the mail.  Steve has earned his share of miles as well and that has funded the air part of a good many of our trips – South Africa, Vietnam, Europe, Peru – you name it.  Of course there is the downside to all this travel.  Time away from home is not without consequences – there are things I’ve missed and it’s hard on the spouse at home.  But even that has some benefits – the kids learn a bit of independence and see that Dad is competent to keep them fed and productive and even tucked in with bedtime stories at night.

It’s hard to know exactly how these experiences have affected the kids.  I have to believe, though, that given how small our world is becoming, familiarity with other places, people and cultures will only be more important.  Derek and Todd, as physicians will be taking care of people in a country where more than 10% of the population are immigrants – that percentage is certainly much higher for their likely patient populations during residency.  Margot is considering a foreign language major (among many possibilities).  Adam is enjoying Spanish 3-honors – who knows where this can lead 🙂