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leadership

Meritocracy is Almost as Real as this Unicorn

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Meritocracy is Almost as Real as this Unicorn

While living and working in San Francisco many years back, I learned a new term: Meritocracy.

It sounded like such a lovely thing - the idea that people are celebrated, rewarded and advanced by the merits of their talent and hard work. If I worked hard and produced great stuff, I would benefit the same as anyone else who did the same. And those who weren't getting ahead? They just weren't working hard or smart enough. And the poor saps that lack the talent and skills they need to rise to the top? They would still be recognized for their input.

But as time went on, I noticed that reality didn't quite match this romantic idea of meritocracy. Only a certain type of person seemed to get ahead again and again. And there were plenty of talented, hard-working people who were left behind.

But I still wanted to believe that the system worked. It just sounded so amazing! So I had some theories about the discrepancy between idea and reality:

  1. Those same types of people who kept getting ahead in a meritocracy had more time and resources to hone their skills and contribute. For example, a young single guy from a wealthy family could afford to work more on an open source project than a middle-aged woman with kids.
  2. There was some unchecked bias that was leaking over into this merit-based system. All we needed to do was check our bias at the door.

I was so naive. When I brought up the first theory, I would get the, "So, what are you proposing as the solution? That we reward people differently? That goes against the idea of a meritocratic system!" When I protested that we ARE treating people different by expecting 80 hour work weeks, thereby eliminating anyone with any sort of responsibilities, they accused me of being one of those socialist types that discouraged hard work.

The second theory was harder to prove - the very idea that meritocratic types had bias was offensive and any example I brought up was defensible - but lucky for me, a study came out a few years back (Dec. 2010) that looked into bias and meritocracy and guess what it found?

Not only is bias a factor that renders meritocratic rewards decidedly UN-meritocratic, it actually exacerbates bias!

Let me repeat: BIAS IS EXACERBATED IN A MERITOCRACY!

In three separate and controlled studies with 445 participants (pre-screened to have deep managerial experience), they found that time and time again, the participants rewarded male employees significantly higher than their female colleagues (in the same job, with the same supervisor, with the same performance evaluations). And even more interesting was that, when they controlled for a non-meritocratic condition, the female employees were rewarded slightly higher.

Wow, right? So those that strive for this utopic, egalitarian ideal of meritocracy are actually MORE biased. And why was this?

"Uhlmann and Cohen’s (2007) argument that  a sense of personal objectivity moderates the extent to which individuals act on their beliefs, including stereotypical beliefs, would also predict the paradox of meritocracy in employment settings. They showed that when people feel objective, they become more confident that their beliefs are valid, and thus more likely to act on them." p.27 (emphasis mine)

In other words, the more you believe in the soundness of the system, the more likely you are to leave your bias unchecked. It reminds me of when people say, "no offense but," then follow it with something incredibly offensive, believing their initial statement removes the speaker from responsibility for the statement.

The only way that meritocracy could actually work is in a world where:

  1. we are all starting from the same position of advantage. Time, money, ability, education, etc. [bonus: read The Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege]
  2. we had checks and balances on our biases.

In other words, a world in which unicorns and leprechauns exist. In other words, not in this world in 2013.

So let's please stop fooling ourselves that those that get celebrated, rewarded and advanced are the most deserving. We should know better by now.

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There's No Shame in That

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There's No Shame in That

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Shame Flag on Flickr I was describing my startup experience to a woman I admire the other day, when out of the blue, she asked:

"Was it worth it?"

I hardly hesitated at all and said:

"The only thing I'd change if I could go back is that I'd integrate the incredible lessons I've learned during this time."

And it's true. I couldn't have learned any of what I've learned in a book or a seminar. I feel like I've taken the ultimate MBA. But it took her asking the question for me to realize that. Before she asked the question, I was feeling lots of shame. Why? Because I was focusing on what I didn't accomplish instead of seeing what I DID accomplish.

The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else's highlight reel. - Steven Furtick

The truth is that we (my Buyosphere team and I) did things that the vast majority of people never even attempt:

  • We raised venture capital (even if it wasn't enough)
  • We built a social web application from scratch - multiple times - and for those who haven't built a social web application, here is something to know: building a website is a challenge, building a social website (that people interact with) is another level of challenge and building a social web application (that people interact with and it changes with that social interaction) is a WHOLE 'NOTHER level of challenge. There are so many moving parts behind the scenes. I have mad respect for anyone that builds web applications now.
  • We stuck to it through thick and thin, through lots of questions and uncertainty and through not knowing how we were going to make payroll in a few days time.
  • We learned to work together - fighting like cats and dogs at times, but having uber respect for one another while disagreeing.
  • We hired and fired people - learning the importance of hiring talented people who could teach us a thing or ten.
  • We budgeted, planned and balanced a very small amount of cash to make it stretch as far as it possibly could.
  • We took that leap that lots of people talk about, but only a sliver of the population takes and did it wholeheartedly.

And, nope, we didn't become the next Facebook and fell short of our dreams for Buyosphere, but we built something to be proud of and we did it with all sorts of odds against us. Hell, we're still getting featured in major publications as their Super Clever Click and it isn't over quite yet. Who knows what could happen going forward? I don't think we built any of it in vain. Maybe it's ahead of it's time (I know from experience that brands aren't quite ready to grasp this concept). As SF Fashion Tech said in their review, " It’s hard to draw an apt comparison because there’s nothing similar to this right now..." We'll see and I haven't given up hope.

YOLO as the saying goes and it's true. Anyone who takes a risk to do something that isn't easy and has little certainty should be high-fived, as I've learned when I worked at Santacruzsolarcompanies.co Santa Cruz solar companies. There is no shame in taking that leap and falling on your face. There IS SHAME in talking about taking that leap, never doing it, then pointing fingers and laughing at those falling on their faces.

Before all of this happened, I didn't really know what people meant when they said, "Failure is good. You should fail several times in your life." I thought that sounded like the most awful advice ever. But now I understand. Experience is the result of failure. I've known people who have it easy (connected to money and people and luck) and sail through to big success without learning anything only to arrogantly go at it again and fall on their faces. Any one of those people I've talked to has said to me, "I enjoyed my flop much more than my success." Why? Because of what they learned. And how slowly, but surely, they grew as individuals who had much better lessons to convey.

And yes, if I could wave a magic wand and change the outcome to Buyosphere being an IPO'd/acquired company that lined my pockets with millions of dollars, of course I would! But what I'm saying is that I don't regret that it turned out differently. Not at all.

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The Hole in the Soul of Business

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The Hole in the Soul of Business

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(the title of this post is a direct 'tribute' to a column of the same name by one of my favorite management writers, Gary Hamel) For the past 12 years, Edelman has conducted a very in-depth study of the level of trust consumers have for government, media and corporations and has found, unsurprisingly, that there has been a steady decline in public trust. This doesn't come as a big surprise to most readers who feel continuously manipulated and lied to by government, media and corporations in the interest of their own gains.

But trust works both ways and I'm less interested in convincing customers and citizens to trust and more interested in convincing government, media and corporations to trust their customers and citizens.

I've observed and been part of a growing DIY culture - one that is demonstrating that individuals can and will come together to achieve results that are inspirational and often reflecting a more democratic outcome than any of the top-down efforts.

Take, for instance, the amazing efforts of #OccupySandy, a grassroots, people powered movement of engaged and concerned citizens looking to help Hurricane Sandy victims and get affected areas back to normal (or better) in the wake of the storm. Government did an okay job coming in in the immediate aftermath, sending in troops, supplies and boosting the cleanup and some corporations have donated a good number of proceeds to the clean up (mostly going to the Red Cross and other large NGOs). But the #OccupySandy volunteers can go deeper and further and not have to encounter much for red tape. They can see a crisis, figure out the most efficient and best way to fix it and just do it. Are mistakes made in the process? Probably. But the benefits of these agile, scrappy "organizations" outweigh the losses.

I've been a fan, advocate of and participant in grassroots change for a long time and continue to believe that encouraging participation is a good thing. Generations of people were encouraged to be passive and dependent, but the web came along and changed that paradigm. Instead of Read-Only, it gave us writing privileges. We gained a voice. It allowed us to connect with others who wanted to contribute. Those who grew up with the web expect interaction and their default is participation. Those of us in the 'sandwich' generation (half our lives were pre-browser) and older are still trying to figure out what that means.

I was raised in a culture that promoted a paternal outlook on the world. People needed protection: from invasion, from the communists, from brand confusion, from the bad guys and, mostly, from one another. The default was security, not transparency. Sites like Wikipedia were frightening before they were invaluable. But as the web has evolved, it's as if the curtain is being pulled back on the Wizard of Oz and we are realizing more and more that we don't have to wait for permission or someone else to save us. We have the tools and power at our fingertips.

But power is a funny thing. Once you have it, you don't want to give it up, especially if you have it based on some default or otherwise extrinsic means. Real power and leadership is when people trust and respect you and choose to follow you. When I think of real power and leadership, I imagine those that really affected change like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Simone de Beauvoir and more recently Steve Jobs (and yes, Steve was reportedly hard on people, but he led with such inspiration). These leaders didn't feel threatened by others. If they were criticized or challenged, they would engage in the challenge and open themselves up to improvements. But most power is fleeting and extrinsic. It's gained from having money or given a position in which one can exercise their power. I've watched lots of people luck out on a bit of success only to let it go to their heads. These are the same people who feel the most insecure about their power.

Most corporations fit this bill. It's such a dog-eat-dog world. Customer loyalty is fleeting. And you can have a hit one day and be forgotten the next. Smart companies who will succeed will remain more agile and flexible like the #OccupySandy example. What works today may not work tomorrow, so how does one know how to stay a step ahead? By being open and flexible and empowering every employee in your organization to bring their innovation to the forefront. And how do you ensure that this innovation is focused and not haphazard? Strong culture and leadership. The more your employees understand and are invested in your brand, the better their ideas will be.

But the hole in the soul of business is that it can't trust. It can't trust partners, employees, customers or even themselves most of the time. Even when doing the same thing over and over stops achieving results, leaders would rather turn to outside consultants that don't know their business for the answers rather than asking their own employees who have hundreds of ideas on how to evolve. Every corporation and every government has an #OccupySandy of their own just waiting to be the incubator of potential awesome, but they either ignore or alienate their biggest assets.

I'm guessing that Edelman's Trust Barometer has a direct correlation to the trust that government, media and corporations have for their customers and citizens. You trust us and we'll reward you by trusting you back. I know it sounds more than utopic on my part, but I still believe in the awesomely powerful potential of collaboration between people, government, media and corporations - with an emphasis on people - to solve problems (and make profits) more effectively.

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