Archives for posts with tag: Visionary

founder
I have been reviewing books for a number of years now; however, movies have always been my passion and on occasion I have used movies in staff meetings for the accessibility of the message, and for more personal management lessons. I decided that it was time to share some of these. Please note that this review does contain spoilers for the movie and is more of a reference for interesting scenes and themes.

The Founder is the true story of The McDonald Brothers, who created the first McDonald’s Burger Restaurant, and Ray Croc who saw the potential in what the McDonald Brothers had created and turned it into the franchise and behemoth that we know today. Starring Michael Keaton, as Ray Croc, The Founder is certainly a cautionary tail about choosing your business partners, but it is also a story about realizing potential, and understanding your business and your customers.

The movie starts by following Ray Croc as an ice cream mixer sales man to bad drive in restaurants. While it is obvious that he is an archetypal slimy sales man, the patter he uses is surprisingly modern and essentially comes down to “build it and they will come.”
When he comes across the McDonald Brothers’ restaurant, it is different from any that the traveling salesman has come across in the past: Bulk sales of three items, no plates or utensils, and the food is received in 30 seconds rather than 30 minutes.

While the story of how the brothers reached this point is interesting on many levels, the 20-minute mark is of particular note. The McDonald Brothers take their staff to a tennis court, lay out their new kitchen design in chalk, and have the staff act out the “speedy system” that will allow them to make burgers like nobody else. What is most interesting about this sequence is the McDonald Brothers attention to detail and choreography of how their staff moves. They recognize that they are creating a system and that it has to be right or it will not work at all – even if that mean them redesigning the kitchen multiple times.

At the 50-minute mark the discussion of franchising, and the potential for a drop in standards, is examined in detail. This in turn leads to the realization that franchise owners should be sales people who are wholly vested in the venture, and looking for an opportunity, rather than just investors looking to make money anyway they can. Again, this plays into a central theme of the movie – chose who you go into business with wisely.

One hour and 18 minutes marks the real revelation of the McDonald’s story. That the McDonald’s franchise is not in the burger business at all, but actually in the real-estate business. Rent provides steady revenue and it is capital that fuels expansion.
Things start to go seriously wrong for the McDonald Brothers at the one hour and 29-minute mark with the breaking of their contract with Ray Croc and how Ray Croc sees business. A significant take away from the movie is that the McDonald Brothers and the Ray Croc have fundamentally different views on business, what a business should be to the community, and how a business person behaves.

It is certainly a cautionary tale.

While it would be a mistake to paint Ray Croc as a mustache twirling villain, his ethical standards are dubious at best. Re-watching the movie, with the benefit of knowing what happens, it is interesting to note all the places where the McDonald Brothers treat Ray Croc less as a partner and more as an employee. They frustrate his attempts to monetize the franchise, and are unbending in their standards even if that creates a significant impediment to the creation of a viable business. One can certainly see the position that Ray Croc finds himself in, and while his solution is mean and dishonest, it is not one of his making. Unlike most business stories where the good guy visionary’s do battle against the dark hearted managers, “The Founder” is more a tale of restrictive managers with a good idea and a visionary with dubious morals.

A thoughtful viewing of “The Founder” should provide pause for anyone going into a partnership, and it should also serve as a cautionary tale of the value of communication in a business, the miracle of systems, and the power of vision.

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creativity inc

 

When I review books, I do so because they interest me, or occasionally I review books because I am following a theme.

I’ve had an interest, the way one has an interest in a train crash, with Disney for many years. This was solidified by reading James B. Steward’s excellent “Disney War” which details the infighting and board room drama of the Michael Eisner years at Disney. With Pixar’s Co-founder John Lasseter recent taking of a six-month sabbatical, from Pixar and Disney Animation, for unspecified “missteps,” reading about Pixar’s culture and management with the benefits of hindsight sounded extremely interesting.

What I did not expect was a candid and practical guide to managing creative people, and the creative process, from an obviously highly talented manager and successful business man. This is also one of the best general management books I have read in years.

Mr. Catmull, with the help of Amy Wallace, have written an extraordinary management book that is honest, practical, and one that does not gloss over mistakes while still celebrating their company’s culture. What could have been just a retelling of Pixar’s, undoubtedly interesting, and dramatic, history instead is a retelling of that history with a guide to the lessons learned and the mistakes made.

Books about the history of companies are often written by, or in conjunction with, the visionary leaders who have fantastic ideas and make great leaps of intuition. “Creativity Inc., however, is written by a working manager: Mr. Catmull. While visionary in his conception of wanting to make the first 3D computer animated movie, his role at Pixar, and later Disney Animation, has been one of the manager who makes things happen, assembles the people, and allows his people to be as creative as possible. He is not afraid to place caveats on things such as employee engagement and feedback, while at the same time obviously taking these subjects extremely seriously.

While the concepts in the book are legion, and makes the book well worth a second reading, Mr. Catmull’s belief that failure is not only to be tolerated but actively encouraged stands out. While many in management circles treat failure as a necessary evil, Mr. Catmull makes a convincing case that failure is not evil at all but an important and necessary part of the creative process. Coupled with this belief in failure, is that while “honesty” has many moral connotations, an insistence on “candor” when giving feedback, from any source, is central to preserving a creative culture.

Getting people to work together, being honest about the short comings of the processes, and considering culture as a constant and evolving thing makes “Creativity, Inc.” a different type of management book. The fact that almost everyone knows about Pixar, and hold the movies they make in high regard, makes this a very accessible book. It also manages to avoid the saccharine quality of a lot of management books that intersect with the world of Disney (Lee Cockerell’s “Creating Magic” in particular comes to mind.)

For those who have become a bit jaded by management books, “Creativity, Inc.” is for you. This is an honest, dare I say candid, tale that teaches us that all businesses should be creative and that unleashing the creative power of our employees, or at least to stop stifling it, is probably one of the best things we can do as managers for our business and our employees.

(Clicking on the image above will take you to Amazon where a tiny percentage goes to help my movie and book buying habit.)

 

 Zappos, Tony Hsieh, and the Downtown Project are controversial subjects in some quarters of Las Vegas – although I have always been a supporter. In my opinion, it is hard to not give credit to Mr. Hsieh for having the courage, faith, and energy, to move his company and sink millions into the depressed center of Las Vegas, a city I love living in and call home.

That makes Aimee Groth’s tell all book about living inside, or at least partially inside, the bubble of Tony Hsieh’s circle throughout the first five years of the Downtown Project all the more difficult, and fascinating to read. With Ms. Groth becoming part, if not the driving force, of the narrative this is very much a piece of Gonzo journalism which gives some first person perspective to the stresses and confusion that many in the story recall.

To give some background, Tony Hsieh is the CEO of Zappos, an online shoe retailer which is owned by Amazon. In 2013, Zappos moved its headquarters into the former city hall building of Downtown Las Vegas. Downtown Las Vegas, and in particular the area east of Las Vegas Boulevard, had been a rundown collection of tattoo parlors, pawn shops, seedy bars, and ultra-cheap motels. With the result, it had all the problems of a depressed city center, with homelessness, prostitution, and drug dealing on most street corners. With Zappos’s move to Downtown, Mr. Hsieh created the “Downtown Project” with $350 million of his own money. Almost half the money was earmarked for the purchasing of real-estate with the rest to be invested in businesses and startups centered in Downtown Las Vegas. The stated goals of the Downtown Project was not only the creation of a new business and a technology startup environment, but to make Downtown a place with a thriving innovation culture.

The story follows Ms. Groth’s intial conversations with Mr. Hsieh and other invited guests to the Downtown Project, through partying and becoming part of Mr. Hsiehs entourage, the first cracks appearing in the startup culture, to the major reorganization of the Downtown Project, and the internal strife at Zappos due to the move downtown and Holacracy. Holacracy is a new management system and communication tool that was adopted by Zappos. I reviewed Brian J. Robertson’s book on Holacracy here.

However, the main thrust of “The Kingdom of Happiness” is on Mr. Hsieh’s, and those around him’s, response to these events and to their motives in the first place. As the story is told there is almost a willful lack of support, and management, given to the early entrepreneurs, lured to Las Vegas with promises of financing to follow their dreams and the expectation of mentoring. With the result that many were essentially setup to fail, or at the very least felt that way.

“…the young entrepreneurs who didn’t naturally seek out assistance or know how to navigate an ecosystem like this were left to fend for themselves.” – From The Kingdom of Happiness.

There is also a darker undercurrent that flows through the book, and that is the potential conflict of interest in the due roles of the Downtown Project as both landlord and investor to various new and startup businesses. At one point in the book an entrepreneur wonders at the oddness of trying to avoid their investor and business partner, because they are also their landlord. There are numerous mentions throughout the book by those in the Downtown Project, that a source of profits for the Downtown Project is the real estate rather than in the businesses they have investments in. An uncharitable reading might question the ethics, or morality, of this arrangement.

 What I feel is the main takeaway from the book, and makes it of particular interest to business people,  is the balance between Vision, Leadership, and Management, and how this seems to have gone awry at both Zappos and the Downtown Project. At one point Mr. Hsieh snaps at Ms. Groth that he is not a leader but a visionary and it is hard to argue with him. But if Mr. Hsieh is not leading then who is?

The move to Holacracy, a system that dispenses with traditional management structures, through the lens of Ms. Groth’s book, seems to be an imperfect answer to some difficult questions. There has been plenty of vision at Downtown Project and Zappos. There is also some merit in the argument that there has also been leadership at Zappos (you don’t undertake something like Holacracy without leadership pointing the way). But the cult of personality surrounding Mr. Tsieh, and Zappos’s focus on its non- traditional internal culture, maybe filling in for actual leadership.

What is clear, particularly at the Downtown Project, is that there has been a failure of leadership through a lack of management. In a drive to be different, focus on making things “happen,” and create a self-sustaining entrepreneurial culture, the basic structures and support networks have never been put in place that would seem to be a prerequisite for this type of project.

I, for one, am a supporter of the Downtown Project and Zappos – particularly for Zappos’s focus on internal culture. One only has to walk through downtown to see the enormous impact that Downtown Project and Zappos have had. However, there have been significant costs, and without examining the issues that The Kingdom of Happiness raises we are doomed to repeat them. In business, but particularly in the startup culture, there is a focus on leadership to the expense of everything else and an almost dismissal of management. What the story that Ms. Groth tells us is that visionaries abandon management at their peril and that leadership, while the key ingredient in all successful companies, cannot survive without good management.

 

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