There was a moment that I will always remember from my childhood, one that represents some nature-nurture shaping that had already happened, and this “model scene”, as psychologists call it, is at the core of who I am today.
I was about 12 years old and sitting at my father’s big wooden desk in the basement. He had set up a sort of office at a corner of the painted concrete walls, complete with a filing cabinet or two, unfinished plywood bookshelves, a typewriter (manual) and an old Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder. The desk was a seven-drawer model with a matching leather chair with a swivel and wheels.
It was a nice little setup for a 12 year old. My dad didn’t use it much, so I would come down there to type my papers for school. The basement was also a cool place to be, both in terms of relief from the Illinois climate (mostly too hot and humid or too cold and dry) and from, well, the rest of my family.
A businessman was born
And in that moment, sitting in that big leather swivel chair, I realized that I wanted to be a businessman. I wanted to spend my life at that desk, or one like it.
I sit typing this in my upstairs office with a big wooden table (the modern version of the big wooden desk now that we are so much more paperless), typing on my modern typewriter watching my words form on the screen in the WordPress editor (the modern paper, but ironically the font is a typewriter font) I realize that I’m living that dream, that inspiration.
It’s a bit more amazing because my parents were professors, not in any way involved in business. Even more surprising, given that they were liberal economics professors, big fans of the socialist labor movement in the early and mid-20th century (read: unionization), and they essentially viewed business people as “fat cats”, greedy, money-grubbing, Scrooge-like tyrants, the existence of whom’s soul was a valid question. To be fair, this was in fashion back then, both in academia and in society (think: Death of a Salesman.) Not something that their son should aspire to, in other words.
Yet at that moment I knew it as a truth: I was going to be a businessman. And that’s what I’ve spent my life doing. It happened haltingly, much of it fitfully, as there was some part of me that always questioned whether it was okay for me to do. I tried to be a lot of things over the 40 years between then and today, but whenever I found something that I liked doing, I always wanted to make a business out of it.
I’ll never know where that came from, that desire to make businesses, nor how it survived despite the discouragement that I received from my parents. I spent a lot of my life feeling like I needed to apologize for even wanting to start a business. So until just recently I never noticed how it happened within me, the birth of a new venture inside my head and my heart.
curious george goes to school
It wasn’t like I didn’t try to figure it out. After building PDIT, a 60+ person Inc. 500 Award–winning consultancy, with two fellow-consultants in the 1990’s, I sold my shares and enrolled in USC’s Entrepreneur MBA program. My stated goal was “To figure out how THAT happened — how we actually built a company!” My BS was in Industrial Engineering and Computer Science, so I had never really studied business.
In fact it was worse than that: as an undergrad, I took one business class in the business school at my parent’s university, a part of the university that they literally sniffed at. I dropped that class after I got a D on a quiz because of one question that I will never forget:
Question: True or false, a Bureaucracy is an ineffective form of organizational structure?
I said True, and the professor said False — when I asked why, he said that while everybody would agree that a Bureaucracy was inefficient, it was not ineffective. At that moment in 1977, I figured business wasn’t for me. I felt stupid. I dropped the class and switched to Medieval Studies and Philosophy. Obviously that didn’t work out either.
Twenty years later, I was at USC finally going to business school. It took me that long to figure out what I had realized 25 years earlier sitting at my father’s desk — I wanted to be a businessman, an entrepreneur.
In grad school, one of the topics that fascinated me the most was organizational theory. My favorite book during those two years at USC was The Nature of the Firm, written by Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase. The book is essentially a brilliant essay that explores why companies (firms, organizations) are “shaped” and managed the way that they are. I look back at this now and ask myself whether that monotonous, boring business professor in 1977 planted a seed in me with that question. Was it an “inflection point” in my life?
Author Dave Logan, whose excellent book Tribal Leadership I highly recommend, has a (free) 21-day leadership training program that includes an inflection point exercise. I did the exercise the other day and it connected a few more dots for me. I’ve heard and read about entrepreneurs needing passion regarding the problem that their venture is solving. In my first startup, I think I was simply passionate about HAVING a venture, so maybe that’s another version of it.
Without the energy and drive that the passion provides, entrepreneurship is pretty hard to sustain. But where does passion come from? Where is the muse that inspires and tickles. I got a glimpse of mine when I did the exercise. Thanks, Dave Logan for pointing out that many times the hardest moments inspire the greatest things in us.
Down and Out in Topanga, circa 2009
Come spring of 2009, ten years after grad school, I had been leading the LA office of the marketing agency SapientNitro for a couple of years. Over the course of the next few months, with the recession and as we saw client budgets recede, the bad news came to me and some other directors.
I was pretty upset at being laid off. I had hit my numbers — no I had blown my numbers out of the water — in 2008 and had just closed a $1MM plus deal and had another $4MM in the pipe for 2009. I felt this was an injustice, a violation of how the game should be played, how I should be treated. There were a lot of other things that I wrapped into it, as one can do, finding fault in everything that the organization had done to, or not done for me.
I decided to write a book on how management should work. I wanted it to be a really good book. One that you could pick up and quickly understand how an organization should really work, and how people should work with each other. I didn’t know what the book needed to say, but I also knew that none of the 200+ business books I had read during and since business school really provided this information.
I was inspired. Inspired by some people who had just laid me off. I was pissed off — what they did was wrong, I told myself. And I was inspired.
out of the ashes
So I read a lot. I knew that there was an answer somewhere…probably in bits and pieces, but I felt it was my job to put it together. The next year was a highly procreative period for me. I did a lot of consulting on agency projects, strategy and product development, and in 2010 I licensed and launched a product called Snoot! Nasal Cleanser. Snoot is a great product and it helps with something else that I am passionate about, the misery of chronic sinusitis. These were all fun, but none of them felt like a fit for me. I kept moving.
By mid-2010 I was working at an agency again, but there was something that I had left unfinished. I watched how they operated and saw much the same thing I had seen elsewhere. That question nagged me: How SHOULD you run an agency?
In late 2010, I managed a couple of the agency’s projects and tried out some of the techniques that I had studied. I had always been a very good project manager, but I didn’t really like being one — I hated status meetings, Microsoft Project, and everything that went with it. The job itself was dismal, we typically tracked a disaster in progress, and rarely could really make a difference until there was a major crisis. You dealt with a lot of unhappy people all of the time. But these new projects turned out differently. Some of these techniques were working…working really well. And frankly, I was excited beyond belief. My heart still speeds up when I recount this to people, and even typing it here.
a company is born
So I did what an entrepreneur does: I committed myself to this. I started consulting on how to run agency projects better. I had a chance to refine my thoughts on what could work better. At the core of my ideas was a way to use Agile (a method for managing software projects) that would work for Agencies…the company name? AgencyAgile, of course.
I added a lot more to the methods: Drucker, Senge, Maslow, Mintzberg and a bunch of the old masters that I had first read in grad school. And 30+ years of really great organizational, cognitive and behavioral research on how people think, how teams work, and what makes people happy, drawn from Kahneman, Logan, Seagal and Haidt, to name a few.
What does my new company do? We help agencies transform from the industry’s hierarchical management model, replacing it with a team-based organization structure that eliminates or greatly reduces every major operational problem that they have. Their employees love it, and they make more money too. We help them become “Better, Faster and Happier.”
We destroy the bureaucratic model and replace it with something agile, flexible, empowering and fun. And it works. Really, really well.
Answer: False. A Bureaucracy is not an effective form of organizational structure.
This is the correct answer for the industry that I now serve: advertising and marketing agencies. Bureaucracies just don’t compete well, nor do they scale well. In the hangover of the mid-century anti-business fervor, it was fashionable to view the stodgy bureaucracy as being somehow effective, and somewhat acceptable. We knew then and know now the name itself is a pejorative. And out has taken 50 years for the new management science to take hold. Agile-based organization models eat bureaucracies for lunch.
Sitting this morning at my wooden desk, I realize what a gift this has all been. I give thanks to that professor whose name I cannot remember, who inspired me to create something different and better, to think “Noooo, that MUST be wrong!” And also my appreciation for those at Sapient who decided I didn’t belong there. They were my teachers, my muses.