Posts tagged: stanford

Over the Wall – Lessons in Leadership and Teamwork

By , November 10, 2017 6:48 pm

I work in Redwood City, CA. It’s a few miles north of Palo Alto, the home of Stanford University. Lucky for us, Stanford and Redwood City have partnered for an educational series and this post is about one of those events in the series.

On Thursday evening, I got the chance to hear about how an ex-Stanford football player with an unpronounceable name (Andy Papathanassiou) changed how things are done at NASCAR car races. He focused on the Pit Crews. He applied team management and discipline from football (coaches, practices, physical therapists, contracts, etc.) to Pitstops! Over the Wall refers to the rule that only 6 people can jump over the wall to perform during a pitstop. The efficiency and speed of that crew can make or break a race where winners and losers are separated by mere hundredths of a second. Continue reading to learn more…

Andy kicks off the talk with stories of how a football player got into NASCAR

What the Heck Does a Football Player Know about NASCAR?

The meeting started with Andy’s account of how he got into NASCAR, something he knew nothing about! He wanted to be in professional sports, but a ruptured disc made that impossible – he thought. During his recovery, he started watching TV and NASCAR. He was fascinated and decided to go to a race when it came to the Sonoma County Raceway. The way he got into his first event by dawning a red jacket and acting as a crew member was clever, hilarious and slightly illegal!

After working in the garage as a cleanup person he got a chance to propose a new idea to the CEO of Hendricks Motorsports. Incidentally, they are the owners of team Jeff Gordon, one of the most successful NASCAR franchises in history. He thought that athletes would be the best pit crew. After all, it was all about speed, strength, and discipline; all traits of a great football lineup. Up until then, the mechanics for the team got to be the pit crew on the “big day” as a reward. So basically they were sending amateurs in to do a make or break job. This seems ridiculous today, but in the past, it was the norm.

So a quick break here. Unlike other sports, a NASCAR race has up to 40 teams competing at the same time. Unlike football and baseball, there’s not a guarantee of a measured amount of time to compete. Even if you are performing terribly in football, you still get 4 quarters to up your game. A race can be over in minutes if your equipment fails and there are dozens of other teams to pick up the slack. So the name of the game becomes consistency and reliability. Once you have that down you have to focus on three (3) things.

  1. Identify bottlenecks – what is slowing you down. Get rid of it.
  2. Shore up weaknesses – the timing of a pitstop is gated by the weakest link. It doesn’t matter if 5 of the six people complete their task in record time if the sixth person goes slower than the entire pitstop is slow.
  3. Eliminate mistakes – you have to practice what you are going to do until muscle memory sets in. You can’t send amateur mechanics out there and expect peak performance every pitstop.

Every Sport Needs a Team

You should be getting the idea now, that this is about finding the best people for the job and then making sure they operate as a team. To that end, Andy started to recruit college athletes. After all, these people were going to be jumping over a wall carrying a spare tire and then slamming it onto the car as fast as possible while handling high power tools. Wouldn’t you want the strongest, fastest more coordinated people you could find? Again, the analogy to a football team is clear.

Initially, the team didn’t like it. The mechanics thought it sucked that they no longer got to go out into the pits on the big race day. One of the reasons this succeeded at all was that Andy’s boss, Mr. Henrick, had his back and made sure that he got to see his idea to conclusion. Fast forward and everyone’s attitude changed when they started winning races! Celebrating the win was even better than being in the pits during the race.

What’s the Point?

Crazy ideas are game-changing. You know that you have them in your head every day. You might be hesitant to tell people because they seem impossible, but you’ll never know if they’ll work unless you do something about it.

Four (4) Principles 

Athletes know that to succeed they have to adhere to 4 principles.

  1. Iteration – practice and repetition make things second nature. A football team would never try a new play unless they had rehearsed and practiced it hundreds of times. A tennis player improves their serve by thousands of practice sessions. Whatever you do, do it before you take it to market!
  2. Coaching – you need someone to provide constructive feedback, drive you beyond boundaries and tie the team together.  Coaches and players feed off of each other and you should seek a coach for all the activities you need to improve upon.
  3. Eliminate Distraction – focus on the thing that they can do next.  Athletes get booed all the time. Basketball players get heckled when they are attempting free throws. Fans yell at the opposing team. Your opponent may try to play mind tricks on you. Focus and block out these distractions. In business, someone will always doubt what you are doing. Focus.
  4. Attempt the impossible – push yourself. Incrementally improve over time it’ll add up to a lot. If you don’t at least try, you’ll never make it.

I left the event with a newly discovered curiosity for NASCAR (OK, I am fascinated with all things automotive), but also a renewed sense of wonder for how someone’s life can take an unexpected turn and work out so perfectly.

Also, I noticed that Andy had brought along a full on NASCAR car and placed it in front of the theater! It’s not often that you see a NASCAR car on the streets of Redwood City.

The Hendrick Motorsport NASCAR car in front of the Fox theater.

It was a great evening and a nice surprise to see applications of leadership and team principles from a new perspective. I’ll take some of these tips back to my teams at Equilar. I’ll also look forward to the next speaker series event from Standford! Take a look at the link below for details on this great program.

Stanford and Redwood City Programs


Women on Board!

By , May 27, 2015 10:09 pm

Gender diversity has been quite the hot topic in Silicon Valley. After Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In”, there appears to be a steady stream of talks, conferences and news stories about this topic. At our company, Equilar,  we are building a product that allows a company to assess their Board of Directors. One of the factors is gender diversity. Even with all this attention only 19% of Board members in US companies are women.

Aaron Dhir's book

Aaron Dhir’s book

Recently I attended a talk at the Stanford Law School entitled “Where are the Women: Strategies for Increasing Board Diversity“. The conversation included the Aaron A Dihr, the author of the book “Challenging Boardroom Homogeneity” and Deborah Rhode, a professor at the Stanford Law School. These are the notes and thought that me and one of my colleagues took away from the discussion.

Spoiler Alert: Trying to force gender diversity is extremely difficult. Similar to socio-economic movements like racial equality, it’ll take decades to radically change. In fact, it may take a new generation of workers to fully implement true equality.

At the current rate of adoption on corporate boards in the USA, it will take about 70 years to achieve a 50/50 split. hardly encouraging.


The Way in Norway:

One on of the interesting anecdotes was the state of corporate law in Norway, where companies are required to have 40% female board members or risk dissolution. Aaron used Norway as a case study in many of his discussion. Could forcing gender diversity by law enact change? In the early days of the law’s passage there were companies desperately trying to get women, any women, onto their boards. This gave rise to a few not so nice terms like “Trophy Directors aka Trophy Wives” and “Golden Skirts”. Even then, the women hired were those that would most likely vote with the rest of the board. So diversity didn’t really change the vote, but it did re-distribute power. Over time, the women started to engage more and challenge the status quo. Sixteen countries now have a quota, but the USA lags still.

Stanford Law School hosts a talk about gender diversity

Stanford Law School hosts a talk about gender diversity

Interesting Anecdotes and Jokes:

Deborah indicated that women are thought to be more adverse to risk. If Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, they might still be around today!

Much research has been done, but has not proven that diverse boards will perform better financially. This has been one of the key problems facing this movement.

There are only 2.8% women in the Fortune 500 boards. Why? Some reason offered are:

  1. Not enough qualified candidates
  2. Women are just not as interested
  3. Interested but not being selected.

Culturally we expect men to be better leaders. There’s an unconscious bias to look in socially similar networks. These happen to be closed networks. We need to look outside the traditional CEO/CFO titles for candidates.

The funny thing is that in a recent survey, 79% of respondents say that past CEO’s are not good board members because CEO are used to pushing to get their way. They are not as open-minded.

In a survey of the Fortune 500, less than 50% even talk about diversity in their proxies. When they did, they talked about diversity in experiences and not gender. Surprisingly one of the most well known and progressive companies, Amazon, openly says that they do not think about gender diversity at all. This surprised Dr. Rhode.

What can we do?

We as a society expect more of the BOD since the 2008 meltdown. Diversity will be a slow trickle down effect. If shareholders can force diversity disclosures on the ballot and the SEC can demand disclosure, that would be a beginning.

Another idea is to have tenure limits to force board refreshes at a set interval. As we pass through a few generations of BOD members, new thinking will emerge.

As we look for members for a BOD, look outside the traditional past CEO/CFO roles. Look to lawyers, accountants, academics and people who have been on non-profit boards. This will grow the available pool and will invariably include more women.

Look to examples of success in diversity. Surprisingly the NFL and Military are great leaders in this area. They have more than tripled the % of women coaches and generals in the past 10 years.

Not surprisingly, one of the goals of our upcoming product offering is to unveil relationships and broaden the pool of candidates for board members. During our Summit in June, all will be revealed!

Creative Confidence with David Kelly

By , March 12, 2015 11:31 pm

David Kelly is the founder of IDEO and the Stanford D School. Today I had the opportunity to hear him speak on the topic of Creativity; how to foster it and how can we all unleash our creative selves. This post is a collection of notes, anecdotes and stories from the evening. I found that his ideas can not only help us better ourselves, but can also serve as guidelines to help us manage others.

The evening began with 3 songs from the Talisman A-Capella group. Their songs were amazing, with roots from South Africa, and served as a great display of creativity. This was followed up by a quick intro from the Mayor of Redwood City, before the keynote speaker.

The Major introduces David Kelly while Talisman prepare for their last number.

The Mayor introduces David Kelly while Talisman prepare for their last number.

Creative Confidence
Why aren’t people more creative? People are often categorized as reserved or analytical. For example, Engineers or Mathematicians, tend to value predictability and structure. Everyone is creative but they need to the overcome the fear of criticism and get a sense that they can do what they want without being judged. One of the most wonderful things is to see a person realize they are creative. It can be highly emotional for some. Mr. Kelly loved that spark he saw when people realized what they could do. This is why he has been pushing design and creativity even though he is a mechanical engineer by trade.

How Can I Be More Creative?
You need to try new stuff. Take risks. Do not be afraid of failure. In fact, David doesn’t like or believe in the word “Failure”. When something doesn’t go right, you learn from it. Advancing your learning is a “small success” not a failure. People are wildly creative, they just need permission and support.

Innovation – 3 important points
There are three (3) important parts to something truly innovative.
1) Feasibility – the technology must exist to make it possible.
2) Viability – you must be able to make money or otherwise sustain a business with the product.
3) Delivery – the team and mechanism exists to actually get it into people’s hands.

But there is one thing you cannot ignore. “Human Centeredness”. Will people actually like using it? For example, the Segueway was a technical marvel and could be sold at profit, but people look like dorks using it. No wonder it failed!

Human Viability
The greatest success of IDEO is that they have empathy for people. If you want to affect how people use things, you really need to get out and talk to them! A bunch of people sitting around a conference table with their laptops can’t really figure out what people in the real world want. It takes time to get out there and meet with people, but the payoff is huge.

Ex: IDEO was asked to rethink a vending machine. Vending machines have terrible UX. I mean, why does the can of soda come out at the bottom? You have to bend over to get your soda. Whoa is you if you are female and wearing a skirt! The engineers naturally were trying to use gravity to deliver the pop. Put that doesn’t help the customer! You need to look at things through new eyes. There’s a saying that “Fish don’t know they are wet.”

David Kelly gives an entertaining talk on Creative Confidence

David Kelly (right) gives an entertaining talk on Creative Confidence

Structure vs. Creativity
These two things are not enemies. Sure it’s great to take in all ideas and try new things, but when you provide structure people can focus. Constraint is good in this case and you can build structure around it. People will think very differently if you tell them build something for $100 vs $10. David does not believe in initial planning. Teams need to dive right in and get messy. Figure out the real problem before you build a plan and follow it. You may be solving for the wrong thing.

Diversity the #1 Ingredient
IDEO loves to get people with wildly varying views to look at a problem. A lawyer, artist and a teacher will not think alike. A man and a woman will not think alike. Unique mashups of people will lead to great discovery.

An audience member asked how we can help women speak up. Many women notice problems and issues, but

How did this screen design happen?

How did this screen design happen?

just don’t know how to be heard or put their idea in action. In response to this question he offered this little story.

Ex: Shell hired IDEO to figure out why people were having so much trouble with their gas pumps. Men would swipe their credit cards and enter their zipcode. When nothing happened, they would swipe again. After a few tries, they left in frustration. Women on the other hand would go ask the station attendant why the machine didn’t work. He would tell them that they needed to press the “Enter” button after entering the zipcode and it would work! It was this that led to the instructions “Enter zipcode and press Enter“.

Taking Action to Be Creative
What can you do to be more creative?

  • Frame new ideas as an experiment. Let people know that you want to try something new but if it doesn’t work, we can go back to doing it the old way. This mindset works wonders as people are less afraid because they know that there’s a safety net.
  • Take action! Thinking about it gets nothing done. Go out there and try something. If it doesn’t work out, course correct. Don’t try to plan everything out.
  • Use Mind Maps. Start with an idea and ask “Why?” Take the resultant answer and ask “Why?” After a few levels of this, you’ll get to the essence of the issue.
  • Develop a “Yes and…” culture. People need to be encouraged to try things and learn from mistakes.

At this point he offered a little levity in the form of a joke. Some types of people may never really change. David is a Mechanical Engineer and offered this example:
How can you tell a introverted engineer from an extroverted engineer?
The introverted engineer will look down at their feet as they are talking to you.
The extroverted engineer will look at your feet while talking to you.

Audience Questions
Q: Besides the word “Failure”, what other words do you dislike?
A: Can’t. Don’t answer a suggestion or idea from others with the words “You can’t…” Instead, add to their idea and help them push their thinking to the next level. Say something like, “That’s a good idea, but have you considered…”

Q: What industries are ripe for creative change?
A: Healthcare and governments. We need to start small (Singapore) and find out what works. Then scale it out!

Q: What your favorite failure?
A: A beautiful phone I created that got into the Museum of Modern Art. But it wasn’t viable. By the time it got to the retail channel, it was so expensive that no one wanted it. I have 4,000 phones sitting around in my garage. At least I got in to the Museum of Art.

Q: What’s your favorite gadget?
A: For this century? It’s the car. For the today? It’s the drones!

Q: Being creative is great, but you can’t continue ideating forever right?
A: This is why you must have constraints. Sometimes it’s time and money.

And finally, my favorite quote from the session when someone asked what is going to happen in the future:

The Future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.

I really enjoyed the talk and it gave me a lot to think about. Whether it’s helping my team at work, improving myself or encouraging my kids; fostering creativity is a great thing.

If this post has peaked your interest, you can view a bunch of videos of David Kelly’s talks on YouTube!

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