Archive: Apr 2020

Termites and Intergenerational Conflicts

You know how sometimes, something just sticks with you?

Here’s one of mine: When termites battle predatory ants, the oldest termite citizens form the front line, sacrificing themselves first.

It was so jaw-dropping that I’ve thought about the concept several times. Upon investigation, I learned that termites are considered “eusocial.” Eusociality is defined by cooperative brood care, overlapping generations living within a colony of adults, and a division of labor into reproductive and non-reproductive groups. There’s a form of caste system and individual members of the group sacrifice their freedom and independence in favor of the common good.

There are different points of view on whether humans are eusocial (one example thread). Primarily, though, we can’t organize our society like termites because we care deeply about individual agency. But that doesn’t mean we don’t get into a lot of arguments about the common good.

This little science fact led me down so many paths.

It made me think about politics — it’s usually the elderly that commit the young to wars, quite the polar opposite of termites (although, old and young termites are equally effective fighters, which can’t be said for human beings).

And the climate — it is, again, the elderly who seem to be sacrificing future generations when it comes to climate change. I am clearly not talking about sacrificing lives, but we aren’t even willing to sacrifice SUVs that give us 18 miles per gallon (!) and quarter pounders that are terrible for the environment.

It is perhaps more relevant now with Covid and the controversy about what’s best for everyone during this time. It made me think about the nuclear family, which is still controversial, apparently, with David Brooks arguing that it was a mistake. At this moment in time, more people are likely to agree with him as couples are returning to cohabitate with their parents to better manage the burden of 24×7 childcare combined with 24×7 work.

Every generation seems to be dealing with Covid differently. The elderly are afraid for their lives and health, but are, generationally, sitting on wealth they were able to build during their lifetimes. Meanwhile millennials are facing unemployment having never built a solid foundation to cushion them. The fears are different, the approach is different, and we are all in conflict.

Which brings me to the question — do termites make the sacrifice because it is “their” colony, the one in which they grew up? Much like (most) grandparents would for their grandchildren? Would termites display the same behavior if they were dropped into another colony?

Termite warfare, ageism, and self-sacrifice for the greater good — it’s an idea that expands, and it’s so broad that it leads to a lot of interesting, interconnected things. The concept is also straightforward to understand, unexpected, and emotionally resonant. All the reasons why this idea stuck with me for months.

What random, yet utterly fascinating things do you find yourself thinking about?

The Necessity Of Vision

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But in reality, there are hundreds of questions the director has to be able to answer. Many come as they are preparing for the shoot, but things happen, and there are always tradeoffs to be made while they’re on set.

A good director has a point of view on all these questions because she keeps the vision of the film front and center. She knows how every one of these decisions will affect the vision.

Like the director of a film, the CEO is the final arbiter in startup, especially at the early stages. In order to make the multitude of decisions, she needs to have a very clear vision of what she is trying to achieve. Every decision either takes her towards her vision (slightly or bigly) or away from it.

If the vision for what you want to become is muddled, it becomes very hard to make decisions. You always want optionality—to keep all options open, because you don’t know where you are headed.

That is impossible on a film set, because most films are shot in 30 days or less. It’s not impossible in a startup, because you can always defer the decision. But doing so will put the startup at risk of not executing or of muddled execution that leads to failure.

To keep your eyes on the prize, you need to know what the prize looks like and which direction you need to go to find the prize.

Director Ava DuVernay with Cinematographer Bradford Young

You also need to know the fundamental underlying tenets that will help you achieve your goal. For example, at eBay, one unbreakable tenet was always “level playing field”, meaning that every seller, whether a big company or your next-door neighbor, would be subject to the same rules. Another was that eBay would not touch the items, thus keeping it a purely person-to-person marketplace. When opportunities came up, it was easy to evaluate against these (and other core) tenets and determine if they kept us moving towards our vision.

This does not mean that you don’t react to changing circumstances or opportunities. Some of the best scenes or shots on a film set can be the ones where the director decides to improvise on set. She may see an opportunity in a location, in the weather, or in the actors’ mood and try something unscripted. But the reason she can do that is she knows what she wants to achieve and has prepared so well that she has a strong hunch that this improvisation will improve the film.

For a CEO with a big vision, unexpected changes can present an opportunity. With the vision front and center, and all the hard work to understand what moves you towards and away from that vision, you can think of ways to bend and adapt to strengthen the company. Otherwise, you stand the risk of losing what the company is and what it stands for.

Make your vision a touchstone that you come back to often. Make the time to come back to it, refresh it, and let it refresh and reenergize you.

Leading with Truth

To lead through 2020 has been, and will be, a challenge. Yes, 2001 and 2008 happened and were horrible, but this is more sudden, more all-encompassing, and there is the fear of dying.

So, on Friday, we hosted a session with Jerry Colonna and our portfolio CEOs. If you know Jerry, you know that this session was honest, open, and at times emotional. It prompted me to re-read a couple of chapters of his book, “Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up

Two practices for leading in times of uncertainty stood out.

The first is to be open with yourself. To stand still—to take a breath, stop doing, stop acting like it’s all great.

When we stand still, we run the risk of remembering who we are. When we stop the spinning, we run the risk of confronting the fears, the demons who have chased us all our lives. When we stop the bullshitting, the pretending that we’re crushing it, that we’ve got it all figured out, we run the risk of being overwhelmed by the realities of all that we carry—the burdens we’re convinced must remain secret to keep us and those we love safe, warm, and happy.

When clients answer the challenge to stand still, stop the spinning, and be with the truth of their existence, they take their seats as warrior CEOs—strong backs and open hearts.

No human being is flawless. At a time like this, let’s stop pretending that just because you have the title CEO, you should appear perfect. Lowering the perfection bar will let you lead with more credibility.

The second, is to be open with others about the situation and what you are dealing with:

When leaders, parents, lovers choose to share the reality of their heart, it gives everyone in their lives the chance to know them, to hold them—to trust each other.

Every employee in your company knows the reality of the world outside. And in all likelihood, they know the reality with the company more than you give them credit for. Why not tell the truth? If you have to do pay cuts, tell them why. If you have to do layoffs, cut deep, cut once, and tell them why. If you are at risk of not being able to raise during this time (very few will have it easy), tell them why.

Of course you don’t want to overshare or place your anxiety on your employees. But instead, tell them why you believe in your company and how you are planning to get the organization through this phase.

The call to lead well is a call to be brave and to say true things. To say to our colleagues, we’re scared, but we still believe.

This is not easy. To get to the other side, CEOs will have to lead through personal and professional uncertainty to give their companies the best chance. As Jerry says:

Remember who you are, what you believe about the world, and then, risks be damned, lead from that place of broken-open-hearted warriorship.

Being Wrong

Photo by Andrej Lišakov on Unsplash

At some point in 2002, while I was still relatively new to eBay, I found myself sitting in a room with the exec staff discussing something strategic. Many of the details of the meeting are now blurry, but one little event is still crystal clear in my mind. People were talking, discussing options with opinions flying around, and I said something. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember the reaction to it. 

One of the senior leaders—a lovely, but brutally honest and blunt man—said, “That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.”

There was a pause in the conversation. My heart stopped. And then the conversation continued, while I sat there, stunned. 

I felt in my bones that I must speak again, in this meeting, to get over that comment, to move on and retain the confidence that I can contribute.  I practically forced myself to speak again. Sort of like falling off a horse and getting back on. 

I can guarantee you that the only person who remembers that moment now, 18 years later, is me. It’s actually a moment I’ve thought about several times as one of the key learning moments in my life. 

The reality is that we will all be wrong sometimes, or at the very least, perceived to be wrong. It’s the price of speaking, the price of thinking, the price of writing. So what should we do? Never speak, think, or write unless we are certain we are right? That would erase your voice from the conversation. 

I wrote a post last week about Quibi, and I purposely made a bold statement about how innovative this new film platform is. The innovation is not just the short-form content (or chapters) that Quibi uses; it is creating an interaction between the form factor of the screen (the phone) with the content for the first time in cinema. 

Many (most?) people disagree. Some even wrote to me privately to tell me why I was wrong. I love the engagement. 

Am I sure that Quibi will succeed? Absolutely not. But I am glad they are trying something fresh, new, and innovative, and I certainly hope they will succeed because I love the bold approach. I’ve been watching chapters for the past two nights and it’s a slick user experience. 

As investors, we need to be both right and contrarian to make a return for our LPs. We will often be wrong, too, because the path to success for any company is filled with so many near-death experiences along a very winding road. But we can’t be afraid to make an investment.

Similarly, we can’t be afraid to talk or write. I will be right sometimes. I will be wrong sometimes. What matters to me is the thinking and the engagement. And I prefer to have a hopeful and optimistic view of the world, where I am rooting for success rather than failure. 

Speak up. Claim your seat at the table. So what if you are wrong sometimes? We are all wrong sometimes. Shake it off and move on. I promise you that you are the only one who will remember that moment (even days later). Ultimately, your voice matters. Don’t erase yourself.