EDS was the best darn company I ever worked for. Until it wasn’t.
It was 1998.
Ross Perot left the building, but his boys still ran the show. Which was good. Because they learned from Ross and knew how to do things.
Big, important things. Like lead the biggest jail break in history.
And other stuff like create an entire industry where none existed.
I led a team of people in a hot, new department that built websites on this new invention called the internet. We were a group of young, smart, and ambitious idiots.
And none of us knew how to convert a business to the web.
But neither did our clients. So like all good consultants, we pretended to be a page ahead of them in the textbook.
A textbook that hadn’t been written.
We had to write one. And fast.
Because this internet thing was proving to be more than just a fad. Companies were anxious. This was a new kind of old. The Wild West Web. And businesses clamored to claim their stake in the great www land grab.
Slurpees + Panty Hose
I conducted a meeting with all the do-ers on our side, all the do-ers on their side, plus all of the executive do-ers. We met in the conference room, over-looking the helipad, with powerfully important leather chairs and granite table tops.
The conference room over-looking the helipad signaled this was THAT kind of meeting. Like prom but for corporate people.
It was a meeting of the minds of two Fortune 100 companies. They brought their geniuses. We brought ours.
Our goal: To translate a century-old bricks and mortar name-you-would-totally-know convenience store to the web. It was ground-breaking. It was historical.
It was ridiculous.
I asked the important client muckity-muck to kick-off the meeting with a few words about their over-arching direction and vision.
He said, “The site needs to be cool, crazy, and sexy.” And with that, he packed up his belongings and walked out of the meeting. From the hall he shouted, “And it needs to sell Slurpees and panty hose.”
Back in My Day
In those days, basic components of a website – shopping carts, checkout, tax calculations, graphical user interface (GUI), navigation – didn’t exist. There was no website to go to where you could download a website in 2 minutes. No web-in-a-box to build upon.
Google had not even learned how to eat solid foods yet. It was only 2 months old.
We did things the old-fashioned way: A combination of fake-it-til-you-we-make-it, guessing, duct tape, bubble gum, and big boy pants.
The Edge Cuts Til You Bleed
Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing, and there is no manual to follow. No one’s done it before. You are on the cutting edge.
Heck, you define the edge.
How do you lead when you’re at the edge? More importantly, how do you become the best damn company to work for — from the edge?
Step 1: Admit you’re an idiot. Don’t lie about what you don’t know. Admitting weakness is not a weakness. Truth builds trust and shows you know yourself.
Step 2: Be prepared to look stupid. You are human. All humans, at some point, look stupid. No sense in pretending you are the one human who does not have the stupid gene.
Step 3: Know your strengths and weaknesses, conduct a SWOT, create a gap analysis, run a regression test, and all other things they teach you in B-school. File it in the circular file for later use.
Step 4: Get comfortable with discomfort. Ambiguity is your friend.
Step 5: Ask for help. From the customers. Not your client, but the customer. AKA the end user. They are the only people who know anything.
Step 5.5: Listen. To your gut. To the customer. To the competitors. To Sally in Accounting. Especially to Sally in Accounting because she hasn’t been part of the discussion. She has fresh ideas from outside the box.
Step 6: Brainstorm every possible solution. Promptly throw all those solutions in the trash. Brainstorm all other possible solutions. Dig out of the trash the first round of solutions. Implement the first idea. It was the best one.
Step 7: Convince everyone you have the solution, and you know everything. Broadcast to your competitors that you wrote the book and won the Nobel, Pulitzer, Heismann, and received a Purple Heart. Tell everyone that Famous Celebrity will play you in the movie. This builds your ego, which you need for Step 12.
Step 8: Practice saying, “It depends.” The consultant’s answer to everything.
Step 9: Feel the fear and do it anyway. Leading from the edge means that you are, well, on the edge. As in the edge of a cliff, which can be a scary place. Make friends with fear. Make decisions to do things no one has done before.
Step 10: Do not get comfortable.
Step 11: Find all analogies. While this particular thing has never been done before, humans have been around a long time. Something like it has been done before. Figure out the parts that are similar to some pre-existing thing and learn from that.
Step 12: Never doubt for one minute that you can do it. You absolutely can do it. You will find away. No one goes home until you do. Like that scene in Apollo 13 when the engineers have to determine how to remove the carbon dioxide from the Lunar Module using parts thrown on the table.
Step 13: Do not build the solution – or your business – based on Wall Street’s opinion of you, your business, your solution, your customer, or your end user. Because when you do, you won’t lead any great jailbreaks or create industries where none existed. You’ll die a slow death where your employees bleed every last ounce of creativity out the veins of Wall Street’s greed.