Five days in Saudi Arabia

On Thursday evening I was sat at a low table with Maureen.  “It is nice to be able to speak to people”. She clarified “At most events the majority would have had several beers by now”. “We can have a real conversation and I like that.”

I knew that Saudi Arabia was alcohol free, but it was a different thing to know and then to live it and see so many of my own cultural moments where alcohol has become part and parcel of the experience – relaxing after the last meeting with a beer, wine with food, a beer as we watch the sun go down.  Diageo, Budweiser, Heineken have done a powerful job in rooting alcohol at the core of my ideas of enjoying special moments.

I woke my first morning to the call for prayers from a mosque that was six floors down outside my bedroom window.  Saudi Arabia is the Muslim country – protector of the two shrines – Mecca is the centre of the universe for one billion– they know its location each time they kneel down to pray.  Abraham built the shrine at Mecca – the Abraham of my bible, the Abraham who was asked to sacrifice his son.  There is a security cordon 30km around the city of Mecca and only Muslims can enter. I only saw photos, and heard stories.

That Thursday night a man spoke to us in steady and clear English. He was dressed in a white thobe, a long dress shirt and a traditional desert head scarf with the black two ring snake-like bands that hold the scarf in place. This man’s thobe was not the simple sheet for everyday wear; I suppose he was in thobe formal. We were outside in the desert hills an hour from the beach at Jeddah. A friend was hosting the group at his horse and camel ranch.

The man spoke of Hajj. The fifth pillar of a Muslim’s life. The completion. Three million people a year come to spend a week following the steps of Mohammed.  More would come, but Mecca, a town of three hundred thousand squeezed in between mountains cannot handle more in a safe way.

The man is a descendant of a family from Mecca that for generations has been in the vocation of serving pilgrims. There are five associations – each tasked with serving pilgrims from a different geographical region. Those that serve speak the languages of their pilgrims and take care of those on the Hajj during their time in Saudi Arabia. The three million want to be in Mecca on a specific 8 days in the Hajj month.

The man described the rituals of Hajj. “A person must be spiritually, financially and physically ready to do Hajj – it is not compulsory”.  After Hajj, one is “cleansed”. This means that many leave Hajj to the last possible moment, sometimes too late.

Part of the tradition of Hajj is a visit to the central shrine. The man spoke of his habit, a habit widely shared by those who serve pilgrims, of looking not at the shrine, but at the faces of the pilgrims. He talked of an incredible moment where he knew immediately who were the first-timers. As they catch their first full image of the massive black cloth covered temple there is a paralysis, no more than 30 seconds, a whole life running by in front of your eyes in deep connection with something thought about for their entire lives.

This is a country that is a generation and a half away from an existence as tribal nomadic tent people. Oil wealth has transformed the buildings in which they live, but the culture and rules that kept peace amongst proud tribes of the desert remain. These are strict rules.

Ziad spoke to a small group on the first evening. He spoke of his life in Saudi and in the west. He spoke of a time when he was walking through a public shopping area holding the hand of his wife whose head was not covered.  An old man came up to them with bright eyes and a charming smile. He said “this woman is a flower. Not all men are so lucky. Think of the others, you will make them jealous.” The religious police can be poetic.

Doctor Ghazi spoke to us of real connection between people. He spoke of the traditions of the merchant traders on the old trade routes. In his grandfather’s tented village there existed a place called the medulus, a place where all would share their meals at the end of the day and share stories; a place which allowed a deeper connection because people shared food and stories of their lives, their homes, their travels. He spoke of it not being enough for governments to speak to governments – our world needs connection between people and people.  He spoke of the superficial nature of a tourist visit, and the deeper connection that happen when Saudi doctors sit with English doctors, when Saudi dentists sit with German dentists, when teachers sit with teachers and in our case when entrepreneurs spend four days together and share common desires, frustrations and challenges.

Maureen told me that she was scared to come to Saudi Arabia, was scared that she would break some rule unknowingly.  When I first reached the hotel and two fully covered women entered an elevator I paused before entering thinking “is this ok to share an elevator with women?”  I had a great few days and got to know interesting, thoughtful women and men from this country of oil, Islam and desert.

Tiger, Mozart and the Pogar sisters. How you too can become excellent. (World class even)

Take a look around you.

Take a look at the people you work with, the people you meet at parties, even the people you just casually pass in the street.

How do they spend their days?

Most of them work.  They do some other activities as well. They sleep, eat, cook, hang out with friends, watch TV, play sport and some might play an instrument.  Nothing, however, comes close to the hours that they dedicate to work.

Now, ask yourself, honestly, how well do they do it?  Well enough to not be sacked?  Maybe well enough to get a promotion now and then?  But are any of them awesomely great at what they do?  Truly world class?  Excellent?

Why?  How can they spend so much time at it, going through school, through university, maybe even an MBA, some executive seminars, coaching, mentors, high-flyer programs…  but they are not great at what they do.


Some people have been working for a long time.  They have been going at it for 20, 30 even 40 years.  After all these thousands of hours most people are just plain ok at what they do.

This is sad.

I am currently reading “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin.  This is a well referenced book on what does in fact lead to great performance.

“Being good at what we want to do – playing the violin, running a race, painting a picture, leading a group of people – is among the deepest sources of fulfillment we will ever know. ” Geoff Colvin.

So, what does lead to great performance?  What is the secret that Tiger Woods, Mozart, Jack Welsh, Steve Jobs have found?

First, let me tell you what it is not due to:

  1. Experience (alone)
  2. Innate abilities
  3. High general intelligence, powerful memory or other “general” cognitive ability.

Let me now tell you what 30 years of scientific research say it is due to:

Deliberate Practice.

What is deliberate practice? “For starters, it isn’t what most of us do when we’re practicing” Geoff Colvin.  The key piece of scientific literature on this subject is “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance” by Anders Ericsson.

There are five things that characterize Deliberate Practice:

  1. It is designed specifically to improve performance
  2. It can be repeated a lot
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available
  4. It is highly demanding mentally
  5. It is not fun

A note on Tiger, Mozart and the Polgar sisters (top 3 female chess players):  It was due to something they were born with:  Their fathers.  Earl Woods was a golf fanatic and an expert in the process of teaching. Leopold Mozart published the leading book on violin instruction in the year his son was born. Lazlo Polgar wrote “Bring up Genius” before marrying and deliberately putting into practice his theories with his three daughters.

I finish with a sentence for my friend Piero in response to a profound statement that he managed to use in normal conversation “the zero point field that sustains the energy of the universe”.  In the words of a group of scientists investigating talent: “Whatever it is that an IQ test measures, it is not the ability to engage in cognitively complex forms of multivariate reasoning”.

They are saying of course, that high IQ doesn’t help you succeed in the real world.  If you are interested I will write more on the three models of deliberate practice: The musician model, the chess model and the sports model.  Only if you are interested…

How we fool ourselves brilliantly and how Dwight D. Eisenhower became President

Most days are much the same. However, great changes in our world don’t come from normal days – they are driven by the extreme events, the outliers.  Something like 70% of all the drops in the US stock exchanges are due to 6 particular days of extreme share price drops. The course of my own life has not been a steady journey along a clearly defined route…  4 or 5 key days, 3 or 4 chance meetings – this is what has shaped the most important contents of my life so far and the trajectory for the future.  This blog post has been inspired by my reading of Nassim Taleb’s book “The Black Swan: The impact of the Highly Improbable“.

I read the biography of Eisenhower in 2002 when I was studying for my MBA.  Dwight D. Eisenhower was the lowest ranked of his whole West Point class at the age of 42.  He had been passed over for promotion to Colonel twice and was now based on the island of Guam, in the middle of nowhere, and he did not get along with his boss.  Acording to his son, he was trying on pairs of jeans and getting used to the idea of civilian life. 

On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese navy bombed the US Pacific Fleet based in Pearl Harbour, definitively bringing the US into the second world war. General George C Marshall coordinated the US response to the Japanese attack.  I recall reading that over the next 3 days, Marshall invited many generals, strategists, politicians so that he could brief them and then ask “how do you recomend we respond?” 

One of Marshall’s administrative staff had been on a West Point course on military strategy led by Eisenhower. In a total cooincidence, Eisenhower was passing through Hawaii on his way to the US.  The guy on the administrative staff told Marshall that a certain general had not shown up for his appointment – and suggested that Marshall spend some time with Eisenhower instead. Marshall said ok and Eisenhower was shown in.  Marshall briefed Eisenhower on the Japanese bombing and asked “how do you recomend we respond?”.  Eisenhower’s response was “give me these 4 guys and 24 hours and I will give you my answer.” 

The next day Eisenhower described to Marshall his plan, covering logistical response, political response, military response, communications response…  and Marshall said “Good.  Now do it.”  Eisenhower was promoted on the spot and given command.  This moment led to his appointment as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. His plans and execution allowed the allies to win the war. In 1953, he was elected President of the United States and won a second term in 1956.

If Eisenhower had not been passing through the island of Hawaii on 8th December 1941, how would his life have turned out?  Who would have been the 34th President of the United States?  What would Dwight D. Eisenhower have accomplished in civilian life?  A factory supervisor?  Maybe a middle manager at GE?  Or is destiny so powerful that he would have found a route to Presidency through another path?  (I seriously doubt it).

According to Taleb in “The Black Swan”, the human mind suffers from three ailments when it comes to looking back and understanding history, or even the events that shape our own personal history:

  1. The illusion of understanding:  Plato, Newton, many scientists have discovered simple rules that predict the way the universe works.  I have a preference for simple formulae that predict behaviour. I love to generalise from my experience. The world is more complicated (or random) than the simple models we would like to use. Nando Parrado talks about the biggest decision in his life being the choice of seat 9B on an airplane 36 years ago (see my previous post on Nando Parrado here).
  2. The distortion of hindsight: we underplay luck in our analysis of the past.  We seek hindsight validation of why Google is number 1, why Starbucks has 14,000 stores and another Seattle coffee shop is still just that, why one person becomes rich whilst another becomes poor – and we latch on to the simple models that we then try to generalise and apply. Each case of success is due to a massive quantity of luck (well discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”), combined with some decent input ingredients (that are well worthy of study and copy).
  3. The overvaluation of authoritive people: they know lots about the past… but the future is not going to be just like the past – yet we shut down our brains and listen blindly when “the expert” walks into the room. They are the type of people who would say that there is no such thing as a purple cow. You will not see what you are not looking for, especially if you do not believe that it could exist. (watch this 60 sec video first – and tell me how many passes of the basketball are completed by the white team).

So, if prediction of the future is impossible, should we close down business schools, history courses, cancel company strategy planning sessions? 

I would say “no way”. 

I love a quote of Winston Churchill on planning: “The plan isn’t worth the paper it is written on; however, the process of planning is priceless”.  We don’t have plans because they necessarily turn out just so – we have plans so that a team of people have shared goals, ideas and passions.  They may exceed their plan or fail miserably in following their plan – but the fact that they work together as a team is important.  The chances of success without a goal is very low. The chances of success with a goal and a bit of luck are greater.

My other conclusion is that the worst thing that business schools can create are “experts”.  If a professor runs a class as if they and they alone have the answer then we are failing. If an MBA comes out feeling that he or she is an “expert” then we have failed.  If they come out with integrity, ideas, the ability to inspire, motivate and work well with other people, perserverance…  then we have succeeded.

My final question… how do I get more luck?  Happy Christmas and I wish you all a healthy, happy and fun 2010.

Why worry? It should all come together in the end shouldn’t it?

I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres when I was 23 years old.  It changed an idea I had about life. This scared me.

My Summary of the Book’s Story

The book tells the story of an lieutenant that is stationed on a Greek Island as part of the Italian occupation during the second world war.  He gets to know the locals and falls in love with the daughter of a villager.  They enjoy happy times together.

The Allied forces take back control of Greece, and the Italian army beats a hasty retreat.  Our lieutenant has to depart but he and the Greek girl promise that he will return after the war.

Three years later, the war ends, peace arrives and our lieutenant, after years in camps and on the run, finally can make his way back to the Greek island.  He travels to Greece, catches the ferry to island and walks towards the village.

He reaches the village in the late afternoon and is walking up the final stretch of hill up towards the centre of the village.  He sees a woman in the square, his Greek girl.  She is holding a baby in her arms.

The lieutenant turns and walks away, never returning.

He travels the world.  Each Christmas the girl receives a postcard from some spot in the world – always anonymous and with no return address.

After many, many years, the man decides that he cannot live without seeing the girl at least one more time.  He is now in his 60s.  He makes his way to Greece, catches the ferry and repeats his journey of 35 years before.  He walks to the village.

He is walking up the hill towards the square and meets a young local boy.  He asks “does Pelagia still live here?”. The boy says “I don’t know any Pelagia”.  The man reflects and thinks.  “She will be old now, 60.  She was the daughter of Iannis”. The boy responds “that bitter old woman?  She lives slightly outside the village” and indicates the house.

Our lieutenant gets to the door and knocks.  When the door opens, the girl who is now an old woman stands for a few seconds in shock and then hits him with all of her force and slams the door shut.  He knocks and knocks and finally she opens. “Why did you do this to me?  Why did you abandon me?”.  “I saw you with a baby, I thought you had a baby, thought you had married, had found someone else…  I didn’t want to stir up…”  “Why?  Why didn’t you ask?  It was my sister’s baby.  I was babysitting”.

I can Screw it All Up in One Moment of Stupid Assumption

Before I read this book I had the idea that life was like a 10 pin bowling alley when it is set up for a kid’s party.  They put foam into the gutters so that all of the balls will reach the end and take down at least a pin or two.  After reading the story, I realised that life does not have this foam protection.  Life has big gutters, and it is quite possible to put my life into the gutter and not hit a single pin.

Life with Intention

Steven Covey says “Begin with the End in Mind”. Alfred Nobel had a unique view of his obituary while alive.  He was one of three brothers.  When Alfred was 55, one of his brothers died.  A french newspaper confused the brothers and the next day’s edition came out with an obituary of Alfred.  He had the unique opportunity of reading his own obituary and he really did not like it.  He was the inventor and mass producer of dynamite.  Reading his obituary (the creator of death and destruction) was the inspiration to change his life and leave a different legacy.  Today we have the Nobel peace prize – because Alfred was so gutted to see that his legacy was going to be death and destruction that he spent the rest of his life creating the greatest current symbol of peace.

The 90 10 rule. How John messed up a perfectly good day.

I have a monthly tradition of meeting for a 9:30am brioche and coffee in the best brioche place in Barcelona (cannot reveal the secret location) with my french-hungarian friend and entrepreneur Andre Vanyi-Robin (of Bestv and Entrepreneurs’Organisation).  We met yesterday.  The brioche was good.

Andre told me a great story about the 90 10 rule.  Neither of us know the actual source of this rule, but it comes with a great story.  Anybody who can point us to the source will be greatly appreciated.

The 90 10 Rule
10% of life are things that happen to us.  We have no control over these events.  90% of our life depends on how we react to the things that happen to us.  We can have total control over our choice of reaction to the things that happen to us.

Imagine this situation: Breakfast time at home and John and Suzie and their daughter Sally are sitting at the table. Sally turns quickly and knocks the coffee all over her father John’s shirt.

Scenario 1)

John curses and says “how could you be so clumsy! Now I am going to have to change this shirt.” He then turns to his wife and says “how could you have left the coffee so close to the edge of the table!”.  He storms upstairs to change his shirt leaving behind a daughter in tears and an angry wife.

He is now leaving home 5 minutes later and the traffic is terrible.  Sally is in the back of the car and totally ignoring him.  He drops her to school where she is now late and pissed off.  He reaches work angry and his boss says “lets review that important document we need to deliver today”…  John has left it at home in the rush.  He had left it out on the table to do a final review first thing in the morning, but the chaos at home meant that he rushed out without picking it up. His boss is frustrated because this is an important opportunity and John has to return home to pick up the document.

That night the house is a tense angry situation with nobody talking to each other…

Why did John, Suzy and Sally have a bad day?

1) because of the spilt coffee?
2) because of Sally spilling the coffee?
3) because of the traffic?
4) because of his boss and the important meeting?
5) because of John’s reaction to the spilt coffee?

Scenario 2)

Sally spills the coffee and looks shocked and concerned.  John looks at his shirt, pauses, and looks at his daughter “Oh no I will have to change this shirt.  Don’t worry, I have another one upstairs.  You need to be a little bit more careful, but its only a shirt”.  John hugs Sally and goes and changes his shirt.  John comes downstairs to find his wife is going to take their daughter to school and he has 10 minutes to review his document. He makes a couple of good notes and gets in his car.  There is traffic, but he is focussed on the way he will present the document to his boss and practices the presentation out loud in the car.  He arrives at work, enters bosses office, delivers a well thought through presentation.  That night he reaches the house and everybody is sitting at dinner sharing their day.

Two different scenarios began the same but ended very different.  They ended different not because of 1) or 2) or 3) or 4)…  but 5) how John chose to react to something that happened to him.

10% of life is stuff that happens to you.  90% depends on your choice of reaction to what has happened to you.

P.S. For those readers in Barcelona, we have a fantastic event on Friday 6th November at 15:30 – Nando Parrado will be sharing his story of survival in the Andes 36 years ago after his rugby team’s charter aircraft crashed in the high Andes.  I wrote about my reflections on his story 3 weeks ago in my blog here. Information on the event is available on the IESE website.

Starfish, Spiders, Cows, Geronimo the Apache and Entrepreneurial Start ups

I Heard Rod Beckstrom speak in Dubai a couple of years ago. He tells a great story about a starfish and a spider.

If you come accross a spider and cut off one of its legs, what do you have? A dead leg and a 7-legged spider. If you cut off the spider’s head, what do you have? A dead spider.

If you come across a starfish and cut off one of its legs, what do you have? Two starfish. If you cut off the starfish’s head, what do you have? Five starfish. Each part of a starfish has the capacity to re-grow the rest.

What does a starfish and a spider have to do with Geronimo and Al Qaeda?

500 years ago, in the 1500s, the Spanish conquistadores reached Latin America. The Spanish at that time had the most centrally controlled feudal kingdom in history. When they reached the Incas – what did they do? They said “take me to your leader”, shot and killed the emperor and said “I am your new emperor”. Incas conquered in less than 5 years. Aztecs in less than 5. Mayans in less than 5. The Spanish had placed themselves as the supreme leaders of century old empires in less than a decade. They just replaced one centrally controlled power structure with another.

Some years later, the Spanish conquistadores reached Baja California and came across the Apache tribe. They said “take me to your leader” – but the Apache had no leader. The Apache warriors were allowed to follow whoever they wanted whenever they wanted. If another tribe’s leader seemed like a better person to follow, an Apache warrior just picked up his stuff and followed the new tribe… or set up his own tribe. The Spanish heard about a warrior called Geronimo who had many followers. They chased him and chased him and eventually captured Geronimo. The warriors just split into groups with new leaders. Each time the Spanish captured a new “supreme leader” they found that there were 20 new warriors that became leaders of warriors across the Apache nation. 200 years went by and the Apache were still unconquered.

The Apache are comparable to the internet, to entrepreneurial start-ups, to Al Qaeda. Big company management and at least the previous US President have a tendency to “target the leader” – thinking that if we squash the leader, the rest of the organisation will just disappear.

A starfish is a metaphor for an empowered, decentralised organisation and spider is a metaphor for a centrally controlled, disempowered organisation. Is your company like a starfish or is it like a spider? Are you competing with starfish or spiders?

The Apache did eventually get “conquered” – but by a well intentioned act of the nascent United States. In order to be good to the original peoples, the US government gave a gift of a cow to every Native Indian. In order to administer the delivery of millions of cows, there needed to be some Apache who controlled the delivery of cows – this immediately established a formal power structure and political system in the Apache nation. The gift of a cow converted every Apache from a nomadic traveller into people who needed to settle down with their cows. It was an act of contrition and intentional kindness that led to the Apache nation becoming politically dependant on the US government.

What is the equivalent of a cow to an Al Qaeda member? What is the equivalent of a cow to a group of entrepreneurial start-ups? Are there some areas where the more we push, the more resistance we encounter – and then when we stop pushing we find that we get what we always wanted?

The role of luck in success

As a business owner, you tend to hear a lot of stories about better business, tips and tricks of the trade, and lessons about management. Out of all of them, though, there’s one story that has stuck with me through the years. It’s a story that taught me to enjoy every aspect of business, and that every day brings new opportunities to learn and excel. Here is the story:

Two men, Bill and Frank, begin working at a hotel the same day. They are both intelligent, educated and with aspirations. The manager of the hotel greets them both and hands them both doormen outfits. They are to begin working on the door of the hotel opening and closing the doors, helping with bags, flagging taxis, etc.

Bill thinks “Doorman? I am worth more than this! I could manage this hotel better than the current guy.” He doesn’t have an alternative offer and he needs the money, so he does the job anyway. He maintains a pained grimace on his face, and deals with customers and other staff in a negative way because he is “better than this.”

Frank, in contrast, thinks “Okay, doorman. It’s not what I had in mind, but hey, I get to spend some time outside, get to meet the customers, and I’ll learn about how this hotel works.” He sets to work with a smile on his face and finds that he quite enjoys the varying small challenges that he faces as a doorman at such a prestigious hotel.

After six weeks, a position at the front desk opens up, and the hotel manager immediately thinks of Frank. Frank is promoted and immediately brings his positive attitude to the front desk of the hotel. Several years later, Frank is the hotel manager. He leaves late one evening and there, opening the door with a hard-wired grimace, is Bill.

Is it luck, or is it fate? Bill will spend forever in a job that he hates and Frank will love every job that he is given. This story is such an inspiration, because it encourages me to always stay positive about my responsibilities and to find the reward in every remedial task. When hiring staff I spend more time exploring attitude and self motivation than I do exploring capabilities. I spend time looking to direct my employees towards challenges that are motivating for them. When it comes to running a business, I’ve learned it’s not just about the results, but the work you put in. That’s where successful people thrive.

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