Not all CEO’s are Mushers, and not all Mushers are CEO’s

A close friend, Mark Stephan, endured a horrible cycling accident a number of years ago which left him a quadriplegic.

Mark’s wife, Margaret Ann, was told to expect the worse — she was told Mark would “likely be like (and end like) Christopher Reeves”.  Mark never saw his future that way.  And his grit, and willingness to subject himself to intense physical exertion, pain, and frequent disappointment was complemented by tremendously advanced medical care at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC).  Fast forward, and Mark now walks — albeit haltingly.  Further, he can pick up a wine glass and serve himself.  Mark is nothing short of a medical miracle.  But as important, Mark is a fascinating example of a great Musher.  Mark was vision-oriented from the very beginning of his rehabilitation.  He convinced others that his objectives could be met.  He pushed, and continues to push others — often knowledgeable medical experts — to believe that more could be achieved, and that he was the one, with their help, who could achieve it.

Many people in this situation would feel so helpless, and might blanch at the need to build and rely upon a team of family, friends, and medical institutions and professionals to realize an audacious vision of being able to walk again.  But Mark showed everyone the way, while demonstrating an unbelievable sense of caring for his team.  A great example of self-interested caretaking.  Mark’s a true Musher.

Now Mark is embarking upon yet another a personal  undertaking which most would say is audacious, let alone ambitious.  His intention is to ride a reclining tricycle 3,129 miles across the entire southern United States — from San Diego, CA to St Augustine, FL— over a three month period.  Riding along state routes, Mark and his entourage will get to reconnect with a portion of America which has largely become overlooked since the interstate system was put in place.  The ride, known as The Stephan Challenge , is not only for Mark to “prove he can do it,” but equally to raise money for the RIC.

After many months of careful, thoughtful planning, the ride’s begun!  I encourage you to visit the website and get a better sense of this remarkable man and of his incredible journey and cause.

If it sounds like I’m impressed with Mark, I am.  I am so impressed that I intend to join him for several days of his ride in late April and early May.  My portion of riding along with Mark will end in beautiful El Paso, Texas.  Then I’ll fly home.  But Mark will still have approximately 1,657 miles left to complete The Challenge.

However, with an inspirational Musher like Mark, he will always have a new team of fresh dogs to keep him company.

Posted in Leadership, Organization, Self-Interested Caretaking, Uncategorized, Vision | 2 Comments

The Musher Co-Authors Again

All, I’m a bit behind on my blogging, what with all this unseasonably warm weather in the north.  My next blog will be provocative, I assure you!

I’m pleased to announce the release of my second co-authored book, this time with an old friend and Acorn colleague, Terry Walsh.  The book is titled 99 Questions to Achieving Your Sales Goals: How to Manage Successful Sales Teams Just by Asking (and Answering) the Right Questions and may be purchased on



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Knowing the Dogs from the Sled – A Cautionary Tale for CEO Recruiting

A recent article in Forbes “The Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives”, provides a great example of the danger of narcissism in the corner office.  Virtually all the examples provided damned the CEO in terms of his or her focus upon herself, or on their purported market or industry expertise.  As a consequence, CEOs will inevitably damn the company to a direction which perhaps once worked for the CEO, but isn’t likely to work again.   This should be a cautionary lesson for Board members who may be contemplating an opportunity to fill a CEO or other senior leadership role within their organization.

Why?  Because the narcissistic CEO is not open to the inputs and knowledge of his/her organization.   The figure below shows in the left column the original observations made by Sydney Finklestein, (the Steven Roth Professor of Management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, whose book “Why Smart Executives Fail” is the article’s point of reference), and in the right column, complements to these failures as provided by article author Eric Jackson of Forbes:

In Musher parlance, these would be examples of the Musher focused upon themselves or the sled, but not the dogs and the team.

Over the past several years, perhaps the majority of the past decade, I have observed the executive recruiting industry, and Boards they serve, consistently falling into a trap.  Further, I think it begins to explain why CEO tenures are becoming briefer and briefer.  When an executive opportunity opens up in a consumer packaged goods company, the marquee recruiters in the CPG industry are called and counseled.  Rolodexes are spun, and the usual candidates from the same, or nearly the same, industry are contacted and recycled.

To follow the Musher metaphor, this all involves undue concern with the sled:  the sled being the business, and its context — who knows whom, who is known to whom, who can make a phone call in the middle of the night about a merger and it gets answered.

But Boards don’t seem to be saying, “what are our challenges, and how can our people — with their knowledge, passion for the industry, and commitment to the company — be properly led to overcome them?”.  This alternative view would provide a focus on a Musher who understands the dogs.  Sleds do not move of their own accord.  Mushers cannot move sleds (at least not far!).  Only dogs, teams of dogs, can move the sled. A Musher that understands, who is committed to understanding dogs, and who is committed to unleashing their power, can move a sled optimally.  So why isn’t there more focus on the managerial and leadership ability of executives in their recruitment?

During the recession (I use an historical tone, as I’m declaring the beginning of the thaw), “best athletes” or “people executives” were often passed over as candidates in favor of executives who had “deep industry expertise”.  Statistics show that these recycled executives have under-produced, both in terms of competitiveness and results, and this is reflected in their abbreviated tenures.

If you are Board member who witnesses some of the shortcomings listed above, ask yourself if your CEO is really capable of leading from the rear, of performing the hard work of motivating an organization to change and transform to become more competitive.  If you are a Board member contemplating an opportunity to fill a CEO role, I encourage you to look for candidates who know how to properly organize, manage, lead, and inspire a workforce.  You should be developing nuanced criteria to better glean candidates’ abilities along these lines.  Worry less about how many years they were at XYZ Corporation, or how well they are known in your industry.

Find Mushers who know and love dogs.

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The Musher Publishes

Fellow Mushers, I’m proud to announce the publication and sale of my first book, 99 Questions to Maximize the Sale of Your Business, available at both in paperback and on Kindle.

Getting published was more work than I thought, so I’m a bit behind on my blogging.  I will be posting a new entry within the next several days on the problem of selecting a Musher based upon his/her knowledge of sleds, versus dogs.

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Management and Alignment

Since my last post, in addition to my client work, I’ve been principally focused on co-authoring two books to be published and available for sale on in December:  

In today’s blog I would like to discuss measurement and alignment, and close with some thoughts about the body of my blog postings in 2011.

There is a difference between leading and managing.  Musher Management™ espouses that “leading from the back of the sled” is the optimal behavioral strategy for a business leader.  But how does the Musher metaphor inform us about managerial excellence?

I have said in a previous post that “if it’s not measured, it’s not managed”.  You must know what you need to measure, and communicate why those measurements are critical both to you and your team’s success. But it is the alignment you derive from these measurements that is essential to managerial excellence.

When you get right down to it, the dog sledding rig is a pretty imprecise instrument of transport. Compared to an automobile or another type of mechanized transport, the dog sled and team are largely one big mess!  The sled sits on runners, which are designed more to handle the snow and ice-packed terrain than they are to provide a straight line of operation.  Further, the harnesses for the dogs are tight enough for power transfer, but loose enough not to impair the performance of the dogs.  The spacing rigging, which separates the dogs and defines their team position, provides considerable freedom among the dogs, allowing them to individually achieve traction and power while also transferring energy to the sled in a fairly uniform, team-like fashion.  Yet, even with all this “mess,” the dog sled has a history of moving lives and payloads across great, inhospitable distances with a fairly high rate of success.

Because of this “mess,” measurement is important, and alignment — and realignment — are critical.  Rigging gets tangled.  Sleds inevitably veer off course.  Like the dog sledding team, people and organizations are likewise imprecise.  Our enterprises are attempting to move forward, in some sort of synchronized way, but confusion and chaos are inevitable.  As Mushers, knowing how often, and how much to adjust course, or when to outright stop the sled and re-work the harnesses or rigging, takes considerable skill.  The team looks to you to provide this alignment.

Do you know what you need to manage to run your race?   As important, do you know what you need to measure to understand how well you are running the race? Finally, are you paying close enough attention to make the necessary (re)alignments in a timely fashion?


A friend recently asked me to provide a reflection on my 2011’s postings.  He called it the Musher Management™ “crib sheet,” so here goes:

  • Plan your course, and stick to it; however, course correct often.  Use the wisdom of the team to know when and how much to deviate.
  • Don’t take risks without understanding the depth of the downside, but do learn from mistakes and disappointments.
  • Communicate clearly and execute with intention.
  • Confer credit and distribute praise generously.
  • Celebrate victories widely.

As we move into 2012, and the recession hopefully begins to recede, we must be focused on profitable, sustainable growth.  Growth means movement, with new complexities and challenges.  Mushers must tend to their teams more than ever to ensure results.  Inspired leadership, clarity of vision, and fearlessness will be the keys to the recovery — extending out from within our individual households, to our marketplaces, to our government, to society itself.

Good luck to all.  Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and the Best to you and your loved ones in the New Year!


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Was Steve Jobs a Musher?

Dear Reader — Happy Fall (if you are living in North America)!  As a Chicagoan, you learn to make the most of the limited summer we enjoy, so I have been somewhat remiss in keeping my blog posts fresh and contemporary.  I had originally intended to blog about Steve Jobs’s resignation as Apple’s CEO, only to let time lapse, and now Jobs has passed away.  I am saddened that someone who has had such a big impact on my life, even without my knowing him, is gone.

A colleague turned me on to an article about Jobs wherein the author praised Jobs for his zero tolerance for obstructions.  Jobs envisioned certain futures for the industry, certain ambitions for Apple, certain functionality for Apple’s hardware and software, which were crystal clear to him.  His persistence in making manifest his vision certainly leads one to believe he was a Musher — the firm presence at the rear of the sled which lends courage and conviction to the team as it pulls the sled.  But other qualities in Jobs call into question if he was a true Musher.

The trend in the first twenty-four hours after Jobs’ death was to nearly cannonize him for this obsession and persistence — basically for his outcomes.

However, within just a few days, a few writers attempted to take a more objective view of Jobs’ successes through the lens of his managerial style, in other words, his means.  In a recent posting by Ryan Tate on Gawker  Tate expounds in some detail on Jobs’ sometimes nefarious “crispness” as a manager — sometimes berating, cajoling, and humiliating managers to achieve results.  While I have gone to great lengths in my own career to avoid these behaviors, I do know that they exist outside Apple, and they are most often displayed in entrepreneurial, or cult-of-personality led companies where such behaviors are simply understood and/or tolerated with the explanation that they are “part of the culture.”  Interestingly enough, however, I have not found that the behavior to be repeated throughout the company simply because the CEO engages in that behavior.

The object lesson in Jobs’ managerial style may be in the break-down between the vision of the Musher — where we are going, or must go — and the explanation of that need to the team.  Jobs did a great job communicating his vision to you and me, through his stage presence and through the products themselves.  But we all benefited from an historical perspective and clarity, as if the journey were already completed and the race already won.  The Musher on the other hand needs to communicate that same clarity of vision and of the future along the way, as the path is being both traversed and created at the same time.  Telling people “they don’t get it” is not managing.  Explaining in appropriate detail where you want to go, why you want to go there, and how you intend to go is the surest way to create alignment, and extract high-performance from the team.

Apple is a massive enterprise, many times larger and more complex than anything I’ve ever run, so I am going to heap my praise on the management organization, which worked diligently to operationalize Jobs’ vision.  There is no question that Jobs was a visionary, in so many ways; yet, I do not think he was a student of or innovator in matters of management.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Steve thought “management” largely gets in the way of great results.  Hence, I am going out on a limb to say I do not think he was a true Musher.  Brave, bold, charismatic? Yes.  Someone who expected the most of himself, and of others? Yes.  But not a Musher.

Your take?

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People are not Dogs, nor are they Cogs

Recently a colleague turned my attention to a blog post in the Harvard Business Review blogging area, written by Nilofer Merchant.  The title of the blog post was “People are Not Cogs” (  In the blog, Nilofer discussed the resistance she had encountered from senior executives among the Fortune 500 that her philosophy and writing about business matters was too “people-y oriented,” that is, her philosophy that businesses are structured by, operated by, and exist for people de-leverages the importance of management measurements and operating principles which inherently are ratio-based (revenues per employee, cost per FTE, etc.).  The CEOs further argued that, while the intention of ratio-based thinking is not to dehumanize business, ratio-based thinking is an important tool in the C-suite executive’s portfolio of management practices.

Nilofer’s blog benefited from numerous comments and insights from readers which really demonstrated the complexity and multi-layered dimension to this challenge.  More important to my blog and its message, it got me thinking about my own consulting challenges and made me wonder about that “magical pivot” when business move from the challenge of being too people oriented (I will explain) and the other end of the spectrum, thinking of people as cogs.

In my line of work with Acorn Growth Partners, most of my clients are $100MM in sales, or smaller.  They tend to be Board or CEO owned – closely held— and many if not most of the senior executives have risen over time from front-line positions to senior management within these companies.  As the leadership of these companies deliberate on matters of growth, they consistently tend to think of “people” well in advance of “function”.  That is, they deliberate on “what to do about Susie” or “whether Bob would be a good fit for position xyz”.  My counsel to these executives is consistently to “think ‘box’ first, ‘person’ second”.  By “box” I mean an artifact on a hierarchical organization chart.  By “box” I mean, how do you describe the role, responsibilities, and span of control of the position?  Once you’ve defined the role, then you can begin to think about the type of person – by skills, experience, expertise, and proclivity – who will be effective in that “box”.

This sort of counsel inevitably meets with initial resistance from my clients.  Their first-blush reaction is that it is an impersonal approach to managing, but my response is that the exercise is more about defining the role in terms of what it is intended to do as opposed to who is doing it.  Once the what is defined, then we pursue the who.  This is sort thinking, one adopted, benefits executives greatly in terms of how they think about the growth of headcount in terms of the needs of the growing business.  Ironically, leaders of my clients have tended to conceive a role – and its attendant responsibilities and spans of control – in terms of the person historically occupying the role, as opposed to the other way around.  As such, real limitations, in terms of capacity and competency, develop and accrue across the management organization, and the organization inevitably lacks the capability to examine the business critically, or to execute valuable new, potentially complex initiatives.

In the world of dog-sledding, teams are managed as one musher leading (from the rear) a team of eight dogs.  In some instances, the team might be as large as 12 dogs.  But the main essence of the structure is line of sight, quality of communication between the Musher and the team, and complexity management in terms of the number of dogs and the size of the sled and payload.  As I’ve discussed in previous blogs, the Musher has a very personal relationship with each dog — its capabilities, qualities, and its position on the harness – and the quality of that relationship has a distinct impact on the abilities of the team.  So the question is, how does a large company maintain the quality of these type interactions and oversight while also employing appropriate managerial controls of the enterprise?

The US military seems to get this balance right. It takes great pains to deploy managerial constructs which both empower soldiers, but also maintain strict adherence to policy and process.  Further, the military attempts to use management structures which allow for important communications to be easily generated and quickly disseminated to enhance the viability of the effort.  We know that the Army breaks down its smallest units into fire teams – typically four to six soldiers.  These fire teams roll up into squads and platoons of 25-50ish soldiers, which roll up into increasingly larger command structures which often contain hundreds of thousands of soldiers and officers – much like a very large business enterprise.   The point is, while the Army clearly thinks of its own management in terms of hundreds of thousands, it rarely if ever loses sight of the individual soldier or the command structure which makes the solider optimally safe and optimally effective.  While soldiers often refer to themselves as grunts or leathernecks, etc., they rarely think of themselves as cogs, nor are they conceived as cogs by the command officers.

So, to revert to the earlier premise of Ms. Merchant – there is an observable breakdown in corporations which have reached a certain size and complexity, or which have developed an unhealthy mentality about the separation of the people of the business from the business entity itself.  At this juncture, the management culture may well begin to conceive its people as “cogs”.

My question is, “when do companies move from ‘people’ to ‘cogs’ in their self-conception and management?”  I think this is a fascinating phenomenon and probable object lesson for students of management.  As an executive who has worked in very small  entrepreneurial companies, very large institutional companies, and companies owned by mid-market and large private equity companies, I have seen the “people” centric point of view, and the “cog” centric point of view.  Both are limiting and inherently dangerous managerial practices.  My belief is that executives must simultaneously think of the capacity of the organization in total, while also remaining keenly sensitive to how work gets done, and especially how innovation is cultivated.  A balance must be achieved.

But what is the balance between “people-y” and “cog” based approaches to management?   And how do you know if and when you’ve achieved it?  Let me know your thoughts.  I will address this in my next blog post.

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