New Leaders Should Follow the STARS

Starry Night

This is an older HBR article by Michael D. Watkins, but it does not seem dated. When a leader is hired to replace someone at the Director level or above, Watkins asks the new leader to do a short analysis and adjust their strategy up front.

From the article:

“STARS” is an acronym for the five common situations leaders may find themselves moving into: start-up, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment, and sustaining success.

I was once handed a new supervisor who viewed every new role as a chance to “make his mark.” He had approached every job – almost a dozen – in this way for over 20 years. He was hard-wired to treat each new job as a turnaround. And my goodness, was he hard to work for. The work did NOT need to be turned around, decidedly not. The place was highly successful, and sustaining that success (or as I like to say “keeping the trains running on time”) should have been the main focus.

Instead, this new leader decided to “shake things up a bit” for almost a year. Half my time was spent convincing the new leader that his focus on rebranding, opening unfunded business lines, seeking growth in obscure markets; “doing more with less,” were not answers to any existing problems. The work suffered, the staff suffered, and in the end, the customers suffered so much that criticism rang out loudly in the surveys.

In 20 years as a tactician, this leader had never developed strategic skills, and floundered when those skills were needed most. If you are a leader new-to-a-role, or are working under someone who “just doesn’t get it,” this article may help.

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Image from:

(My book West By Sea is 20% off in August with discount code. Enjoy!)

Just Cut Training – Nobody Will Notice

Time to Cut Learning & Development? Think again

Time to Cut Learning & Development? Think again.

A few years ago, I got a frantic call from headquarters. It was late on a Friday, and the question was “How many classes can you cut from next year’s budget?” My answer: “If you want, I can cut all of them. They’re your classes. If you send me a full quota of students, I will teach them. If you send me no students at all, I will do something else with my time.” They didn’t sound happy. This was not the response they expected. What they really wanted was an excuse to cut my budget.

The conversation continued. We were in the middle of a workforce reduction. Headquarters really wanted to know the impact of teaching less. They had no link showing how money spent on learning and development (L&D) translated into outcomes. What I had just given them was a limit case, where the resources spent on L&D were cut to zero. What could happen? In truth, in the short-term, nothing much. People would still do what they did yesterday just as well tomorrow. Headquarters seemed happy to hear this. But with any process that involves humans, there is always a catch.

When you flip a bicycle over to check the wheels, they will spin forever with a light, regular push. Your on-staff L&D team provides the push to keep the workforce in motion. They lightly nudge the human performance wheel, to bring new people up to speed, make new procedures happen, and drive efficiency through smooth adoption of new technology.

Just like with a spinning wheel, if L&D stops pushing, the organization will keep spinning – for a while. But entropy always catches up: procedures change, new technologies replace the old, new people step in. All the equipment in the world will just sit there if nobody runs it. Your organization literally rides on the workforce: your people are the wheels that carry you forward.

As you balance the fate of the L&D team in the overall budget, remember each spinning wheel, and think how things might look without a careful and regular push.

Copyright © 2016 Expeditionaire and Edward K. Beale
Image from:

The Dawn of Paperless and the iPad Pro

iPad Pro Batman

Finally got to use the iPad Pro 9.7″ with Apple Pencil. THIS is how I am finally going to learn cartooning. My biggest hang-up with art instruction on paper is going through all the paper. I learned drafting, architectural drawing, and technical descriptive drawing in the mid-1980s. We went through so much paper, with the instructor circling inconsistencies with red pen and removing two points for each mark. Very infrequently would I get a “check”, which meant he could find nothing wrong with the picture. How we worked for those checks.

“Kids” nowadays will never know the pain and joy of toiling away with pencil, compass, white eraser, T-square, and triangles. No sweeping eraser crumbs into a little pile on the floor at the end of class. No sharpening wooden 2H and HB pencils, or clicking to refill a mechanical 0.7mm lead holder, or stacking drafting gear into a drawer with care each night. I think it is for the best.

Next, I expect Apple to release a tablet with some kind of high-density ePaper screen, and Apple Pencil v2. The only thing missing is the screen technology. Amazon’s Kindle Oasis is at 300ppi for a black & white screen. So it is only a matter of time before Apple adopts something similar. I can’t wait.

Apple and doing what matters

Apple has always loved being the underdog and the comeback kid. It’s hard to see the real Apple, but “I’ve seen through a different lens”.

In 2010 I attend the Disney Institute program in Anaheim, to go backstage for a look at the process behind the magic. Disney focuses on only two metrics: repeat business and intent to refer. Will you come back and bring your friends? EVERYTHING is driven by performance against these two metrics. When you know this understanding Apple’s approach becomes really simple.

Apple and Disney have very similar “DNA”, or execution strategy because they come from the same place: Creativity. Creativity is the byproduct of a restless mind. It comes from asking the question “what if?” and answering “let’s see…” It doesn’t take a Steve Jobs to ask that question, it just takes relentless application of the question to a few things that matter, and then building repeatable and supported systems to ruthlessly execute on just those things.

Apple wants a multi-decade hegemony, built across generations by rabidly loyal customers. Apple is very smart, and insanely tuned to perform for the customer. Right now Apple is back where they love to be: a hungry underdog that must stage a comeback after foolishly ignoring a key customer experience trend.

A hungry and foolish underdog comeback. Perfect.

Invest twenty three minutes listening to Steve Jobs. You’ll thank yourself for taking the time. Trust me.

Want progress? Put up a thermometer

thermometerWant progress? Put up a thermometer.

Execution is about three things: priorities, metrics, and rhythm. I have talked about this before, but today I want you to start in the middle.

You have a performance problem, it is dragging you down, and you really need to move forward. For some reason, your team is not focused, not executing, and not moving forward. Where should you start?

Pull out a big piece of paper, draw a thermometer on it (be sure to put the little lines), and before you do anything else, step back and look. (Hint: you could do this on a white board, but the idea is to make something physical, touchable, semi-permanent.)

You are going to put this up in a public place and update it every day. The scale on the side is easy enough – it takes you from where you are now to where you are “done”. But your empty thermometer needs labels.

This is the tricky part. You need to answer some questions:

  • What is it we trying to do, exactly? Write a simple outcome statement at the top of the thermometer, something like “Product X is shipped”.
  • When will “done” happen? Write a date at the top of the thermometer.
  • What will “done” look like? When the whole thermometer is red, how will you know? You need to see this in detail, because your team is doing detailed work right now, and will be doing detailed work every day. Each detail gets you to the top.
  • What actions trigger and fill the thermometer? If you get stuck on this one, imagine somebody on your team walking up to you with an accomplishment – will that get you to pull out your red marker?

This thermometer exercise is a life hack for work, or what I call a performance hack. It focuses your attention on a single goal, the actions needed to make (and measure) progress, and the little time-bound steps needed to achieve your big time-bound goal.

Until you make your goals physical, visible, and public, you are still talking to yourself. And your execution thermometer probably looks like this:


Give this tip a try, and let me know how it goes in the comments.

Walking through your mind with dirty feet


Just Wander


Trade your Cow for some Magic Beans

Will you trade *your* cow? #travel #rtw #worldcruise #yolo #carpediem #bucketlist #seetheworld #braincancer

Trade your cow for a handful of magic beans

Trade your cow for a handful of magic beans

Maybe get a watch?

Guys, I get it. You want the feel of leather and metal against your skin. But I’m here to tell you, a fashion bracelet, no matter how well made, is not the answer. I’m really just trying to figure out which fashion “expert” decided that guys want a woven leather bracelet with a metal clasp “inspired by” a marine shackle or riding buckle? Especially when they offer it for $69, or ask us to splurge for the $129 version based on a “rugged Swedish design.” Seriously? When did a Swede ever wear a rugged leather $129 fashion bracelet? Fashion gurus: Swedes everywhere are laughing at your feeble efforts.

In the 1980s I grew up in New England and my outfitter of choice was (naturally) Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS). In the early 1990s I relocated to California and switched to Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) and their small outlet in San Francisco’s East Bay. Then back to New York and a regular drive to the Campmor outlet in Paramus. These outlets always emphasized everything I wanted in an outfitter: utility, quality, flexibility, and economy. And none of them ever – ever – offered a fashion bracelet for men.

So I went looking. Campmor sells a paracord bracelet for $5.99. It comes in five colors and is woven from two and a half meters of 160 kilogram test line. Yeah, a Swede would wear one of those. REI has a similar band for sale, plus a do-it-yourself version, and also acupressure bracelets. The EMS website stubbornly refused to return any results as I searched for a bracelet. I could almost hear the website laughing at my feeble efforts.

Still, even a basic web search turns up hundreds of options from Inox, J.Crew, Mooby, Jared, Royal Republiq and Alor. Maybe I’m out of touch. When did this become a trend? How did this become a trend? Swedes everywhere want to know.

Rugged Swedish Fashion Bracelet

I Hate the Taj Mahal

Welcome to the Taj Mahal - I Hate My Job

Welcome to the Taj Mahal

It was shaping up to be another blistering hot day at the Taj Mahal. I arrived as they opened and approached the east entrance. For me it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Most of the other visitors felt the same, and the excitement was tangible. We crowded toward the security checkpoint and split into lines for men and women. And then I overheard this:

“Sometimes I wish Shah Jahan had never built this place.” ~ Security guard at the Taj Mahal. 

How about that for a dose of reality? The temperature had already pushed above 35ºC on an early June day in Agra, and it was only 10am. For the guards and indeed all the other workers at this World Heritage Site, it was the start of another long day at the office. The tourists were not visitors. The tourists were problems. And the tourists would not be here if the most elaborately constructed tourist trap in the world had never been built.

Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There cautions his writing students to look for stories beyond the tourist matrix. He says “if your best stories come from your cab driver or bar tender, you are not working hard enough.” At the same time (as my mother reminds me) tourist destinations exist because they are usually really interesting.

So while the best travel stories are found off the beaten track, some of the best travel experiences can only come from inside the tourist matrix.  When I visited Istanbul, a Monday tour of Hagia Sophia was only possible because I went with a tour group – because the Hagia Sophia is otherwise closed on Mondays. So don’t let the “tourist trap” label turn you away from the experience of a lifetime. You are the best judge of what is interesting to you.

Like the disaffected worker at the Fatehabadi Darwaza gate, your job might hold days of tedium, especially if you face the public every day at a popular destination. Just keep in mind that today could be a lifetime event for that guest, an experience for which they have traveled many miles, and have dreamed about for years. Your office may not be a World Heritage Site, but you still owe each guest an amazing experience. Don’t hate your Taj Mahal!

– Ed

(And if you enjoyed this short story, others will too – please share. Thank you!)

Ed at the Taj Mahal - What is that behind you?

Hey, what is that behind you?