John Akerson's Thoughts

Business, technology and life

Write your obituary with your life.

My father died about 8 years ago after having dozens of strokes over a several year period. He lived an interesting life and wrote his own obituary a few months before he died and he asked me to get it printed following his death. He told me which papers he wanted it run in, and which ones he didn’t.  Those were his decisions.

I didn’t realize it, but by the time he wrote his obituary, his fragile state may have diminished his thinking and writing skills. (Or perhaps not) Family members were furious at me for publishing the obituary because it contained omissions and errors. I recognized those, but thought that it was his decision to say what he said about his life. There were some interesting errors, and maybe some hurtful omissions too. I knew he worked at Seaboard Finance through the 1960’s but if he wanted to write in his obit that he worked for “Seafood finance” I didn’t feel that I should correct it. I didn’t feel that I had any right. Dad always had a dry sense of humor, and I thought that interesting twist might have been a comment on the company. Sticking it to them with his obituary. He was the type of person – that if he had been an Enron exec, maybe he would have written in his obituary that he worked at Shmenron.  He stuck it to some family members perhaps, but he lived. He picked the words and phrases and barbs, but his obituary was written with his life. It was full of his service in the Korean war, his love of flight, his history in Maine, his close family, his days at Seafood, and the many companies that he did accounting for. When I noticed he omitted his 20+ years of sobriety and his long association with Alcoholics Anonymous, again, I figured that was his decision.  Should he have mentioned his ex-wife? Perhaps – but his choice was to omit that and instead mention the kind lady that he was married to during the last years of his life. His call, and I respected it.

With the overwhelming barrage of recent headlines about Michael Jackson, Senator Kennedy, and others it occurs to me over and over that death is an ultimate and final equalizer. For everyone, at their death, it is suddenly too late to make any new entries to your obituary. The book is closed, so to speak. 

I think it is important to truly live, to devote time to things that you are passionate about, to devote time to things for others, to make a difference, and to make sure your life writes the obituary that you want.

Everyone dies. Choose your own words to write your obituary, but be sure to create the content that you want in it with your choices in life.

August 29th, 2009 Posted by | Life, People | no comments

Lessons from Harvard Biz tip could help end the recession.

For August 27, 2009, The Harvard Biz Management Tip of the day is: Think Green to Fight the Next Recession ( ).  The tip’s premise and points are admirable. Harvard Biz is right to highlight Honda Insight and Toyota Prius sales as delightful during our challenging economic times. Harvard Biz is also correct that “many companies are launching environmentally friendly products, and being innovative in ways to creatively shrink resource usage.” I think they should at least briefly explain WHY it is important to think green to fight the next recession and I think it is important to consider how thinking green could help end the current recession. Explanations of the business benefits that come from environmental motivations originate in business lessons that from 1849 and 1973.  Harvard Biz should have emphasized both the corporate and consumer benefits of energy conservation. Harvard Biz was right in suggesting that businesses “use a green lens in selecting products for the future” but they could and should have emphasized the enormous “why.” Selling hybrid cars doesn’t produce such fantastic sales simply because the product appeals to consumers’ altruistic nature – although that is an important component. It produces sales because it helps the consumer lower their costs. Trading a gas guzzler for a car that can get 40 or 50 miles per gallon enables consumers; it gives them a significant tool to help conserve money that would have otherwise poured out of their possession – through their tank to oil companies and foreign oil producers. Selling hybrids helps consumers save their hard earned gold. The business side of the green lens shows a company selling hybrids as the 21st century version of the 1849 mining supply company. The miners demand for pans, supplies, and ways to get their gold may have exceeded the gold they found. Selling efficient products benefits the consumers who want to pan for the gold to be found in environmental responsibility. Lowering costs is such a powerful incentive for consumers – and companies gain advantages by offering those products. Beyond selling environmentally friendly products (that help customers lower their costs) the simple practice of lowering costs is powerful for companies too. The Harvard Biz green tip would have been a great business management tip in the 1970’s because of the 1973 oil crisis and the 1979 energy crisis. Energy costs have certainly been soaring for a long time. Focus on energy savings could have helped companies survive and thrive through the recession of the early 1980s. (regardless of the Fed’s contractionary monetary policy.) The focus on those energy savings would have been important then – and is more important than ever now – because energy savings equate to cost reduction.

Internal corporate energy savings help simultaneously increase productivity and return on investment in the same ways that producing energy efficiency for customers can help them reduce costs. Increasing efficiency is a win-win for everyone involved. That is a more important business tip that Harvard Biz missed. Here’s an important corollary: Energy savings enable cost reduction without any related headcount reduction. Hiring will be critical in ending the current recession. A company might look at energy efficiency and savings as a method for lowering costs – but if hundreds or thousands of companies start reducing energy consumption while retaining or increasing employment. Harvard Biz suggests that could help companies during the next recession.  Those lessons could have a significant impact – and contribute significantly to ending current recession.

August 27th, 2009 Posted by | Business, Environment, Life, Technology | no comments

Happily disappointed.

I was happy to get a disappointing Dear John letter today.  I’m kind of used to that, but I was disappointed because it the first sentence started with “I want to personally thank you for interviewing” and the second sentence began with “we have decided not to pursue hiring you at this time”.  So I am disappointed. How does that make me happy?  Let me explain both sides.

The most important reason for my disappointment is that I thought I could do great things in a position where great things need to happen. The letter came from a company that has some untapped and unique competitive advantages, and no geographical boundaries. That company only does $26 million of annual sales in a marketplace where a single federal program will spend more than $6 billion dollars annually, in just one subset of that company’s target market. They have a few thousand customers but there are over 325,000 possible customers.  It is a company where salespeople produce more than 80% of sales, and a company with no currently coherent online brand.  Their print catalogs are great, but they don’t really maximize social media opportunities, ecommerce, or electronic marketing at all. In this wired world, this is a company with a dozen unique variables that combine to present a spectacular opportunity.

I felt the same way in 1994 when I was doing work on complexity theory and Conway’s game of life. I thought of profound implications for economics nestled within the program that emulated artificial life.

For this interview – I tried a new and novel approach. I interviewed as if I were a consultant. I did research on the company, the position, and presented – to the interviewer – the issues, the opportunities, some solutions and ways to get to them.  To fall on the baseball analogy that felt most appropriate, I felt it was the most soaring and highest homer I’ve ever hit at an interview.  So I am disappointed that I didn’t correctly gauge where the fence was.  It is a secondary thing, but I do not know how anyone could have hit it further.  

Why didn’t I get an offer? I don’t know and I may never know, but I was happy with my performance. I was happy with my preparation. I was happy with the interview. Overall, I am comfortably calm and happy that I did as well as I could. I’d certainly love to get feedback, but it is what it is.  There are lots of reasons why they may not have wanted to pursue hiring me. I would like to think that they wanted someone to bunt, and the home run ruled me out. It is fun to think like that, but I’m not quite that arrogant and I know that it is equally possible that the fence was further than I could ever hit.  Maybe my “home-run” was their ground ball.

So finally – I am quite happy that the company had the uncommon courtesy to send me a letter to let me know. That was a very nice touch, and to me, it reflects amazingly well on them!  For every interview a company gives, in person, I think it should be a common business practice to send a letter. The people you hire should get one, and the people that you do not pursue hiring – they should get one also.  If it is worth the time to interview a person, it should be worth the time to send a brief note.  From my perspective, I am happy that I’m no longer in the dark about that opportunity.

So – I’m happily disappointed.

What do you think?

August 25th, 2009 Posted by | Business, Life, People | no comments

Performance matters when managment fails.

When management fails, your work matters more – for you and for others!

So there is a good question posted – and some thoughts on the topic here.

 If management sucks, does your work still matter?  The point of the article was that your work matters in some ways because even if your managers and executives are terrible, your work serves as a resume going forward. The point of the article is that stellar work during difficult times serves as evidence that you perform well regardless of obstacles.  That can lead to future performance. The example given was Motorola’s CEO who held that philosophy. The article did not specify which of Motorola’s current Co-CEO’s, but it isn’t so relevant. There are countless other examples. Let me offer this one - a star professional athlete on an underperforming team is working for his or her team. The athlete puts in practice time, cares for teammates, and performs on the field or court. Every game, every event is in-effect an audition for another team that can bid for his or her services. In some sports, there is a “contract year bounce” in performance in the year before an athlete becomes a free agent.  So – from a selfish me-first perspective, performance matters regardless of management quality.

Is that the only reason? Is that the best reason?  No. It is not the only reason, and it is absolutely not the best reason. 

There is another more important reason why your work does matter and in my opinion, matters even more during times of management weakness and failure. I think that work during those times matters more because good people can produce good performance that can overcome leadership failures.

You can call that managing up. You can call it overcoming obstacles or you can call it whatever you want. A captain can fly a dying plane into a river but every employee on that plane is responsible for getting the passengers out safely.  A captain can make sure a ship is in a good shipping lane, but every officer and sailor on the ship matters. It is the sailor on lookout who has to see the icebergs, who has to decide that they pose risk, and who has to communicate that in a way that results in a new direction for the ship to sail.  The best reason is that management failures do not necessarily mean organizational failures.

Management failure has more impact and particularly important in smaller organizations, and in top-down hierarchies. Performance is important, beyond the self-first perspective, because it matters to everyone. In a corporate environment, everyone’s performance makes a difference in increasing value. That value is delivered to customers, shareholders, owners, and fellow employees.

Consider the financial services meltdown during 2008.  Bear Stearn’s CEO may have known about the asset based securities that the company was involved in, but the CEO at Bear Stearns did not compute the risk of the asset backed securities. Those securities were probably at the root of the destruction of value. That value destruction hurt the shareholders, customers and employees of Bear Stearns, and it was a significant event in the meltdown of the entire financial sector.  How bad was it?

“on March 16, 2008, Bear Stearns signed a merger agreement with JP Morgan Chase in a stock swap worth $2 a share … (the) sale price represented a staggering loss as its stock had traded at $172 a share as late as January 2007, and $93 a share as late as February 2008.”

 Employees should have understood the risk of those asset backed securities. They should have communicated that risk. They should have taken a part in redirecting the course that their ship was taking.  Someone had to make a knowing decision that those risks were an iceberg that they were going to sail into. In titanic terms, sailing that direction promised good returns, and increased risks. Ultimately, the financial ruins caused by that iceberg were devastating to customers, leaders, employees, shareholders, and everyone.  Should the CEO have picked a different course for his corporate ship? Absolutely.   That’s a simple call.  Did the employees see the potential risk? Evidence suggests they did. So what mattered?

Employee performance matters!

 It matters to the employee who performs because of all those intangible me-first things like salary, bonuses, and accolades – and employee performance matters more to everyone else. In a corporate environment, employee performance matters more when leadership fails because employees can help a poorly managed organization avoid the risks that could damage or destroy the organization, the shareholders, the employees and the customers.

August 23rd, 2009 Posted by | Business, Environment, Technology | one comment