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July 2008

Take This Job and Shove It... Or Wherever Your Final Destination May Take You

Notes from another visit to Toronto...

Does any job suck worse than being a flight attendant these days? OK, probably a lot of jobs do. But you have to sympathize with these people--is their current job description really what they signed up for?

Before we get started on that, a word about ticket pricing.  I flew round-trip between Toronto and San Francisco.  When I researched ticket prices, I found that a non-stop flight was going to run about $1,300. OK, so let's look at a "direct" flight, i.e., one or more stops.  So SFO to YYZ via ORD for those who travel enough (sigh) to know what those initials mean.  That routing would cost about $900 on United.  The same routing, on Air Canada, cost a little less than $600.  So let's do that (we're a startup, so watching your expenses is a way of life).

But here's the amazing part:  it's an Air Canada flight, operated by United!  In other words, if I fly the United flight as a United flight, I pay $900.  If I fly it as an Air Canada flight, I save $300.  Don't ask me to explain it, I discovered all this because I wanted to know what terminal (domestic or international) to show up at for the flight.  (Turned out it was the United domestic terminal, but wait now you have to go to the International terminal... but that's another story.)

And one other peeve:  the return flight is described as a non-stop flight, "flight 1105, YYZ to SFO"... but fails to mention the flight stops at ORD.  OK, so it's technically one flight because we continue on to SFO, right?  Well, no.  You change planes and get on a different flight.  So isn't that a two-flight itinerary?  Never mind!

Back to my story.  As we landed in Chicago on the way to Toronto, the flight attendant came on the intercom and asked that we passengers open up the air circulation vents and close the window shades, so the plane would burn less fuel getting the cabin cool again. I'm all for doing every little bit to help keep the Earth green and cut our collective fuel consumption, but can this have any material effect?

And think about what else flight attendants have to do now.  They get to act like hawkers at a baseball game, pitching the now-accepted snack boxes that (Europeans are horrified to realize) you have to pay to get. Can you imagine if they sold all the stuff that you find at a ball game? Frozen lemonade, peanuts, foam fingers (they'd love that one), peanuts.. Actually, it could make the flights a lot more fun.  Then they get to act as baggage inspectors and porters:  "Hey you, you've got too many carry-on's!" (No kidding, I watched a guy get on with a duffel bag, a large satchel and a computer case as his allowed carry-on items). You think flight attendants want to hassle people about what they bring on board? And by the way, if your bag doesn't fit (because it's--ahem--too big or because somehow, everyone else's two carry-on's somehow take up all the available overhead space) they simply take it to the front of the plane and check it... probably for free! So let's all carry our luggage on, let them check it, and throw a fit if they try to charge us for it. "Hmm, I can get the plane out of the gate on time, saving thousands of dollars in fuel costs and gate fees. Or, I can make sure those louts pay their baggage check fees!  Between that, the snack box receipts, and six dollars for a glass of 2-buck-chuck we'll be rolling in dough!"

So let's cut the flight attendants a little slack, eh?!

Ten Years After Nortel

The year was 1998.  I had just come in from a noon-time basketball game; I remember it was a particularly hot June day.  When I saw the Post-It note on my computer monitor in my admin's handwriting--"Pat wants to see you right away"--I immediately thought, "layoff".  I was certain enough of that thought that I went upstairs to see my boss without my notebook.  But Pat was busy talking to one of the other Directors who jointly ran Nortel's Meridian 1 business unit, and asked me to come back in a bit.

So I went downstairs and waited.  Maybe I was wrong.

There were about ten Directors running the Meridian 1 business unit; in total it was generating about $100M annually.  We had been at it for a while, and had taken our product line to the #1 position in the industry.  We were proud of what we'd accomplished in a brutally competitive market, understood where the market was heading, and saw more opportunities to come.  

But not everyone saw it that way.  Higher-up's had been pressuring top management in the business unit to turn in strategic plans that showed less investment, not more.  What we didn't know (at least, what I didn't know) was that the company was getting ready to buy Bay Networks.  The Directors had been asked--in a bizarre sort of Mission Impossible style, "your mission, Jim..." type of meeting--to submit an organization plan that called for laying off some 30% of the employees.

We bitched and moaned about it, then set about creating just such a plan.  I remember at the end of the day, as the implications of the plan began to sink in: if you're cutting 30% of the staff, you don't need all these Directors anymore.

At my appointed time I went back upstairs, this time with my notebook and pen; turns out I didn't need it. Seeing my friend Steve come out of the boss's office, I could tell that this meeting wasn't going to go well.  It was brief and to the point: your position's been eliminated, thanks for everything, head down the hall to the conference room where the out-placement people will give you a chance to yell and scream, then take your badge and lead you to the door.

Remember, this was before the Twitter age, before everyone had a cell phone and knew how to send text messages to one another.  So it was tough to spread the news that a layoff was unfolding.  People (including myself) just began to disappear.

As hard as it was to go through the experience of leaving Nortel under those circumstances (and it was very hard), it opened the door to a new phase of my work life.  (It also gave me the opportunity to take up golf, but that's another story.)  

Rewind back to 1987.  After finishing graduate school at MIT I had the opportunity to meet with Larry Mohr, of Mohr, Davidow Ventures.  I came to the meeting hoping to get a list of leads for places I could work with my new MBA.  Instead, Larry surprised me.  He told me that when he recruited managers for the start-up's he was funding, he went to larger companies that had the resources to train managers: companies like HP, IBM, and so on.  (The economist in me thought about the externality of small companies appropriating value from larger companies in this way, and whether that value was reflected in the valuation of larger companies.)  As Larry explained, there was no one to teach you at a startup.  You had to learn on the job, and you didn't really have the time to do that.  So Larry suggested I first work for one of these companies that could teach great management skills, and then look at smaller companies.

So in 1998 as I thought about what kind of job situation I wanted to pursue after Nortel, I remembered what Larry Mohr had said, and decided that 15+ years of management training at Nortel was probably enough.  It was time to strike out in a new direction.

And so in the ten years between then and now I've worked at a succession of small companies.  Some were small and getting bigger, some were small and getting smaller, some got bigger for a time then struggled to cope with changing environments.  I've had the chance to do things as different as set up an accounting system, consult on wireless strategy, create new channels of distribution, and unblock the women's toilet (my best , "can you roll up your sleeves and contribute" story!).

I was talking recently with a colleague who left HP about the same time I left Nortel, and had also spent the intervening years working for small companies.  We both agreed that we had learned more in the past ten years than we had in the twenty years before that working for larger companies.  I've learned about the politics of small companies (hint: great financial stakes mean great political battles), the role of ego in decision-making, how to instill just the right amount of process discipline, how to gain the trust and cooperation of others, and the importance of starting with the sale and working back through the "upstream" activities of the organization.

I look back on ten years of working long hours in crazy environments where it's not clear what the problem is, much less the solution; where I've had to figure out what to do, how to do it, and who should do it, and then convince others of this; where I've seen my best-laid plans fail to play out as I had hoped; where I've seen over and over that success is both rare and fleeting.  I look back and realize how much I've learned, how hard I've worked, and how much fun I've had in the process.  And I realize I wouldn't trade these experiences for anything.

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