Notes from Too Big To Fail

It’s been a year and half since the turmoil of the US & Global financial markets really came to a head. I remember being throughly confused about everything that was going on. Words like sub-prime mortagage, credit crisis, bailouts, Fannie & Freddie, were thrown around. It’s a big deal and something that everyone in our generation should seek to understand.

I didn’t really understand what was going on and it was hard to stay on top of all the new developments. I like to get the whole picture – not just the facts but the context and a insight into the how and why it all happened.

Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book, Too Big to Fail is a wonderful segway into the this whole story. Sorkin introduces the major players of the crisis, their background, and the roles they played. The fact that he got so many in depth interviews with people featured in the book is a double-edged sword. On one hand, he can provide narrative and details that no one else can, on the other, he has an incentive to keep all this big shots happy so that his access remains unfettered. Even so, I trust his journalistic integrity enough to believe that we get a fairly accurate portrayal of what happened – and the narrative makes the complicated financial jargon easier to swallow.

I’m going to start with just some observations I had after reading the first 207 pages or so. Please forgive me if any of this sounds naive, simple or just uninformed.

  • there are five major types of “characters” on Wall Street: traders, (investment) bankers, insurers, commercial bankers, and hedge fund guys.

  • a major problem for many of the firms in the crisis was poor liquidity, or lack of cash on hand. The bailout $$ was needed to keep companies from collapsing due to insufficient funds

  • the lack of cash was due to an improper assessment of the risks involved in and the value of certain assets that were bought/sold/owned by these financial characters

  • it’s hard to keep talented people from jumping off a sinking ship, like many of of these companies were, especially when your compensation is closely tied to overal company proofs. Big bonuses were promised to key people in exchange for staying on and risking their reputations on a potential failed firm.

  • the people who end up leading major firms are a self-selected group of aggressive workaholics who really care about their performance, and even more about their reputation (both within the industry and externally)

  • these firms are marked by a paradoxical mix of meritocracy, nepotism, loyalty, and betrayal. You can’t make it to the top with out ability -but you also need a great deal of political savvy and some ruthlessness.

A Conversation About Leadership and Servanthood

I recently met James, a senior studying Human Biology at Stanford, and we ended up spending lots of time talking about about the definition of leadership. After the weekend, he emailed me and I thought it would make another great email/blog post.

I was just thinking about your comment that leadership is bringing people to a brighter place… I actually agreed with your logic. I wonder if leadership might ultimately be about servanthood. Perhaps one imagines the perfect leader being one who truly has the interests of those he/she is leading in mind, such that success is determined by the well-being of those being lead.

In some ways that does seem correct—the entrepreneur is a leader insofar he enables those around him to engage in a fun project, or insofar she serves people in the world who are looking for this particular product.
In some ways of course, that concept is also somewhat flawed. Some of the best “leaders” in the world, at least nominally, are hardly thinking of others. I don’t know if Warren Buffet is thinking about serving his staff or his customers so much as getting rich sometimes. Doesn’t mean he’s necessarily a poor leader? Or does it?
Meh. Just food for thought. I really enjoyed talking with you, and I respect your will to action that’s so well tempered with a penchant for thoughtfulness. That’s something I will try to learn from you/emulate.
Haha :). Now you’re sorta my role model. Better do a good job ;).

—James

Hey James,

Thanks for the email and bringing up the connection between leadership and service. It’s a great point: there is a reason why we often say someone “serves as the” CEO/Executive Director/Managing Partner of XYZ organization.

I believe that all leaders must think of those they lead because in the end, true leaders have followers that volunteer to be led. If you are the best computer programmer in the world, then you can choose to work at any company you want – you choose the leader/manager you want to serve under. So you’ve got to give that programmer a great work environment, exciting challenges and strong compensation to keep him. A bad boss isn’t a leader, (s)he’s a dictator.

If you are interested in the concept of service you should read more about “Servant Leadership” which says that leaders exist to help others grow as persons while they are being led.

The definition I gave of leadership, which I think makes the nebulous concept more clear, comes from a really great book called The One Thing You Need To Know by Marcus Buckingham, which you can see the extensive book notes for here. A taste:

  • Great leaders rally people to a better future
    • “You are a leader if, and only if, you are restless for change, impatient for progress, and deeply dissatisfied with the status quo.”
  • Leaders may be pessimists or even depressive (see Lincoln), but nothing, not their mood, not the reasoned arguments of others, not the bleak conditions of the present, can undermine their faith that things will get better.
  • “Properly defined, the opposite of a leader isn’t a follower. The opposite of a leader is a pessimist.”
  • “Despite their realistic assessment of the present challenges, they nonetheless believe that they have what it takes to overcome these challenges and forge ahead.”

It was great meeting you James and I respect your dedication to service and the young adults you worked with as well as your ongoing questions about how you can contribute more effectively to your issues. You’ve got some really good stuff going on – and hopefully I’ll live up to your expectations.

Warm Regards,
Jason

PS – Warren Buffett is actually a pretty thoughtful guy – I know you were using him as an example, but check out some of the things he’s said about management and money –

  • (When speaking of managers and executive compensation) “The .350 hitter expects, and also deserves, a big payoff for his performance – even if he plays for a cellar-dwelling team. And a .150 hitter should get no reward – even if he plays for a pennant winner.” (Link)
  • “I was wired at birth to allocate capital and was lucky enough to have people around me early on – my parents and teachers and Susie – who helped me to make the most of that … we agreed with Andrew Carnegie, who said that huge fortunes that flow in large part from society should in large part be returned to society.” (link to FORTUNE interview discussing why he gave $30B to the Gates Foundation)

Some Learning’s on Journalism

I find that while I rarely get the urge to blog, I love responding to emailed questions with extensive answers. Hope you find this useful.

My friend’s email:

Hey!

Noticed through some social media-stalking that we share an ambition in saving newspapers. Difference is, I’ve been wavering and translating my journalism skills to a public sector institute, whereas you have entrepreneurship experience and have been applying that to the business side of collegiate journalism. So I’m interested to know. what do you think about the future of journalism and what kinds of competing business models do you think it needs?

My response:

I’ve learned a lot about journalism since starting my job (which isn’t saying much since I knew about zip before April 09) and what I think is becoming clear to me is this:

  1. It’s more about the journalist now than the publication. A strong writing brand is going to mean a lot more than before – especially since distribution on the web is essentially free.
  2. Journalists need to connect to their audiences in more ways. It can’t just be a one way broadcast of printed words. Engagement means multimedia (audio/video/graphics), and it means listening to and responding directly to the public (easier now than ever with blogs, twitter, comments)
  3. Journalists need to learn business skills. My mentor from home told me to major in a hard science because “you can always learn that business stuff later”. Journalists are scared of business but shouldn’t be – they ought to carve out their own future rather than just depending on “the suits”
  4. Multiple Revenue streams: successful publications/content-based organizations are making money from many sources – ads, sponsorships, conferences, paid content, branded 3rd party products and donations. All of this means that journalists and companies and consumer/members of the public need to work closer together (see pts 2 & 3).

Wow – writing that email was a learning process for me too! You should think more about the business side – it’s a way of thinking and doing that I think is quite valuable and doable. It was good meeting you and going out last night – hope you make it back to DC safely and perhaps we’ll hang out again sometime!

Regards,
Jason

The Obligations of a Manager

I just watched Up in the Air – it’s a movie starring George Clooney as a “career transition counselor” hired by downsizing companies to tell their employees that they are fired. He does it in a firm, thoughtful, and sensitive way, and he is very good at his job.

Up in the air movie poster

The movie is really good and touches on a number of interesting themes: intimate relationships, jobs & personal identity, re-evaluating life choices. However, the thing that struck me the most was the whole concept of a “firin

g consultant”.

Career Transition Counseling is a real thing (note the terrible 1990’s website) and apparently many companies exist to help other companies downsize. The practice is almost inevitable in our capitalist society as whenever there is a need that can be profitably served, there will emerge people willing to do it.

However, I believe that CTC is a cop out. Managers should personally hire and fire. That is their job. When you become the manager of other people, you are accepting a load of responsibilities and obligations to your company and your employees that you did not when you were “just” an individual contributor. I think all managers need to read, understand and agree to at least a basic list of statements like this:

As a manager I …

  1. Will only make decisions that I think will make the company more valuable.
  2. Will only hire people that I think will make significant positive contributions to the company
  3. Will always give clear and useful feedback whenever possible to help improve my employees performance.
  4. Will always seek to provide flexibility, organizational resources & fair compensation for my employees to do their best.
  5. Will tell employees to their face when I need to let them go, for whatever reason.

As a manager, you are responsible for your team and responsible to your company and its shareholders. People from the top and the bottom are counting on you and you have to deliver. If your division screws up, everyone pays for it, including you and your team, but also others and their teams. If you do well, everyone looks good – you, your team and your peers.

I’ve hired many people. It’s a fun job. I’ve let go of people, and it is definitely not a fun job. But you’ve got to do it. Own up to your duties, don’t pass them to others.

Potential managers must understand, passionately believe and agree to those obligations. If you don’t like giving negative feedback or firing people, and are unwilling to tough it out and do it yourself, don’t become a manager. We all know the world could use much fewer spineless bosses wandering around corporate America.

Random Thoughts From People Our Age

This person is a genius.

yasminspired:

  1. -I wish Google Maps had an “Avoid Ghetto” routing option.
  2. -More often than not, when someone is telling me a story all I can think about is that I can’t wait for them to finish so that I can tell my own story that’s not only better, but also more directly involves me.
  3. -Nothing sucks more than that moment during an argument when you realize you’re wrong.
  4. -I don’t understand the purpose of the line, “I don’t need to drink to have fun.” Great, no one does. But why start a fire with flint and sticks when they’ve invented the lighter?
  5. -Have you ever been walking down the street and realized that you’re going in the complete opposite direction of where you are supposed to be going? But instead of just turning a 180 and walking back in the direction from which you came, you have to first do something like check your watch or phone or make a grand arm gesture and mutter to yourself to ensure that no one in the surrounding area thinks you’re crazy by randomly switching directions on the sidewalk.
  6. -That’s enough, Nickelback.
  7. -I totally take back all those times I didn’t want to nap when I was younger.
  8. -Is it just me, or are 80% of the people in the “people you may know” feature on Facebook people that I do know, but I deliberately choose not to be friends with?
  9. -Do you remember when you were a kid, playing Nintendo and it wouldn’t work? You take the cartridge out, blow in it and that would magically fix the problem. Every kid in America did that, but how did we all know how to fix the problem? There was no internet or message boards or FAQ’s. We just figured it out. Today’s kids are soft.
  10. -There is a great need for sarcasm font.
  11. -Sometimes, I’ll watch a movie that I watched when I was younger and suddenly realize I had no idea what the f was going on when I first saw it.
  12. -I think everyone has a movie that they love so much, it actually becomes stressful to watch it with other people. I’ll end up wasting 90 minutes shiftily glancing around to confirm that everyone’s laughing at the right parts, then making sure I laugh just a little bit harder (and a millisecond earlier) to prove that I’m still the only one who really, really gets it.
  13. -How the hell are you supposed to fold a fitted sheet?
  14. -I would rather try to carry 10 plastic grocery bags in each hand than take 2 trips to bring my groceries in.
  15. – I think part of a best friend’s job should be to immediately clear your computer history if you die.
  16. -The only time I look forward to a red light is when I’m trying to finish a text.
  17. – A recent study has shown that playing beer pong contributes to the spread of mono and the flu. Yeah, if you suck at it.
  18. – Was learning cursive really necessary?
  19. – Lol has gone from meaning, “laugh out loud” to “I have nothing else to say”.
  20. – I have a hard time deciphering the fine line between boredom and hunger.
  21. – Answering the same letter three times or more in a row on a Scantron test is absolutely petrifying.
  22. – My brother’s Municipal League baseball team is named the Stepdads. Seeing as none of the guys on the team are actual stepdads, I inquired about the name. He explained, “Cuz we beat you, and you hate us.” Classy, bro.
  23. – Whenever someone says “I’m not book smart, but I’m street smart”, all I hear is “I’m not real smart, but I’m imaginary smart”.
  24. – How many times is it appropriate to say “What?” before you just nod and smile because you still didn’t hear what they said?
  25. – I love the sense of camaraderie when an entire line of cars teams up to prevent a dick from cutting in at the front. Stay strong, brothers!
  26. – Every time I have to spell a word over the phone using ‘as in’ examples, I will undoubtedly draw a blank and sound like a complete idiot. Today I had to spell my boss’s last name to an attorney and said “Yes that’s G as in…(10 second lapse)..ummm…Goonies”
  27. -What would happen if I hired two private investigators to follow each other?
  28. – While driving yesterday I saw a banana peel in the road and instinctively swerved to avoid it…thanks Mario Kart.
  29. – MapQuest really needs to start their directions on #5. Pretty sure I know how to get out of my neighborhood.
  30. – Obituaries would be a lot more interesting if they told you how the person died.
  31. – I find it hard to believe there are actually people who get in the shower first and THEN turn on the water.
  32. -Shirts get dirty. Underwear gets dirty. Pants? Pants never get dirty, and you can wear them forever.
  33. – I would like to officially coin the phrase ‘catching the swine flu’ to be used as a way to make fun of a friend for hooking up with an overweight woman. Example: “Dave caught the swine flu last night.”
  34. -I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t at least kind of tired.
  35. – Bad decisions make good stories
  36. -Whenever I’m Facebook stalking someone and I find out that their profile is public I feel like a kid on Christmas morning who just got the Red Ryder BB gun that I always wanted. 546 pictures? Don’t mind if I do!
  37. – Is it just me or do high school girls get sluttier & sluttier every year?
  38. -If Carmen San Diego and Waldo ever got together, their offspring would probably just be completely invisible.
  39. -Why is it that during an ice-breaker, when the whole room has to go around and say their name and where they are from, I get so incredibly nervous? Like I know my name, I know where I’m from, this shouldn’t be a problem….
  40. -You never know when it will strike, but there comes a moment at work when you’ve made up your mind that you just aren’t doing anything productive for the rest of the day.
  41. -Can we all just agree to ignore whatever comes after DVDs? I don’t want to have to restart my collection.
  42. -There’s no worse feeling than that millisecond you’re sure you are going to die after leaning your chair back a little too far.
  43. -I’m always slightly terrified when I exit out of Word and it asks me if I want to save any changes to my ten page research paper that I swear I did not make any changes to.
  44. – “Do not machine wash or tumble dry” means I will never wash this ever.
  45. -I hate being the one with the remote in a room full of people watching TV. There’s so much pressure. ‘I love this show, but will they judge me if I keep it on? I bet everyone is wishing we weren’t watching this. It’s only a matter of time before they all get up and leave the room. Will we still be friends after this?’
  46. -I hate when I just miss a call by the last ring (Hello? Hello? Dammit!), but when I immediately call back, it rings nine times and goes to voicemail. What’d you do after I didn’t answer? Drop the phone and run away?
  47. – I hate leaving my house confident and looking good and then not seeing anyone of importance the entire day. What a waste.
  48. -When I meet a new girl, I’m terrified of mentioning something she hasn’t already told me but that I have learned from some light internet stalking.
  49. -I like all of the music in my iTunes, except when it’s on shuffle, then I like about one in every fifteen songs in my iTunes.
  50. -Why is a school zone 20 mph? That seems like the optimal cruising speed for pedophiles…
  51. – As a driver I hate pedestrians, and as a pedestrian I hate drivers, but no matter what the mode of transportation, I always hate cyclists.
  52. -Sometimes I’ll look down at my watch 3 consecutive times and still not know what time it is.
  53. -It should probably be called Unplanned Parenthood.
  54. -I keep some people’s phone numbers in my phone just so I know not to answer when they call.
  55. -Even if I knew your social security number, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.
  56. -Even under ideal conditions people have trouble locating their car keys in a pocket, hitting the G-spot, and Pinning the Tail on the Donkey – but I’d bet my ass everyone can find and push the Snooze button from 3 feet away, in about 1.7 seconds, eyes closed, first time every time…
  57. -My 4-year old son asked me in the car the other day “Dad what would happen if you ran over a ninja?” How the hell do I respond to that?
  58. -It really pisses me off when I want to read a story on CNN.com and the link takes me to a video instead of text.
  59. -I wonder if cops ever get pissed off at the fact that everyone they drive behind obeys the speed limit.
  60. -I think the freezer deserves a light as well.
  61. -I disagree with Kay Jewelers. I would bet on any given Friday or Saturday night more kisses begin with Miller Lites than Kay.

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