Cronyism is alive and well (or why relationships matter)

presidents laughing

We tend to imagine that we live in a Just World. Especially in the field of technology and startups, we want to believe that the skilled, insightful and dedicated are rewarded and the suckups and sycophants are weeded out.

But people do not sit rows on a giant spreadsheet, with the best ones easily identified via a quick “sort-by” function. We are social creatures and treat those we know and like, better than strangers. Relationships matter.

And when considering people we don’t know, we are more likely to favor people similar to ourselves, often because we share the same race, social group, alma matter, or membership in a particular group, among other qualities.

I know someone who was hired a while back in an exciting new role at a large technology company in Silicon Valley. The guy who hired him was in member of a certain fraternity and confided that he was planning to fill his entire team with fraternity alumni. [1]

Is this fair? No. It’s complete bullshit. Do things like this happen all the time? Yes.

You can respond to the fact that cronyism [2] exists in two ways:

  1. Rail against it as unfair and stupid. Refuse to play games or get involved in politics. Struggle to gain influence over others and limit your potential.
  2. Realize that this is human nature, and make it work for you. Have coffee meetings with influential people, build social capital by making great introductions, create weak ties by working at companies like Google or joining startup communities like Hacker Dojo.

When I was younger, I fell into the first camp, hoping to avoid gamesmanship and stay ‘principled’. I eventually learned that to be effective with people, you have to enter the fray. Favors, friendships, fame — these things matter if you wish to enlist the support and involvement other people.

Lest someone misunderstand this article, let me be clear: the more we can operate in a world where positions are filled with the most qualified people, the better. We should do our best to bring about this kind of a world and avoid perpetuating corrupt practices. However, I believe that by refusing to play any kind of politics, one writes oneself out of the opportunity to gain any sort of power and thus will have little ability to influence the system toward becoming better.

Play the game, but don’t let the game play you.

[1] Now this newly hired person could be a fantastic fit and the best qualified person for the job. But because the hiring manager indicated a clear bias for an arbitrary quality in his team, the true qualification of the entire team could be called into question.

[2] The appointment of friends and associates to positions of authority without regard to qualification

Use the Wrong Reasons to Achieve the Right Goals [quote]

Heavy traffic (herding sheep)Photo credit: magical-world

With very rare exceptions, the right things are done for the wrong reasons.

It is futile to demand that men do the right thing for the right reason – this is a fight with a windmill. The organizer should know and accept that the right reason is introduced as a moral rationalization after the right end has been achieved, although it may have been achieved for the wrong reason – therefore he should search for and use the wrong reasons to achieve the right goals. He should be able , with skill and calculation, to use irrationality in his attempts to profess toward a rational world.

– Saul D Alinsky, Rules for Radicals

We live in a messy and convoluted world where people are motivated by a variety of things – things often considered to be foolish, base or irrational by idealists and purists. But I am with Alinsky in the belief that what matters most is the outcome. Let’s focus on getting everyone to do the right things first – right intentions can come later.

EDIT – July 14th, 2012

Some folks have interpreted this post to mean “the ends justify the means” which is incorrect. It’s about creating the right kind of incentives to encourage action. For instance – my startup Ridejoy helps people share car trips. This is a great way to reduce carbon emissions, which is a cause of global climate change, which leads to all kinds of bad things for human and animal life.

However, our branding is about having fun and affordable roadtrips. We don’t guilt or badger people into sharing rides to “be efficient” or “protect the planet” even when that might be one of our ultimate goals. Instead, we offer an incentive, a reason, that appeals to them, even if it’s not the “right” one.

How to Overcome the Naysayers and Get People to Buy-In [art of buy-in 2/3]

This is a 3 part series on the art of buy-in. In my last post, I talked about how smart people often get great ideas shot down. In this post I share a story of how I overcame the naysayers and got buy-in for team dues.

I would venture there are few groups harder to organize than a bunch of cocky college athletes. Gymnasts especially, since we all spend the first 10+ years of training by ourselves, without much of  “team” mentality. That’s why I want to share this story of how I won over my gymnastics team and got everyone to pay team dues.

Our team’s money problem

Photo credit: JMR Photography

September 2008: fall training for the Stanford Men’s Gymnastics team was about to start.

I was meeting with the other team captains to plan for the upcoming year. We had discussed attitude in the gym, our focus during training competitions, etc. While most of the conversation was on how we were going to win the national championship, there was one logistical item on the table: team dues.

As a team, we had become close over the years – organizing annual gifts for coaches and graduating seniors, printed handbooks for freshmen, a camping retreat in the fall and a team banquet in the spring. Usually the captains or other seniors would front the money (around $1,000 total for the year) for these sorts of activities and then try to collect afterward.

Collecting money, a few dollars at a time, from 15+ guys who are usually close to broke, sucks. No one has the exact amount on them, you forget to ask, it’s hard to keep track of who paid and who hasn’t and generally speaking, this is a big hassle. Inevitably the person who fronted the money gets screwed.

The dismal history behind team dues

Now the previous year we had a captain named Dylan. This guy was brilliant – earning above a 4.0 GPA as a Stanford premed – but his ideas for the team often didn’t go anywhere, much to his frustration.

He had tried to push through the idea of team dues – where people would pay an advance to the captains which would be spent on the various team sponsored-activities. It’s a win for everyone – team members would stop getting hassled all the time, and captains would have the necessary funds to do their job.

It died. People said it wasn’t necessary, too much work, and that the current system was just fine and the conversation just fizzled. [1]

Despite this failure, I felt that team dues was still a really good idea – and I knew that once implemented, it’d become institutionalized as a part of the culture and thus worth giving another shot. My co-captains agreed hesitantly – as long as I did all the work, they would support the idea. Continue reading…

Why do some people almost always get their ideas shot down? [art of buy-in 1/3]

Falling off the face of the earth

Photo credit: another point in time

This is part 1 of a three part series on the Art of Buy-In. Part 2 is about my first experience in using these strategies to get a good idea implemented. Part 3 explains the specific tactics I used (and would use in the future) for getting buy-in plus further resources to check out.

Too often, the best ideas get shot down.

Tell me if this has ever happened to you: a group that you’re a part of has a thorny problem and no one seems to have come up with a workable solution.

You rack your brains and realize that there’s an answer that will fix the problem in an effective and responsible manner. You make a proposal, explain your idea and expect everyone to get on board. But for whatever reason, the group rejects your idea and either does nothing, or implements a worse solution.

I’ve definitely been there – and it sucks!

For smart, good-intentioned people, seeing one of their ideas get killed – often for no good reason – can be one of the most frustrating things in the world. But what can we do?

Well, here are some options:

  • blame the group for being dumb
  • dismiss the decision as a political game / popularity contest
  • avoid proposing ideas in the future
  • withdraw from the group because you are frustrated

But do you really want to do those things? If you care about growing as an individual and genuinely care about the group you are a part of and your ability to make a positive impact on these people’s lives – you must recognize that none of these options are ideal.

What you really want is the ability to get people to understand and implement your good ideas – helping everyone win.

I’m sure you’ve run into at least one person in your life, maybe a mentor, a coworker or fellow student or just a friend, who people seem to listen to and who actually is able to get the group to go along with their good ideas. How do they do it? Hint: it’s not because they’re smarter, better looking or more popular than you.

It’s because they’ve mastered the art of buy-in.

There happen to be a number of strategies that are highly effective in getting a group on board with new idea. The fact is, people are not robots – there are social and psychological dynamics to getting a group to agree to do something.

For instance – often times a person might personally agree with an idea but is worried that others disagree and don’t want to make waves. If everyone thinks this way, your idea never gets off the ground, even if everyone in the group agrees with it. How frustrating!

The good news is – you can learn these strategies.

I once dealt with a thorny issue where I got buy-in for an idea that had been previously proposed (and shot down) by a leader in the group by using what I’ve learned about getting buy-in. I’ll be writing up this story very soon.

Email subscribers will get this post in their inbox as soon as I hit “publish” – if you want to join them, click here to join hundreds of smart readers who want to make things happen. I’ll also send you a free copy of Guide to YC (the indispensable 92-pg book for founders applying to Y Combinator) and some other great goodies.

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Leadership Lessons From Obama Addressing His Staff in 2008

“We’re going to have to be tougher, our game has to be tighter, I’m going to have to be a better candidate.”

I linked to this video a few years ago but it’s worth looking at again: Barack Speaks To HQ Staff & Volunteers

In this video, then-Senator Barack Obama is addressing his election staff & volunteer crew. He just won the Democratic Presidential Nomination and no longer battling other Democrats, he’s going to face down against John McCain and the GOP.

Regardless of your political affiliation or of your thoughts on the President’s performance in the past few years, its an objective fact that the Obama campaign was extremely well-executed. There were no major flaws, a lot of well run events, a lot of enthusiasm generated and a lot of grassroots efforts to actually get people to show up at the polls and vote.

Great campaigns typically have strong leaders and I think this video exemplifies how Obama lead. Look at how he focuses his attention on the staff’s efforts. How he appreciates the staff’s dedication, their commitment and paints the story of where they came from a few months ago, when they were down 30 points at the polls and he was fumbling at public events, to where they are now.

He shows his empathy for the volunteers – If you’re feeling burnt out, take some time off. I feel you. – but then brings them back to the task at hand – busting their asses and working essentially nonstop to win the overall election. He brings the focus to the wider world – a country with people who need help, help that (in their eyes) only the Obama team can bring. He reminds them of the legacy they have a chance to establish, that they can say they were a part of history.

He makes sure to touch on the various issues that he knows his staffers care about – the environment, Darfur (which I don’t think he did much about), education & the economy – which both shows his understanding of them and is a promise of what he will do if/when he gets elected.

I love when he says [my paraphrasing] – “You know, if we had lost in Iowa, it would have been ok. We would have a different Democratic nominee and would be putting our support behind them. But now that we are the nominated team, we have to win. We can’t lose.” It’s empathetic but tough.

A lot of great leadership lessons from this 13 min clip.