Saturday, December 1, 2012

Executive and national leadership

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What is the role  of a leader in government: is it different than the role of  business leader?

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past months, thinking about this picture of Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy last summer during the euro negotiations.  On one viewing, they look like any two business executives leaving  meeting for a nice dinner together. Yet they represent Germany and France:  Countries and Peoples, History and Culture.

S-M 1As executive leaders, they set policies and administrate agendas.  They advance their own national interests, provide for the welfare of their citizens, and negotiate to their advantage with peers and supplicants.

But they are also embodiments of their countries on the global stage.  They represent their culture and industry, defend their language and economy, speak for their citizens and commit their resources and support.  Kings and Popes take on these tasks where parliament and monarchy share power, but these leaders take on both roles.

As do business leaders.

How many activities are familiar in this montage?s-m 2

We carry out the same scope of executive functions, on a smaller scale, and we answer to quasi-legislative and judicial authority through governments, shareholders, trade groups and Boards.  We share nice dinners with our peers.

But, particularly in our dual role as Founders, we represent the business.  Our companies exist because we believe in the product and market, because we could recruit people and money to the cause, and because we could organize and execute on the project.  So we become very much the ceremonial and practical embodiment of the company.

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Should successful business leaders emulate the dual roles of national leaders?  There are business leaders that do: Jobs at Apple, Welch at GE, defined the business as themselves, themselves by their business.

It’s a role and responsibility that I don’t think about as much as national leaders like Sarkozy, even though it’s an important part of my job. 

I don’t often think of myself as the embodiment of my business, as  Merkel thinks of herself as German, but I’d be a better actor and agent if I did.

I’ve attended curses where we learn from politicians how to speak, relate, negotiate, and motivate.  At a deeper level, I’m watching how they govern, in roles that both administer and represent their organizations and institutions.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Soft power and the Low Countries

Soft PowerGrowing up, I wasn’t exactly the biggest, strongest, richest, charismatic, or cutest kid in the group.  (I note, of course, that it’s all different these days…).

In the absence of “strong power”, muscle or money, I found my level through alternative means.  I was joining lesser recognized activities (computer assistant, flute section, science club, props master for the school plays, recognizing what I was good at (math, science, boy scouts) and building a circle of like-minded friends (many are still on Facebook).

Diplomatically, this is essence of Soft Power, a 90’s concept of building global political influence through attractive culture,  progressive policies, and tolerant political values.  For many years, the Netherlands was a “Soft Power” leader among nations; cohesive, confident, socially inventive.  However, conservative politics, immigration issues, and global recession have all eroded the image: Finnish education reforms or German mittlestand are more likely touchstones today.

I was thumbing a copy of Lewis’ When Cultures Collide, an excellent guide to working across cultures, and the specific section on Dutch business norms.  Here’s his outline of how decisions get made in the Netherlands:

Delightfully true, but not an attractive beacon for others.

This month, Tyler Brule’s Monocle Magazine released it’s third annual “Global Soft Power” survey, ranking nations according to their influence on world affairs.  The Netherlands have fallen from 10 to number 15, between Norway and Spain, based on a combination of  politics, diplomatic infrastructure, cultural output, capacity for education and appeal to business.  Britain was number one this year; two winners were from Asia and MonocleTurkey entered the list for the first time.

The Dutch need to be selling their contemporary culture and get over their contemplative decade, was the short verdict, noting that there is still an intense internal debate about what it means to be both modern and Dutch.

it’s interesting to think about: is Soft Power important for the Netherlands, should they care about a decline in influence, and what can they do about it?  I think they have to care: the Dutch will never be a great military power, and becoming a financial hub would require destructive changes to their culture.  The remaining option is to lead by example and influence rather than by force (co-opt instead of coerce, in the words of political scientist Joseph Nye).

I suspect that building a progressive, inspiring, attractive face to the outside world starts with doing more good things for your own people as well.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Upgrading to Windows 8

I’ve always been a Microsoft user, starting with DOS and upgrading with each iteration over the <sigh> decades.  I have a TechNet subscription so the latest version has been waiting for me for since October, and I settled in with my Viao Z last weekend to turn the latest trick.

It hasn’t (yet) been a happy transition, and I’m only a week into experimenting with the system.  A few first impressions:

The upgrade process is probably most difficult of any Windows version.  The initial compatibility scan turned up a half dozen potential problems.  Some required driver upgrades which required me to cancel the install and visit the manufacturer’s websites to find Win8 versions.  My antivirus, Microsoft Security Essentials, had to be manually removed, leaving my computer frighteningly vulnerable.  My trackpad had no upgrade so I had to go buy a substitute mouse.

A day later, the installer finally gave me a green light.  The OS took an hour and a couple of reboots to install, and there were an additional two cycles through Windows Update. 

In the end, everything survived, every thing worked.

The core elements of the UI are still immature. The biggest change in Windows 8 is the phone-like Metro interface, dynamic tiles that highlight the current status of news/weather/calendar and personal mail/social networks/photos.  Additional tiles are available through the App Store, and I installed Skype, the Financial Times, and a Dutch Dictionary to get started.  Finally, I installed Office 2012 and a set of programming tools.

Be prepared for a lengthy configuration and settling-in process!  Although Win 8 is tightly integrated with my Windows Live login ID, none of the established links were imported.  So, for example, I had to connect the People tile to Facebook, Twitter and others. The computer had to be registered as a “Trusted Computer” by email to complete the import, and it took a day for content to start appearing on-screen. My contacts were imported, but yielded a mish-mash of names and pictures that was totally worthless.

I’ve had similar issues with most of the tiles: they are simplistic, inconsistent, badly organized, and need a great deal of tending to reach minimal usefulness.  Even worse, they contain ads, even the native apps!

There is too much integration of internet applications with Microsoft.  The the computer’s password was set to match the online account; the Skype tile linked my phone account similarly.  I suspect a deeper integration of usernames and passwords is taking place as I’m auto-logged into my sites, even as I’m being asked for my Microsoft password “for my own protection” more and more often.

Applications, including Office, are harder to access. The familiar desktop lies under the tiles, and is unchanged.  Many functional tiles simply drop to the desktop to run, including all of the Office apps, so the tiles actually get in the way, adding a step to browsing, creating a document, or editing photos.  The Start button is missing: access to essential links like the Control Panel or a Matlab Application can only be done by creating a tile for it.

In general, there is no difference in the performance or behavior of applications once you get to them, so the added step of finding and launching a tile is just an irritant.

So, a week in, I’m unhappy overall with Windows 8.   I realize that I need to change the way I think about driving the computer, but I honestly don’t see any advantage to the tiles.  They don’t work well enough to be a good dashboard, and they form an extra layer between me and the tasks I want to do.  It’s just awkward and time consuming: optimizing the configuration will literally take a month.  In fairness, I’m not using a touchscreen, but I don’t think that having one would change my feelings.

Philosophically, I know that computers are migrating towards being devices for consuming content rather than creating  it  A mature and active library of lightweight tiles, integrated with phone and tablet deices and sync’d through the cloud, may be a better way  to access resources and connect with friends.  But it’s a step away from helping me to write documents, analyze data, and do research.

Sometimes, confronted with increasingly simplified and indirect GUI’s, I miss the elegance, simplicity, and flexibility of a command line.  Sometimes, I miss Unix.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Things working; things not

First, congratulations to Jules and her partner on the happy birth of their new baby, Rijntje.  Jules is a friend and fellow expat-blogger at Outside Looking In, and I’m looking forward to the stories she’ll have to share.  My children are now 23 and 25 (Laura had her birthday on Thanksgiving this year) and the baby-years seem long ago but still very close.

It’s a busy day, so just a few short items before heading back out into the rain and wind

WorkingThe 5-2 diet. I’m down to my college weight and actually lost weight during the road trip last week.  I have to figure out how to stabilize at that level, but certainly feel better with 15 pounds off my frame.

Not WorkingKPN.  They came, they punted, declaring that the connection at the house works even though they can’t get a signal at that junction.  I’ve put some Dutch friends on the case – two months without phone, TV, Internet and counting.

Working:  People at work.  We’re in a tangle at the businesses trying to initiate experiments that clarify the findings of earlier experiments and negotiating partnership and finance deals.  This is where the value of hiring good people really comes through.  I have increasing confidence that they can find the right answers and that that we’ll move the work forward. Our conversations around the issues have been outstanding and, more importantly, I can see the challenges cementing the group for the long term.

Not WorkingGeriatric medical care.  Well into their 80s, still living independently and sharp as when I was growing up, their doctors spotted some health concerns just prior to my arrival in Denver last week.  They sent my father for an angio and found a blockage that they couldn’t fix.  Along the way, they dislodged debris that caused a minor stroke, then sent him home attributing the symptoms to anesthetic.  Fortunately he recovered over the next few days; now my mother goes in for a procedure next week and they’re prescribed a blood thinner that causes irreversible bleeding for my father (Pradaxa).  We’re losing faith.  I think when people get past 75, they should be left alone to lead their lives without preventative drugs and procedures.

Finally, I recommend a column  by Harry Eyres in the FT about conversation: specifically Where should one go for interesting and intense exchanges?  His thesis is that mobile phones and social media are inadequate replacements for face-to-face conversations.  He particularly relishes intense and spontaneous cafĂ© sessions aided by rough furniture, good coffee, and deep subjects.

I agree, and find my setting at college Formal Halls.  Friday evening I sat across from a variety of social science graduate students.  Conversation ranged over whether digitizing analog films changed the  viewer’s experience (I say no: aren’t films already digitized as frames?), whether expatriation is a recent phenomenon (apparently nobody from the periphery of Britain’s Empire moved to the UK until the 60’s), and whether a Chinese scholar would feel more comfortable settling in the UK, Switzerland or Japan (Japan). 

The three hours flew by as we gestured and parried over long wooden tables and deep ruby port.  Something bonding and generative is, indeed, lost if we abandon the buzz and flow of casual conversation.