Leadership, Systems, and the End of the World

Throughout the week I capture notes on ideas that I find interesting, evocative, or thought-provoking. Here are my notes from last week.


I’m a student of leadership. One of the most educational reads, which is not about leadership, was “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”. I often recommend this book when someone asks for a great read. While it is not about leadership, It helps provide the context for how we humans are hard-wired to behave in groups and there are a lot of learnings about leadership to be found in looking at the history of our species.

Leadership, for me, is about serving those people whom you lead and I’ve written a lot about this in the past. I can’t recall what I was reading when I took these notes last week, but here are some thoughts on leadership that really struck me as being useful.

Great leaders inspire others to be their best selves, to have more confidence. Great leaders make others more comfortable to take risks, more willing to say something controversial. You can tell when a group has a great leader because they’re more willing to play. In short, great leaders create an environment that makes others better.

Often, people confuse charismatic leaders as being great leaders. These are two completely different things. Charismatic leaders inspire others to feel good about them, the leader. Great leaders inspire others to feel good about themselves, their ability, and instill confidence in those who follow them.



The Cynefin framework (/kəˈnɛvɪn/ kuh-NEV-in)[1] is a conceptual framework used to aid decision-making.[2] Created in 1999 by Dave Snowden when he worked for IBM Global Services, it has been described as a “sense-making device”.[3][4] Cynefin is a Welsh word for habitat.[5]

(Excerpt from Wikipedia)

What are the parts of the place that make it the place? The predictable ordered systems and random parts. HBR has an interesting article on this: “A Leaders Framework For Decision Making


There are two kinds of people:
1. Good people
2. Good people in pain

Episode #518 of the Art of Manliness Podcast: The Quest for a Moral Life with David Brooks is an excellent listen. His latest book: “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life” is about the first mountain most humans attempt to climb is a career driven, ego-driven, materialistic one. The second mountain is about a spiritual and social journey many humans strive to climb near middle age. There’s a lot of great ideas in this podcast, I haven’t read the book yet.

Brooks speaks about one’s vocation and the importance of having one. He does not consider a vocation to be a job or career, but rather the unifying and organizing passion in a person’s life. To arrive at this he suggests writing down the four most beautiful moments in your life and drawing a line through them. What’s your vocation?

He also speaks about we, as individuals, facing a greatest generation moment. It’s not a world war, but rather more complicated global problems. For example the breakdown in the social fabric. I would add climate change as another global problem. that’s confounded by the break down in the social fabric. We should ask ourselves: what giant problem does society need to be solved? And what am I uniquely suited for helping with?

More information at the Aspen Institute: https://www.aspeninstitute.org/programs/weave-the-social-fabric-initiative/


Dinopocalypse Redux by Radiolab is incredible. Imagine the world ending in less than three hours. Imagine every living thing on earth having their blood boil and die within 120 minutes. Turns out, this is actually the end of the dinosaurs and all most other life on earth about 63 million years ago. Dinosaurs lived for 100s of millions of years. Whereas, we humans have been around for a couple hundred thousand…It makes you feel pretty insignificant.

A couple months ago, I started a new job at ServiceNow. I’m responsible for the Customer Workflows product. This is the first time I’ve worked in a matrix organization and the first time I’ve had a boss. So far, it’s been terrific. I’m learning a lot and it’s been great fun. One book that helped me get ramped up quickly was: “The First 90 days”. If you’re transitioning to a new company or a new role, it’s a useful read.
Ray Dalio has a terrific book I frequently recommend titled: “Principles: Life and Work”. They’ve been unpacking the principles outlined in his book on Instagram and it’s wonderful.



“This helps assure the quality of the probing (because others can make their own assessments), and it will reinforce the culture of truth and transparency.”


Helping Sells Podcast

This is a repost of a podcast interview from Aug 31, 2016 that does a good job communicating how I think about business and sales.

Today’s episode features Aaron Fulkerson,  founder and the CEO of MindTouch, a provider of cloud-based software that uses product and support content to drive customer engagement and success. Aaron joined us to discuss how to crush it at sales through a no-selling approach, how to hire teams focused on doing “important work,” building a culture of sales leaders and why companies should approach the sales cycle as a “success cycle”.


The best companies have a simple central guiding concept that drives every aspect of their business.

MindTouch focuses on understanding. Zendesk focuses on relationships. Companies that last and deliver value and are interesting businesses have a simple central value proposition. Think about how your company can do this, too.

Recommended additional listening: Aaron Fulkerson on Gainsight Pulse Helping Sells Episode

Do you want to be the important person or do the important work?

Do you want to do important and valuable work? Do you want to be focused on how you can be of service and do work that will be important to other people and serve others? This means being sincere, authentic, and with integrity. Or do you want to be seen as the “important person”? Companies can vary vastly based on whether their teams are built with “me first” or “team first” employees.

Integrity means to be honest and sincere, and it comes from the word “integral” or “whole”. Only by serving others can we achieve the satisfaction of being whole.

Sales folks may be attracted to making a lot of money, and often fall into the first category to be perceived as the important person in the room. When MindTouch hires, they focus on “no selling”. They hire leaders, who are focused on people who want to help others have positive outcomes.

Leadership is about creating new leaders and serving others. Leadership is measured by how many effective leaders you’ve created. Help clients learn a new way and become leaders in their space.

Leadership is about creating new leaders and being of service of others.

Click to Tweet:

Ep. 21 #HelpingSells Radio | @MindTouch CEO Aaron Fulkerson On How To Crush Sales With A No-Selling Approach: http://ctt.ec/QqObz+

Adopting a “no selling” approach

Focus on how you’ll deliver successful outcomes in the buy stage of the customer journey. In the succeed stage, you’re helping lead them to become proficient in their products. You’ll teach them how to do things differently to get positive outcomes.

The kinds of behaviors that sales teams should be asked to develop skills around include being a leader vs. selling.

Approaching The Sales Cycle As A “Success Cycle”

The sales development representative. They have to get good at creating opportunities. They understand personas at prospects’ companies and how to benefit them. Goal: Help people understand how they’ve helped other companies to talk to account executive (next step in success cycle)

AE 1: Helps prospect understand the opportunity they have with MindTouch’s product.

AE 2: This is the next step: Helping them organize their team members to organize promise.

Prospects will get to learn best practices from mature brands and startups so that every time you’re coming into contact with someone, the goal will be to have them leave the interaction better. If you focus on that, then you’ll succeed and build a company worth working at.

Aaron started selling in fourth grade

When he was in fourth grade, Aaron made edible playdough–yes, really edible–called “edible glue gunk,” and yes, he was a masterful entrepreneur, even back then, successfully selling his ‘dough wares to his peers.

Next, he was passionate about War Hammer a turn-based strategy game and bought wholesale and sold figures and wanted everyone to be excited about it. Leadership and starting things is Aaron’s passion.

To build a leadership culture: Hire leaders and model the approach.

You may lose candidates, but it’s worth it to hire the best people. Aaron’s advice: avoid silicon valley sales royalty! You’re better off with someone with a speckled background who values service. That may slow potential for growth in short-term, but long-term if you hire the wrong fits, you may not be as sustainable with the right customers and your culture will suffer. Invest in building a culture that doesn’t sell, that is sincerely focused on helping others and embodies core values of beginners mind and having a passion for process. Even if you fail – you can be proud of what you did.

If you’re going to do something half-way, don’t do it.

Aaron learned at a young age: Don’t sweep the garage (or do anything, really) if you’re going to do it half-way. Whether the “thing” in question is a partnership or a customer relationship, it is disrespectful to only do part-way. So only take on customers who you can fully help, and only engage partnerships where you can fully commit.

Be a Founder

Be a founder, even if you’re not the one who started the company. Do not be an employee. Why? Being a founder creates a more fulfilled work life for you and turns you into a high performer.

What do I mean by being a founder? It means you take ownership of your role. Do not just do what you’re told, but rather understand why you’re doing your work and why it matters to the organization. How is your impact being measured? Why is that important? What board-level initiative are you advancing? Understand the challenge or opportunity your work is addressing. If you understand this, then you can inform the solution you are delivering.

An employee shows up and does what she’s told. She doesn’t take the time to understand how her work advances the mission. She does her assignment and waits for the next. An employee is a victim of circumstance. An employee owns nothing and optimizes for minimal accountability. “I did what I was told.”

How many times have you witnessed an employee complete a project to the letter requested and completely miss the intent of the mission? A founder would never do this because founders take ownership.

There are two types of people. Those who float at sea and those who swim toward a goal. Obviously, the founder is in the latter group. Swimming toward a goal while always course correcting for the water’s currents.

How to be a founder:

  1. Choose to be one.
  2. Act like it.

How do you know that you’re acting as a founder?

You know the mission, your “managers intent,” and you’re actively tuning your actions to maximize impact.

You care less about what your work colleagues think about your importance and more about the impact you have on the mission.

You understand how your efforts compliment and fit with others, even those in other departments and teams.

You take risks and fail more than the employees.

Being a boring success

I met Ed Viesturs, heard him speak, and had dinner with him. Ed summited Everest seven times (eleven attempts). He’s an incredible human who climbed the world’s fourteen tallest mountains — all over 8,000 meters, or 26,000 feet. He also created the highest grossing IMAX film in history ($300M). If you’ve read “Into Thin Air”, you know Ed. He also has several great books of his own.

Ed approached his expeditions as an exercise in risk management. He was hyper-focused and passionate about the process of climbing the mountain and getting back down. He learned that his successes were a “boring success” because he was able to consistently perform without tragedy and drama due to his focus on planning, preparation, and an ego-free approach to the expedition. When the conditions did not permit summiting, he didn’t perceive it as a failure. Failure was dying. He says: “it’s not a failure; it’s a non-success.” Where can you apply this concept in your life? Your business? Try it, it will liberate you.

Ed summited K2 with Scott Fisher and climbed with Rob Hall. Ed has accomplished what only five other people in the world have achieved (the fourteen tallest peaks), and he did this without supplemental oxygen! Ed racked up a more consistent record (two-thirds success rate compared to one out five) than the average mountain climber. However, because he has been a “boring success” story free of tragedy and drama, he’s lesser known. He’s what Brad Feld has called a “Silent Killer“.

Would you rather be a “boring success” or a well-known tragedy? I know which I prefer and this informs how I approach business and life.

Ed’s approach reminds me of a core value I hold dear: zanshin. James Clear does a terrific job explaining this Zen Buddhist concept, and I recommend the book “Zen in the Art of Archery“. Also, here’s a great summary of Zanshin: http://www.zen-buddhism.net/zen-concepts/zanshin.html 

Another inspiring statement Ed shared that pierced me to my core was:

“Impossible is good an excuse not to try. Think ‘barely possible’.”

Man, I love this guy!

I want to thank Eric Otterson of Silicon Valley Bank for organizing this event and dinner. Eric might be the most connected, and influential people in the tech industry in San Diego and SoCal. He’s also a great human.

Finally, here are choice quotes from Ed that I jotted down because they were just too good to forget. Ed, forgive me if I’ve inadvertently reworded some of these.

Don’t let ego or sunk costs kill you.

Summiting is only half the journey. #zanshin

People who succeed are those willing to pay the currency of toil.

It’s mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

Plan. Prepare. Do it well. Do it without ego. It’s what I call boring success.

If you don’t want to try something, impossible is a good excuse. We thought barely impossible.

Once you and your team make a decision, stick with it. Don’t be influenced by others’ group think.

Patience pays off.

Listen to the mountain.

The number one ingredient for success is passion. Because then you’re willing to be patient, persistent, and suffer.

Don’t regret your decisions. You can’t change it; so, there is no point in regretting.

It’s not a failure; it’s a non-success.

Talent is Bullsh** and You’re not Special


There’s no talent here, this is hard work

Americans believe too much in talent. We are the “Michael Jordan Generation”. People think Jordan was inherently talented, but what most don’t realize is that Jordan simply WORKED HARDER than anyone else. Everyone is looking for an excuse or a shortcut.

Of course she’s better at that than me, it’s “genetics” or raw talent. The flipside of that coin is: I’m inherently talented, reward me because I showed up and wrote some sh** on the whiteboard.

Bullsh**. They’re better than you because they worked harder than you. It’s tough to realize you’re not special, I know, but it’s true. Moreover, just showing up and thinking you’re talented doesn’t earn you a ribbon. You have to actually work. And if you want a ribbon, you have to work harder than anyone else.

Ideas and “whiteboarding” aren’t work. That’s direction finding. Thinking about a route west is not the same thing as pioneering a path through the wilds to the goldfields of California. You have to actually put in the work and take the risks. You have to actually make the arduous journey. And when you arrive, you’ve just begun. That’s when the real work begins.

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Two books that will change how you think about humans and the world


I love to read. Mostly I use Audible.com because my travel and exercise schedule make it easy for me to squeeze in as many books as possible. Every year I have a couple stand out books that I enjoy gifting to key advisors and mentors as a token of my gratitude for their help and advice over the year. 2015 was a great year for reading and there were so many great books that I had a tough time making my selection. While there were many stand-outs last year the two that topped my list were:

Excellent reads! Both were mind bending. These books changed how I think about human nature, the nature of “progress” and the macroeconomics of business empires.

Here are some other great books from last year that stand out in my memory:

I hope you enjoy the reads. Please let me know your best reads of 2015 too.

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The Important And Valuable Stuff

Organizations focus too much on results. Revenue growth, acquiring customers, shipping new product features…these are the obsessions of companies, but these are the wrong things to obsess about.

It was sometime in late 2010 and I was really down. I felt like a huge failure. I had been feeling like a failure for a while. The business grew well in 2009, but it was a sugar high. We were burning money and we didn’t actually have a defensible business model. Many of the people at the company cared more about themselves than each other or our customers. It was all bullshit.

We were focused on all the wrong things. I was trying to drive others in new directions by force of will. Nothing was collaborative about what we were doing. At that time it really couldn’t be because everyone was pulling in different directions and our company was being ripped apart by it. Our culture was shit and I wasn’t sure we could fix it. I felt the most to blame and I probably was. I was the CEO and I wasn’t sure I should be.

We had some things going for us. We had a massive install base of our free (open source) software. We had a few million in cash coming in annually from customers paying for a commercial version of our software, but we were flatlining. Things were not good and everyone at the company knew it. We were burning cash and we only had months of runway left.

We were rushing to get launched a new product and we were hurriedly trying to figure out how to sell it. This time we were smarter about focusing on the product-market fit, but I’m pretty sure there weren’t many people at the company who actually believed in what we were doing. Why would they? We were jettisoning our old business that they had believed in. We were launching a new product that wasn’t proven and we weren’t sure yet how to take it to market. While most of the team didn’t understand it yet, this new product was our only hope because the old business was failing fast.

Aaron Fulkerson in 2010We sat down over a beer and started talking. Just us two founders. It was Steve’s idea and he wanted to make sure that when we failed, because it seemed pretty likely, that we could look back on our last attempt, perhaps a final fit of energy before our demise, and have something for which we could be proud. That was a critical meeting because we hashed out a couple guiding principles that were instrumental. Also, it got me thinking.

I don’t waste energy outside of work on people I don’t love and respect. Why would I hire people at work that I didn’t love and respect? Solely based on the idea they had experience or skill that might help us achieve results? In a moment of clarity I realized we’d made a huge mistake.

We spend more time with the people we work with than we do with our families. Do the math. We had hired people for their skill and experience in spite of not being fond of their values. I recall discussing this with a friend of mine when I was hiring the first of these people.

“I guess I have to resign myself to working with some people I don’t really like as we grow the company. Is this just a hard truth I have to accept? Sometimes I’m going to hire d-bags?”

My friend didn’t work with me, but he was a lot more experienced than me and I valued his opinion. I still do. He’s been at big companies, I never have, and his response was: “Yup. Sometimes you just have to work with d-bags because they’re good for business; because they’ll deliver results”.

Nope. That was a mistake. I had been focused on results. We were building an engine powered by sugar. You know what happens after that sugar rush? You crash soon after. It’s like walls with no foundation. It will collapse in on itself and that’s exactly where we were. Crashing. A poorly constructed house that was collapsing in on itself.

If you want to build something that matters don’t focus on results. Results are an obsession that may offer short term gain, but it will all fall in on you soon enough. Maybe you jump out before it falls apart, like in a Ponzi scheme, but what you built won’t matter. This was when I finally learned that the most important and valuable thing to any organization is the people it employs and the culture that attracts and retains them. It’s these people that service your clients and craft your products.

If you want to build something that matters, focus on hiring people you love and respect and maintaining a culture that attracts and retains them. When you hire people you love and respect it’s easy to invest everything you can in them. When you focus on your people being successful in their careers they focus with the same vigor on the client.

Every company’s goal should be to max out the success of their clients. To scale your business you need a team and you’ve got to instill this goal in your team. If your focus is on making the people you pay, your team, successful in their careers then naturally they will focus on making the people who pay you, your clients, successful. This creates a virtuous cycle that makes your work mean something.

Do what’s right for your people and your clients above all else. Sometimes it’s hard — especially when you’re struggling. Keep the faith though because this is what makes life fulfilling and your success in the results department becomes inevitable.

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Don’t get comfortable

We continuously optimize our lives for comfort, but should we? Growth is uncomfortable. It hurts.

Excellence, or greatness, in any endeavor is born from pain and suffering. So too is life.

Arete (Greekἀρετή), in its basic sense, means “excellence of any kind”.[1] The term may also mean “moral virtue”.[1] In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential.

An undeniable truth of existence is that once one ceases to grow, one is dying.

Do you wish to strive for greatness and life? Or do you wish to strive for comfort?

You cannot have both.