Saturday, December 29, 2007

An Invitation to Set Sail...

So here we are again. In that safe harbor between the past and the future. I really appreciate the calm moments between Christmas and New Years. For me it's a time of reflection, appreciation and anticipation. It's also a time of charting the next leg of the journey and this year, I'm inviting you to come along with me.

My grand adventure for 2008 is to finish my new book about a very special start-up company. In fact it's called "The Last Start-Up - A Leader's Journey to Mastery." And in doing so I intend to co-create a new future with you.

During the year I will be sharing new ideas, concepts and questions about leadership that will help you with every aspect of your life, especially your business.

But before I can finish the book, I have to "be" the book. And this means I will actually have to help at least one new client implement a sustainable start-up model that works exponentially better than anything they've tried in the past. I have no idea who this client will be or how the story will turn out. And I can't wait to get started.

I am sharing this with you in the hope that you will set your own "grand adventure" for 2008 and, through this blog we can compare notes and support one another on the journey.

Now for your part.

Contrary to what some believe, Life is not a spectator sport. It requires us to get out of the stands and get on the field or, as I like to say "slip the dock lines free and sail."

I can't successfully make this journey alone. No one can and no one ever does. I need your help and your point of view. I need your questions, comments, encouragement and advice. But most of all I need the gift of your listening - and I promise to give you mine.

Go to to join the crew. With you on board, we can make this dialogue an international journal of new leadership thought, discovery and achievement.

The winds will change and there will be storms along the way. But with a clear intention (a North Star to steer by), a willingness to learn from whomever and wherever the learning comes from, and the courage and good sense to hold on and persevere, we will reach our destination.

So welcome aboard. Go below, take a bunk, stow your gear. And get ready to cast off the lines of the past and set sail to our future. It's going to be an amazing adventure.

- Tom Voccola

P.S. That's my boat, Sea Fever. She's a 1962 Bill Tripp designed Mercer 44 Sloop. I've grown a lot over the past 18 years learning to captain her, and I've created lifelong bonds with most of the crew that have come aboard. I hope we can do the same.

P.P.S. If you know the founder of a start-up, or know of other leaders embarking on the next leg of their organization's journey, who might benefit from this "Last Start-Up" conversation, please feel free to pass this on to them.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Accidental CEO

The average CEO is smart, hard working and ambitious, but he or she rarely sets out to be CEO.

In a seven year survey of over 300 CEOs, conducted by CEO2, 97% of those interviewed stated that they had never expected to become a CEO – at least, not in that moment. They got their jobs by accident.

Imagine one day going into a Board of Directors meeting as the CFO and coming out as the CEO. It really happens. “I couldn’t believe it; they relieved John of his duties and pointed to me. ‘George,’ they said, ‘we want you to serve as interim CEO while we do a search'. That was over two years ago.”

Another CEO told us that all he had wanted to do was be a great programmer. Alan had some great applications he was exploring in the music industry when his brother-in-law shared what he was doing with a Venture Capitalist friend who just happened to be looking to exploit the recent trend in music distribution over the net.

“I went from extraordinary programmer to incompetent CEO in less than 24 hours. And the funny thing was, everyone treated me like I knew what I was doing – like the title alone would somehow give me what I needed to do the job. I’m talking investors as well as my employees here. I never set out to manage a company with 600 people but here I am. It’s been quite an adventure, more than a little stressful, and at times very lonely.”

Still another CEO shared that his father, who founded a $200 million dollar electronic component and contract-manufacturing firm, suddenly died. Tom was working as a financial consultant for a top 5 accounting firm at the time and his mother asked him to step in for the family.

“During the first six months I looked at everything through a financial lens. It was my only experience so I fell back on it when I found myself in charge. I found out really fast that business is a heck of a lot more than the P&L. In fact the more time passed the more I found that 90% of the problems I ran into were people related. No one ever teaches you that, much less what to do about it. And many never find out about it until it’s too late.”

Even CEOs brought into organizations as professional managers laughed when asked about their first jobs as CEOs.

“Until you asked I had completely forgotten about my first CEO assignment,” said Steve, now Chairman and CEO of a billion dollar marketing firm based in NYC. “After a few years it feels like you’ve always been in the job. Like you were born into it. The key to being CEO is much like being a consultant” he said, “your first order of business is to survive long enough to do some good. And you have a hell of a learning curve.”

No matter how CEOs get their jobs, one thing is certain, there is not a lot of training for the job.

The CEO chair has a compelling agenda of its own, regardless of who is sitting in it, especially if it’s a public corporation.

The chair will run the CEO if he or she is not well grounded in his or her own personal values and guiding principles. Ungrounded CEOs end up managing and reacting rather than leading and growing.

There are three Laws of Leadership that are all but ignored in the tips, techniques, and best practices espoused by modern management thought. Until the laws are followed we will continue to have 74% of our managers disengaged and 97% of our businesses failing within 10 years.

What do you think?

More to come

Monday, December 10, 2007


Imagine a world
where people are amazingly effective
as individuals and as members of teams.
Where they understand the business
and how they impact it.
Where they live where they want,
work where and when they want
and are powerfuly effective.

Imagine a world
of global relationships
where prosperity and teamwork
replace cultural strife.

Where prosperity is driven
by the right ideas,
the right efforts and the right measures,
all focused on making a contribution,
to one another and our customers
rather than personal agendas
and department fiefdoms.

Imagine, what could we be?

- George Van Ness

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Making the Invisible Visible

Recently I was on a Southwest Airlines flight coming back from a week in Houston. I was tired. I put my head back and just closed my eyes. After I heard the clunk of wheels up, I looked over to see who I was sitting next to. He was a young man, maybe about 25 or so -- handsome kid. I found out later that he was from Thailand, going to school at UCLA. Anyway, he was typing furiously on his Apple Computer. I couldn’t help staring because everything on his screen was moving incredibly fast yet taking perfect form. It looked like he was writing a book, with charts, graphs and pictures suddenly appearing as intended. In fact, some of the charts, graphs and pictures seemed to have motion to them. “Interesting,” I thought.

“Are you writing a book? I asked.

"No,” he said, “I’m just putting in my notes from today’s meetings.”

“Interesting notes,” I said, motioning to the screen with the moving images.

“Yes, I’m working on a project that allows me to visualize virus particles.”

"Like I said, interesting."

"I'm working with a biologist at a Houston hospital. Would you like to see what virus particles look like?

“Absolutely,” I said.

He turned the screen toward me and I watched, fascinated, as he continued to type in machine code of some sort. After a moment or two there was a visual of what looked like a smudge on the screen.

“Watch this,” he said with a smile on his face. He hit a key and the smudge turned into a donut-looking thing that had spinning particles, each distinct from one another, but held tightly within the donut. It looked like a miniature universe.

“With a special algorithm I am able to see these invisible particles on my computer screen. Cool, huh?”

“Very cool,” I said.

“My name is Peter,” he said, putting his hand out, “I’m a Ph.D. candidate in Physics at UCLA."

“Well, Peter, pleased to meet you, my name is Tom Voccola and it looks like we are in the same business.”

“Are you a physicist,” he asked.

“No,” I said, “but we’re both involved in making the invisible visible.” I don’t know why I said it, but there it was.

“Really, what things are you making visible?” he asked, closing his computer and shifting toward me with an air of curiosity.

All I had to do was recall the past few days in Houston and I said, “I work in business, Peter. I work with human beliefs, values, thoughts, visions, desires and emotions, to name just a few. These things are invisible to us until called into question, yet they operate in the world just as surely as a hammer when it hits a nail. We’re not aware of what these invisible human programs are going to be or when they will appear, but they do. And when they do they manifest themselves as human behaviors that affect the world just as surely as a virus does.”

“Fascinating,” he said. “Can you give me an example?”

“Perception is not reality.” I said.

“Pardon me; isn’t it supposed to be 'perception is reality'?”

“Yes, it is, but that’s precisely why we have so many problems in the world. We accept our perceptions, usually from our five senses, as reality. Before you guys in science began making the invisible visible we had no idea that there were germs or viruses. But now we know better. And now that we know these germs and viruses are real, people like you are trying to see more clearly how they operate and once you understand, well, I assume you will begin using nanotechnology to influence how they operate.”

“Exactly,” he said, “think of all the lives we can save?”

“I do,” I said, "and I truly appreciate it."

I am glad there are people like Peter in the world. His curiosity, talent and drive may save the world one day. As leaders, the first step in being able to influence our lives, businesses and our families is to accept that there are indeed invisible forces at work – as essential as the food we eat -- yet with the same power and devastation as a bomb. What are the empowering beliefs or limiting beliefs, for example, that are running your business? With the awareness that our human internal operating system runs on beliefs comes the ability to see, to notice, and to observe them more clearly. Only then can you hope to consciously influence the outcome.

"Like I said, Peter, we're in the same business you and I. And it's good to know there are others engaged in changing the world by making the invisible visible."

The Surprise Factor

Have you ever noticed the invisible forces running your life and organization. I call it the Surprise Factor: destabilizing events; people not communicating; seemingly simple things falling through the cracks; thoughtlessness; being surprised by employee and manager behavior; covering up; holding information close to the vest; not trusting one another; offense being taken when none is intended; important issues being ignored; not taking the time to plan; not knowing how to plan; the elephant in the room; tolerating the elephant in the room; misunderstandings; making up stories; spreading gossip; malicious compliance; judging one another unfairly; pigeon-holing one another; not liking one another; being afraid to ask or question or contribute; not hearing what's really being said; focusing on what's wrong; reacting out of false assumptions; lack of appreciation; intimidating behavior; being closed to new ideas; being addicted to looking good at all costs; passing the buck; lack of follow-through. It goes on and on. Well, have you noticed some of this stuff? What are the costs to you as a person? To your organization? Is there a root cause?

Monday, December 3, 2007

Don't believe a word I say...

We have all seen so much in our careers that doesn't work. Promises that are never kept. Programs that fail to deliver. Social contracts that are routinely broken. We've become a workplace of skeptics where bosses are regarded as idiots and employees helpless and hopeless. (The Dilbert myth) Employees roll their eyes whenever management brings out yet another program to "fix those people!" And so they should. Because most of the programs are doomed to failure before they are even begun. They address the wrong things and are simply wrong headed. And, even when they do work -- usually through some super human effort --management will ignore the results or take actions that effectively cut the meaning out of the program.

So don't believe a word you read in this blog. Question everything. It's time.

Because what we have now -- our businesses, our lives, our country -- is not sustainable unless we begin doing what's really important. We have been living a lie. Yet I believe everyone --managers, employees, CEOs -- all of us go to work to do a good job, but something gets in the way. No matter what, something steals the meaning from us. Steals the joy and power and potential from all of us. So,what do you think it is? I have my theory. I call it the surprise factor.

You were born into a reactive world...

You were born into a reactive world, an eye for an eye world filled with fear, uncertainty and doubt. Of course you weren't aware of this. It was just the way things were. You were born with a strong Ego to protect you, as well as a strong Passion and Purpose with which to guide your life here on earth. Like all humans, you came as a contribution to our species. You were born with a unique message to express in the world. And as you read this you know it's true.

As might be expected, your parents were already trained in the ways of the world. They began to teach you how to protect yourself from your surroundings and what not to do in this world to get along. "Don't do this" and Don't do that!" they said. You learned not to trust strangers; how to always be wary on on your guard.

Your teachers, mentors and society in general continued your instruction in self-defense and reinforced your Ego time and time again. After all, anyone can be a child molester, a terrorist.

You were also instructed about who to be as well. "Be a good girl or boy, be a lady or gentleman guided your mother. "Be a hard worker, be strong and take it like a man!" said your father. "Be like George Washington and never tell a lie" said your teachers. "Take on the seven habits of highly successful people," said you boss.

Yet no one has ever addressed that part of you called Purpose and Passion, and so it lay dormant, while your Ego became stronger, more dominant and powerful. You developed the Ego mask called (just insert your name here!)

You're probably become adept at saving the project, saving the sale, saving the client or saving the day. People call you a leader, but in reality you are really a master of reaction, capable of handling anything your world can throw at you. You find yourself out front fighting to win, to survive.

Every once in a while, however, you have a nagging sense that there is something more, some reason for your success, but you never stop to question it because there is always the next hill to take. You unconsciously wield your Ego as a sword, because in your current world view, everything looks like an enemy to be conquered.

There is a more Powerful way to engage the world. And it's already inside.

Look in the mirror..

Look in the mirror and what do you see?

Your body. Handsome or beautiful as it may be.

And what don't you see?

You don't see all the thoughts, ideas, hopes, dreams and fears. You don't see the hard won experience, the unique abilities, the values, learned behaviors and limiting beliefs. You don't see the real you. And neither can anyone else.

Now take this to another dimension.

Imagine a family member, a friend, an employee or an entire organization in front of you.

What do you see?

This is the beginning point of a new business discipline. I call it CEOing. In the past CEO stood for Chief Executive Officer. It implies knowing it all. You don't. In this new context, CEO stands for Creating Extraordinary Organizations. It's an inquiry. There is no "one answer" to anything. The key skill you will need to create an extraordinary life or organization will be the ability to make the invisible visible - for both yourself and others.

So, as you look into the mirror, who are you, really?

I promise you, you are amazing, and you are here to change the world for the better in your life time. The adventure is in finding out, without any doubt, who you really are. And once you do, helping others do the same.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Have you ever wondered...

Have you ever wondered - with all of our Ph.D.s, MBAs, Best Practices, Business Gurus, Management Consultants, Best Selling Books and Advanced Technology - why 74% of our managers still report being disengaged at work?

Something's missing.

And it's right in front of you!

Go find a mirror to see what I mean.