Dain Dunston

The Language of Leadership

Dain Dunston

Archive for July, 2012

Doing More with Less

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Elegant design — hallmark of the best products and organizations — is the art of doing more with less. This is the story of radical innovation designed to serve the bottom of the pyramid … with payoffs for the rest of us through lower cost products. Right now, someone is working on taking 75% out of the cost of what you sell. What happens to you if they succeed? And why shouldn’t it be YOU who changes the world?

More from my Chicago talk.

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Innovate or Perish!

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The pace of change in business is moving so fast, every company has the same choice: innovate or perish. This video, the first in a series from a recent keynote I gave at a financial conference in Chicago, starts the conversation about how fast things are changing and what leaders can do to harness the power of change. You can get a jump on your competition if you know where to start, and this is the place.

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What Business is Yahoo! In?

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Last week, I pointed out three things Marissa Mayer has to do to win at Yahoo!, one of which was “Know What Business You’re In.”

David Carr at the New York Times agrees and he takes a shot at defining the business. Money quote:

“In business, people will tell you that everything else is secondary to being first. And Yahoo, despite its tattered reputation, is No. 1 in 10 content categories, according to the measurement service comScore, including news, finance, sports, entertainment and real estate. Yahoo reaches more than 75 percent of the total Internet audience in the United States, with 167.2 million unique users in June. On any given day, 30 million or more people stop by. Globally, about 700 million people visit the site in 30 languages every month.”

More here.

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Marissa Mayer, Continued

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Got some great reader comments that are worth sharing.

Charles Dunn is a serial CFO in California:

Here’s what I think she needs to do, and words in your piece are a clue: they were a “creative culture”, in the beginning. I think she needs to create quality products that customers find exciting and want. Starting with search, and continuing with email, and then other products as well. Both of their base products, search & email, have lost their edge. But everything they do has to be creative and high quality, better than the competition. So far they are falling behind. If you’ve got great products then the “bottom line” financially will take care of itself, and a profitable company will have a higher market value.

That’s why Apple is the highest market value company in the US and Microsoft has fallen behind (way behind, and is losing market value). The former has creative genius and recognizes and appreciates and attracts creative talent, and the latter is losing talent and is stale as regards the creation of exciting new products.

Jonel Brown is a corporate meeting producer.

I worked on Google National Sales Meetings for five years and got to know many of the execs. Most of the great ones have moved on to other companies – I hope Marissa is successful with Yahoo now, too. Although she does not need the money, Yahoo employees need a break from poor leadership. You’ve provided a solid blueprint – if someone will pay attention!

Carl King is retired Marine Corps major and former entrepreneur.

Dain has hit on three very important things that businesses need to keep at the top of their to do list. What if our government did the same thing??

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The Three Things Marissa Mayer Must Do to Save Yahoo!

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(And they’re the same three things you better be doing in your company!)


A new leader taking command at a struggling company has challenges way bigger than cutting costs or raising the stock price. If Marrissa Mayer, Yahoo’s new CEO, is going to succeed, she’ll need to do three critical things as quickly as possible. If she gets these three right, there’s a very good chance she and Yahoo! will succeed in becoming relevant to their customers again. If she doesn’t get them right, there’s every possibility that her ground time at Yahoo will be brief.

1. Identify the Culture: Most CEO’s ride into town with a great strategy they claim will absolutely turn the company around. But here’s the problem: unless you have the culture to execute your strategy – or even to care about it – your strategy is toast. Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Ms. Mayer arrived yesterday at a company that is, frankly, in pain. Since 2009, the company has had five different people – including Ms. Mayer – in the driver’s seat. Each came in with a brilliant strategy to turn things around and each was thwarted because, in part, they failed to understand the culture of the people they expected to execute their plan. Not that the employees intentionally sabotaged those leaders (although there may have been some of that), but the plans failed to take into consideration the reality of the human culture of the 12,000 people in the company.

Ms. Mayer has, essentially, only worked in the Google culture, which is a culture that believes they make a difference in the world and that they are the best in the business. Yahoo! employees, by this time, must feel that they have little ability to make a difference and that nothing they try works. Sustained failure tends to build a culture of failure. That has a profound effect on the people who work there. They fear for their careers. They feel they’re not playing on the winning team. And it’s not likely that there’s a white horse big enough to make them see Ms. Mayer as anything but more of the same. And she may not be.

But culture is more than morale. It is the way beliefs and behaviors spread through an organization. Some are constructive and some are destructive, but they are, in aggregate, the culture and personality of a company. It is, in the end, what the citizens of the company stand for. The Board doesn’t dictate culture and leaders don’t define it, at least not until they and their leadership become part of the culture. Your people define your culture. Your culture is what your employees stand for right here and right now. And if that culture and what it stands for is at odds with the company’s brand purpose, you’ve got a problem. A big one.

2. Know What Business You’re In: Do you know what business Yahoo! is in? If not, you’re not alone. Is it a search site, a social media site, a magazine, a portal or a reference site? Who knows? And over the past few years, the parade of CEOs and interim leaders will likely have been more focused on maximizing revenue and profits than on deeply understanding what business the company is really in. And that’s critical.

Look at Blockbuster. In its 20 year blaze of glory, from the time Wayne Huizenga took control of the tiny Dallas chain to the 3 year death spiral that lead to bankruptcy and the sale of assets, Blockbuster essentially had six CEOs. Three insisted Blockbuster was an entertainment company, three insisted it was a retail company. The “entertainers” understood that the purpose of the Blockbuster brand was to provide you with an evening of entertainment at home. “Make it a Blockbuster Night!” they said. The retailers understood the purpose of the brand was to be maximizing revenue per square foot in the stores. “These people will buy anything,” they said. But since customers only care about their night, not the company’s numbers, the retailers all failed, each in less than two years, each bringing the company to its knees and, finally, its death. Those three CEOs weren’t bad guys. They were, in turn, the number two guy at Toys R US, the number two guy at Wal-Mart and the former CEO of 7Eleven. They were experts at retail management. But they failed to understand what business the company was really in.

When John Antioco took over the company in 1997, he was fresh off of turning Circle K and Taco Bell around. When he arrived, Wall Street valued Blockbuster (then a division of Viacom) at zero; a year later, customers were crowding back in the stores and Viacom’s stock had nearly doubled. When I asked him how he was able to turn companies around so fast, he said, “Listen to the managers. They usually know what matters to customers.”

Ms. Mayer will need to get with as many product managers as possible to find out what business the customers expect Yahoo! to be in. She’ll need to follow customers, find out who the remaining Yahoo! brand fans are and understand what they expect from Yahoo! (that they can’t get anywhere else).

3. Build Clarity of Purpose: With clarity of culture and clarity of the business, Ms. Mayer can begin to build clarity of purpose. Think of a brand as a purpose statement: Nike exists to help you get out and “do it.” Apple exists to help you become “insanely great.” Southwest Airlines’ purpose is to make you “free to move about the country.” Google – first with web navigation and now with physical world navigation – stands for helping you find what you need to find. As Roy Spence, Chairman of GSD&M/Idea City, puts it, “It’s not what you sell, it’s what you stand for.”

So, what does Yahoo! stand for? That’s the most important question Ms. Mayer can ask – and answer – in the coming months. Because once there is clarity of purpose, a leader can rally the teams around it, building a culture that offers meaning and clarity. Once there is clarity of purpose, it becomes easier to understand which business lines support your purpose and which don’t.

Tim Sanders spent years at Yahoo! and his book, Love is the Killer App, chronicles the early success of the Yahoo! culture. “David & Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web existed to help people find anything, connect with anyone or buy what they couldn’t source locally,” Tim told me this morning. “It was a creative culture, modeled more after Atari and Auto-Desk. There was no Department of Comportment. When Carol Bartz came to Yahoo!, I reached out, offering to meet her and tell her about the original culture. I even sent a copy of Love Is the Killer App. She declined. She didn’t give a fig about what it used to be. Terry Semel, on the other hand, spent a lot of time with me on the subject, and was deeply curious and respectful of the founder’s vision. He did better than Carol.”

Going back to the beginning is a great place to find brand clarity, Tim says. “If you don’t think respecting the founders and their culture is important, I have two words for you: Carly & HP.”

These three aren’t the only important things Ms. Mayer will need to do through the rest of 2012. She’ll need to reassure investors and analysts that Yahoo! can, in fact, be saved. She’ll need to weed out employees who will never be able to move forward in a redefined culture. And she’ll have thousands of operational issues to address. But unless she can identify the culture, understand what business Yahoo! is in and bring clarity of purpose to the brand, the other things won’t matter.

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When the company is the leader, not you.

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Great article in the New York Times business section about how to build a culture from the bottom up, rather than trying to impose culture from the top down.

A great quote from Cathy Choi, the subject of the article: “I made a concerted effort to make the company the leader, not me .”

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Radical Openness

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Jason Silva is amazing and he has the right idea. Things are moving too fast today to hold onto ideas. Get them out there and let them breed! This is a very exciting video. Call your team in and watch it together.

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Ratan Tata On Not Being Able to Build the Culture He Envisioned

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Ratan Tata was a huge presence in our book, Nanovation. As he prepares to step down from his role as the Chairman at the end of this year, he’s been sharing some thoughts with the press on his legacy.

It’s clear that he doesn’t feel he’s achieved all he hoped. While the TATA Group has grown and prospered during his tenure, he doesn’t think he deserves much credit for that. “We were a traditionally manufacturing company in a sellers market,” he says, meaning that growth would have been hard to mess up. What is revealing is that he believes the company did not succeed in “really embracing the customers’ values.”

One example he cites is what he sees as a failure to create “a truly open, flat, transparent group.” He also believes that they haven’t been able to serve the poorer levels of society. “Serving the bottom of the pyramid in India with affordable products is a real and ongoing challenge and the Tata group has not succeeded in being innovative enough,’ he said. The Nano, for example, while not a sales failure, never really lived up to the promise he hoped it would reach.

Serving the bottom of the pyramid is difficult, from a commercial point of view, precisely because those at the bottom of the pyramid have so little to spend. The Nano was actually aimed at the bottom third of the Indian middle class because those living below the poverty line have no hope of buying even the world’s least expensive car.

The Nano project was a test case of a truly open and flat culture and, as such, it was a huge success. But expanding that kind of organization throughout the rest of TATA Motors — to say nothing of the rest of the 100 companies in the Group — was not something the Chairman was able to accomplish in his tenure.

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