Friday, September 26, 2008

Finding a Niche: Too Much Lincoln?

Suppose an entrepreneur tried to fund a business plan to develop and sell a new operating system for computers.  The pitch: Better than Windows or Linux.

Chances are pretty good that he or she would be chased out of more than a handful of venture firms.

It’s not that the idea is necessarily so bad; maybe the world really does need a new operating system. The challenge, of course, is in the competition.

 In one corner is a formidable technology company with a near-monopoly share. In the other is a worldwide collaborative of geniuses who are giving away product for free.

As competition goes, there's not much a niche to fill.

And yet, when an author walks into a publisher and says, “Are you interested in my brilliant new book about Abraham Lincoln,” shouldn’t the same thing happen? Not only is Lincoln arguably the most written-about American in history, but some of the most capable historians in the land have done the writing.  These include Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Herbert Donald, James M. McPherson, Stephen B. Oates, James G. Randall, John Hay & John George Nicolay, Isaac N. Arnold, and William H. Herndon. There are some Pulitzer Prize winners in there, as well as a friend of Lincoln and his law partner in Springfield. That is daunting competition.

Wikipedia's Historical rankings of United States Presidents shows where Lincoln stands against his peers. The wiki article tabulates twelve polls taken of historians, political scientists and other notables, from Arthur Schlesinger’s work in 1948 to a study done by the Wall Street Journal in 2005. With a few exceptions, these polls were each conducted with different participants and slightly different questions, and none purport to be statistically accurate of anything, except qualitative consensus.

Here's my summary:
The graph above show all of the presidents who have scored in the top 5. Lincoln, Washington and FDR are always one, two or three. And Lincoln spends more time at one or two than either of the others. All of which reinforces the point: Historians love the guy. Historians write about the guy. Who in his right mind, then, would write about Lincoln and expect a positive commercial outcome?

Apparently, lots of people. As the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth approaches on February 12, 2009, at least fifty new titles about the president are due out between now and early 2010. This includes three complete biographies; books of essays and photos; books about Lincoln as a military leader, inventor, youth and writer; books about Lincoln’s family and books his connections to folks like Charles Darwin, Robert Burns, Frederick Douglas.

If you felt absolutely compelled to write about a president, wouldn’t you want to pick one with a mixed record--at least one who wasn’t rated in the top three by historians for fifty years?

With that in mind, I graphed a few of the more historically controversial of our presidents, looking for a contrarian opportunity to dazzle the publishing world.

Check out Rutherford B. Hayes? Ever see a book about Hayes? Exactly. Here was a guy brought in to clean up the scandals of Ulysses Grant’s administration and, in one term, managed to pull Federal troops out of the South, shaped-up a very corrupt civil service, took courageous steps to settle the railroad strike of 1877, and stood firm in enforcing a sound money policy.

Do I see you dozing? OK, maybe not the subject we’re looking for.

But Grover Cleveland slipped from 8 to 20 over the last 50 years, right? There must be a story there.

Are you sleeping?

OK, maybe I get it. Maybe it really is all about Lincoln.

As a matter of fact, I have just been informed that Abraham Lincoln was the tallest president in history.

My book on this exciting new Lincoln development will be out next February.

Just about the time I’m ready to release my brilliant new operating system.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Making Sure Your Folks Are Successful

It’s been hard to escape the Tom Brady-talk this week, no matter where you live and whether or not you like football. Brady went down last week, seven or eight minutes into the first game of the 2008 season, with a freak injury that will keep him out for the rest of the year.

The corollary to the Tom Brady-talk, of course, is the Matt Cassel-talk, Matt being the quarterback who will suit-up this Sunday against the Jets to lead the Patriots in the wake of Brady’s injury.

Depending upon your point of view, Cassel is either one of the luckiest quarterbacks to ever have played the game, or the most cursed. The next few weeks might well answer that question.

As evidence, Cassel spent his entire career at USC as a backup behind not one but two Heisman Trophy winners, Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. Drafted by the Patriots in 2005, Cassel then got to sit behind arguably the best player in the league who was fast becoming one of the best four or five quarterbacks of all-time.

If Cassel bombs these next few weeks you would have to call his career thus far astoundingly lucky—getting paid, having a great seat to every game, mingling with the giants of pro football, and not being good enough to succeed. If he succeeds, then, in retrospect, all that talent would have gone to waste for years.

Here is the one thing I know for sure: Bill Belichick is a good enough coach that he will give Cassel every chance to succeed. In fact, he will take the offensive strategy for the 2008/9 season that he and his coaching staff labored over all spring and summer and, if need be, toss it out. Rewrite and adapt and amend. Make it work for the new guy.

Whatever the game plan is on Sunday against the Jets, it’ll key off Cassel’s talents, giving him his very best chance to win.

It seems like a simple concept, this “matching the plan to the individual,” but it doesn’t appear often in our daily lives, either personal or professional.

One great model of the twentieth century for this kind of intensely individual-based leadership was Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. (Don’t you wish businessmen took titles like jazzmen? Duke Jobs. King Welch. Count Gates. I like it!)

Ellington, who had established himself as a leading light in the music world of Washington, D.C. by 1923, headed for New York City, setting up shop with his band, the Washingtonians, at the Hollywood Club near Times Square. As his band grew and changed, Ellington constantly adapted its sound to reflect what was going on around it, but more importantly, to the kind and quality of his players.

“Duke studied his men,” one of his band said. “He studied their style, how they maneuver with their music, with their playing and everything. And he keeps that in mind so if he wrote anything for you, it fit you like a glove.”

Jazz historian Ted Gioia writes, “And listen Ellington did, consummately, deeply, and, out of the listening, extract from each player the essence of his musical personality, out of each section its unique character, out of the whole band, a sound like no other.”

In 1927 Ellington’s band was selected to fill an opening at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Ellington called it lucky when the club’s manager showed up too late to compare the other bands competing for the spot and chose Ellington. That “luck”—like when Tom Brady took over from an injured Drew Bledsoe--turned into performing six nights a week, backing up all the acts that performed at the Cotton Club, recording for records and playing regularly on the radio to a mass audience.

In time, with few stars and only an occasional “pop” tune, Ellington’s men became the most critically acclaimed African-American band of its day.

Marcus Buckingham has made a career of encouraging business people to uncover their natural strengths, and then, rather than try to acquire new ones, find situations that leverage those existing strengths.

It seems so obvious when you say it that way.

Even better is to have a bandleader like Ellington to help you with the task.

One of Ellington’s players said, “If he’d see where a guy had got some type of talent, he’d go along with him.”

Do you think Matt Cassel is hoping Belichick has more than a little Ellington in him?

How about the folks who report to you?