My Top Ten TED Talks: Lessons for business leaders

30 Jul 2018

Who doesn’t love to spend the odd evening watching TED talks? I find them the perfect entertainment: short for my attention span busy life, informative (so I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time), and generally just fun to watch.

As a resource, TED provides access to experts in their field, delivering original ideas, thoughts, and research findings. All for free. I’ve learnt so much, from so many different people (from so many different backgrounds), it really is incredible.

I thought I would use this blog to share some of my favourite talks. The ones that have made an impact or stuck with me—lessons I feel that have made me a better leader and manager. Some make me want to be a better leader, others make me a better businessman, and the last couple have taught me about better ways to run a tech company.

I’ll start with some talks that speak to me in a general leadership sense, then those that I look to for specific business advice, and then a few that are geared towards technology.

Being a better leader

The following talks are not about leadership, per se, but they do inspire me to be a better manager.

Perspective is everything – Rory Sutherland (TEDxAthens)

This talk properly made me laugh. His examples, where he takes a situation and alters one facet of it, are just perfect. You understand exactly what he means.

His general argument, that two identical events can be perceived in entirely different ways based on the way we “brand” them. So someone standing along looking out a window at a party, is an anti-social weirdo. Put a cigarette in their hand: a philosopher.

In business, it is important to consider how your company is perceived, both on a broad scale, but also in every person-to-person interaction.

Rory Sutherland makes me laugh. He also reminds me to consider how my actions are viewed by my customers. Am I annoying them needlessly? Am I leaving them in limbo without any clear idea of how much longer they need to wait?

When they perceive me (or my business) as an annoyance or a time waster or (possibly worst of all) a completely opaque production line, I know that I’ve failed.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable – Luvvie Ajayi (TEDWomen 2017)

Another presenter that made me laugh. Luvvie Ajayi comes from a very different background from me…in basically every way. But her descriptions of being the difficult one struck a chord with me for some reason.

Can’t imagine why.

She talks about how being a troublemaker, asking the difficult questions and pushing the envelope, is something we all must do. It is everyone’s responsibility to question the status quo, even when we’re worried about the personal or profession fall out of doing it.

I can’t pretend to be as brave as Luvvie Ajayi is when it comes to speaking up and being that person that starts off the chain reaction the makes the improvements. But her closing remarks, about how she decides when to speak out, have really stuck with me:

“When it’s time to say these hard things, I ask myself three things. One: Did you mean it? Two: Can you defend it? Three: Did you say it with love? If the answer is yes to all three, I say it and let the chips fall.”

I think if we all asked these questions, the world would be a better place.

We should aim for perfection and stop fearing failure – Jon Bowers (TED@UPS)

The first time I watched this talk, I found myself getting a bit annoyed with Jon Bowers. The idea that we should all strive for perfection, all the time, felt a bit unreasonable to me. I liked what he said about acknowledging failure as a way to motivate ourselves and not accepting it as just “one of those things.”

But I felt that his idea of requiring perfection was unreasonable.

And yet, I kept thinking about what he said. It was a bit of an earworm for me. I thought about the examples he gives of the 4.5 seconds it takes a car to travel the length of a football field being the same as it takes to read a text. It’s a frightening idea that this momentary loss of focus having huge consequences.

So I watched it again.

Watching it the second time made me recognise that AIMING for perfection is not the same as punishing people for failing to meet it.

I’m still not sure I fully agree with this talk, but I have found that it has stayed with me and influenced the way I approach my own work. When I feel my concentration slipping, I think about how, if I was a doctor, that loss of focus could kill someone.

So I redouble my efforts or take a break and only come back when I’m ready to give a task my full attention.

Why you think you’re right even if you’re wrong – Julia Galef (TEDxPSU)

This is one of those talks that really makes you challenge how you perceive yourself. Julia Galef walks you through an example of a French officer in the 1890s who was accused of being a German spy. Long story short, evidence was selected and distorted to essentially frame one of the very few Jewish officers in the army.

Galef points out that his fellow officers essentially decided he was guilty and twisted what they found to fit that narrative.

She follows it up with less serious examples we’ve all be guilty of, showing that we all make judgements based on our own (conscious or unconscious) ideas about who is right or who we think should win.

It’s a talk that really makes you stand back and think about our decision making processes.

Running a better business

The talks in this section are more directly aimed towards teaching a business lesson.

Why the secret to success is setting the right goals – John Doerr (TED2018)

If you want to achieve success, you need a way to measure it, so you set some goals. Spending so much of my adult life working in sales, the idea of setting a measurable goal is easy: it’s a target, make the right amount of money and you’ve achieved your goals.

John Doerr talks about setting goals isn’t as easy as that. You need to have a goal that is measurable, yes, but it goes so much further than that.

He gives examples to walk you through the why, what, and how of goal setting to help you create a goal that you WANT to achieve and that you know exactly when you’ve achieved it.

And then tells you to keep going. Keep evolving that goal.

Know your worth and then ask for it – Casey Brown (TEDxColumbusWomen)

I’ve never thought of myself as shy about asking for what I think my work (or product) is worth. The idea of causing a fuss or “tooting my own horn” (as Casey Brown puts it) doesn’t bother me.

It’s why I found this talk so fascinating.

Casey Brown talks about how, for a lot of women, the fear of asking for “too much” is really frightening. She gives examples of a number of women, including herself, who consistently undervalued their work and you can see how this devaluing would go beyond just a loss of income. You’d lose confidence, which just makes you under value yourself even more.

How to train employees to have difficult conversations – Tamekia MizLadi Smith (TED2018)

This is one that I only watched a couple weeks ago and I found it interesting in the wake of GDPR. She talks about, when someone is asking for your personal data, they should inform you why they’re asking and what they are doing with that data.

All requirements under this new law.

She goes a step further, however, in saying that the employees gathering the data need to be fully informed and trained on why this data gathering is important. They need to know that what they are doing, why they are doing it, and be trained on doing it in the most compassionate way.

I found this talk fascinating because it speaks to this idea of change management and valuing your employees.

Using the example she does, the simple act of providing food (or maybe even just some biscuits) at a session that is going to radically change someone’s day-to-day job doesn’t change the fact that you are making their life difficult. Even if it is to make it easier in the long term.

You are showing them that you value them and see them as an equal.

The surprising ingredient that makes businesses work better – Marco Alverà (TED@BCG Milan)

Spoiler alert, Marco Alverà’s secret ingredient is fairness (and the perception of fairness). His big example is of a single team within a larger organisation operating based on what was best rather than what would give a single individual recognition or would give them a quick path towards meeting their targets.

He argues that we all have this innate sense of what is fair and what is unfair…having raised four teenagers at the same time, I cannot argue with this statement.

When people thing that you are being unfair, e.g. making them achieve unreasonable targets or recognising one individual for a team’s effort, they become unhappy. Unhappy employees won’t go the extra mile, they aren’t engaged and don’t really care about what happens to the business as a whole.

Listening to people when they say something isn’t fair and making the effort to rectify it when you haven’t been can be a difficult thing to do as a manager. Sometimes you feel like you have to be unfair, but Alverà’s talk has made me consider how I can (and why I should) make things right in these cases.

Talks about tech

The last two talks are ones that have made me reflect on what it really means to run a tech company.

To design better tech, understand context – Tania Douglas (TEDGlobal 2017)

This talk started off as “just” one of those inspirational stories; examples of people finding technological (or in some cases behavioural) solutions to medical problems throughout Africa.

But Tania Douglas’ point resonated with me: if you want technology to work for the people who use it, you have to understand HOW they want to use it. And why.

Here at OpenCRM, we make every effort to understand how our users want their CRM to work for them. Some of this is solved through our configuration options, while other cases need dedicated bespoke development.

When we’re in the design phases of bespoke development or even new generic features, it is easy to get wrapped up in the technical wizardry involved and forget about the people who are actually going to use the product.

I try to keep this talk in the back of my mind during these discussions, to get to the root of the requirement and figure out the best way to meet the need, even if (technically speaking) it isn’t the most exciting.

Why tech needs the humanities – Eric Berridge (TED@IBM)

We have a great team here at OpenCRM. A team of people from really diverse backgrounds and experiences. A lot of them are technical. There are a number, however, that aren’t.

These are people who, as Eric Berridge advises, are needed on technical teams to offer new viewpoints, to think critically about a problem, to interface with the customers, and to generally bring a different perspective to the table.

Berridge gives an example of a non-techie saving his company’s bacon when they were about to lose a big project. The non-techie had skills that the programmers didn’t have, skills that were needed to fix the relationship and re-scope the project to something that would actually work.

It’s easy to lose sight of the “soft” skills in light of the fancy tech wizardry, but a successful company needs people from all backgrounds and abilities. As Eric Berridge says:

“And if there’s one thing that our future workforce needs — and I think we can all agree on this — it’s diversity. But that diversity shouldn’t end with gender or race. We need a diversity of backgrounds and skills, with introverts and extroverts and leaders and followers. That is our future workforce.”