The business of athletic competition

Saying “SNAFU” in Chinese

Heqiao Tower, Guanghua Road, Beijing
Waiting for another meeting to start
1535 hrs.

Melinda Liu over at Newsweek blogs on the run-up to the Olympics in her Countdown to Beijing blog. Covering the Olympic ticket website meltdown, Melinda asks some really good questions.

She also quotes yours truly.

BOCOG Don’t Get Web.

Worth a read. Her point is simple: right now everyone here is wondering what has gone wrong with the systems at BOCOG to allow this to happen. Clearly, the IT problem stems as much from radically incorrect assumptions about website usage, if not a complete breakdown of communications between the people building the web capability and the people giving them orders.

It would be really easy to point the finger at the IT suppliers, system integrators, and the like. Ugly truth time: Lenovo has the institutional memory of all of IBM’s past Olympic IT sponsorships on their side. It strains credulity to believe the problem was the lack of advice from the tech team.

I think the issue is more systemic: none of the old folks running BOCOG – or even the IOC – truly understand how much of an online Olympics this is going to be. If 8 million people hitting the site sounds like a lot, what about 80 million, or 280 million, on the day of the opening ceremonies?

Good Morning, gentlemen. This is your Wake Up Call

The ticketing fiasco is a wake up call. BOCOG should by now realize that the online infrastructure for these games will be just as critical as the new airport, the new venues, the new public transport, and new hotels. Failure to address these issues will leave as much egg on Beijing’s face come next August as any problems in meatspace.

Windows and Hoops

In the Hutong
Slowly decompressing
1456 hrs.

As Tim Chen makes his move from the leadership of Microsoft China to his new chair running the NBA here in the PRC, everyone seems to be asking two things: how badly will this damage Microsoft, and why is Tim doing this?

To answer the first question, you have to look at why he was brought into Microsoft in the first place.

The People Artist

When Mr. Chen arrived at Microsoft four years ago, the company faced challenges on all fronts. They were seen as distant and arrogant by consumers and the channel, all of whom ; manufacturers resented the company and brazenly shipped computers loaded with pirated copies of Windows; the government was making noise about Microsoft’s perceived monopoly and was openly supporting Linux and other free and open source software; the company was getting no credit for its research and development efforts in the PRC; and, to make things worse, relations between Microsoft’s own people in Redmond and Beijing were hardly optimal, fraught by misunderstandings on both sides.

Certainly from an outsider’s point of view, all of these things were getting worse – so much so, in fact, that many of us wondered if Mr. Chen had taken leave of his senses by leaving the rapidly-recovering Motorola to go to work for a sinking ship.

As it turned out, the move was a good one for all involved. The company’s own press release suggests how things are getting better, but there is more to the story than Microsoft is giving away.

(Note, before I go on, that I am not what you would call a Microsoft fanboy, nor do I consider myself a particular Friend of Tim’s. I’m speaking with an outsiders perspective here.)

Turning a Corner

In the space of four years, Mr. Chen ensured that the company reversed its slide with all of its critical audiences, not by micromanaging, but by catalyzing change in each problem area through personal attention and careful appointments of key managers.

Across China, the company began rebuilding its reputation with consumers, enlisting deeper support among the channel, getting key manufacturers to begin paying for pre-installed copies of Windows, reinvigorating its relationships with government across all portfolios and all levels, and making significant progress in its fight against piracy. The government’s outspoken efforts to drive the adoption of Linux have faded, and the company is getting more credit for its R&D.

Internally, Mr. Chen pulled the company together by installing experienced, China-savvy leadership in each department. He built a bridge between Redmond and the “sub” in Beijing through increased contacts and an all-out effort to educate headquarters in the challenges – and opportunities – the company faced in China, while at the same time proffering solutions rather than making excuses.

After Tim

To credit Mr. Chen alone with all of the improvements in Microsoft’s fortunes in China over the last four years may be stretching the point. But as my father was fond of pointing out, a fish stinks from the head. At the very least, Mr. Chen was a critical agent of change, applying effort and attention in those places where he saw that properly-applied effort would help turn specific problems around.

What he left behind was a company heading in a far different direction here than it was when he found it, with the people and systems in place to continue that momentum. Assuming Microsoft can choose a successor (whom, for the moment, remains The Player to be Named Later) with a vision that will ensure Microsoft continues to address its problems and grab its opportunities in China, the company’s future in the PRC looks bright indeed.

After Microsoft

By all rights, Mr. Chen’s efforts at Microsoft should have won him greater rewards and opportunities inside the company. In all likelihood, that was not in the cards. Growth for Microsoft is now a matter of adding and acquiring new businesses, and the company’s senior leadership is fairly set in place. Mr. Chen’s growth opportunities at Microsoft would probably have been largely limited to growing the China business incrementally. That’s not a bad opportunity, but it’s probably not the sort of thing to keep a guy with solid entrepreneurial/intrapreneurial instincts happy for long. Having to fly economy class on trans-Pacific business trips probably didn’t help.

The NBA makes great sense. While people closer to Tim than I have joked that he was making the change to get Olympics tickets, my bet is that he is even more excited by the scope and depth of opportunity open to the NBA in China specifically and Asia generally:

• First, the NBA is seriously ramping up current activities, and they go way beyond player recruitment, licensing, and the occasional exhibition game. The NBA China Games, NBA Madness, NBA FIT Camp, Jr. NBA, and the NBA Cares Tour, plus all of the work with the Olympics, Special Olympics, and Paralympics should keep Mr. Chen busy for a bit.

• Care and feeding of sponsors like Haier (the official HDTV of the NBA), Lenovo, (the official PC Partner of the NBA), DHL Express (the offical Logistics Partner of the NBA in the Asia Pacific region) will be important, as will cultivating new sponsors the NBA wants and needs for its broadcasts and live activities in the region.

• Deeper licensing opportunities, extending past the NBA to include teams and individual players, would benefit greatly from someone like Tim with his experience fighting IPR violations.

• There are a host of unspoken opportunities implicit in cloning the NBA in China. The NBA’s partnership with the Chinese Basketball Association has a lot of room to grow.

Plus, let’s face it: the NBA is more than sports, it’s show business. Hopefully, Mr. Chen will have a lot of fun.

Congratulations, Tim.

Thierry Henry and the Care and Feeding of Talent

We write about sport but rarely here at the Review, and that’s because it is written about so widely and so well elsewhere. But when something happens in the world of athletic endeavor that seems to call for comment, we will. In this case, it is the seemingly ho-hum news of the departure of Arsenal team captain Thierry Henry for Arsenal’s Champions League bete noir, Barcelona.

While it is by no means easy to be an American living in China and supporting any English football club, satellite television and the Internet do a passable job of keeping me and my fellow soccer fans here in Beijing plugged into the goings on. What I have also discovered is that, if nothing else, distance lends perspective.

So despite the frustration that accompanies my favorite team losing its most valuable player, not only do I understand the reasons for Mr. Henry’s leave-taking, I think it offers an excellent lesson for managing talent, especially for those of us running businesses in the people-rich but talent-poor service industries in the PRC.

Why He Left

Thierry Henry spent 8 years at Arsenal, and they were good ones, too. During his stay the club won the League and Football Association cups multiple times, set a new, seemingly invincible record for consecutive wins, moved into a brand new stadium, and earned the grudging respect of their opponents. Henry himself did brilliantly, and by October 2005 became the top scorer in Arsenal’s long and storied history.

The one accomplishment that remained out of Arsenal’s – and Henry’s – grasp was the European championship. A single point loss in the finals of that competition, combined with the gradual departure of the team’s core players, made it increasingly clear that the Champions Cup victory would be a long time coming.

In other words, Henry had been in one place for eight years – a long time in any profession. He had accomplished much, but he had achieved all he could reasonably hope for in his current situation. And after being tapped as captain of an increasingly inexperienced team, he found himself saddled with the hopes of a squad that was used to winning. No one knew better than Henry that what lay ahead of Arsenal is years of rebuilding, not a redux of its halcyon years of 2000-2004. Leadership is a lonely thing, and there is nothing lonelier than leading a group of much younger people when the odds are against you.

What the new situation at Barcelona offers is a warmer climate, a team made up of peers, and an real shot at the one victory that has eluded him in his career – the Champions League – within the few years he has left on the pitch.

Feeding Stars

Here are the lessons I’m taking away from this situation, lessons I won’t forget because every defeat Arsenal suffers over the next three years will serve as a reminder:

1. Even Stars Get Bored – or Burned Out. In China as in athletics, tenures are short because the pace of life is grueling and because change is constant, and not everybody is Cal Ripken, Jr. The situation you provide to a person today will probably not suit them forever, no matter how many new challenges you throw at them, and sometimes the harder you try to keep them in place, the more frustrated they’ll get.

2. More Responsibility is Not Always the Answer. Many managers tend to forget the simple fact that each person is motivated differently. Some may rise to the challenge of having an challenging new assignment given to at them after five years, others may bristle. When motivating a star, you either need to offer something that touches his or her deepest desires and motivations, or you start working on a transition plan.

3. Offer a Realistic Route to their Goals. Or, help them go somewhere that they can reach them. Do everything practical to build a situation in house where the star will achieve the things that are important to him or her. If it can’t be done, don’t push it. Send them on their way with your blessing.

It’s not the Star, it’s the Galaxy

4. Even a Star Needs Mentors. True achievers have reached that point largely because they have spent their lives learning from different people, and taking the daily counsel of people they admire and respect. When you take that away, leaving them with a significantly reduced group of mentors – even when some of those mentors are peers – they feel like they’ve stopped growing. Real stars know that they bask in the reflected light of others, sharing their energy, measuring themselves against others, and finding their own unique strengths as a result.

In short, stars need understanding, genuine respect, and an ecosystem of like individuals to thrive. Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman, in their book
Organizing Genius, taught me that extraordinary people are happiest – and accomplish the most – when they are part of great groups.

Bon voyage, Thierry, and bon chance. Thanks for the victories, and enjoy Barca.