Misguided Loyalties

James Liang, an engineer for Volkswagen, was sentenced to prison yesterday (for more than three years). And was fined $200,000. His offense: helping VW defraud the U.S. and violate the Clean Air Act by evading emissions requirements with diesel-powered vehicles by rigging software to cheat.

His attorney, Daniel Nixon, said Mr. Liang is a “good and decent person.” He added, “[Mr. Liang] blindly executed a crime because of a misguided loyalty to his employer.”

I don’t doubt it. Not for a minute. I’ve seen it often.

I’ve even visited fellow employees in prison for their misdeeds (price fixing). And worked hard to keep others out. But that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. Usually, transgressors don’t get caught.

The common denominator in most cases is what Mr. Nixon observed: misguided loyalty.

I’ve always been amazed by what people are willing to do from a sense of loyalty to their employers. Of course, it’s not always based in loyalty. Sometimes, it’s out of fear: fear of losing one’s job, fear of being passed over for a promotion, fear of being ostracized.

Most of the people I’ve observed transgress in a serious way are what I’d call
“good and decent people.” They were just willing to do things for their employers that they’d probably not have been willing to do for themselves.

I’ve never made excuses for people who cross the line. Each of us makes decisions about how to live our lives. What risks to take. What injury to inflict on others. If you make bad decisions, don’t expect others to make excuses for you.

Mr. Liang decided to conspire with others to help his employer in deceitful ways that hurt others. And the environment. It was a choice. He was one of the unlucky ones. He got caught.

To whom and what do you owe your loyalty, Vera? These are questions you’ll face in life.

Take these questions seriously. They’re not unimportant. Indeed, our answers define us. They may even affect where and how we spend our future (e.g., in prison and in shame).

I’ve had the privilege of working with some people who owed their loyalty to virtue, honesty and respect for others instead of a man-made creation we call a corporation or instead of money. One that comes to mind is a former colleague who now lives in Alabama. He took such questions seriously. He is a “good and decent person.”

But he’s so much more than that.

One Family You Should Avoid

It’s not a secret: don’t work for a family business unless you’re part of the family.

Yet people do. They fail to heed the warning.

Sometimes, it works out. Usually, it doesn’t.

One thing I’ve learned over the years, Vera, from observing clients and life generally, is that it pays to heed the advice. Unless you were born into, or married into, the family, stay clear of working for their businesses.

We’re seeing it play out at the highest echelon of society these days: in the White House. The White House is being run as a family business. Non-family members who are close to this guy are publicly humiliated as a tactic. Family is off limits. Why anyone would put themselves into such a situation is beyond me.

I’ve seen it countless times. “Blood is thicker than water,” they say. You get the point.

People delude themselves into thinking otherwise. And, as I said, sometimes it works out. But the general rule is well deserved.

In the context of family run businesses, there are two classes of people. The upper class (family) and everyone else. There is no meritocracy at work in most family run businesses.

The risks aren’t worth taking. Stay well clear.

It’s a New World (i.e., I’m a Dinosaur)

The internet has dramatically changed — and will continue to change — the world. At times, it makes me feel like a dinosaur. I’m not alone, but that doesn’t make it any better.

Two systems that are replete with dinosaurs are health care and education, although the former is well ahead of the latter in catching up to the 21st century (mainly because there is more money to be made in health care).

If you want to get a flavor for what I’m talking about, take a half hour and watch this presentation on internet trends by Mary Meeker.

Keeping up or, in my case, catching up, seems like an impossible task. My generation didn’t grow up with the internet. Yours will, Vera. Your parents’ generation was the trailblazing generation. I expect much more to come from that generation. I don’t have such high expectations from mine. I can’t begin to imagine what yours may deliver.

One disservice my generation and the Xers provide to younger folks is interpreting the world, and guiding kids, with a 20th-century mindset based on 20th-century experiences. In short, many of us fail to appreciate how the world has changed and is changing. Consequently, we’re preparing many of our children and grandchildren for a world that no longer exists. Fortunately, it’s hard to keep young people down. Many see what’s happening and are responding.

I came to believe that I’m not technologically savvy enough to do my students justice in the classroom. Few professors and teachers are. But that will change as the dinosaurs retire or expire. Until then, most of our schools and colleges will remain behind the curve. This is one of the most critical reasons no millennial should outsource his or her education to our formal education system.

Enough said! Watch Mary’s presentation and, if you’re really enticed, read her slides.

Playing Your Hand Well

You have amazing opportunity, Vera. You have a great family. And you were born in the United States, a land of unparalleled opportunity. In short, you’ve been dealt a strong hand. Now all you have to do is play it well.

I wouldn’t profess to tell you how to play your hand. That’s your call. But I’m confident you’ll do just fine.

The best I can do is share some of the things I’ve learned over the years about playing one’s hand. They’re personal to me, so don’t try to blindly transfer them to you. Nonetheless, here are a few: Continue reading


The New England Patriots mounted an historic come-from-behind win in Sunday’s Super Bowl. I would have rather seen the Atlanta Falcons win, but I can’t say I really cared. I didn’t.

I don’t like the Patriots. But I do respect and admire some¬†aspects of their character.

The thing I admire the most is their resolve. They never quit. They never feel out of the game. They always believe they can come back and win. Hence, their amazing record.

It’s not that they have the best talent (although they do at the all-important QB position). But they do have the best resolve. And, over and over again, they prove that resolve matters. A lot. Probably more than anything.

Well, perhaps not more than anything. I believe you have to love what you’re doing. If you don’t, resolve probably won’t be possible.

There is a lesson in all of this for us, Vera.

People Are People But Cultures Are Different

When you’ve lived as long as I have, you’ve met a lot of people — people of many walks of life and personalities. You end up liking some more than others. But one thing you come to realize is that people are people. We have different personalities and aspirations, but, in the end, we’re constructed the same. Cultures, on the other hand, are a different matter. Continue reading