Dr O's Blog

A Flaw of Optimism

September 8th, 2019

What happened…

It’s been 4 years since my last Leading Change blog post. What happened in all that time?

I became consumed, spending most of my energy in service, expectations, and hopes – mine and that of others. Nothing wrong with that given I find a lot of joy in it all. I’ve just returned from a week in Pismo Beach, reflecting – looking back, looking at now, and within. I see how I got here. Too much of myself on the back-burner. Too long. No wonder I feel like toast! Though undaunted, I see it’s my optimism and I now see its flaws.

Optimism is an element of emotional intelligence introduced in Daniel Goleman’s 1994 EQ framework, a competency within the self-awareness quadrant. Today, Goleman calls it Positive Outlook. ”Positive outlook means you’re able to see opportunity even when faced with what at first glance seems a failure. You expect that changes in the future will be for the better.” So you keep working more, harder, keeping as many balls in the air as possible, finding small wins and silver linings and not dwelling on bad news.

That’ll wear you out!

Especially when your work is for progressive change in a staid environment or unhealthy culture. For almost 10 years, mine has been public higher education; a system that still works in spite of its inertia – because of exceptional people within it holding on to a positive outlook.

I’m reluctantly tamping down my optimism, all the while acknowledging the early cautions from a trusted colleague. He told me it wouldn’t last long. Goleman warns there’s danger in too much positivity. We can lose touch with reality. Sure, situations, opportunities, and challenges work out to good outcomes for most involved when willingness exceeds resistance (recall “positive outlook”). The reality is there’s often too much resistance to change in siloed work environments where turf politics prevail and it’s difficult to maintain an espoused shared vision in the midst of so many narrow, selfish interests. Different perspectives get no curiosity, new ideas receive little consideration, and whole-hearted leadership is the exception.

Optimists like me can be stubborn. We believe! It’s outside of integrity to make personal interests more important than a higher goal or greater good.  That is, until that stubbornness creates an issue of self-care. At least that’s the conclusion I’ve come to this week. I work harder and harder to be the best leader I can be, and delay more and more of my personal joy, growth, and aspirations – to when I have the time. That will never happen.

So, enough! While I don’t think my colleagues will see much change in my productivity, a small dose of pessimism, as Goleman suggests, will help me get real, let those “C” priorities go, and get my mind, body, and spirit off the back-burner. I’m reconnecting with the rest of my Life!

What a great feeling!


On September 23, I attended the Tandem Computers Reunion at Blackberry Farms in Cupertino. I estimate there were over 100 people there, quite a few that traveled significant distance to be there to see old friends and talk about the best place they’ve ever worked.


The Tandem Story was the last chapter of my doctoral dissertation on the relationship between high-technology organizational culture and emotional intelligence. If you’re interested in the entire study, this is the full study: Herriford dissertation. But here’s the last chapter. Tandem’s culture was built on love and care for each other. It lives on!

Successful Engagement: The Story of Tandem Computers

The author offers these recommendations to leaders at every level of an organization. They are a means of gaining balance and building a strong, unique, and resonant organizational culture capable of weathering the turbulence that comes with the territory. Hewlett-Packard’s NonStop Enterprise Division, formerly Tandem Computers, epitomizes such an organization.

Vision and culture in a new organization begins with the founder (Schein, 1992). Jim Treybig, fresh out of business school and one of Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) first computer salesmen, believed that it was possible to build a computer that would not fail (Clemson, 2002). With Treybig’s support, an ad hoc team of field engineers built an approximation of the first fault tolerant transaction processing systems in the early 1970s. Treybig and most of this group left HP in 1974 to found Tandem Computers.

Treybig took a lot more than talent with him when he left HP. The HP Way was a belief in people, and he saw that it worked. Therefore, his vision was not only one of building a new technology but also building a unique cultural environment “that encouraged not stifled new ideas; that rewarded individual contributors not just managers; that understood the importance of family, of teamwork, of creativity and getting things done” (Clemson, 2002, p. 1). Treybig created an organizational philosophy to foster happy customers, happy workers, and happy shareholders and threw in beer busts every Friday afternoon and six week sabbaticals every four years.

Conversation and communication were paramount and served as the life energy of the culture. The organizational structure was designed around client industries. Cross-functional field teams sold, implemented, and supported Tandem products. The field teams were accountable for the bottom line and the customer relationship and could augment their configurations with corporate resources, if they made the case. At the Friday afternoon beer bust, at every location, system engineers and account executives, hardware engineers and finance managers, would have plenty to talk about over a beer or glass of wine. However, the discussions were usually balanced between work and outside interests. Family members were welcomed and were often in attendance. Musicians brought their instruments to entertain or lead sing-a-longs. People got to know each other.

Tandem was a prolific user of technology as a communications and productivity tool. An internal e-mail system was developed and implemented in the late 1970s, long before e-mail became a popular mode of communication. The system connected offices and people around the world. The design made it a very effective business tool and means of sharing information. The Tandem Television Network (TTN) was a satellite network through which training, major announcements, and important meetings were telecast, live, to every location that permitted a dish on the roof. Employees looked forward to First Friday, a fun, monthly broadcast with a serious purpose of providing a company update. But the talk show, a spoof hosted by a regional sales vice president using Buck Prophit as a pseudonym, was full of humor and even allowed Treybig to get into the act. In fact, TTN was also a team effort. The staff consisted of producers and technicians that drew upon the rest of the Tandem organization for cast and content, depending upon the project, for every broadcast.

The philosophy and practices described above were new to the industry and brought notoriety to Tandem as a “great place to work” (Clemson, 2002). Commitment, pride, engagement, and enthusiasm were evident throughout the organization. Posters of the Tandem Value System, Figure 3, were proudly displayed in offices and cubicles.

Figure 3. Tandem Values System poster. (H. Levine, personal communication, July 11, 2002)

            Tandem endured two technology cycles but began to struggle when the market moved toward open systems. The operating system running on Tandem servers was, and still is, proprietary – a necessity to accommodate the thousands of processors and tens of thousands of transactions per second required by stock exchanges, online services, and ATM networks. Tandem management became divided between staying with its strengths or jumping on the open bandwagon. The decision was to do both and Treybig’s wheel lost momentum.

While much of the original vision was manifest, Tandem missed some big plays, really big plays. Old friends and confidants moved on. Replacements were left to attend to their own interests. The beer busts fragmented. Coherent excitement became corporate, an oxymoronish concept. (Turner, 2002, p. 2).


In 1994, Treybig proposed a buyout to Compaq, but Compaq was not interested. He left Tandem in 1996, a year before Compaq changed its mind (Shankland, 2002). Now, with the May 2002 merger of Compaq and HP complete, Tandem has returned to its HP roots.

Maybe as a result of this serendipitous return to its origins, the Tandem community that Treybig sparked with a vision almost 3 decades ago is reconvening. The author worked for Tandem between 1984 and 1996. In June 2002, she received notice of the formation of a Tandem Alumni Group and an Internet Web site. Upon joining the group and the subsequent dialogue, she experienced the exciting, heart-felt contagion that underpinned the Tandem culture she remembered. Over 1900 people, including Treybig and many of the original founding team, have returned to share their memories of a company and culture like no other they have known. As would be expected from such a community, electronic communication is not enough – they all want to see and talk to each other, person-to-person. Plans for a reunion are underway.

            Tandem began with a vision and philosophy that stirred emotions. Leadership was diffused, teams were truly empowered, and people respected and took interest in each other. For over 15 years, the organization performed well with a team-oriented structure, tenure was far longer than average, no one consistently worked 70-hour weeks, and technology was a tool and not a replacement for human contact. Tandem faltered when it looked away from its vision and succumbed to the game of what it believed were its competitors.

Nevertheless, a trace of the vision remained. Although Tandem lost ground to the commodity system providers, and it has been assimilated into Compaq, and now HP, what remains of the company looks much as it did in the early days. The technology still prevails as the premier fault tolerant transaction processing system available today. The list of core values still hangs on the walls of employees in HP’s NonStop Enterprise Division. They still “hoist the flag”, as Jack would say.

Tandem’s flag was, and apparently still is, a set of values that placed equal importance on self and others, individual and organization. The core values that underpinned the culture had self-oriented components that were balanced with other-oriented beliefs. Importance of the individual was tempered by respect for people and their diversity. Hard work was balanced by the belief in shared success. The focus on innovation and creativity was given a longer view with the expectation of responsible action and ownership. Open and effective communication was made possible by honesty and trust. Tandem was a success and had such a positive impact on the people who worked there because it recognized the importance of balanced values. Tandem and its leadership knew that to be effective as an organization, its self needed to truly engage with others in their desire to do the same.


I’m back from Nairobi with a Kenyan name. I’m Nyawera, woman who works hard. Kenyan women can see who you truly are so easily! And they continue to make me feel valued and blessed. It was another fabulous trip (#8). I did much of the same work I love doing here and made new friends and connections that mean even more possibilities weblink. See the WSWI blog post for the details.

A recurring theme throughout this 2016 visit was the reaction to the election of Trump. Kenyans can’t believe it happened and see it as the beginning of an unraveling of the accomplishments of their native son. Most interestingly, they apparently see (as I do) the parallels of corruption, a growing wealth gap, a broken education system, and politically disengaged youth. In both countries, money governs, the poor and marginalized are kept where they are, and too many young people believe their vote won’t make a difference. I had the opportunity to hear Angela Davis speak on December 9 after my return and received her new book. I haven’t read it yet, but I like the title: Freedom is a Constant Struggle. Wake up everybody!

A 2016 Comcast Sports Network Bay Area segment on the Golden State Warriors’ 2015-2016 ascent to NBA champions featured interviews of more players behind the scenes than on the court. My mind lit up when Bob Myers, General Manager, recited Steve Kerr’s four principles of coaching the team: joy, mindfulness, compassion, and competition. Wow! Double epiphany! One, Myers could recite them. Two, those principles are likely the real story of how Kerr transformed this team into champions.

A simple litmus test of a healthy organization is how many of its people can state its core values and why it exists. I don’t know if Kerr’s principles reflect those of the Warriors organization overall. There must be something they have in common, given Myers was named the 2014-2015 NBA Basketball Executive of the Year and President and COO Rick Welts’ marketing and operational expertise has over 20,000 people on the season ticket holder waiting list. But that Myers knows exactly what drives his key talent says a lot about the connectedness of the culture.

When Steve Kerr was hired in 2013, I immediately felt the decision was a game changer, even without knowing much about his coaching ability. What I did know was a little more about his life and career. I’m not going to attempt to summarize it here, but if you haven’t looked into who Steve Kerr is, start with his freshman year at University of Arizona and explore what he’s lived through and achieved up to this first NBA coaching gig.

Fans know that while Kerr recovered from complications of back surgery during the summer, assistant coach, Luke Walton, assumed the role of interim head coach at the beginning of the season and led the team to 43 consecutive wins. But throughout his absence from the game, Kerr’s presence and principles were always felt. He occasionally attended practices and often watched the games from the locker room. One the evening in November when the Dubs were about to break the record for 16 consecutive wins to start are season, Walton told the press

“He just reminded everybody, he put [the principles] on the white board before we started shoot around and he reminded the guys what those values were. He emphasized to them how proud he was watching them, because we’re hitting all four of those values.”

The first principle, joy, is probably the most obvious to fans. These guys have fun playing and cheering for each other. I sometimes enjoy watching players on the bench as much as I do the five on the court. “It’s a long season and the game’s meant to be fun” is another one of Kerr’s reminders. Mindfulness to the Warriores is thinking about the game and focusing on being a team, not relying on one’s individual talent to best an opponent, or improving personal stats. Compassion is caring about each other and the game of basketball, which also shows up in what some of the Warriors have done outside of the game. Competition is evident in how these guys hate to lose, breaking record after NBA record this golden season – Strength in Numbers!

Another litmus test: an indicator of effective leadership is how people continue to perform highly when they’re not around. In an interview before Kerr’s return, Walton affirmed “When we hit those four things we’re not only very tough to beat, but we’re very fun to watch, we’re very fun to coach, we’re very fun to be around.” But giving credit to Walton, center Andre Bogut pointed out during Kerr’s absence, “Luke let us play like Steve does, and made sure we kept to our principles, made sure there was no slippage. But we have a professional group in this locker room. I don’t think that situation works with probably 20, 25 teams out of 30 in the league.” Guard Klay Thompson added, “Coach has been great, even behind the scenes. You can tell Luke is kind of an extension from him.”

Joy. Mindfulness. Compassion. Competition. Powerful and deeply personal ways of being. Except for the last value, a set of principles one may not associate with sports teams, as Bogut points out. But if you haven’t put your finger on what makes the Golden State Warriors such a phenomena, beyond the exceptional talent of Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson, and Andre Iguodala’s cohesive bench team, it’s Kerr’s four principles of coaching. Of leadership.


Organizations aiming to become more diverse and inclusive are recognizing that the systemic challenge to achieving this objective is unconscious bias. As we become who we are, living in larger societies and smaller sub-cultures, we develop stereotypes and implicit beliefs that unconsciously drive our decisions and actions. Twenty years of data from 1.51 million people completing Implicit Association Tests administered by Harvard’s Project Implicit has shown the following inconvenient truths:

  • The preference for “young” is just as strong in those in the over-60 age group as it is among 20-year-olds.
  • Women show an implicit attitudinal preference for females in careers over males, but they nonetheless show an implicit stereotype linking females closer to family than career.
  • Younger people are just as likely to display an implicit race bias as older adults, women are as likely to display an implicit race bias as men and educational attainment appears to make no difference with respect to implicit race bias.
  • Approximately even numbers of Black respondents show a pro-White bias as show a pro-Black bias.


These are just a few of the often disturbing IAT results. Another finding that stood out for me was the people who will adamantly profess not having some particular bias are likely to have that bias. So don’t be so quick say “oh, that doesn’t apply to me!” These are traits of being human.

What can one do to recognize and counteract bias? While there’s a growing body of training and reports that raise awareness of the need for managing unconscious bias to improve diversity and inclusion, there’s little about how to do it. Applying a combination of my doctoral research, leadership development work and instruction, and 30+ years as an African American female manager in the tech industry, I’ve learned that “the way out is the way in” – it’s building emotional intelligence. EQ allows us to apply our self-awareness, self-management, and the curiosity of cognitive empathy to question and manage our motives and go beyond assumptions we have about others as well as ourselves.

I’m excited about my recent work providing Managing Unconscious Bias with EQ training and leadership development. Current clients are tech companies with D&I goals or related initiatives, but this isn’t just a tech issue. Unconscious bias underlies the lack of diversity in every sector. If you’re interested in learning about the workshop or leadership coaching, I’d love to hear from you!

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