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Stuck in the Middle: The Cold Reader

So I’m glad to be back from a 18 day run in Europe and I finally have a little “down time” to finish a post which has been in the drafts status since early August.  With the end of quarter crunch that is all too common in software, I decided that I needed to move this post from draft to published now!

So I was listening to The Bert Show about a month or so ago and they had some clips on a debunked psychic which was fairly entertaining and I realized this could be a fairly interesting way to look at leadership.   Ultimately this is a continuation of a series on Leadership personas which began two years ago – Stuck in the Middle.   The series started mainly out of a series of observations from folks I had worked with over the years and a couple of traits I saw in myself even made into a couple of the personas.

Over the course of the Stuck in the Middle series I  have examined a handful of leadership personas which I have encountered in software product management: The Geologist, The Collaborator, The Visualist, Management By In Flight Magazine, The Amoeba, Napoleon and the fence mender.  Their is always something you can learn from someone – sometimes good things and sometimes not so good things and that’s what the series is about – more the not so good things in reality.

The latest persona, The Colder Reader, is one of those people you run into who skeptics, such as myself, just kind of sit back, shake your head and generally ignore, but that is not the reaction for everyone. Everyone has a dream and a soft spot and the Cold Reader is good at sifting through his or her laundry list of generalizations to figure these out.

Where some people wish for things to be different and long for a different reality in an organization, the Cold Reader is a great novelty for an organization – at least for the first 9 months in a role, even for the skeptics – it provides for great “can you believe X thinks this is a good idea” discussions and provides for an interesting betting pool on “When are they going to fire the Cold Reader”.

HINT: It’s always longer than you think, because people generally always want to be doing something different and there is always someone misdirect blame to.

So what is cold reading anyhow:

Cold reading is a series of techniques used by mentalists, illusionists, fortune tellers, psychics, and mediums to determine or express details about another person, often in order to convince them that the reader knows much more about a subject than they actually do. Without prior knowledge of a person, a practiced cold reader can still quickly obtain a great deal of information about the subject by analyzing the person’s body language, age, clothing or fashion, hairstyle, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity, level of education, manner of speech, place of origin, etc. Cold readers commonly employ high probability guesses about the subject, quickly picking up on signals from their subjects as to whether their guesses are in the right direction or not, and then emphasizing and reinforcing any chance connections the subjects acknowledge while quickly moving on from missed guesses.

So just like psychics who engage in a “vague but true” series of assertions and follow up tactics so does the Cold Reader.


If you spend enough time with generalities with a person/individual contributor/fellow executive they will give tells/queues for when your on the right track.   The Cold Reader is a leader who uses career aspiration queues, optimistic short comings and people’s plain desire for something to be true to his or her advantage through a series of quick spun powerpoint decks and point quotes from analyst to validate their assertions and directional strategies.

CEO’s, VP, Directors and just about every station in corporations have folks looking for a little insight and are more than receptive to provide personal directional goals and organizational challenges in fairly short order – after all, that is how people collaboratively problems solve.

Executive Cold Readers often leverage small focus groups of smart folks in the organization to gain content, input and new slides which are then played back over time to slightly larger groups until he or she thinks they have the story right.   Ultimately every one wants a good story and wants to be part of the solution – right? Plus the Cold Ready is always up for a roadshow, who doesn’t want a couple of days in SFO and Southern Cali after all.

Think of the air miles one can garner with new slides every quarter, million miler baby!

So at the end of the day everyone does like a good story, right up until the story is all about investment and patience…..  The typical types of discussions:

Scenario 1: VP of Sales is not getting the traction in the marketplace with the story and the Cold Reader is the Marketing Executive.

Cold Reader: So what is the biggest challenge with moving these deals through the pipeline?

VP of Sales: The story is just isn’t resonating with the reps or the prospects.

Cold Reader: Are there any reps which are seeing traction?

VP of Sales: Yeah, Geoffry and Augustine are moving things forward on several big deals.

Cold Reader: I’ve always liked Geoff and Augustine, strategic salespeople who understand solutions our solutions.  Well, should we focus on training and skills for the rest?

VP of Sales: Sure we need more training and there are upgrade opportunities in the staff, but we really need something different that scales in the field and resonates with prospects who have problems and buy products.

Cold Reader: I hear you on building a more strategic sales force, rather than trying to train up the more tactical team members who don’t get it.   I’ll put together a project on packaging with everyone and we may still want to consider upgrading the team to be more stategic.

Result: VP of Sales leaves the meeting thinking the colder reader has an action plan and everything is going right way, but in fact the Cold Reader goes to edit PowerPoints based on the discussion and begins socializing the latest version of the PowerPoint strategy.

Scenario 2: The CEO and the Cold Reader are having an ad-hoc discussion on the business, project status and general how are you doing stuff.  The Cold Reader in this scenario is a development executive.

CEO: So what’s going on? We’ve missed another launch date and can’t seem to get traction with our products lately, thoughts?

Cold Reader: Well we are producing really solid technology and I’m not quite sure about market uptake on the products, but the pipeline appears strong.  Things are going great in my group right now, we’ve implemented new processes and are improving our delivery cadence which will clearly help the product management team in release planning.

CEO: I know we have done a bunch of work in improving our processes, but that doesn’t mean shit if we aren’t moving product that sells.  I’m very cool with improvements, but processes aren’t driving revenue and it appears that it is actually increasing costs according Kevin’s analysis.

Cold Reader: Kevin’s analysis while interesting doesn’t take into account the increased development velocity and quality, but that’s not what we have CFO’s for anywho.  Ultimately we should look at prioritizing our development efforts against emerging opportunities and the current backlog of stuff per my team is mainly focused on improving our existing customers profitability, minimizing attrition, and add-on transactions which aren’t really going to grow the company.

CEO: Dude your right, we need think about growing the company by doing other stuff.  This marketplace is more or less steady state and all we are doing is carving out customers from competitors.  I like a good fight, but it gets old after awhile being a commodity.

Cold Reader: My team has seen some interesting trends around SOA and Analytics in the space which could generate some upside, but these aren’t the requirements we are getting to work on.

CEO: Yeah what we need is some sizzle and new acronyms.  I read about SOA on the plane the other day and it seems like the newest cool shit faster, so you might have something here.  Analytics will provide a little sizzle too.

Cold Reader: We have some items in the backlog, but the product group is prioritizing some product add-ons which are focused on incremental revenue and competitiveness in our current segment higher.  If we could align our backlog to your vision we might be able to make some hay in the marketplace.  I also read something somewhere about these technologies being differentiators and high growth market segments which could really change the company like you want to.

Result: CEO has a summit with the marketing group and recommends they look at re-prioritizing some of their items around this SOA stuff and Analytics sizzle that would make the company more relevant and key revenue wedge items are discarded.

So the Cold Reader in the right corporate environment can have a good time, hell some psychics even get their own TV shows, so there something to be said about that.  In principle, a Colder Reader’s answer after listening and leading the folks being read is “put me in charge” and just with any new gig there are always low hanging fruit to address and declare a victory that’s why you should bet 24 months or greater typically in the executive dead pool.

The Cold Reader kinda starts to see his or her future in a mid-year Ops review which goes a little like the video below…

…and the person is just a little amazed it’s not working and that they don’t have an angle play.  At the end of the day, you can’t think ill of those that want to believe in something better…

Let me see if I can do some cold reading…

Dear Cold Reader,

I’m thinking you recently updated your LinkedIn Profile with inaccurate information/titles. Something about COO/CIO… I’m sensing a “somewhat outmoded” executive team will received a full bonus payout and I’m going to get a bunch of $5 dollar payments in the mail or free lunches over the next quarter.