Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Lands' End CEO Pushed Out: Culture Eats Strategy For Lunch

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Federica Marchionni was forced out as CEO of Lands’ End Inc. after only 19 months on the job.   The news did not surprise me given the faltering performance at the firm and the controversy surrounding her leadership.   Six months ago, I wrote a blog post about her effort to turn around Lands' End.   In that post, I referred to some comments by Columbia Professor Rita McGrath, who questioned whether the Lands' End scenario would unfold much like the situation at J.C. Penney when Ron Johnson tried unsuccessfully to engineer a turnaround.  I was particularly taken aback at the time by Marchionni's choice to work out of an office in New York, while only spending one week per month at the firm's headquarters in Wisconsin. At that time, the Wall Street Journal reported, "As part of her contract, the Lands’ End board agreed to let Ms. Marchionni work primarily from an office in New York’s garment district—an arrangement that rubbed some in Dodgeville the wrong way, according to former employees. Her employment agreement says she must be in Wisconsin for holiday parties and other social events that the Lands’ End CEO “historically has attended.” 

To me, the scenario at Lands' End reminded me of the old saying:  Culture eats strategy for lunch.  You can have a bold vision, but you will not succeed as a leader if you can't build buy-in and commitment from people throughout the organization.   How could working from an office halfway across the country have sounded like a sensible way to build support for her turnaround?   There's a bigger issue here though.  Like the J.C. Penney scenario with Ron Johnson, Marchionni did not spend sufficient time understanding the culture, building a coalition of supporters, and making people feel a sense of involvement and ownership with regard to the turnaround plan.   The best turnarounds involve people throughout the organization believing that it's their plan, not simply the CEO's plan.  Sometimes, the CEO has to set the organization on a new course.  Still, the CEO can consult with employees to determine the best way to make that shift, to execute those plans, and to achieve key goals and objectives.   You can tell them what to do differently, but still ask for their input as to how to implement that strategic shift.   

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Great Teams: An Interview with Don Yaeger

I had the opportunity recently to interview Don Yaeger, the former Associate Editor of Sports Illustrated and author of twenty-five books, nine of which have become New York Times best-sellers. His newest book is titled, Great Teams: 16 Things High Performing Organizations Do Differently.  Here are his responses to my questions.  As a Patriots fan, I especially loved his answer to my final question! 

1.  You focus in the book on the notion that great sports teams build a strong high-performance culture. You say that matters more than having the right offensive or defensive schemes and strategies. Can you describe the most important elements of a high-performance culture?

Don Yaeger: Culture is a buzzword that is all over the business publications these days, so I think it’s important to define it. In considering how the word specifically applies to a team setting, I came up with two possible definitions: 1) the conditions within the organization that promote either growth or failure and 2) the shared understanding of what to do in adverse situations. The effort to achieve that culture can be broken down to four essential pillars that I believe set a truly Great Team apart from one that simply performs well.

• Targeting Purpose— The team is connected to a greater purpose. Members understand whom they are serving and why that matters.

• Effective Management— The team is able to think creatively and act dynamically in order to stay fresh, effective, and relevant. 

• Activating Efficiency— Each member of the team brings a unique set of talents, experiences, perspectives, work ethic, personality traits, and know- how that melds with and complements those of the other team members. 

• Mutual Direction— There is a strong sense of understanding, appreciation, shared responsibility, and trust that unites and motivates the team to work together.

After studying the subject carefully and discussing it with truly great leaders, I found sixteen defining characteristics that special teams— the ones that are in a class by themselves, that accomplish more than just a winning season or a successful fiscal year, that pack extra punch and bring a degree of excitement to what they do— all share. These traits can be worked on independently by individual team members, but the truly outstanding teams use them to build on one another. Organizations that exhibit real greatness combine talent, relationships, and innovation in a variety of ways for the sake of achieving a shared goal. 

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Great Advice For Writing Cover Letters

You are applying for that job you would really love to nab.  You have created a strong resume. Now comes the cover letter. What should it say?  How should you communicate your skills and experiences in a way that the reader will find compelling?  At Fast Company this week, Sara McCord has written an unbelievably good article about the mistakes that people often make when drafting cover letters.  She offers some great tips for how to strengthen your letter, grab a recruiter's attention, and make yourself stand out from the crowd.   

First, McCord argues that you have to get the basics write.  Make sure you proofread carefully.  Typos, spelling errors, and grammatical mistakes are all disqualifying immediately.  Address your letter to a specific person by name.  Don't address it, "Dear Sir or Madam."   Don't just thank the recruiter for considering you; make the case that you are the perfect fit given the requirements of the position and the culture of the company.   

Second, come up with a killer opening sentence that grabs the reader.  Don't start with, "I'm interested in applying for the marketing analyst position at your firm."  Instead, she suggests writing an opening sentence that makes the reader to want to know more about you.  She offers three examples:
  • I’ve wanted to work in education ever since my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Dorchester, helped me discover a love of reading.
  • My approach to management is simple: I strive to be the kind of leader I’d want to work for.
  • In my three years at [prior company], I increased our average quarterly sales by [percentage].
Finally, she argues against compiling a laundry list of your skills in the cover letter.  Instead, focus on what distinguishes you from other applicants.  Don't just talk about skills.  Provide anecdotes, examples, and descriptions of experiences that illustrate the talents and capabilities you would bring to the position.  

McCord's article is a must-read for anyone applying for a job.  I would add one important piece of advice to her suggestions. You must know your audience!  Take some time to learn about the culture of the company.   That research will help you understand the approach you should take.  Can you be light-hearted or humorous?  The answer is simple: it depends.  Doing your homework on the company culture will help you find the right tone and format for that cover letter.  

Monday, October 03, 2016

Etsy Engineers Share Their Failures in Company-Wide Memos

Many organizations exhibit of culture of blame and shame when it comes to failures.  In a case study that I co-wrote with Amy Edmondson years ago, a doctor described the "ABCs of medicine" - in the past, he said, health care practitioners and administrators tended to Accuse, Blame, and Criticize when it came to medical accidents and mistakes.  Yesterday, I read a fascinating article about one firm's attempt to transform its attitude toward failure.  Etsy has tried to create a culture that encourages people to acknowledge, discuss, and learn from failures.   Here is an excerpt from the  article posted on Quartz: 

In a conversation yesterday (Sept. 17) with Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney, Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson revealed that people at the company are encouraged to document their mistakes and how they happened, in public emails.  “It’s called a PSA and people will send out an email to the company or a list of people saying I made this mistake, here’s how I made that mistake, don’t you make this mistake,” Dickerson said. “So that’s proactive and I think really demonstrates that the culture is self perpetuating.”  He was referring to the company’s efforts at practicing a “just culture,” based on the idea that blamelessness makes people more accountable, and more willing to admit mistakes.As described by Etsy CTO John Allspaw in an Etsy blog post, engineers (and now others at the company) who mess up are given the opportunity to give a detailed account of what they did, the effects they had, their expectations and assumptions, and what they think happened. And, crucially, they can give that account without any fear of punishment or retribution, in what’s called “a blameless post-mortem.”

I love this technique!   Etsy has done something quite remarkable here.  They are not simply demonstrating tolerance for failure.  They are not simply avoiding the tendency to point fingers when failures occur.  Etsy has gone one step further with this practice.  They are encouraging serious self-reflection on the part of their people.   The employees do  more than admit a mistake in these PSA e-mails.  They describe what happened and they analyze why events did not transpire as they had hoped or expected.  The review and analysis provides the opportunity for improvement, not only for themselves, but for others throughout the organization who read these PSAs.   

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Love 'Em or Hate 'Em, Icebreakers Have Value!

Cari Room has written an article this week for New York magazine titled, "Icebreakers Are Terrible. They Also, Unfortunately, Work Really Well." She interviews former Rice University Anton Villado in the article. Villado argues that icebreakers accomplish three important things for a group: 
  1. They calm people's nerves about being in an unfamiliar or novel situation.
  2. They also provide an opportunity for the facilitator to model the behavior that people should expect throughout the session, and/or the behavior he or she would like to encourage. Team members also can model behavior, providing that all-important first impression about themselves. 
  3. Most importantly, they provide an opportunity for self-disclosure. People grow closer to one another when they share about themselves.   Research shows that self-disclosure proves more effective at building relationships than simple small talk.  
Penn State Professor Susan Mohammed explains in the article that icebreakers can begin to build psychological safety within a group. Room writes, 

And even when the bonds it creates are superficial and temporary, both Villado and Mohammed say that an icebreaker can help to foster a sense of “psychological safety,” or an atmosphere in which people feel free to speak up — to question, criticize, say something out-there — without fear of being ostracized. “Having people do weird and crazy stuff, or step out and do something wild — having people feel kind of uncomfortable, basically — would begin to help foster that,” Mohammed says. You may hate every second of it, but you’re not the only one undergoing humiliation. If everyone in the room has to tell their life story in a silly voice, or mime their favorite thing to do on weekends, at least you all look stupid together.

Mohammed stresses, however, that one should set the appropriate expectations for icebreakers. They can begin to build psychological safety, but much more work needs to be done to create a climate where people truly feel comfortable speaking up, asking questions, admitting mistakes, and expressing dissent. I agree wholeheartedly. Ultimately, psychological safety will be shaped by how people begin to engage with one another as they work to solve real problems. Moreover, if the team has a leader, that person will have a substantial impact on the climate of psychological safety. Icebreakers can be helpful, but you have to build upon that "risk-taking" atmosphere with concrete actions that make people comfortable speaking up on real issues.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Design Thinking Builds Strong Teams

The Nielsen Norman Group has a drafted a terrific blog post titled, "Design Thinking Builds Strong Teams."  They argue that design thinking accelerates the process of building common ground for a team, and thereby enhances team effectiveness.   Here is an excerpt:

Teams are the foundation of a successful workplace. But working in teams can have a fairly large cost: members must spend time building common ground — that is, a body of common knowledge, assumptions, vocabulary, and cultural practices. In strong teams, the common ground has already been established and the overhead of communication is outweighed by the benefits of collaboration. As a result, these teams are able to be not only efficient, but also produce high-quality, fruitful outputs.

How does design thinking create common ground?  They argue that it provides team members with a  shared vocabulary.  Second, the design thinking process produces what they call "tangible artifacts" that facilitate shared understanding and productive conversation - artifacts such as storyboards, wireframes, and prototypes.  Finally, design thinking creates trust within a team because it values everyone's contribution, minimizes the traditional emphasis on hierarchy and status, and encourages all to speak up and express dissenting views.  

Friday, September 23, 2016

WD-40: Building a Culture of Learning Maniacs

Bill Taylor has written a terrific article for Harvard Business Review about what he learned from studying WD-40 and its CEO, Garry Ridge.  Taylor explains that many managers at established firms struggle with the "paradox of expertise."  By that, he means that the more experienced and knowledgeable you are in a particular field or industry, the more challenging it can be to see emerging trends, opportunities, and developments in that domain.  You become trapped by conventional wisdom, well-established rules of thumb, and implicit assumptions.   How do you overcome the paradox of expertise?  Taylor argues that you must become an insatiable learner.  As an example, he turns to Ridge and the culture he has created at WD-40.   The company has a long track record of success with an iconic brand.  One could easily see how such a firm could become complacent.  Ridge knew that the paradox of expertise could become his organization's undoing.  He set out to create a powerful learning culture.  Taylor explains:

Indeed, Ridge is so serious about the commitment to learning that he insists everyone at the company takes the “WD-40 Maniac Pledge,” a solemn vow to become, in his words, a “learning maniac”:

I am responsible for taking action, asking questions, getting answers, and making decisions. I won’t wait for someone to tell me. If I need to know, I’m responsible for asking. I have no right to be offended that I didn’t “get this sooner.” If I’m doing something others should know about, I’m responsible for telling them.

Ridge even sends a subtle message to employees with each email that he writes. According to Taylor, his electronic signature contains a phrase often attributed to the great Italian artist and sculptor, Michelangelo: "Ancora imparo." In English, that means, "I am still learning." People used the phrase in the 16th century to describe how one could and should continue to learn in old age just as he or she did as a child.