Monday, October 16, 2017

Blind Spots that Derail Careers

Fast Company's Stephanie Vozza writes this week about the need for accurate self-assessment.  She argues that being blind about our weaknesses can derail our careers.  She cites a new book by Kellogg School of Management Professor Carter Cast.   In his book, Cast describes five blind spots that impede our careers:

  1. A me-first attitude that leads to poor listening skills
  2. Micromanaging others, hindering your ability to build and lead a team
  3. Being too comfortable with routines and resisting change
  4. Having narrow perspectives on business that undermine your ability to be strategic
  5. Not following through on promises due to poor organization or task management skill

Friday, October 13, 2017

How to Stop Being a Micromanager

We have all worked for a micromanager at one point or another in our careers.   The experience can prove very frustrating.  We cherish our autonomy and believe in our abilities.  We become frustrated when a micromanaging boss meddles in our work.  Moreover, we become disenchanted when that meddling slows us down, creating numerous delays while our competition passes us by.   Of course, we all have probably micromanaged one of our employees or team members at some point or another.  Those in glass houses... 

How can someone stop being a micromanager?   Naturally, a simple recipe does not exist.  Here are a few baby steps in the right direction though:

1.  Make a list of the types of decisions in which you have been involved heavily over the past month or so.   Now divide the list into two categories: the ones in which you absolutely must be involved, and the ones where you  might test letting go a bit.  Give it a few weeks or a month, and see how things go.  Let your subordinates know that you are going to try to let go on those particular decisions.  Review and assess periodically to see if the change has been productive.  

2.  Identify the people you trust the most in the organization.  Consider providing them more autonomy.  Talk with them about the opportunities that they wish to pursue, and the situations where they feel confident moving with less direction and oversight. 

3.  Examine your calendar.  How can you free up some time to think more strategically about the direction of the organization?  What meetings or commitments are soaking up your valuable time, while strategic issues receive less attention than they deserve?  Consider shifting responsibility to subordinates so that you can find time to address high-stakes, high-risk issues that warrant your undivided attention.  Extract yourself from a few meetings and follow up to see how things went without your presence. 

4.  Review the forms and memos that arrive on your desk for signature and approval.  How many layers of approval exist on those issues?   Do you need to be one of those layers?  Consider changing the rules and procedures to provide others more autonomy.  For example, might you change the spending limit above which people must obtain your approval?   Do you need to sign off on as many personnel requisitions as you do?   Does someone really need your approval to reserve that particular space or hold a special event in your offices?  

5.  Assess your email inbox.  Do you need to be involved in all those email threads?  How might you reduce your email traffic by 10%?   Consider the situations from which you could extract yourself.  Think about how much more productive you can become if you eliminate 10% of your emails.  

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Scarcity of CEO Talent? Are Board Members Right?

Joann Lublin of the Wall Street Journal reports today on directors' beliefs about the CEO talent pool. She writes:

The pool of executives qualified to take over the top job at the biggest U.S. companies is incredibly shallow, especially in the technology industry, a recent survey of directors finds. On average, directors of Fortune 250 companies estimate that fewer than four people inside and outside their company have the management expertise and industry-specific knowledge to step into the CEO role and run it as well as its current leader, according to a Stanford University survey of 113 such directors. Board members also say an average of six executives could perform at the same level as the head of their largest rival. 

I found these results interesting. It certainly explains why CEOs receive very high compensation packages. The question, however, is whether directors are right. Apparently, the conventional wisdom is that the talent pool is very shallow. Do directors have concrete evidence to support this belief? What if they are wrong? What would that mean for corporate leadership, governance, and compensation? I haven't seen any concrete, valid research that supports the conventional wisdom here. I'm not saying they are absolutely wrong; I would just like to see proof.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Telling the Hard Truth at Work

Wall Street Journal, October 11, 2017
Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal interviewed me during her research for today's column titled, "The Best Ways to Tell the Hard Truth at Work."   She addresses the topics of how to encourage candor across the enterprise, provide honest feedback to others, and tell the hard truth in a constructive fashion.  

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Feedback's Impact on Innovation: A Key Tradeoff

Harvard Business School Professor Daniel Gross has a very intriguing new product development research article forthcoming in the Rand Journal of Economics.   Gross studied the impact of feedback on innovation efforts.  Specifically, he collected data from over 4,000 commercial logo design contests from an online platform.  Gross tried to understand the impact of feedback on the quality of subsequent submissions.  However, he also studied whether feedback might discourage some applicants from submitting additional designs in future rounds of the competition.  

What did Gross discover?    First, not surprisingly, feedback does improve the quality of subsequent work.   However, feedback also discourages future participation.  People who receive low ratings in the initial round are less likely to continue in the contest.   "A majority of players (69.5%) whose first rating is the lowest possible rating will subsequently stop investing in the contest."  That's not necessarily a bad thing.  Weeding out low performers can be efficient.  However, Gross finds that the detrimental impact on participation is NOT exclusive to individuals who receive negative feedback initially.  He also finds that, "Feedback can simultaneously reduce incentives for high-performers to participate, relative to incentives in a state of ignorance, by revealing or enabling high quality competitors."   Yikes!  We can actually discourage good people from continuing by being critical of their early work.  We should not be surprised by this finding.  Let's face it.  We all have a hard time receiving critical feedback at times.  

Thus, a tradeoff exists.   Quality improves, but participation suffers, when we provide critical feedback.  There's good news here though.  What's the net effect?  Gross argues that, "Feedback significantly increases high-quality output, with gains in quality far outweighing the costs to participation."  Moreover, he argues that, "Making feedback private yields modest incremental benefits by shrouding information on competitors' performance, which in turn reduces attrition."   In sum, we will have to live with some attrition when we provide critical feedback, but the net effect is positive in the innovation process.  

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Building a Culture of Trust

Neuroscience researcher Paul J. Zak has been studying trust for many years.   A recent Inc. column by Marissa Levin summarized some of his key research findings.  Zak has discovered that people at high-trust organizations experience less stress, higher productivity, more engagement, and more job and personal satisfaction.  How does one build a culture of trust in your organization?  Zak advocates eight strategies:

  • Recognize excellence
  • Provide challenging (but not impossible) work for people
  • Give workers the autonomy to choose how to do their work
  • Give employees voice, particularly in how they design their jobs. 
  • Communicate clearly, concisely, and frequently. 
  • Build relationships among employees. 
  • Facilitate whole-person growth and development. 
  • Show vulnerability as a leader, thus making others feel psychologically safe. 

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Boards of Directors Assessing Corporate Culture: It's About Time!

The Board of Directors bears responsibility for oversight and control of the management of an enterprise. Their duty to monitor management actions and performance includes assessing the risks that the organization faces. Unfortunately, many boards have been caught by surprise by recent scandals and crises at firms such as Wells Fargo, General Motors, Volkswagen, Uber, Toshiba, and Theranos. Key risks remained hidden for lengthy periods of time. When the boards finally became aware of these issues, the damage had largely already been done... to company reputation, share price, etc. In many of these cases, investigators and analysts have blamed the corporate culture. The organizational cultures encouraged inappropriate behavior and discouraged people from sharing bad news. The boards in many of these situations did not understand the dysfunctional elements of the corporate cultures. 

The Wall Street Journal reports today that some boards have decided to become more involved in understanding and evaluating organizational culture. Joann Lublin reports:

Corporate culture counts. But bad culture can damage a company’s reputation, results and recruitment. That’s why boards are starting to scrutinize the cultures of companies they serve. Directors at Whirlpool Corp. , for example, make sure its workers feel comfortable divulging bad news by tracking internal surveys. Companies such as Citigroup Inc. and CACI International Inc. have formed board culture committees. 

Culture describes the way values and actions create a unique business environment. One recent study found that a positive corporate culture improves company profits. Yet “few boards currently have an explicit focus or formalized approach to cultural oversight,’’ said Helene Gayle, a director ofCoca-Cola Co. and Colgate-Palmolive Co. A blue-ribbon panel co-led by Ms. Gayle wants boards to monitor corporate culture as vigilantly as they do risks. The 34-member commission, organized by the National Association of Corporate Directors, released an extensive report on Wednesday that suggests how boards could bolster their oversight of company culture. 

Can board oversight and intervention help? Absolutely. As Lublin reports, Whirlpool went through a scandal in 2010, and the company instituted changes at the behest of the board. They focused on encouraging workers to share bad news. The result? According to the Wall Street Journal, "Worker survey scores about their willingness to speak up rose 10 percentage points between 2010 and 2015." 

I would add one important recommendation to this push on the part of several boards. Before engaging in culture audits and other monitoring mechanisms, these boards also need to look in the mirror. They must evaluate the board's culture. Are people able to speak freely in board meetings? Do directors have the appropriate incentives? Does risk management get sufficient attention on the agenda at meetings? The boards cannot be effective at evaluating and enhancing the organization's culture if they do not practice what they preach.