Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Downfall of Many Cross-Disciplinary Teams

Yesterday, one of my former students asked for advice.  He has been selected to lead one of six task forces focused on different dimensions of quality for his company.   These six task forces have senior executive sponsors, and they will be responsible for reporting findings and recommendations to the chief executive.  He's very excited about the opportunity.   The responsibility and visibility associated with this project do not usually fall to people at this relatively early stage of his career.  He sat with me to talk about this new role, and he wanted to know what challenges or obstacles he should be prepared to face.  I offered the following observation.  On these types of cross-disciplinary teams, the leader needs to be extremely mindful of the fact that each team member has a "full-time job" in the organization.  Tensions may emerge between the team member and the manager to whom they report on a day-to-day basis.  The manager may become upset that this special project is soaking up significant amounts of the employee's time.  As the leader of the cross-disciplinary team, you need to be prepared to work with each team member to address this potential obstacle to success.  The project leader must be able to outline expectations with each member, and to speak directly with the day-to-day managers so that they understand their employees' roles and responsibilities on the project.  The leader also must be respectful of team members' commitments, particularly at times when they might be especially busy in their day-to-day job.   In my experience, this struggle to balance the obligations of team members serves as the largest pitfall that cross-disciplinary teams face in organizations. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Five Great Questions to Ask When a Team is Stuck

Suppose your team is stuck.   The group has discussed two main options for moving forward, but it can't agree on which course of action to pursue.  Two factions have emerged, and the dialogue has become contentious.   People have become entrenched in their positions.  What types of questions can you ask as a leader to help the group become unstuck?  Here are five great questions you might pose to the group:

1.  What other options might we consider, beyond the two proposals currently on the table?

2.  How might our principal rivals in the marketplace look at this issue?  How might they approach it differently?

3.  Are we trying to solve the wrong problem?   What we if we framed the issue and/or defined the problem/opportunity differently?

4.  What if you had to argue for the option that you currently oppose?  What are the main arguments you would make for that course of action and why?

5.  What if you were the CEO of this organization (as opposed to looking at it from the perspective of your division, department, discipline, etc.)? How might you look at this issue differently? 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Attracting the Best College Talent

Sanjeev Agrawal, CEO and co-founder of Collegefeed, has written a terrific article for Harvard Business Review regarding the recruiting of top college talent.  Agrawal surveyed 15,000 millennials as part of a research project on this topic.  60% of the respondents were still in college, while the remainder had graduated recently.  The two charts below highlight some of the key findings:

Note several conclusions that might surprise you.  First, cultural fit matters more to millennials than compensation or company mission.  In today's Wall Street Journal, we read about the extraordinary lengths to which companies are going so as to convey the meaning and purpose of the work to millennials.  Yet, this finding says that culture matters even more than mission.  

Second, students want to understand the career opportunities available to them down the road.  How can they grow and develop over time?  What is the potential path ahead?  Where might they be in 3-5 years?   

Third, on campus efforts clearly matter as companies try to recruit top notch talent.  However, word-of-mouth through friends matters the most, and on-line efforts (job boards and social media) are crucial elements to the recruitment process.   Campus activities and outreach are important, but you have to go beyond the usual information sessions and job fairs to be effective.  

Here at Bryant, the most successful employers certainly conduct info sessions and appear at the career fair.  However, they have found many more ways to connect with students through course projects, networking events, and ways in which they connect our alumni who work there with current students.  They also use social media effectively to attract talented students and inform them about the opportunities at their companies.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

How Experts Can Train Novices More Effectively

Novices in many fields look to those with experience for mentorship, advice, and training.  It's quite natural for them to do so.  Unfortunately, the experts do not always make great teachers.   They can't empathize with the novices, and they sometimes have a hard time explaining how they learned to do what they do.   Scholars call this phenomenon the "curse of knowledge."  Think about the challenges some superstar athletes face when they try to coach others upon retirement.  Examples of those who struggled in this regard include Magic Johnson, Ted Williams, and Isaiah Thomas. 

Harvard doctoral candidate Ting Zhang has been conducting interesting research on how experts can break the "curse of knowledge."  She has focused on two strategies that could help.   First, experts can document their learning process while they are novices, and then look back on their notes when asked to provide coaching and advice to others.  Second, experts can "rediscover inexperience" by acting like a beginner again. 

In one study she asked undergraduates to record notes about their summer internships, and she collected the diaries.   Months later, they were asked to provide advice to others pursuing internships.  She gave one half of the experts access to their old notes, while the other half did not receive the diaries to review.   The new interns gave higher evaluations to the advice given by those who had reviewed their diaries. 

In a second study, she asked musicians to record themselves playing guitar.   One half of them could play as they wished. The other half were directed to play with their non-dominant hand.   Those in this second group felt more like beginners again, empathized more effectively with novices, and they gave more concrete and effective advice to beginners as well. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Fostering Higher Employee Engagement

By now we have all seen the dismal data regarding employee engagement.   Here's the key finding from Gallup:  "The bulk of employees worldwide -- 63% -- are "not engaged," meaning they lack motivation and are less likely to invest discretionary effort in organizational goals or outcomes. And 24% are "actively disengaged," indicating they are unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to coworkers."  

Many companies have made it a strategic imperative to foster higher levels of engagement.  Often these organizations focus on the corporate culture and the work environment.  They reconsider employee compensation, benefits, and other non-pecuniary rewards.   However, I think many of these efforts will falter unless organizations focus on the single biggest driver of disengagement.  As the old saying goes, you don't quit your company; you quit your boss.  Companies need to focus on the relationship between supervisor and employee.   Developing and enhancing the skills and capabilities of these supervisors will go a long way toward improving engagement.  If the supervisors do not change the way that they lead, then all the other efforts will have minimal impact. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Movie Theaters Will Have To Change

In past blog posts, I've written about the potential unbundling of cable television, as well as the challenges that the traditional broadcast networks face.   This week, Chris Gayomali has an interesting column at Fast Company about the future of the entertainment business.  He describes five potential developments in the upcoming years.   Naturally, he talks about issues such as the unbundling of cable.  His fifth point is quite interesting though.  Here it is:


Meanwhile, movie theaters (remember those?) will need new ways to convince customers to change out of their PJs. While local IPAs and grilled asparagus and goat cheese pizza might not be lyrics in "Let’s All Go to the Lobby," they are offerings on the menu of Alamo Drafthouse, an Austin-based movie-theater chain that hopes to expand to 50 locations nationwide by the end of 2017. Goodbye, hermetically sealed nacho cheese!

I think Gayomali is absolutely right.  As content becomes available to us any time we want it, and as the in-home experience keeps getting better, movie theaters will face a tough competitive environment.  They will absolutely have to focus on the user experience.  Not unlike brick-and-mortar stores actually... the in-store experience can help retailers compete against e-commerce players.  Similary, the in-theater experience will be a key competitive weapon.   

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Katie Rae, CEO of TechStars Boston

Here's a great brief interview with Katie Rae of TechStars Boston.   She offers a few great tips for entrepreneurs including the three elements of a great pitch. 

CMOE's Top 100 Socially-Shared Leadership Blogs

Thank you to the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness for recognizing this blog as one of the top 100 socially-shared leadership blogs of 2014!    The blog ranked #50 on the list, with over 5,300 total social shares for the year. Thanks to all the readers who have shared the content via various social media platforms.  For those who wish to follow me on Twitter or want to include my Twitter handle when they share blog content, you can find me at @michaelaroberto.  Thanks!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Finding People Who are "Coachable"

My kids play a variety of sports, as many children do.  As a parent, the highest compliment that my child can receive from a coach is not about their speed, agility, hand-eye coordination, or ability to put the puck in the net.  The highest compliment is:  "Your child is very 'coachable.'"   In other words, they receive feedback well, listen carefully to the suggestions for improvement, and try hard to execute the new strategies and techniques.  They do not complain when criticized constructively, and they do not try to blame others for their mistakes.  Of course, leaders would love to find tons of employees who are highly "coachable" as well. 

In the New York Times Corner Office column a few weeks ago, Andrew Filev - CEO of Wrike - talked about his leadership style.  Filey described how he hires new employees.  Wrike is a project management software company.  As many leaders are now doing, Filey asks prospective employees to demonstrate their abilities during the hiring process by executing several key tasks that will be crucial to their job at the company.   As Filey says, "I’ve learned to test people in action. So you give them some sort of task to see how they think about things. If it’s for a sales job, you ask them to do a presentation. If it’s an engineering job, you ask them to code something. The task shouldn’t take a lot of effort because you don’t want them to do free work for a month. But the answer also shouldn’t be obvious."  

Filey takes it one step further though.  He doesn't just evaluate how well people perform the assigned tasks.  Instead, he expects it to be far from perfect, and he examines how candidates handle the feedback that he provides.  He doesn't simply want the highest performer.  He wants the best learners, the ones who can improve quickly.  He explains, "You also want them to be very coachable. You give them feedback and listen to how they react. Either they’re learning from it and they’re participating and collaborating in the discussion, or they’re arguing with you. Or, just as bad, they’re telling you “yes” because they think that’s what you want to hear, but their ego is so big that they can’t open up and listen to what you’re trying to tell them." 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Prior Hardship Doesn't Make Us Sympathetic to Others?

We have all heard that empathy is an important element of good design and good leadership.  We have to be able to put ourselves in others' shoes at times if we want to innovate effectively and lead others successfully.   However, a new paper offers findings that may surprise you.  Rachel Ruttan, Mary-Hunter McDonnell, and Loran Nordgren have published a paper titled, "Having ‘Been There’ Doesn’t Mean I Care: When Prior Experience Reduces Compassion for Emotional Distress."   What did they find?   The scholars examined sympathy, not empathy... but it's still worth noting their surprising conclusion.  The scholars summarized their findings as follows:

In a series of experiments, people who had previously experienced a hardship—jumping into freezing water, taking an exhausting mental test, unemployment, or bullying—actually had less sympathy for someone else who had trouble enduring the same problem. This appears to be the case both because people tend to forget the distress of their own experience and because they figure others should be able to endure it, too. Nevertheless, most people assume that experience yields sympathy, which may mean we often approach the wrong people for help.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Another Crack in the Cable Bundle: Streaming Showtime?

During CBS' earnings call yesterday, CBS CEO Les Moonves reported that "CBSN" - a streaming service launched in 2014 - had exceeded the firm's expectations.   He went one step further and suggested that the company would launch a streaming service for Showtime in 2015.  Of course, HBO announced a streaming service several months ago, but they indicated that the price would be equivalent to what customers pay when subscribing to HBO through their cable company.  Could Showtime move more aggressively and undercut the price available through the cable providers?   If so, it would represent the boldest step yet to undermine the cable bundle.   

The big question still remains: What will Disney do?   They own a huge amount of content that is very attractive to consumers  - all the Disney-related children's programming plus all the ESPN-related sports programming plus the ABC-related news and entertainment products.  If Disney follows Showtime and HBO, then cable providers will begin to feel a great deal of pressure.  Of course, the key question will still be:  When will someone offer streaming at a price BELOW the fees paid through the cable providers?  Each firm, of course, wants to be careful not to "kill the golden goose" i.e. to cannibalize their own profitable business in partnership with cable providers.  However, at some point, the market will tip. The opportunity available from "cord-cutters" will be attractive enough to convince some firms to move more aggressively.   Which firm will act like Apple did when it launched the iPad and the iPhone?  In those cases, Apple was willing to eat its own lunch rather than allow a rival to eat it (i.e. the iPhone cannibalized the iPod and the iPad cannibalized laptop sales).   Most firms in a wide range of industries resist cannibalization, and for that reason, are often late with regard to reacting to disruptive innovations.  Will entertainment companies be different in this case? 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

One Simple Way to Attract More/Better Job Applicants

The Wall Street Journal reported this week on an interesting new study about recruiting top candidates for a job opening.   David Jones, Joseph Schmidt, and Derek Chapman have conducted  a study that focuses on how employers write job ads.  They compared ads that emphasized the skills and abilities required by the organization for the position (employer-centered) vs. ads that focused on what opportunities the organization can provide for the prospective employee (candidate-centered).     They worked with an engineering-consulting firm to test the impact of these two different types of job postings.  What did they find?   The "candidate centered" postings attracted more candidates than the "employer-centered" ads.  Moreover, the applicants to the "candidate-centered" postings tended to be of higher quality.   In sum, the best applicants want to know: "What's in it for me?  What can you do for me?"  If you don't begin to answer that question in the job ad itself, you won't get as many qualified applicants. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Follow Your Passion: Is it Really Good Advice?

You've all heard the advice:  Discover and follow your passion.  I certainly advise my students to do so.  Is it really good advice though?  Sarah Leary, co-founder and Vice President of marketing and operations at Nextdoor, has an interesting perspective on this topic.   She shared it with Fortune recently.   She explains:  

Many talented businessmen and women advise young people to follow their passions. However, I’ve seen that most are paralyzed by this open-ended advice because they don’t know what they are passionate about in the professional world. And this isn’t entirely their fault. They simply lack the real world experience and feedback to distinguish what they are truly passionate about — yet. In fact, the advice to follow your passion can often work against you as an inexperienced young professional.

What should young people do instead?   Should they not try to discover and follow their passions?  No, she simply argues that one needs to get out there and gain work experience so as to learn what really motivates and inspires you.   Gaining a variety of professional experiences early in your career can help you discover what your passions are and what you enjoy doing.  She recommends pursuing multiple internships while in school.   She advises exploring different industries, companies, and roles.  As Leary states, "Concrete work experience, even as an intern, is illuminating."  Students will not only learn what they enjoy doing... they also will learn what they dislike.   

I would take it one step further.  Internships provide one important way to discover your passions.  There are others.   Take on leadership roles on campus in various organizations.  Shadow alumni  for a day at various companies, if your university has such a program (we do at Bryant University).   Work hard on class projects that involve consulting work for companies and organizations in your region.  Think carefully about the type of campus job that you might like to apply for, particularly in your junior or senior year.  Use independent studies or field study projects to explore an area of interest in more depth.  These techniques, and many more, will help you discover your passions. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Unconventional Ways to Retain Talented Workers

Chris Ostoich has written an interesting article for Fast Company regarding how to retain talented employees using some rather unconventional approaches.  Ostoich is the founder of a software company named BlackbookHR.   I especially liked this point excerpted below:

Keep An Inventory Of Employees’ Skills And Interests
You may know what your employee Andy does in his job—he’s a front-end web developer and designer—but do you know he’s also a self-taught guitarist, a video editor, a painter, and has a variety of other talents? All employees have skills and interests they don’t use in their day-to-day work. If you can tap into those outside talents, you can benefit your company and better engage your employees. Make a place on your company’s intranet, in a Google doc, or anywhere people can share or search for skills. Look for opportunities to tap into this knowledge network whenever possible.

Monday, February 09, 2015

The Impact of High-Variety CEOs

Craig Crossland, Jinyong Zyung, Nathan J. Hiller, and Donald C. Hambrick have published an interesting new study about what they call "high-variety" CEOs.  In other words, what impact does it have on a firm when you hire a CEO with a wide variety of prior career experiences?  They found that these high-variety CEOs tended to enact more bold strategic change at the companies that hired them.   Moreover, they tended to shift the allocation of resources substantially.   They also tended to buck the conventional wisdom in their industries, creating distinctive strategies.  That's the good news.  These leaders tended to be change agents.   However, they also tended to drive a lot of churn in the executive suite.  It's not clear if that's good or bad.   Despite the churn, the high-variety CEOs did not necessarily assemble more diverse teams at the top.  Finally, what about performance?   The high-variety CEOs did not generate higher profits on average.  What did they create?  Volatility.   The high-variety CEOs tended to preside over periods of extensive fluctuations in performance. 

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Could Amazon Become the Costco of the Web?

As many readers know, Amazon has seen its stock price suffer in the past year, as some investors finally are asking the question: Will this company ever make significant profits?   I often ask my customers:  Would it be awesome if Amazon could become the Costco of the web?  Initially, many students are puzzled by the question.  Those who haven't taken a look at Amazon's annual reports initially assume that Amazon is just as successful financially as Costco, if not more so. After all, Amazon is a dominant e-commerce player. Costco is a traditional brick-and-mortar retailer.  When they look more closely, they see that Costco is a very successful, highly profitable retailer.  Amazon would be very successful if it could ever achieve that type of profitability.   

I then ask students:  How is Amazon's business model like Costco's?  An astute student or two notices a key parallel.  Amazon Prime is much like a Costco membership.  I ask:  How much of Costco's profits is accounted for by its membership revenue? Answer: All of it!  The membership revenue is more than the total net income of the firm.  Then, I ask:  How is Amazon Prime different than Costco's membership revenue?  Answer:  Use of Costco does not come with much incremental expense for the firm, beyond the cost of goods sold for the products that are purchased each time a customer visits the store.  However, for Amazon, all that free shipping means significant incremental expense each time a customer orders goods on the site. Hmmm... so Amazon Prime may not ever be the same type of profit driver that Costco's membership fee is.  

With all that in mind, I was intrigued by this recent article on titled "Inside Amazon Prime."  Here's a key excerpt:

Because Amazon does not typically disclose data about Prime, it’s unclear how frequently shoppers use the service. But what is clear is that Prime members spend significantly more than more casual Amazon shoppers, according to RBC Capital Markets. Prime members said they spent an average of $538 annually with Amazon, far more than the $320 by non-Prime members.  Also nearly certain: Prime costs Amazon dearly. Greeley declined to disclose specifics, but he suggested as much in an interview. “When you look back, the program was launched in 2005 at $79,” he said. “You factor in just simple inflation, transportation and fuel costs, the price would be over $100 today, in just 2005 dollars.” Translation: Prime doesn’t pay for itself.  Indeed, Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru estimates that Amazon loses at least $1 billion annually on Prime-related shipping expenses. It’s a staggering cost that pushed Amazon to hike the price for Prime by $20 to $99 in April.  “On the one hand, Prime adds to their bottom line, but it’s like a leech that sucks their blood,” says Mulpuru. “When they throw in things like lending library and streaming, it just gets more and more expensive for them.”

The Great Courses on Virgin America Flights

You can now watch/listen to certain lecture series for free from The Great Courses on all Virgin America flights.   That includes my course on critical decision making.  Read more about this new collaboration between The Great Courses and Virgin America in this article from Forbes