Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Is Market Share a Useful Metric?

In a short article for Sloan Management Review, Neil T. Bendle and Charan K. Bagga argue that managers should be cautious about using market share as a key metric for their businesses.  I concur wholeheartedly with their concerns about using market share as a primary objective.  I believe that efforts to grow market share often cause managers to pursue misguided strategies that ultimately undermine competitive advantage and damage long-run profitability.   Bundle and Bagga argue:

In some markets, bigger can be better; the most obvious examples are markets with economies of scale. Companies in such markets can reduce their cost per unit by selling more — thus increasing overall profits. If you think you are in such a market, you should confirm that the economies of scale you think exist actually do. Economies of scale do not automatically apply to all markets. For example, consulting does not get substantially cheaper per hour to provide at higher volumes... In some settings, market share can be a proxy for power. Depending on the setting, relative size can matter, and having a bigger market share can encourage others to treat your company more favorably. For example, when it comes to dealing with retailers, a category leader such as Coca-Cola may be able to negotiate better deals than a weaker brand can; retailers need Coke on their shelves more than they may need a smaller brand. A similar logic applies to network goods, which are products for which the benefit to consumers increases when more people use them. For example, Facebook’s value to its members increases when more of its members’ friends use it. Overall, though, the research on the relationship between profits and market share is ambiguous. There is no general rule; the importance of market share varies from market to market.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Changing the Town Hall Meeting

We have all witnessed how town hall meetings can be dreadful.  The CEO and/or some other senior executive shares an update about the company.  Then, supposedly, he or she would like to answer questions from the staff.  However, few meaningful questions surface.  People do not want to ask the tough questions for fear of being viewed as a "troublemaker" who is challenging or undermining company leaders.  I heard from a senior executive today who has a solution to this problem.  At his firm, they use audience interaction software to enable participants to offer questions anonymously.  Furthermore, the software enables other staff members to "like" the question.  The software then ranks the question by the number of "likes" it has received.   Executives, therefore, can identify quickly and easily the questions on top of mind for their staff members.   It facilitates a much more meaningful and substantive discussion during the town hall meeting.  Naturally, we would like to move beyond the need for such software.  We would like to create a culture in which people do not fear asking the tough questions.  Until that type of climate has been created and reinforced, this type of software may provide a vehicle to begin to open up the dialogue within the firm.  

Friday, April 22, 2016

Eliminating the Four Flaws in Leadership Development

My newest article has been published in the Journal of the American Management Association.  The article its titled, "Eliminating the Four Flaws in Leadership Development."  Please click here to read it.

Uncertainty More Stressful Than Knowing with Certainty That Something Bad Will Occur

What's more stressful for you: knowing for sure that something bad is about to happen or being highly uncertain about a possible negative outcome? Archy de Berker, Robb Rutledge, and their fellow researchers examined this question in a study in Nature Communications. The scholars conducted an experiment in which participants played a computer game. In the game, subjects looked under rocks, and in some cases, they discovered snakes. The subjects received an electric shock in the computer game if a snake appeared. The scholars embedded a great deal of uncertainty in the game, and it fluctuated significantly as participants played. They examined the stress that subjects experienced by measuring certain physiological responses (such as pupil dilation). Participants also reported their self-perceptions about stress as they played. 

What did the scholars find? Subjects experienced the most stress when uncertainty was at its highest levels. Perhaps most interesting though is the finding related to certainty vs. uncertainty. The Guardian recently reported on these findings: 

"So what’s the big deal? Everyone knows that uncertainty is stressful. But what’s not so obvious is that uncertainty is more stressful than predictable negative consequences. Is it really more stressful wondering whether you’ll make it to your meeting on time than knowing you’ll be late? Is it more stressful wondering if you’re about to get sacked than being relatively sure of it? De Berker’s results provide a resounding “yes”."

What's the implication for business leaders? You might be hesitant about communicating bad news because you know it will cause stress for others in your organization. However, this research indicates that the uncertainty leading up to a negative consequence could be much more stressful than knowing for sure that something bad will happen. Keeping people in the dark does not help them; it may cause more harm than good.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Encouraging People to Ask for Help

The New York Times' Corner Office column, by Adam Bryant, featured an interview recently with Amy Pressman. She serves as President (and co-founder) of Medallia.   The firm provides customer experience management software for firms such as Paypal, Delta, Nordstrom, and GE Healthcare.  Pressman describes an important element of Medallia's culture in her interview.  Here's an excerpt:

We work hard to overcome the “impostor syndrome” that a lot of people feel. People present themselves with résumés of unbroken success. But none of us are perfect. Unfortunately, when we hit roadblocks and need help, many of us don’t feel like we can ask for it. So we’re essentially curtailing the pace at which we can learn, because it’s much harder to learn in the shadows without asking for help than to just come out and say, “I am really struggling with this. Please help me. What do I do?” A lot of people are hiding, and we have created environments where we do not learn quickly. Ultimately, the one sustainable competitive advantage that a company can have is a culture that enables its people and the entire organization to learn faster. Fast learning has to come from a place of people feeling safe to talk about what’s working and not working, of recognizing that their job is not to appear perfect but to get better. We run a week-long onboarding to expose new hires to all these ideas. Also, one afternoon during the week we tell them, “Go out and do something that is holding you back and scares you.” It sounds kind of faddish, but the exercise is actually really powerful. It makes a point: Don’t let the fear of failure — or even of imperfection — hold you back. 

I love the concept, and I'm curious about what the onboarding process entails at Medallia.  How does the firm inculcate these values right from the start?  How do they expose people to these ideas?   Most importantly, I love the goal that they have set out to achieve:  How do we create an environment that enables people to learn more quickly?  Every firm should ask themselves that question.  

Monday, April 18, 2016

Risky Business: How Low Self-Control Leads to Risky Choices

New research examines why people with low self-control may make riskier choices.  Scholars Uzma Khan, Jayson S. Jia, and Ab Litt conducted a series of experiments related to people's choices that impacted automobile safety, heart disease, gambling, and lung cancer.  Prior research has shown that people with low self-control tend to make riskier decisions.   These scholars wanted to know why that was the case.  What was the mechanism by which these people engaged in riskier behaviors?  Here's what they found:  
People perceive risk in two main ways: the probability that something bad will happen, and the consequences of those negative outcomes. And through a series of experiments, they found that those with low self-control focus more on the probability and pay less heed to the consequences.  For a real-life example, the researchers quizzed people on their health. They found that people with low self-control are more concerned if they are told their probability of contracting heart disease is twice as high rather than if they are told the consequences of heart disease are twice as bad as previously thought.   Khan, who studies behavioral judgment and decision-making, found the reverse to be true for people with high self-control, who tend to pay more attention to consequences and less to the probability of a risky outcome. This coincides with previous research showing that high-level executives pay less attention to the probability of negative outcomes. “Because they feel more in control, they think that outside odds don’t apply to them. Their behavior is, therefore, determined disproportionately by the consequence of the outcomes, such as the potential profits,” she explains.
The findings strike me as very interesting.  If we were purely rational decision makers, we would think in terms of expected values (probability multiplied by outcome).   Not only do we not think in such a calculating way about many choices, but we actually pay more attention to one element of expected value than the other, depending on our self-control.  That's a new twist on our prior understanding of how we can be "irrational" with respect to certain choices in life and in business.  What's the implication of this research?  Think carefully about how you craft messages to different audiences.  If you have an audience likely to exhibit low self-control, then focus on probability.  If you have an audience with high self-control, then focus your message on consequences:  "The outcome of this chain of events is very, very bad.  Here's the loss that could result."  

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Don't Leave a Vacuum!

What happens when employees experience feelings of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety about the future direction of the organization? What if they are not clear about the plans for the future amidst some challenging financial circumstances? What if the organization's leaders have not explained the strategic direction clearly, concisely, and simply? It's pretty simple: as a leader, if you leave a vacuum, your people will fill it. How will they fill it? They will fill it with speculation, gossip, and assumptions. As a leader, you need to avoid that type of behavior. 

 You need to communicate clearly and frequently, so that no such vacuum exists. Don't leave room for fear and anxiety to fester. What if you don't have the future plans completely figured out? Don't wait until you have it all straightened out to communicate with your people. Tell them what you can about your plans, and explain the process you are using to clarify your course of action. Keep them updated on your progress in the planning process. Finally, make sure you keep you finger on the pulse of the organization, so that you know how people are feeling about the uncertainty facing the organization.  As Jack Welch once said, "You communicate, communicate, and communicate some more. Consistency, simplicity, and repetition is what it's all about."  

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Locating Near Talent Pools

The Wall Street Journal writes today that firms are increasingly weighing availability of talent as they make location decisions.  Here's an excerpt:

Fifty years ago, companies opened new locations to be near lumber, copper, or resources needed for their businesses. “Today, people are the natural resources,” said Meredith Amdur, an analytics expert at advisory firm CEB. Facing a tight labor market and a shortage of skilled workers, many large companies say that a city or region’s population of desirable workers is now the top factor in location decisions.

The focus on talent makes a great deal of sense. However, I think firms have to think in terms of identifying areas where hidden gems might exist.  Yes, if you want programmers, you will find a great deal of talent in San Francisco.  However, you will be battling many top firms for that talent, and it will be pricey.  What if another city was home to some terrific universities, but it had a less competitive labor market?  Or, what if some less "prestigious" universities actually were producing great and somewhat underrated talent?  That's what I mean by finding the hidden gems.  

Friday, April 08, 2016

Find a Space that Inspires You

Sometimes, you need to get away from your usual routine, and your usual work area, so as to find inspiration.  The change of scenery can be a powerful stimulating mechanism.  Your mind can roam a bit, and your brain can make connections among ideas and concepts from disparate fields.  Here's entrepreneur Emrecan Dogan explaining to Stanford Insights how he has found inspiration as he has built his business (ScoreBeyond):

A few years ago I went through a period when I could not produce any ideas. My wife suggested I get out and go to the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. The art space was so stimulating, and I had a rush of ideas. I ended up sitting in the cafe for the rest of the day and wrote pages and pages of designs. I go there whenever I have a challenge.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Innovative Leaders Tolerate Mavericks

Harvard Professor and former Medtronic CEO Bill George has a terrific article in Fortune this week about what the best innovation leaders do.   He argues, among other things, that these leaders demonstrate a "willingness to tolerate mavericks and protect them from middle management."  Here's an excerpt:

The best innovators are rule-breakers who don’t fit the corporate mold. These people are often threatening to middle managers, many of whom adhere to standard practices. That’s why innovation leaders must protect their mavericks’ projects, budgets, and careers rather than forcing them into traditional management positions.

I think George has hit on something very important.  Innovators often run up against hurdles when they try to position what they are doing in the traditional organization.  Middle managers feel threatened, try to force innovators to follow existing procedures, apply the wrong kinds of metrics to evaluate their work, or worry too much about how new products might cannibalize existing sales.   Moreover, middle managers may be locked in mentally to pre-existing and well-proven business models.   Innovative leaders protect the innovators from these middle managers who might quash new ideas.  However, I would argue that the most important protectors might not be the CEOs that George profiles in his Fortune article.  Often, the key protectors are senior managers in the organization who serve as key champions or sponsors of innovation projects, and who create a protective buffer for these innovators to do their work.   The CEO can only do so much. These folks a layer or two down in the organization must also serve in this maverick-tolerating and maverick-protecting role.  

Monday, April 04, 2016

Tips for Delivering an Awesome Elevator Pitch

Inc.'s Glenn Leibowitz has written a good article with three tips for delivering an impactful elevator pitch.   

First, he argues that you must create three different versions (one-liner, 30-second nugget, and 60-second double-click).   I think it's good advice for two reasons.  You will have different occasions at which to deliver your pitch, and you may want to draw on different versions for these contrasting occasions.  Moreover, boiling a 60-second pitch down to a shorter version forces you to think critically about what is absolutely the essence of your argument.   

Second, Leibowitz explains that you should tell a story.   He says, "You are the protagonist --the hero -- of your own story, and you're on a mission to achieve a goal: "Build a new business", "grow an existing business", "move into a position of greater responsibility."  And, like any good hero, you probably face challenges and obstacles that you'll need to overcome if you hope to achieve your goal.

Finally, Leibowitz argues that you should practice the pitch on a friend, and ask them to play back what they have heard.  He explains that you may get some good ideas from them about how to deliver the pitch, since they may choose different words and phrases to communicate your ideas.  I would add another reason for why taking this approach can be effective.  You may hear back something quite different than what you meant to say.  That unexpected response from your friend will tell you that you need to clarify your pitch.   

Friday, April 01, 2016

Are Millennials Really All That Different?

Fast Company's Jared Lindzon has written a good article this week about the myth vs. reality when it comes to millennials and their differences relative to those of us from other generations.  She draws upon the work of Jessica Kriegel, a researcher from Drexel University.   Here's an excerpt from Lindzon's article:  

When Jessica Kriegel set out to write her doctoral dissertation on the unique attributes of the millennial generation, she discovered one major problem: There weren’t any.  "As I was reading all of the different books, research articles, and peer-reviewed studies on generational difference, I started to realize how much contradiction there is in the literature," says Kriegel, who earned a PhD in educational leadership with a specialization in human resources management from Drexel University in 2013. "I realized it's all kind of made up. There's not a lot of hard data that supports any of these assumptions. It's all anecdotal, case studies, research studies with 200 people that they apply to the broader population, and it's really damaging... People are using the stats to sell whatever it is they're selling, and journalists are using the stats to tell a compelling story, whether one exists or not," she says. "It's way more interesting to say, 'We figured out millennials, they are X,' than it is to say, 'Well, we can't really label because that's stereotyping, and so in reality we're going to just continue to remain vague about what we know."