Friday, May 31, 2019

Summer Reading List - 2019

As summer begins, I thought that I would share some recommended reading for those interested in learning more about leadership. Here are six books that I enjoyed immensely:

  • This book chronicles the remarkable rise and fall of Theranos, the blood testing startup founded by Elizabeth Holmes 
  • A terrific study in leadership, with all of Churchill's towering strengths and intriguing flaws described in depth.  This biography also draws on some fascinating source material never drawn upon by previous biographers, including the King's diaries.  
  • Former Netflix executive Patty McCord writes about organizational culture, drawing upon her work shaping the culture and people strategy at Netflix.  
  • Bahcall combines physics, psychology, and business knowledge to explain why bold ideas often get rejected by organizations, and how enterprises can structure themselves to nurture these crazy ideas.  

  • I've always believed that building a culture of candor is critical to exceptional organiztional performance.  Scott draws upon her research, as well as her time in industry, to describe how to engage employees in productive conflict and debate.  
  • Edmondson draws upon more than two decades of research on psychological safety to offer leaders key insights regarding how to build an environment where people feel comfortable speaking up.  
Oh... and you might wish to take a look at a book called Unlocking Creativity too! 

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Monday, May 20, 2019

How to Start a Presentation or Speech

Stanford's Matt Abrahams offers some important and useful advice for those crafting a speech or presentation.  He argues that you need to grab people's attention at the start, and he advises against the usual introductory remarks that people often give at the start of a speech or presentation.  I've listened to a number of speeches lately in which the speaker seems to talk for a minute or two before actually diving into the main content. It's a slow, often uninteresting start. They aren't grabbing my attention. Abrahams must hear that type of start often. He does a nice job of explaining how to launch more effectively. 

The most precious commodity in today’s world is not gold or cryptocurrency, but attention. We are inundated with a tremendous amount of information vying for our focus. Why then would so many people squander away an opportunity to gain attention by starting presentations or meetings with: “Hi, my name is … and today I am going to talk about …” This is a lackluster, banal, disengaging way to begin. Not only does it lack originality, it is downright silly since most speakers start this way while standing in front of a slide displaying their name along with the title of their talk.

Rather than commence with a boring and routine start, kick off your presentation like a James Bond movie — with action: You can tell a story, take a poll, ask a provocative question, show a video clip. Starting in this manner captures your audience’s focus and pulls them away from other attention-grabbing ideas, people, or devices. This action-oriented approach works for meetings, too. On your agenda, have the first item be one or two questions to be answered when you start. In this way, participants get engaged from the moment the meeting begins.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Advice for the Graduating Class of 2019

Each spring, I try offer a few words of wisdom on this blog to the students about to graduate from college, here at Bryant University and at other institutions as well.   This year, I'd like to focus on a simple, yet challenging, recommendation: Learn to walk a mile in others' shoes. 

What do I mean by that?  The ability to empathize with others will serve you well in your personal and professional lives.  Being able to walk a mile in the customer's shoes can help you design and deliver an exceptional customer experience.   You can learn customers' pain points and frustrations.  Developing the capability to empathize with co-workers and teammates can help you identify how their skills and abilities complement your own, as well as how your actions impact them positively or negatively.  Walking a mile in your supervisor's shoes enables you to determine the challenges and pressures that he or she faces.   You can learn how to help him or her achieve key objectives.   Finally, the effort to empathize with subordinates enables you to understand the organizational barriers that prevent them from excelling at their jobs.  Moreover, you will discover what makes them tick, what they are passionate about, and what they aspire to achieve in the months and years ahead.  

Perhaps most importantly, walking a mile in others' shoes enables more constructive dialogue and debate.   To paraphrase from the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, seek first to understand before trying to be understood.  Try to discover where others are coming from on an issue, and seek to learn their motivations and interests.  Seek to inquire, not simply to advocate, during meetings.  Doing so will lead to more productive conversations, better decisions, and more effective teamwork.  

While I've framed this advice in the context of teams and relationships at work, the same lessons apply to our personal relationships.  Learn to walk a mile in your friends' and partners' shoes, and you will find yourself engaged in healthier interpersonal relationships.  Others will appreciate your efforts to emphatize with them during trying situations.  Good luck to everyone in your future endeavors!  I wish you much happiness and success.  

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Shooting the Messenger: How Do We Perceive The Bearers of Bad News?

Leslie John, Hayley Blunden, and Heide Liu have published a new paper titled, "Shooting the Messenger" in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.    In a series of experiments that find  people have a tendency to “shoot the messenger" even when the bearer of bad news is innocent, i.e. they bear no responsiblity for the actual failure/mistake being reported.   Moreover, they find that, "When bad news is unexpected, messenger dislike is pronounced."  The scholars also discovered that, "Messenger dislike is correlated with the erroneous belief that the messenger had malevolent motive."  Finally, they discovered that, "The tendency to dislike bearers of bad news is mitigated when recipients are made aware of the benevolence of the messenger’s motives."  

I often recount to managers the famous quote from Retired General Colin Powell:  "Bad news isn't wine.  It doesn't improve age."  Unfortunately, bad news often does age in organizations, as people at lower levels are afraid to share this information for fear of being blamed, perceived as incompetent, or tasked with solving the problem without adequate and resources to do so.   Unfortunately, the situation often grows worse as the bad news remains unreported. Small problems mushroom and escalate into serious crises before senior leaders learn about the the issues.  

Finally, I often tell senior leaders that they only need to shoot the messenger once in their tenure to create a climate in which people feel unsafe speaking up.  Unfortunately, the institutional memory of a "shoot the messenger" incident can be quite lengthy.   People will recount the story years later, perhaps even inaccurately over time... but by then, the damage is done.  

What should you definitely NOT do as a leader trying to insure the uncovering of bad news before it's too late?  Don't tell your people the following:  "Come to me with solutions, not just problems."  That's a recipe for discouraging the bearers of bad news.  Sometimes, these innocent bearers of bad news simply don't know how to solve the problem at hand.  They need help.  Don't discourage them from disclosing the issue and asking for help.  

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Imagine We Are All New to the Company

Source: Fortune
This morning, I had the opportunity to facilitate a dialogue among roughly 40 executives about how to avoid or prevent the sunk cost trap.   In other words, how do you avoid throwing good money after bad on failing projects?   One executive offer this technique that he has currently initiated with his team.  He and many of his team members have been with the company for quite a long time.  He's asked them all to imagine that they are brand new to the organization.  The question is simple:  If you joined from the outside today, which practices, projects, or investments would you question?  Would you understand why we do what we do?  Would you make different choices about where to continue investing?   The "imagine we are all new" technique has great value, though just a simple hypothetical exercise.  

The exercise reminds me of a story about Andy Grove and Gordon Moore, the two longtime leaders at Intel.   Grove called it the "Revolving Door Test" - and he used this test to help make the decision to exit the DRAM business at Intel in the early 1980s.  Grove explains how he and Moore were debating whether to continue investing in the DRAM business, despite the fact that the unit had been losing share for years to Japanese rivals.  

I looked out the window at the Ferris Wheel of the Great America amusement park revolving in the distance, then I turned back to Gordon and I asked, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” Gordon answered without hesitation, “He would get us out of memories.” I stared at him, numb, then said, “Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back in, and do it ourselves?”

Friday, May 03, 2019

Three Conversations in One

Last night, during a panel discussion featuring 10 accomplished Bryant University alumnae, Jaime Diglio - President of SomethingNew LLC, offered some insightful comments about how we should approach the conversations we have with others (she's pictured speaking in this photo of several panelists).  Diglio described how each exchange with another individual actually involves three separate conversations.  First, there's the conversation going on in your head.  What are you thinking and what do you intend to say?  Second, there are the words being spoken by you.   What are you actually saying?  Third, the is the conversation being heard by the other party.  What is he or she hearing? How is he or she interpreting what you have said?  All too often, what we intend to say is not what we actually say, and what is being heard is not what we think we are communicating.   Recognizing the potential misalignment is so important if we are to have meaningful and constructive conversations with others.  Testing for understanding is crucial.  Asking others to play back what you have said, to confirm your communication, can be a powerful tool for identifying misunderstandings before they become highly problematic.   

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Why Has Amazon Struggled to Increase Whole Foods' Revenues?

Source: Wikimedia Commons
According to the most recent Amazon earnings reports, the company's Whole Foods Market subsidiary continues to show sluggish sales performance.   Revenues during the most recdent quarter only grew 1%.   Sales were relatively flat in prior quarters.   Why is Amazon struggling to increase Whole Foods' revenues despite repeated attempts to showcase lower prices on key products?  Why hasn't introducing discounts for Prime members been more successful in driving revenue growth?

Yale School of Management Professor Soheil Ghili recently commented on the company's struggles. He told Yale Insights

"There might be some non-price factors, but the main challenge is indeed the prices and the “Whole Paycheck” brand image of Whole Foods. It is true that Amazon Prime membership is commonplace among high-income households that are likely to be—or have the potential to become)—Whole Foods customers. However, data on the incomes of Prime customersand U.S. income distribution suggest that the majority of Prime members have household incomes below $100,000 a year. Converting those Prime members to regular Whole Foods customers would require much sharper price cuts than Whole Foods/Amazon is now offering."

Ghili goes to question who the customers are that Amazon is targeting.   The choice of target customer matters a great deal with regard to the appropriate competitive positioning and marketing strategies for Whole Foods.  He explains, 

"Whether you are competing against Trader Joe’s or against Walmart has significant implications on how you want to respond. If you want to poach TJ customers, lowering prices might help with some. (Certainly not all; I for one, don’t see myself leaving TJ for Whole Foods!) If trying to poach from Walmart, you’d better establish cheaper stores and brand them anything other than “Whole Foods.” This, by the way, is something Amazon is already thinking of doing, in parallel to slashing Whole Foods prices."

I find this discussion quite interesting, because I've always been puzzled about the Whole Foods strategy.  The company achieved remarkable success by positioning itself as a highly differentiated, premium price grocer with an exceptional customer experience.  Yes, it is true that the company's sales growth had stalled prior to the Amazon acquisition, as traditional grocers expanded their organic offerings, often at lower prices.  However, it's not clear that the appropriate response by Whole Foods is to try to walk away from the "Whole Paycheck" image.  I fear that Whole Foods runs the risk of being "stuck in the middle" strategically.  They have alienated some of their core customers by weakening the customer service experience and changing the mix of products in their stores.  They have potentially alienated some of their best employees as well.  Meanwhile, the price cuts do not appear substantial enough to bring in waves of customers who would otherwise shop at lower-priced rivals.  Whole Food has to decide who they really want to be when they grow up.  It doesn't seem that they have made a clear choice at this point.  Do they want to be Apple or Southwest?  Which is it?   My gut says that they have a much better chance of thriving as Apple than trying to transform into Southwest.