Thursday, December 31, 2020

Favorite Podcasts of 2020

Earlier this week, I listed some of my favorite books from 2020.  Today, I turn my attention to podcasts.  Like many of you, I listen to some very popular ones about which most readers will be familiar (e.g., Freakonomics, How I Built This, Hidden Brain).  However, I thought that I would feature three original podcasts that truly proved thought-provoking this year, and perhaps may be unfamiliar to some of you.   

Cautionary Tales: One of my favorite authors, Tim Harford, has created this unique podcast. As he says, the series features stories of awful human error, tragic catastrophes, daring heists and hilarious fiascos. Sounds morbid, right? Well, as a student of failure, I find the episodes to be full of important lessons that we should all learn. Harford writes for the Financial Times, and he has authored several terrific books, including Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.

WeCrashed: Here we learn about the incredible story of WeWork co-founder and CEO Adam Neumann. The podcast traces the remarkable rise and rather sudden collapse of WeWork.  The podcast doesn't simply identify the flaws in the firm's business model.  It examines the problematic characterisics of culture at the firm and explores the deficiencies in Neumann's leadership.  Some of the stories seem like pure fiction, except they are indeed true.  

Land of the Giants:  This podcast features two terrific seasons.   In the first season, the creators trace teh story of Amazon's rise and explore the key dimensions of the business model and culture.  In the second, even more entertaining and insightful season, the podcast dives into the strategy and culture at Netflix.  You hear directly from key players, and you learn about the key decisions that were made that shaped the evolution of both firms. 

Monday, December 28, 2020

My Favorite Books of 2020

As the tumultous year of 2020 comes to a close, I thought I would share a few of my favorite reads from the past year (note: a few of these books were actually published in 2019).   Here we go, in no particular order:  

A riveting account of Winston Churchill's leadership during the early portion of World War II.   Larson combs a variety of primary sources to describe how Churchill, his family, and his inner circle navigated the Battle of Britain.   I've read many biographies of Churchill, but I found myself learning something new on many occasions as I read this book.  Churchill had many flaws, and Larson documents them.  However, we also learn so much about Churchill's brilliance as a wartime leader.   

Insead Professor Erin Meyer has teamed up with Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings to write a terrific book about the unique culture at the streaming giant.  The book left me (pleasantly) with as many questions as answers.  I'm not sure other firms can adopt elements of the Netflix culture successfully, nor am I certain that they should try.  However, it seems to have worked incredibly well at Netflix, and it does have many merits.  For me, the most interesting part focused on the "Netflix innovation cycle."  I appreciated the extensive discussion about building a culture of candor, particularly given my work.  Having said that, I do worry that other firms could encounter serious challenges trying to adopt the Netflix approach on candid conversations.  

I just devoured all the Heath brothers books in the past.  Here, Dan Heath strikes out on his own and provides us an illuminating book about how to prevent catastrophes, rather than spend our time constantly fighting fires.   Heath digs into serious problems in many different facets of society, and he blends the findings of rigorous research with his fine story-telling skills and inductive reasoning capabilities.  Heath's work is full of important insights about problem-finding and error detection.   The book could not be more timely too, given the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Mike Isaac's book describes the rise and fall of Uber under founder and CEO Travis Kalanick.  Isaac offers a cautionary tale about a unique startup culture run amok and the devastating deleterious effects that emerged.   He explains the values that Kalanick championed, how they helped him build a high-growth company that attracted and delighted many customers.  Then, he demonstrates how those same values led managers to engage in a set of ill-advised behaviors, and how those actions harmed the company and many employees a great deal.  It's an easy read, and you find yourself wondering at times if it's a true story and a great work of fiction.  

Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Larson has written this fascinating dual biography of two central figures in the birth of the United States of America.   He brings to life, in vivid detail, the unique relationship between George Washington and Benjamin Franklin - perhaps the two most important and influential of our founding fathers.   In business, we often examine the interesting relationships between fascinating pairs that have shaped the founding and growth of successful companies (Moore & Grove, Jobs & Wozniak, Brin & Page, etc.).   Here we have a well-researched, engaging narrative about the partnership that helped launch a revolution and shaped a nation.  

The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company 

Bob Iger has written an insightful account of his career, culminating in his tenure as CEO of Disney.  He reflects on the many lessons he's learned, as he turned Disney around after the challenging final years of the Eisner era.  One of my favorite Iger lessons is this one:  It’s not good to have power for too long. You don’t realize the way your voice seems to boom louder than every other voice in the room. You get used to people withholding their opinions until they hear what you have to say. People are afraid to bring ideas to you, afraid to dissent, afraid to engage. This can happen even to the most well-intentioned leaders. You have to work consciously and actively to fend off its corrosive effects.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Leading Change: Focus on Desired Outcomes First, Not Activities


MIT Senior Lecturer and management consultant Elsbeth Johnson has written an interesting article for Strategy+Business about why many strategic transformation efforts fail (though I'm not a fan of the article title).  She argues that we often blame middle managers for resisting change efforts and putting up various obstacles.  However, she finds fault with senior leaders when examining many failed organizational change initiatives.  Johnson argues that leaders aren't focusing on the right type of work when launching transformation efforts.  She argues that leaders jump into the planning and execution of activities too quickly, rather than stepping back and clearly articulating the desired outcomes first.  She explains: 

Be clear about what you want. A new strategy needs to specify a target outcome — i.e., the change leaders want to produce — and, ideally, that target outcome should have three features. It needs to be outcome-based, not activity-based; it needs to have a financial target (such as improving operating margin by 20 percent); and it needs to be ambitious enough, with a sufficient time frame, to create fundamental, not merely cosmetic, change.  A target outcome with these three components enables managers to identify the projects, initiatives, and work streams that should be tackled — at different levels and in different parts of the business — in order to deliver it.

Johnson argues that leaders default to working on activities because that work is easier and more enjoyable for many individuals than clarifying priorities, persuading others to change, and motivating people to work toward ambitious new goals.  

The trap leaders fall into is their desire to specify activities rather than the outcomes these activities will deliver. In my experience, they do this because they find this work is easier and more enjoyable. Their “laziness” here is that they prefer to default to this simple, enjoyable work — picking projects to work on — when they ought to be doing something very different: clarifying and selling the change.

For example, the senior leadership team of a midsized technology company whose growth was plateauing had agreed the firm needed a radically different strategy. They’d asked me to help them develop the new strategy — including agreeing on the critical outcomes it should deliver and then making some clear choices about target markets and segments. But before these decisions had been fully discussed, let alone agreed upon, this senior team jumped to activities. One of the team members remarked: “There is one acquisition I think we should look at again,” while another said, “We need to work out the details of that China joint venture before the end of this quarter.”

These individual activities might well have turned out to be important, but they were just that — activities. They represented the “how” of the strategy, rather than the “what” or “why.” And until the team had clarity on what the strategy should deliver — in this case, we decided on a target of 12 percent return on capital within four years — it was premature to make any decisions about how that outcome might be delivered. Before deciding on the China joint venture or a particular acquisition, the team needed the 12 percent outcome nailed down.

The problem here is how a lot of leaders define work. A member of this same team asked me at the end of one strategy session, “When are we going to decide what we’re actually going to do?” — by which he meant deciding on which activities to pursue. That is what too many senior leaders still consider to be “work” — when what they should be doing is the work of clarifying and articulating the outcomes a change will produce. If leaders are primarily using their time to choose activities, not only does that deny managers — the people closer to the operations and the customers — the opportunity to choose how the strategy will be delivered, it also invariably means that leaders don’t have the time to work on clarifying and selling the change, which is work that really only those executives can do.

It may sound simple and obvious, but my experience does suggest that many organizations suffer from a lack of alignment regarding goals, priorities, and expectations.  Leaders often overestimate how much alignment actually exists...and they overestimate by a wide margin in many instances.  

Friday, December 18, 2020

Developing People: Focusing on the What AND the How

Source: Pixabay

Adam Bryant recently posted a terrific interview with Matt Schuyler, Chief Administrative Officer at Hilton.  He asked Schuyler about a key leadership lesson learned during his career.    Schuyler offered this anecdote about his time at PWC: 

In a professional services firm like Price Waterhouse, it’s an up-or-out environment. Around year 11 or 12, you know it’s time for consideration for partnership, which is the pinnacle. In the spring of that twelfth year for me, I got a call from my boss who was based in London, and he said, “Can you fly over to London to see me tomorrow?”

I arrived early the next morning, and he said, “Let’s go grab a pint.” And sure enough, the pubs were open at 8:30 in the morning. So we sat down and he said, “I have some news for you. You didn’t make it.” This was devastating because I’d spent the better part of twelve years leading up to this moment, and in the previous year I had accomplished all my objectives.

But then he said, “The good news is that it’s a ‘not now,’ not a ‘no never, ever.’” And here’s the lesson he shared: “We were not measuring you on the ‘what.’ We were measuring you on the ‘how,’ and you got more done than we’ve ever seen anybody get done, so you’ve checked the ‘what’ box. On the ‘how,’ you created some waves along the journey because you were such a zealot in getting a lot done. So you have a do-over. Take this next year, focus on the how, not the what.” The next year I made partner and I try to remember that lesson every day when I come to work.

Two important lessons jump out at me from this story.  First, the partners did not evaluate Schuyler simply based on WHAT he achieved.  They cared about HOW he did it as well.  That's crucial.  Second, the partners didn't give up on Schuyler simply because he had stumbled on the HOW.  They offered him constructive feedback and gave him an opportunity to course correct.  He did and achieved further success at the organization.  Of course, some folks won't be able to internalize that type of feedback and make the necessary changes.  However, many people will be able to do so if they are offered the right feedback, coaching, and development.  

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Should I Cater to Others or Stay Authentic?


Imagine that you are headed to a job interview, pitching your business plan, or making a presentation to colleagues.  Should you try to align your words and actions to the other party's preferences and interests?  Or, should you simply remain authentic?   In other words, is catering to others the right strategy if you wish to persuade and influence others?   Scholars Ovul Sezer, Francesca Gino, and Laura Huang asked those very questions to over 500 working adults.   Two-thirds of the respondents indicated they would cater to the other party, and over 70% thought that would an effective strategy.   Are they right?  

Sezer and her colleagues studied that question in a series of studies.  They published their results recently in a paper titled "“To be or not to be your authentic self? Catering to others’ preferences hinders performance.”    The Kenan-Flager School of Business at UNC-Chapel Hill recently profiled this research.  Here's an excerpt from their description: 

In one study, Sezer and her colleagues recruited 258 students and working adults and split them into two groups – some serving as interviewers for a fictional job, some as interviewees. They randomly assigned interviewees to one of two strategies: Either to try to cater to the interviewer’s perceived interests or be authentic.  The interviewees who were told to cater reported higher levels of anxiety. The interviewees who were told to act authentically, on the other hand, got higher performance ratings from the interviewers.

Perhaps most interesting, though, were the results of a real-world competition. Some 166 entrepreneurs participated in a fast-pitch competition at a private university in the Northeast, each striving to become one of 10 semifinalists. They presented their business ideas to a panel of three judges – experienced angel investors.

Afterward, the entrepreneurs completed a short questionnaire for Sezer and her colleagues. Likewise, the judges filled out short score cards for each pitch they heard.  The entrepreneurs who chose to cater to the judges rather than acting authentically had worse outcomes – based both on whether they ended up as semifinalists and the judges’ opinion about the viability of their ideas.

Of course, this research does not suggest that you should ignore the other party's interests and preferences completely.   You need to understand your audience, do your homework, and think very carefully about how they are most likely to be persuaded.   However, it is a careful balancing act.  It's one thing to know your audience, and it's quite another to think you can fool them about your own preferences, interests, and desires.  In sum, give your audience credit.  They are going to see through the B.S. in most cases.  Honesty is indeed the best policy.  

Friday, December 11, 2020

Beware the Gatekeeper

Source:  Wikimedia

Every leader has a gatekeeper or two amongst their team of closest advisers and confidantes.  These folks serve a useful role in many cases.  They manage the flow of information, so that the leader can use his or her time wisely.  They help synthesize data, frame the pros and cons of particular options, and help leaders assess complex situations.    They filter out issues that do not need to clog the leader's busy schedule.   Unfortunately, gatekeepers also sometimes filter out the bad news, even if unintentionally.  They also sometimes find themselves only telling the leader what they think the individual wants to hear.   For that reason, I wrote years ago about the merits of occasionally "circumventing the gatekeepers" on your team, to insure that critical data and perspectives are not being filtered out in a manner that could lead to disastrous results.  In the book, Know What You Don't Know, I wrote: 

If leaders hope to uncover key problems in their organizations before they mushroom into large-scale failures, then they must understand why subordinates may choose to filter out bad news. They must be wary of how their own behavior may cause their advisors to hold back dissonant information. Leaders clearly must create a climate where people feel comfortable coming forward with new data, even data that might go against the dominant view in the organization. To become effective and proactive problem-finders though, leaders must go one step further. From time to time, leaders must circumvent the filters, reaching out beyond their direct reports to look at raw data, speak directly with key constituents, and learn from those with completely different perspectives than their closest advisors. In short, leaders need to occasionally “open the funnel” that typically synthesizes, packages, and constricts the information flow up the hierarchy. They have to reach down and out, beyond the executive suite and even beyond the walls of the organization, to access new data directly. They have to find information that has not been massaged and packaged into a neat, slick Microsoft PowerPoint presentation. 

Later in the same chapter of the book, I profiled David Tacelli, CEO of LTX - a semiconductor test equipment company headquartered in Massacusetts.  In an interview during my research, Tacelli described how important it was to not rely solely on one or two voices. Instead, he advocated a systematic approach to seeking different voices over time.  Here's an excerpt: 

In 2005 David Tacelli became the CEO of LTX Corporation, a producer of semiconductor test equipment located in Norwood, Massachusetts. Tacelli has implemented a rigorous customer review system to review the company’s major accounts on a regular basis. He aims to “surface customer service problems early” through this routine evaluation process. He has learned, though, that the system can become stale if the same senior manager reports on a particular customer at each review meeting. As he says, “They tend to filter. They think that they can fix the problem. Therefore, they do not tell anyone until far too late.” Therefore, Tacelli makes sure that everyone involved with a particular client presents over time at these review meetings. He explains: 

“I rotate presenters very purposefully. If a problem surfaces at a particular meeting, I will go back to the person that presented at the previous meeting. I ask them if they were aware of the issue at the time of their presentation. If so, then I probe as to why they did not surface the issue sooner. The key is that I do not make that a blame game. I am simply trying to get them to understand that I want to hear about the issues sooner so that we can work together to fix them. Of course, I do look for patterns of mistakes. If someone repeatedly holds back on me, then I hold them accountable.” 

Tacelli asks his managers to limit the number of slides they present at these meetings. He says, “I want them to talk with me and one another, not to read off of slides.” He explains that his role is to “play Jeopardy with them… to use the Socratic method to find out what the key issues are, to see what we know about the causes of particular customer complaints.” 

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

How to Seek Constructive Feedback: 3 Questions to Ask

Source: Pixabay

We all appreciate praise and recognition.   Constructive criticism?  Not so much.   It's like spinach.  We know it's good for us, but we aren't eager to cook it for supper.   Of course, some managers aren't very effective at delivering feedback either.   Thus, have a particularly thorny problem: leaders who don't provide feedback in a constructive manner, and team members who don't seek it or are not willing to listen. In a recent Fast Company article, leadership expert Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic points out that many of us also falter when we do seek feedback.  Why?  He argues that we don't ask the right questions when soliciting feeback from others.  Here's an excerpt:

Since it’s often unkind to criticize others, especially when you care about them, you need to make it easier for people to do it. This means asking the right questions. Don’t ask people whether they liked what you did or how you do something, and don’t ask questions such as “Was this okay?” or “Did I do a good job?”  Instead, ask

  • “What would you have done differently?”
  • “What are the two things that they didn’t like so much?”
  • “If you can change one thing about X going forward, what would that be?”
Tell them you won’t take it personally, and then don’t take it personally. Tell them you value their opinion and are struggling to find people who help you get better, so if they want to help you, they need to improve your ability to identify blind spots and key areas for improvement.

Then, be thankful. Feedback is always a gift, and there is no bigger gift than constructive critical feedback because it is daunting and risky to provide it. There is a higher cost to honest negative feedback than fake positive feedback, but the former makes you much better than the latter.   

The three questions suggested by Chamorro-Premuzic are right on the mark.  They provide an opportunity for concrete, actionable feedback.   They solicit input that is specific, not generic.   They look forward and focus on what needs to happen differently in the future, rather than only dissecting past conduct.  

Monday, December 07, 2020

Dangers of 'Yes' People

Please consider taking a look at this new article in Financial Management magazine titled, "How Leaders Can Avoid the Dangers of 'Yes' People" - Thank you to Hannah Pitstick for interviewing me during her research for the article, along with others such as Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor.

Friday, December 04, 2020

Should We Self-Promote or Hide Success?

We dislike self-promoters, right?   Is it better to hide our success than shamelessly self-promote?  Many people may think it's appropriate and effective to hide success.  We don't want to seem boastful or arrogant.  Well, perhaps the conventional wisdom may not be correct.  Annabelle Roberts, Emma Levin, and Ovul Sezer have published a fantastic new paper titled "Hiding Success" in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  

The scholars point out that self-promotion is quite typical these days, yet in their research, they also find that many people hide their successes at times.  Why?  They worry about how others will perceive them if they self-promote too much, or in some inappropriate manner. 

Roberts and her colleagues show that hiding success may have harmful effects on our interpersonal relationships.  They write:

"Unlike hiding other information, hiding success signals that a communicator has paternalistic motives, which targets find insulting.  We find that hiding success has relational costs in public and private settings as well as in response to direct and indirect questions.  Additionally, the negative reactions to hiding success have behavioral consequences:  Targets are less trusting of, less willing to cooperate with, and less willing to devote financial resources to maintaining their relationship with communicators who hide their success." 

In sum, perhaps a lack of transparency can have some significant costs.  That doesn't mean we should be arrogant, or that we should boast repeatedly about our accomplishments.  However, we should take great care about intentionally shielding others from the truth.  Honesty, it appears, is indeed the best policy.  

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Creativity Technique: Keep a Da Vinci Notebook

Source:  Wikimedia
In my book, Unlocking Creativity, I wrote that our schools sometimes exhibit a bias against creativity, much as our corporations do.  Much like many business executives, teachers and professors sometimes talk a good talk about creativity, but they fail to walk the walk.  They claim that they value creativity, when in fact, they desire compliance and control. Not all teachers though... I read recently about a wonderful technique employed by a number of teachers. 

Lauren Cassani Davis is a teacher at the Feynman School in Potomac, Maryland. In an article titled 
Creative Teaching And Teaching Creativity: How To Foster Creativity In The Classroom, Davis explains the power of encouraging students to keep Da Vinci notebooks.  

“Describe the tongue of a woodpecker,” wrote Leonardo Da Vinci on one of his to-do lists, next to sketching cadavers, designing elaborate machines, and stitching costumes. Da Vinci filled over 7,000 notebook pages with questions, doodles, observations, sketches, and calculations. He nurtured creativity as a habit and skill every day—and it paid off. Da Vinci’s work reshaped multiple disciplines, from science, to art, to engineering.

I was intrigued when my co-teacher suggested using “Da Vinci” notebooks in our 2nd grade classroom. The idea was simple: students keep notebooks, independent of any academic subject, where they can try creative exercises and explore personal passions. I ordered a stack of bound notebooks for the occasion.

Within a week, the results astounded me. Whenever a student’s thinking diverged from our lesson objectives, or their question glimmered with the spark of a potential new interest, we sent them to their Da Vinci notebook. “Write it down!”—a refrain chanted countless times a day. One day, we did a “100 questions challenge,” inspired by the book How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci by Michael Gelb. The goal: Write 100 questions, in one sitting, about anything. The 2nd graders asked questions like: How does your brain work? Why do we have music? Do tiny people live on atoms? Why am I not a tiger? How do keys open door locks? Why do things have to die? Why did Beethoven write an ode to joy if he was so grumpy? Why aren’t all cars electric?

By the end of the year, the Da Vinci notebooks were gloriously full. 

Interestingly, many great innovators throughout history kept journals:  Curie, Edison, Einstein, Darwin, and Twain - to name just a few.   Some of the most successful leaders take time to reflect each day.  I've written about former Baxter Healthcare CEO Harry Kraemer's daily reflection ritual.   HBS Professor Joe Badaracco recently wrote a book about self-reflective leaders.  Many scholars and consultants have written over the past few years about the benefits of keeping a journal.  

The broader lesson: asking great questions is at the heart of creativity and innovation.  Don't jump to solutions.  Observe the world around you.  Explore the unexpected. Look for points of friction.  Inquire as to how things work and how they might be improved.  Look for connections between seemingly unrelated issues.  Then write it down before you forget.