Friday, September 30, 2022

Why Does Our Firm Exist? Lesson from the Collapse of Bed, Bath, and Beyond

Source: CNBC

Phil Wahba has written a detailed and highly informative account of the collapse of Bed Bath and Beyond for Fortune.  He points out that the retailer will generate about half as much revenue this year as they did just four years ago.  Tragically, CFO Gustavo Arnal took his own life earlier this month, in part due to the stress of the situation at the retailer.

Wahba chronicles the many reasons for the declining revenue and huge losses at the retailer.  They include executive turnover, supply chain systems failures and deficiencies, and a poorly designed effort to promote new store brands while reducing the reliance on coupons and discounts.   

Wahba closes the article by writing, "During the August investor presentation, a Baird analyst said to Gove (interim CEO): 'Just trying to understand how you really differentiate the business by selling product that is widely available at other retailers.' That is exactly what Gove has to figure out, and fast."

At another point in the article, Wahba writes, "Bed Bath & Beyond has to figure out why it needs to exist in consumers’ eyes."  Indeed, that is the ultimate question for any company.  Why do we exist? What value do we bring to the table for our customers that others cannot provide?  If you can't answer that question, you don't have a viable strategy at all.   Every CEO should be asking themselves that question, but especially if you are leading a brick-and-mortar retailer these days. 

Monday, September 26, 2022

How Important Are Face-to-Face Interactions for Innovation?


Much has been written about the impact of remote work on collaboration and innovation in the workplace. Yet, few rigorous studies have attempted to document the actual impact on innovation. Now comes a fascinating new paper from David Atkin, M. Keith Chen & Anton Popov.  They used an enormous amount of smartphone geolocation data to track face-to-face interactions.   Their research sample includes over 51,000 employees in Silicon Valley in 2016 and 2017 (pre-pandemic).   Here's an excerpt from their paper:

Our rich data on interactions allow us to open the black box of knowledge spillovers and isolate a particular channel: face-to-face meetings. To do so, we first link worker interactions—measured by the probability that a worker from one establishment “meets” a worker of another establishment by being in the same place at the same time with patent citations between their employers, an observable proxy for knowledge flows. 

To calculate these meeting probabilities, we combine smartphone geolocation data with maps of building rooftops for all patenting firms in Silicon Valley, assigning workers to establishments based on where they spend a large fraction of their waking hours. To assign firm-level citations to establishments, we scrape citation data from recent patent applications and use the inventors’ hometowns coupled with the housing locations of workers to probabilistically assign citations across multi-establishment firms. The resulting dataset of establishment-to-establishment worker meetings and citations reveals a strong positive relationship between face-to-face interactions and knowledge flows, even after conditioning on rich controls for the physical distance between establishments.

Note the final sentence.  Face-to-face interactions enhanced knowledge flows. They documented a strong positive effect of face-to-face interactions on patent citations.  Here's more from the authors:

Implementing this approach, we find that face-to-face meetings significantly increase citations between establishments, with the strength of the effect twice the impact of physical distance on citations. Eliminating a quarter of face-to-face meetings in Silicon Valley would reduce the number of citations by approximately 8 percent..." 

Naturally, some will argue that we have learned how to collaborate remotely during the pandemic, and have we have mastered a batch of technologies that promote virtual collaboration.   Certainly, we have  become much more effective at communicating and collaborating with others spread across remote geographic locations.  Yet, remember that this study documents many informal, serendipitous face-to-face interactions among employees.   Those interactions are much harder to replicate virtually.   While many leaders are concerned about losing employees if they try to mandate a return to the office, they do have to consider this study's implications regarding remote work and innovation.  Hopefully, more researech will follow, enabling us to gain a deeper understanding of the value of face-to-face interaction in the new product and new process development process. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

How Employees Perceive Those Who Undercommunicate vs. Overcommunicate

Some leaders communicate early, often, and quite effectively.   Others overshare.  They send out a constant stream of messages, perhaps risking information overload for their organization members.  Finally, perhaps most often, we find that leaders undercommunicate.  They fail to offer transparency, and they fail to keep employees abreast of the latest developments at the firm.   Scholars Francis Flynn and Chelsea Lide conducted a great new study to examine the perceptions of employees in the cases of overcommunication vs. undercommunication.   They found that employees clearly prefer more communication to less, even if the risk of information overload exists.   Unsurprisingly, the scholars find that most leaders believe that they are communicating sufficiently, when in fact, they are not.  Here's more on the specific perceptions employees have and their implications for leaders, from Stanford Leadership Insights: 

Flynn and Lide’s research shows that employees’ preference for too many versus too few messages stems from the perception that even if an overcommunicating leader can’t communicate the ideal amount, at least they mean well. Overcommunicators “may be given the benefit of the doubt by their employees, who might view them as trying to meet their needs, even if they are not necessarily succeeding,” Lide says. Making an effort can give the impression of empathy, whereas undercommunicators are “not really seen as trying at all. Instead, they tend to be seen as really missing the mark in terms of meeting the needs of their employees.”

Flynn says that these results contrast with prior research that found that information overload hurts employee performance. “Overcommunication may be seen as annoying and a nuisance, but it’s not seen as a damning flaw for a leader, partly because a leader’s overcommunication is seen as an attempt to benefit you, even if it is misguided, as opposed to an attempt to undermine you or simply ignore you.”

Friday, September 02, 2022

Failing to Prepare for a CEO Succession

Source:  CNBC

Yesterday, Starbucks announced the hiring of a new CEO -  Laxman Narasimhan.  His former organization's stock (Reckitt Benckiser) dropped by 5% upon release of the news, suggesting investors believe its a significant loss for that firm.

As most readers know, former CEO Howard Schultz had to step in as interim leader of Starbucks several months ago, after the departure of Kevin Johnson.   The move represented Schultz's second return to the firm after his long tenure as CEO. On two occasions, Schultz had to step in when the firm was underperforming, and in both cases, it appeared that Starbucks did not have a successor ready to take over.  Why was Starbucks not prepared for these two transitions?  Moreover, given the problems Schultz has unearthed and encountered during his few months as interim CEO, one wonders if the Board didn't act quickly enough to move on from Kevin Johnson.  

These changes at Starbucks came to mind when I thought about a recent paper published by qresearchers David Larcker, Brian Tayan, and Edward Watts. They found that, "many companies are slow to terminate underperforming bosses, get caught flat-footed when a CEO suddenly departs, and often fail to appoint a viable or permanent successor."  Here's an excerpt from the Stanford Insights article profiling this research:

Succession planning is a taboo subject that tends to be neglected in many companies, Larcker says. One reason is that directors may feel awkward about broaching the subject with CEOs, as it suggests dissatisfaction with their performance. “It’s like coming home from school with a bad report card and explaining it to your parents,” Larcker says. “It’s not a fun thing to do.” And personal ties can make directors go easier on the CEO.

One of the most striking findings unearthed by the paper was that 4 out of 10 CEOs retain their jobs despite five years of worst-in-class performance based on return on assets.  Larcker puts this down to risk aversion. A CEO search can be time-consuming and expensive, and the stakes are high. One study estimates the cost of appointing the wrong leader at more than $100 billion. Bad picks can cause stock price drops along with stalled momentum, lost customer goodwill, and diminished trust within the organization. “There’s a reluctance to do it,” Larcker says.