Monday, November 21, 2022

Bob Iger Returns to Disney: How Do Boomerang CEOs Work Out?

The Wall Street Journal reports shocking news from Disney this morning.   CEO Bob Chapek, recently signed to a contract extension by the board, has stepped down effective immediately.  Former CEO Bob Iger will return to take the reins.  Iger, of course, presided over a long period of strong performance at the company.  However, Disney has struggled along multiple dimensions since his departure.   Iger's return prompted me to consider how "boomerang" CEOs have performed.   We all know about the high-profile success stories, such as Steve Jobs returning to Apple long after he was dismissed.   Is that strong return the norm or the exception?

Christopher Bingham, Bradley Hendricks, Travis Howell, and Kalin Kolev studied this question and published their findings in the MIT Sloan Management Review two years ago.  They found that, "Boomerang CEOs indeed performed significantly worse than other types of CEOs. On average, the annual stock performance of companies led by boomerang CEOs was 10.1% lower than their first-stint counterparts. These results held true even when we compared them with other (non-boomerang) CEOs who were hired in times of crisis."

Why might boomerang CEOs struggle, on average, during their return?  First, they might be trying to apply a tried-and-true formula for success, yet conditions and circumstances may have fundamentally changed since their initial departure.   Second, decisions late in their initial tenure actually may have caused some of the downturn in performance after their departure.  Owning up to that fact may be challenging for many leaders.  Third, the team at the top may have changed significantly since their first tenure.  Their earlier success may have had as much, if not more, to do with those talented team members as it did with their own capabilities.   Fourth, the new skills required to thrive in the current environment may not match the leaders' strengths.  Finally, perhaps the returning leader may not be as open to divergent perspestives as he or she once was.  As Iger himself noted in his book

"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.

Boards and returning leaders must, of course, also acknowledge the fact that they did not manage the succession well.  In essence, the boomerang CEO has some responsibility for having failed in one of the last crucial tasks faced during his or her initial tenure: a smooth transition for the successor.  Now, the boomerang CEO has to not only right the ship, but find a way to improve the succession and transition the next time he or she steps down.  Again, it's interesting to read Iger's own words:

We all want to believe we’re indispensable. You have to be self-aware enough that you don’t cling to the notion that you are the only person who can do this job. At its essence, good leadership isn’t about being indispensable; it’s about helping others be prepared to step into your shoes—giving them access to your own decision-making, identifying the skills they need to develop and helping them improve, and sometimes being honest with them about why they’re not ready for the next step up.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Rethinking The Way You Hire

If you have a job opening in your organization, are you trying to find a superhero that, in all likelihood, does not exist.  Or, is your desperation to fill a position distorting your recruiting and selection process?   Recently, I read an interview with Patty McCord, former CHRO at Netflix.  McCord described the challenges that many managers face when trying to hire people.  Then, she provided a different approach to recruitment.  I found it be a fascinating perspective and process.  She calls it "reverse thinking."  Here's an excerpt:

First you start with the timeframe. I usually say six months to a year, depending on the level of the role. If we hire the right person in that role and things were amazing, what would be occurring then, that’s not occurring now? Then I tell people to list out all of their metrics to measure success. Everyone has numerals. Spit them all out.

Then I say to make a movie of it. If I’m walking around, are there more meetings or are there less meetings? Are people’s heads down? Are they working collaboratively? What does it look like?

That gives you the behaviors and the drive and the motivation. What somebody wants to get engaged with in purposeful work.

Now that I have my movie and I have my metrics, now I say okay, in order for those things to happen that aren’t happening now, what does somebody need to know how to do?

Now you get to the skill set that’s never on the job description. Then you look at the skills and experiences that would lead someone to know how to do that.

I like this reverse thinking because most people write job openings to describe (a) the person who left that they didn’t want to leave (b) the fantasy person who doesn’t exist (c) whatever it will take to get the req approved.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

How to Encourage People to Offer Suggestions & Ideas

Why do some front-line workers keep their best ideas to themselves?  How might we encourage them to bring their suggestions forward to their managers in a proactive fashion?  Jieun Pai, Jennifer Whitson, Junha Kim and Sujin Lee have published an interesting paper addressing these questions.  They conducted a field experiment at a large manufacturing company with several thousand technicians.  

Before the experiment, the firm had instituted an initiative to collect ideas for improvement from their technicians.  Of the 3,800 workers, 55 of them proposed suggestions in the first six months of the effort.   Then, the scholars began their field experiment.  They designed two sets of posters for the manufacturing company.   One set of posters featured technicians talking about how they were willing to offer an improvement suggestion because they worked for a supportive manager.  Morever, the posters encouraged people to think about a supportive manager at the firm.  A second set of posters also featured workers talking about submitting suggestions. However, the quotes described how the workers' own knowledge and expertise led them to propose an idea.  

Workers who viewed the first set of posters submitted 71 ideas in four days.   The technicians who viewed the second set of posters offered just 45 ideas in four days.  In both cases, the number of suggestions rose substantially from that prior six-month period.  However, the posters featuring discussion of supportive managers had a much more positive impact.  

These researchers argue that we need to act supportively as managers and to create what they call a secure relationship with employees.  Front-line workers need to trust their managers, and they need to have a relationship that makes them comfortable bringing ideas forward.  Moreover, the experiment shows that how we encourage workers matters.  We can't just ask for their ideas.  We have to design our call to action in a way that reminds them of how we really do want to hear their ideas.  

To me, those posters helped because they featured the voices of their peers.  They showed that fellow workers felt that their voices were heard, and that their suggestions actually made a positive impact on the organization.  People want to know that someone genuinely considers their views and actually takes action based on their recommendations.  

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Uncovering Hidden Risks: Three Challenges

I've argued that leaders need to become more proactive problem finders if they wish to avert surprising failures in their organization.   They need to seek out and uncover hidden risks.  Unfortunately, as humans, we struggle with regard to how we cope with risk.   Three patterns of behavior prove particularly problematic when it comes to risk.  

1.  We actively downplay and discount ambiguous risks.

As Amy Edmondson, Richard Bohmer, and I have argued, individuals and organizations are predisposed to downplay ambiguous threats.   Think the foam strike on the Columbia shuttle or the early news reports of a deadly virus in Wuhan, China.  

2.  We normalize riskier actions over time.

As Diane Vaughan has argued, we engage in a gradual acceptance of higher and higher risk over time.  We deviate from a standard, and if nothing bad happens, we set a "new normal" for ourselves. That makes a further deviation from standard seem quite small, when in fact, we are drifting further and further from what was initially deemed to be the appropriate benchmark.  Consider how we can incrementally make our way to driving 30 miles over the speed limit.  

3.  We take more risk when we know that safety protocols, back-up systems, and redundancies are in place. 

Consider how we drive once we know our car has a number of technological innovations that help us stay safe (lane assist, back-up cameras, object detection, assisted braking, etc.)   We sometimes take more risk because we think that those systems will protect us.