Friday, December 30, 2022

New Year Brings Choice: More Distinctive or More Conventional?

Image Source: Wikipedia

As we approach the new year, we have a choice as individuals and as organizations: Will we become more distinctive or more conventional in our work?  Are we open to experimenting, testing new ideas, and learning by doing?  Or, will we play it safe because we fear negative feedback, criticism, and perhaps failure?  Leaders too need to think about the message they send to their team members.  Are they creating a climate where people are more likely to fall in line with the conventional wisdom, or are they establishing a culture where people are willing to try new things?  Moreover, leaders need to consider how team members interpret certain results and feedback that they receive.  Will that feedback encourage them to continue to push boundaries, or will it stifle their creativity instead?

Interestingly, new research by Giacomo Negro, Balázs Kovács, and Glenn Carroll explores this very question. The scholars published their work in the American Sociological Review earlier this year.  These scholars studied professional musicians. In fact, they collected data on more than 125,000 albums by a wide variety of musical artists. Negro and his colleagues examined how artists' work evolved after either winning a Grammy award vs. earning a nomination but not winning an award. The researchers discovered that Grammy winners tend to "release albums that are more likely to stand out stylistically from other artists." In contrast, the nominees who did not win awards tended to produce subsequent music that was more similar to the work of fellow artists.  

Negro and his colleagues argue that winning an award inspires musicians to take a chance and produce new music that is original and adventurous.  They try different styles and even explore new genres.  The scholars use the Irish rock band U2 as an example.  The band earned  Grammy awards for its groundbreaking Joshua Tree album in the late 1980s, yet Bono and his bandmates chose to try on a very different style with the subsequent album, Achtung Baby.  They went on to earn a Grammy award for that music as well.  

What happens when artists simply get nominated, but fail to win an award? They appear to become more conventional.   Why?  Negro argues, "One possible interpretation is that the nominees interpret the feedback on their artistic choices as essentially negative feedback or a negative signal that what they tried to do did not win them the award."

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Unlocking Creativity in One Amazing Graphic

Thank you to reader Amelia Crabtree, a geriatrician from Melbourne, Australia, for creating this amazing infographic about my book, Unlocking Creativity.  I'm so grateful! 

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Eight Good Books I Read in 2022

 As I look back on the past year, I wanted to recommend eight interesting books that I read in 2022.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

The Right Connections to Make in Your Job Search


Imagine that you are searching for a new job, and you are leveraging LinkedIn as a resource in your search.  You are trying to make the right connections to facilitate the process.  What types of connections are most useful?  First and foremost, you should be building that network LONG BEFORE you are actively in need of new employment.  Don't wait.   Second, you need to consider the types of connections that are most impactful.   For a long time, scholars have argued that connecting with others with whom you have "weak ties" can be more useful than leveraging those with whom you have "strong" ties.   Why?  People with whom you have weak ties enable you to access opportunities, information, and resources that are not readily available to you already.  They help you discover options not known to your close friends and immediate co-workers.  Branching out can be powerful and effective.  

Professors Iavor Bojinov, Erik Brynjolfsson, and Sinan Aral collaborated with two researchers at LinkedIn to test the theory of weak vs. strong ties.  They examined two experiments conducted in 2015 and 2019 involving millions of LinkedIn members and the "People You May Know" algorithm on the social media site.  They discovered that connections with "moderately weak ties" tended to be most effective in the job search process.  These folks tend to be a bit more junior or senior than you, but not extremely distant in terms of stage of their careers.  

Moderately weak ties tend to be most useful for those working in fast-moving industries, or fields such as research and development.  Staying on top of new trends and discoveries outside your narrow domain turn out to be critical in those fields.  Finally, people engaged in remote work tend to benefit a great deal from moderately weak ties, in part because they need those connections to discover novel information they might not otherwise uncover due to the sometimes socially isolating aspects of working from home.  In sum, don't just focus on people you know well when building your network, but consider the diminishing returns of making connections with folks very distant from you.  Finally, the researchers stress that hiring managers need to think about building moderately weak ties as well, because those connections can help them discover talented candidates outside of their smaller group of people with whom they have collaborated closely in the past.  

Friday, December 16, 2022

What Gap Inc. Can Learn From Signet Jewelers CEO Gina Drosos

Source: CNBC

For years, Gap has struggled with a muddled corporate strategy.  Three of the company's four major brands (Old Navy, Gap, and Banana Republic) have blurred competitive positions.  Thus, they focus on overlapping target markets with product offerings that are not clearly distinguishable at times.  They cannibalize each other's sales far too often.  Moreover, while Old Navy has a clear low-cost positioning, and Banana Republic tries to be a differentiator, Gap has remained "stuck in the middle" for years... not clear about whether it's trying to compete on price or achieve higher willingness to pay, and not clear about whether it's a basics brand or a fashion retailer. 

I think Gap could learn a great deal from the turnaround led by CEO Gina Drosos at Signet Jewelers.  Her company owns several major jewelry chain brands (Zales, Kay, Jared).   Fortune recently profiled Drosos and her work improving performance at Signet.  Here's an excerpt from the article by Phil Wahba:

The Signet empire may not always be trendy, but it has considerably more momentum these days than it did when Drosos, the company’s first female CEO, took the helm. Not so long ago, it was not nearly as clear cut what purpose each of Signet’s three biggest chains were most suitable for. Indeed, as Signet fell into a rut during the 2010s, its biggest banners cannibalized each other and started to become almost indistinguishable. Drosos recalls a time when any sales event at Zales would mean a corresponding drop in business at Kay, a problem made all the worse given that the chains often operated rival stores within yards of each other at the same tired malls. “We had all of our banners pretty much on top of each other in the middle tier,” says Drosos.

Now each of the three major brands focuses on different occasions, customer needs, and price points.  The company still faces major challenges given its reliance on brick-and-mortar retailing with a heavy dependence on mall customers.   However, Signet has made some moves to enhance its online presence, including the acquisition of Blue Nile.  More work remains to be done if Signet will survive and thrive given the decline of malls in the United States. 

Of course, to make all this happen, Drosos had to change a toxic culture and address the fallout from a sexual harassment scandal involving a prior CEO.  Here's another excerpt: 

Drosos has also begun to change Signet’s culture—by making sure shell-shocked employees, primarily women, feel heard and included and are willing to buy into management’s vision, and dramatically overhauling the board... The toxic culture went beyond rampant misbehavior: It also took the form of a quasi-autocratic approach to business in which the bosses, disproportionately men, didn’t listen to what people in the field, the predominantly female frontline Signet workers, were seeing. Drosos, says that as a board member from 2012, she had always pushed for Signet to diversify its workforce and culture. When she became CEO, she says, the board told her to accelerate that effort.

The transformation of the culture, naturally, is key to this turnaround.  You cannot design and execute a new strategy without great ideas from people at all levels.  If you don't create an environment where people feel safe speaking up and sharing their ideas, you can't develop a winning strategy in a very challenging competitive landscape. 

Monday, December 12, 2022

One Key to Staying Motivated: Don't Expect Steady Progress

When you start a new project, do you expecct to achieve steady progress toward your goal, week after week?  If so, you might be fooling yourself.  Progress on a challenging initiative is rarely that steady over time.   Expect bumpiness!  Perhaps even more importantly, you might find it difficult to stay as motivated during your work if you have these misguided expectations.  

Check out this new experimental research by Gráinne Fitzsimons and Jessica Paek of Duke University.  They conducted an experimental study in which people were asked to complete tasks for compensation.  Research subjects earned a small amount of incentive pay if they achieved the goal of performing more than 50% of the tasks correctly.   In the experiment, one half of the research subjects achieved steady progress toward their goal, while the others encountered a much more uneven set of results over time.   These scholars found that the latter became less motivated as they worked.  However, if people recognized at the outset that the progress toward the objective would be uneven, they did not have the same type of demotivating experience.  Fitzsimons explains, “Being unrealistic and expecting steady progress is going to make it harder to stay motivated when you meet those inevitable bumps in the road."  

For me, this research reminds me of the work of cognitive scientist and learning specialist Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia.  Willingham argues that teachers need to assign work that is "desirably difficult" if they wish to maximize learning by their students.  The challenge is very much a Goldilocks story.  If the work is too difficult, students become easily frustrated and demotivated.  If it's too easy, then they don't learn very much.  The sweet spot is when students are challenged, but they can see themselves making progress toward the goal.  Of course, for many students, that progress is uneven.  Some expect a smooth learning process, and that can be problematic.  Learning a new skill is rarely free of obstacles, frustrations, and even dead-ends.  If we expect to see those challenges along the way, we have prepared ourselves for some frustrations.  If we expect smooth sailing, we are setting ourselves up to fail.   As this research by Fitzsimons and Paek demonstrates, the same type of dynamic applies to all of us in our work, not just students.  We have to set the appropriate expectations for ourselves and our team members BEFORE we begin a challenging task.  The key is to frame the work appropriately.  If we frame the project as a learning/development opportunity that will involve challenges, then we are preparing ourselves to succeed.  If we frame it as a routine endeavor that should proceed smoothy, we are setting ourselves up to fail.

Friday, December 09, 2022

Why Your Company Should Build a Volunteering Program

Stanford Professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Sara Singer have published new research on the subject of company-sponsored volunteering programs.  They studied survey data from more than 53,000 employees in the UK.   They found that company-sponsored volunteering programs can improve job satisfaction and employee commitment.  Perhaps that result does not surprise you.  However, this research also identifies two key reasons why these programs have beneficial effects.  According to Pfeffer and Singer's findings, these programs enhance social bonding among employees, and they enhance the extent to which employees identify with their employers.  What do these scholars mean by "identifying" with employers?  They define it as feeling a sense of belonging, being willing to recommend the company to peers, and sharing the values and goals of the enterprise.   Singer commented on the research implications:

Employer-sponsored volunteer programs are pretty widespread; it’s just that the uptake isn’t very high. The challenge is really in creating programs that encourage people to participate. You’ve got to make opportunities for things that employees want to participate in because they provide meaning and purpose. You have to provide the flexibility that allows them the time to do it. Creating the conditions that allow employees to participate in company-sponsored volunteering programs is key.

The scholars emphasize one very important point.  You won't get the full benefits if people are off volunteering on their own.  They need to be conducting this service work in collaboration with their fellow employees.  Especially in a time of remote or hybrid work, this time together in person can be vitally important for building commitment to the organization and to one another.   

Monday, December 05, 2022

How Leaders Avoid Hero Syndrome

This week Kellogg Insight features a conversation with Colonel Fred Maddox, an assistant professor at the U.S. Army War College and Chief of Staff of the Army senior fellow at the Kellogg School.  Maddox discusses how leaders should react when the execution of a very important project falters badly.   He suggests that many leaders enjoy being the heroes, swooping into the situation and trying to solve the problem personally.   Maddox cautions against this approach, "When leaders act like they’re the only ones who can solve something, it can become an issue for the whole organization because they’re not focused on strategy and they’re doing someone else’s job.”  Moreover, he argues that such "heroic" action can demoralize team members, because they feel as though their skills and voice are not respected.   

Why don't leaders trust their team members in these spots?   Maddox argues that leaders often don't believe in the skills and expertise of their team members.  However, leaders do believe in themselves, yet sometimes that confidence is not well-grounded.  The situation may be far more complex and/or novel than the leader would like to admit.  They need help from their team members; they cannot solve it alone.  However, they somehow convince themselves that they can rectify the situation without assistance.   It's hero complex 101.  

Maddox explains how the military uses various simulations and training exercises to develop the skills of team members.  An investment in training and development does not only help the team members hone their skills; it builds the leaders' confidence in their team members.  Leaders need to find time to see their team members in action in a lower-risk, safer space.  

He explains that a good leader doesn't simply issue orders in these training scenarios.  Instead, the effective leader inquires as to how various people on the team would try to solve a specific probelm.  He calls this Socratic approach "walking in autonomy."  It's essentially a conversation in which the leader coaches and mentors, rather than solving the problem directly. Then, Maddox advocates using the "after-action review" to analyze the decisions that have been made and the impact those choices had on the results - good or bad. Providing time for reflection, feedback, and learning proves crucial for employee development, and these activities help build the leader's confidence in the people throughout the organization.

Friday, December 02, 2022

Is it time to fire yourself?

Source: Intel

This week, author and leadership development consultant Adam Bryant wrote a thought-provoking article titled, "Is it time to fire yourself?" for Strategy+Business. Bryant tells the story of Bracken Darrell, CEO of Logitech International.  After five years leading the firm, Darrell asked himself the question, "Am I the right person for the next five years?"  He pondered stepping down.   Instead, though, he chose to continue as the CEO, while adopting a fresh perspective.  Darrell explains, “I have to rehire myself but have no sacred cows. It was super exciting and fun, and I started changing things that I had put in place. Fortunately, I didn’t have to change things radically, but I felt new again.”  

Bryant also recounts the legendary story of former Intel CEO Andy Grove contemplating how his replacement might adopt a very different strategy facing the specific circumstances challenging the firm in the early 1980s: 

"Grove asked Gordon Moore, Intel’s cofounder, 'If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what would he do?'  Moore responded by saying that a new CEO would take Intel out of the memory-chip business. 'Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?' Grove responded. And that’s what they did. They shifted Intel from memory chips to microprocessors, a crucial pivot that led to decades of prosperity for the company." 

Bryant offers a compelling argument for why leaders should consider what might happen if they were replaced.  How might a new person look at the situation?  What other perspectives might be helpful to me now?  Am I stuck in a certain mindset or beholden to certain assumptions that may no longer be valid?  Leaders at all levels absolutely should ask themselves these questions from time time.