Thursday, June 29, 2023

Practice Makes Perfect

We all know that great athletes practice intensely in preparation for competitions.  As a teenager, I remember reading about the incomparable Larry Bird showing up at the Boston Garden hours before a game and hoisting up hundreds of jump shots, as well as running on the track.  For much of my adult life, I read about Tom Brady's maniacal practice habits, beginning when he was a rookie on the training camp fields here at Bryant University, where I serve on the faculty now. Scott Pioli loves to tell the story of a late night in April in Foxboro during the offseason before Brady's second year: "It was a Friday night in the very beginning of April, and I was leaving the building. We still had the (practice) bubble and the lights were on in the bubble. I went around the construction (of the new stadium) to go hit the lights and on a Friday night in April, it's almost 10 o'clock at night and there's Brady working on his own with his boombox, with elastics around his ankles, throwing balls into the net."  

If athletes use practice so effectively to improve, how about business leaders?  Does practice play a role in our development?  If so, how?  Here are the three ways we can use practice to our immense benefit:

1.  Presentations (and later speeches) play an important role in our work.  We have to share our ideas and proposals with others in a concise, clear, and professional manner.  We have to persuade and influence those over whom we may not have any formal authority.  Practice indeed makes perfect when it comes to public speaking.  We should work on delivery, timing, and emphasis.  Moreover, we should anticipate questions and prepare our responses.  The International Churchill Society notes that the great British Prime Minister, who delivered so many memorable and impactful speeches, practiced relentlessly: "Churchill drafted his speeches several times and wrote them out in a way that would help him deliver them effectively. He rehearsed passages, again and again, pacing his rooms, repeating them out loud, learning whole speeches by heart. He developed a unique oratorical style that both covered up and employed his speech difficulties so that his ‘lisp’ – or ‘stammer’, which could occasionally seem like a groping for words – became a prop, not a hindrance."

2.  Giving feedback can be extremely difficult at times.  Many leaders dread these meetings with their team members.  Rehearsing the conversation can be very fruitful.  Consider not only the content of the feedback, but the method of delivery.  In what order will you make your comments? How will you set the stage at the start of the meeting?  What type of response do you anticipate from the other person, and how will you respond?  Finally, what will you do to bring the meeting to a conclusion?

3.  Data analysis and interpretation skills have become more important for leaders in all functions of an organization, not simply those working in finance, data science, or engineering roles.  We all need to know how to analyze data, interpret results, and draw meaningful and appropriate conclusions.  Practicing these skills can be very helpful.  As a young financial analyst, I used to hone my skills outside of work by focusing on something that I loved, namely professional sports.  I would analyze baseball and football statistics in my free time, and I loved to read articles in the nascent (at the time) field of sabermetrics.  I enjoyed it a great deal, and it helped me learn how to use Excel, perform various statistical analysis, and come up with conclusions that sometimes challenged pre-existing notions or conventional wisdom.   Ok, I was a nerd... but these analyses really helped me hone my analytical skills.  Sports doesn't have to be your thing.  You might take some time to analyze your own company's 10K filing, or to compare your firm's 10K with a competitor's results.  Or, you might read a few business school case studies about interesting companies and analyze the firms' performance.  These efforts can help refine your skills.   

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Should Internships Be Fully Remote?

Is remote work diminishing the efficacy of the summer internship experience for thousands of young college students?  Emmy Lucas has written an article on summer internships for Forbes this week.  In that article, she examines how challenging it is this summer for many students to land internships, given the layoffs at many firms, particularly in the tech sector.  She also raises a question about how remote work has affected the ability of interns to learn, grow, and develop successfully.   Here's an excerpt from her article.  She begins with a comment by Jane Ashen Turkewitz, who administers internship placement for the University of Texas at Austin: 

Remote work has also put a damper on the intern experience. “I remember joining the workforce in my twenties and it being super fun,” Ashen Turkewitz says. “You would do your work, but there was camaraderie, there was brainstorming. There was an energy that I believe students and early career folks are missing out on, big time.”

On Glassdoor, negative mentions of remote work in reviews by interns grew by 548% between 2019 and 2021. “Clearly a lot of companies' internship programs are struggling to adapt to the new normal,” Glassdoor’s Terrazas says. “Big companies have been leading the charge in getting folks back into the office, so I'm really going to be curious to see if it has a measurable effect in terms of experience this summer.”

Salesforce’s head of global futureforce programs, Alex Murray, says its interns are back fully in person. “We’ve experimented with remote and hybrid programs over the past few years,” she said in an email. “But our interns told us they want to be in an office environment.”

Kate Feeney, who is interning a second summer at Raytheon Technologies, spent last summer fully remote, but is going to the office one or two days a week this summer. “It’s a lot more isolating [working] online,” she says of her experience last year. Now, “I get to ask more questions about [my co-workers’] job rather than it being so focused sitting on a Zoom listening to them talk.”

This article raises very important questions.  In my view, business leaders need to invest the time and effort to meet with their interns in person throughout a summer experience.  Apprenticeship, learning, and development will often (not always, but often) not take place as effectively in a fully remote manner.  One challenge is that many managers want the flexibility of working remotely often during the summer months.  However, if you hire an intern, you have a responsibility to make that experience meaningful and productive.  Managers should be paying it forward, offering the mentorship and guidance they once received at a young age.   

Monday, June 19, 2023

Investing in Your Own Development This Summer

Beyond spending time with family and friends this summer, we can all take the opportunity to invest in our own development as well.  Certainly, our organizations may offer workshops or leadership development programs in which we are asked to take part.   Or, we might be pursuing an advanced degree or certificate. However, we shouldn't simply wait for these opportunities to come to us, or simply focus on formal educational experiences.  We should find time to learn on our own.   I'm reminded of the famous Italian saying, "Ancora imparo."  I have a small plaque with this saying on my office bookshelf.  While some scholars have doubts about the usual origin story for this phrase, the common explanation is that the great Renaissance artist and sculptor Michelangelo uttered the saying at age 87.   The idea of Michelangelo exclaiming "Ancora imparo" at that ripe old age reminds us all of the power of always learning something new, no matter our age, experience, or knowledge.  

What can we do this summer to learn and develop as a leader?

  • READ whole books!  Yes, blog posts 😉, web articles, and Twitter threads can be quite informative at times.  However, we should take the time to embark on a deep dive into a few important subjects this summer.   I don't mean just business or leadership books per se.  We can learn a great deal from reading history, about pressing problems of the past and the leaders, both successful and flawed, who tackled those issues.  For example, I just finished a terrific book titled "The Devils Will Get No Rest" by James B. Conroy.  The insightful book takes a close look at the Casablanca Conference of January 1943, when British and American poltical and military leaders gathered to develop a gameplan to win World War II.   I learned so much about how these leaders navigated contentious issues, debated intensely, and found a way to reach agreement, all while maintaining and even enhancing their working relationships.  
  • Find a great podcast.  I don't mean the latest true crime adventure, though they can be entertaining.  Find one that tells a great story about the rise or fall of an enterprise, or offers insights into organizational behavior.  I enjoy podcasts such as How I Built This, Freakonomics, Cautionary Tales, Land of the Giants, The Dropout, and Choiceology.  
  • Meet with a mentor/mentee.  If you have been too busy to invest in a mentoring relationship, commit to spending time on it this summer.  Make sure it's a two-way street, in which both parties are benefiting to some degree.  Try to take the time to meet in person, if possible. Prepare for these meetings.  Come with good questions and with some issues on which you woud like some advice and guidance.  
  • Select a new skill to master.  Perhaps you want to learn how to code, or maybe you would like to learn more about data visualization.  However, don't just focus on these types of "hard skills."  Think carefully about certain "soft skills" you might hone over the summer too.  Maybe you want to improve at public speaking or presenting, or you would like to get better at setting and achieving goals.  Having a gameplan to improve both hard and soft skills is critical as you embark on your leadership development journey. 
  • Reflect systematically.   I've written previously about Kellogg Professor and former Baxter Healthcare CEO Harry Kraemer's recommended practices for self-reflection.  Find some time this summer to reflect.  Perhaps you might use Kraemer's questions, or you could conduct an "after-action review" regarding a project you led recently.   As you reflect, don't build a long laundry list of things to work on moving forward.  Be selective and prioritize a few action items for the coming year.  You are much more likely to make progress if you focus your improvement efforts. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Why the Decline in Labor Productivity?

Jane Thier reported last week for Fortune on the decline in labor productivity in the American economy.  She notes that the United States has experienced productivity declines for the past five quarters.  That hasn't happened since World War II.  Thier examines George Mason economist Tyler Cowen's commentary regarding the potential causes of this significant decline.   She notes that Cowen attributes much of the problem to "a serious crisis of morale" in the workplace.   I think there's no question that many employees are disengaged, and even disgruntled.  Organizations have been grappling with low engagement for years, but it does seem that the problem has become worse since the pandemic began.

Thier also writes that some experts have begun to question whether remote and hybrid work might be driving declines in labor productivity.   Cowen argues that more data are needed to draw definitive conclusions about the impact of remote work.   Fellow economist Gregory Daco of EY Parthenon argues that comments from various clients suggests that remote work might be causing a decline in productivity.  

Many companies reported high productivity of their employees during those early months of the pandemic.  I wonder, though, whether unique circumstances contributed to that efficiency boost, and if productivity might be falling as those conditions no longer hold.  Many employees and organizations rallied in those early days of the pandemic, working extremely hard to ensure that their firms would survive amidst a preciptious economic downturn.   Moreover, we all were stuck in our homes.  We had very little else to do, and so perhaps many were quite productive in those circumstances.  

Things have changed though.   Now, perhaps, we are seeing some of the limitations of remote work, and it may be having a deleterious impact.  It's not the popular thing to say these days.  People who try to argue for return to office often get pummeled by the press, and they potentially scare off talented employees who insist on working remotely.  Yet, the national productivity data should trouble us greatly.  We have to dig deeper into these data, and more rigorous empirical work must be done to understand the complete ramifications of remote/hybrid work.  

Monday, June 12, 2023

When Layoffs Occur, Who Else Leaves?


Lisa Ward of the Wall Street Journal reports today on a fascinating new study by Sima Sajjadiani, John D Kammeyer-Mueller, and Alan Benson.  Their research paper is titled "Who Is Leaving and Why? The Dynamics of High-Quality Human Capital Outflows." The scholars studied more than 1 million employee records from a two-year period at a major retailer with more than 1,600 stores.  

The scholars found that layoffs can trigger a loss of highly talented individuals.  They found that the attrition rate of high-performing employees increases after layoffs of underperforming peers. Ward writes:

Why? High-performing employees typically have more employment options, says Sima Sajjadiani, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s UBC Sauder School of Business and one of the paper’s co-authors. As a result, when layoffs are announced, these individuals might pre-emptively begin job searches to secure new roles rather than wait to see if they would be included in the layoff.

What about when an employee is dismissed for cause?  Interestingly, they again found a disparity in subsequent attrition rates.  Higher performing employees tended to stay, but low performers left in larger numbers after a peer was dismissed for cause.  Sajjadiani explains:

“High-performing employees may view the dismissal of a low-performing colleague as the organization maintaining standards, which can be seen as a positive sign about the organization’s commitment to performance,” Sajjadiani says. “On the other hand, low-performing employees might perceive the dismissal of a similar peer as a warning sign that they might be next, leading to an increase in voluntary turnover among this group.”

Finally, what about voluntary departures?   Well, high performers follow fellow high performers who leave.  Low performers follow fellow low performers.  However, high performers do not leave in greater numbers when low performers depart.  Instead, stars are more likely to stay.  Apparently, our judgements about our performance relative to peers matter a great deal when we decide whether to leave a job.  

Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Leadership Lessons from Chris Licht's Fall

Source: CNN

News has broken this morning that Chris Licht is out as CEO of CNN, just days after controversy erupted about a lengthy piece in The Atlantic about the cable news network's new leader.    I'm sure the list of mistakes he made is quite lengthy.  I'll just note three key lessons here in the immediate aftermath of his departure:

1.  Giving a journalist seemingly unfettered access during your early days as CEO, and then being so loose with commentary and language during that time together, was a colossal mistake.  It's hard to believe someone would not anticipate how such access could lead to massive fallout.   Leaders need to work with the press and shape their message through the media at times.  If you are a media CEO, you certainly can't seclude yourself.  Having said that, this type of access seems completely unnecessary.  I simply don't see any potential upside here.   

2.  Locating his office away from the newsroom appears to have been a major error.  It's simply too easy for executives to become isolated from their staff members.   You might make it even more likely that you will be detached from their concerns if you remove yourself physically from their workspaces.  The location also serves a symbolic purpose.  It signals many things about your priorities and your leadership approach, even if unintentionally.   

3.  Finally, Licht himself admitted to his employees, "As I read that article, I found myself thinking, CNN is not about me. I should not be in the news unless it's taking arrows for you. Your work is what should be written about."  Well, he's absolutely correct there.  The CEO is not the organization.  It's not his or her personal fiefdom.  CEOs need to view themselves as stewards.  The institution doesn't belong to the leader.  In particular, leaders must remind themselves that many employees will work there much longer than they will.  

Monday, June 05, 2023

Build Relationships & Trust by Tapping Into Others' Expertise

Source: Noam Galai
Copyright: 2015 Getty Images

Jennifer Hyman co-founded Rent The Runway and currently serves as the CEO. Recently, she spoke to Stanford University students about her experiences as an entrepreneur and leader. Hyman described a critical meeting when she was first beginning to conceive her idea for the business. She landed a meeting with fashion-giant Diane Von Furstenberg.   During that meeting, Hyman asked for feedback about her idea, and she tried to learn as much as possible about the fashion business.   She asked many questions and listened actively.   Hyman explains the lesson she takes away from that remarkable encounter: 

Now also in that meeting, I asked her, “Hey, could you introduce me to a few of your friends, and I’d love to meet with them and talk about this idea,” because every meeting has to get you to like three other meetings. And so never leave a meeting with someone without asking them for that introduction. Now those other meetings led us to other people in the fashion industry, some of which were designers, some of which were publicists, but people that actually could give us real feedback on this idea and people that could see that like we were interested in listening. It was helping to build trust in an industry where we had no experience, where you go in and you actually allow someone else to give you feedback, like “How does that work?”

What ends up happening in a situation where I sit with you and I ask you questions and I ask you for your advice, you end up walking out of that conversation feeling awesome. You end up liking me in that conversation. Like whenever you make someone else into the expert, like that builds a relationship right away. And we needed desperately at the beginning of the business to build trust so that anyone would actually trust us to like take their currencies and inventory and not cannibalize their business.

Hyman highlights two key lessons here. First, don't leave a meeting such as this one without soliciting an introduction to others who may be helpful to you.   Second, people love being put in the position of expert sharing wisdom with others.  They want to help, provided you demonstrate respect for their expertise, come extremely prepared, ask great questions, and listen actively.   Treating someone else as the expert sets the tone for a productive conversation.   You don't have to grovel or patronize others; you simply have to acknowledge what you do not know and point out how they can help.   Very often, others will find the time to share their wisdom with you, even if they have a very busy schedule.  I've certainly found that to be the case in my career as well.