Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Design Rituals to Reinforce Organizational Values & Culture

Mollie West and Kate McCoubrey Judson have published a wonderful blog post for the Huffington Post about how to strengthen organizational culture.   They focus on the importance of establishing rituals that bring the organization's mission, purpose, and values to life.   I've always believed in the value of such rituals.  At universities, such rituals include ceremonies such as convocation and commencement, as well as alumni reunions, honor society inductions, and new student orientations.   Of course, they also include many smaller rituals that are part of everyday life on campus.   For us, these rituals reinforce our institutional values and remind us of the meaning and purpose of our work - to transform the lives of the young people who come here to learn and grow.   West and Judson describe the importance of rituals in this excerpt from their article:  

Companies practice rituals of all kinds—celebration rituals, eating rituals, storytelling rituals. Why are they important? Rituals engage people around the things that matter most to an organization, instilling a sense of shared purpose and experience. They spark behaviors that make the work and the company more successful.

Rituals can be powerful drivers of culture, so they should be thoughtfully designed and nurtured. This starts with setting an intention. What is the organization’s unique purpose and set of values? What mindset and behaviors will help people deliver on those? A great ritual will reinforce that mindset and those behaviors in a way that feels authentic to the organization and its people. What works at one company, might feel totally foreign somewhere else.

It’s also important to think about what will make a ritual stick. Why will people want to participate? Can it start organically and catch on, or will people look to certain leaders to model it first? Designing a ritual that will sustain over time requires tuning in to the organization’s existing culture, beliefs, and behaviors. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

Interview with Phillip Barlag, Author of The Leadership Genius of Julius Caesar

1. Why did you choose to write this book

Early in the book, I discuss a story where Caesar was able to stop a mutiny of his army - which occurred while he was away from camp - by returning, standing before them, and uttering one single word. When I first heard this story, I was enthralled. How could any leader have so much gravitas, that they could bend the will of an organization in open and violent revolt with just one word? To me, that was a question that needed to be answered. 

2. Who do you think should read this book? What will be the most important takeaways for that audience?

It would be too easy, and too self-serving to say something silly like 'every leader everywhere,' should read this book. Rather, I think the best audience would be those leaders or managers who are tasked with driving a change management agenda of one kind or another, but find surprising organization inertia or active resistance impeding their progress. Caesar's career was defined by his ability to do what people had been trying - and failing - to do for hundreds of years. Most of his predecessors not only saw their efforts end without success, but found themselves murdered by the oligarchs who stood to lose should much-needed reforms take hold. Given how hard change can be in any modern organization, people that are a part of such efforts, or have a goal for doing things differently, should read the book. 

3. What is one surprising lesson from Caesar that you discuss in the book?

In the conventional narrative of Caesar, he is described as a tyrant, a dictator. Certainly he was capable of blind pursuit of his ambitions, but adjusted for his time, he was remarkably enlightened. For me, the most surprising aspect of his leadership that reveals itself with a deeper exploration, is that forgiveness was an absolute cornerstone of how he led. As a result, he was able to turn enemies into supporters, and neutralize many people that would otherwise have fought him to the death. Caesar's life and career make a fascinating and compelling business case for the power of forgiveness; he would not have been able to achieve all that he did without going against the conventions of his day and welcoming enemies back with honors and open arms. 

4. How did you go about researching for the book?

This book is a result of following an interest until it becomes an area of general expertise. I'm not a historian; I just like history. After reading 30 or so books about Rome and about Caesar, patterns began to emerge that I felt needed to be put together into a guide for a modern leader. I was in the very happy place of doing research by reading books and articles that I found intrinsically interesting. When these efforts needed to be augmented, I sought the opinion of some professional historians, academics, and editors who helped me filter out the overwhelming body of literature to arrive at the most important and respected work available. Roman history is fascinating. We know so much about Rome and the people that lived there. But there is just enough gap in the historical record, and there are just enough different ways to interpret what we know, that there is endless debate and discussion about what Rome was as a social and political entity, and what it meant. There was plenty of information to choose from!

5. What modern leaders remind you of Caesar and why?

Caesar was singularly unique. There hadn't been anyone quite like him before he arrived, and there hasn't been anyone since. But if you break him down into some of the unique aspects that added up to make him who he was, then there are a few people that come to mind.

To me, the closest we could come would probably be Steve Jobs. He, Caesar, saw a way of doing things that was badly outdated, and took on the incredibly difficult task of changing the whole system. Caesar also was single-minded in accomplishing goals ahead of competitors, and created such an overwhelming sense of urgency in the organizations he led. To me, these things have echoes of Steve Jobs. They were both innovators beyond compare, very clear about defining the line of battle, and rising to every challenge. Jobs was more volatile and less emotionally generous, but in terms of the scope of their goals and ambitions, I think it's a fairly apt comparison. 

I guess the term 'modern' is a bit relative when discussing someone that lived more than 2,000 years ago, so I am going to cheat a little from what I infer to be the spirit of the question and draw a comparison to Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln was a young lawyer on the circuit, he encountered Edwin Stanton. Stanton thought Lincoln to be so boorish as to be barely human. As their careers progressed, Stanton would heap insults upon Lincoln, often calling him the 'original gorilla.' Hardly kind (or accurate). When Lincoln was President, and his first Secretary of War Simon Cameron got embroiled in scandal, Lincoln overlooked the countless years of insults and nominated Stanton for the post. Lincoln never held a grudge, and he could see past his pride and identify Stanton as the best man for the job. It would be an inspired pick, and the two became incredibly close collaborators, changing the course of the Civil War and of American history. Find me another leader that could have so much forgiveness that they could do the same. Obviously the point is that Caesar often did the same thing: Forgetting the past and forging a new future with unlikely partners. As with Jobs, there are key differences. In this case, Caesar's forgiveness was more calculating and self-serving, but in a lot of ways, the outcomes and the lessons are the same. 

Running "Sprints" Effectively

Rachel Emma Silverman wrote a short piece for the Wall Street Journal last week about the use of "sprints" to solve tough problems at companies such as Alphabet. A sprint is a focused group problem-solving process that unfolds in just five days. She features Jake Knapp of Alphabet in her column. Knapp has co-authored a book titled "Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days."   I thought he offered some terrific advice about decision-making during such group sprints. 
“It’s really important to know who the decider is,” says Mr. Knapp. “For many teams there is a lot of ambiguity about who makes decisions. If you can’t get the decider for the whole sprint, make sure you can get her in the room for cameo appearances during the sprint to make decisions.”A sprint works best when there is one person tasked with making the final call for big decisions, rather than relying on a more democratic process, he says. Team members can provide input and feedback, but in a sprint there should be a sole decision maker. “We want there to be a single decider to make the calls, and we want him or her to be opinionated, says Mr. Knapp. “It becomes an informed dictatorship.”

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Mastering the One-on-One Meeting

Julia Austin, Chief Technology Officer at DigitalOcean and advisor to many startups in the Boston area, has written a terrific blog post about how to conduct effective one-on-one meetings with your direct reports.  I highly recommend reading the entire post.  Here are a few highlights: 
  • "Book a regular cadence of 1:1s. They should not be ad-hoc. It’s ok to skip one every once and awhile, but having it locked into the calendar is your commitment to being there for your employee. Decide the best cadence with them (weekly or every other week? 30 minutes or an hour?) and what the format should be – your office or theirs, a walk, or maybe grabbing coffee. Different formats work for different employees... 
  • "24 hours or so before the meeting, email the employee a list of what you’d like to cover. Try to do a split between strategic, tactical and personal items and always ask your employee what they want to cover too."
  • "Do not monopolize the conversation. This is for you each to get time to talk. Pause often and make sure there is opportunity for discussion and questions."
  • "It is important to always follow up any 1:1 (or scheduled meeting, for that matter) with notes on what was discussed, decisions made and, if relevant, any constructive feedback that will be measured going forward." 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Feedback?

The Wall Street Journal reports today on the changing culture at Kimberly-Clark, maker of products such as Huggies diapers and Kleenex tissues.   In this article, Lauren Weber writes the following: 

"One of the company’s goals now is 'managing out dead wood,' aided by performance-management software that helps track and evaluate salaried workers’ progress and quickly expose laggards... Armed with personalized goals for employees and large quantities of data, Kimberly-Clark said it expects employees to keep improving—or else. 'People can’t duck and hide in the same way they could in the past,' said Mr. Boston, who oversees talent management globally for the firm.  It has been a steep climb for a company that once resisted conflict and fostered a paternalistic culture that inspired devotion from its workers."

Weber goes to write that Kimberly-Clark's performance management system reflects a trend taking place in many companies, in which firms have eliminated annual merit reviews and replaced them with more continuous feedback.   She cites examples such as Accenture, Adobe, and GE, all of whom eliminated traditional annual performance reviews.   These firms have adopted real-time feedback systems for a number of reasons including, according to Weber, the belief that, "Millennial workers, meanwhile, demand more feedback, more coaching and a stronger sense of their career path."  

My question is simple though:   Can we take this shift to continuous monitoring, evaluation, and feedback too far?   I keep hearing that millennials want more feedback, but I've spent a ton of time around young people as a college professor.  I'm not sure any of us love being critiqued at every turn.   We work on some projects that take some time to get off the ground.   Some ideas require some time to take shape.   In short, I think this shift taking place in corporate America raises some critical questions:  Is too much early "feedback" going to quash some creative ideas?    Are managers adept enough at offering constructive critique to make this type of real-time feedback system effective at many firms?  Are we evaluating what truly drives success, or are we focused on what is easy to measure?  Are we encouraging short term thinking when we provide real-time feedback, or are we making sure to keep long term objectives in mind?  

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Early, Often, & Ugly!

Adam Bryant interviewed Christa Quarles, CEO of Open Table, in this week's New York Times Corner Office column.   Quarles describes one important leadership lesson she learned when she became CEO of the firm:  

The other surprise was that people were afraid to share things early on. Teams were trying to perfect something before they would show it to me, and they’d waste a ton of time trying to get it to be perfect to show to the C.E.O. So I said, “Early, often, ugly. It’s O.K. It doesn’t have to be perfect because then I can course­-correct much, much faster.” No amount of ugly truth scares me. It’s just information to make a decision. 

Awesome advice!  You have to strongly encourage people to show you work earlier on, because they will naturally have a tendency to want to perfect it before exposing those ideas to senior leaders.  Of course, how you then provide critique and feedback is essential.  If you attack those ideas in a fashion that is not constructive, your folks will stop bringing you ideas "early, often, and ugly."   You cannot invite those rough sketches and ideas without also considering how to critique those ideas differently than you might approach a near-finished proposal.    

Monday, August 15, 2016

Why A Few Box Office Hits Generate More Revenue Than Ever

The Wall Street Journal reports today on some interesting trends in the movie business.   According to this article by Ben Fritz, a small number of blockbuster hits accounts for a higher fraction of total box office receipts than in past years.   This year, the hits have included movies such as Finding Dory and Zootopia.  Fritz writes, "Increasingly, success in the movie business requires being one of the handful of most popular movies that draw a disproportionate amount of attention on social media and in the cultural zeitgeist. This year’s five most popular films account for 30% of the total domestic box office. At the end of last year that figure was 22%, a record at the time. The inevitable result is a smaller pool of moviegoers left to see everything else."  

Why the shift toward a larger share of revenue from the top movies of the year?   Fritz wrote an earlier column that may offer some clues.  In that piece, he noted that viewers tend to be getting their information from different sources these days.  In the past, people watched Siskel and Ebert (and others like them), and those experts shaped their movie-going decisions.  Today, people pay much more attention to what other viewers think.   What is the movie's Rotten Tomatoes score?  A bad score can doom a movie.   

Is this shift an example of the power of the wisdom of crowds?  Is it necessarily a good thing that we are using the crowd's wisdom to guide our movie-going decisions?   Interestingly, some research points to the pitfalls of the wisdom of crowds.  Jan Lorenz, Heiko Rauhut, Frank Schweitzer, and 
Dirk Helbing have studied this issue through experimental research.  They summarize their findings in the excerpt below:  

This wisdom of crowd effect was recently supported by examples from stock markets, political elections, and quiz shows [Surowiecki J (2004)The Wisdom of Crowds]. In contrast, we demonstrate by experimental evidence (N = 144) that even mild social influence can undermine the wisdom of crowd effect in simple estimation tasks. In the experiment, subjects could reconsider their response to factual questions after having received average or full information of the responses of other subjects. We compare subjects’ convergence of estimates and improvements in accuracy over five consecutive estimation periods with a control condition, in which no information about others’ responses was provided. Although groups are initially “wise,” knowledge about estimates of others narrows the diversity of opinions to such an extent that it undermines the wisdom of crowd effect in three different ways.

Interestingly, one other shift seems to be occurring in Hollywood from the production standpoint. More than ever, studios appear to be relying on franchises, sequels, and reboots.   Why is that happening?   One could argue that the studios are trying to enhance the probability of achieving a strong box office by bringing familiar characters to the screen.  That may be true to some extent, but there may be a limit to this positive impact.  At some point, they may saturate theaters with reboots and sequels, and customers may desire more originality.   

Friday, August 12, 2016

Accepting that Job Offer When the Internship Ends

You have completed your summer internship, and you have received a full-time offer of employment.  Fantastic!  Now, should you accept the position.  Most young people might say, "If you had a good summer internship experience, then of course, you should take the job."   Jon Simmons has published a good article for Fast Company that addresses this issue.   Simmons suggests that the answer might not be so simple.

How should you make this decision?   Simmons suggests careful consideration of a wide range of factors including compensation, benefits, company culture, opportunities for growth and development.  Certainly, all of these items matter.  However, I think the decision should not primarily be about factors such as compensation.  In fact, the differences in compensation across multiple job offers will be relatively trivial for most students.  The real issue is growth and development.   Interns should ask themselves three questions:

1.  Will my full-time position be substantively different than my internship experience?  Will it be more challenging?  Will I assume new responsibilities?  Will I learn new skills?  If the answer is no to these questions, then you don't want to take the offer.  The best firms that hire here at Bryant University provide full-time opportunities that build upon, but go well beyond, the internships that they offer.

2.  Does the firm have a track record of investing in the growth and development of its young employees?   Will I have opportunities to enhance my skills through in-house leadership development programs, training courses, tuition reimbursement at local universities, and mentoring by senior leaders?   If the answer is yes, then you should seriously consider taking the job offer.

3.  What are my short term career goals, and would this full-time position help me achieve those goals?  Don't think in terms of 10-15 year plans.    That's just not advisable in today's world.  Think instead of the next 5 years.  What do you hope to achieve?  Suppose you plan to apply to a top MBA program. Then ask yourself:  Will this full-time position help me gain admittance to such a school?  Suppose instead that you hope to become a young entrepreneur.  You should ask:  How will this position help me achieve that goal?