Archive | January, 2010

How to make a graceful (and memorable) exit

28 Jan

Dan McCarthy of Great Leadership calls Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show farewell speech “a class act.” Like Dan, I don’t usually stay up late enough for the Tonight Show, nor have I watched Conan O’Brien in any of his other incarnations. So I’m especially glad he called Conan’s video farewell to our attention.

This is leadership at its darkest hour, when plans and dreams come to an abrupt halt and the road ahead is unclear. It’s about the others who depend on him, not his grief.  It’s about looking forward to other possibilities, not looking back at what was lost. He rallies against cynicism, and delivers a message of hope and possibility at a time when he, personally, might have every reason to despair and disparage.

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(As a marketer, I can’t help think that 7-Eleven would be wise to take him up on the parking lots!)

Conan’s farewell reminded me of another graceful exit last week, this one from the reality show Project Runway. Usually, when contestants get booted from talent-based reality shows, the exit-interview spiel goes something along one of these lines: 1) “I’m disappointed in myself. I know I could have done better/worked harder.” 2) “I’m blazingly talented, and the judges just didn’t see it.” 3) “I know I’ll be successful some day, no matter what.”

The de rigueur exit comment is all about me, me, me. Which made Pamela Ptak’s exit a refreshing eye-opener. Pamela didn’t talk about her disappointment at losing from a career perspective – at least not in the edited version that aired on the show. The portion that aired is about 1:03 in:

Pamela was just so human, so appreciative of her fellow competitors, that it resonated far more strongly. She talks about heart, about the real emotional connections that people form when they work together. Caring for others, no matter how cutthroat the competition, is an important leadership component.

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The ugh factor

27 Jan

According to a Tulane study of female MBA grads cited in USA Today, 49 percent said they had tried to advance their careers by sometimes engaging in at least one of 10 sexual behaviors, such as crossing her legs provocatively in meetings with men or letting a man look down her shirt. Ugh. Double ugh. I have a visceral reaction to this barroom behavior, which immediately led me to turn the question on myself as a woman: How do I present myself in the workplace?

Well, not like this. I pride myself on presenting as a paragon of professionalism. That desired persona prevents just such behavior. I want to be evaluated on intellect and output.

I don’t get why women would allow themselves to be “used” in this way, such as the respondees who said “I allow men to linger at certain places of my body while hugging them.” Ugh again. Throughout my career, I’ve had to skirt around certain male huggers and squeezers, the ones who want to rub my shoulders, or put their arms around me, or whose touch lingers just a little too long for my comfort. I’ve spent far more time in my career avoiding this behavior than encouraging it — in fact, I can’t recall EVER encouraging it. Fortunately, the excess touchers were always peers, never superiors, and it was easily avoidable once I was aware of it.

According to this study, which was limited in scope, the flirty women did not advance as well in their careers. Thank goodness for that. In a related Wall Street Journal article, another woman refers to flirting as a “short-term strategy.” Absolutely correct. Aging is inevitable. In fact, it brings up an even bigger issue: How are middle-aged women treated in the workplace? Are their opportunities for advancement unfairly limited because the “bloom is off the rose?” How do we equalize for loss of innate appeal as employees age, both male and female?

At the end of the Wall Street Journal article, Robert Dunson was quoted about bringing a female colleague along who was liked by the client to help close the deal. At first, that “ugh” bile started arising in my throat again. However, when I mentally switched the story around to become a “male colleague whom the clients liked” — maybe they play golf together — the bile receded. I could evaluate this one a little differently than the flirting. It’s a simple fact of business, and life: When you have an advantage, you use it.

Mystery at the Monfort College of Business

27 Jan

Comments on one more reading, about a 2004 Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award winner, the Kenneth W. Monfort College of Business at the University of Northern Colorado. There was something missing in this interesting tale for me: More about WHY the college eliminated its graduate business programs. There was a lot of good-to-great here: a school focus on defining guiding principles and values, implementing programs to uphold those values and then measuring them. Its scores on just about every objective data measure improved, including student performance, satisfaction, and job placement. And of course it went on to win the Baldridge Award.

But I was fascinated about the management story that wasn’t told in the brief: How did it come to decision to eliminate grad programs? What sort of data did they gather? Did they hold discussion groups with the business community? How did the faculty respond? How did alumni respond? How did it structure the communication process to allow for communication among the parties? Those were the things I wanted to know: How did the college’s leadership structure a potentially difficult process?

Playing well with others

26 Jan

I’ll never forget a Harvard Business Review article I read years ago. I don’t remember the author, or the exact title – someday I’ll try to find it – but its message was indelible. The story talked about four social quadrants in the workplace: people you like who are competent at their job, people you like who are not competent, people you don’t like who are competent, and people you don’t like who are not competent. Those probably aren’t the exact terms the author used, but the general idea is the same.

The reason why I remember the article so well? Surprisingly, most employees would prefer working with a coworker they like who is NOT competent, rather than working with someone they don’t like who is competent. (At the top of the heap is obviously “someone I like/someone who is competent.”)

Ronald Alsop’s Wall Street Journal article “Playing Well with Others” brought it all back to me. So you think just because you have an MBA from a top-tier school people will want to work with you? According to the Wall Street Journal/Harris Interactive poll Alsop cites, communication and interpersonal skills, and the ability to work well in teams, are the top attributes MBA recruiters are looking for.

Reading between the lines of the article, you can see the problem: Highly quantitative student with 780 GMAT score gets into top business school. But has this person learned to communicate? Has this person learned to work in a non-competitive way alongside others? Does he or she even know how to write?

The article talks about the importance of interpersonal and leadership skills, and the need to develop those in students, along with the ability to communicate. However, this raises the question: How do we quantify interpersonal and leadership skills? Yes, there are such measures such as The Leadership Practices Inventory, but have we gone far enough?

The mention in the article – which was published in 2002 – of business ethics was somewhat chilling. At that time, post-Enron, business ethics were a hot subject. Sadly, the lack of focus in business schools on ethics dating even further back than 2002 probably played a major role in the recent economic meltdown. Obviously, it should been an even more important area of focus now than it was then.

Another Alsop article, “How to Get Hired,” further highlights the need for strong writing and communication skills, along with the ability to check one’s ego. As an MBA candidate with a more qualitative than quantitative focus, I lapped it up.

Luckily, my past work experiences have already taught me some of the skills he mentions, such as learning to appreciate and work well with employees at all levels. As a marketer, I sometimes received my best ideas from front-line staff. For example, one of my projects was to create a guide to the patient experience at the hospital. The very best source of information was the receptionist who worked at the front information desk. She knew exactly which questions patients and families had most: When is the cafeteria open? Where is the mailbox? How do I get phone calls? She understood their needs. Her day-to-day experience answering thousands of questions uniquely qualified her to shape this publication, yet no one had ever thought to ask her input before.

Teaching smart people to learn

26 Jan

“Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” — Henry Ford II

In a Harvard Business Review article, Teaching Smart People How to Learn, Chris Argyris points out the invisible obstacle that even the best and brightest among us can’t outrun: the self and its defense mechanisms against failure.

Exposure to failure is critical for human learning and growth. Yet few people consciously approach failing openly with that goal in mind. How do we set up “controlled” failure with learning as its goal?

I worked in health care marketing communications for 13 years, primarily in an acute-care hospital setting. When you work in the hospital environment, you get to know nurses really well – how they’re oriented, what drives them, how they behave. And for every nurse I’ve ever encountered, the No.-1 value and belief is “The patient is first.” In fact, they even make a Florence Nightingale pledge at their pinning ceremony, similar to the Hippocratic oath physicians take.

In the acute-care environment, where managing costs and lengths of stay are the bywords of the day, this patient-first focus is bound to cause tension between nurses and management. Argyris’ article brought back memories from early in my career, memories of entrenched nurses and equally entrenched management team members, each seemingly unwilling to admit another viewpoint or approach. (This entrenchment eventually led to the nurses unionizing.) The more one group tried to argue for the “rightness” of its approach, the more upset the other became. Their values were simply too far out of line.

As referenced in the article, one of the most difficult personal balancing acts is to reflect critically on one’s own behavior. Humans tend to align around basic defensive values that promote a sense of personal success. I applied this more broadly than just people identified as being smart through their education or achievement; I think most employees, at all levels, are smart.

Argyris studied and dissected a fairly uniform and homogenous group: high-level management consultants at firms such as McKinsey. However, the possible approaches he outlines become more complex in your typical heterogeneous large organization than in the somewhat rarefied population he studied. Certain employee populations will be even more resistant to failure and learning than the management consultants studied, especially if there is a pernicious anti-management bias.

Argyris says “Defensive reasoning can block learning even when the individual commitment to it is high …” Well, what about when the individual commitment to learning is low? Not every employee values learning — some are resistant. What then?

I strongly agree with Argyris’ primary conclusion: Senior management should turn the mirror on themselves first. In interpersonal relationships, at the moment you begin to most blame the other person, that’s the moment you most need to observe your own behavior. Sometimes, it’s your own fear speaking. So for a particularly volatile situation, perhaps management should practice observation and looking within for a period of time first. No question, these are tough skills to teach. If the layers are too embedded, too hostile, the case-study approach he outlines might be really difficult or ineffective, even with outside consultants leading the discussion.

This article was published in 1991, so presumably there has been additional research and new knowledge acquired about how to help people learn. What more have we learned since then about how to help people learn best and question their assumptions?

My Favorite Things: Powers of 10

23 Jan

I just can’t help myself. Having a blog is an irresistable temptation to share things I love with a broader world. Now, I only created this blog yesterday for my Management and Organizational Science course, at the behest of our professor, Bret Simmons. There is no “broader world” — no one’s even read my blog except for my sister! But what the heck, I’m going to forge ahead with the first share of My Favorite Things. (Favorite things I might add, relevant to my theme of management, marketing or society. I should expand my thematic criteria to include graphic design, which is vastly underrated in its business utility.)

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I tend to really, really love (adore!) projects that sit at the intersection of graphic design and data presentation. Projects that make concepts with vast quantities of supporting information instantly accessible, even fun. Well, the ne plus ultra in that department has to be the classic film by Charles and Ray Eames, Powers of 10. From the Eames Office: “Powers of Ten explores the relative size of things from the microscopic to the cosmic. The 1977 film travels from an aerial view of a man in a Chicago park to the outer limits of the universe directly above him and back down into the microscopic world contained in the man’s hand. Powers of Ten illustrates the universe as an arena of both continuity and change, of everyday picnics and cosmic mystery. The film also demonstrates the Eameses’ ability to make science both fascinating and accessible.”

powers of ten :: charles and ray eames from bacteriasleep on Vimeo.

I pretty much love just about anything the Eames Office designed — the famous Eames lounge chair, children’s toys (including my beloved House of Cards), fabrics. Learn more about their legacy at Eames Office.

The value of not thinking

22 Jan

Paul Hebert advises Don’t Think About the Recession – It Will Make It Worse. There’s a lot of merit to that.

One of the key principles taught in vipassana and other forms of Buddhist-based meditation practices is how to respond to your thoughts. If you try not to have any thoughts, you will inevitably be barraged by them. And if you try to have lots of thoughts, your brain will come up dry as a bone. The key is to acknowledge each thought as it arises, gently note it without judgment, and let it go … like a stream flowing by, never attaching to one particular thought.
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Just after New Year’s, I was reading a recap of last year in a major metropolitan newspaper. The author talked about what a rotten year it had been — that annus horribilis concept again — and how EVERYONE must be glad to see 2009 end. And I thought “Wait a minute. Was the year personally bad for me? No question. But it wasn’t universally bad. Many people fell in love. Many people had babies. Many people got promotions. Many people decided it’s time to start a business.”

What we really need is hope, and a reminder that potential is everywhere if we choose to look at it that way. We won’t see it if we dwell on the recession we’re in. If we close ourselves off because all the “bad news” floating out there in our mass consciousness indicates we should think everything is bad, we’ll never see potential when it’s right in front of us. Perhaps a little balance is called for.