Wednesday, July 31, 2013

How to gain influence in an organization

Do they look to you?
Everyone competes for power and influence, but only some achieve it. How do they do it? For sure they don't approach it haphazardly.

Three professors who studied chief risk officers at two banks for five years discovered patterns of behavior that are instructive for the rest of us, whether we're on the inside as employees or on the outside as consultants.

The researchers are Anette Mikes, assistant professor at Harvard Business School; Matthew Hall, reader at the London School of Economics; and Yuval Millo, at the University of Leicester.

Effective influencers, they found, do four things:

Trailblazing. They find new opportunities to use their expertise. They cast a wide net to identify and frame issues that top management is not adequately addressing. This gives them a great advantage in the internal competition for key decision makers’ attention. At one of the banks the CRO made a habit of spending one day a week talking to staff deep in the organization, and her team members followed suit.

Toolmaking. The develop and deploy tools that embody and spread their expertise. One CRO came up with tools such as a quarterly risk report, which was presented to the board. Toolmaking was her opportunistic response to a perceived issue that warranted further discussion. For example, noticing that the quarterly risk report was prompting forward-looking questions from the board, her group decided to introduce formal future-oriented reporting practices, which in turn led to more new tools: scenario planning templates and early-warning indicators.

Team building. They use personal interaction to take in others’ expertise and convince people of the relevance of their own. Executives who use toolmaking need to enroll supporters and users. One approach is to co-opt people into collaborating on the creation of the tools, seeking their feedback and incorporating it into the design. One risk management group, for example, gave divisional managers early versions of the scenario planning templates. The managers could then discuss them with their senior staff, provide feedback, and see their own influence on the final templates.

Translating. They help decision makers understand complex content. To remain influential, experts need to help others use their tools and interpret the results. Although the quarterly report of one risk management group produced contained output from complex risk models, the CRO took great care to keep it free of technical jargon. For example, the first three or four pages were dedicated to a self-evident “traffic light” representation of risks. They also worked alongside board members and business managers as they considered the tools and their outputs. 

If they fit the organization's strategy and structure, and if the top leadership can be won over, and if the would-be influencer remains flexible, there seems to be little downside in using these tactics.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The secret life of meetings

Come in. We're just getting started.
For years I was frustrated by business meetings. I had big ideas, you know, but I could never get them the consideration they deserved.

I decided it might have something to do with my timing, so I'd wait for what I imagined to be the right time to introduce my brilliance.

What I failed to understand was the whole context of a meeting. For example, I now suspect that many meetings are called only so that the person who called the meeting can demonstrate to everyone else that he or she has the power to call a meeting.

It's interesting that at Reader's Digest, where I worked for 16 years, the rule under founder Dewitt Wallace was: no meetings. The company published the most successful magazine in history. When others took over after his death, one of the first things they did was build a suite of meeting rooms. Perhaps they were necessary to discuss the two bankruptcies the company has endured.

Here are some other hidden dynamics of meetings. They are from Ron Ashkenas, a management consultant who I suspect has sat through his share of crazy-making meetings.
First, when people show up at meetings, they come with different perspectives. No matter how clear the purpose of the meeting, some attendees will consider it high priority and others will just attend because it's on the calendar; some will have had the time to prepare and others will struggle just to get there on time; some will feel strongly about the topic while others will be happy to go along with whatever everyone else wants to do.  
Second, people have different (often-unconscious) personal agendas. In some companies being part of a meeting is a status symbol, in which some people continue to participate in a project even when they have little to contribute. Meetings might also serve as much-needed social gatherings, particularly in companies where people are highly distributed or travel frequently. There also are times when participants use meetings to score political points.  
Finally, during meetings, people relate differently to leading or being led. Some participants are comfortable letting someone else take the lead, while others will sabotage the leader or become passive aggressive. Similarly, some managers naturally take charge while others will hesitate to exert influence or power.
No wonder nobody would listen to me.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Pivoting to a new cliche

Pivot. Is this your business model?
They keep inventing cliches, and I'm glad they do, because it gives me things to write about.

The latest one I'm just catching up to is pivot, used by startup companies. Journalists have had a good time misusing this term in talking about President Obama's shifts here and there, such as "pivoting back to the economy."

If it's good enough for journalists, it's good enough for entrepreneurs.
“I personally hate the word ‘pivot,’” said BrandYourself’s Patrick Ambron. “While obviously being able to ‘pivot’ or adjust your business model/product is essential to surviving — Instagram was a pivot, and even our own product underwent some heavy evolution — I think it is completely misused and abused as both a word and a concept.” 
Ambron said that he sees many startups use it as an excuse not to pursue a business model or product in-depth enough. “Even if you have the right general idea, finding the product to market fit is going to be HARD and take a few tries. It’s going to take some perseverance.” 
At the moment, Ambron sees a lot of startups that “hit their first hiccup — nobody signed up at launch, they didn’t execute a feature properly — and immediately say, ‘time to pivot.’” 
SlimWare Utilities’ Chris Cope looks at it another way. “This word can sometimes be synonymous with ‘desperate’ or ‘not working,’” he said. “While it’s quite common to try new ideas or test new monetization models, the word ‘pivot’ evokes emotions of desperation.”
Thus pivot is a euphemism that has the opposite effect. It's the bizspeak notion of dressing up something mundane in fancy language, hoping it will become something else. It's business alchemy.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Tell them you want to be president

Escaping a bad elevator pitch.
As an editor at Reader's Digest for 16 years, and a writer at The AP before that, I always perk up when I hear someone suggesting that, with words, less is more.

So I ended up at a job networking meeting listening to Tucker Mays explain how to create a one-sentence job objective. He is an executive coach and co-founder of OptiMarket, a Connecticut firm that helps job seekers get it done.

It is possible to express in one sentence, and I guess one breath, the title of the job you want, the kind of company you want it in, the four skills you have for that job, and how great the company will be if it has the wisdom to hire you. This is the classic elevator pitch, and you need to nail it.

What I want to focus on is this: most people are vague about the kind of job they want, because they don't want to close off any opportunities. In other words, they want to be president, but, heck, they'd settle, right? Wouldn't we all.

Mays says that if you're qualified to be president of a company, go for it. Don't settle. If there are lesser jobs out there, you'll hear about them. But let people know what you really want. When I was hired by The AP in New Orleans, I looked around and announced that I was going to be a feature writer in New York. Soon people just knew that's what I was going to do, and I did.

There's a tactic every used car salesman knows: offer the most expensive item first. Then, reluctantly, settle for something cheaper if the buyer insists. The buyer will feel better that way.

This lesson can be broadly applied. When you're writing at work, you want people to respond to your words. Have you thought about exactly how? Well, now's the time. To get them to react, you have to be specific. You have to focus. You have to spell out what you want them to do. You have to tell them you want to be president.

Mays said one other thing that stuck with me. "You're old enough to know what you want."

Ah. They aren't handing out any more days. Time to go for it. If not now, when?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Thomas Jefferson: a most valuable talent

“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” 

~ Thomas Jefferson

Friday, July 19, 2013

So you wanna write a book

Thought leader.
Who doesn't?

I've got a couple of my own sitting around here somewhere. Don't worry: I'll remember you if you somehow crash my publishing party in a Fifth Avenue penthouse.

And I work with executives who want to write books. The first step in our collaboration: I jam one of their hands in a meat grinder and turn the crank.

If they enjoy that, we continue.

What most of them think is that to become a "thought leader," or just to attract more business, a book is the first step. It's a credential. It's true, I guess. Nobody will read the book, but that's not the point.

When I first got into the writing business I was an idealist. I really believed that as a journalist I was going to save the world. (You can decide if I succeeded.) Now that I'm writing mostly about business I think some of that idealism is useful.

When I was an editor at Reader's Digest I came up with the term "sincerity of purpose." That means that you aren't cynical when you put words on paper, that you are genuinely trying to help people. If you have that spirit you won't deliver trite junk or untruths. You will only deliver what you'd want: the best. You thereby create real value, which people will pay for.

I think Guy Kawasaki, the former "chief evangelist" at Apple, has written 12 books, including one about how to publish a book, agrees.

He writes that any wannabe author should stand in a bookstore and look at all the books. Would yours stand out? Why on earth would a reader/buyer choose your book? What's in it for the reader? However, most would-be writers focus on themselves when answering why they want to write.
Answers to this question include: “It’s good for my visibility.” “To make money.” “It will help me get speaking gigs and consulting engagements.” “It’s good for my company.” “It will make me a thought leader.” Any of these reasons may be true for the author, but they are not relevant for readers.
Think about this: How often do you peruse Barnes & Noble or Amazon while wondering how you can help an author achieve his or her personal goals? Your answer, like mine, is probably “never.” I’m happy for authors to earn lots of royalties, but that’s not why I buy their books. I’d bet the same is true for you, too. Let’s examine the good and bad reasons to write a book.
The rest of his piece is good material for anyone who wants to write. I will leave you with this one thought: it's all about what the reader wants or needs. It's not about you.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Don't believe everything you read

You remember the classic business book, Good to Great by Jim Collins. Turns out that several years later many of the companies weren't so great after all. The same has been said of another classic, In Search of Excellence.

If you read books like these, or, as in my case, write them, it might be a good time to pause as you grab some reading matter for the beach. I think I paused awhile ago: I've got plenty of unread business books  here in my office on various "must read" piles. (I also have a thousand self-help books in the basement, and I'm still the schlep I was when I bought them.)

Why are we forever disappointed?

The simple answer is that it's not so easy to explain what's going on in a successful company. Or to duplicate it. As proof: the average life expectancy of companies in the S&P 500 has fallen from 75 in 1957 to 15 today.

So in reading and writing about business success a little humility and caution are in order.

Writer Sam McNerney offers several explanations for our belief that we can understand business success.
[One] phenomenon is what Yale Professor of Psychology Paul Bloom terms essentialism: “The notion that things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters.” Essentialism explains why when kids lose a precious toy, they refuse an identical replacement; it explains why famous home run balls sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars; and it explains why a tape measure owned by JFK sold for over $48,000 dollars at an auction. In terms of objects or people, we have the intuition that each is constituted by an invisible essence. 
The same thing occurs when we think about a company. Business books including Jim Collins’ Built to Last and Good to Great are predicated on the idea that every company has a core identity – its essence - and the job of the business writer is to uncover that identity and excavate those so-called timeless universals. The byproduct is a heavy dose of halos that spawn the illusion of understanding; readers think they’ve captured the intricacies of the company when the opposite is true. To understand the nature of a business, we must discard the fact that such a thing exists.
About halos:
In The Halo Effect, Phil Rosenzweig discusses our tendency to assume universals out of particulars. That is, instead of considering behaviors separately, we incorporate them into a larger whole. It’s a time saver. A new acquaintance who makes a good joke is smart, the barista who compliments your outfit is nice, and the man who speaks loudly on his phone is rude. (The halo effect explains why it might sound strange to learn that Hitler was a vegetarian who never drank.) Research even demonstrates that we tend to perceive attractive people as kind and intelligent, even though a correlation does not exist.
Rosenzweig observes that business authors focus on halos and ignore details. For example, if a CEO is patient and open-minded, those traits (halos) are praised when the company does well (“his ability to listen and carefully weigh the pros and cons led to an increase in sales”) and criticized when the company does poorly (“his tendency to decide slowly led to the company missing out on many opportunities”).
There. How many business writers will tell you not to read their stuff?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How to spot a liar

A liar's words will give him away, if you know what to look for.

Telltale signs may include running of the mouth, an excessive use of third-person pronouns, and an increase in profanity, according to Deepak Malhotra, a Harvard Business School professor.

He and two colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison set up an experimental negotiation to see what behaviors indicated a less than truthful participant. The observed strategic cues of lying -- a conscious strategy to reduce the likelihood of the deception being detected -- and nonstrategic cues -- an emotional response, which people aren't usually aware that they're doing.

In terms of strategic cues, the researchers discovered the following:
  • Bald-faced liars tended to use many more words during the ultimatum game than did truth tellers, presumably in an attempt to win over suspicious receivers. Associate Professor Lyn M. Van Swol dubbed this "the Pinocchio effect." "Just like Pinocchio's nose, the number of words grew along with the lie," she says.
  • Allocators who engaged in deception by omission, on the other hand, used fewer words and shorter sentences than truth tellers.
Among the findings related to nonstrategic cues:
  • On average, liars used more swear words than did truth tellers—especially in cases where the recipients voiced suspicion about the true amount of the endowment. "We think this may be due to the fact that it takes a lot of cognitive energy to lie," Van Swol says. "Using so much of your brain to lie may make it hard to monitor yourself in other areas."
  • Liars used far more third-person pronouns than truth tellers or omitters. "This is a way of distancing themselves from and avoiding ownership of the lie," Van Swol explains.
  • Liars spoke in more complex sentences than either omitters or truth tellers.
An interesting application: The team is investigating the linguistic differences between lying in person and lying via email. Results regarding the latter may be increasingly useful as a larger portion of business is now being conducted via email, and such communications leave a transcript that can be analyzed carefully—and at leisure—by suspicious counterparts. "People detect lies better over the computer than they do face-to-face," Van Swol says.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Choose your words wisely

Many years ago a fellow editor at a magazine was leaving to become the editor in chief of another publication, and he asked me to go with him and become his No. 2.

I declined, telling him my plan for advancement where I was. "Oh they will never let you do that," he said. Not only did they let me do that, they let me do a whole lot more.

But I've never forgotten his words.

Douglas R. Conant has been around the corporate world. He is non-executive chairman of Avon Products and chairman of the Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute. He is a CEO of Campbell Soup Company.

He's had his moments of momentous words, which he has termed "touchpoints," and he writes about them in a Harvard Business Review blog.
Shortly after I graduated, I accepted a job with General Mills. Like many people starting a new job in a new place, I was completely lost in the building. This older man saw me stumbling around and said, "Young man... you look lost. How can I help?" I asked him if he could help me find my way back to the marketing department. He pointed the way and said, "So you work in the marketing department. If there is one thing that I want to leave you with is that you've got to give it all you've got." We then went our separate ways. Ultimately, I saw this man's picture a couple of weeks later and discovered that he was Jim McFarland, the CEO and Chairman of General Mills. Those five words inspired me to lean into my work with greater intensity. I carry them with me today.
The touchpoints weren't all positive.
I was to receive feedback from my boss's boss. In this case, he had written six words down on a piece of paper to be read to me. Those words were, "You should look for another job." This was the first performance review I had received in my life and my boss's boss, whom I thought was a god, just told me to go look for another job. He wasn't inclined to give me the time of the day or the benefit of the doubt. I was devastated and very anxious but ultimately I played through it. 
Of course we give and receive powerful words outside of the workplace.
I persevered through some difficult times as I was starting up my career and I was promoted to Product Manager at General Mills in a very timely way. Within 48 hours of that promotion, I received a call from my wife's grandfather, Mr. R. T. Johnstone. R.T., a man I admired greatly, said, "I'm so proud of you." Those five words of encouragement reminded me that I was not alone on this journey, as difficult as it was. My family was, is and will always be with me. Those words ring in my ears to this day.
The implication for what we say to those who look up to us is obvious. Just remember: they will never let you do that.

Monday, July 15, 2013

To be creative, distract yourself

Apparently you need to distract your mind if you want it to function effectively.

Some researchers in France, for instance, discovered that people were nearly twice as likely to give the correct response to a complex decision-making problem if they were distracted by a simple three-minute number-matching task before being asked for their answers.
A more-demanding distraction had no such effect: Participants had a 75% chance of giving the right answer after the easy task, but just a 40% chance after a tougher task or if there was no distractor at all. During an easy distraction, the brain seems to unconsciously enhance the memory of a problem's essence, the researchers say.
Then some folks at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had people brainstorm ideas for new products while they were exposed to varying levels of background noise. Their results found that a level of ambient noise typical of a bustling coffee shop or a television playing in a living room, about 70 decibels, enhanced performance compared with the relative quiet of 50 decibels.
A higher level of noise, however, about 85 decibels, roughly the noise level generated by a blender or a garbage disposal, was too distracting, the researchers found. 
Ravi Mehta, an assistant professor of business administration at the university who led the research, said that extreme quiet tends to sharpen your focus, which can prevent you from thinking in the abstract. 
“This is why if you’re too focused on a problem and you’re not able to solve it,” Dr. Mehta said, “you leave it for some time and then come back to it and you get the solution.”
But moderate levels can distract people just enough so that they think more broadly. “It helps you think outside the box,” he said. 
The benefits of moderate noise, however, apply only to creative tasks. Projects that require paying close attention to detail, like proofreading a paper or doing your taxes, Dr. Mehta said, are performed better in quiet environments.
If you're a writer, and you like and can afford Starbucks coffee, I guess you're in luck. As for myself, I think this argues for working with an NCIS rerun on.