What are your leadership personality traits? Pick only two.

Paul Maritz was recently interviewed for a regular column in Sunday editions of the New York Times called “Corner Office”, which regularly asks questions of prominent business leaders about their management style and thoughts on hiring.  It’s a fascinating column which I recommend (column RSS subscription link).

If you don’t know Paul Maritz, he is currently the President and CEO of vmware and previously was at Microsoft, ending his 14 career there as a member of the five-person Executive Committee and as VP of the Platform Strategy and Developer Group.

I found there were a number of nuggets in the interview worth passing on:

  • On leadership style: I’ve learned that you only really get the best out of other people when you do things in a positive way. There are negative styles of leadership, where you do things by critiquing and criticizing and terrifying other people. But in the final analysis, it doesn’t get the best out of people and it doesn’t breed loyalty..We’re going to run into problems.  We’re going to make mistakes.  And when that happens, you have to ask people to help you and to overlook the fact that you’ve messed up.”
  • On hiring: “First of all, you want to make sure that people have the necessary intellectual skills to do the job. Second, you want to see if people have a track record of actually getting stuff done. Then, third, you want to look for people who are thoughtful, and that ties into learning and being self-aware.”
  • On successful groups: At the risk of oversimplifying, I think that in any great leadership team, you find at least four personalities, and you never find all four of those personalities in a single person.

    1. You need to have somebody who is a strategist or visionary, who sets the goals for where the organization needs to go.
    2. You need to have somebody who is the classic manager — somebody who takes care of the organization, in terms of making sure that everybody knows what they need to do and making sure that tasks are broken up into manageable actions and how they’re going to be measured.
    3. You need a champion for the customer, because you are trying to translate your product into something that customers are going to pay for. So it’s important to have somebody who empathizes and understands how customers will see it. I’ve seen many endeavors fail because people weren’t able to connect the strategy to the way the customers would see the issue.
    4. Then, lastly, you need the enforcer. You need somebody who says: “We’ve stared at this issue long enough. We’re not going to stare at it anymore. We’re going to do something about it. We’re going to make a decision. We’re going to deal with whatever conflict we have.”

Interestingly enough, Paul stated that he had rarely met anyone who embodied more than two of those personality traits “And really great teams are where you have a group of people who provide those functions and who respect each other and, equally importantly, both know who they are and who they are not.”

It requires self-knowledge and confidence to truly know which personality traits are part of your authentic leadership style and then surround yourself (or build teams with) with fellow leaders which build a complete set of competencies.  While you can get lost amidst the sea of self-assessment tools available on the web, I suspect if you think deeply about your successful team experiences, the key players, and your role on the team, your own personality strengths will become clear.  And despite the temptation, pick only two!

Inform Your Gut!

Interesting HBR guest blog post “Hire Great Guessers”, those folks able to make cognitive leaps from limited information.  Michael Fertik, CEO of ReputationDefender, rightly advances the use of analytics to drive decision-making but also carves out space for intuitive reasoning and how it can support a smarter analytical approach.  More than just common sense, it is invaluable to have folks on your team capable of informing their gut and driving better business outcomes.

The Power of Observation in Innovation

A number of years ago when Hewlett-Packard still had a Medical Products Group (prior to the Agilent spin-off and later acquisition by Philips), I had a chance to be a product manager in the echocardiography business.  My first big assignment was to assume marketing responsibility for a  development project focused on bringing new functionality specifically designed for pediatric echocardiographers and their tiny patients.

The project was already defined and the engineering team was deep in the implementation phase.  I was not only new to being a product manager but also a novice when it came to the complexities of congenital abnormalities that my customers were tasked with assessing.  Hearts the size of a walnut and beating rapidly, pediatric cardiologists have the difficult task of plotting treatment plans for complex heart issues.

One of the things I did to gain an understanding of my customers’ needs, clinical environment and competitive dynamics was identify the top 15 thought leaders in the market and speak to them face to face in their labs about how our product was performing on their patients.  Armed with a questionnaire and QFD survey (a valuable tool which I highly recommend when trying to turn qualitative needs into actionable information), I was able to see side-by-side demonstrations of how our solutions performed compared to the competition.

In the midst of this humbling and illuminating process I learned many things, though some of the most valuable take-aways didn’t come as the result of my questions.  In preparation for one of the planned key opinion leader visits, I contacted the head of the echo department at a fabulous children’s hospital in Ohio and asked him if he minded my shadowing him for the day.  I told him I wanted to understand his needs, the context in which our products existed, and how he used information in his daily job.

“Are you sure you want to follow me around all day?” he asked.

“I really do”, I earnestly replied.

“Then meet me at 6:45am tomorrow morning in the lab, ready to go.”

We started the next day by visiting his patients in the NICU, checking charts, speaking with nurses, and examining the patients, hearing how his patients fared over the night and how they were recovering from surgery or other therapy.  I watched him wheel our imaging system over, select a transducer, fiddle with the imaging settings, and then open both port windows of the incubator, putting one hand into the left port and the hand holding the transducer through the other port window.

I could clearly see that he was struggling to maneuver the transducer and asked him what the issue was.  Exacerbated, he told me that the cable of the transducer was heavy and stiff.  It was hard to get the transducer into the incubator and in the right position without letting the transducer put any of its weight on the tiny patient’s chest.  If he let that happen, he explained, the weight could cause an arrhythmia.

I nodded my head in acknowledgment, watched him struggle and eventually get the transducer in place, gently touching the baby’s chest, and get his assessment images.

I had arrived loaded with my questions and survey, ready to find out about image quality, frame rate, transducer frequencies and imaging depths….and came away with an unexpected gift, the opportunity to observe and let my customer’s needs reveal themselves. I didn’t know to ask about transducer cables.  It hadn’t come up previously and I might not have gotten to that insight in any number of surveys.  But fortunately I had the invaluable opportunity to simply observe.

It is a lesson I try never to forget.  While so much has become virtual and remote in this day and age…telephone survey, blog posts, internet panels and Twitter feeds…I encourage you to preserve time to be in your customer’s space, get a sense of what frustrates and motivates them, get a sense of how your solutions fit into their context, and find ways to add value that are meaningful to them.  Sometimes it’s the aggregation of little things which sum to significant, differentiable contributions.

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For more information on the power of observation, I recommend the book “Customer Centered Growth, Five Proven Strategies for Building Competitive Advantage” by Richard Whitely and Diane Hessan.

I also highly recommend Eric Von Hippel’s work at MIT that discusses lead user innovation.

Freeing Up Your Prefrontal Cortex For Better Strategy & Execution

The proof is in.  Excellence in both Strategy and Execution  can be achieved!

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies indicated that while the prefrontal cortex is engaged during strategic thinking, those that are the “best strategic performers” engage other parts of their brain when embracing the tactical side of executing a sound strategy.

Emotional processing, planning based on conclusions from prior outcomes, as well as sensory stimuli processing and anticipation of organizational reactions to plans all come in to play.  See When Emotional Reasoning Trumps IQ in the September issue of HBR.  The authors state:

“People associate strategy with rational thinking and other high-level functions of the prefrontal cortex but the best strategic thinkers show more activity in parts of the brain linked with emotion and intuition.  Their nervous systems may even repress rational thought to free those areas up….

Of course, IQ-based reasoning is valuable in both strategic and tactical thinking – but it’s clear that managers integrate their brain processes as they become better strategists.  When companies realize that, they may approach strategy and execution more holistically.”

I may put that on my resume…integrated brain processing.

PR Crisis Management: “What Not To Do”

Recommended reading in today’s NYT regarding crisis management.  The article, “In Case of Emergency:  What Not To Do”, reviews three recent huge imbroglios impacting Toyota, BP and Goldman Sachs and how they mishandled their crisis communications.

It’s a lengthy article but worth the read.  A critical quotation by Howard Rubenstein (aka The Fixer) towards the end of the piece:

“These companies made the sames mistakes.  They broke the cardinal rule of crisis management:  They didn’t seem to have a crisis plan in hand.  They sought to minimize the extent of their problems, and they never seemed to display an understanding for the situation they were in.”

A crisis is complex and paving the way for a common response from legal, regulatory, management, marketing and sales can be extremely tough…especially if not done in advance.  In the heat of the moment, where response time counts, excessive caution may get in the way of saying what’s prudent and human to preserve your brand (and it’s corresponding contribution to stock value), retain customers, and maintain positives that will impact future purchase consideration and market entries.

Another relevant piece in the same section of the paper under the heading “Metrics”, “Three P.R. Nightmares” shows some interesting graphics related to brand health (Measured components of brand health:  impression, quality, value, reputation, satisfaction and recommend) before and after Toyota, BP and Goldman Sachs’ crisis compared to top competitors.  As you might anticipate, the crises has had an outsized impact on their brands’ health.  However, with advanced preparation, that impact can be mitigated and potentially garner positives (Ex. J & J Tylenol recall in 1982).

Internally Coherent Strategy

In “The Coherence Premium”, featured in the June edition of the June Harvard Business Review, Booz & Co’s Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi advance the idea that strategy should start with recognizing what your firm does well that customers value and that competitors can’t eclipse and then building a core set of best-in-class capabilities to uniquely deliver on those products/services.  If done well, the authors contend, the market will reward the company with higher growth and returns.

The three elements to deriving a company’s “Right to Win”:

  1. Way to Play – organizational alignment around the company’s value proposition
  2. Product and Service fit – portfolio alignment around the enabling core capabilities
  3. Capabilities System – the “engine of value creation is the 3 to 6 capabilities that allow companies to deliver their value proposition”

Great examples are provided in Walmart and the consumer health business of Pfizer (positive examples) as well as Anheuser-Busch and ConAgra Foods (not so positive).  Interesting chart correlating their “Capabilities Coherence Score” and EBIT.

It’s a very clean approach which is intended to create value for the corporation in the following four ways:

  • Strengthens competitive advantage by continually enhancing capabilities (employees and systems)
  • Focuses strategic investment (organic and inorganic)
  • Produces efficiencies of scale, leveraging capabilities across a “coherent”portfolio
  • Creates alignment between strategic intent and day-to-day decision making

They state:

“Most companies don’t pass the coherence test because they pay too much attention to external positioning and not enough to internal capabilities.  They succumb to intense pressure for top-line growth and chase business in markets where they don’t have the capabilities to sustain success.  Their growth emanates not from the core but from the acquisition of apparent “adjacencies” that are often anything but…”

Powerful idea, aligning your company’s “strategic capabilities system with the right marketplace opportunities”.

The Embrace of Attentiveness

Interesting video interview with Nicholas Carr regarding his new book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.  In it he speaks about a kind of tyranny of multitasking, where focusing on one thing is almost a counter-cultural activity.  Rather than casting “ubiquitous multitasking” as evil, he seems to be reminding us of the power of deep engagement and its link to true innovation.

I thought Carr’s warning at the end of the video clip not to lose “open-ended engagement with the world…[in favor of a] narrower definition of creativity as just a matter of problem solving rather than a broader definition that is all about challenging convention…” has salience when it comes to market leadership.  I think when you’re on the outside looking in, disruptive innovation feels so unsettling because while some were focused on simply solving problems, others were taking a more fundamental, deep look at the landscape and coming up with truly creative responses.

Faith in Finding the Way through LOTS of Data

“Sergey’s Search”, in this month’s Wired (http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/06/storyboard-sergey-parkinsons/) starts with the fact that Google co-founder Sergey Brin knows he is at a higher genetic disposition to develop Parkinson’s disease.  It’s helpful that his wife is a founder of 23andme, an online genetic testing firm.  And not surprising that given his genetic predisposition, massive fortune, Stanford computer science background and subsequent Google enterprise, that he would invest in advancing Parkinson’s research with a non-traditional, information-theory/computing orientation.

This orientation inverts traditional biomedical research on it’s head, from an emphasis on small, “purer” data sets to “tons of data, a deluge of information, and then wade in, searching for patterns or correlations”, sometimes referred to as an “exaflood” of data.  The article mentions that Jim Gray (Microsoft research and computer scientist) believes that the evolution away from the practice of proposing and then testing an hypothesis to looking for patterns in the data would revolutionize scientific research.  Andy Grove, also a Parkinson’s sufferer, has called for a “cultural revolution” in scientific research.

Beyond the direct implications for biotech research (which is significant in itself), it also made me think about research in support of strategy development.  How often have you felt that someone had an answer or scenario in mind and was just looking for confirmation as you entered the data gathering stage?  I can remember on more than one occasion working with my colleagues to suspend the need to fill in the white spaces with new product ideas and to yield to wading in the thick of the information and see what patterns emerge.  The best strategies, that are robust enough to stand up to a multifaceted review (market, competition, core competencies, technology, distribution, etc.) and yield sustainable competitive advantage, are often the result of just such data explorations.

Organization as a System vs. a Machine

In the current edition of Strategy and Business, the article “Seeing Your Company as a System” (http://www.strategy-business.com/article/10210?gko=20cca) is worth reading. It provides background (and tools) on some insightful management thinking that lays out the case that the metaphor of a machine for the organization is outmoded and that systems thinking is a more viable framing.

I find many of the ideas very compelling, from Senge’s five disciplines which center on organizational learning to Thomas Johnson’s thoughts on Quantitative Distractions.

I have often thought, in managing teams, that organizations are like organisms…and, to use an over-used phrase, that attending to the ecosystem is critical. Driving functional excellence without attending to the principles of systems thinking can be misguided at best.

Learning a Lesson from B2C, Where Content is King

I recently listened to an interview on NPR’s On the Media with Michael Hirschoern www.onthemedia.org/episodes/2010/06/18/segments/156251?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=%24{feed}&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+%24{otm}+%28%24{On+the+Media}%29 which gave an interesting history lesson on an idea advanced by Whole Earth Catalog‘s Steward Brand at a “hacker conference”, that Information wants to be free….and that this concept was embraced and adopted without attention to the rest of his comment, that “Information wants to be expensive, because in an Information Age, nothing is so valuable as the right information at the right time.”

I found the NPR interview so interesting that I dutifully picked up the July/August edition of The Atlantic to read Hirschoern’s successfully promoted article www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/07/closing-the-digital-frontier/8131/…and I’m glad I did.

While I found it interesting to think about as a consumer, I couldn’t help but try and digest it from a B2B perspective, where we’ve long known that creating content that our customers value is expensive, difficult to create, and more difficult to sustain.  Anyone in B2B can recall instances of customer newsletters/magazines, tech tips, seminars, satellite conferences and the like started with great enthusiasm only to fade over time under the burden of sustaining the production of powerful, relevant, and credible customer content.

Of course the internet is awash with valuable B2C content, much to the chagrin and potential demise of newspapers, movie studios, and “record” labels.  Hence, lawsuits against peer-to-peer sharing of songs, aggressive pursuit of illicit copies of videos on the web, and news content creators experimenting with subscription access to their online content.  Makes sense to me…if there’s value in the content, people will pay.  And from a business model perspective, if there’s costs associated with creating the content, either people will pay (if there’s value) or they won’t (and those businesses will, and argueably should, ultimately fade away).

Back in the B2B world, we’ve also tried to bend the physics which govern business models by accounting for content creation costs under customer satisfaction and retention rationals.  After all, if customers are successful with our products, then switching will be harder for them.  And given the rising complexity of many B2B products, scaffolding our customers to be ‘expert users’ will help not only retain them as customers but also help them rationalize the investment they made in acquiring our solutions.

Having said that, I believe that there’s two primary classes of content being created by B2B companies, and if you think about the customer lifecycle (hat’s off to David Aaker and the other marketing gurus at Prophet), one class of content is focused on the awareness and adoption part of the customer lifecycle and the other class is focused on the implementation and utilization of our solutions (which I talked about above)….but they’re both important, expensive content that if well done, will have value and relevance to the business customer.

But what about the content that gets created in the service of raising customer awareness of an unmet need (for which, of course, you have the perfect response), of potential solutions in the market, and for your company and brand as a credible leader in a market?   Ahh, you say, that’s PR and Advertising…the promotional push that accompanies the launch of your new entrance into a market or provision of a new product.  We know that this part is expensive, especially if well done.  We also know it’s tough to measure it’s impact (brand awareness, positive market perception, purchase intent, win/loss/deal participation rates, and sales all some of the “traditional” ways of measuring impact).

As I’ve hinted, I think the whole content discussion is invaluable to B2B marketers for three reasons:

  1. Content “framework”:  For a 21st century citizen, it’s relatively easy to think of news or a song as “content”.  In the B2B world – and setting aside those organizations that provide information (aka content) to their customers as their raison d’etre – the rest of us often see content as ancillary to or a byproduct of the products and services we develop, market and sell….and rarely do we think of the PR, customer training or seminars in the rich content framework that exists in the B2C world.  In fact, content is often lost in the discrete tasks which create that content, whether it be issue advocacy as advanced by strong Public Relations, end user tech tips and training, or user documentation.  Rarely do these content creators gather together and set out, with content creation at the center, to think about creating the content ecosystem that will be needed to support the entire customer lifecycle, from awareness through happy utilization.  Perhaps the content “framing” suggests ways of re-engineering the discrete processes for more productive, effective content creation.
  2. Attuning content to the customer lifecycle:  In the business environment it seems intuitive that content that supports different phases of the customer and product adoption lifecycle will need to meet different objectives.  That’s not to say that core content couldn’t satisfy the needs for more than phase…in fact, I’m suggesting the opposite.  If you start with the lifecycle requirements and understand how the need changes, it is likely that content will be able to be leveraged and built upon over time.  If you start out by envisioning the content lifecycle, the development plan can be established to support ongoing requirements.  For example, in the medical device space, the data that get’s generated to support regulatory submissions may be leverageable for PR, sales and customer training, and promotions.  Indeed, some phases of the content delivery may have a revenue model associated with it (advanced training, seminars, use optimization training, etc.) which could help underwrite the entire content creation process.
  3. New Measurements:  The consumer world is very comfortable with having customer engagement and affiliation with a brand as important endpoints of content sharing.  Meanwhile, in the B2B world, more traditional measures predominate around the brand, product, and user experience.  NPS, a relatively newer measure, may be awkwardly stuck between the new and old measurement worlds, with new measures shedding interesting light on the vitality of the customer relationship (and by extension, whether they will recommend others to buy from you).  Regardless, taking a page from the B2C content perspective, measuring the quality of customer interactions with our content may provide meaningful insight into the health of our customer relationships, their satisfaction with our product and service delivery, and ideas for future solutions (Michael O’Toole and the digital mavens at PJA can help with this).

I think there may be synergy between the three ideas, with the content focus creating more customer engagement across the customer lifecycle, with a revenue model which supports sustained content creation….that is if, and it’s an important if, the content is remains valuable to the customer.