Quick Insights

Original and excerpted articles, on a variety of business-related topics, that you won’t likely run across anywhere else.


Brilliant Mistakes

Who Wants This Job?

It’s Not in the Manual

Worth Noting Summer 2012

Recent reads that caught our attention.

I Really Am Smarter Than You

I Really Am Smarter Than You

By Thomas J. DeLong

Fall 2011 Soundings 12

Thomas J. DeLong is the Philip J. Stomberg Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School. From Flying Without a Net: Turn Fear of Change Into Fuel for Success (Harvard Business Review Press). ©2011

When I was at Morgan Stanley, a colleague and I disagreed on whether we should hire another investment banker at a senior level. I was insistent that it wasn’t a good idea. My friend thought it was an excellent idea. Eventually the leaders in the investment-banking division decided to go ahead with the hire.

There was much celebration in the division because we had “stolen” a key banker whom we needed in a particular area of the business. I was not thrilled. I had lost the skirmish. I had argued hard in dissent and was outvoted. What is embarrassing as I look back on the whole incident is that from the day this new star hire joined the organization, I acted distant and aloof from him. I didn’t go out of my way to make him feel as if he was now part of the firm. I assumed that those who were so excited to have him would embrace him and socialize him into the firm.

Three months after he was hired, I heard rumblings that this banker hadn’t delivered on some clients who were supposed to follow him. I remember attending a partner dinner to which he was invited but didn’t show. Six months into this relationship, he went back to the firm where he had been for fifteen years. His sponsors were shocked and I’m sure embarrassed that they had invested so much without reaping any benefits.

The first thought I had immediately after I had heard the news was, “I told you so. I knew this would happen. I told you this would be the outcome before he ever joined.” I find myself feeling embarrassed and ashamed as I write this, but it’s the truth. I blamed the sponsors that it didn’t work out. I blamed the professional himself for not working hard enough to make the situation work. But of course, I didn’t blame myself.

Upon reflection, I think I actually sabotaged the lateral hire because it was more important for me to prove myself right—to look smarter than the others. It was more important for me to be seen a seer, as an insightful guru who could read people and the future and know what would play out before it ever did. It was more important for me to be right and prove others wrong and to blame others. I could have chastised myself for being too prideful to help socialize this new person into the firm; I could have taken a long, hard look at why I remained distant from him rather than helping him contribute his considerable knowledge and skills to the enterprise. But I did not.

The lesson: When we blame others for being “stupid” about something, we are able to portray ourselves as smarter than they are. High-need-to-achieve professionals often feel the need to be smarter than others to prove their own worth. In fact, they are often only smarter in their own minds; by telling themselves that their colleagues are dense, slow, and unperceptive, they elevate their own business intelligence. They are, of course, fooling no one with this blaming trick except themselves.

No Detail Was Spared

No Detail Was Spared

By Rajeev Peshawaria

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Rajeev Peshawaria is CEO of ICLIF Leadership & Governance Centre in Kuala Lumpur. From Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders: The Three Essential Principles You Need to Become an Extraordinary Leader (Free Press). ©2011

I received my favorite assignment a few years ago when a global head of business asked me for help. He was frustrated because despite the best efforts of his leadership team at repeatedly communicating the business plan, people a few levels below were unable to say what the vision and strategy for the business were. I asked what they had done by way of communication, and he pulled out three spiral-bound documents—each at least two inches thick. He proudly went on to tell me that these were the detailed business plans for each of his three divisions, and that his management team had spent weeks of hard work to put them together.

He said, “Our original goal was to make sure everyone fully understands what we are trying to accomplish, and no detail was spared. We have nothing to hide.” He then went on to tell me how he and his team had traveled to all locations and conducted town-hall meetings to explain the strategy, and that these documents had been sent to all employees electronically. “How can anyone in this company claim not to understand our vision and strategy?” he asked in total bewilderment.

I think I offended him when I pointed to the three spiral-bound books and said, “That is your problem.” He wanted to know how I could make such a sweeping statement without even looking through the documents, but I insisted that I did not need to. I told him I would look through them later, and that I was sure the strategy was a good one. But the problem was not the lack of thoroughness—it was the length of material. “Find a way to say it simply so that people can understand and accept it,” I said.

He was not impressed. In fact, he angrily told me that I had no idea how hard he and his team had worked on the strategy decks and the great lengths they had gone to while communicating to the troops. He went on to warn me that if I continued to be so dismissive about clients’ work, I would soon be out of business.

When he finally paused for breath, I asked him, “What is more important—the fact that you are right and I am wrong, or the fact that your people still do not understand the strategy?” He paused for a few moments and finally said, “OK, let’s get the team together and get to work on simplifying the messages.” Over the next few weeks, we worked together to create a one-page picture of the overall strategy, supported by a two-pager on each of the three businesses. We synthesized key messages in such a way that even an outsider like me could understand the power of their mission in fifteen minutes or less.

Just Say No

Just Say No

Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath, & Mary Davis Holt are partners at consultancy Flynn Heath Holt Leadership. From Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking That Block Women’s Paths to Power (Jossey-Bass). ©2011

Doing “women’s work” at the office is bad for your confidence and worse for your career.

Are you the office go-to girl for party planning, philanthropic pursuits, office-beautification efforts, off-site planning, Earth Day projects, company surveys, and after-work self-defense classes? What about at home? Who cooks dinner, sorts the socks, buys the flowers, folds the towels, steams the carpet, plans the sleepover parties, and buys birthday gifts for your mother-in-law?

We’ve become lightheaded simply compiling this list. How do you feel, routinely taking responsibility for every little thing? These extra, make-the-office-a-nice-place-to-work jobs are what one of your clients calls “women’s work” because it’s always the women who agree to take them on.

If you agree to do the domestic work for your company, that’s what you’ll be known for. And it will come back and bite you. You’ll have less time to take on the important business that is more likely to lead to career success. Just stop and count the number of men in your office who step up to plan the holiday party. Why so few? They are too busy volunteering for the assignments that will get them promoted.

Even beyond the women’s work, it’s important to set boundaries. When a colleague asks you to sit in on a meeting or read a report, take a moment to decide if it’s work you should do. Without that deliberation, you may find yourself owning work that is someone else’s. In some cases, instead of saying no, try to renegotiate the role. In lieu of sitting in on a meeting, should you be presenting at it? Instead of helping a colleague prepare a presentation, suggest someone else who can do it. When all else fails, remember what Nelson Mandela says: “No is a complete sentence.”

Close the Door

Close the Door

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Kevin Eikenberry is chief potential officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group, a Indianapolis-based leadership and learning consultancy, and author of, most recently, From Bud to Boss: Secrets to a Successful Transition to Remarkable Leadership. Adapted from Leadership & Learning.

Think of every new leader speech you have ever heard. They all include, “I have an open-door policy.” Does every leader truly practice that policy?

If you made a list of leadership clichés, the open-door policy would likely make the top ten. Clichés exist because truth exists within them, and clichés often beg further examination beyond the nugget of truth. Such is the case with the open-door policy.

The intention, of course, is about availability, access, and openness. When someone says her door is always open, she is implying that when you need help, advice or information, she will be available. The problem here is twofold:

First, this is a hard policy to live up to. Even if the door is open, it doesn’t mean the leader is available—look at your calendar, after all. So stating this universal policy often sets expectations you can’t live up to.

Second, when the leader is available, she likely has work to do, and the interruptions of the open door can be detrimental to productivity. Leaders are there to serve their teams, and they have responsibilities and work output of their own.

That is the backdrop for my assertion that leaders need a closed-door policy. This doesn’t mean that access, availability, and openness don’t matter—quite the contrary. Rather, a closed-door policy, as I will describe it, actually allows these things to exist realistically, and perhaps paradoxically, allows productivity to rise for everyone. Let me describe what I mean:

Should you make yourself accessible and available to your team? Yes, of course, just not at their whim and leisure! Think about it: When was the last time someone popped their head in the door with a question, interrupting your thinking and flow of work, with a question that was truly an emergency? How many of those questions could have waited fifteen minutes, two hours, or until tomorrow?

The closed-door policy is more like the office hours of a college professor. You knew when he was available, and so you planned to meet with him, ask your questions, and get your coaching during those times. This approach certainly made the professor more productive—and you too.

The closed-door policy is about putting discipline and intentionality into your workday for the purpose of better controlling your time and skyrocketing your productivity. Whether you use office hours, propose a planned time to meet with team members, or devise some other approach, the goal of the closed-door policy is to create space for everyone to have greater productivity because there are fewer avoidable interruptions.

Here are five specific benefits you will gain from creating your version of a closed-door policy:

You will create clearer, more accurate expectations. Since your door can’t be open all the time, or you sometimes ask people to come back later (or you aren’t in your office anyway), why not have an expectation you can deliver on? By telling people when you are available or having some other process that creates a clear and reliable expectation, you set everyone up for success. You also manage people’s perception of your honesty and intentions. Far better to be available when you say you will be than to say you are available and not be.

You will manage interruptions. While we all believe we can multitask, that is a misnomer. Have you ever been working on an important project, document, or plan and had someone pop in to ask you a question? After they leave, how long does it take you to reconnect with and be productive on the other piece of work again? Interruptions sap our productivity! By managing the chances for interruptions (remember there are few true emergencies and that when they occur people will interrupt anyway) we are vastly improving our productivity.

You will develop others. A true open-door policy is one of the fastest ways to hamstring the development of your team. Why? Because when they have a question they can immediately come ask you. Would they ask you that question if you were on a business trip or vacation, or would they figure it out, make a decision without you, or wait until you were available to share their questions? In any of those cases, your availability is keeping them from learning. If you truly want to coach and develop your team, you must be supportive and available, and you must allow them to try new things. Closing the door and creating an expectation of trust helps people grow.

You will allow space for important, not just urgent, work. As leaders, we must do work that is beyond the urgent. We must have time to think, plan, check our vision, and more. It is nearly impossible to do this with a constant focus on the urgent and immediate. A closed-door policy is one step toward giving you the time you need to work on the most important things.

You will improve organizational productivity. When you close your door, explaining to your team why you are instituting this new process, you not only improve your productivity—you improve theirs. Some questions they will answer themselves. Some will go away, and those that they need to ask will be asked in an effective and efficient manner—and they will remain more focused, with fewer of their own interruptions.

Let me be clear: The intention behind an open-door policy—to provide access to information, ideas, wisdom, and help—is fine, admirable, and important. Unfortunately, in practice this isn’t what happens. The unintended consequences that surface in a lack of time control and reduced productivity far outweigh the advantages.

Should leaders be accessible, available, and open to conversations? Should they offer feedback and provide coaching? Of course they should—and if they don’t, their effectiveness and value as a leader are severely limited. These goals can be reached, and in most cases reached more effectively, with a realistic, structured, and clear plan and approach—an approach that sometimes includes a closed door.

A Little “Something Something”

A Little “Something Something”

BY SHAUNA MOERKE

SHAUNA MOERKE is an HR professional. From her blog, HR Minion, at http://hrminion.com.

Now, I like to think I’m a fairly ethical person. Sure I get into shenanigans, and I’m not perfect, but it’s not like I go around committing crimes or anything. Speeding doesn’t really count, right? And I swear, no arsons have ever been successfully linked to me no matter what the cops may suspect. But, I do have a confession to make: I’m not opposed to bribery. In fact, I think a well-placed bribe here and there makes the world work a little better.

Scandalous, right? Well, yes, I’m sure you could say it is. But if there was one thing I learned in my first job in financial services, it was that it was amazing the results you could get with a well-placed bribe. You know, put a little “something something” in the package with those documents I needed signed, and I would get what I needed in record time. Need some help with committee overload? Find a way to entice co-workers or offer some quid pro quo, and stuff gets taken care of. Like I said, bribes make the world work a little better. In fact, the toughest decision you have to make is whether to send plain or peanut M&Ms. And what about fudge? Who doesn’t love fudge?

What? You didn’t actually think I was talking about something else, did you? For shame, readers, for shame. But despite my silliness, I do have a point buried in here. If you find yourself facing a wall, instead of trying to break through, why not give someone a reason to help you over? It doesn’t take a lot to make people feel appreciated and important. And there is nothing like a little treat to make someone more receptive to you and your message. It’s all about building relationships and goodwill.

And hey, if chocolate doesn’t work, there’s always arson. Fire solves a lot of problems.

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