Is Your Strategy MOSTLY Right?

August 12th, 2009

In the 1987 classic movie, “The Princess Bride,” there is a scene where the hero, Westley, is thought have been killed by his nemesis, Prince Humperdink. His friends bring him to the home of Miracle Max, who proclaims that in fact, Westley is not completely dead, but merely MOSTLY dead.

Perhaps an odd transition to organization strategy, but it was the analogy that leapt to mind when reading a recent blog post from Harvard Business Publishing entitled, Lessons Learned from 30 Years of Leadership .

While I am getting uncomfortably close to that milestone myself, I will let Tony Tjan, CEO of Cue Ball and Dick Harrington, former CEO of Thomson Reuters speak for me as they talk about the three most important lessons Harrington has learned over his long career:

First: Having a ‘directionally correct’ strategy (Lesson Learned: Don’t get caught in the minutia)

Second: Execution focus – alignment and communication (Lesson Learned: Organizational clarity around a small number of ‘must do’ objectives is crucial)

Third: Build in systems to ensure true customer intimacy (Lesson Learned: Never assume that you know everything about your customer’s needs)

Simple yet eloquent points that never go out of style; worth communicating over and over again.

Many years ago, as a young Managing Director with Federal Express, I attended a meeting for Sales and Operations Directors and above. I can’t remember the purpose of the meeting, but do recall an impassioned speech given by our COO Jim Barksdale (who subsequently became CEO at Netscape). I vividly remember him saying at one point, “You people are always looking for the 100% solution and nothing gets done around here. Give me 80% every time”.

In other words, get it MOSTLY right, focus, execute, and iterate as necessary.

What leadership lessons are important to you? Is getting it “mostly right”, good enough for you?

Thanks, Amelia

Business Week Debate: The recession is no time to worry about employee engagement. Pro or con?

June 4th, 2009

Business Week recently posted a debate starting with the premise that a recession is no time focus on employee engagement.

The ‘Pro’ position stated that organizations should concentrate on the business, not the workers.

The ‘Con’ position stated that employees need a morale boost now more than ever.

Here’s the comment I added:

Healthy companies understand that employee engagement is a critical component to their success.

When employees are not engaged, more than likely the leadership team is not engaged either.

Engagement happens when four things occur:

1. The Leadership Team is aligned and cohesive
2. There is absolute clarity about organization direction (strategy)
3. Every person in the organization understands how what they do ‘fits’ with the strategy
4. Organization policies and practices support the above (this does not happen nearly enough)

One of my favorite quotes is from General Norman Schwartzkopf, who I heard speak not long after Desert Storm.

He said: “Great leaders never tell people how to do their jobs. They set the goals and establish the framework. Lousy leaders think they know it all, and all the while, their organizations sit there, aquiver with potential.”

What do you think? Cheers, Amelia

“How Would You Know?”

May 17th, 2009

That’s the question posed to Jim Collins (best-selling author of ‘Good to Great’, ‘Built to Last’, etc.) that became the inspiration for his latest book, How the Mighty Fall.

In the cover story of the May 25th edition of Business Week, Collins identifies the FIVE STAGES of corporate decline, and how organizations at (almost) any stage can identify where they are and correct. In the article, Collins goes into these in greater depth, but here they are briefly:

• STAGE 1: HUBRIS BORN OF SUCCESS, or success borne from entitlement. In this stage, companies attribute their success to their knowledge and ‘smarts’, failing to understand the real reasons why they have done so well, including the acknowledgement of luck and chance.

• STAGE 2: UNDISCIPLINED PURSUIT OF MORE. Here companies begin to compromise on their values or lose sight of who they really are, in the pursuit of the latest ‘big’ thing. In this stage, expansion is undisciplined and few (if any) restrictions are put on adding more and more infrastructure and resources.

• STAGE 3: DENIAL OF RISK AND PERIL, which begins when warning signs begin to appear, but are discounted. Positive data is amplified and ambiguous data is either neutralized or looked at in its most positive light. The light at the end of the tunnel is daylight ahead for sure. Another sign of this stage is when leaders choose to blame external factors for failures versus accepting responsibility.

• STAGE 4: GRASPING FOR SALVATION, or grasping for the ‘silver bullet’ solution. By then the signals of decline are visible to all and the company jolts around reactively In some cases, they bring in a high profile CEO to turn things around; in others, a bold new product or ‘life-saving’ acquisition (think AOL/Times Warner). Here Collins believes the solution is not more but less – he says, “If you want to reverse decline, be rigorous about what not to do”.

• STAGE 5: CAPITULATION TO IRRELEVANCE OR DEATH, when the continuous setbacks and false starts become too much, and the organization loses its spirit, becomes irrelevant or, in the most extreme cases, is gone forever.

According to Collins, while it is possible to survive and even thrive from the depths of Stage 4 (“Our research indicates that organizational decline is largely self-inflicted, and recovery largely within our own control”), once an organization gets to Stage 5, there is no turning back.

When you think about the challenges/opportunities your organization is currently facing, how would you know…?



P.S. At the end of the article, Collins uses Ann Mulcahy as an example of a leader who pulled her company out of the depths of Stage 4, when most had given Xerox up as lost. See my previous blog for some additional perspectives on how she did it.

Clarity, Alignment and Focus are Keys to Success in any Market

May 5th, 2009

When Anne Mulcahy took over as head of Xerox in 2001, few believed that anyone could save the company, particularly an unknown ‘insider’ with limited financial acumen, who had joined the company right out of college. The company was facing bankruptcy, in the midst of a SEC investigation, and was staggered with a debt load of $19 billion. Despite all these obstacles, succeed she did, bringing Xerox back to profitability by 2005 and out of debt by 2006. In a speech Mulcahy gave at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, she had this to say about her success: “The best high-performing companies aren’t typically led by big name CEO’s, but by leaders who build great teams. When people ask me how this company made so much progress so quickly, I think they want to hear that there was something particularly brilliant about the strategy or the planning. The reality is: it was the alignment of the people around a common set of goals.”

Baxter International’s CEO, Robert Parkinson, who was named by Forbes as one of 2008’s ‘Best CEO’s You Don’t Know’, credited his company’s success to its clear focus and discipline. In the article, he was quoted as saying, “Too often organizations get distracted by competition, economic uncertainty or growth for growth’s sake. A successful leader is able to keep the organization focused on its priorities and relentless execution of its strategy.”

When I was Chief Administrative Officer at Hyperion during the height of the dot com implosion, we were able to course-correct only after the executive team aligned ourselves and the company around ‘1 – 3 – 5’; ONE clear vision of the future (Desired Future State), THREE ‘over-arching’ Business Priorities, and FIVE Strategic Assaults.

What are your experiences and/or learnings about successfully managing through crisis? I’d love to hear them. Cheers, Amelia

Our Deepest Fear… a reminder

April 27th, 2009

I came across this poem again the other day, and was struck by how true this is – now more than ever… It was a good reminder to me – how about you?

Our Deepest Fear

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear
is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness,
that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?
Actually who are we not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people
won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine as children do.
We were born to make manifest
the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And when we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

– Marianne Williamson

Hope you have a wonderful week! Cheers, Amelia

Everything Old is New Again…

April 24th, 2009

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal included an interesting interview with Nancy F. Koehn, a business historian, author and professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. In the interview, entitled
We’ve Been Here Before, Ms. Koehn reminds us that even back in 1869, people like Henry Heinz (founder of Heinz Co.) were able to survive and even thrive during tough times. I particularly like her response when asked whether she thought companies were ‘hunkering down’ too much: “I do. At a general level, American business leaders and other managers have spent months in fear mode — primarily in a reactive, fear-driven, fast-acting mode. That is very natural given the shock and speed of this downturn.”
How does this compare with what you are seeing? I would love your thoughts and comments. Thanks and hope you have a great weekend! I’m going to try and get my puppy (an active six month old chocolate lab) outside for some much needed exercise. Amelia

Jim Collins on Thriving in 2009

April 14th, 2009

Inc editor, Bo Burlingame (author of Small Giants, a great read about companies that choose to be great vs big), interviews Jim Collins (author of Good to Great, Built to Last, etc.) in this month’s edition:
How to Thrive in 2009. It’s a long article, but well worth the read. Here are some of my favorite bits:

Asked about whether he is pessimistic about the future:

JC – No, it is only in times like these that you get a chance to show your strength. In the end, I think we need to have absolute faith in our ability to deal with whatever is thrown at us. And we need to have a complete, realistic paranoia that a lot can be thrown at us. It’s our ability to put those two contradictory ideas together: We need to be prepared for what we can’t predict and, at the same time, have this total, unwavering faith that we will find a way to deal with all of it. And I believe we will. I don’t believe the world will treat us well, but we will figure out how to do very well.

On why some entrepreneurs are so successful:

JC – …think about the leading entrepreneurs of the past three decades: Steve Jobs, Ken Iverson, Herb Kelleher, Anita Roddick, Yvon Chouinard, Howard Schultz, Jeff Bezos. What jumps out at you as being consistent across all those people?

BB – The larger purpose of what they were doing.

JC – Right. They defined success on a very big scale. For Steve Jobs, it was about much more than selling computers. For Yvon Chouinard, more than clothing. For Anita Roddick, more than cosmetics. For Howard Schultz, more than coffee. For Jeff Bezos, more than online retailing.

When asked if the basic principles of building a successful business have changed….

JC – I would say that the basic principles have largely not changed, but the skills are always changing. For example, nothing would suggest that the importance of the who has changed. If anything, our turbulence research reinforces the idea that the most important decisions are always who decisions. Whether you’re running a business in 1812, 1886, 1925, 1950, 1975, 2000, 2050, I see nothing to contradict the principle that who comes first and what comes second, for a very simple reason: If you cannot predict the what, you have to be able to do a good job with the who, because the what is going to be constantly shifting.

BB – What exactly do you mean by doing a good job with the who?

JC – Do you have a culture of people who A. share a set of values, B. have very clear responsibilities, and C. perform? Those who build a culture around those ideas are building upon something that is largely unchangeable.

He goes on to say that now more than ever, it’s critical that individuals (and teams – AT) need to be continually learning and making clear choices about what you are and are not going to do.

Anything here resonate with your business? I’d love your thoughts and comments. Thanks, Amelia

Leadership Observations from the new eBay CEO

April 10th, 2009

Last Sunday’s New York Times had an interesting interview with John Donahoe, the new CEO of eBay. In it he talks about leadership (you can’t change someone – only help them help themselves), tough questions for job candidates (when have you failed and what did you learn), the importance of open, objective feedback (it’s okay to say thanks but no thanks) and the need at eBay for ‘agile development’.
He also referenced the following quote from John Gardner, which he keeps on a laminated card in his wallet, to remind him how to win in the right way.

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.”

Pretty cool. Hope you and yours have a wonderful Easter! Cheers, Amelia

Guest Post from Andrew Trotter

April 10th, 2009

Andrew Trotter, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, who has covered education and technology issues for more than 20 years, is guest blogger today, writing about his recent trip to the Consortium on School Networking. A major focus of the conference was how social networking tools like Twitter, Facebook, blogging, podcasting, Wikipedia, open content, curriculum wikis, online video games, and smartphones fit together with the traditional school staples of assessment, curriculum, student privacy and safety, budgets, and so on. You can read Andrew’s entire article here, but below is a synopsis of his comments:
The international symposium made clear that the role of social networking in education is a topic of concern among educators from around the world.

According to one panelist, Stephen Breslin, chief executive of Futurelab, a nonprofit group based in Bristol, U.K. that supports innovation in education, schools aren’t typically good at preparing students for three skills that are vital in today’s workplace: the power of conversation, the power of groups, and the power of the network. Schools are ill-equipped to teach those things because they are geared for assessing students individually.

Like other speakers, Breslin acknowledged dangers to children posed by Web 2.0, but believes educators should not be paralyzed by fears. People are responding to Web 2.0, just as to earlier digital innovations, “polarized between panic and blind digital faith.” He added, “The answer is balanced in between.”

How to Make Layoffs Worse

March 15th, 2009

As many of you know, The Thornton Group is fortunate to be consulting partners with Patrick Lencioni’s company The Table Group. Pat has been doing a lot of writing lately, and this ‘point of view’ entitled How Executives Botch Layoffs from the March 6, 2009 Wall Street Journal is particularly relevant these days.

In this article Pat talks about the three most common mistakes executives make during lay-offs:

  1. Don’t allow employees to leave with dignity
  2. Segregate ‘survivors’ from those who are leaving
  3. Assume that the survivors don’t need extra attention

I agree with all, especially the third point. In fact, I read somewhere that most companies spend 80% of their time and attention on the people leaving versus those who remain — counter-intuitive, don’t you think?

I’ll write more about this another time, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

Thanks, Amelia