November 28, 2012
Howard Schultz on the “drift towards mediocrity” in the United States

Starbucks’ CEO was a star turn at last night’s event in celebration of Harvard Business Review's 90th anniversary. Schultz has been outspoken about the management of the United States over the past eighteen months, and he didn't hold back in conversation with HBS professor, Nancy Koehn. Acknowledging that it is “somewhat unorthodox and unprecedented” for the CEO of a public company to speak out about government, he was nonetheless unapologetic, training his sights on the current state of the United States and, in particular, the looming fiscal cliff. How is it possible to have got within 34 days of this impending catastrophe? he asked. In whose interest are the politicians working? And, he warned, while not dealing with the fiscal cliff would be catastrophic, the Bandaid-based solution that politicians will likely paper over the crisis is “equally as irresponsible.”

For us to face $16 trillion in debt, with 14 million unemployed, the budget deficit, municipalities declaring bankruptcy… We’re all dressed up here in New York City, we’re getting ready for the holiday season. But America is not the America our parents fought for and promised us. The issue as business leaders, as citizens, is to understand we cannot embrace the status quo. 

"I didn’t come here to depress anybody," Schultz added, to rueful laughs from an audience which, it should be said, comprised a classic HBR crowd of senior corporate leaders and management thinkers. "I came to speak the truth." And the truth as Schultz sees it is that national leaders have lost the trust of the people. "Leadership are not putting their feet in the shoes of the American people. They’re putting their feet in the shoes of their own party and extremists. That’s a disaster."

Given the goings-on that Americans (and those who live here) have recently endured in the endless run-up to the Presidential election, it’s hard to disagree. And it turns out it was the election itself that spurred Schultz into voicing his concerns, when he discovered the many billions of dollars set to be spent on campaigning by the candidates and their parties. 

I was stunned by that. And once you’re exposed to something so inconsistent with what you believe, the question is, ‘are you a bystander? Do you walk away?’

For Schultz, walking away was not an option, and in 2011 he issued a Starbucks-wide email, Leading Through Uncertain Times, and called on his C-suite friends to boycott campaign donations “till people play nice and move the country forward for benefit of people, not party.” Back at the HBR event, he added:

Everyone in this room, Republican, Democrat, Independent, will agree with this statement: we all know that something is wrong. We absolutely know it. Yet we’re sitting here as if everything is going around like a merry-go-round, like everything’s fine.

"Do you feel alone in this?" asked Koehn of Schultz’s stand against the establishment. Delightfully, Starbucks’s founder was blunt in reply. "Everyone I talked to had a sense of understanding and sensitivity about the issue but they were afraid," he said, as the audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats. "It’s not that I’m alone. I think people do not have the courage to step out right now."

Schultz wasn’t all doom and gloom. Asked to nominate a leader who motivates him, he recommended two speeches by RFK: the "Ripple of Hope" speech given in South Africa in 1966, and the impromptu announcement of the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 (embedded below.) Why these particularly?

Those two speeches define leadership, courage, conviction, what it means to believe in something, what we’re lacking as society around the world… We need to find heroes once again. I don’t think we fully realize how high the stakes are, how we are allowing the greatest nation in the history of the world to drift towards mediocrity. I don’t understand why we are here. We have such greatness, possibilities, and optimism and we’re allowing this to take place. 

It was a sobering conclusion, but inspiring to see a leader take a stand on what we all know. President Obama, you should call Mr Schultz into your meetings with business leaders.

July 6, 2012
"While traditional leaders want to be right, creative leaders *hope* to be right."

John Maeda's talk at TEDGlobal was a treat, as he showed some of the early digital artwork for which he first made his name. (I so remember seeing it back then and, truthfully, being perfectly mystified by it even as I knew it was somehow really quite important.) But the self-effacing president of RISD also had some really insightful comments to share about the impact of creative thinking in management and leadership. Read the full post here.

April 17, 2012
"Soccer is a metaphor for creative collaboration in a team, and coaching soccer can likewise be a metaphor for effective leadership."
Overlooking the fact that the sport is clearly called “football,” not “soccer,” Goal Play!: Leadership Lessons From The Soccer Field, a new book by Paul Levy, sounds like a good read. This Globe and Mail review, Leadership Lessons, On Field And Off, highlights some choice quotes and stories.
[Story via Tim O’Reilly. Photo by BZO/Flickr.]

"Soccer is a metaphor for creative collaboration in a team, and coaching soccer can likewise be a metaphor for effective leadership."

Overlooking the fact that the sport is clearly called “football,” not “soccer,” Goal Play!: Leadership Lessons From The Soccer Field, a new book by Paul Levy, sounds like a good read. This Globe and Mail review, Leadership Lessons, On Field And Off, highlights some choice quotes and stories.

[Story via Tim O’Reilly. Photo by BZO/Flickr.]

December 26, 2011
How a Few Bad Apples Ruin Everything is a great piece by management professor, Bob Sutton, who makes an important point: “Superstars get a lot of attention from bosses. But bad apples deserve even more.” Sutton tells the tale of Akshay Kothari and Ankit Gupta of social media company, Pulse, where potential employees aren’t just interviewed or hired according to their glowing references and school credentials, but are put to work for a couple of (paid) days. As Sutton writes, “Not only do they learn a lot about the candidates’ technical skills, Messrs. Kothari and Gupta say, but they also learn about their personality. How do they deal with setbacks? Do they know when to ask for help and to give others help? Is the candidate the kind of person they want to work with? The partners say there have been several candidates who looked great on paper and came highly recommended but weren’t offered jobs—because technical and interpersonal weaknesses surfaced during the selection process.” See also Sutton’s own blog for a much more detailed look at the topic and the surrounding research, with the similarly convincing conclusion: don’t focus on attracting rockstars; do make sure that you do everything you can to prevent naysayers from polluting your company.
[Picture of a bad apple by Michael N Patterson.]

How a Few Bad Apples Ruin Everything is a great piece by management professor, Bob Sutton, who makes an important point: Superstars get a lot of attention from bosses. But bad apples deserve even more.” Sutton tells the tale of Akshay Kothari and Ankit Gupta of social media company, Pulse, where potential employees aren’t just interviewed or hired according to their glowing references and school credentials, but are put to work for a couple of (paid) days. As Sutton writes, “Not only do they learn a lot about the candidates’ technical skills, Messrs. Kothari and Gupta say, but they also learn about their personality. How do they deal with setbacks? Do they know when to ask for help and to give others help? Is the candidate the kind of person they want to work with? The partners say there have been several candidates who looked great on paper and came highly recommended but weren’t offered jobs—because technical and interpersonal weaknesses surfaced during the selection process.” See also Sutton’s own blog for a much more detailed look at the topic and the surrounding research, with the similarly convincing conclusion: don’t focus on attracting rockstars; do make sure that you do everything you can to prevent naysayers from polluting your company.

[Picture of a bad apple by Michael N Patterson.]

December 19, 2011
"All three [CEOs] committed several cardinal sins: Putting customers last. Rewarding loyalty with rudeness. Failing to make their cases to the public. All of them wound up looking terrible. All of them increased the sense of disconnection between big companies and the millions who buy their products."

— In The Year of CEO Failures Explained, NYT tech writer, David Pogue gives his take on why the leaders of companies including Hewlett-Packard, Netflix and the Flip camera messed up. It boils down to their failure to remember why they’re in business in the first place (to serve customers). And, as Pogue points out, this omission backfired, at least in two out of those three cases (Cisco CEO John Chambers still has his job, and the Flip is still dead.) I was also taken by Pogue’s surprised analysis of the state of MBA students that our business schools are producing, many of whom have the same attitude and approach as these stumblers. “Maybe all of those M.B.A.’s pouring into the workplace know something we don’t. Maybe there’s actually a shrewd master plan that the common folk can’t even fathom,” he muses. “But maybe, too, there’s a solid business case to be made for factoring public reaction and the customer’s interest into big business decisions.” Now, wouldn’t that be something.

June 17, 2011

Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit, comes across enormously well in this video interview with Braden Kelly of Blogging Innovation. Cook details the internal innovation process at Intuit, including training and education at all levels. For instance, a two day offsite saw the company’s top 18 leaders elbow deep in work that Intuit teams have to do on a daily basis. “I find it hard for leaders to lead to a destination they have not yet been,” he says, somewhat Yoda-ishly.

From 5:45, Cook also has some great advice for those looking to learn from customers. The tendency, he says, is to want to interview them directly. That totally misses the point. You can’t ask most customers what they want; you have to learn from observing their behaviors, a key part of the design-based innovation process. “See with your eyes. Shut up. Say nothing. Watch for an hour, or two, or three,” he advises.

(Video via Michael Dila.)

June 3, 2011
"Embrace the tension between old and new and foster a state of constant creative conflict at the top."

The Ambidextrous CEO is a smart piece in HBR looking at how leaders should think about innovation. The authors studied management teams at 12 major companies and outline three principles to help leaders balance the demands of balancing investment in the new with sustaining the existing:

  1. Engage the senior team around a forward-looking strategic aspiration.
  2. Explicitly hold the tension between the demands of innovation units and the core business at the top of the organization.
  3. Embrace inconsistency by maintaining multiple and often conflicting strategic agendas.

With some interesting examples and great stories (Ray Stata, CEO of Analog Devices, built a soundproofed room off his own office for shouting matches between his leaders!) this is a smart analysis and useful checklist for thinking about innovation.