Wednesday, December 9, 2015

What Morgan Spurlock Can Teach Us About Brave Business

I recently watched this Ted Talk by Morgan Spurlock that is an oldie but a goodie (released in 2013). For those of you that may not be familiar with Morgan he came to fame with his documentaries the most famous of which is Super Size Me. He parlayed that success into a series on A&E entitled 30 Days in which he walked in other people's shoes to provide a perspective on issues that were controversial at the moment.

What I like so much about his Ted Talk is how he exposed the fearful decision making in the Advertising industry. But this isn't a hit piece on that industry and the same decision making processes and cultures exist in any industry and in most organizations.

One of my favorite moments in the talk involves a clip at the 10 minute mark where he is meeting with the Ban deodorant marketing execs and asks them what the one word they would use to describe Ban and there is silence. Then the first answer is superior technology... for deodorant!

Some of the takeaways from the talk include:
1. The brands that were obviously brave and took a risk with Spurlock's movie were ones that cut out the middle man (advertising agency) because they understood that they may not have the brand's best interests at mind. This is a theme covered in my book Corporate Bravery.
2. Spurlock's summation of what he experienced with trying to make the movie was, "When you train your employees to be risk averse, then you train your whole company to be reward challenged."
3. It is remarkable that EMC won the rights for his Ted Talk with just over $7K. A small sum for the millions of views that this clip has experienced.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Fearful Business Examples to End the Year

  • Micromanaging
  • Being inconsistent 
  • Outsource too much
  • Don't embrace new employees

These aspects are all ways that coincidentally can create a culture of fear. When the author wrote the headline for 'mess up' the culture a typical by-product can be fear and it keeps employees from contributing their best work. To read more about how this can happen and its affects read my book entitled Corporate Bravery - available on

2. Another recent news story that has generated headlines is the upcoming paternity leave for Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook. More specifically, he announced that the upcoming birth of his first child would prompt him to take a leave and that he would be taking two months as a result.

The move was hailed as an example for other executives and employees to take the time for your family and overall it sounds like a brave example but when you look a little deeper at this example it has the potential of impacting culture in a negative way.

This potential negative impact isn't because Facebook is giving their employees additional benefits or because they are giving men an additional benefit but rather because of the context of this new benefit. If you read the story you will notice that the change to the policy occurred after or simultaneous to Zuckerberg's announcement of his intent to take two months. This indicates that the policy change only happened because it was real to Zuckerberg despite the fact that it had been a real issue to other working parents since the beginning of Facebook. A subtle nuance I know, but one that is likely understood by Facebook employees and just reiterates the divide between management.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Lessons in Bravery from In the Heart of the Sea

Its application to our subject matter is the role fear played in decision-making by the townspeople, the ship’s owners, and the ship’s crew.

Was the town afraid of losing its status, pressuring citizens to work where they weren’t equipped? Were the owners afraid of losing profits, making them rush the ship to sea? Was the crew afraid of coming back empty-handed, pushing them to take reckless risks? Beyond any single decision, many small decisions can create a culture of fear and negatively influence our ability to make the best decision in a crucial, potentially life-threatening (or profit-maximizing) situation.

Leadership, management styles, team political environments, the role of investors, and competition — these and other factors are explored in depth throughout Corporate Bravery along with some practical ways to rise above fear-based management and decision-making and become the bravest manager you can be.

Some of the critical leadership lessons that this story raises include:

  • What unique combination of factors in your corporate culture could lead you down a route that feels safe only because it’s familiar? 
  • Are you clinging to any broken and tattered whaling ships? 
  • What imaginary fears might actually lead you into even greater dangers?

Monday, November 9, 2015

GE's Sad Recruiting Campaign Lacks Bravery

 a newly hired GE employee is talking with his girlfriend about an upcoming family gathering. The girlfriend proceeds to coach him about what to say about GE and what he is doing for them. She repeatedly suggest that he portray his new job as “working on a trendy app” and insists he leave out the “machines” and the “GE” part when they meet her parents that evening. In other words - at best misrepresent what he does and at worse lie about his job.

My guess is the only people this message resonates with are potential employees that don't have a strong sense of who they are, can be easily influenced (manipulated) to meet an outcome and lack integrity.

According to GE's website they have the following mission for their culture:
Our culture is about providing everyone who works here with opportunities to exercise their responsibility, integrity, and creativity while growing themselves, their careers, and our business.
The word integrity sticks out to me in this statement and appears to be opposed to the person I hear in the radio spots.

You may be wondering, 'why does it matter?' - because it is incredibly important to GE's future. I am guessing that GE is spending millions of dollars on this campaign because they are having difficulty attracting millennials. Anyone that has studied millennials or that is a millennial will tell you one of the things they value the most is authenticity. Neither of the people in the ad are authentic. If they can't be authentic with their own family their is no way they can be authentic in the GE culture.

Which is exactly the problem with most traditional large corporations. I write extensively about this in my book Corporate Bravery - available on and iTunes. In chapter 11, I talk about communications and how effective cultures (and hiring strategies) start with an alignment of values, people and communication (internal & external) - depicted by the graph below.

The totality of our communications is the external manifestation of who we are — and it’s bigger than just what we say. Throughout Corporate Bravery, we have talked often about core values and about how hiring and management practices should reinforce those core values. Any misalignment between these elements lets fear creep into your organizational culture.
Given this circumstance - how effective do you think this campaign will be for GE and what type of culture are they likely to create?

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Interesting Aspects of Bravery - Slack and Diversity Edition

In Corporate Bravery we talk about the trust of leaders and having leadership that cares about the individuality of the team goes a long way toward building trust, eradicating a culture of fear and improves performance.

The article mostly paints a picture of typical fast growing start-up culture. But some of the quotes from a recent company gathering brought to mind the question about how it is possible to keep a company moving toward a culture of bravery when so many new people are being added and ultimately shaping the culture of the startup every day.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Corporate Bravery - Fearful Business Examples

We have been on hiatus for a few weeks while we launched our book - Corporate Bravery (now available on Amazon and iTunes). But we are back and this week we feature a few recent examples of fearful management.

1. First we begin with the slow death of Google+, although many will be quick to point out that Google+ hasn't been killed (yet), as documented by a Mashable article entitled "Inside the Failure of Google+"

I also want to point out that Google is typically a brave company (coming in at #2 on the Brave Rankings) but this was a clear example of a fearful manager talking a brave leader into a fearful decision.

I'm not going to ruin much about the article for you but this quote stood out to me and highlights the fear-based decision making that led to the birth of Google+:

"Vic was just this constant bug in Larry's ear: 'Facebook is going to kill us. Facebook is going to kill us,'" says a former Google executive. "I am pretty sure Vic managed to frighten Larry into action. And voila: Google+ was born."

2. There is a very cool example from Popular Science about ants and the biological example of how conservatism (often based out of fear) can keep organizations from meeting its full potential 

The article chronicles studies of ants and how they cooperate together to carry larger pieces of food for long (relative to the spatial sizes of ants) distances. It was partially due to the ants conformist mentality, but there was much to be learned about their group leadership and efficiency.

Specifically, the group think of the group required that individual leader ants from outside the group get involved to re-direct them to the best, direct path until they lost track and then another leader ant would join the pack.

The conclusion of scientists?
In effect, says Feinerman, the larger groups were collectively too conservative, which prevented them from completing the task."
Read the whole report, there is a very cool video of the scene to kill some time as well.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Point of the Amazon NY Times Article

There has been a lot of conversation about the recent New York Times piece on While there has been some negative backlash from Bezos and insiders at Amazon, it appears, based on other accounts that the author's perspective on the culture at Amazon is closer to reality than fiction.

But as this Fast Company article points out, why has this article about work culture in the tech industry created so much buzz? Isn't it true that Amazon's culture just mirrors that of silicon valley or other great technology centers in the United States?

For many in the business press it is seen as yet another example of a 'win at all costs' culture that typically drives disengagement and an unhappy workforce. Typically I would decry the kind of behavior and attitudes embodied in the Amazon culture. For example, take a look at this early quote in the article:
At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others.
This is the kind of fear inducing behavior that creates corporate politics run amok - similar to what I discuss in this my Slideshare on corporate politics.

However, I have a different perspective on this particular story. Understand that I am not condoning this type of behavior or even the culture that has been created but it can make sense for a company like Amazon. Take a look at this quote from the story about the conflict that employees feel about the culture:
However, more than 100 current and former Amazonians described how they tried to reconcile the sometimes-punishing aspects of their workplace with what many called its thrilling power to create.
I contend that Amazon has actually done a wonderful job of creating alignment with the culture, hiring & people practices and the brand they are creating in the eyes of their customers.

In my forthcoming book, Corporate Bravery, I argue that one of the hallmarks of fearful vs brave organizations is alignment of these three aspects of culture.

According to the article Amazon has very clearly defined core values (of which they are quizzed and expected to be able to recite and they have a clearly aligned hiring process as shown in the following two quotes:
To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, “I’m Peculiar” — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.
The process begins when Amazon’s legions of recruiters identify thousands of job prospects each year, who face extra screening by “bar raisers,” star employees and part-time interviewers charged with ensuring that only the best are hired.

Which leads to a process where employees begin to internalize the culture. According to one person interviewed for the article "she and other workers had no shortage of career options but said they had internalized Amazon’s priorities."
Again, I am not advocating Amazon's culture or the individual aspects of the culture that has made it what it is today. I am just saying that the article paints the picture of a company that has one of the most aligned core values, hiring practices and communications that I have ever seen.

Where Amazon runs into criticism (and the article chronicles), is in the moral / human cost of this culture.  If you could only have this type of alignment that values the employee as a human and recognizes their own individuality (coincidentally another fear factor chronicled in Corporate Bravery) then you have a great example of building a corporate culture.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

What Nature Teaches Us About Fear & Microsoft Being Brave

In Chapter 13 of my forthcoming book Corporate Bravery we talk about Reprogramming the Core of your organization. I begin the chapter by using a human biological example of what this is like,

The body, in fact, is built for reprogramming, even down to the cellular level. Physically, reprogramming can come through workouts. Mentally, it can happen through education. Emotionally, it can come through relationships or therapy.

We’re also susceptible to environmental factors. Being infected by viruses and bacteria or suffering an injury can — and usually does — happen to everyone. But our bodies frequently withstand these external factors. That is why diet and exercise are so important. Daily disciplines that strengthen the core improve our survival, not to mention attitudes and sheer enjoyment of life.

There is a biological impact from protecting or keeping yourself from harm in small doses as it often results in larger reactions later on.

I introduce this as a lead-in to the latest example of this from an article in Quartz about how your gut feeling isn't just a metaphor.

The article talked about a study in mice that simulated traumatic (fear inducing) events and using bacteria (in this case a tape worm) in the mice stomach prevented them from neurological shock that can often present itself in humans as neurological diseases such as MS. The article concludes:
"This kind of effect is called “biome depletion,” where a lack of exposure to infections causes immune systems to overreact to infections later in life. Thus exposure to some microbes can help avoid such a response, and, in the case of the rats, help prevent memory loss."
Yet another example where our desire to shield ourselves or others (children, employees, etc) from bad experiences creates more harm in the long run.

Microsoft Being Brave
The second article that points to how to be brave in the face of possible fearful situations comes from Microsoft of all people.

I am hesitant to hail this as a victory for bravery because every time there is a new major release of Windows they say they are doing it differently and it still ends up being the monstrosity that Windows applications become.

The story of Microsoft's development of Windows 10 marks a big departure from their traditional approach - and not just because they are offering free upgrades.

The biggest change is their change in approach. Take a look at how things were done in previous iterations from a Microsoft exec in charge of the development process.
"During the days of Vista, Microsoft’s lawyers ended up at my doorstep because I dared to write about prerelease versions of Windows. And while Windows 8 had a few public previews, it was largely developed with little consideration to feedback. Windows 8 shipped despite user concerns about fullscreen apps and a lack of attention to keyboard and mouse users. Microsoft’s management seemed to spend more time explaining every new feature in sprawling, technical blog posts instead of understanding why users hated the changes."
Contrast the fear and legal overlording to the approach that they are taking with the current development:
Microsoft now solicits feedback directly from users in a very public way: over the past nine months, the company has been testing Windows 10 with 5 million "Windows Insiders." Anyone can sign up to test, and the results of Microsoft’s work will go on display today as Windows 10 launches to millions of people around the world. 
Initially, "there was a lot of hand-wringing around what was that going to be like and were people going to form opinions too early," explains Gabe Aul, engineering general manager for Microsoft’s operating systems group. "I think we just decided to go for it."
Does that mean that Microsoft suddenly 'gets it' and is a changed company? Doubtful, but changing the culture from one of fear to one of making bold bets on doing things differently than they have in the past is a great start.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Corporate Politics - Good or Bad?

Often the phrase corporate politics leads to emotional reactions. It could be greeted with eye rolls or a sinking feeling inside your gut.

In the forthcoming book Corporate Bravery we spend a chapter on corporate politics and its role in creating a fear based culture. While there are many examples where corporate politics has gone wrong, I have created the embedded slide share to talk about how corporate politics doesn't have to be a culture killing practice.

I have embedded a slideshare below and I would love to hear your personal stories, feedback on the approach or other ways you have seen corporate politics play out in a good way. The comments section is below.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Jerk Bosses and Their Successes (or failure?)

I recently came across one of my favorite news articles of the year in the Atlantic. The article, entitled "Why It Pays to Be a Jerk" is a long read and includes some great photos like the one below:

The article looks at scientific (and unscientific anecdotes) evidence regarding jerk-ish behavior - primarily in the workplace - and its impact on your ability to have success in the short and long-term.

This is relevant at Corporate Bravery because we spend a lot of time in the forthcoming book of the same name discussing bad managers' role in creating a culture of fear. Trust is at the heart of good managers and creating a culture that isn't fearful but brave in attacking new business opportunities and growing a long-term, sustainable business.

If that is so why does bad behavior that erodes trust persist in Corporate America? The article cites a few reasons. The first is embodied in the following quote.
But “to the extent that innovation and risk taking are in short supply in the corporate world”—an assertion few would contest—“narcissists are the ones who are going to step up to the plate.”

Grant argues that many takers are good at hiding their unpleasant side from potential benefactors—at “kissing up and kicking down,” as the saying goes. The article mentions a video series experiment where regular people were shown two different management styles to gauge their preference in managers.
And in a series of follow-up studies involving different pairs of videos, participants, responding to prompts, made statements such as “I would like this person as my boss” and “I would give this person a promotion.” The conditions had to be right, but when they were, rule breakers were more likely to be put in charge.
In fact, it’s easy to see how an initial advantage derived from a lack of self-awareness, or from a deliberate attempt to fake competence, or from a variety of other, similar heelish behaviors could become permanent. Once a hierarchy emerges, the literature shows, people tend to construct after-the-fact rationalizations about why those in charge should be in charge. Likewise, the experience of power leads people to exhibit yet more power-signaling behaviors (displaying aggressive body language, taking extra cookies from the common plate). And not least, it gives them a chance to practice their hand at advocating an agenda, directing a discussion, and recruiting allies—building genuine leadership skills that help legitimize and perpetuate their status
The commonality for most of the examples provided in the Atlantic article is a lack of trust.
Should something go wrong, jerks don’t have a reserve of goodwill to fall back on. The article tells the story of Howell Raines at the New York Times and how a scandal broke on his watch in 2003 when a Times reporter, Jayson Blair, had been fabricating material in his stories.
A town-hall meeting that was intended to clear the air around the scandal, during which Raines appeared before staff members to answer questions, turned into a popular uprising against his management style. “People feel less led than bullied,” said Joe Sexton, a deputy editor for the Metro section. “I believe at a deep level you guys have lost the confidence of many parts of the newsroom.” 
Raines himself had acknowledged as much earlier in the meeting. “You view me as inaccessible and arrogant,” he said. “Fear is a problem to such an extent, I was told, that editors are scared to bring me bad news.” It was an attempt to show he was a listener, Seth Mnookin reported in his book Hard News. But after listening to Sexton’s comments, Raines blew up. “Don’t demagogue me!” he shouted.
The article concludes - being a jerk will fail most people most of the time. Yet in at least three situations, a touch of jerkiness can be helpful.

1. leadership involves a series of onetime encounters

2. at the moment after a group has formed but its hierarchy has not.

3. when the group’s survival is in question, speed is essential, and a paralyzing existential doubt is in the air. (when fear is driving behavior)

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Weekly Brave Roundup - Blackberry, Steve Kerr and Soundcloud

1. I am a sucker for a good sports analogy and this article about Steve Kerr and his leadership of the Golden State Warriors this year is a great read. Even the title of the article speaks to his fearless leadership of the team to a title - "The Risk-Taking General Who Led the Golden State Warriors to Victory".

The primary point of the article was a focus on his lineup decisions. Specifically the decision to move all-star and all-defensive veteran Andre Iguodala to the bench at the start of the season and then to scrap the lineup that had gotten Golden State to the championship round in favor of a smaller lineup.

The primary reason given for the last minute change was a suggestion by their video manager, a 28 year old that had been studying film. According to the article,
"So Kerr decided to wipe the blackboard clean, taking All-Defensive Second Team, rim-protecting center Andrew Bogut out of the rotation altogether, and going to an uber-small-ball unit anchored by the 6-6 undersized power forward Draymond Green. He also resuscitated David Lee, like Iguodala, another mothballed, highly paid former All-Star before Game 3, a ploy that kickstarted Steph Curry’s game in the midst of what ended up being a failed comeback effort.
Considering the stakes, this was a downright radical move on Kerr’s part, and one that easily could have blown up in his face."
As the article points out, it is unique that an NBA coach (or any business executive) would listen to an entry-level employee over the high paid executives and assistants.
"Outside of Gregg Popovich’s Spurs, this just doesn’t happen. Video assistants don’t get to pitch the man in charge, let alone get the credit, and the vast majority of head coaches are far too small-c conservative and risk-averse to even contemplate such a move, let alone admit that he lied about it."
But that single decision isn't the thing that ultimately made Steve Kerr a great leader, a championship leader. Rather it was the culture and the tone that he set before the season even began. He created a culture that made it not only OK to accept a lesser role for the good of the team, but even encouraged it.
Kerr demanded that they have fun. That in and of itself is revolutionary. More to the point, he was willing to speak to his players not like soldiers or faceless office drones, but like... well, people that he trusted and legitimately liked. That’s why Iguodala bought in early on, and Andrew Bogut and David Lee did the same.

2. I was able to recently read an excerpt from a new book about Blackberry entitled "Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of Blackberry."

The book looks to be an extraordinary read about the fall of a high-tech highflier and the individual decisions that led them to a struggle for survival.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Weekly Fearful Roundup

This week we feature two excellent examples of how fear can and has been used both in the public domain and in business.

1. The first example is the tussle between startup Benefits and ADP. By way of background, Zenefits is attempting to shake-up a sleepy industry for HR, Payroll & Benefits software. While most think of ADP as being a payroll company they have become a dominant force in HR and benefits as a result of the relationships they have in corporations big and small.

Zenefits relies on ADP for Payroll to provide a full service technology suite to HR organizations and recently ADP turned off access to ADP technology that is publicly available to other accounting and small technology providers.

Zenefits was not content to sit back and let this happen and after trying to resolve the issue they went on the offensive which is documented in this blog post. The campaign was complete with a hashtag, a account and targeted media coverage.

One of the statements that stood out to me in the blog post includes this quote that is all to familiar to us at Corporate Bravery:
"we believe ADP is using a tried and true tactic in enterprise software: whenever a new, innovative company enters a market, the incumbent tries to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about the new market entrant. This tactic is so common it even has an acronym—FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, & Doubt)."

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Weekly Roundup - Auditors, Regulation & Disney

This week's roundup doesn't really include any brave examples, rather some recent stories that represent some common themes from my upcoming book on Corporate Bravery.

1. The May 2015 issue of Fast Company profile's Disney's attempt to completely reinvent the guest experience at their theme parks. The initiative was 'green lit' in February 2011 and was centered around the use of technology, specifically the park wristbands as a part of the MyMagic+ project.

The project started out as a grand vision of using the wrist band to not only get a fast pass to the best rides but create a digital infrastructure that allowed all park employees to create a tailored experience for each individual guest. However after many setbacks along the way it has found only limited usage and primarily as to buy things at the park.

The article chronicles the political struggles inside Disney that challenged the project's original vision and has ultimately prevented the project team from getting the types of ROI that were possible. Some of the quotes from the article that highlight these political struggles include:
"Franklin managed to get some teams to collaborate well on the project, but most describe the internal politics as fierce."
"Other divisions expressed themselves passive-aggressively. "They might see a problem coming, but they don't do anything about it, like, 'Let them figure it out!' says a former Disney manager. 'Then, late in the game, these folks came in going. We knew this was going to be a problem.' We were like Really? Where have you been for the last three and a half years?!?"
"The endless finger pointing and glory hogging slowed the ambitious project. "Almost half the work was to support a political situation," says one executive at an NGE partner company. "At the beginning, we could move really rapidly, but when it got public within Disney, it changed the way we worked. It became more about fighting to survive another day."
Reading these quotes bring to mind my experiences as a business sponsor for a large multi-year, multi-million $ project that I lead a few years ago. I am sure my experiences and Disney's are not isolated examples and the role that politics plays in creating an organization that is driven by fear is universal.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Weekly Brave Update - Chip Kelly, Campbell's Soup Edition

This week I am focused on examples of brave leadership in two industries that nearly all of us have experiences with - food and football.

First lets start with Chip Kelly & the Philadelphia Eagles. There was a great story this past week in Sports Illustrated about Chip's overhaul of the Eagles. While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of his complete overhaul of the team - one thing that is confirmed is Chip's bravery. In fact the title of the article is "Chip Kelly's fearless coaching mind."

Despite presiding over arguably two successful seasons that culminated in 10-6 records, he went 'all in' on his vision for success this past offseason. He let walk or traded his top 3 offensive weapons, including his starting quarterback, and made some big name free agent signings. Listening to sports talk radio during the free agency period you would think that everyone was bi-polar based on the daily reactions to Chip's moves.

You might be thinking 'why are we talking about sports on a business blog?' but coaching an organization like the Eagles is as complicated as being the CEO of any Fortune 500 company and we can find some strong lessons in Chip's mindset toward fearless management.
"Either Kelly is a forward-thinking genius, in the mold of Bill Walsh, Jimmy Johnson and Bill Belichick—or he’s just another coach who never should have left the college ranks. Whichever it is, the word bold doesn’t begin to define the transformation that Kelly has put his team through this off-season, his second since jumping from Oregon to the NFL."
Part of what makes his moves so bold is the fact that he has a very clear vision for his team and is confident in knowing the types of personnel he needs in that system to be successful.
“Certainly he has his strategy and the way he wants to build his team,” says Stephen Jones, executive vice president of the Cowboys. “You’ve got to respect him for that. He seems very convicted in how he wants to do his roster.” At every position he knows exactly what type of player he wants, from physical description to mental makeup."
This vision and understanding of who the organization is and complementing that with the right personnel is the hallmark of a truly brave organization. Another key aspect of corporate cultures that operate in a brave way instead of out of fear is that they are not easily influenced by the media. Despite a preponderance of critics of these moves Chip has been undaunted. Not in a way that is stubborn but in a way the conveys confidence in his strategy and what he wants to accomplish. According to the article,
"It’s impossible to say whether Kelly’s method will thrive long-term in the NFL, but he’s made all the right moves at every level of his career while naysayers shook their heads and said, That’s not the way things are done. He sets his own course and, so far, it’s been one that everyone else ends up following."

Secondly, there was a great in-depth look at the rapidly evolving US food industry in Fortune Magazine. The article provides a great summary of the wrenching changes that are accelerating in the way Americans buy food that is having massive implications on how food is grown, processed, marketed and sold.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Weekly Roundup - May 18

This is our latest installment in our weekly series on fear in the marketplace and specifically how to be Brave in business decision making. Each week we post a few reads along with a synopsis of a few current business stories and how executives and managers are letting fear play out in decision making.

1. Recently Bud Light ended up with a black eye and controversy on its hands with a beer label with the tag line 'The perfect beer for removing 'no' from your vocabulary for the night.'

Despite using possibly one of the worst ideas ever, (especially in light of recent high profile cases of domestic violence such as Ray Rice in the NFL) what was potentially even more startling was the fact that this label was green lit only after going through 5 approvals inside Anheuser-Busch including marketing, legal, corporate social responsibility division and an advertising code committee.

At Corporate Bravery we talk often about the role that hierarchy and internal compliance teams have on creating fear in corporate decision making and this is a classic example. Even when pressed on how it decided against a recall their response was that the bottles didn't 'pose a health or public-safety concern'. The response shows that the culture isn't strong enough to allow individuals to use their best judgement and instead it is easier to hide behind protocol and layers of bureaucracy.

The article goes on to mention how AB InBev 'spread the blame' first to its advertisers BBDO for writing the label and then to the US Alcohol Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau. The latter is laughable since the government agency can't possibly regulate stupidity.

2. In the lead-up to the NFL Draft I ran across an interesting take on how teams draft quarterbacks that is an interesting corollary to what often-times happens in our business organizations.

The article in the Wall Street Journal talks specifically about the quarterback position and how the position has evolved tremendously in the past decade but NFL teams continue to want to force those being drafted into the position in the NFL into a certain type of quarterback. To summarize the NFL's track record on innovation the article says, "True aficionados of football strategy would roll their eyes at the NFL game. It was, for all its revenue and viewers, not the place for innovation."

Monday, May 11, 2015

Weekly Roundup - May 11 2015

This is our latest installment in our weekly series on fear in the marketplace and specifically how to be Brave in business decision making. Each week we post a few reads along with a synopsis of a few current business stories and how executives and managers are letting fear play out in decision making.

1. Starbucks race campaign. I had intended to write about this a few weeks ago when the public outcry was at its loudest but couldn't find the time. So here it is.

By way of background, the Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Shultz felt that he should use Starbucks as a platform for race relations after Ferguson and other racial flash points in the past several months. This was executed by the creation of a hashtag (#racetogether) that was meant to spur dialog about race relations.

The problem is Starbucks is a coffee company and their employees are not trained sociologists so the whole effort just came off as self serving and looked to most consumers as a large corporation trying to capitalize off of a current event.

During one of the more embarrassing moments of the campaign the SVP of Communications at Starbucks refused to answer real questions from real minorities, blocked some of the questioners and then deleted his Twitter account. As you could imagine, this effort fell flat on its face amid public ridicule.

According to the Associated Press, the company’s chairman Jim Olson claims the phasing out of the handwritten notes was part of the plan since the beginning of “Race Together.” He also asserted that the changes are not a response to public mockery and outrage over the concept.
Per the AP:
A recently released memo from CEO Howard Schultz says the cups were always “just the catalyst” for a broader conversation, and the company will still hold forum discussions, co-produce special sections in USA TODAY and put more stores in minority communities as part of the Race Together initiative.
While there was probably a genuine desire on the part of Schultz to have a positive impact this is a classic example of a company not finding good alignment between core values, people and its messaging. The whole campaign was even parodied in this skit from SNL.

2. I read an article in Fast Company entitled "6 Steps to Being Viewed as More Powerful at Work" and I had the thought that while many of the items on the list are truly effective strategies of being viewed in this way, it begs the question - 'is this truly the objective we should be putting our energy behind?'

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Weekly Fearful Roundup

This is a new feature that I am starting this week to highlight examples I see in business & life where fear is ruling our decision making processes.

1. Lets start this week with a Vanity Fair article on the Brian Williams mess, but more specifically the fall of NBC News and how it happened. It is a fascinating read on the impact of mergers and acquisitions on corporate culture and how not to handle employment decisions.

My favorite excerpt from the article is the following two paragraphs that highlight poor leadership, lack of trust, corporate politics and how they each can play a role in fear-based decision making.

According to one view, the Burke administration’s troubles at NBC News can be traced to the Ann Curry episode at Today, a messy situation it inherited from the Zucker regime. Line executives were sharply split over Curry’s desire to ascend from newsreader to Lauer’s on-air partner. The head of news, Steve Capus, was in favor; Today’s executive producer, Jim Bell, and Matt Lauer were wary. Capus prevailed, only to watch Curry’s ratings slide. By June 2012, when she memorably and tearfully announced her departure from Today, Capus and Bell were not speaking. “That’s where this whole thing begins to fall apart,” says the onetime executive. “Burke was the principal player [who made the decision to demote her], though he hid desperately behind this. Finally he makes a deal for her to go away and then gets cold feet about pushing her to announce it. Despite pleas from everyone, Burke would not push the situation. He just felt uncomfortable doing it, and he wouldn’t explain why. Which leads directly to this thing being a national ‘Oh, poor Ann Curry’ story, which was the furthest thing from the truth.”
The Curry saga convinced Burke that the news division under Steve Capus’s direction was broadly dysfunctional. “The prevailing line from the Comcast people when Steve Capus was in charge was all News needs is a real grown-up in there,” says a top NBC executive at the time. “You know, ‘These people don’t know how to run a business. What they need is organization. Change the structure, business development, better H.R., get some women in there.’ I mean, that’s verbatim. That was the script.” Bell was removed from the equation when Burke gave him the Olympics to supervise, but Burke wanted deeper changes. Insiders believe he found the Curry episode so distasteful that he resolved to distance himself from the details of talent management altogether. “This thing exploded into a soap opera, and let me tell you, it scared the hell out of Steve Burke,” recalls an executive who met with Burke regularly. “And that’s not a phrase you use about a tough guy like Burke. But I saw it.”

2. Next, I recently read about this new company that is participating in a business accelerator that I am familiar with.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Lessons from 40 Years of SNL

Like 23 million other people, I watched the 40th anniversary special of Saturday Night Live this past weekend. I laughed at the latest installment of Jeopardy, mourned Chris Farley all over again and enjoyed the comedy of Louis CK and Jerry Seinfeld.

There were a lot of laughs but also some awkward moments, such as Eddie Murphy's return. It was like he hadn't been on a stage in 35 years. As uneven as the show was, it still produced a lot of laughs and it also was a reminder about an important business / life lesson. Life is uneven.

I read an article in the Hollywood reporter about Lorne Michaels, the genius of SNL that has been a mainstay of the show for 40 years. He created and continues to lead SNL and put together what was the spectacle of the 40th anniversary special. He had this to say about SNL, specifically as a response to the question of whether he has ever felt satisfied with the show.
I used to say that on my tombstone would be the word 'uneven' because [the show has] never been described any other way in a review. It's only cumulatively that you sort of go, "Oh yeah, that." You can't be perfect for 90 minutes. We don't do spectacle and don't have much of a wide shot, so when you see somebody going into lens and taking it to some level that you hadn't seen even at dress rehearsal, it's a magical thing. I believe there's at least one or two of those in almost every show.
This quote made me think about the unevenness of life and specifically business. You can't 'bat a thousand' yet the cultures in many of our organizations expect or even demand perfection. Co-workers use your stumbles as opportunities to score political points and managers lose their ability to allow mistakes as a result of having previous decisions second guessed.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Avoiding Pain Doesn't Lead to Growth

From helicopter parenting to legislating safety in mundane daily activities, our culture continues to try and short-circuit the learning process.

The most recent example of this trend, but in a business context, was an article from the February 11th Wall Street Journal entitled "You're Awesome! Firms Stop Negative Feedback". The premise of the article is that the trend in corporate America is to minimize or avoid all-together any negative aspects of performance and to focus on strengths only. A couple of comments from the article that are particularly striking:
"Commerce company Wayfair teaches its managers how to make feedback 'palatable', according to learning and development specialist Ashley Kibitz, so that the company's hundreds of young workers, "not only understand they're doing a great job but exactly what it is they're doing great."
"No judging, rating or critiquing is allowed at VMWare, says Victoria Sevilla, who develops training for employees there. 'It doesn't depress employees into thinking one more thing to develop, one more thing that's wrong' she says."
Hey, I like the Strengths Finder process as much as the next person, but I don't think this is exactly what they had in mind when they want their readers to focus on their strengths. Ignoring their weaknesses all together is not part of the process.

Don't get me wrong, I think it is important to spend as much time as possible on positive feedback. As a manager I have experienced first-hand the power this has on employees' performance. However, avoiding difficult conversations that need to be had only creates conflicting expectations, eroding performance and / or cultural issues with your team.

While growing up in church as a kid I would hear stories from the Bible about the dreaded disease of Leprosy and only recently realized that those afflicted with the disease lost extremities - not because of the disease itself but because they had an inability to feel pain and thus lost parts of extremities due to repeated injuries. I can't help but think this is the same thing that is happening in organizations employing this approach - but it is our people that are atrophying.

The problem with many of our organizations is that our Managers have a different mindset regarding safety and try and insulate their people from making mistakes either to avoid pain for themselves or for their people. In reality the safety that we need isn’t to not feel pain but to know that when those situations arise our managers will help us learn what caused the pain and thus correct our performance to be successful the next time we step out boldly towards results.
Along that line of reasoning the article provided this counterpoint:

Monday, February 9, 2015

You Can't Regulate Culture

Reading this article from the Wall Street Journal from January 2015 entitled As Regulators Focus on Culture, Wall Street Struggles to Define It I was struck by how out of touch management and regulators are in defining and creating a positive and effective work culture within the banking industry.

The problem with this focus and struggle with culture is that it is driven by a desire to avoid future regulatory problems rather than a real interest in creating an environment that is engaging for employees where they might actually enjoy spending a significant part of their daily lives.

Some of the typical things that have characterized bank cultures include being one of the last industries to have a strict dress code, oftentimes requiring a logo lapel pin to be worn at all times. Banks have typically had very hierarchical organizational structures where the running joke is everyone has a Vice President title. Banks have typically lacked flexibility in working time and location and have been rigid with other aspects of work environment.

Other things about typical bank culture is bank hopping. It is not uncommon for many in management at banks to have worked at several different banks within a 5 or 10 year span as that was the path to greater financial rewards. Taking a book of business to another bank is rewarded.

These aspects and more show up in turnover numbers. When I worked for a large regional bank in the 2000's the turnover rate for the entire bank of 20,000 employees consistently ran in the high 20% to low 30% range. This study on turnover rates in late 2012 showed that the banking industry as a whole had one of the highest turnover rates of all industries.

One of my favorite lines from this article says "regulators acknowledge that culture is a difficult thing to measure". This led banks to measure things like how often employees go to happy hour or how they score on a happy to grumpy ratio. This is measured by defining happy employees as those who say they are satisfied and are more likely to act ethically. Satisfaction is way different than engagement and being happy may just mean they are well paid - again incentivizing the very behavior they are trying to root out.

The article also mentions that the industry is spending millions on workplace consultants specializing in how to measure culture including the use of surveys to tease out attitudes around pay being the best measure of success. When I asked a friend in the banking industry, specifically branch management, about this he indicated that no one answered these surveys honestly because no one wants district and regional managers in the branch. The fear of additional scrutiny and oversight invalidated the results but made management feel better about how well they are doing with culture when in fact fear was driving the behavior.

According to the article, one consulting firm hired by a bank determined it was a red flag when employees used the term 'workaround' in internal communications because it indicated a willingness to bypass set rules or policies. If you have ever worked in a bank you would know it requires work arounds of large and unwieldy systems and bureaucracies just to serve the customer. Well intentioned employees now flagged as possible threats - sounds like a good culture inducing policy to me.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Fear and Advertising

I saw this commercial recently for Schick where the premise of the commercial is that of a man that shows up for an interview and while sitting in the lobby of the office awaiting the interview he notices that the pictures of the executives are all bald. To gain an advantage in the interview he runs out and shaves his head using a Schick razor and the commercial ends with the other men with obvious concern.

Perhaps this speaks to some men, but honestly it makes me never want to buy a Schick razor - EVER. The message is that it is OK to present yourself as someone you are not in order to get the job. But what happens when after a few days on the job he and his manager realizes that culturally he isn't a good fit or that he has to compromise more than just his hair in order to be successful at this company?

It is yet another sad attempt by marketers to tell us we need to act a certain way to get ahead in business and it is patently false. And unfortunately it is another in a long line of examples recently that show how advertisers continue to chase some idea about who we are as consumers that just doesn't line up with our real values.

The Wall Street Journal ran an article in January about this tweet from Denny's in September of 2014. According to the article,
"The message, which to teens translates to "these hash browns are on point," garnered almost 30,000 retweets and was seen in the advertising industry as something of a social media marketing masterstroke. Taco Bell & IHOP later sent out their own tweets using the phrase "on fleek" looking to get in on the action."
The article goes on to discuss that while these examples may generate some buzz it also has the opportunity to 'provoke eye rolling' for the obvious attempt at trying to act cool. The problem is that consumers see straight through weak attempts to be something that you aren't. This example is punctuated by the sad copy cat nature of Taco Bell and IHOP's attempt to use the same phrase later the same day. It is all akin to your dad using some slang term that is an obvious break from character and only serves to prove how out of touch he really is with your culture.