November 25th, 2014

A CEO can occupy his or her time with all sorts of priorities and activities.  Hopefully, all of them are important.  However, certain items intrinsically command attention, and the customer experience is one of them.

SAP’s CEO, Bill McDermott, was asked about how he as a nontech kind of guy is successful at running a high-tech company.  His response is a marvelous reminder to every businessperson (Geoff Colvin “A CEO’s Plan to Defy Disruption” Fortune, November 17, 2014, p. 36):

I see everything through the eyes of the customer, and fortunately, I’ve encouraged 67,000 of my colleagues and 2.1 million people in our ecosystem to do the same.  In the end the customer must win, and I think the idea of having this empathy for the total customer experience is what counts.

McDermott has hit the nail on the head.  The more that a company can discipline itself to see everything from the customer’s perspective, the more successful that company will be.  The proof is evident in what we all experience every day.  You know when a company has anticipated what you will experience, and you know when a company has failed in that regard.

The customer experience is supreme.  As a customer myself, I cannot deny that truth.


November 24th, 2014

Initially, some people were a bit skeptical about the idea behind Undercover Boss, the television program that debuted several years ago in which the CEO goes undercover in his or her organization.  The purpose is for the CEO to gain the inside scoop on exactly how well the company is performing.  Employees interacting with the undercover CEO are given the fabricated story that the guest worker is being filmed as part of a reality-television program related to career changes.  Think, “mystery shopper meets reality television on steroids.”

Me?  I was never skeptical.  What better way for the top dog to find out the good, the bad, and the ugly about his or her company?  Having watched the entire series, both the original domestic-based one as well as the international spinoff version, I have been deeply impressed in so many ways.  Here are seven reflections:

1—Extreme Value.  I think the entire undercover CEO approach is extremely valuable.  Repeatedly, the CEOs in these programs reported the experience was, “absolutely amazing.”  Often they affirmed, “I will never be the same person,” and “it changed my life forever.”  Regardless of the business or the industry, the CEO walked away deeply changed in a positive manner.

2—Business Improvements.  When you run the business at the executive level, you periodically need to get down to the bench level to achieve new insights.  Employees will say things to a colleague they won’t necessarily say to the boss.  By getting down to the bench level and interacting on a daily basis with average employees, the CEO obtained powerful insights into enhancing efficiency and effectiveness.  These improvement opportunities included areas such as training, customer service, operations, processes, sales and marketing, public relations, employee engagement, wages and benefits, corporate culture, health and safety, HR policies, business strategy, and succession planning.  In some cases, without blowing cover, the CEO immediately stole a few minutes to make a private phone call to a key colleague for an urgent fix.

3—Human Element.  We are all human beings with ups and downs.  In getting to know regular employees on a more personal level, these undercover CEOs often discovered heart-wrenching, personal trials and tribulations plaguing their employees’ lives.  In many cases, the CEO chose to become more personally involved just to see a struggling human being helped in his or her difficult situation.  These extremely moving events, all caught on camera, clearly displayed the emotional, genuine, human intensity, often accompanied by tears shared between the CEO and the regular employee.  Regardless of a person’s position within the organization, everyone was reminded of our universal human challenges.

4—Buried Talent.  Tragically, some of a company’s best talent is its buried talent.  As these CEOs navigated the various departments, offices, and locations of their organizations, in many cases they were pleasantly surprised at the wisdom, passion, experience, skill, and intellect brought to bear on every work situation by their frontline workers.  Occasionally, the individual worker showed such marvelous performance that the CEO subsequently took specific steps to help promote that employee into higher levels of influence.  The CEOs repeatedly stated that they wanted these workers to be given broader growth opportunities to tap their talents more thoroughly.  These developments were always beneficial to the employee, the company, and the customers.

5—Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!  Ultimately, the undercover CEO approach was maximally successful simply because it repaired old lines of communication or created new lines of communication.  Executives were often perplexed about a decision or a problem that became almost instantly resolvable simply by connecting a bench-level employee with a key executive.  Once that connection happened, all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.  Typically, these solutions became the genesis of major communications systems improvements.

6—Watch It.  Regardless of your job title or your responsibility level in your business, I highly recommend you view the entire series of Undercover Boss.  It consistently evokes a powerful learning experience at an intensity I have rarely encountered in the past from this type of television programming.

7—Brave Decisions.  Finally, I admire each of the executives who made the brave decision to go all in on Undercover Boss.  Those decisions emanated from men and women who were bold enough to try something new on the calculated hope that they would gain tremendous insights.  The resulting positive transformations affected every level—personal, professional, and business.  These made the experience well worth the sacrifices involved.  These CEOs’ companies will never be the same again.


November 21st, 2014

Linda Zecher is the president, CEO, and director at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  She reflects on her long and winding career path.  In so doing, I found one of the earliest points on her timeline (late 1960s to early 1970s) humorous yet very real life.  Here is how she describes it (“How Did I Get Here?” Bloomberg Businessweek, 11/17/14–11/23/14, p. 88):

I worked at the county jail in high school and college.  I was in charge of the commissary.  It was a lot of exposure to people I probably shouldn’t have had exposure to.

I believe Zecher.  And I also believe we can all remember places in our careers in which we probably had exposure to a whole lot of stuff that was not all that helpful or wholesome.

The upshot of her story of course is that she didn’t stay there.  She progressed.  She moved forward.  All of us have the capacity to recognize when we might be in a less-than-ideal place.  It is in those moments that we have the freedom to decide to choose something better.

I laugh every time I read Zecher’s assessment of her jail time.  But more importantly, I revel in the privilege and freedom we all retain to choose something better.  I trust that you, as am I, are making those choices every day.


November 20th, 2014

In a recent survey involving nearly 10,000 graduating MBA students, over 100 business schools, and over 600 company recruiters, an interesting point arose involving strategic thinking.  When the recruiters were asked about the hardest skills to find in new MBA graduates, 47.3% identified strategic thinking (Francesca Levy and Cristina Lindblad, eds. “MBA Confidential: What the Students Revealed” Bloomberg Businessweek, 11/17/14–11/23/14, p. 50).

Initially, that statistic might shock us.  However, upon reflection, it really should not for several reasons:

Experience.  Just because a person knows and understands the language and tools of business does not automatically mean that strategic thinking has been mastered.  Much strategy derives from another school named TSHK (The School of Hard Knocks).  If you are paying attention to your growing experience daily, then your ability to think strategically should to some extent be improving.  Many MBA students simply have not yet spent enough time in TSHK to refine their strategic thinking.

Training And Education.  Most training and education focuses on the history, nomenclature, tools, conventions, models, processes, and metrics of the business.  It is rare to find training and education content that drills down to the core competency of strategic thinking.  Additionally, even if it does, not every student will assemble the discipline to internalize strategic thinking principles and practices.

Aptitude.  Let’s face it.  Not every businessperson has the aptitude for strategic thinking.  That does not mean that the professional world has no place for them.  It just means that not everyone is good at everything.  For the businessperson honest enough to recognize his or her limitations, the best course of action is to collaborate with others who are strong strategic thinkers.  This will enable the businessperson to compensate for that weakness.

Universal Truth.  Coming up short in strategic thinking is not exclusive to the MBA degree.  Regardless of the academic discipline, strategic thinking is simply not an overriding intensive subject in the curriculum.  Too many other facets of the subject matter rightfully demand their attention.  Strategic thinking tends to be viewed as a higher level, refined aspect of study that every student understands needs to be aggressively pursued.  The unwritten expectation is that every serious student will recognize this opportunity and make it a subsequent ongoing activity.

MBA or not, strategic thinking is something that we can all afford to pursue.


November 19th, 2014

I continue to watch the bargains and banes of Bitcoin with fascination and amusement.  On the bargain side—

1—You use a virtual electronic currency that limits government involvement in personal transactions.

2—You use a currency system independent of conventional currency systems.

3—You mine for additional Bitcoin via complex computer algorithms to solve mathematical cyber-riddles.

4—You are seen as technologically progressive.

5—You are part of an emerging “new economy” trend.

On the bane side—

1—Bitcoin is not guaranteed or secured by any government.

2—Questions remain concerning how governments might attempt to regulate Bitcoin.  This could involve the SEC, the IRS, the FTC, and other national or international regulatory bodies.

3—The mathematical cyber-riddles, by design, become increasingly difficult to solve.  This means you will expend increasingly more computer power to mine diminishing quantities of Bitcoin.  The longer you’re in it, the harder it becomes.  Some experts have postulated that eventually the cost for mining future Bitcoin will exceed the Bitcoin value itself.

4—Bitcoin values will sometimes fluctuate wildly.

5—You have no guarantee that any person or company will accept Bitcoin as a medium of exchange.  It is purely voluntary.

6—Bitcoin is a high-profile target of hackers and scammers.

As I said, this is why I shall continue to watch the bargains and banes of Bitcoin with fascination and amusement.


November 18th, 2014

How many risks have you taken in your life?  What are the biggest risks you have taken?  What did you learn from taking risks?  These are good questions to ask.

Even more important is the question of how you are choosing to build on your previous risks.  I am not talking about doing anything stupid.  I am talking about recalling your previous successes and failures, and choosing to build on what you learned from all of them.  When you have taken a significant risk, and then chose to continue to live your life intentionally, those early prior risk experiences have a way of giving you strength.  Significant successes can carry you forward into greater successes.

George W. Bush was recently asked about where his dad (George H. W. Bush) obtained his penchant for tremendous risk taking.  The son’s response gives us food for thought (“The Leap of His Life: 43 On 41” The Kansas City Star, Parade, November 16, 2014, pp. 6–10):

I think it came from the early experiences.  This is a man who at age 17 decides to join the navy and not go to college, against the advice of his father and [Secretary of War] Henry Stimson, for example.  He wanted to serve.  Then he gets shot down—and by the way, flying off of carriers was very risky—and survives.  To me, the rest of the risks that he took in his life were minor compared to that.” (p. 8)

You will never know success without taking risks.  You will never know success without knowing failure.  The exhilaration of success requires the pain of failure.  The person willing to pursue success is the person willing to build on risk.


November 17th, 2014

From where does your worldview originate?  Where and how do you tend to derive your approach to leadership and business?  Different people have different perspectives.

It might also depend on your culture.  East versus West can make a difference, as Andrew Liveris (CEO of Dow Chemical) relates.  A very experienced Chinese businessperson explained it to him this way (Alan Murray “Editor’s Desk: Words to Live By” Fortune, November 17, 2014, p. 10):

There are three pillars to society: the rule of law, the rule of logic, and the rule of relationships.  In the West these are prioritized as follows: first law, second logic, third relationships.  In the East it’s exactly the opposite: first relationships, then logic, then law.  All are indispensable.  But what’s most important to understand is that the starting points are different.

I think that one of the benefits that the West has adopted from the East involves leadership.  The best leadership is based in relationship.  It is much easier to follow a leader whom you know in some personal manner as opposed to a leader whom you know merely by title.

Logic is always important.  Law is always important.  However, logic and law—like leadership—will produce their best results when performed in service to relationship.


November 14th, 2014

We tend to look at obstacles from a negative perspective.  After all, isn’t that why we call them obstacles?  They are things that get in the way of progress.  They are things that interfere with where we want to go.

Fashion leader and designer, Cynthia Rowley, provides a refreshing reminder on how we should view obstacles (Kris Frieswick “The Art of Business: The Legend and the Superstar Talk about Work, Design, and Viewing Failure as a Gift” Inc., October 2014, pp. 62–66):

If there is an obstacle that takes you in a different direction, that means you think about something in a way you never would have thought of before.” (p. 66)

Shouldn’t we always value new insights?  If so, then we should look at every obstacle as an empowering opportunity.  While the obstacle itself might be frustrating and painful, it definitely provides an open door to tremendous new insights.  If you embrace that open door, then it will force you to think about something in a way you never would have in the past.  That alone can be the revelation you need.


November 13th, 2014

Designers work with many tools and resources to do their jobs.  The question arises whether these tools and resources fundamentally change the act of design itself.  It seems to me that tools and resources should be an enhancement to design, but that is as far as they go.

Fashion leader, Cynthia Rowley, views this relationship similarly.  Tools and resources are rich, powerful catalysts to design, but they do not intrude on the act of design.  Rowley explains this with respect to technology (Kris Frieswick “The Art of Business: The Legend and the Superstar Talk about Work, Design, and Viewing Failure as a Gift” Inc., October 2014, pp. 62–66):

For me, technology is a great tool that can enhance things visually and the speed at which we can create things.  I don’t think it’s anything that has changed my perception of design.” (p. 64)

As with all disciplines, we should embrace every available tool and resource to enhance our processes.  However, those tools and resources do not change the fundamentals of the discipline.  If anything, they should ensure that we are planted more firmly on the fundamentals.


November 12th, 2014

Growing up of humble means has its advantages.  At least that is the lesson you might take away from fashion leader, Cynthia Rowley.  Her mom would cut up the brown paper grocery bags after shopping so that Cynthia had something on which to draw.  And draw she did!

Although Rowley has certainly made her mark in the world of fashion and design, she has never gotten away from her roots, as she expresses (Kris Frieswick “The Art of Business: The Legend and the Superstar Talk about Work, Design, and Viewing Failure as a Gift” Inc., October 2014, pp. 62–66):

To me, a piece of white paper is almost a little scary.  I like the comfort and the broken, blank plane of a brown paper bag.” (p. 64)

Sometimes we do not get away from our roots because we do not want to escape them.  Other times we do not get away from our roots because we cannot escape them.  I suspect in Rowley’s case it is a little bit of both . . . and it has shaped who she is today, by design.