Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Is your corporate culture too nice?

Do you avoid conflict? If you do, you're not alone. Conflict avoidance is one of the most common characteristics of corporate cultures. At the same time it is one of the most pernicious and dangerous sources of unintentional complexity in organizational life.

The tendency to avoid conflict -- albeit inconvenient -- is very human. Most people want to be liked and unconsciously fear that arguments, disagreements, or negative messages will create tension with people they interact with on a day-to-day basis. Compounded with the environmental pressure to respect authority and the organizational stress on teamwork, this creates a great deal of anxiety around stirring up trouble.

Given these psychological and cultural forces, it's no wonder that so many managers -- from CEOs to shift supervisors -- avoid conflict. Unfortunately this avoidance creates disconnects between business units, unnecessary revisions in project plans, and lower standards of performance -- all of which complicate organizational life.

Not long ago I worked with a well-known company that was struggling to grow in a difficult market. In talking with the executive team it was clear that each of the product divisions had put a lot of time into their growth plans -- but they had spent little time aligning the plans with each other. As a result, R&D was uncertain about how to prioritize its projects, and centralized marketing dollars were spread around like peanut butter. There also were too many IT projects, most of which were under-resourced, and the sales force lacked focus. When I asked why the plans had not been better integrated, the excuse was that separate functions were expected to work it out amongst themselves. But in these "nice" cultures where people don't regularly ask the tough questions, "working it out" never happens.

This kind of conflict avoidance is not only prevalent in large-scale strategic discussions, but in day-to-day office interactions. We've all made decisions in meetings only to be undone later when a silent dissenter is found to disagree. And how many times have we heard about an employee jarred by a poor performance rating, simply because her boss had never given her honest feedback? One such conflict-avoiding company even asks project teams to run stakeholder "acceptance analyses" throughout the course of a project, in the hope that eventually everyone will get on board and the senior manager won't have to directly tell anyone to cooperate.

There is no easy formula for learning how to engage more effectively in constructive conflict. But here are three suggestions that may help you move in that direction:

1. Reflect. Look at yourself in the mirror and give yourself an honest appraisal of your readiness to challenge, give bad news, or otherwise create a degree of conflict. Can you think of situations where you should have spoken up but didn't, or where you tempered your words too much? Are there any particular types of conflict you avoid more than others, such as pushing back on authority?

2. Get feedback. Talk to friends, family, or colleagues. What is their perception of your willingness to engage in conflict, and your ability to do it constructively? Ask them about specific situations or patterns that they might see but are not obvious to you.

3. Correct the problem -- gradually. Do some experimenting, particularly in the areas that are habitually difficult for you. Try pushing back on a request from your boss that doesn't make sense. Speak up in a project meeting when you don't agree. Give someone feedback that you've been withholding. No matter what you do, start the conversation by saying that you are trying to get better at dealing with conflict situations, and that you hope this comes across constructively. This way, you will position yourself as speaking honestly and trying to learn -- and not just picking a fight. Hopefully this will reduce your anxiety (and that of your audience), which will allow both of you to make the conflict more constructive. Click here to read the full article.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The economic imperative of achieving diversity

Around the globe the pressure to raise college completion levels is growing. Many political and business leaders recognize that prosperity, within a rapidly changing global economy, requires more knowledgeable workers: Today's employers expect workers to be, among other things, critical thinkers, effective communicators, ethical decision-makers and effective team members.

Given these realities, the educational community faces significant challenges--and opportunities--in ensuring that all students are equipped with the skills that are vital to America's long-term economic success.

Who are these current students? Are they ready to become future workers? Are we ready for them? Current demographic trends show that today's workforce is more diverse than in previous decades. In years to come large proportions of Americans entering the workforce will come from low-income and racial/ethnic minority groups that have been the least well served by our schooling systems and, correspondingly, that have the lowest rates of high school and college completion. According to the U.S. Census, by 2050 racial/ethnic minorities will comprise 55% of the working-age population, with Latinos at 30%, African-Americans at 12% and Asian-Americans at 8%. These rates reflect a sizable increase for Latinos (by 100%) and Asian-Americans (by 33%) over current statistics.

To ensure that all workers have the skills to succeed in the workplace, our nation's leaders, as well as leaders of our higher education institutions, recognize the importance of promoting diverse learning environments--not for the sake of diversity itself but precisely because of the economic (and educational) benefits that flow from learning that takes place in a diverse setting.

Within the higher education community, the term "diversity" often reflects the array of student backgrounds, experiences, perspectives and characteristics that add to the mix of college campuses. Research has confirmed numerous benefits associated with a diverse learning environment. Diversity enhances the educational experience, fostering students' academic and social growth. It encourages students to think critically, enhances communication skills and fosters civic engagement. Click here to read the full article.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The role of employee engagement in the return to growth

Unless they reach out to dissatisfied workers, companies will face an employee exodus as the strengthening economy offers more job opportunities.

While facing the recent recession, the threat of employee turnover seemed low due to a rigid labor market. During that time, however, employee engagement levels dropped. Today, as employees see signs of recovery, they increasingly plan to leave their positions suggesting a looming employee-retention problem and a talent exodus that could have long-term impact on corporate performance. In fact, Corporate Executive Board's Corporate Leadership Council conducted research that finds less than one quarter of employees (23 percent) exhibited a high level of "intent to stay," a leading measure of turnover, in the second quarter of 2010.

The extensive employee engagement study also found that the employees most committed to their organizations put forth 57 percent more effort and are 87 percent less likely to leave their company than employees who consider themselves disengaged. It should be no surprise then that employee engagement, or lack thereof, is a critical factor in an organization's overall financial success.

Most companies use surveys to anticipate and respond to these types of employee engagement and emerging workforce challenges, but analysis has shown that they struggle to arrive at the desired results. The engagement surveys used today typically only provide a read out on the levels of employee engagement within critical workforce populations, enabling the organization to understand where there might be future retention or productivity issues, but not providing the types of actionable insight that aid in addressing them.

Leading companies are now moving beyond just understanding the levels of their employees' engagement, and are using surveys to understand the drivers behind it. These insights inform proactive and plan-specific interventions to improve engagement effectively and realize business results. Companies that use an employee engagement survey as a change management tool—rather than a data source—can reduce voluntary turnover in at-risk populations exponentially and also improve discretionary effort. Click here to read the full article.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The hidden workplace

There's the organization chart - and then there's the way things really work. Some smart companies are bringing power structures out of hiding.

Anyone who has ever worked knows that the org chart, no matter how meticulously rendered, doesn't come close to describing the facts of office life. All those lines and boxes don't tell you, for example, that smokers tend to have the best information, since they bond with people from every level and department when they head outside for a puff. The org chart doesn't tell you that people go to Janice, a long-time middle manager, rather than their bosses to get projects through. It doesn't tell you that the Canadian and Japanese sales forces don't interact because the two points of contact can't stand each other.

In every company there is a parallel power structure that can be just as important as the one everyone spends stressful days trying to master. Jon Katzenbach, founding partner of New York City-based consulting firm Katzenbach Partners, and his colleague, principal Zia Khan, have spent the past several years trying to bring the shadows to light. In a study released exclusively to Fortune, "The Informal Organization," they argue that successful managers must understand this "constellation of collaborations, relationships, and networks," particularly in times of stress and transition. "We're not saying you can formalize the informal," says Katzenbach. "We're saying you can influence it more than you do." Click here to read the full article in Fortune Magazine.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mark Hurd and “Mad Men”

Don Draper forgot his keys. The same week, H-P CEO Mark Hurd resigned on the heels of sexual harassment charges.

Have attitudes and life style changed – or just the ramifications of getting caught? Technology and societal attitudes are driving new thoughts about what constitutes harassment and new approaches to enforcing ethical behavior in the workplace.

In Mad Men , the ad men drink at work, cavort with their secretaries. Woman are openly disrespected. These were the days before Title VII. There were virtually no checks on office behavior. Most everyone in the office is white as well, except for the occasional black repair men or elevator operator. These were the days of openly coercive sexual exploits at work and racial discrimination. That was part of American culture and those days are not so long ago.

H-P’s investigation found that Hurd violated HP’s “Standards of Business Conduct". It seems like Hurd, who is married (at least for now), was entangled in a personal relationship with a hired contractor— an affair he tried to obfuscate with some fudged expense reports. Hard of know since we still don't have the full story of his relationship with actress/reality show contestant/Congressional staffer/marketing consultant/real estate executive Jodie Fisher. The 50-year-old Fisher has appeared on a reality TV show, and in a string of movies that place her on the fringes of Hollywood fame. Her acting resume includes such films as “Intimate Obsession” (1992), “Body of Influence 2″ (1996), “Sheer Passion” (1998) and a bunch of other movies that might be hard to explain to your spouse if they popped up on the pay-per-view cable bill.

As The Atlantic points out, Mad Men bombards us with how bad it was Back Then in very obvious ways (including blatant sexual advances in the workplace) while allowing some viewers to gloss over the aspects that are still with us, in the workplace and beyond:

Our inability to identify misogyny, even on a show that presents it so melodramatically, points to the truth behind sexism, and oppression at large. To people who actually lived through the 1960s, the sexism of their culture didn't seem dramatic; the men who objectified and infantilized women probably bore no specific malice, and the vast majority of the women who found their lives constrained by those men didn't imagine that things could be different. Their oppression was invisible, because it was normal. In other words, they were like us. Sexism is still around, and in the vast majority of instances it doesn't present itself as some portentous, shocking occurrence. It's just the fabric of daily life, a little ugliness that we take for granted.

Calling out that ugliness, piece by piece, and separating it from what we consider standard operating behavior is the first step.

So….$10 billion in share value evaporated as the news broke. Is Hurd accountable?
Many people are objecting to Hurd's severance package, which may be worth as much as $50 million. While most CEO contracts exempt poor performance as a reason for "termination for cause," there is no reason to permit a departure following an ethics violation to be characterized as a resignation - when the result is a $50 million payout that would otherwise stay in the corporate bank account.

Hurd's contract makes it clear that he is an "at-will" employee who can be terminated at any time. It describes the consequences of termination for cause (eliminating most severance payments) without defining it. There is nothing to prevent the board from sending Hurd a letter telling him he has been fired and then stopping payment on all those severance checks.

In the post-Enron, post-meltdown world, the government insists on seeing how violators are treated. And if a middle manager would be fired for fiddling with his reimbursements, then the guy who's been paid more than $100 million has to be fired, too. Beyond that is the actual (not just apparent) tone at the top, which is the board's responsibility. They cannot keep in place an executive who has demonstrated such a failure of judgment and responsibility. They cannot keep in place an executive they cannot trust.

These days, harassment is (usually) not about the stuff you see on Mad Men, and it's not chasing the secretary around the desk. "It's rare now that somebody in the office says, 'Sleep with me or you're fired,'" says David Bowman, a labor and employment partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. "Now it's about managers being very flirtatious at the holiday party. It's about getting drunk together at happy hour and something inappropriate being said or done. People are now aware that certain things are not acceptable, but they still stumble over the subtle areas."

Much of the problem is that newer technology — e-mail, IM, texting or posting on social-networking sites — makes it much easier for comments to be misconstrued on many levels. If you admire an employee's new haircut while she is in your office, she can read your tone and body language; and you can read hers. However, a late-night text message admiring your employee's new haircut can take on a lascivious tone, even if that is not the intention.

Social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace can be another potential source of trouble. Innocent vacation photos of you in your bikini may unwittingly draw unwanted attention at work. Brenner recommends having separate profiles for professional and personal contacts, or just sticking to a professional site like LinkedIn for your work colleagues.

BrandGames featured in Forbes!

When playing videogames makes dollars and sense ... Check out the article here.

Videogames that make you productive at work

Work Games

If you get caught playing these games at the office, chances are you'll get a pat on the back. That's because companies like Microsoft and government organizations like the U.S. Army have turned to videogames to train employees and increase productivity. Courtesy of Forbes.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Get immediate value from your new hire

To see ROI from employees just starting out, you need to impart an understanding of the company's inner workings and culture

There are many theories on how to correctly "onboard" someone to an organization or a team. Most focus on how to provide the new hire with the information and skills she needs to succeed. But that can only take her so far. She will need connections and an understanding of the inner workings and culture of your company to be truly successful. Whether she is transitioning from another part of the organization or is brand new, you can get her up to speed more quickly by going beyond the basics and explaining how things actually get done.

What the Experts Say

According to Michael Watkins, the Chairman of Genesis Advisers and author of The First 90 Days and Your Next Move, there are four domains that new hires need to master: business orientation, expectations alignment, political connection, and cultural adaptation. The last two are often the hardest for managers to convey, and yet the most critical for the new person to understand. Watkins' research shows that lack of cultural adaptation is the most common reason newly-hired managers fail. "It's also the hardest area for managers to provide good advice, in part because they are embedded in the culture and not necessarily reflective about it," he says. Jon Katzenbach, Senior Partner of Booz & Company, author of The Wisdom of Teams, and co-author of the forthcoming Leading Outside the Lines, notes that "a lot of onboarding focuses on the formal side of the organization and is programmatic." But helping new hires understand the informal side of the organization will accelerate their acclimation. Follow these three steps to get your new employee productive faster. Click here to read the tips.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Tech executives stop cutting and get strategic

With the economy growing, CEOs want chief information officers to help with marketing and sales. Are the techies ready to step up?

Filippo Passerini knows that a customer who likes to lather up with Pantene shampoo is probably in the market for Olay moisturizer products too -- and as chief information officer at Procter & Gamble, a growing part of his job is making sure that the company makes both sales.

Passerini's team of computing experts uses technology to analyze the $80 billion consumer giant's online shopping data -- like the shampoo/moisturizer connection -- to boost retail sales of P&G (PG) brands like Tide, Gillette, and Pampers. "We connect the dots with the information we have," he says.

After a year of hunkering down and slashing costs, many corporations are growing again -- and techies are leading the way. CEOs such as P&G's Bob McDonald increasingly view technology as a strategic tool for increasing revenue -- not just a way to make workers more efficient. A recent Gartner survey found revenue growth trumped cost cuts as CIOs' top priority for 2010.

To free up resources -- and time -- for their new-found strategic roles, CIOs are farming out IT drudgery like server maintenance. P&G's Passerini has outsourced many of the basics to Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), allowing him to cut $800 million from the IT budget over the past seven years while keeping roughly the same number of workers. What are those folks doing today? Passerini has repurposed IT guys as business-unit consultants who dream up ways to make better products and sell more of them.

Case in point: Passerini co-led the "Proud Sponsor of Moms" marketing campaign -- his team kept daily tabs on it, tracking data about every advertisement and media mention, and he used the campaign to pilot a new tool that tracks P&G's buzz on Twitter and other digital forums. Running a marketing campaign may not sound very high tech, but for the modern CIO, it is all in a day's work. Click here to read the full article.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Leadership training gains urgency amid stronger economy

Fearing a shortage of qualified managers as business picks up, some companies are bolstering leadership-development efforts.

Layoffs and training cutbacks in the past two years have thinned manager pipelines. And employers worry that baby boomers who postponed retirement during the recession will start to depart as recovering stock prices reinflate retirement funds.

Already, some companies say they are finding they don't have the managers to spearhead new projects or step in for departing executives, a problem as companies try to shift into growth mode.

Employers cut spending on training by 11% in both 2009 and 2008, according to human-resources consulting firm Bersin & Associates LLC. Now about half of companies plan to increase their leadership-development budgets in 2010, according to a Bersin survey of 750 corporations conducted in May. Almost a quarter plan to increase spending by more than 10% this year.

In addition, 88% of about 400 human-resources executives said they have recently revamped, or plan to revamp, their leadership-related training and development programs, according to a May survey by Mercer, a consulting unit of Marsh & McLennan Cos. Click here to read the full article.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Putting a value on training

Training programs generate greater value for organizations when the curricula reflect key business performance metrics. Testing real-world outcomes is crucial.

All organizations train their people, and most spend significant sums doing so. Yet they generally don't have any idea whether they're getting any business value from training. Beyond teaching new employees the specifics of their jobs, most companies train staff in areas such as leadership, communications, performance management or lean operations. But they typically measure training's impact by conducting surveys of attendees or counting how many employees complete courses rather than by assessing whether those employees learned anything that improved business performance.

This approach was, perhaps, acceptable when companies had money to spare. Now, most don't. Yet more and more, organizations need highly capable employees--90% of the respondents to a recent McKinsey Quarterly survey said that building capabilities was a top-10 priority for their organizations. Only a quarter, though, said that their programs are effective at improving performance measurably, and only 8% track the programs' return on investment.

The story of one social-sector group, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA), illustrates how organizations can make the most of their outlays for training programs by doing a better job of understanding which of them create business value, and how. The answers are remarkably straightforward and have lessons for retailers, manufacturers, and a range of other organizations as well. Click here to read the full article and learn how BGCA did it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

On leadership: a few words from CEO Tony Hsieh

Read what Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh has to say about leadership. He has a new book coming out, Delivering Happiness, and he knows a few things about workplace communication and what it means to truly engage your workforce.

Tony Hsieh: For us, the whole belief is that our culture should be our number one priority, and if we get the culture right then most of the other stuff -- like great customer service, building a long term enduring brand -- will just happen naturally on its own.

We actually have ten core values, essentially a formalized definition of our culture. A lot of companies have what they call core values or guiding principles and so on. The problem is that they are usually very lofty sounding and they read like a press release the marketing department put out, and maybe you learn about it on day one of orientation but then it becomes just a plaque on the lobby wall.
For us we wanted to come up with 'committable' core values, and by committable I mean we are willing to hire and fire people based on whether they are living up to those core values, independent of their actual job performance.

When managers from other companies join us, we tell them we expect them to be spending 10 to 20 percent of their time outside the office, hanging out with their team, getting to know the people they work with. They are initially surprised and ask us, "That sounds fun, but is it really working?" Then we ask the people who have actually done it, 'How much more productive and effective is your team because of the higher levels of trust?' Communication is better; people are willing to do favors for each other because they are doing favors for friends not just co-workers. The answers we get back as far as increased productivity is anywhere from 20 percent to 100 percent.

Tom Heath: So, as a leader, happy employees translate into healthy bottom lines?

Tony Hsieh: It is necessary but not sufficient. There are so many companies where the company culture goes downhill as the company gets bigger, and not only do we not want that to happen, we actually want it to scale, and to get stronger and stronger as the company grows.

Every employee understands that part of their job description is actually to live and inspire the culture in others. A lot of it is done on the front end; during the hiring process we do two sets of interviews. The first set is kind of the standard -- the hiring manager and his or her team will look for someone to a fit within the team, relevant experience, technical ability and so on, but then we do a separate, second set of interviews with our HR team, and they look purely for a culture fit, and they have to pass both in order to be hired. We have passed on a lot of smart and talented people that we know can make an immediate impact on our top or bottom line but if they are not a culture fit, we won't hire them. Click here to read the rest of the interview.

Online training a boon

Nothing frustrates managers more than the catch-22 of having employees who need training but not having the time or money to let them take that training.

Web-based learning is beginning to solve that dilemma for some managers, according to industry experts. As the availability of software packages and online services swells, more companies are turning to the Net to boost employee knowhow.

Web-based training is an application placed on a server that an employee can download to learn more about software packages, educational tools, common tasks or company information such as medical benefits. That application can reside on a company's intranet or out on the Web at a trainer or vendor site.

"It's just making it easier for people to get trained quickly," said Christianne Moretti, manager of IT training and education research for IDC Canada. "It is also taking away reasons for employers to object to training.'' Most Web-based training can be done at work and does require travel or time off in addition to course costs. ''Right now, training is an event." In fact, Diane Gayeski, a professor of corporate communications at Ithaca College, said the word "training" is a misnomer. The information people receive will be in the form of quick information bytes, case studies and examples, and will involve very little actual training. Click here to read the full article.

Monday, August 2, 2010

How top companies breed stars

The world's best companies realize that no matter what business they're in, their real business is building leaders. Here's how the champs do it.

You couldn't be blamed for rolling your eyes when American Express chief Ken Chenault says, "People are our greatest asset." CEOs always say that. They almost never mean it. Most companies maintain their office copiers better than they build the capabilities of their people, especially the ones who are supposed to be future leaders, and for decades they've gotten away with it. But now their world is changing profoundly - and at long last we're going to find out which self-proclaimed people-cherishers actually mean it.

A fast-growing number of CEOs - including Chenault - are demonstrating their sincerity. With Amex (Charts, Fortune 500) at No. 19 on our North American list, he has built an exceptionally rigorous leadership-development program packed with metrics, incentives, goals, values, and calendars (for more about the program and Chenault, see "No Holds Barred").

More broadly, companies that were never especially serious about leadership development are getting serious. Companies that were always good at it are getting better - and finding that the world wants desperately to learn what they know. General Electric (Charts, Fortune 500), No. 1 on our new ranking of the world's Top Companies for Leaders, reports getting five to ten requests each week from companies wanting to benchmark its practices. Click here to read the full article.

How gaming became the future of social media

Gaming is already wildly popular. A recent spate of deals with Google, Disney, and Gamestop, suggest that social games have the promise to be wildly profitable, too.

FarmVille. Mafia Wars. Pet Society. With their collective userbases numbering in the hundreds of millions, social gaming is as ubiquitous and mainstream as primetime TV programming.

But for years that wasn't the case -- skeptics disregarded social games, with their Super Nintendo-like graphics and simplified gameplay. Despite early successes like Diner Dash, which game maker PlayFirst announced raked in $35 million revenue almost two years before FarmVille came along, social gaming was branded a fad. Only when Zynga's farming simulator skyrocketed to success and eventually enlisted a whopping 80 million active monthly users paying for virtual goods like tractors, fuel, and animals, would potential investors say otherwise.

Now, not only are those same investors taking social gaming seriously, they're negotiating for a piece of the action. Google reportedly (GOOG) invested anywhere between $100 and $200 million dollars in Zynga, the maker of games like FarmVille, Mafia Wars, and Zynga Poker. The company has reportedly raised around $500 million in the past year, including $150 million from Softbank Capital and $180 million from Digital Sky Technologies and Tiger Global.

Earlier this week, the social gaming love continued: Walt Disney (DIS), which had picked up iPhone gaming start-up Tapulous earlier this month for an unspecified amount, also bought Playdom Social Games, announcing it will pay as much as $763 million -- $563 million upfront and $200 million more if the company behind Facebook games like Sorority Life and Social City reaches certain unannounced growth targets. What's more, Gamestop (GME) purchased online-game maker Kongregate, signaling the retail category killer desire to (finally) capitalize on social gaming's success.

What's the attraction? Attendees of Fortune Brainstorm Tech this past weekend heard earfuls about how social games are transforming media and the Internet. Activision Blizzard (ATVI) CEO Bobby Kotick, who has been playing in the video-game field for two decades, noted that 29% of kids and teens today multi-task while watching TV.

Many media conglomerates see that videogames are an ever-growing piece of the average consumer's leisure activity — and want to get in on them. Games like Zynga's new FrontierVille broke records when it claimed 20 million users in 36 days. In contrast, nearly four years passed before the massive online multiplayer role-playing game World of Warcraft could claim 11 million active players. Hence, the opportunity for interlopers to deliver content on platforms beyond TV and the desktop computer.

Ideally, this will be paid content. This would include products consumers shop for -- maybe via games while they watch TV. "It's a great time for e-commerce again," speculated Demand Media CEO Richard Rosenblatt. Another Brainstorm attendee, Los Angeles-based venture capitalist Dana Settle of Greycroft Partners, said that she jotted down in her notebook: "Interactive TV really is here."

Games happen to be the most clever and efficient way to get Internet users to provide credit card info. "Games are the path of least resistance," said Keith Rabois, VP of strategy and business development at Slide, an online game-and-entertainment company launched in 2005 by PayPal co-founder Max Levchin. Turns out, 55-year-old women are the most lucrative gamers for companies like Slide. They spend gobs of real money on virtual gifts... maybe because they're bored by TV? Click here to read the full article.