You’re bright. You have good ideas, insights, and the ambition to take on more. But you aren’t getting the opportunities you want, and your manager has not been helpful. How do you get noticed by senior leadership without going over your boss’s head?
To help me answer this question, I reached out to two of my most successful clients: Dave MacKeen, CEO of Eliassen Group, a strategic consulting and talent solutions provider with 21 offices across the United States, and Chuck Cohen, Managing Director of Benco Dental, the largest privately owned dental distributor in the U.S.
Chuck and Dave have decades of leadership experience during which they’ve been on the lookout for “future stars” or “high potentials.” These employees are often identified as hard workers with the drive to make a difference — not only in the company’s success but also in the success of those around them. They go above and beyond their job titles and get noticed because they demonstrate potential to do great work on a more advanced level.
After putting our collective heads together, Chuck, Dave, and I landed on ten steps you can take to be recognized by senior leadership as one of them. If followed, these actions can help you grow and move toward greater opportunities — without coming off as a braggart or upsetting your direct manager.
Demonstrate your commitment to your growth and to the company. One way to show how serious you are is to invest time outside of the office in learning skills that will help you grow and contribute to the company. This could mean taking courses that support the work you are doing, or reading texts in the areas you want to master. For example, if you want to get better at developing strategy, ask your boss (and boss’s boss) if they can recommend any books. Another way to show commitment to growth is to tell your boss that you’re interested in taking on special projects, ones that will both help the company reach its goals and provide you with an opportunity to stretch yourself.
Focus on the team’s success, rather than your own. While the voice of ambition may be telling you to focus on your own success, senior leadership notices those who work collaboratively and support others. They recognize that the greatest opportunity for success lies in a team working well together. “It’s easy to notice someone who gives their time and advice to help make others successful,” says Dave, “whether they be their direct reports or peers. Someone who makes those around them better is invaluable.”
Know your numbers and take ownership of your work. Whatever part of the business you own, small or large, you have to know it inside out, and be ready to discuss the performance metrics and business analytics that matter most (revenue, profit and loss, etc.). You want to have a good idea of where you stand within the larger organization, especially in moments when all eyes are on you — such as presentations, meetings, or project reports. When you are able to prove the value of your contributions, you are able to prove the value of your worth as an employee and team member. Think of it as an opportunity to show senior leaders why they should be paying attention to you. Remember, though, this also means taking full responsibility for your failures. Adopt a “no excuses” mentality. Doing so shows a level of self-awareness that is inherent to great leadership.
Do what you say you will and do it well.Once you commit to something, commit to doing it well. When opportunities arise, execs are looking for someone with a good track record of getting the job done and bringing in positive results. This means your name needs to be associated with good work. Those who can take on small projects and hit a home run are more likely to be asked to take on bigger projects later.
Continually train yourself to think strategically. Being a strategic thinker is imperative to moving forward into roles with more responsibility. The best leaders know how to balance working “on” the business (strategy) with working “in” the business (day-to-day operations). When working “on” the business, they must be able to look beyond their to-do lists and think strategically about which opportunities will help the organization reach its larger goals. To do this, you have to be able to see the big picture, and keep it in mind when making decisions. This is a skill that doesn’t always come naturally. “If you want to get good at strategic thinking,” says Chuck, “you have to practice. It’s a muscle that needs to be exercised. The more you work on it, the better you’ll get.”
Challenge old ways and find new solutions. Do you see a different approach to a problem your company is facing? Maybe a creative way to meet a new challenge? If your organization is forward-thinking, all ideas should be welcome, particularly if you present them with humility and an appreciation for past efforts. The next time you have an innovative solution to a difficult problem, share it openly to show what you have to contribute. “I notice people who challenge the current process and communicate the possibilities of a different solution,” says Dave. “In our organization, people rally around them. We give these people more responsibilities. They don’t have to ask.”
Consistently improve your communication skills. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, but you do need to be thoughtful during your interactions with others. Whether you are giving a presentation, working on a group project, or having a difficult conversation with your boss, it’s important to know your audience and prepare how you will communicate with them in advance. Every person and situation will ask something different of you — so be adaptable and know how to adjust. You may want to project more confidence during a presentation, for example, but be more humble when working with peers. You may want to approach your boss with curiosity in some scenarios, but in others, approach them with data to support your point. It’s always a good idea, however, to follow up with others and make sure you clearly understand their expectations.
Build relationships with people throughout the company. Don’t just stay within your “wing” of the building. Look for opportunities to connect and collaborate with other key players in your organization. When you build connections, you expand your network of allies and increase your visibility and influence. “Great leaders don’t just wait to be asked, they put themselves in positions and situations where they’re more likely to be asked,” noted Chuck. When you work collaboratively and cross-functionally, your name will keep coming up for all the right reasons.
Live the values and purpose of the organization. Organizations use purpose and value statements to communicate what is and isn’t expected of employees. Values speak to what an organization seeks not only in its staff, but in its leaders as well. A strong leader knows the values, lives them, and encourages the upholding of the values in others. “A person doesn’t need to be the most vocal or work the most hours to be noticed,” says Dave. “It’s the person that demonstrates the values and ethics of the organization and lives the purpose, who will inspire people to follow them.” The best way to show your commitment to your company’s purpose and values is to talk about them. In meetings, give kudos to colleagues whose actions align with your organization’s values, and when discussing projects of your own, note how they reflect the company’s core purpose. In doing so you are saying to others, “I’m paying attention, and I’m noting when we do great work.”
Raise your hand. Don’t be afraid to ask for opportunities to show your skills and talents. While there is certainly a line to be walked here — you don’t want to push too hard, or repeatedly ask the same question — showing initiative is always a good thing. If you see an area where you believe you can be an asset to the company and support strategic initiatives, ask to participate. Explain why you believe you can make a valuable contribution, as well as what you will gain from the opportunity. Ultimately, your boss and boss’ boss want to put you in a spot where you can do the most. Sometimes you’ve got to identify where that is and ask for it.
There is no short path to getting noticed. And even if you find one, you may not have what you need to do the job well if you get there prematurely. But if you focus on these ten key areas with dedication, patience, and the acceptance that growing a stellar career takes some time, you’ll keep moving in the right direction and be ready for what’s next when it comes.
Melissa Raffoni is CEO of The Raffoni Group, a boutique professional services firm that helps CEOs realize their highest ambitions while improving the quality of their personal and professional lives. She is recognized for her thought leadership in the areas of CEO effectiveness, strategy, execution, leadership and organizational alignment.
Many executives and investors assume that it’s possible to use customer-data capabilities to gain an unbeatable competitive edge. The more customers you have, the more data you can gather, and that data, when analyzed with machine-learning tools, allows you to offer a better product that attracts more customers. You can then collect even more data and eventually marginalize your competitors in the same way that businesses with sizable network effects do. Or so the thinking goes. More often than not, this assumption is wrong. In most instances people grossly overestimate the advantage that data confers.
The virtuous cycles generated by data-enabled learning may look similar to those of regular network effects, wherein an offering—like a social media platform—becomes more valuable as more people use it and ultimately garners a critical mass of users that shuts out competitors. But in practice regular network effects last longer and tend to be more powerful. To establish the strongest competitive position, you need them and data-enabled learning. However, few companies are able to develop both. Nevertheless under the right conditions customer-generated data can help you build competitive defenses, even if network effects aren’t present. In this article we’ll walk you through what those conditions are and explain how to evaluate whether they apply to your business.
What Has Changed?
Companies built on data have been around for a long time. Take credit bureaus and the information aggregators LexisNexis, Thomson Reuters, and Bloomberg, just to name a few. Those companies are protected by significant barriers to entry because of the economies of scale involved in acquiring and structuring huge amounts of data, but their business models don’t involve gleaning data from customers and mining it to understand how to improve offerings.
Gathering customer information and using it to make better products and services is an age-old strategy, but the process used to be slow, limited in scope, and difficult to scale up. For automakers, consumer-packaged-goods companies, and many other traditional manufacturers, it required crunching sales data, conducting customer surveys, and holding focus groups. But the sales data often wasn’t linked to individual customers, and since surveys and focus groups were expensive and time-consuming, only data from a relatively small number of customers was collected.
That changed dramatically with the advent of the cloud and new technologies that allow firms to quickly process and make sense of vast amounts of data. Internet-connected products and services can now directly collect information on customers, including their personal details, search behavior, choices of content, communications, social media posts, GPS location, and usage patterns. After machine-learning algorithms analyze this “digital exhaust,” a company’s offerings can be automatically adjusted to reflect the findings and even tailored to individuals.
These developments make data-enabled learning much more powerful than the customer insights companies produced in the past. They do not, however, guarantee defensible barriers.
Building Moats with Data-Enabled Learning
To determine to what degree a competitive advantage provided by data-enabled learning is sustainable, companies should answer seven questions:
1. How much value is added by customer data relative to the stand-alone value of the offering?
The higher the value added, the greater the chance that it will create a lasting edge. Let’s look at a business where the value of customer data is very high: Mobileye, the leading provider of advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), which include collision-prevention and lane-departure warnings for vehicles. Mobileye sells its systems mainly to car manufacturers, which test them extensively before incorporating them into their products. It’s crucial for the systems to be fail-safe, and the testing data is essential to improving their accuracy. By gathering it from dozens of its customers, Mobileye has been able to raise the accuracy of its ADAS to 99.99%.
While insights from data are powerful, they don’t guarantee defensible barriers.
Conversely, the value of learning from customers is relatively low for makers of smart televisions. Some now include software that can provide personalized recommendations for shows or movies based on an individual’s viewing habits as well as what’s popular with other users. So far, consumers don’t care much about this feature (which is also offered by streaming service providers such as Amazon and Netflix). They largely consider TV size, picture quality, ease of use, and durability when making purchasing decisions. If learning from customers was a bigger factor, perhaps the smart TV business would be less competitive.
2. How quickly does the marginal value of data-enabled learning drop off?
In other words, how soon does the company reach a point where additional customer data no longer enhances the value of an offering? The more slowly the marginal value decreases, the stronger the barrier is. Note that when answering this question, you should judge the value of the learning by customers’ willingness to pay and not by some other application-specific measure, such as the percentage of chat-bot queries that could be answered correctly or the fraction of times a movie recommendation was clicked on.
Let’s say you graphed the accuracy of Mobileye’s ADAS as a function of customer usage (total miles driven by car manufacturers testing it) and found that a few manufacturers and a moderate level of testing would be sufficient to achieve, say, 90% accuracy—but that a lot more testing with a bigger set of car manufacturers would be needed to get to 99%, let alone 99.99%. Interpreting that to mean that the customer data’s marginal value was rapidly decreasing would, of course, be incorrect: The value of the additional 9-percentage-point (or even a 0.99-point) improvement in accuracy remains extremely high, given the life-or-death implications. It would be difficult for any individual car manufacturer—even the largest one—to generate the necessary amount of data on its own or for any potential Mobileye competitors to replicate the data. That’s why Mobileye was able to carve out a dominant position in the ADAS market, making it a highly attractive acquisition for Intel, which bought it for $15 billion in 2017.
When the marginal value of learning from customer data remains high even after a very large customer base has been acquired, products and services tend to have significant competitive advantages. You can see this with systems designed to predict rare diseases (such as those offered by RDMD) and online search engines such as Baidu and Google. Although Microsoft has invested many years and billions of dollars in Bing, it has been unable to shake Google’s dominance in search. Search engines and disease-prediction systems all need huge amounts of user data to provide consistently reliable results.
A counterexample of a business where the marginal value of user data drops off quickly is smart thermostats. These products need only a few days to learn users’ temperature preferences throughout the day. In this context data-enabled learning can’t provide much competitive advantage. Although it launched the first smart thermostats that learn from customer behavior in 2011, Nest (acquired by Google in 2014) now faces significant competition from players such as Ecobee and Honeywell.
3. How fast does the relevance of the user data depreciate?
If the data becomes obsolete quickly, then all other things being equal, it will be easier for a rival to enter the market, because it doesn’t need to match the incumbent’s years of learning from data.
All the data Mobileye has accumulated over the years from car manufacturers remains valuable in the current versions of its products. So does the data on search-engine users that Google has collected over decades. Although searches for some terms may become rare over time while searches for new ones might start appearing more frequently, having years of historical search data is of undeniable value in serving today’s users. Their data’s low depreciation rate helps explain why both Mobileye and Google Search have proved to be very resilient businesses.
With casual social games for computers and mobile devices, however, the value of learning from user data tends to decrease quickly. In 2009 this market took off when Zynga introduced its highly successful FarmVille game. While the company was famous for relying heavily on user-data analytics to make design decisions, it turned out that the insights learned from one game did not transfer very well to the next: Casual social games are subject to fads, and user preferences shift quickly over time, making it difficult to build sustainable data-driven competitive advantages. After a few more successes, including FarmVille 2 and CityVille, Zynga stopped producing new hits, and in 2013 it lost nearly half its user base. It was superseded by game makers like Supercell (Clash of Clans) and Epic Games (Fortnite). After reaching a peak of $10.4 billion in 2012, Zynga’s market value languished below $4 billion for most of the next six years.
4. Is the data proprietary—meaning it can’t be purchased from other sources, easily copied, or reverse-engineered?
Having unique customer data with few or no substitutes is critical to creating a defensible barrier. Consider Adaviv, a Boston-area start-up we’ve invested in, which offers a crop-management system that allows growers (now primarily of cannabis) to continuously monitor individual plants. The system relies on AI, computer-vision software, and a proprietary data-annotation technique to track plant biometrics not visible to the human eye, such as early signs of disease or lack of adequate nutrients. It then translates the data into insights that growers can use to prevent disease outbreaks and improve yields. The more growers Adaviv serves, the broader the range of variants, agricultural conditions, and other factors it can learn about, and the greater the accuracy of its predictions for new and existing customers. Contrast its situation with that of spam-filter providers, which can acquire user data relatively cheaply. That helps explain the existence of dozens of such providers.
It’s important to keep in mind that technological progress can undermine a position based on unique or proprietary data. A case in point is speech-recognition software. Historically, users needed to train the software to understand their individual voices and speech patterns, and the more a person used it, the more accurate it became. This market was dominated by Nuance’s Dragon solutions for many years. However, the past decade has seen rapid improvements in speaker-independent speech-recognition systems, which can be trained on publicly available sets of speech data and take minimal or no time to learn to understand a new speaker’s voice. These advances have allowed many companies to provide new speech-recognition applications (automated customer service over the phone, automated meeting transcript services, virtual assistants), and they’re putting increasing pressure on Nuance in its core markets.
5. How hard is it to imitate product improvements that are based on customer data?
Even when the data is unique or proprietary and produces valuable insights, it’s difficult to build a durable competitive advantage if the resulting enhancements can be copied by competitors without similar data.
A couple of factors affect companies’ ability to overcome this challenge. One is whether the improvements are hidden or deeply embedded in a complex production process, making them hard to replicate. Pandora, the music-streaming service, benefits from this barrier. Its offering leveraged the firm’s proprietary Music Genome Project, which categorized millions of songs on the basis of some 450 attributes, allowing Pandora to customize radio stations to individual users’ preferences. The more a user listens to his or her stations and rates songs up or down, the better Pandora can tailor musical selections to that user. Such customization cannot be easily imitated by any rival because it is deeply tied to the Music Genome Project. In contrast, the design improvements based on learning from the customer use of many office-productivity software products—such as Calendly for coordinating calendars and Doodle for polling people about meeting times—can be easily observed and copied. That’s why dozens of companies offer similar software.
The second factor is how quickly the insights from customer data change. The more rapidly they do so, the harder they are for others to imitate. For example, many design features of the Google Maps interface can be easily copied (and they have been, by Apple Maps, among others). But a key part of Google Maps’ value is its ability to predict traffic and recommend optimal routes, which is much harder to copy because it leverages real-time user data that becomes obsolete within minutes. Only companies with similarly large user bases (such as Apple in the United States) can hope to replicate that feature. Apple Maps is closing the gap with Google Maps in the United States, but not in countries where Apple has a relatively small user base.
6. Does the data from one user help improve the product for the same user or for others?
Ideally, it will do both, but the difference between the two is important. When data from one user improves the product for that person, the firm can individually customize it, creating switching costs. When data from one user improves the product for other users, this can—but may not—create network effects. Both kinds of enhancements help provide a barrier to entry, but the former makes existingcustomers very sticky, whereas the latter provides a key advantage in competing for new customers.
For example, Pandora was the first big player in digital music streaming but then fell behind Spotify and Apple Music, which are still growing. As we noted, Pandora’s main selling point is that it can tailor stations to each user’s tastes. But learning across users is very limited: An individual user’s up-or-down votes allow Pandora to identify music attributes that the user likes and then serve that person songs sharing those attributes. In contrast, Spotify focused a lot more on providing users with sharing and discovery features, such as the ability to search and listen to other people’s stations, thereby creating direct network effects and luring additional customers. Pandora’s service remains available only in the United States (where it has a base of loyal users), while Spotify and Apple Music have become global players. And though Pandora was acquired by Sirius XM for $3.5 billion in February 2019, Spotify became a public company in April 2018 and as of early November 2019 was worth $26 billion. Clearly, customization based on learning from an individual user’s data helps keep existing customers locked in, but it doesn’t lead to the type of exponential growth that network effects produce.
7. How fast can the insights from user data be incorporated into products?
Rapid learning cycles make it hard for competitors to catch up, especially if multiple product-improvement cycles occur during the average customer’s contract. But when it takes years or successive product generations to make enhancements based on the data, competitors have more of a chance to innovate in the interim and start collecting their own user data. So the competitive advantage from customer data is stronger when the learning from today’s customers translates into more-frequent improvements of the product for those same customers rather than just for futurecustomers of the product or service. Several of the product examples we’ve discussed already—maps, search engines, and AI-based crop-management systems—can be quickly updated to incorporate the learning from current customers.
A counterexample is offered by direct online lenders, such as LendUp and LendingPoint, which learn how to make better loan decisions by examining users’ repayment history and how it correlates with various aspects of users’ profiles and behavior. Here, the only learning that is relevant to current borrowers is that from previous borrowers, which is already reflected in the contracts and rates that current borrowers are offered. There’s no reason for borrowers to care about any future learning that the lender may benefit from, since their existing contracts won’t be affected. For that reason, customers don’t worry about how many other borrowers will sign up when deciding whether to take a loan from a particular lender. Existing borrowers might prefer to stick with their current lenders, which know them better than other lenders do, but the market for new borrowers remains very competitive.
Does Data Confer Network Effects?
The answers to questions 6 and 7 will tell you whether data-enabled learning will create true network effects. When learning from one customer translates into a better experience for other customers and when that learning can be incorporated into a product fast enough to benefit its current users, customers will care about how many other people are adopting the product. The mechanism at work here is very similar to the one underlying network effects with online platforms. The difference is that platform users prefer to join bigger networks because they want more people to interact with, not because more users generate more insights that improve products.
Let’s look at Google Maps again. Drivers use it in part because they expect many others to employ it too, and the more traffic data the software gathers from them, the better its predictions on road conditions and travel times. Google Search and Adaviv’s AI-based crop-management system also enjoy data-enabled network effects.
Often companies can level the playing field by buying data from alternative sources.
Like regular network effects, data-enabled ones can create barriers to entry. Both types of effects present a huge cold-start, or chicken-or-egg, challenge: Businesses aiming to build regular network effects need to attract some minimum number of users to get the effects started, and those aiming to achieve data-enabled network effects need some initial amount of data to start the virtuous cycle of learning.
Despite these similarities, regular network effects and data-enabled network effects have key differences, and they tend to make advantages based on the regular ones stronger. First, the cold-start problem is usually less severe with data-enabled network effects, because buying data is easier than buying customers. Often, alternative sources of data, even if not perfect, can significantly level the playing field by removing the need for a big customer base.
Second, to produce lasting data-enabled network effects, the firm has to work constantly to learn from customer data. In contrast, as Intuit cofounder Scott Cook has often said, “products that benefit from [regular] network effects get better while I sleep.” With regular network effects, interactions between customers (and possibly with third-party providers of complementary offerings) create value even if the platform stops innovating. Even if a new social network offered users objectively better features than Facebook does (for instance, better privacy protection), it would still have to contend with Facebook’s powerful network effects—users want to be on the same social platform as most other users.
Third, in many cases nearly all the benefits of learning from customer data can be achieved with relatively low numbers of customers. And in some applications (like speech recognition), dramatic improvements in AI will reduce the need for customer data to the point where the value of data-enabled learning might disappear completely. Regular network effects, on the other hand, extend further and are more resilient: An additional customer still typically enhances value for existing customers (who can interact or transact with him or her), even when the number of existing customers is already very large.
As even mundane consumer products become smart and connected—new kinds of clothing, for instance, can now react to weather conditions and track mileage and vital signs—data-enabled learning will be used to enhance and personalize more and more offerings. However, their providers won’t build strong competitive positions unless the value added by customer data is high and lasting, the data is proprietary and leads to product improvements that are hard to copy, or the data-enabled learning creates network effects.
In the decades ahead, improving offerings with customer data will be a prerequisite for staying in the game, and it may give incumbents an edge over new entrants. But in most cases it will not generate winner-take-all dynamics. Instead, the most valuable and powerful businesses for the foreseeable future will be those that are both built on regular network effects and enhanced by data-enabled learning, like Alibaba’s and Amazon’s marketplaces, Apple’s App Store, and Facebook’s social networks.
We all know that job satisfaction often hinges on the quality of the relationships we have with our bosses. Yet in today’s rapidly evolving, 24/7 workplaces, it’s not always clear what managers should do to create the most satisfying work experiences and the happiest employees. My research into the world’s most successful bosses has unearthed some common practices that make work much more meaningful and enjoyable. If you supervise others, make sure you do the following:
Manage individuals, not teams. When you’re under pressure, it’s easy to forget that employees are unique individuals, with varying interests, abilities, goals, and styles of learning. But it’s important to customize your interactions with them. Ensure you understand what makes them tick. Be available and accessible for one-on-one conversations. Deliver lessons cued to individual developmental needs. And when it comes to promotion, look past rigid competency models and career ladders for growth opportunities tailored to the ambitions, talents, and capacities of each person.
Dr. Paul Batalden, a professor emeritus at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine, who previously worked under Tommy Frist at healthcare giant HCA, told me that his former boss was “such an unusual CEO” of a company that size. “You could always get to see him. He always had time.” Samuel Howard, another Frist protégé who is now CEO of Xantus Corp, added, “when you asked him to do something, he would roll up his sleeves” and work with you to get it done.
Go big on meaning. Most employees value jobs that let them contribute and make a difference, and many organizations now emphasize meaning and purpose in the hopes of fostering engagement. But this is also the manager’s responsibility. You can’t rely on incentives like bonuses, stock options, or raises. You’ve got to inspire them with a vision, set challenging goals and pump up their confidence so they believe they can actually win. Articulate a clear purpose that fires your team up, set expectations high, and convey to the group that you think they’re capable of virtually anything.
Legendary bosses like Bill Sanders in real estate, Julian Robertson in hedge funds, and Bill Walsh in professional football all communicated visions that entranced employees and left them hell-bent on success. Scot Sellers, a protégé of Sanders who went on to become CEO of Archstone before retiring in 2013, recalled that his former boss “would lay out his vision and say, ‘I would like you to be a part of it.’ You were so honored to be asked… that you just wanted to jump in and say, ‘Sign me up!’”
Focus on feedback. A 2013 Society for Human Resource Management survey of managers in the U.S. found that “only 2% provide ongoing feedback to their employees.” Just 2%! Many bosses limit themselves to the dreaded “performance review” and often mingle developmental feedback with discussions about compensation and promotion, rendering the former much less effective.
As I’ve written elsewhere, some organizations are changing their ways, but even if yours sticks with traditional reviews, you can still supplement that with the kind of continuous, personalized feedback that the best bosses employ. Use regular—at least weekly—one-on-one conversations to give lots of coaching. Make the feedback clear, honest and constructive, and frame it so that it promotes independence and initiative.
Hedge fund manager Chase Coleman remembered that his former boss and backer, Tiger Management founder Julian Robertson, was “very good at understanding what motivated people and how to extract maximum performance out of [them]. . . . For some, that [meant] encouraging them, and for others, it [meant] making them feel less comfortable. He would adjust his feedback.”
Don’t just talk… listen. Employees tend to be happiest when they feel free to contribute new ideas and take initiative, and most managers claim they want people who do just that. So why doesn’t it happen more often? Usually the problem is that bosses promote their own views too strongly. Employees wonder: “Why bother taking risks with new ideas when my boss’s views are already so fixed?”
The best leaders spend a great deal of time listening. They pose problems and challenges, then ask questions to enlist the entire team in generating solutions. They reward innovation and initiative, and encourage everyone in the group to do the same.
Football coach Walsh went out of his way to encourage input not only from his assistant coaches, but also from the players themselves. He did this before the game, during the game, and afterwards when watching game film. This more collaborative approach probably had something to do with his track record with the San Francisco 49ers: six division titles, three NFC Championship titles and three Super Bowl wins.
Be consistent. Who could be happy with a boss who does one thing one day and another thing the next? It’s hard to feel motivated when the bar is always shifting in unpredictable ways and you never know what to expect or how to get ahead. So be consistent in your management style, vision, expectations, feedback and openness to new ideas. If change becomes necessary, acknowledge it openly and quickly.
Kyle Craig, who worked with restaurant impresario Norman Brinker at Burger King in the 1980s, remembered his boss’s consistent humility. “He was never unwilling to admit his failures and mistakes, which puts people around him very much at ease.” Bill Walsh, meanwhile, came across as consistently confident. As former 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark remarked, “There was just an attitude. He walked with a strut almost—not cocky, just very confident.” These superbosses had dramatically different approaches, yet both worked well because they were consistent.
No behavior a boss adopts will guarantee happy employees, but managers who follow these five key practices will find that they will help improve well-being, engagement, and productivity on any team. The common denominator is attentiveness. Pay close attention to your employees as individuals. Take that extra bit of time to build their confidence and articulate a vision; to provide constant, ongoing, high quality feedback; and to listen to their ideas. And ensure that your own messages are consistent. Is it hard work? Yes. But it’s worth it.
By the time you’re an adult, you’re an expert at how to judge yourself and others. You’ve had years to gain clarity around the type of people you naturally get along with, as well as the ones you don’t.
At work, we’ve all seen how tense relationships can create conflict and negatively impact performance. Given that 70% of employees say that work friends are crucial to their happiness on the job, learning how to better navigate these tensions is a sound investment of your time.
There’s plenty of psychological research that explains why some relationships are easier than others. The thing about humans is that we’re complex social creatures with our own values and embedded beliefs about how people should behave, interact, and communicate. We all have unconscious biases that determine how we think and feel about everything, from gender to race. Many of these biases have a significant impact on who we get along with and who we find difficult or annoying.
At the same time, we have an innate desire to be both liked and respected. When conflict occurs, our first instinct is to blame the other person. If only everyone was like me, the world would be amazing. (False.)
The point is … we all want to work with people we like. But not everyone is like us. For new managers in particular, the thoughts that keep you up at night most likely involve people as opposed to strategy — especially the ones who you don’t get along with or find “difficult.”
So, what do you do when you’re stuck working with someone you dislike?
Consider implementing these tried and tested strategies the next time a relationship feels hard.
1) First, take a look at yourself.
Interestingly, we can dislike someone without even knowing why, and then look for evidence to make ourselves right. This is known as confirmation or myside bias. Our brain finds all kinds of ways to manipulate the truth under the guise of keeping us safe, which is one of its primary jobs. Our brain is also highly competent at storing memories about why a particular person should not be trusted. Once you’ve created a “file” on someone, it’s hard to adjust your view of them.
But here’s what we executive coaches know for sure. The most successful and happy people find healthy ways to work with personalities they wouldn’t otherwise choose to have in their life — professionally, socially, and within their own family. They are very aware of how they invest their energy in terms of relationships. They adapt their strategies to get the results they need.
So, if you want that person in the office to be less obnoxious, or you want to stop feeling anxious whenever you have a meeting with them, you need to first take a look at yourself. Are you willing to do the work?
Imagine how different life would be and what you could do with all that extra time you currently spend being frustrated. This could be the greatest life hack of all.
2) Be the grown-up.
This is where you reflect on everything you’ve ever learned about emotional intelligence and consciously choose the meaning you’re giving a situation. For example, if someone is rude to you in the staffroom or in a meeting, do you assume that they don’t like you or do you remove yourself from the situation and consider that they could just be having a bad day?
Don’t succumb to childlike behaviors, like getting thoughtlessly defensive and ignoring that person out of spite. Rather than excluding them from a meeting in the future or sending a passive aggressive email, identify behaviors that will serve you (and them).
These include removing yourself (politely) from unproductive conversations, confronting someone respectfully and privately to discuss a problem before it grows, or setting clearer boundaries around your time and expectations.
If your colleague has a habit of demanding quick turnarounds on projects, for example, don’t avoid working with them. Pause, reflect, and ask: What is the most productive and respectful way to handle this scenario? You may find approaching them and explaining that you need X amount of notice in future to meet their deadlines improves the relationship long term.
3) Respect them for what they bring to the table.
Find what you can appreciate about the person; after all, nearly everyone has strengths and skills that can be utilized. Maybe they’re really good at lateral thinking or have amazing attention to detail, or perhaps their strength is bringing humor to the room when people need it most.
Don’t dilute your own brand by being anything less than respectful to people who are different than yourself. The best employees recognize that diversity is key to solving difficult problems and innovating.
Show compassion to everyone you encounter. Being respectful means you can listen, reflect back the needs of others, adjust your own thinking, and add value to the conversation by challenge with group think. It means caring deeply for others. Esteem their ideas, opinions, and differences. The added bonus is that by respecting behavioral styles and thinking that are different to your own, you gain a multitude of new perspectives and can process information more carefully.
4) Don’t focus on the negatives.
If you’re holding a grudge against someone, expecting them to be late to meetings or to miss deadlines, you’ll likely find the evidence you’re looking for. That’s your confirmation bias at play.
When someone annoys you, rather than focusing on what they’re doing wrong, think about how you’re reacting. Are their constant interruptions driving you crazy because you were taught that talking over somebody else is rude? Is their “pushiness” towards promotion raising your hackles because you’ve been overlooked for advancement in the past?
Have a think about some of your triggers, writing down what you’re reacting to and why. Once you know what’s triggering you, you can decide if it’s something you can let go of, or if it’s something you need to address with the person in a well-thought-through conversation, in which you explain the impact they’re having on you. Just be sure to make it about how you feel, and not what they are doing. Finger-pointing never ends well. For example, instead of saying, “I’d like to talk about why you keep cutting me off in meetings” say, “When you cut me off in meetings, I feel like you aren’t respecting my POV. Can we talk about it?”
You could also consider approaching them one-on-one and brainstorming ideas around how you can best work together. Instead of saying, “You do X, Y, and Z,” say, “What can I do to make our working relationship more productive?” More often than not, there are changes that can be made on both sides to make things work.
5) Try to connect.
Look for the good in this person and try to initiate positive conversations with them about topics you can both contribute to, such as project achievements and organizational successes. Try to differentiate between the person and their behaviors. By focusing on the person and identifying a trait that you both value, like trust, you’ll be less inclined to dwell on the external behavior you dislike, such as their proclivity to interrupt.
This will enable a more respectful and harmonious relationship. Once you establish this relationship, you may find that you were judging them rather harshly, that they are not as “unproductive” as you once thought, and that their “mistakes” are ones everyone makes from time to time.
6) Be strategic.
Consider the outcome you need to reach and do what’s required to achieve it. Perhaps you need to change the way you’re working with the person, whether by spending more time helping them build a skill, connecting them with others in the organization, or giving them meaningful feedback on their work — even if you don’t feel like it.
Focus on the things you can do to help them succeed, keeping in mind that their success is your success. Top of mind should be the organizational vision and what’s needed to get there. Invest time in making sure that the difficult person knows their role, has a sense of belonging, and is clear about what success looks like for everyone.
7) Pick your battles.
There are certainly some battles worth fighting, particularly when they’re values-based. If something that you highly value has been wronged, then constructively find a way to share your view and speak your truth. Getting along with difficult people is not the same as justifying or turning a blind eye to what is unacceptable, such as bullying or discrimination. But if they’re simply rubbing you up the wrong way, offering viewpoints that are different to your own, or holding fast to an issue that will dissipate over time, you should probably let it slide.
In the end, we so often feel the need to be right. That’s our egos at play. We all have one. We want to look good, and we believe it’s always someone else’s fault. But there are occasions in life — especially at work and in the middle of a global pandemic — when showing compassion and flex in your own thinking is so much more important than proving you know better.
The key lies in being empathetic, looking at the situation from the other person’s perspective and being curious rather than judgmental. Take the time to consider the feelings, insecurities, ideas and experiences of whoever it is you’re clashing with. Maybe they ask all those annoying questions during a meeting to show they’re invested, or maybe they gossip about colleagues because they’re dealing with their own insecurities. Work on the basis that everyone has things going on and deserves some patience, tolerance and understanding.
Most people don’t come to work trying to be annoying. Ask yourself: What don’t I know about them?
Lastly, remember that not everyone needs to be your friend. We can indeed work well with, and respect, people we don’t like. Controversial, I know.
Lisa Stephenson, founder of The Coach Place Global, is a globally recognised high-impact coach, consultant, keynote speaker and author. You will find her behind the scenes with C-Suite executives, entrepreneurs and high-profile individuals in fast-paced environments, where absolute trust is non-negotiable and the stakes are high.
Silos are a defining characteristic of organizations of all sizes, even in businesses that naturally operate as fluid networks. For example, management consulting firms are known for organizing around temporary project teams, but they also have formal expertise silos (often called practices) and fixed regional structures.
Of course, we often hear about the negative side effects of silos: Boundaries may lead to insular mindsets that inhibit sharing or collaboration between verticals, or worse, they could lead to finger-pointing and turf wars. The incitement to “bust” or “break down” silos appears frequently both in practitioner and scholarly journals.
But if silos are really such a bad thing, why then do they persist? Silos, or verticals, exist for three good reasons:
To aggregate expertise. They provide the focus and critical mass required to develop expertise on an ongoing basis.
To assign accountability. They provide boundaries and hierarchy that make it possible to assign accountability. Responsibilities are clearly delineated, objectives are well defined, resources are allocated firmly, and decisions are made and communicated quickly.
To provide a sense of identity. They create stability and allow for the development of collective behavioral norms and ways of working. These, in turn, provide a sense of identity, security, psychological safety, and predictability for the people who belong to the silo.
As verticals serve a clear purpose – especially in today’s turbulent environment – we would like to mount a defense. Yes, verticals have undesirable side effects, but the solution is not to dismantle them. To preserve the strengths of the inescapable verticals while minimizing their side effects, organizations should do two things: build bridges between verticals, and institute checks and balances.
The topic of building bridges between verticals has been well covered already elsewhere. Researchers André de Waal, Michael Weaver, Tammy Day, and Beatrice van der Heijden have identified four examples of how companies build bridges:
Values. A company’s corporate values statement codifies the behavior that is expected from employees, and can serve as an effective compass for all. By including “one-company” behavior in its corporate values, a company signals that people should think and act beyond the boundaries of their verticals. It is no surprise that “collaboration” figures eminently in studies about frequently cited corporate values.
Operating model. People within a vertical know by routine how they should go about their daily work. But they may feel less secure and be reluctant to collaborate with people in other verticals. Such collaboration can be facilitated by hardwiring the interfaces between the verticals: Defining clear procedures (for example for approvals, consultation, and communication across boundaries) and providing an enabling infrastructure (for example, a common IT platform). Responsibility models, such as RACI, PACSI and others, can help.
Community and people. When building bridges, “softwiring” is as important as hardwiring. Companies must create opportunities for people from different verticals to get to know each other’s capabilities and interests, for example, through joint training programs, cross-functional innovation initiatives, and company-wide expert networks. Once familiarity is established, people will connect more easily whenever a concrete need for collaboration arises. Likewise, companies must pay attention to networking skills when recruiting people, designing training programs, considering sideways career moves, and measuring and rewarding performance.
Leadership. The effectiveness of both hardwiring and softwiring depends on the company’s leaders. They should have the skills and incentives to collaborate, for example by having performance indicators that measure the desired behaviors. They should demonstrate collaborative behavior themselves, for example, by showing loyalty to the joint decisions made in the management team.
As the above list shows, bridges by and large call upon the enlightened benevolence of people in different verticals. That may or may not work: While managers may genuinely acknowledge the benefits of collaboration, they still compete with one another for resources, senior management attention and power.
This is where checks and balances enter the picture: They enable companies to minimize the side-effects of verticals more forcefully than bridges do.
Checks and Balances
Let’s first explain what we mean by checks and balances. A company’s corporate objectives and key performance indicators (KPIs) reflect upper management and stakeholder expectations for revenues, profits, cash generation, ESG goals, etc. These are then translated into vertical-specific objectives and KPIs that should be clear, motivational, and actionable. That exercise, however, is complicated by two phenomena:
Imperfect knowledge. Managers of vertical A often have to make decisions on the basis also of knowledge that relates to matters in vertical B. But since their knowledge of vertical B is imperfect, they are bound to omit things and make mistakes. For example, at one power company we worked with, the business development team has to make assumptions about the evolution of maintenance costs over the lifecycle of the plant. While the best knowledge of those costs surely is within the maintenance department, we found that business development – out of ignorance, lack of time, or for other reasons – didn’t inquire systematically with maintenance.
Partial optimization. Managers of vertical A make choices to optimize their vertical’s performance. Unfortunately, it may be the case that their choices are detrimental to the company’s overall performance, either directly (because the corporate KPIs and the vertical’s KPIs don’t perfectly align) or indirectly (by affecting vertical B’s performance negatively). For example, at the power company, the business development team decided to hire technical staff within its own vertical, as opposed to working with the corporate engineering team, thus reducing the latter’s scale and overall performance. Or business development occasionally used less experienced contractors, which led to hidden supervision costs down the road.
Checks and balances can mitigate these effects. Checks identify critical omissions, mistakes and other lapses that a vertical may have made as a result of its imperfect knowledge of the subject matter. Balances act as circuit breakers when partial optimization threatens to damage the system in its entirety. The following offer examples of practical ways of instituting checks and balances:
Separate functions. Transferring a function from one vertical to another changes its hierarchical reporting line and KPIs, so that it is less constrained to do a fully objective job. For example, the power company’s commercial-legal function was carved out from business development and attached to corporate legal to ensure that all legal aspects of a bid were duly considered.
Matrixed positions. A wisely deployed matrix helps establish balance so companies can change the reporting structures of certain roles. For example, you could turn the role of the manager in charge of a function within vertical A into a matrix position — that is, make the manager also report to a supervisor within vertical B. Traditional corporate support functions (such as HR, finance, and legal) can play an important role in defining, rolling out, and supporting compliance of cross-vertical standards, policies and methods — in particular when the managers in charge of those functions are matrixed to the verticals and their corporate function. For example, the power company we worked with assigned its commercial-technical manager to both business development and corporate engineering.
Governance. Assign critical decisions requiring a cross-vertical purview to an existing or new cross-verticals body. For example, the power company instituted a new investment committee to review commercial tenders. Introduce thresholds to escalate approvals for decisions to an existing higher-level body as a function of their business impact and risks. If needed, make additional provisions such as veto rights or golden vote procedures.
Three lines model. From a control perspective vertical managers are the so-called first line: They have the primary responsibility to achieve the objectives assigned to their vertical and manage the concomitant risks. But specific second-line functions (such as internal control, compliance, cybersecurity, sustainability, and risk) can provide assistance with managing risks, including the risk of having an insufficiently enterprise-wide perspective. Third-line functions (internal audit) provide additional checks and balances across verticals.
Intervention tools. Institute ad hoc interventions using specific tools. For example, the capital projects industry uses a so-called assumptions book to ensure anticipation, explicitness, and transparency across verticals. Peer reviews by people from other verticals, shared “lessons learned” sessions or third-party audits are other examples.
The boundaryless organization is a chimera. Verticals exist for good reasons: to aggregate expertise, assign accountability, and provide a sense of identity. To temper the attendant insular mindsets and behaviors, companies should build bridges between verticals and institute checks and balances carefully.
Herman Vantrappen is the Managing Director of Akordeon, a strategic advisory firm based in Brussels. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the author (with D. Deneffe) of the book Fad-Free Strategy (Routledge, 2020).
Frederic Wirtz heads The Little Group advising companies on organization design issues worldwide. He can be reached at email@example.com.
I was sitting across the table from a Silicon Valley CEO who had pioneered a technology that touches many of our lives — the flash memory that stores data on smartphones, digital cameras, and computers. He was a frequent guest on CNBC and had been delivering business presentations for at least 20 years before we met. And yet, the CEO wanted to sharpen his public speaking skills.
“You’re very successful. You’re considered a good speaker. Why do you feel as though you need to improve?” I asked.
“I can always get better,” he responded. “Every point up or down in our share price means billions of dollars in our company’s valuation. How well I communicate makes a big difference.”
This is just one example of the many CEOs and entrepreneurs I have coached on their communication skills over the past two decades, but he serves as a valuable case in point. Often, the people who most want my help are already established and admired for their skills. Psychologists say this can be explained by a phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Simply put, people who are mediocre at certain things often think they are better than they actually are, and therefore, fail to grow and improve. Great leaders, on the other hand, are great for a reason — they recognize their weaknesses and seek to get better.
The following tips are for business professionals who are already comfortable with giving presentations — and may even be admired for their skills — but who, nonetheless, want to excel.
1) Great presenters use fewer slides — and fewer words.
McKinsey is one of the most selective consulting companies in the world, and one I have worked with many times in this area. Senior McKinsey partners have told me that recent MBA hires often try to dazzle clients with their knowledge — and they initially do so by creating massive PowerPoint decks. New consultants quickly learn, however, that less is much more. One partner instructs his new hires to reduce PowerPoint decks considerably by replacing every 20 slides with only two slides.
This is because great writers and speakers are also great editors. It’s no coincidence that some of the most memorable speeches and documents in history are among the shortest. The Gettysburg Address is 272 words, John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech was under 15 minutes, and the Declaration of Independence guarantees three unalienable rights — not 22.
Key takeaway: Reduce clutter where you can.
2) Great presenters don’t use bullet points.
Bullet points are the least effective way to get your point across. Take Steve Jobs, considered to be one of the most extraordinary presenters of his time. He rarely showed slides with just text and bullets. He used photos and text instead.
Experiments in memory and communication find that information delivered in pictures and images is more likely to be remembered than words alone. Scientists call it “pictorial superiority.” According to molecular biologist John Medina, our ability to remember images is one of our greatest strengths. “We are incredible at remembering pictures,” he writes. “Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.”
Key takeaway: Complement text on slides with photos, videos, and images.
3) Great presenters enhance their vocal delivery.
Speakers who vary the pace, pitch, and volume of their voices are more effective, according to a new research study by Wharton marketing professor, Jonah Berger.
In summary, the research states that effective persuaders modulate their voice, and by doing so, appear to be more confident in their argument. For example, they raise their voice when emphasizing a key message, or they pause after delivering an important point.
Simply put, if you raise and lower the volume of your voice, and alternate between a high pitch and low pitch while delivering key messages, your presentation will be more influential, persuasive, and commanding.
Key takeaway: Don’t underestimate the power of your voice to make a positive impression on your audience.
4) Great presenters create “wow” moments.
People don’t remember every slide and every word of a presentation. They remember moments, as Bill Gates exemplified back in 2009 in his now famous TED talk.
While giving a presentation on the efforts of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to reduce the spread of malaria, Gates stated: “Now, malaria is, of course, transmitted by mosquitos. I brought some here just so you could experience this.” And with that, he walked out to the center of the stage, and opened the lid from a small jar containing non-infected mosquitoes.
“We’ll let those roam around the auditorium a little bit.”
This moment was so successful in capturing his audience because it was a surprise. His audience had been expecting a standard PowerPoint presentation — complete with graphs and data. But what they got instead was a visceral introduction to the subject, an immersive experience that played on their emotions.
Unexpected moments grab an audience’s attention because the human brain gets bored easily. According to neuroscientist, A.K Pradeep, whom I’ve interviewed: “Novelty recognition is a hardwired survival tool all humans share. Our brains are trained to look for something brilliant and new, something that stands out, something that looks delicious.”
Key takeaway: Give your audience something extra.
5) Great presenters rehearse.
Most speakers don’t practice nearly as much as they should. Oh, sure, they review their slides ahead of time, but they neglect to put in the hours of deliberate practice that will make them shine.
Malcolm Gladwell made the “10,000-hour rule” famous as a benchmark for excellence — stating, in so many words, that 20 hours of practice a week for a decade can make anyone a master in their field. While you don’t have nearly that long to practice your next presentation, there’s no question that the world’s greatest speakers have put in the time to go from good to great.
Consider Martin Luther King, Jr. His most famous speeches came after years of practice — and it was exactly this level of mastery that gave King the awareness and flexibility to pull off an advanced speaking technique: improvisation. King improvised the memorable section of what is now known as the “Dream Speech” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. When he launched into the “I have a dream” refrain, the press in attendance were confused. Those words were not included in the official draft of the speech they had been handed. King read the mood of his audience and, in the moment, combined words and ideas he had made in previous speeches.
It’s believed that King gave 2,500 speeches in his lifetime. If we assume two hours of writing and rehearsals for each one (and in many cases he spent much more time than that), we arrive at the conservative estimate of 5,000 hours of practice. But those are speeches. They don’t take into account high school debates and hundreds of sermons. King had easily reached 10,000 hours of practice by August of 1963.
Key takeaway: Put in the time to make yourself great.
Never underestimate the power of great communication. It can help you land the job of your dreams, attract investors to back your idea, or elevate your stature within your organization. But while there are plenty of good speakers in the world, using the above tips to sharpen your skills is the first step to setting yourself apart. Stand out by being the person who can deliver something great over and over again.
One oft-cited reason why more female executives don’t advance to top management jobs is their lack of access to informal organizational and industry networks. Some people blame unconscious bias: High-ranking men connect more easily with other men. Others cite professional and personal obligations, from office housekeeping to child-rearing, that disproportionately fall to women, leaving them less time to develop professional relationships.
But some female leaders do establish strong networks—and they win greater influence and more-senior positions as a result. What are they doing differently?
A new study sheds light on their strategies. “I was talking with many women about how to improve their networks, the challenges they face, and what they and their organizations could do better, and I realized that all the studies on the issue were pretty old and narrow,” explains Inga Carboni, a professor at William & Mary’s Mason School of Business and the study’s lead author. “I couldn’t answer their questions.”
The researchers analyzed data collected from 16,500 men and women in more than 30 organizations across a range of industries over the past 15 years. Then they interviewed hundreds of female executives. This led them to identify four characteristics that distinguish the networking behaviors of more-successful women from those of their peers. In some cases those matched the behaviors of high-performing men; in others there were subtle but important differences.
When shaping their professional networks, top women were:
Studies, including the new one, show that women generally absorb more collaborative demands in the workplace than their male peers do. But the female managers with the strongest networks “recognize that every ‘yes’ means a ‘no’ to something else,” says Babson College’s Rob Cross, one of Carboni’s coauthors. He notes that one Silicon Valley executive he knows has adopted that idea as her mantra. Although these successful female networkers might feel an identity-driven desire and a stereotype-influenced pressure to help colleagues out and be a team player, they try to resist. They prune nonessential appointments from their calendars, deflect low-priority decisions and requests, run streamlined meetings, insist on efficient email norms, and set aside time for reflection and high-level thinking. At the same time, they make the most of their collaborative strengths and inclinations by working with others in a way that establishes or enhances key relationships and ups their visibility.
“At every level in organizations, women are more likely to be sought out for advice,” Carboni says. “And when asked about the downsides of saying no, every woman I interviewed said they’d feel bad.” But she emphasizes that the research is clear: The female executives who rise to the top are “more strategic and thoughtful” about how they spend their time. Organizations can do their part by tracking unseen collaborative work, ensuring that it’s evenly spread among male and female employees, and pushing all leaders, but especially women, to unabashedly prioritize their most important tasks.
The researchers’ data shows that most women’s relationships, particularly those with female peers, are stickier than men’s, growing stronger, more mutual, and more interwoven over time. Carboni and Cross note that this can occasionally be a positive—for example, an old contact might offer a new opportunity or employment prospect. But if you work in a dynamic organization that requires rapid adjustments to changing demands (and who doesn’t nowadays?), always relying on the same people can hurt your performance.
Successful female networks are more fluid. High-ranking women know when to deemphasize old connections in favor of new ones (whether by proactively cutting ties or by simply failing to maintain contact). For example, says Cross, “when you’re at an inflection point at work or are embarking on a new project, you want to think about your goals and who will help you reach them—whether those goals are political (gaining early access to opinion leaders), developmental (supplementing skills gaps), innovation-oriented (searching for new insights), or related to best practices (finding people who know efficiencies).” He acknowledges that some women find this inauthentic, even Machiavellian, but notes that men interpret the same behavior as putting the work first. He says it’s OK to have a “tenure bell curve” in professional relationships. Women should, of course, maintain some long-known advisers. But they should consistently initiate new connections, and organizations can help them by instituting processes such as network reviews at the start of new assignments or during performance evaluations.
The highest-ranking, best-networked women connect with people in a wide variety of functions, geographies, and business units. Again, less successful female networkers tend to shy away from the tactic because it feels uncomfortable or overly promotional. “We heard from women that they liked their own communities,” Carboni says, whereas spanning boundaries made them wary of “backlash” and “stressed out.” But that behavior is critical to accessing new information, leading innovation, and pursuing advancement, for both women and men. Cross suggests periodically considering the leaders in your organization and asking yourself, “Who isn’t in my network but should be?” He advises approaching them “not with ‘Here’s what I need’ but with ‘Could we grab a coffee and explore ways of working together?’” Companies including Ford and Booz Allen Hamilton have tried to institutionalize the practice by setting up cross-functional groups of female high potentials who meet regularly with C-suite executives.
More than two decades’ worth of research shows, perhaps not surprisingly, that the highest performers are seen as the most energizing people in their networks—as the type of colleague who makes the work more engaging, which then drives better performance. But men and women are expected to bring different energy to relationships, and this is where effective female networkers set themselves apart from less successful women: They demonstrate both competence and warmth, both intelligence and emotional intelligence, as studies—the researchers’ and others—suggest they must to build trust. “The most successful women don’t downplay their knowledge, skills, and accomplishments; they show evidence that they can do things,” Cross says. “But they also use humor, presence, and small gestures to signal caring and positivity, and they employ listening skills to spur creative thinking among their colleagues.”
The researchers say they hope more women will adapt their networking behaviors in keeping with these four characteristics. They add that organizations have a big role to play too. “The goal is to embed these behaviors and practices so that they’re the norm for everybody,” Cross says.About the Research: “How Successful Women Manage Their Networks,” by Inga Carboni et al. (working paper)
Source: Harvard Business Review November-December 2019
Working in online learning, I’ve found that every year around this time there’s a burst of sign-ups from workers seeking new skills. Perhaps it’s a matter of New Year’s resolutions, or a reaction to seeing their friends and colleagues make big career changes each January.
Unfortunately, the initial commitment to learning all too often fizzles out. Studies have found that 40% to 80% of students drop out of online classes.
Those who give up miss out. In one survey of more than 50,000 learners who completed MOOCs on Coursera, 72% reported career benefits such as doing their current job more effectively, finding a new job, or receiving a raise.
Having worked in HR at a large banking corporation and in strategic HR consulting, I’ve seen the effects of learning and development on career mobility — and what leads people to let it fall by the wayside. Over time, working with users as well as learning experts, I’ve found that four crucial habits can make a tremendous difference.
Focus on emerging skills. With so many learning options available these days, people are often tempted to simply go to Google, type in some general search terms, and start one of the first courses that pops up. That’s a waste of time.
Job requirements are quickly evolving. To ensure relevance, you need to focus on learning the latest emerging skills. You can do this in a couple of ways.
First, track what skills the leaders in your industry are hiring for. Look at recent job postings from the top companies, and see which qualifications keep popping up. Second, reach out to people in your network or on LinkedIn who have the job you want. If you want to know what sales skills and technologies are becoming most important, talk to some high-level salespeople. Ask them what they’re having to learn to keep succeeding at their work and what skills they think someone needs to acquire in order to become a viable candidate.
You may feel intimidated about reaching out. But I’ve found that most of the time, people are happy to share this information. They want to see more and more capable candidates filling jobs and staying on top of trends.
As you get a sense of the most important skills to learn, ask these experts whether they can recommend specific online courses with practical value. Also take a close look at course descriptions to find content that will be useful on the job rather than provide mostly academic insight. For instance, you might seek out instructors who are leading experts in your industry or content created in conjunction with companies that you admire.
Get synchronous. In this era, micro-learning — engaging with online learning tools when and where it’s convenient — is becoming a much larger part of the training and development scene. This has its benefits, including freedom, convenience, and digestible content.
But there’s also a downside. These asynchronous experiences are often solitary. And without at least some real-time interaction, whether in person or online, many students lose motivation. Researchers have found that “the sense of isolation” for some online learners “may make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful online learning environment.” They call for more synchronous experiences. Others have also identified interaction and collaboration as critical factors in fruitful learning.
In my work, I’ve consistently seen that when online students sign up for a live course, in which they interact with a professor and one another at a set time at least once a week, they stick with it longer and learn more. Often, these kinds of programs offer materials you can work on individually. But the camaraderie can serve as a huge motivator, as can the desire not to fall behind the group.
When a live course isn’t available, I encourage learners to find a “synchronous cohort” — a friend or acquaintance with similar learning goals. Make a pact to do online learning together weekly. You can learn a lot from hearing each other’s questions and explaining things to each other as you come to understand them, since the act of teaching can improve content understanding, recall, and application.
Implement learning immediately. Research shows that performing the tasks you’ve learned is crucial, because “enactment enhances memory by serving as an elaborative encoding strategy.”
This is part of the problem many engineers face when looking for jobs straight out of college: They’ve been stuck in “theory land,” with little experience putting what they’ve learned into practice. You can run into the same issue with online learning. For example, I could spend weeks watching videos on how to set up a distributed computing system. But if I don’t go to Amazon Web Services and deploy it — soon — I’ll forget much of what I learned.
So whatever field you’re studying, find opportunities to use your new skills. (In addition to increasing “stickiness,” this also gives you a chance to discover unforeseen challenges.) Depending on the skill, you might participate in a collaborative project at work, for instance, or set up your own project on a small scale at home. Or you could find an online simulation that is similar to the real experience.
Set a golden benchmark. Just like runners in a marathon, online learners need to have a clear goal in order to stay focused. A return on investment (in terms of time and money spent) is hard to gauge in the near term. But those who persevere generally have their eye on a larger prize — a new job, a promotion, or the chance to lead a project. I encourage people to determine a specific career objective and keep it front of mind as they learn.
Of course, that benchmark will change as you develop. Learning is a career-long process. After you achieve one big goal, set your sights on the next one. That’s how you make learning a part of your normal routine. The more you do that, the less likely you are to stop.
Mike Kehoe is a cofounder of BitTiger. He was formerly a consultant with Deloitte and an HR analyst at Citi.
Formal education is linked to higher earning and lower unemployment. Beyond that, learning is fun! Engaging in a new topic can be a joy and a confidence booster. But continuous and persistent learning isn’t just a choice – it has to become a habit, no easy task in these busy times. To make learning a lifelong habit, know that developing a learning habit requires you to articulate the outcomes you’d like to achieve. Based on those choices, set realistic goals. With goals in hand, develop a learning community and ditch the distractions. Finally, where appropriate, use technology to supplement learning. Developing specific learning habits – consciously established and conscientiously cultivated – can be a route to both continued professional relevance and deep personal happiness.
I recently worked my way through Edmund Morris’s first two Teddy Roosevelt biographies, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex. Roosevelt wasn’t without flaws, but he was by nearly all accounts fascinating and intellectually voracious. He published his first book, The Naval War of 1812, at 23 and continued to write on everything from conservation to politics and biography. According to Morris, at certain periods he was rumored to read a book a day, and all this reading and writing arguably made him both charismatic and uniquely equipped to engage the host of topics he did as president: national conservation efforts, naval expansion, trust regulation, and a variety of others.
Roosevelt was what we might call a “lifetime learner.” Learning became, for him, a mode of personal enjoyment and a path to professional success. It’s a habit many of us would like to emulate. The Economistrecently argued that with all the disruptions in the modern economy, particularly technology, ongoing skill acquisition is critical to persistent professional relevance. Formal education levels are regularly linked to higher earnings and lower unemployment. And apart from its utility, learning is fun. It’s a joy to engage a new topic. Having an array of interesting topics at your disposal when speaking to colleagues or friends can boost your confidence. And it’s fulfilling to finally understand a difficult new subject.
But this type of continuous and persistent learning isn’t merely a decision. It must become a habit. And as such, it requires careful cultivation.
First, developing a learning habit requires you to articulate theoutcomes you’d like to achieve. Would you like to reinvigorate your conversations and intellectual activity by reading a host of new topics? Are you looking to master a specific subject? Would you like to make sure you’re up-to-date on one or two topics outside your day-to-day work? In my own life, I like to maintain a reading program that exposes me to a variety of subjects and genres with the goal of general intellectual exploration, while also digging more deeply into a few areas, including education, foreign policy, and leadership. Picking one or two outcomes will allow you to set achievable goals to make the habit stick.
Based on those choices, set realistic goals. Like many people, each year, I set a series of goals for myself. These take the form of objectives I’d like to achieve over the course of the year (e.g., read 24 books in 2017) and daily or weekly habits I need to cultivate in accordance with those goals (e.g., read for more than 20 minutes five days per week). For me, long-term goals are tracked in a planner. Daily or weekly habits I monitor via an app called momentum, which allows me to quickly and simply enter completion of my habits on a daily basis and monitor adherence. These goals turn a vague desire to improve learning into a concrete set of actions.
With goals in hand, develop a learning community. I have a bimonthly book group that helps keep me on track for my reading goals and makes achieving them more fun. Similarly, many of my writer friends join writing groups where members read and edit each other’s work. For more specific goals, join an organization focused on the topics you’d like to learn — a foreign policy discussion group that meets monthly or a woodworking group that gathers regularly to trade notes. You might even consider a formal class or degree program to add depth to your exploration of a topic and the type of commitment that is inherently structured. These communities increase commitment and make learning more fun.
To focus on your objectives, ditch the distractions. Learning is fun, but it is also hard work. It’s so extraordinarily well documented as to be almost a truism at this point, but multitasking and particularly technology (e.g., cell phones, email) can make the deep concentration needed for real learning difficult or impossible. Set aside dedicated time for learning and minimize interruptions. When you read, find a quiet place, and leave your phone behind. If you’re taking a class or participating in a reading group, take handwritten notes, which improve retention and understanding, and leave laptops, mobiles devices, and other disrupting technologies in your car or bag far out of reach. And apart from physically eliminating distractions, consider training your mind to deal with them. I’ve found a pleasant impact of regular meditation, for example, has been an improvement in my intellectual focus which has helped my attentiveness in lectures and ability to read difficult books.
Finally, where appropriate, use technology to supplement learning. While technology can be a distraction, it can also be used to dramatically aid a learning regimen. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) allow remote students to participate in community and learn from some of the world’s most brilliant people with the added commitment of class participation. Podcasts, audiobooks, e-readers, and other tools make it possible to have a book on hand almost any time. I’ve found, for example, that by using audiobooks in what I think of as “ambient moments” — commuting or running, for example — I can nearly double the books I read in a year. Good podcasts or iTunes U courses can similarly deliver learning on the go. Combine these tools with apps that track your habits, and technology can be an essential component of a learning routine.
We’re all born with a natural curiosity. We want to learn. But the demands of work and personal life often diminish our time and will to engage that natural curiosity. Developing specific learning habits — consciously established and conscientiously cultivated — can be a route to both continued professional relevance and deep personal happiness. Maybe Roosevelt had it right: a lifetime of learning can be a success in itself.
Nothing changes unless people’s behavior changes. Sure, digital transformation requires that companies upgrade systems and make sure people have the right tools and know how to use them. But those investments only lead to transformation if they are coupled with serious work helping people adopt and use that technology in meaningfully different ways. Otherwise, you replace fax machines with email, email with Slack, Slack with neurologically transmitted messages (someday!), but still find past problems perpetuating. As Oracle CEO Safra Catz notes, “The hard thing about these transformations isn’t the technology. It’s the sociology.”
How do you encourage and enable distributed groups of people to get the most out of new digital technologies? Let’s consider a case study of how DBS Bank in Singapore managed the transition to more distributed, remote work over the past two years. [Disclosure: Scott’s firm, Innosight, has provided advisory services to DBS in the past. And Paul is currently an Advisor to DBS.] This case suggests three key tactics to enable successful digital transformation: use technology to make technology disappear, actively shape day-to-day behavior, and systematically reinforce desired behavior changes.
1) Use technology to make technology disappear.
Paul served as the Chief Data and Transformation Officer for DBS Bank in Singapore for more than a decade. He led a team called “Future of Work” that helps to accelerate innovation and drive technology adoption across the workforce.
The team seeks to use technology to create friction-free, human experiences, where the technology itself disappears into the background. Like most banks, DBS is very security-conscious. The rise of people working from home in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought new security risks, such as the possibility of bad actors more easily taking photos of screens, to use one example. Due to these concerns, DBS did not allow most employees to access sensitive systems from home prior to the pandemic. But with the increased need for remote work, DBS now uses new techniques — some of which were originally created to combat credit card fraud — to enhance the security of remote work, without compromising the user experience. For example, DBS now places a “digital watermark,” or a unique pattern, on each user’s screen. It uses sophisticated artificial intelligence to detect unusual employee behavior and has dramatically simplified the two-factor authentication experience required to access internal systems. These largely invisible background technologies allow employees to enjoy the same access to enabling tools and sensitive information, wherever they happen to be.
Another challenge brought about by the increase in remote work is getting a handle on employee sentiment without as much face-to-face interaction. To address this issue, the Future of Work team has built a model using natural language processing algorithms to spot weak signals of employee dissatisfaction in qualitative comments in regular experience surveys. The model assesses employee sentiment and categorizes and highlights patterns in qualitative comments. It features a dashboard so that any department or team can view sentiment analysis and trends across categories or drill down into word-for-word comments. This approach enables leaders to have a fine-grain view on what needs the most attention.
A final example involves using technology to pinpoint internal tools that aren’t delivering against employee expectations. As employees work in a more hybrid fashion, they need a wider range of digital tools to help do basic work tasks. DBS has more than 200 applications that employees can use to do common tasks ranging from processing credit card applications to completing online performance reviews. Just as consumers rate games and productivity tools in Apple’s popular App Store, DBS employees rate their internal applications. For any application that has more than 100 users and less than a four-star rating (out of five stars), the app owner must address the identified challenges. For example, one app tracks the number of times employees open official corporate communications to measure their effectiveness. A low app store rating surfaced significant usability issues, such as frequent crashes and a confusing interface. The team upgraded the app and introduced training, boosting the score well above 4 stars.
2) Actively shape day-to-day behavior.
In our book Eat, Sleep, Innovate (also co-authored by Scott’s Innosight colleagues Natalie Painchaud and Andy Parker), we noted that a significant barrier to behavior change in organizations is the inertia of old ways of doing things. Past processes designed for an analog world can conflict with digital technologies, leading to duplication of effort and significant employee frustration.
DBS has a mechanism to deal with this problem called the Kiasu Committee. Kiasu is local slang in Singapore, akin to the idea of the fear of missing out (when people stormed supermarkets early on in the pandemic to hoard toiler papers, locals would say, “Why so kiasu?”). The head of Legal and Compliance chairs the Kiasu Committee, which takes the form of a mock courtroom where any employee can “sue” the owner of a policy or process that they feel is getting in the way of getting work done. A mix of employees from a range of levels serve as the “jury,” collectively deliberating over whether a change should be made. One of the first decisions was to remove the need for physical signatures to approve a proposal. The approach caused quite a ripple through the company and gave DBS employees confidence that their issues would be heard and addressed.
The Future of Work team has also focused on addressing new problems that arose with the rise in remote work, such as the “cultural decay” that comes when connectivity and community fray due to factors ranging from obvious ones (the lack of the ability to hold informal gatherings) to more subtle ones (the lack of buffers between meetings inhibiting informal human connection).
Digital dislocation can drive cultural decay by limiting opportunities to teach norms to new members formally, or, even more importantly, to reinforce shared beliefs and assumptions in subtle ways. For example, newcomers can’t watch longstanding, unstated rituals, like how people array around tables during meetings, or observe which topics of conversation flow naturally in the hallway, and which are avoided.
DBS has developed specific rituals to address cultural decay. For example, it now offers a formal multimedia onboarding experience for new employees. The idea is to be very intentional about how DBS teaches key elements of its cultural transformation to new employees. The ritual builds off of a physical “wall of transformation” that DBS had in its headquarters providing a visual overview with year-by-year highlights of its transformation. The onboarding journey combines a digital version of this story with a set of curated discussions with DBS leaders. Not only does that provide a more complete picture of DBS’s transformation, it lets new employees quickly “meet” a range of leaders in the bank.
Another example is “meeting check-in.” Borrowing from agile development principles, at the start of meetings, DBS asks people to pick a number from 1 to 10 describing their state of mind. Anyone who doesn’t give a 7 or 8 has to explain why. Another approach is to ask people at the start of meetings what percent present they are in the meeting or to ask, “Is there anything that will prevent you being fully present at this meeting?” creating opportunities for people to share humanizing factors that build team empathy. Some departments augment the in-meeting ritual with simple apps to regularly track and calibrate data.
The Kiasu Committee, the virtual onboarding ceremony, and the meeting check-in are all examples of what we call BEANs, shorthand for behavior enablers, artifacts, and nudges. They combine a formal behavior enabler (like a checklist or a ritual) and informal artifacts and nudges (like a visual reminder) to drive behavior change. Our article “Breaking the Barriers to Innovation” provides a step-by-step guide for how to create BEANs.
Like any data-driven improvement program, the Future of Work team has faced its challenge. For example, it was natural for app owners to respond to low ratings by getting defensive, challenging the validity of the data, trying to hide bad news, or even gaming the system by submitting anonymous positive reviews.
Approaches that have the potential to give a louder voice to broader groups of employees only work if there are reinforcing mechanisms to hear those voices clearly and act based on what they are saying. More broadly, managing the human side of digital transformation requires work to systematically reinforce desired behavior change.
For the Future of Work effort, that starts with connecting to an overall effort at DBS to have a balanced scorecard that measures and manages its transformation efforts. DBS also modified incentives to support its overall digital transformation efforts. For example, the usage and rating of a particular digital app directly impacts the performance rating and bonus of the DBS leader responsible for that app.
Additionally, DBS created a new governance system specifically related to the employee experience. The “Employee Journey Council,” chaired by key senior executives, discusses issues identified by employees such as the responsiveness of the internal IT team and the burden of remote working. The council then intervenes to improve the employee experience. For applications that are missing their target threshold, for example, the council scrutinizes progress against an identified improvement plan. DBS plans to drive this governance mechanism lower in the organization to further increase accountability.
DBS carefully tracks and measures progress in its digital transformations. The percentage of employees who said that they strongly agreed with the statement that digital tools enhanced their productivity increased from 78% in 2019 to 84% in 2021. Positive sentiment measured with the dashboard mentioned above has increased by 35%. And, specific to hybrid work, a September 2021 dipstick survey found that 92% of employees said they were satisfied with the technology that helps them work remotely.
While the journey hasn’t been easy for DBS, rapid advances in artificial intelligence and the availability of open-source solutions have significantly simplified the ability to create models and back-end tools to reduce the barriers to digital transformation. Following the tactics in this article have smoothed DBS’s transition to hybrid work and helped DBS continue to win regular accolades. Leaders at other organizations can similarly accelerate their own digital transformation efforts by using technology to make technology disappear, actively shaping day-to-day behavior, and systematically reinforcing behavior change. The payoff in the forms of higher engagement and improved productivity is well worth it.