Davos 2.0

January 30, 2009

Can Davos save us? Most of us consume this bizarre annual ritual through journalists’ lens, and we’re as human as they are, distracted by the bright and shiny A List. There are fewer supercelebrities in attendance this year. Like the rest of the world, they seem to be focused on earning a living in their primary occupations right now. Bono is promoting an album. Brad and Angie are reproducing. The bankers have lost their swagger, and everyone’s uncomfortable with the event’s historic excesses.

Davos Men and Women argue that the discussion has always been substantive, but it seems the press has nothing else to cover this year but the substance of the discussions.

The high-calorie conversations of years past didn’t save us from an economic meltdown, and so it’s a fair question to ask whether they’ll do us any good now. There are some discouraging signs, like standing-room-only sessions on what the capitalists can teach the bleeding-hearts about accountability. Presumably, these proceed without irony in this year of Madoffs and Thains and rogue employees who casually bankrupted the world without oversight from from their C-suite managers.

There are also some hopeful developments. The quotes and observations leaking out from the Swiss resort town are marked by an unprecedented degree of humility. This year’s crop of elite decision makers and thought leaders seem to agree on one thing – we don’t know enough about what’s happened, and that can’t be our resting state.

The most encouraging language I’ve heard came from Ricardo Hausmann, Director of the Center for International Development at Harvard – in full disclosure, the CID is a client of ours – who argued that the answer must include improving our capacity to learn. “What’s endemic to financial crises,” he argued in a session on Global Imbalances, “is that the rate at which we innovate is greater than the rate at which we learn from them.”

The New York Times picked up this discussion, a sign that the Davos story has not just shifted from style to substance, but all the way over to redefining substance. We’re less focused on what we know – or in the Davos tradition of academic bluster, who knows what — and more interested in mapping the territory of what we don’t know. It’s an encouraging development.

Pray for Shackleton

January 28, 2009


“…when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

–Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Mt. Everest

This quote opens the HBS case study on Ernest Shackleton and his ill-fated (and badly planned) Antarctic expedition, a case developed by Nancy Keohn during a resurgence of interest in the explorer at the beginning of the new millennium. Shackleton’s voyage is arguably the greatest story of crisis leadership that’s ever been documented, and we thought we were going through some “turbulent times” (a favorite corporate euphemism) at the turn of the 21st century. Those were the days.

Sir Hillary himself didn’t shy away from disaster management, but he knew what Shackleton’s men came to know, and what students of his expedition learn early in the story – when the world as you know it is falling apart, this is the man you want in charge.

The world as we know it may be falling apart, and it begs the What Would Shackleton Do question. Inspired by the frigid Boston temperatures, I revisited the story this week. Shackleton’s insights into leading during high-stakes uncertainty seem more relevant than ever. Among other things, he teaches us that emotional leadership – the ability to influence the feelings of others, to channel their anxiety productively and keep them focused on the possibility of success, however improbable — matters just as much as making good technical decisions in times of crisis.

We’re understandably fixated on getting it right as a nation right now, and I’m all for informed choice and timely action, Mark Fuller’s working definition of good strategy. But for many of our most important decisions, we won’t know for sure that we got the analytics or timing right until, like Shackleton, we start counting the crew at the end of the journey to make sure we didn’t lose anyone. In the meantime, we still have to lead. A central part of that challenge will be to tap into the emotions that will improve the probability of our collective success – optimism, resilience, empathy. And make sure we don’t eat each other along the way.

Customers for Hire

January 24, 2009

Embracing the humanity of your customers has another distinct advantage — customers can also help you run your business. Companies that recognize that their customers are thinking/feeling/doing human beings often learn to work effectively with them to operate and improve organizations.  This has cost advantages, of course, but it also opens up new opportunities for increased quality and differentiation.

Intuit is a great example of a company that leverages their customers as contributors.  Intuit actively engages customers in everything from coming up with new product ideas to answering service questions from other customers.  Employees still do the bulk of the work at Intuit, but customers improve their work at almost every step in the value chain. Threadless, the fast- growing T-shirt company, takes this customer operating role a step further by using customers to create the vast majority of new product designs.  At Threadless, employees improve the work done by customers.

Customer insight and creativity is among the most underutilized assets in organizations today. Particularly in our current economic climate, it’s worth it for most companies to explore ways that their customers can play a more active role in creating the products and services they consume.

Rick Steps Up, Caroline Steps Down

January 23, 2009

It’s been an important few days. Let’s revisit two key protagonists, Rick Warren and Caroline Kennedy.

Caroline has exited, with varying amounts of grace, depending on which version of the story you believe. She decided this was not her moment, likely at the urging of a governor who is very sensitive to not being treated like one. Paterson was the wrong guy to try to push around with an inevitability narrative. He and/or she made the right call, and I hope this is the beginning, not the end, of a more public career for her. The world is hungry for role models of smart, strong women who can compete and win on their ideas and talent. I think she has it in her, and now we may find out.

Rick rose to occasion. He spoke with a degree of humility he rarely reveals in his public persona, and his passion for the moment electrified the crowd. He used his controversial platform to clarify that “we are Americans, united not by race, or religion, or blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all.” He asked for forgiveness “when we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the earth with the respect that they deserve,” and for “a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches, and civility in our attitudes, even when we differ.”

His message moved me on the deepest level, and I was not the only one holding back tears in a packed auditorium in the People’s Republic of Cambridge, Massachusetts. He lost a few people with the overtly Christian Lord’s Prayer, but his personal framing of the prayer and his overall message of inclusion invited the crowd to give him the benefit of the doubt. He seemed like an altered man to me, and I hope that this is the version of him that emerges from this controversy. Like I said, he could be a truly righteous force in the world.

Oh, and we have a new president, who in an instant may have healed the nation’s deepest wound and created a sense of possibility on a global scale. Not bad for a few days.

Fix the Copier

January 22, 2009

This same type of “calcification,” as you call it, can also creep into attitudes towards employees. Early in my career I worked at a company where there was minimal trust between employees and managers. Someone low in the organizational hierarchy ripped out an ad from a magazine that said, “It’s the Magical Thing About Business – Start Treating People Like Your Most Important Assets and Suddenly That’s What They Become.” She made a copy on the always-broken copy machine and put it up outside her depressing orange cubicle, and it really rocked the culture. It was so clear to all of us that this particular mental model was not one of the organization’s basic assumptions. The magic at work in this place was closer to “treat adults like children and watch time reverse itself.” I left because I started to hate the petty, negative person I was when I came to work everyday.

One reason I’ve always liked working in professional services is that it’s so culturally explicit in most firms that they’re competing on the talent of the people they hire.  This belief guides everything, from the distribution of decision rights (decentralized) to the innovation process (employee-driven) and, yes, even to the choice in copier (always working). Why waste such a precious asset’s time on jammed paper?

This type of culture gives everyone a reason to show up and step up. I think the biggest lost opportunity in most organizations is the unrealized potential of the people clocking in everyday, at least the fraction that’s profoundly bored. The majority of us are desperate to be engaged, and since most organizations aren’t inviting that level of engagement, all that unused capacity is now on Facebook at 10:30 in the morning – unless it’s troubleshooting with the IT department.

The Customer is Always Human

January 21, 2009

Political systems are not the only complex systems that can harden themselves against the people they’re designed to serve. Companies, too, can become disconnected from the humanity of their customers, often without even realizing it. This makes service difficult to provide, much less service excellence. In my experience, a key responsibility of managers is to actively fight this type of “calcification” by shaping the mental models that guide employee behavior.

I find David Neeleman, former CEO of JetBlue, to be a helpful role model. Mr. Neeleman would fly JetBlue at least once a month, working as a flight attendant, meeting customers, modeling the unscripted norms he wanted everyone else to embody. He found that once a month was about the right frequency to ensure that employee attitudes towards customers were resilient enough to withstand the calcification pull. I have seen many service slogans at companies, often variations on the “customer is always right.” My advice is to modify this to the “customer is always human” and find ways to make this mental model a central tenet of an organization’s culture. It’s an investment that will improve service at least as much as the best of training programs.

If You Remember Nothing Else

January 19, 2009

lasanthaLasantha Wickrematunga

A Sri Lankan journalist is dead, in what appears to be a classic political hit job. Three days before his assassination he wrote his own obituary, which accuses the government of responsibility and searches for meaning in his life and probable death.  The Sunday Leader, the aptly-named paper he edited, published his extraordinary reflections, which are worth reading.  Thank you, Louise, for sharing them.

The story is as familiar as it is wrenching. The cost of an abbreviated life, of any life and of this life. The wife and children left behind. A man killed for his testimony, small t, for bearing witness to the failings of the governing class. 

His departing hope is that the “human spirit will endure and flourish” and overcome the political impulse to contain it. This dream is also familiar. Most political movements begin as journeys towards dignity not dominance. Rosa was tired of sitting in the back of the bus.

But the human spirit is messy. All that enduring and flourishing can be decidedly inconvenient to those in charge, and a classic path to oppression and worse begins by shaving a dimension or two off the humanity of opponents.

We are much easier to manage in this reduced form.  Once we’re corralled into some kind of “other” category, once our many human qualities get boiled down to one – to our link to the other party, religion, ethnicity – we’re easier to push around. We’re easier to blame, easier to deny access and rights, easier to assassinate. This voice from the grave spoke directly to those on the receiving end of the dehumanizing backlash of power:

“If you remember nothing else, let it be this: the Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled.”

He understood how radical it was to see the full humanity of the people he served.  We often struggle to define the essence of leadership, but that may be it.