Feedback — Do It Right or Not At All

October 21, 2009

I had the rare pleasure of spending a weekend in Bermuda with six talented and dynamic friends.  Our ambitions vary widely at this point in our lives, despite the similarity of our professional DNA (we all met as thirtysomething women at Harvard Business School). Some of us are gunning for top spots at some of the world’s most competitive companies.  Some, like me, are still searching for the right voice and path.  Some are embracing motherhood as a vocation.

Some are doing all of the above.

I had three clear takeaways from the weekend.  One, I need my friends.  I need a strong team around me to have any hope of taking the ride of modern living with sufficient grace.  Two, I need a better plan for declaring my marital status in countries that don’t recognize my marriage.  I was really stumped when the border guard asked for clarification when I couldn’t decide whether I was a “Miss” or “Mrs,” which is a disservice to the screaming toddlers in line behind me.  And, three, feedback systems are not working very well in most organizations.

All of us had had frustrating recent experiences giving or receiving feedback within the structure imposed by an organization, and the pattern seemed material.  In many cases, formal reviews were incredibly resource-consuming (measured in months of corporate effort, not weeks or days), with an often shockingly unclear payoff.  Informal feedback was regularly ad-hoc, clumsy and unproductive.

In this focus group of seven, the examples where feedback worked had occurred in organizations with the following characteristics:

  • Improvement was an integral part of the culture, in all areas.
  • People were considered the firm’s primary strategic asset.
  • Investments had been made in feedback training – how to give, receive and solicit effective feedback — not just in compliance with the appropriate tools and forms.
  • Feedback was actually incorporated into the incentives and promotions structure, not just rhetorically incorporated.
  • The feedback model reflected the firm’s strategy and values, as well as the skills needed to perform a particular role.  As a result, the process connected participants to the organization’s larger purpose.

All of us, at some point, had endured feedback in organizations that lacked these characteristics.  These experiences were, at best, harmless and distracting, and at worst, damaging for participants both professionally and personally.  The consensus, non-scientific view from the group?  It may be better to have no formal feedback system than a bad one or even a mediocre one, which I would argue describes too many organizations today.  Too many are checking the box on a review process, then getting on with the real business of the firm.  This choice, it seems, is not free.


The Unstable Pack Leader

October 13, 2009

Amy Wallace of the NY Times just offered up a rambling, poetic tribute to Cesar Millan, better known as the “Dog Whisperer,” for the NY Times business section.  Millan has an extraordinary personal story.  He was a poor kid from rural Mexico who crossed the border illegally and now presides over a dog-themed media empire that grosses annual revenues in the “mid seven figures.”  He counts Oprah and Michael Eisner among his clients.  He wants a plane.  For the dogs, of course.  Flying cargo is degrading.

Millan is in the “dog rehabilitation business.”  Or as he likes to clarify, he rehabilitates dogs and trains people.  He’s brought in to correct canine mischief, but to get there he has to teach humans how to become better leaders of their dogs.  The dogs have typically taken over the household, and he shows his clients how to reclaim and maintain their pack leader status.  The change is often instantaneous, sometimes as soon as Millan walks in the door.  This makes for great television, which is why 11 million people tune in to watch his show every week.

An uncomfortable amount of his advice is relevant to leading people, too.  According to Millan, dogs thrive with generous amounts of exercise, discipline and affection.  They love to be led, and are less anxious and more productive when someone else is clearly in charge.  They have an overwhelming preference for pack leaders who bring “calm, assertive energy” to the task.  (Millan’s worldview gave me a new lens on the showdown between No Drama Obama and John “The Maverick” McCain.  Senator McCain has many strengths, but “calm, assertive energy” is not among them.)

What doesn’t translate from dogs to people?  According to Millan, dogs “won’t be around unstable energy. That’s how much integrity they have.”  One of Cesar’s favorite observations, in fact, is that human beings are the only animals that will follow unstable pack leaders.  That’s how much integrity we lack is the not-so-subtle implication.

I agree with the observation, but I read it a bit differently.  I think we’ll tolerate instability in our leaders not because we lack integrity on a mass scale, but because we’re so hungry for leadership, even hungrier than our four-legged friends.  Our progress as individuals and organizations and nations is so dependent on it, in fact, that we’ll override our basic instincts and follow people who aren’t really up for the task.  Close enough, we seem to conclude, with sometimes devastating consequences.


Culture Change at GM: Declaring it Doesn’t Make it So

October 9, 2009

The NYT reported that the board of GM wanted the culture of the organization to change:

In the interim, Mr. Henderson stressed that G.M.’s new board was pushing management to speed up decisions on new products and install a culture devoted to pleasing customers.

I’m not optimistic. The first red flag is the title of the article, G.M. Is Adapting to a New Culture, Chief Says.  In my experience, culture doesn’t change upon decree from the top.  Culture exists because of years of reinforcing norms and behaviors.  It exists because smart people constantly pick up on how status is gained and which behaviors are valued in practice (not in the introduction to the annual report). Changing culture requires unraveling and replacing that normative system in a comprehensive way.  The analogy that always comes to mind is clearing a patch of land to be farmed. You can’t just cut down the trees and declare victory. You have to get your hands dirty beneath the surface, digging up roots and turning over the soil.

In other words, you have to address the underlying conditions that allowed certain behaviors to thrive in the organization. Where to begin?  I suggest starting with my favorite question, now familiar to our readers:  why would reasonable, well-intentioned people do what they’re doing?  Once you can answer this question with an open heart, once you can identify the organizational drivers of the actions and choices you want to change, then you can begin to influence them.

Maybe the article got it wrong, but if it’s even close to correct, the 90 days allocated to this activity at GM will be wildly insufficient.


Unsolicited Advice for Obama’s Gay Speech

October 6, 2009
The President is delivering the keynote address for the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Washington dinner. The context includes frustration in the gay community for his mixed signals on reforming policies such as Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act. He and his team have also surprised observers by their lack of demonstrated grace on the issue of gay rights.  My suggestions for getting it right Saturday night:
  1. Assume a high sensitivity to trivializing the issues. Keep it sober, earnest, honest, direct.
  2. We don’t believe you when you say you’re outsourcing this one to the Bible.
  3. Gays in the military is not a hypothetical issue. Gay soldiers are now serving and dying for America. You are their Commander-in-Chief.
  4. This is about identity, not lifestyle or sex. Convince yourself of that before you take the podium.
  5. Serious scholars think your political hero was probably a homosexual.
  6. There are dangers to over-learning the lessons of the Clinton administration (see over-correction on healthcare strategy). The don’t-waste-your-political-capital advice is obsolete.
  7. Not to alarm you, but the crazy thing about us is that we’re everywhere and nowhere. We’re safely in that “other” camp, and then suddenly we’re your colleagues and your spouses and your children. Just ask Dick.
  8. Tell it to us straight, if you will. We’re very good at separating posture from truth. It’s one of the closet’s many gifts.
  9. Courage and caution can’t coexist for long.
  10. Lose the Blackberry holster. A fashion don’t.
  11. Bring Michelle.
  12. Man up.


Illusions of Customer Loyalty

October 3, 2009

As I read a WSJ article on the European grocer Asda’s new customer loyalty program, I was impressed to be learning about an actual loyalty program.   Most organizations create customer retention programs and then mistakenly call them loyalty programs.  This wouldn’t be a big deal, except that a mislabeled loyalty program can prevent a company from creating a real one.

Let me explain.  When companies pay customers to try out their products and services, it’s part of a customer acquisition program.  When companies pay customers to remain customers, it’s part of a customer retention program.  When companies invest in activities that increase customers’ willingness to pay, they have a customer loyalty program.  When a loyalty program works, it increases the chance that your customers will choose you over a lower-priced competitor.

European grocers have been touting their “loyalty” cards for years, with Tesco claiming the largest one.  These are effectively retention programs, where customers earn future discounts based on their current purchase behavior.  Companies like Tesco are bribing their customers to remain customers.  This is a classic retention tactic.

I was struck by the following quote in the article, which revealed that Asda might really be going after a loyalty and not retention program:

Making a dig at rivals’ customer-loyalty programs, Asda Chief Executive and President Andy Bond said he thought customer loyalty couldn’t be bought with plastic points or discount vouchers.

Asda is experimenting with a very different set of activities then its competitors.  Instead of offering discounts, it’s involving its loyal customers in strategic decisions such as which products to offer and how they should be arranged in the store.  Some customers will be given early access to products so that their opinions will have more influence.  Good customers will effectively earn the right to be a part of the company’s choice-making process. They will earn the right to co-create the value they eventually consume.

I’m intrigued by this idea because of the shared benefits of greater customer involvement — Asda’s customers make the service better, and become more devoted to the brand along the way.  Everybody wins.  And if customers turn out to be very helpful, Asda will compensate them accordingly:

…starting early next year, Asda also will reward customers who come up with the “brightest idea” that saves the business money. If the suggestion is implemented and saves Asda £2 million, a customer could be in line to receive a check for £100,000, or 5% of the first year’s saving.

Again, that line between customers and employees blurs.