Koehn on Obama, Lincoln and Leadership

January 25, 2010

As usual, Nancy Koehn of HBS has some provocative insights into Obama’s leadership challenges, wrapped up in a rich historical package.   In a recent contribution to the Washington Post’s “On Leadership” column, Koehn compares Obama’s challenges to the political, military and economic disasters threatening to overwhelm Lincoln at the end of his first year in office:

…the Civil War was going badly for the Union, and his main general, George McClellan, refused to march on Confederate troops; radical elements in his own party…concluded the president was incompetent (indeed, Lincoln’s attorney general, Edward Bates, said the president “lacked will and purpose, and I greatly fear he, has not the power to command”); his treasury secretary had few funds to keep fighting the war, telling Lincoln he could raise no more; and most Northerners were impatient for a more vigorous prosecution of the war.  As Lincoln himself said in early January to the Quartermaster General,”The bottom is out of the tub…What shall I do?”

Koehn finds inspiration for the Obama Administration in Lincoln’s ultimate response:

What Lincoln did in the first six months of 1862–with critically important consequences for the fate of the country–was to find his own leadership backbone. In the crucible of his own failure and anxiety that winter, he found a clearer focus, a new resolve about the importance and purpose of saving the Union–a resolve that would by mid-summer result in his drafting the Emancipation Proclamation, a new well of confidence in himself and his position that would help him discern whom he could trust and who had to be fired around him, and finally, a deeper understanding of the power of the presidency and how to use that power in service to his mission.

She closes by connecting the dots.  It’s good advice for anyone looking for their leadership mojo in a context of doubt and despair:

Barack Obama’s most surprising weakness in his first year as president has been his own inability to find his leadership backbone and to draw from this core strength and animating purpose to really lead — that is, to focus on the most important problems, to articulate and then embrace the central mission of his presidency, and then to take up the reins of presidential power to advance this mission, even at the expense of challenge and hostility from other powerful players.


Will Amazon Kill the Zappos Magic?

January 22, 2010

In a recent NYT interview Tony Hsieh (pronounced “shay”), CEO of Zappos, described his management priorities in this order:  culture first, service second.  This may come as a surprise to anyone who has first-hand experience with the Zappos service model, which consistently produces excellence at virtually every customer touch point.  I myself was surprised.  I’ve heard many executives talk about the need to align culture with service, but I’ve rarely heard someone describe culture as their organization’s primary purpose.

When pushed to explain what got him there, Hsieh reflected poignantly on a prior company he built and sold (for a great deal of money) that had a culture he and others hated.  He vowed never to let it happen again:

When it was starting out, when it was just 5 or 10 of us, it was like your typical dot-com. We were all really excited, working around the clock, sleeping under our desks, had no idea what day of the week it was. But we didn’t know any better and didn’t pay attention to company culture.

By the time we got to 100 people, even though we hired people with the right skill sets and experiences, I just dreaded getting out of bed in the morning…when I joined Zappos about a year later, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t make the same mistake…in terms of the company culture going downhill. So for us, at Zappos, we really view culture as our No. 1 priority. We decided that if we get the culture right, most of the stuff, like building a brand around delivering the very best customer service, will just take care of itself.

How do you “get the culture right?”  In Hsieh’s case, he and his team decided to live and die by a series of core values:

…we formalized the definition of our culture into 10 core values. We wanted to come up with committable core values, meaning that we would actually be willing to hire and fire people based on those values, regardless of their individual job performance. Given that criteria, it’s actually pretty tough to come up with core values.

I was particularly moved by his take on his own role in designing and protecting the Zappos culture, which involved a central responsibility to create an environment where other people will thrive:

Maybe an analogy is, if you think of the employees and culture as plants growing, I’m not trying to be the biggest plant for them to aspire to. I’m more trying to architect the greenhouse where they can all flourish and grow.

So what happens to the greenhouse once Amazon buys it? I wrestled with this question when I wrote about Zappos culture in a post last year, as I was getting ready to go on a case visit.  We wrote the case just as the Amazon purchase was going through (for just under a billion dollars).

Amazon has clearly indicated its respect for Zappos culture and its desire to leave the company alone to continue to deliver wold-class service.  My hope is that Amazon can resist the temptation that has tripped up so many other acquirers, the temptation to provide a bit too much help the moment the acquired misses its numbers, a tweak here, a tweak there, to improve its performance.  That kind of help can be a lethal blow to the true drivers of a company’s value.  In the case of Zappos, I’m not convinced its culture could survive this well-intentioned support.


Google’s Service Problem

January 15, 2010

The NYT recently described Google’s customer service supporting its new Android phone.  The article described how customers can’t call Google for help and that it may take up to 48 hours for the company to respond to email messages.  The article referenced one customer who has been trying for a week to talk to a live person. Still no luck getting through.

This article made the front page of the NYT business section because it’s a story about Google, not because it’s a particularly rare or surprising service phenomenon.  When a service model designed for one type of customer needs (e.g., using web-based adwords) is then used to serve an entirely different set of needs (e.g., after-sales service for a new type of phone), there is predictable turmoil.

The interesting part will be to watch how Google responds to the realization that it’s trying to meet wildly divergent service needs — what I call distinct operating segments — with a single operating model.  In my experience, the company has some choices to make if it wants to deliver excellent or even adequate service.  Option A is to serve one operating segment well and essentially ignore the other.  That’s not as bad as it sounds.  Southwest Airlines optimizes its service model for low-maintenance travelers. When high-maintenance travelers come along, it doesn’t turn them away, but it also doesn’t work very hard to accommodate them.  Southwest serves one segment with excellence and asks everyone else to adjust.  This is the definition of focused service.

Option B is to create a distinct service model for each operating segment.  If Southwest is an example of focused service, I call this approach multi-focused service.  To execute well on a multi-focused structure, Google must convince itself that multiple service models are better off under the same corporate roof.  I’ll talk about that more in later posts, but the key is shared services.  While shared services are often appealing at first glance, the model can be very difficult to pull off.  (Here’s a link to an HBR article where I touched on the concept of shared services briefly at the end.)

There are many examples of excellent organizations operating with either focused or multi-focused service models. But there are far more examples of organizations doing neither.  Instead, these organizations work hard not to disappoint either operating segment too much, which ensures a limit to the anger and outrage, but also ensures mediocrity.  It’s the path of least resistance because customers complain more about bad service than they do about the absence of excellence.  A hard truth about service is that you often have to disappoint some people in order to delight others.

The responses by two of Google’s employees seem to foreshadow the direction it’s taking:

Katie Watson, a Google spokeswoman, said no one was available to speak about the service problems. But in an e-mail statement, she said, “Solving customer support issues is extremely important to us.”

Andy Rubin, Google vice president for engineering in charge of Android technology, gave a similar response, indicating that its challenge was to reduce its email response time from days to a couple of hours.  These statements suggest that Google’s still committed to using its existing service model to serve an entirely new operating segment.  I’m hopeful that abandoning this fantasy is an outcome of these initial service difficulties.


Leadership at Home

December 12, 2009

Elizabeth Weil – who is now working on a “memoir about marriage improvement” called No Cheating, No Dying – wrote a riveting piece for the New York Times Magazine about trying to improve her own relatively functional marriage.  The project occurred to her when she realized how little conscious effort she was putting into the relationship, in contrast to almost all other areas of her life (work, kids, redoing the bathroom).

I was particularly moved by two passages.  The first spoke to the link between private relationships and public impact:

In psychiatry, the term “good-enough mother” describes the parent who loves her child well enough for him to grow into an emotionally healthy adult. The goal is mental health, defined as the fortitude and flexibility to live one’s own life — not happiness. This is a crucial distinction. Similarly the “good-enough marriage” is characterized by its capacity to allow spouses to keep growing, to afford them the strength and bravery required to face the world.

And when the goal is leadership, “good-enough” may not be enough. One pattern we’ve observed in our own work is that people who have strong, energizing private relationships, whether with friends or family or partners, have an easier time leading in the public sphere.  They have the emotional energy to stand up and take the inevitable hits and falls.  A counter-intuitive lesson for aspiring leaders is to strengthen their connections to their favorite people, who may not have anything to do with their vision for change.

The second paragraph that got me touched on the fundamental contract between any two people, in any organization, including a family unit.  As a note of caution, I’m giving away the ending here:

Over the months Dan and I applied ourselves to our marriage, we struggled, we bridled, we jockeyed for position. Dan grew enraged at me; I pulled away from him. I learned things about myself and my relationship with Dan I had worked hard not to know. But as I watched Dan sleep — his beef-heart recipe earmarked, his power lift planned — I felt more committed than ever. I also felt our project could begin in earnest: we could demand of ourselves, and each other, the courage and patience to grow.

The courage and patience to grow. One definition of leadership may be to pull those things out of ourselves and each other.


The Patient Has a Soul

November 25, 2009

The title is from the opening pages of the Cleveland Clinic’s Annual Report, which quotes Dr. Rene Favaloro:  “the patient is not only an illness, he has a soul.”  I came across the quote as I watched my colleague, Ananth Raman, teach a class in our Achieving Breakthrough Service executive education program at HBS.  Ananth took the class through an incredible discussion of why a healthcare provider would need to remind employees that a patient has a soul.  His larger point was that we can get so lost in the quest for operational excellence that we lose sight of the humanity of the people we’re serving.

Ananth titled his talk “Empathy and Execution.”  One of the reasons it resonated so deeply with me is that it intersects with what I’ve been stressing in my work with executives, which is the need to set high standards for their people, but to do so with high empathy.  Getting one right with out the other is much easier than getting both right, as I explored in a previous post.

Ananth convinced me that this frame is important for customers, too.  In fact, I’m increasingly persuaded that one of the secrets to healthy organizations is a culture of compassion and excellence around all human interactions.  These values benefit everyone in the system — managers, staff, suppliers, investors and, yes, customers. I’m finding they work for my toddler, too.


Don’t Cut the Coffee

November 24, 2009

Antarctic explorers have discovered two crates of Scotch trapped in the ice, which Sir Ernest Shackleton abandoned during his disastrous attempt to cross the frozen continent in 1909. The bottles are appropriate artifacts of his exceptional leadership instincts.

The journey never should have been attempted, for all sorts of reasons, but Shackleton emerged as perhaps the greatest crisis leader the world has ever seen in action. I’ve written about Shackleton’s emotional leadership before, which I believe explains his success.  As his men faced unspeakable odds, Shackleton stalked their despair relentlessly, snuffing it out in skillful and creative ways.  He turned their fear into faith, rage into love.

Food and drink played a starring role in Shackleton’s management strategy.  Ship cook was a high-status position in Shackletonia, and meal rituals were followed religiously, even as doubt began to threaten the team’s discipline. Rations were rarely cut, even when it wasn’t clear where the next meal would be found.  And just when the team’s endurance was about to give out, just when exhaustion was about to prevail, a round of snacks and hot milk would magically appear.

Food was fuel, of course, but its emotional nourishment was often just as valuable.  Shared meals affirmed the team’s interdependence and replaced unproductive animal spirits with reminders of everyone’s dignity and humanity.  Shackleton’s men were absorbing unimaginable stress, and feeding them was a way to both honor and reduce it.  Nothing says, “I feel your pain” like a glass of warm milk.

Shackleton has lots to teach us about leading in crises, and I’d put sharing a good meal at the top of the list.  I fear this lesson is being lost as cost pressures rise in today’s economic uncertainty.  That daily investment in coffee and donuts may seem like a painless thing to cut, but I think most organizations grossly underestimate the real value of feeding their people.  Take it from Ernest.  Wine and dine the team.  They may even deserve a toast of well-chilled, 100-year-old Scotch.


Unsolicited Advice for Palin’s “Going Rogue” Tour

November 15, 2009
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Sarah Palin wants the option to run for president in 2012.  Seven out of ten Americans think that’s a bad idea. Here’s my advice for starting to win them over on the book tour:

  1. Pivot from past to future relatively quickly.
  2. Voters are craving steady hands and a “buck stops here” approach to leadership. Keep the score settling to a minimum.
  3. Have a strategy for creating jobs.
  4. Explain your resignation in a way that reveals an interest in governing.
  5. Sarah v. The Staffers shouldn’t be a fair fight. The narrative that you got rolled by these slick, chain-smoking Washington types doesn’t position you well to lead a nation.
  6. The best version of you doesn’t take herself very seriously, but takes the fate of the nation seriously. Signal both.
  7. We’re exhausted by anxiety. Tap into our aspirations.
  8. Remind us that you’re the adult and Levi’s the child. Again, that shouldn’t be a fair fight.
  9. Take responsibility for some piece of McCain-Palin. In particular, own your interview missteps. You’re auditioning for Spokesperson-in-Chief.
  10. Your base won’t be the only ones buying tickets to the show. Talk to the rest of us, too, for at least part of the time.
  11. Wear incredible shoes (see #7).