My latest essay for Harvard Business Review. You can read it here.
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In these head-spinning times, the challenge for leaders is not to out-hustle, out-muscle, or out-maneuver the competition. It is to out-think the competition in ways big and small, to develop a unique point of view about the future and get there before anyone else does. The best leaders Iâ€™ve gotten to know arenâ€™t just the boldest thinkers; they are the most insatiable learners.
Roy Spence, perhaps the most interested (and interesting) advertising executive Iâ€™ve ever met, recently published a book called The Ten Essential Hugs of Life, a funny and moving take on the roots of success. Among his wise and folksy pieces of advice (â€śHug your failures,â€ť â€śHug your fears,â€ť â€śHug yourselfâ€ť) is a call to â€śHug your firstsâ€ť â€” to seek out new sources of inspiration, to visit a lab whose work you donâ€™t really understand, to attend a conference you shouldnâ€™t be at. â€śWhen youâ€™re a kid,â€ť he says, â€śevery day is full of firsts, full of new experiences. As you get older, your firsts become fewer and fewer. If you want to stay young, you have to work to keep trying new things.
Over at HBR, you can read my latest blog post, on why "The Best Leaders Are Insatiable Learners."
One of the most ubiquitous aphorisms in business is that the best leaders understand the need to "walk the talk"â€”that is, their behavior and day-to-day actions have to match the aspirations they have for their colleagues and organization. But the more time I spend with game-changing innovators and high-performing companies, the more I appreciate the need for leaders to "talk the walk"â€”that is, to be able to explain, in language that is unique to their field and compelling to their colleagues and customers, why what they do matters and how they expect to win.
The only sustainable for of business leadership is thought leadership. And leaders that think differently about their business invariably talk about it differently as well. Over at Harvard Business Review, I explore the role of language in leadership. You can read the post here.
Last week, the front page of the New York Times carried an in-depth report on a â€śbroad and transformative trendâ€ť in Russia. It had nothing to do with more democracy or less corruption. It had to do with better customer serviceâ€”specifically, an intense focus inside Aeroflot, the infamous Russian airline, to teach flight attendants how to smile.
â€śAnna, you just showed her the champagne bottle but didnâ€™t say anything,â€ť one instructor coaxed a young employee. â€śThis is the silent service of Soviet times. You need to talk to her. And you need to smile and smile and smile.â€ť
I found two things about the report especially noteworthy. First, these basic reminders are having a revolutionary impact at Aeroflot. According to the Times, customer surveys indicate that the airline now has the best service of any carrier in Eastern Europe, including the best the West has to offer.
Second, Aeroflotâ€™s program comes at a time when the business culture in the United States seems to be questioning the importance, the value, even the authenticity of human-to-human connections. In an era of cutthroat competition, deep-seated cynicism, and the digital disruption of everything, does it make sense to make big bets on the power of small acts of kindness?
Over at HBR, I just posted an essay about the power of emotional labor and why, in a world being reshaped by technology, authentic gestures of humanity count for so much. You can read it here.
There are all sorts of reasons why so many big organizations can be slow to make changes that everyone agrees need to be made. â€śOur current margins are too good, even though the business is being eroded by new competitors.â€ť â€śOur current products are still popular, even though a new generation of offerings is getting traction.â€ť â€śOur current distribution system canâ€™t reach the customers we need to reach to build a new business.â€ť
In other words,Â most leaders and organizations are really good at quantifying the risks of trying something bold or striking out in a new direction. What are the downsides of and obstacles to introducing a new product or targeting a new market? They are far less adept at reckoning honestly with the risks of staying the course. Whatâ€™s the worst that can happen if we do more of the same?
In a very real sense, the first job of leadership is to identify and overcome the costs of complacency. To persuade colleagues at every level that there are genuine risks for the failure to take risksâ€”that the only thing they have to fear, is the fear of change itself.
Over at HBR, I explain why "Playing It Safe Is Riskier than You Think."
I devote most of this blog to reckoning with the future of business and learning from organizations and leaders that are helping to invent the future. But I hope youâ€™ll indulge just a bit of nostalgia about the past. It was twenty years ago this Fall that Alan Webber and I finalized our business plan and created a â€śprototypeâ€ť issue of Fast Company. Weâ€™re in the throes of organizing a reunion to commemorate the anniversary, to reassemble the old gang and toast old times, so Iâ€™ve been thinking a lot about the early days and thumbing through my well-worn copy of that prototype.
As it turns out, one of the very first articles in that very first issue is a smart and entertaining list compiled by E.F. Borisch, product manager at a long-established outfit called Milwaukee Gear Company. Borischâ€™s article was titled, â€ś50 Reasons Why We Cannot Change,â€ť and it offered a clever and entertaining collection of objections to and worries about the hard work of making real progress. Reason #1: â€śWeâ€™ve never done it before.â€ť Reason #4: â€śWe tried it before.â€ť Reason #13: â€śOur competitors are not doing it.â€ť Reason #17: â€śSales says it canâ€™t be done.â€ť Reason #18: â€śThe service department wonâ€™t like it.â€ť Reason #45: â€śWeâ€™re doing all right as it is.â€ť Reason #50: â€śItâ€™s impossible.â€ť
Now hereâ€™s the punch line: E.F. Borisch compiled his list back in 1959, and published it in an obscure journal called Product Engineering. What we found so amazing about the list when we reprinted it in 1993â€”and what remains just as amazing twenty years laterâ€”is that most leaders in most organizations face precisely the same set of worries and pushbacks today.
The more things change, it seems, the more the objections to change remain the same.
So what have we learned in the twenty years since Fast Company was created, or the 54 years since E.F. Borisch compiled his list? Over at Harvard Business Review, I suggest five simple principles to change how we make change. You can read the essay here.
This coming Thursday, as part of series of activities in support of Small Business Month, the folks at PNC Bank are hosting a one-hour Webinar with me. The target audience for the session is entrepreneurs, senior leaders of fast-growing companies, young people with little more than the germ of an idea or a rough business plan--not to mention anyone else who wants to shake things up inside their company or do something new in their industry.
The Webinar will begin at 8:30 AM Eastern time on Thursday May 16, You can register here. I hope you will join!
Iâ€™d like to say I was surprised by the wave of commentary triggered by my most recent post over at Harvard Business Review, but I had a feeling it would get a big reaction. In the essay, titled â€śItâ€™s More Important to Be Kind than Clever,â€ť I told the story of a touching gesture by a store manager at Panera Bread toward a customer undergoing chemotherapy, described the huge social-media phenomenon the gesture unleashed, and posed two simple questions: â€śWhat is it about business that makes it so hard to be kind? And what kind of businesspeople have we become when small acts of kindness feel so rare?â€ť
Those questions obviously struck a nerve with readers, who spent weeks discussing why and how weâ€™ve drummed basic emotions, and simple acts of decency, out of so much of day-to-day business life. As I argued in my earlier post, â€śIn a world that is being reshaped by the relentless advance of technology, what stands out are acts of kindness and compassion that remind us what it means to be human.â€ť Now itâ€™s time to raise the obvious next question: How do we as leaders encourage, spread, and make more â€śordinaryâ€ť ways of behaving that today seem extraordinary? Are there clever ways for leaders to help their organizations become more kind.
Those are huge questions, of course, but my basic answer to is for leaders to think and act in ways that are designed to bring out the best in whomever they encounter. That is, to spend less time scoring, critiquing, and correcting colleagues who make mistakes, and to spend more time identifying and rewarding colleagues who behave the way we wish everyone would behave. Leaders who engage in relentless fault-finding canâ€™t help but lead to a culture of bloodless execution. Leaders who celebrate small acts of kindness, who reward moments of connection, give everyone permission to look for opportunities to have a genuine human impact.
One of the more heart-warming stories to zoom around the Internet lately involves a young man, his dying grandmother, and a bowl of clam chowder from Panera Bread. Itâ€™s a little story that offers big lessons about service, brands, and the human side of businessâ€”a story that underscores why efficiency should never come at the expense of humanity.
Marketing types have latched on to this story as an example of the power of social media and â€śvirtual word-of-mouthâ€ť to boost a companyâ€™s reputation. But I see the reaction to the gesture as an example of something elseâ€”the hunger among customers, employees, and all of us to engage with companies on more than just dollars-and-cents terms. In a world that is being reshaped by the relentless advance of technology, what stands out are acts of compassion and connection that remind us what it means to be human.
My new post for HBR explains why â€śItâ€™s More Important to Be Kind than Clever.â€ť You can read it here.