How to replace vague ideas about your career with strategies that will help you achieve your objectives at work and everywhere else
Up front, I wish to acknowledge my gratitude to Atul Gwande for the excellent material he provides in The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. It is impossible to know how many lives this distinguished surgeon has saved because of his eloquent advocacy of checklists in the healthcare field. He is also a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health.
In the business world, eliminating waste (of both hours and dollars) is among the most important strategic objectives and I think the material James Kerr provides in his book will help countless executives to formulate objectives, set direction, and manage initiatives that help organizations to be more productive and more efficient, hence less wasteful.
He calls his book a “guide” and it does indeed provide an abundance of sound, enlightened guidance but it can also be viewed as the articulation of a regimen that can help executives (i.e. those who execute) to lead and manage change initiatives effectively, to be sure, but also to lead and manage other initiatives such as setting priorities, formulating and implementing strategies, allocating resources, recruiting/interviewing/hiring the talent and experience needed, strengthening client relationships, and establishing and then sustaining a workplace culture within which innovation is most likely to thrive. Kerr identifies ten specific objectives on “The Executive Checklist” (Page 3) and then devotes a separate chapter to each within his lively as well as thorough narrative. This Checklist is best viewed as “a framework to be used to institute overarching, enterprise-wide transformation.” Thoughtfully, Kerr provides a checklist of items for each objective on that Checklist. He carefully identifies the “what” of each and then devotes most of his attention to explaining the “why” and demonstrating the “how” of doing it effectively.
In the Postscript, James Kerr shares his “Bold Vision for Tomorrow’s Organizations” and it is indeed bold. However, in my opinion, what it calls for is do-able by almost any organization, whatever its size and nature may be. There are no Big Hairy Audacious Goals among his affirmations and invocations. His approach reminds me of the one that Jørgen Vig Knudstorp and his leadership team took, in 2004, when they began to transform LEGO – “brick by brick” – into one of the world’s most innovative as well as most profitable and fastest growing toy companies, in ways and to an extent once thought impossible. It seems to me that, leaders of other organizations that need to be transformed would be well-advised to consider a strategy of achieving that “checklist by checklist.” Just a thought….
Those who share my high regard for this brilliant book are urged to check out two others: Dean R. Spitzer’s Transforming Performance Measurement: Rethinking the Way We Measure and Drive Organizational Success, and, Enterprise Architecture as Strategy: Creating a Foundation for Business Execution, co-authored by Jeanne W. Ross, Peter Weill, and David Robertson.
According to mckinsey.com readers, these were the most popular articles during the Second Quarter of 2014. Here’s a direct link to reading any/all of them. 1. Change leader, change thyself: Anyone who pulls the organization in new directions must look inward as well as outward. [More to follow each, 1-10] 2. The seven traits of effective digital enterprises: To stay competitive, companies must stop experimenting with digital and commit to transforming themselves into full digital businesses. Here are seven traits that successful digital enterprises share. 3. Strategic principles for competing in the digital age: Digitization is rewriting the rules of competition, with incumbent companies most at risk of being left behind. Read about six critical decisions CEOs must make to address the strategic challenge posed by the digital revolution. 4. Lead at your best: Five simple exercises can help you recognize, and start to shift, the mind-sets that limit your potential as a leader. 5. Digitizing the consumer decision journey: In a world where physical and virtual environments are rapidly converging, companies need to meet customer needs anytime, anywhere. Here’s how. 6. High-performing boards: What’s on their agenda? Directors report that they have a greater impact as they move beyond the basics. 7. Can strategic planning pay off?: In this classic McKinsey Quarterly article, Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., proposes four guidelines to help strategic planners make the crucial leap from plans to decisions. 8. Grow fast or die slow: Software and online-services companies can quickly become billion-dollar giants, but the recipe for sustained growth remains elusive. 9. Disruptive entrepreneurs: An interview with Eric Ries: Companies are all too aware of the disruptive power of technology. In this video interview, the author of The Lean Startup argues that the competitive reaction of many organizations remains fatally flawed. 10. Global flows in a digital age: The movement of goods and services, finance, and people has reached previously unimagined levels, and a new report from the McKinsey Global Institute says they could double or even triple in the next decade. A related slideshow tracks the expanding network of global flows. * * * To check out other resources, learn more about McKinsey & Company, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here. To learn more about the McKinsey Quarterly, please click here.
How to cope with the “fundamental disconnect of modern employment”
What is the “fundamental disconnect” to which Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh refer? They assert that the current employer-employee relationship is based on a dishonest conversation. How so? “Today, few companies offer guaranteed employment with a straight face; such assurances are perceived by employees as naive, disingenuous, or both…Many employees have responded by hedging their bets, jumping ship whenever as new opportunity presents itself, regardless of how much they profess their loyalty during the recruiting process or annual reviews. Both parties act in ways that blatantly contradict their official positions.”
I agree with their observations, viewed as generalizations with wide application. More often than not, employers and employees really do view each other as adversaries rather than as collaborators. I also agree with them that there is another type of relationship that would be of much greater benefit to both employers and employees. “Our goal is to provide a framework for moving from a transactional to a relational approach. Think of employment as an alliance: a mutually beneficial deal, with explicit terms, between independent players. This employment alliance provides the framework managers and employees need for the trust and investment to build powerful businesses and careers.”
They urge supervisors to promise their direct reports, “Help make our company more valuable, and we’ll make you more valuable.”
They urge direct reports to respond, “Help me grow and flourish, and I’ll help the company grow and flourish.”
So, what we have in this book is a cohesive, comprehensive, and cost-effective process or system by which to establish and then strengthen an employment relationship that is a mutually-beneficial partnership, an alliance. So viewed, it is still possible to think in terms of a team (how people work together) and of a family (how people treat each other). Allies serve their own best interests by doing all they can to help each other produce more and better work and it is also in their best interests to treat each other with compassion, appreciation, and respect.
It is no coincidence that many (most?) of the companies on the Fortune‘s annual lists of those that are most highly admired and the best to work for or also on Fortune‘s annual lists of those that are most profitable and have the greatest cap value in their industry. I suspect that these same companies also have the lowest attrition rate of valued employees and the highest number of applicants per the position that does become available.
Here specifically are several of the business issues that Hoffman, Casnocha, and Yeh can help their reader to address:
o Building alliances with employees without guaranteeing lifetime employment
o Adjusting the alliance approach to different types and levels of employees
o Building alliances with entrepreneurial employees whose ultimate values and goals differ
o Determining the nature and extent of employee networking and personal branding while “on the job”
o Managing an effective corporate alumni network with limited resources
Recent data generated by major research studies conducted by Gallup and Towers Watson (and other prominent firms) indicate that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. workplace are actively and productively engaged; the others are either passively engaged (mailing it in) or actively undermining efforts to achieve the company’s goals. The employment relationship that Hoffman, Casnocha, and Yeh endorse offers, in my opinion, the best approach to increasing substantially the number of actively and productively engaged employees. It is in their best interests, their self-interests, to do everything possible to add value to the organization that employs them if they are convinced that their employer is doing everything possible to increase, perhaps even accelerate their personal growth and professional development.
Before concluding their book, Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh observe: “Improving the microcosm of workplace relationships can have a major impact on society — job by job, team by team, company by company. The alliance may seem like a small thing next to macroeconomic proposals like overhauling the education system or reforming our regulatory regime, but it’s a small thing we can all adopt today that will generate big cumulative returns in the years to come.”
These remarks remind me of the fact that, in 2004, led by Jørgen Vig Knudstorp and his leadership team, LEGO was transformed – “brick by brick” – into one of the world’s most innovative as well as most profitable and fastest growing toy companies, in ways and to an extent once thought impossible. It seems to me that, leaders of other organizations that need to be transformed would be well-advised to consider a strategy of achieving that “alliance by alliance.” Just a thought….
o In person, fireworks launched from a barge offshore Martha’s Vineyard
o Also in person, following Arthur Fiedler’s last performance with the Boston Pops in a park along the Charles River on July 4, 1976
o A fireworks display filmed in China
To see the display in China, please click here.
I wish you a safe as well as joyous holiday weekend.
Here is a brief excerpt from an article by Nancy Andreasen for The Atlantic magazine. A leading neuroscientist who has spent decades studying creativity, she shares her research on where genius comes from, whether it is dependent on high IQ—and why it is so often accompanied by mental illness.
To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.
Illustration credit. Kyle Bean
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As a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who studies creativity, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many gifted and high-profile subjects over the years, but Kurt Vonnegut—dear, funny, eccentric, lovable, tormented Kurt Vonnegut—will always be one of my favorites. Kurt was a faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s, and participated in the first big study I did as a member of the university’s psychiatry department. I was examining the anecdotal link between creativity and mental illness, and Kurt was an excellent case study.
He was intermittently depressed, but that was only the beginning. His mother had suffered from depression and committed suicide on Mother’s Day, when Kurt was 21 and home on military leave during World War II. His son, Mark, was originally diagnosed with schizophrenia but may actually have bipolar disorder. (Mark, who is a practicing physician, recounts his experiences in two books, The Eden Express and Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So, in which he reveals that many family members struggled with psychiatric problems. “My mother, my cousins, and my sisters weren’t doing so great,” he writes. “We had eating disorders, co-dependency, outstanding warrants, drug and alcohol problems, dating and employment problems, and other ‘issues.’ ”)
While mental illness clearly runs in the Vonnegut family, so, I found, does creativity. Kurt’s father was a gifted architect, and his older brother Bernard was a talented physical chemist and inventor who possessed 28 patents. Mark is a writer, and both of Kurt’s daughters are visual artists. Kurt’s work, of course, needs no introduction.
For many of my subjects from that first study—all writers associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—mental illness and creativity went hand in hand. This link is not surprising. The archetype of the mad genius dates back to at least classical times, when Aristotle noted, “Those who have been eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia.” This pattern is a recurring theme in Shakespeare’s plays, such as when Theseus, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, observes, “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact.” John Dryden made a similar point in a heroic couplet: “Great wits are sure to madness near allied, / And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”
Compared with many of history’s creative luminaries, Vonnegut, who died of natural causes, got off relatively easy. Among those who ended up losing their battles with mental illness through suicide are Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, John Berryman, Hart Crane, Mark Rothko, Diane Arbus, Anne Sexton, and Arshile Gorky.
My interest in this pattern is rooted in my dual identities as a scientist and a literary scholar. In an early parallel with Sylvia Plath, a writer I admired, I studied literature at Radcliffe and then went to Oxford on a Fulbright scholarship; she studied literature at Smith and attended Cambridge on a Fulbright. Then our paths diverged, and she joined the tragic list above. My curiosity about our different outcomes has shaped my career. I earned a doctorate in literature in 1963 and joined the faculty of the University of Iowa to teach Renaissance literature. At the time, I was the first woman the university’s English department had ever hired into a tenure-track position, and so I was careful to publish under the gender-neutral name of N. J. C. Andreasen.
Not long after this, a book I’d written about the poet John Donne was accepted for publication by Princeton University Press. Instead of feeling elated, I felt almost ashamed and self-indulgent. Who would this book help? What if I channeled the effort and energy I’d invested in it into a career that might save people’s lives? Within a month, I made the decision to become a research scientist, perhaps a medical doctor. I entered the University of Iowa’s medical school, in a class that included only five other women, and began working with patients suffering from schizophrenia and mood disorders. I was drawn to psychiatry because at its core is the most interesting and complex organ in the human body: the brain.
I have spent much of my career focusing on the neuroscience of mental illness, but in recent decades I’ve also focused on what we might call the science of genius, trying to discern what combination of elements tends to produce particularly creative brains. What, in short, is the essence of creativity? Over the course of my life, I’ve kept coming back to two more-specific questions: What differences in nature and nurture can explain why some people suffer from mental illness and some do not? And why are so many of the world’s most creative minds among the most afflicted? My latest study, for which I’ve been scanning the brains of some of today’s most illustrious scientists, mathematicians, artists, and writers, has come closer to answering this second question than any other research to date.
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Here’s a direct link to the complete article.
Nancy C. Andreasen, M.D., Ph.D., is Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry and Director of its Neuroimaging Research Center and the Mental Health Clinical Research Center at The University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. Her most recent book is The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius, published by Plume. To check out my review of it, please click here. To learn more about her and her work, please click here.