Don Thompson is an economist and professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto. He has taught at Harvard Business School and the London School of Economics. He is author of nine books, including The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, which details his explorations in trying to understand the high end of the contemporary art market. Shark has been published in thirteen languages. His most recent book, Oracles: How Prediction Markets Turn Employees into Visionaries, was published by Harvard Business Review Press (June, 2012).
Here is an excerpt from my interview of him. To read the complete interview, please click here.
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Morris: Before discussing Oracles a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?
Thompson: A dozen brilliant people I encountered in grad school (at Berkeley) and later, in universities, businesses and government. From each I learned new things, but more important, new ways of looking at problems, and how to think outside the box.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
Thompson: My formal education included an MBA, which got me interested in problem solving, and a PhD, which furthered that interest but is also provided an essential entry point to an academic career. So the formal education part has been invaluable for my career path.
Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time?
Thompson: The importance of the soft skills involved in communication, motivation and managing.
Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles?
Thompson: Citizen Kane. The explanation is in the eyes and mind of the viewer.
Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business?
Thompson: I’ll suggest two: Michael Mauboussin’s More Than You Know: Finding Financial Wisdom in Unconventional Places (Columbia Business School Press 2008), and Cass Sunstein’s Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide (Oxford University Press, 2008). The Mauboussin book is about business, but more centrally, about making rational decisions. The Sunstein book is about how wrongheadedness gets worse when people get together in groups. Both are brilliant thinkers, I recommend anything with those names attached.
Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:
“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know.”
Thompson: Right. None of us is as smart as all of us (which is also a Japanese proverb).
Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”
Thompson: The prediction market equivalent is probably, “If you really are afraid of the answer, don’t ask the question.”
Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
Thompson: It never occurred to me that there was another option. Probably too late now.
Morris:Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”
Thompson: That is a great quote. I once was presented with its equivalent, by a Columbia marketing professor named Al Oxenfeldt, with whom I had co-authored a couple of articles and was proposing a new topic, which I had collected a lot of data on. Al said, “If something is not worth doing, it is not worth doing well.” Quite right.
Morris:In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?
Thompson: That is exactly the philosophy of Jim Lavoie and Joe Marino, co-CEOs of my favorite prediction-market company, Rite-Solutions – which is the subject of the first chapter of Oracles.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
Don cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:
Don’s faculty page, please click here
Amazon’s Oracles page, please click here.
Amazon’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark page, please click here.
Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Peter Löscher, president and C.E.O. of Siemens A.G. who was reappointed to a five-year term last week.
To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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The Trust That Makes a Team Click
Bryant: Do you remember the first time you were in a leadership position?
Löscher: I was captain of the volleyball team in high school and then in college.
Bryant: And did that role come pretty naturally to you?
Löscher: Yes. It came naturally because, at the end of the day, it’s about fostering the best performance from the people on the team. It’s less a question of how you train and your physical conditioning. The difference between a good team and a great team is usually mind-set. When you watch great games in sports, you see there’s a moment, all of a sudden, when the team clicks. It’s something that’s always caught my attention — why and how that happens with teams.
Bryant: And how do you make those moments happen?
Löscher: When you’re in business, I think the underlying principle is trust. How do you establish within a team a blind trust so that each person plays for the other? Business is about lining up a leadership team or a group of people and you rally them behind a cause or a certain direction. But the underlying strength is the trust within the team — so that you actually are no longer just playing individually at your best, but you’re also trying to understand what you can do to make the team better. And for me a defining moment in this regard was when I arrived for the first time in the United States, and had my first leadership role running a whole company.
Bryant: Tell me more about that.
Löscher: It was an agricultural group, and I had the responsibility to lead a team that stretched from Mexico to Canada. There were three different entities but one leadership team. So all of a sudden I find myself in cultural situations where I start to recognize that even though two people are speaking English, there’s a distinct cultural difference. So the challenge was how to lead a diverse team, and this was always one of my interests.
My forefathers are from Italy, my parents are Austrian, my wife is Spanish, two of our children are American and the third is Spanish, so I have the United Nations at home. You have to adapt to a diverse environment and appreciate the diversity.
My career has allowed me to hone this skill. I’ve worked in Asia. I’ve worked in Europe. I’ve worked in the U.S. When you start to run a global business you must appreciate the different environments you’re operating in and then try to combine them. When I arrived at Siemens, the global leadership team was mostly Germans with a certain cultural background, with a certain experience. Now we have a much more diverse team. The last thing you want as a leader is to have clones of yourself.
Bryant: Any other lessons learned from starting so many new jobs as you’ve moved around?
Löscher: The most important thing is, when you arrive somewhere new, that you come in without a preset agenda. I didn’t join Siemens with a leadership team in mind. I’m just the 12th C.E.O. in the history of the company, which was founded in 1847. So the culture of the company was actually formed over a long period of time, through longevity of leadership. So for me the important thing was to come in and say Siemens doesn’t need a revolution. We will go for an evolution but with speed, speed, speed.
And I said I need 100 days. Obviously the first expectations are: What are the first decisions? What will he do? I said I need 100 days because I want to talk to as many people as possible, and go around the world so that I really understand what is on people’s minds, what the issues are. I went from China to India to Japan to Brazil to the U.S. Slowly but surely the agenda was formed, and then you move forward, and you work closely with your leadership team and all the changes that we have initiated.
And then I went through a complete assessment program for the top 100 positions. We benchmarked everybody against outside candidates, and it was a totally open process. You have to think about how you develop an agenda together with your team, and how you build trust. And one element of building trust is transparency.
Bryant: You did this benchmarking assessment, but certainly chemistry with you is part of it, too.
Löscher: Absolutely. This was very important. At the end of the day, there must be chemistry, there must be a sense that this is the team that I want to create, with people who believe in its totality. Because you can have a great team of superstars, but it’s by no means certain that they will actually be a great team.
Bryant: How do you hire for key leadership positions in your organization?
Löscher: The most important thing is to look for diversity in your career path. I will look for passion, because I think that’s a very important element.
Bryant: And how do you get at that?
Löscher: How do you describe your successes, and what is important to you as a leader? I would try to understand your values, your learning experiences, why you have done what you’ve done. Our company does business in 190 countries, so you need to have diversity of experience. I put a lot of value on this. And have you demonstrated team impact, or do you want to talk about yourself? Because at the end of the day this is what really makes a difference — you will be put into a situation where you have to convince people, you have to build trust, and you have to rally people around you. So you must be able to foster very solid and robust discussions to understand what the options are, the reasons for different decisions, and you must be able to draw this out of the team.
Bryant: What about the culture you’re trying to create?
Löscher: When you talk about leadership culture, I very much try to implement an execution culture. Think about how the world is changing — I think the speed of change has massively accelerated versus what it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago, in all aspects. So there’s speed of change, and the world is also far more connected, and this has a massive impact in terms of how you lead. You can no longer rely on hierarchical structures.
For me it’s very important to have an execution culture in place because it’s not about the brilliance of strategy. In rare instances, a company will do something totally different and build a completely new class of products. Otherwise you are really in a broad-based competitive environment, and therefore you must have an execution culture. And you have to recognize as a leader that you also make mistakes. I’m always telling people, “Look, I make a mistake every day, but hopefully I’m not making the same mistake twice.” If you think that you’re not making mistakes then you are not making the tough decisions that you should make as a leader.
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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times‘ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his new book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.