Eight Consistent Behaviors Of Practically Perfect Problem Solvers

This past month I celebrated my 42nd anniversary with my dear wife. One of her finest qualities is her ability to solve problems. I admit, while I like to analyze and contemplate the various approaches to solving a problem, she just gets it done. It turns out she is not the only female with this fantastic quality. According to our database, there is a trend among male and female leaders in solving problems.

In a dataset of over 47,000 men and 24,000 women leaders, men were rated higher on their technical/professional acumen. Still, women were rated higher on their ability to solve problems. The data came from 360-degree evaluations on each leader with an average of 13 assessments from their manager, peers, direct reports, and others. The graph below displays those results that were statistically significant.

How These Skills Were Evaluated

I evaluated Technical/Professional Acumen by evaluating if people sought after the leader’s opinions, had knowledge and skills that help achieve team results and if their ideas were trusted because of their in-depth knowledge.

Problem Solving was evaluated by assessing the leader’s ability to anticipate and respond quickly to problems, was trusted to use good judgment in making decisions, and their ability to spot new trends and opportunities early.

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Understanding the Results

The results for the analysis were confusing because it was clear that being rated better at technical expertise should give men an advantage at solving problems.

To verify the results, I re-ran the data with more of an experimental design selecting only 50% of the cases for the analysis. In the experimental design, the results yielded the same conclusions. Technical/Professional Expertise rated significantly higher for men (T-Value 2.276, Sig. 0.023). Problem Solving rated significantly higher for women (T-Value 2.432, Sig. 0.015).

So… What Does This Mean?

To better understand what created the differences in the results on Problem Solving, I analyzed the top behaviors highly correlated with problem-solving. Why? Because these were behaviors that would impact the perceptions about HOW problems were solved. I then compared the results for men versus women on 16 behaviors and found that 12 behaviors showed significant differences between men and women. Four of the behaviors were rated more positively for men, and eight were rated more positively for women. The graph below shows the 12 items that were significantly different for women and men. The items that were significantly different for men clustered around two issues. Technical/Professional expertise was rated significantly higher on two items and can influence problem-solving ability. The two other items focused on strategic perspective. Having the ability to understand how a problem connects to the vision and direction of the organization was a skill that also helped men solve problems. While these four behaviors were helpful for men, the eight behaviors that women performed more effectively made a bigger difference in the results.

In the end, regardless of men or women, these behaviors teach us some essential requirements for practical problem-solving that we ALL need to improve!

8 Behaviors of Practically Perfect Problem Solvers

What is evident in this analysis is that having an excellent solution to a problem, and a clear context for how that solution aligns with the strategy, are not the only two issues that impact a leader’s expertise in problem-solving. Once again, the behaviors listed below influenced the PERCEPTIONS of others on problem-solving. So, what do others perceive these practically perfect problem-solvers to do?

ZFCO Problem Solving Study (2021)
ZFCO Problem Solving Study (2021) ZENGER FOLKMAN
1. They get it done right away. In other studies comparing men and women leaders, we have found that this competency consistently shows the most significant difference between genders. It is easy for problems to get put on the “I will do that later list.” It seems we can learn a lot from the women in our lives that take on problems sooner and invest more energy to get them corrected.

2. They model this behavior to those around them. If you want to change the way others perceive you in that behavior, you need to be considered the role model for it. Be consistent. Those who are good role models are more trusted.

3. They don’t work on problems alone. Many problems in an organization flow across multiple groups and cannot be resolved without collaboration. Women were rated as better at collaboration. Men tended to act more independently. If you’re going to solve a problem quickly, involve those around you and share the glory.

4. They know how to explain the problem and solution effectively. A significant part of solving any problem is having good communication between everyone impacted by the problem. The first benefit of good communication is that it helps everyone understand the problem, when it occurs, and why it occurs. Second, the solution needs to be communicated to all involved parties.

5. They can influence others to stretch their abilities to solve the problem. Many problems are hard to solve and require that people do something differently than they have done in the past. This requires you to be more skillful at getting others to step up and stretch to accomplish difficult goals.

6. They quickly recognize where change is needed. It is easy to ignore many problems. It’s harder to identify where change is needed and do something about it quickly.

7. They know how to focus on top priorities. We cannot fix everything, so concentrating on top priorities makes it possible for an organization to change the most pressing issues.

8. They understand the full context. Solving problems requires that all people affected know how their role impacts the problem to be solved. Solving problems is more than just coming up with an excellent solution.

Aren’t you grateful for the problem solvers in your life? Problems can be stressful, overwhelming, and many of us want to pretend they don’t exist. We want to hide them in a corner and tiptoe around them, pretending they are not there, and if we don’t give them attention, they will walk away. They won’t.

Problems get solved when someone takes the initiative to fix the problem, understands their role in the solution, and cooperates. Problem-solving frequently requires the efforts and involvement of others. If you have a significant problem that needs to be solved in your organization, be the person that doesn’t just understand the problem but solves it.


Unshackling the creative business

Creativity means more than developing new and useful “things.” It also entails new and useful ways of behaving, marrying action with the invention to creatively engage with change across the entire value chain.

Creative business: A marriage of action and invention
Construction is arguably one of the industries most resistant to technology-driven disruption. From the pyramids in Egypt to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the same essential process has endured through the millennia, absorbing myriad technological innovations without undergoing much in the way of fundamental change; which makes the work of firms such as Australia’s Hickory Group all the more remarkable. Hickory has used techniques and technologies from outside the industry to transform the construction process—and the industry along with it.1 The firm’s approach to high-rise construction, known as Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DFMA),2 is a modern modular and digital approach inspired by repeatable parts in the automotive industry.3 Using DFMA, Hickory can build skyscrapers more economically, much more quickly, and with much less disturbance to local residents and businesses than traditional construction techniques.4 In fact, DFMA has been so successful that the city of Melbourne, where Hickory Group is headquartered, has considered regulation that would implicitly require all new high-rise construction to be done via DFMA.5

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Firms like Hickory are rightly credited with being creative, and for having the spark of new and useful thinking that drives innovation. But innovative as it is, the DFMA process itself wasn’t the most important factor behind Hickory’s success. Even more important was the way Hickory developed its version of DFMA and brought it to market—by engaging in many small acts of creativity across and outside the organization that added up, in the end, to a transformative result. Most important of all, almost none of these creative acts involved inventing new things. Rather, Hickory’s success was largely the result of new and different ways of behaving. Groups within Hickory engaged with each other in new ways to put existing processes and technologies together to create DFMA; simultaneously, Hickory worked with external organizations, such as contractors and regulators, in new ways to smooth DFMA’s path to market.

Defining creativity
Decades of research into creativity have arrived at the consensus that creativity is not an ineffable thing. It can in fact be defined: It’s the creation of something novel and useful,6 a creative work, where work can be taken quite broadly to include physical objects, theorems or strategies, systems for understanding the world, stories and narratives, or music that can be performed again and again.
Novelty on its own is not enough. A creative work must also be seen as useful, helping the community move toward its goals. Defining creativity in terms of novelty and usefulness implies that creativity is contextual. Novel and useful to whom? Where? When? This relativity also implies that, while the individual or team is important to creativity, other factors are also, and sometimes even, more important.

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Hickory’s story showcases creativity in how a firm and groups within the firm collaborate and engage with each other and with the market, rather than creativity as a skill or capability fostered to develop creative products and services. It’s this marriage of creative engagement, of new and useful ways of acting, with the invention of new and useful things that is the essence of a creative business. In a world full of interdependencies where accomplishing anything involves a multitude of stakeholders, getting things done depends crucially on the ability to work effectively with others. And when the thing to be done is new, working effectively with others, more often than not, means working in ways that haven’t been tried before. It’s what allows an organization to respond to unforeseen and previously unknown problems, transform a problem into opportunity, and find opportunity where others didn’t think to look. It’s the kind of creativity, born of interactions across many teams, places, times, and problems, that can—given enough time—transform a business, an industry, or the entire market.
A firm is only as creative as its least creative team
The need for creative engagement becomes clear when one considers that, in organizations composed of teams of teams (as many modern organizations are),7 any particular team’s creativity is contingent on the creativity of others. Unlike in the heyday of the industrial revolution, when simpler production processes and tight vertical integration made it easier for a business to be creative as a whole, the past few decades have seen the unbundling of the firm, with increasingly complex internal functions broken up into neat packages, with suppliers, partners, clients, or even customers taking on responsibility for packages.8 This unbundling means that organizations have transformed themselves into complex webs of relationships that span across internal groups and external ecosystems. It also means that the average organizational team is small and unable to accomplish much on its own, and hence must rely on the actions of others to turn a creative idea into reality.

Consider a chain of fast food restaurants whose marketers have determined that adding a constantly changing item to the menu, a burger of the week, will attract repeat customers. Novel (to the chain) techniques and ingredients—such as a black bun or a sweet and savory filling, or a burger using ingredients from other cultures, or possibly even ingredients recently developed in the lab—will result in something that stands out from the usual menu items, something with colors and textures perfect for social media. A burger of the week might be just the creative idea, the potential innovation, the restaurants need to catch the public’s eye.

For the burger-of-the-week campaign to succeed, the restaurants will have to coordinate many small changes across the organization and its ecosystem. Signage and menus need to be changed to include that week’s burger, and the burger must be added to cash register systems so that it can be sold. Any novel cooking techniques need to be integrated into kitchen processes, requiring training, at a minimum, and possibly additional tooling. Different ingredients must be sourced from (likely new) suppliers and integrated into the supply chain. And all this needs to be pulled apart at the end of every week and redone in new configurations for each successive burger of the week. To accomplish this, marketing, supply chain, procurement, IT, finance, and frontline restaurant workers and operational teams must all work with each other in ways they are not accustomed to, at least until the burger-of-the-week program becomes established.

The story is the same for Hickory and DFMA. Developments affecting one part of the process, such as the integration of 3D modeling tools with custom engineering plugins to calculate part weights, structural loads, and centers of gravity, informed beneficial changes in other parts of the process, such as performing engineering before design instead of the other way around as in a conventional build. Factory production of modular components made possible a wider range of materials and techniques, such as using low-carbon geopolymers instead of concrete. Because it departs so radically from conventional construction, the DFMA process could not be assessed with established institutional risk models; this made it difficult to obtain debt financing, causing Hickory to seek alternative ways to fund its early DFMA construction projects. And so on.

These examples highlight the value of distributed creativity9 as well as of creative ways of engaging both within and without the organization. But it also highlights the difficulty. When a creative outcome depends on the sum of many creative acts across the organization and its ecosystem, the effort can stall if any of the participants cannot flex in the needed way. And flexibility, unfortunately, is often hard to come by. The culprit? Institutionalized scalable efficiency.

Efficiency trumps creativity
Almost by definition, scalable efficiency designs creativity out of organizational activities. It prioritizes simplification and standardization as the means to efficiency, prescribing a correct way of doing things for everyone across the organization. Events and behaviors that fall outside these constraints are “exceptions,” undesirable and wasteful disruptions to the process. Tightly specified responsibilities and deliverables provide little room for trial and experimentation. Performance metrics for departments, teams, and individuals drive them to reduce waste and increase productivity rather than to experiment with new ideas and approaches. Formal contracts with outside parties and performance agreements among internal groups constrain creative behavior, as teams have little incentive to (or might be actively prevented from) departing from stipulated norms. These restrictions are the result of strategies that promotes a small set of anchor products or services that lock in standardized production and supply chain processes to drive scale efficiencies and control quality, with few variations permitted.

We can see how this would work against creativity in the burger-of-the-week example. The supply chain team may balk at sourcing ingredients from unfamiliar and so unproven vendors, or allow it only after a lengthy vetting and approval process. Procurement policies may prohibit ordering signs and menus in smaller quantities than would qualify for a volume discount. Learning and development may not be authorized to contract with instructors to teach line cooks new techniques. Under these circumstances, our fictitious marketing department has the choice of either convincing other teams to step around contracts, service-level agreements, and organizational policies that inhibit realization of the creative idea, or going rogue and establishing new, possibly unsanctioned relationships to bring the idea to life.

That’s not to say that firms built around scalable efficiency don’t try to be more creative. Typically, improving creativity at such firms is approached in two ways. The first is to establish a dedicated creative group, such as “innovation,” “R&D,” or “design,” whose job it is to be creative for the firm, developing new products and processes. The second is to teach creativity methodologies to operating teams, who are then expected to apply them to their daily work. But both of these approaches commonly fail. The first fails because a creative department has no operational role or responsibilities, and so finds itself disconnected from and unable to influence what the operational teams are doing. It may generate a wealth of creative ideas but few of them will find their way to execution as the creative department’s mandate to be creative is no match for operational pressure to be efficient. The second approach fails because operational teams often struggle to make use of the creativity techniques they have been taught. They too may generate their fair share of creative ideas, but find themselves unable to put them into practice as they run into roadblocks thrown up by the processes, metrics, and time constraints they must work within.

The commonly used “Four P’s” framework for the factors influencing creativity10 is helpful in understanding why these approaches fall short. According to this concept, creativity is a function of product, person, process, and place.11 Product is the dependent variable, the output of the formula: the creative work. The other three P’s are the independent variables, the things that we can control, that determine if our product will be new and useful, creative. Person is the individual (or team) doing the creating, their ambitions, attitudes, skills, background, and experience. Process is the creative process, encompassing the entire creative journey through multiple phases of generating ideas and then winnowing them down to arrive at a novel and useful solution (as opposed to techniques such as brainstorming or design thinking). Finally, place is the setting in which the work is done, not just the physical surroundings (as is often noted) but also the larger social and organizational environment that shapes creativity by determining what is easy and what is hard to do, and includes the metrics, assumptions, and principals that are the foundation of a firm’s operating model.

The two methods described above focus on person. The first treats creativity as the responsibility of particular creative individuals rather than being distributed across the firm. The second focuses on the techniques used within the team, the workers’ creative skills, without empowering the team to establish new ways of working with stakeholders across the organization and its ecosystem. Absent a place and process conducive to creativity—flexible, iterative, adaptable—a singular focus on person will get an organization nowhere. While person is undeniably important, process, place, and even products are equally important, as creativity emerges from the interactions between the four P’s.

Creativity as a generative process
Research in the past few decades has shown us that creativity emerges from human interaction and collaboration.12 It’s a generative process: Interactions in, and influenced by, the workplace build on domain knowledge, past experience, and differing perspectives on the problem at hand to synthesize a novel and useful response.13 Recent research contrasts with historical views of creativity that saw it as an attribute of a creative individual,14 a cognitive approach which assumes that novel ideas originate in the head. On the contrary, creativity is something we do (a verb) rather than something we have (a noun).

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Invest in creative engagement
Consider projects—the change initiatives that we’re all spending an increasing proportion of our time on—as an example of how product, person, process, and place need to work in concert for creativity to emerge. We can staff projects with a diverse team that pulls together a range of perspectives, backgrounds, and skills.15 We can even train the team in techniques such as design thinking and provide them with a creative mentor. Projects, however, are justified and prioritized according to a cost-benefit analysis, a measure of efficiency. Strict limitations are placed on the project’s deliverables, its timeline and resources, and the reporting and operating procedures that the project is required to follow. Nor can the project team work creatively with other project and operational teams across the organization, as the other teams are working under the same limitations.

If we want more creative project outcomes, then we need to give project teams the space to be creative. In practical terms, this can mean empowering the team to change the project’s scope or reframe the problem they’re addressing. This implies that the project team may want to change the scope, timing, or nature of its deliverable, its product, as well as the process by which they produce it. The team also needs to be empowered to experiment with alternative approaches before settling on what seems to be the best. This requires investing time and effort in developing and evaluating these alternatives, as well as exploring new ways of working with existing collaborators or establishing relationships with new ones.

Any changes to a project’s product or process will involve negotiating with other stakeholders—projects and operations teams—whose own work will be affected by these changes. This requires an operational environment, a place, that both empowers teams to find new ways of working with its stakeholders and provides them with governance processes that can be used to negotiate deviations from standard operating procedures. The burger-of-the-month team, for example, may ask the firm’s supply chain team to collaborate on creating a lightweight vendor approval process. This would likely create new value for the firm, but the collaboration will also have knock-on effects across the organization as the supply chain team reprioritizes other work—work that other teams depend on and that is unlikely to be accommodated by existing budgets. To account for these knock-on effects, marketing and supply chain will need sanctioned procedures to help other teams accommodate their efforts.

All this experimentation, collaboration, and accommodation can deliver creative solutions that are more valuable and useful than would have been considered otherwise. But this additional effort needs to be planned for and funded. It must also be balanced with the desire to be efficient, standardize, and drive efficiency: Fostering creativity does not and should not imply giving teams a blank check.

To fund the effort needed for creativity without unnecessarily compromising desirable efficiency, both creativity and efficiency need to be explicitly accounted for in a firm’s operating model. This means combining the traditional measure of efficiency—cost-benefit—with some measure of creative potential—investment-opportunity, perhaps—that enables the firm to compare and balance the two. If a firm fails to do this, then efficiency will always trump creativity, because creativity comes with a cost—a cost that, in the eyes of scalable efficiency, is unnecessary.

A creative business needs creative leadership
Creative business—enabling firms to productively engage with change across the entire value chain—presents both an opportunity and challenge. The opportunity is the ability to flexibly respond to unknown (and unforeseen) problems and opportunities, making operating models more flexible and firms more innovative. These attributes may well be what enables an organization to stay at the head of its industry at a time when, for many, the transition to digital is upending many traditional sources of competitive advantage.

On the flip side, the challenge is that capitalizing on this opportunity requires deep changes in a firm’s habits and norms. Investing in training, or giving teams a license to be creative, is important but insufficient. Creativity needs to be integrated into the very fabric of the firm.

At the senior leadership level, instilling habits and norms that foster creativity requires the development of governance frameworks that consider creativity as a key factor when deciding what to invest in. Program portfolio management, for example, needs to consider the possibility of a project creatively generating new value—its investment-opportunity ratio—and not just its ability to deliver effectively, its cost-benefit calculus. To support this, new processes will be required, backed by executive sponsorship that teams can access if they think that their project has the creative potential to deliver new value. These processes will need to institutionalize ways to change the scope of a team’s project, invest in exploring alternatives, and find new ways to collaborate or new groups to collaborate with. Some instances might need direct executive involvement, such as when a new approach departs significantly from commonly accepted organizational or industry norms. This was the case when Hickory’s DFMA construction process outgrew conventional industry partnering practices, requiring creative approaches to collaboration.

These new governance and operating processes are only possible if a firm quantifies the opportunities that creativity presents. In other words, we need to measure creativity. This might sound like a strange if not impossible task, not least because creativity’s value is contextual. It is possible, though, to develop subjective measures of creativity16 that can be used to determine if, for example, which of two similar projects is the more creative, or if an investment in a project yielded a more creative outcome than would have resulted otherwise. These qualitative measures can be used to develop aggregate quantitative metrics that provide insight into the overall impact of a firm’s investment in creativity.

The glue that binds governance and operations together with metrics is an established methodology or methodologies, such as design thinking, that help translate creativity into action. These methods have two uses. The first is to provide teams with a language that they can use to both describe and advocate for a creative opportunity that they see in their work. The second is to give teams a formal way to describe how they will explore the creative opportunity and thereby provide an estimate of the investment required.

Nor should we ignore the cultural aspect of creativity. While training and a general license to be creative are not enough on their own, they are still essential. Some staff might be spontaneously creative, but others will benefit from training in tools and techniques that enable them to tap into their inner muse. Even those who are spontaneously creative will likely benefit from training in when and when not to express their creativity to smooth their interactions with less-spontaneous colleagues. And from a cultural standpoint, as well as from an accountability one, appointing a chief creative officer or equivalent could hugely boost a firm’s efforts to become more creative, if that executive is tasked with accomplishing the things described above—developing creativity metrics and working with other executives to integrate the metrics into the governance and operating processes that they are responsible for. Appointing a chief creativity officer with operational responsibility signals to teams and workers not only that it values creativity, but that it is willing to put its money where its mouth is by making someone responsible for getting it done.

Building a creative business
The ability to act as a creative business relies on a complex set of norms, processes, and governance mechanisms that must all work together to promote exploration throughout the firm and its ecosystem. It requires some degree of comfort with ambiguity, as creativity’s outcomes are sometimes difficult to precisely define until the creative process is well underway. At the same time, it also requires enough structure to channel creativity toward the good of the firm and to obtain an acceptable return on investment. Although putting structure around ambiguity may seem like a contradiction in terms, it can be done, and it can be done in a disciplined and systematic way. Putting in the work to do so is what can start an organization on the path to becoming a creative business—a path that can lead to sustainable competitive advantage in a world where creativity has become a deciding factor, if not the deciding factor, in setting an organization apart.


The ESOP Revolution: Fighting Financial Inequality And Empowering The Working Class

In my research on purpose-driven businesses and stakeholder capitalism, one of the most important themes I have encountered is the transformative power of employee ownership.

Kimberly Jones, president of 100% employee-owned marketing agency Butler/Till for instance describes the impact of employee ownership like this “employee ownership is perhaps the best-kept secret of our economy. It strengthens communities, fosters a financially savvy workforce, increases resiliency during recessions, and offers big benefits during economic booms. It’s a sound choice economically, with several tax and financial incentives to its name. It also empowers employees to think and act like owners, which results in an engaged workforce, happy customers, and sustainable financial success that in turn benefits the community.”

Furthermore, employee ownership is an important way to overcome economic inequality. While I was doing research for my recent book, sustainable business pioneer Jeffrey Hollender, cofounder of Seventh Generation told me: “I don’t think you can be a responsible business without being committed to employee ownership, because otherwise your business acts as a way to concentrate wealth,” and that, “Responsible businesses have to take that head on, get over their fears about giving employees access to their financial statements, and understand they’re being agents of wealth concentration if they’re not committed to employee ownership.”

This is an incredibly important point. While there are many ways that businesses can be sustainable and socially responsible, even for the best of businesses, if they are organized with traditional ownership structures (e.g. publicly traded, VC/PE owned, family owned, LLCs) they will systemically funnel a disproportionate amount of the gains to such owners and so only serve to increase the economic inequality problems that plague our world. So, while their products may be environmentally friendly and produced in ethical ways, at the end of the day, if such companies have traditional ownership structures, they will also be contributing to an increase in economic inequality.


I have heard similar sentiments from other leading employee owned companies I have written about including Global Prairie, Fireclay Tile and King Arthur Flour. So I was quite excited learn about a new book on the topic, Create Amazing: Turning Your Employees into Owners for Explosive Growth by Greg Graves, who recently retired as Chair/CEO of Burns McDonnell Engineering an employee-owned construction and engineering services company. I recently had a chance to ask Greg about his experience with employee ownership and why he believes it is important for not only businesses, but society more generally. An edited excerpt of our on-line interview follows.

Christopher Marquis: How did you learn about employee ownership and why did you implement this ownership structure at Burns & McDonnell Engineering?

Greg Graves: In the 1970s, Burns & McDonnell was sold to Armco Steel after two generations of family ownership. By the mid 1980s, the American steel industry was in free fall and Armco made the decision to sell off some of its non-core divisions. The Burns & Mac’s leadership was determined not to be ‘sold off’ to yet another corporate giant and learned that it could possibly return to self-ownership through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP).

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From Good Intentions To Meaningful Actions: Employee-Ownership Holds Company Accountable To DEI Improvements
Significant obstacles awaited including securing financing, selling the idea to the existing 640 employees and convincing Armco to accept a slightly more complicated although tax friendly exit. Fortunately for the current almost 7000 employee owners, each obstacle was overcome and one of America’s most successful employee-owned firms was born.

Marquis: What differences did being an ESOP bring to employee engagement, commitment and performance?

Graves: During my 36 years there including 13 as CEO, I saw the differences on the ground level, and they are profound. But thankfully, ESOPs aren’t just better for the people who work there, they are equally better for the firm as a whole, not to mention for American competitiveness in total. These advantages are not just possible they are predictable largely thanks to the ongoing research at the Rutgers School of Business’ Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing. They have found that for nearly all firms, turning workers into owners will lead to institutional improvements in productivity, turnover and employee satisfaction. At Burns & McDonnell, we had years where unwanted turnover of senior employees was nearly zero.

What leaders should also consider, however, is that workers who become owners will also have higher and higher expectations for those same leaders. They will have high expectations for the success of their firm and will expect their firms to become great places to work, not just great places to retire from.

Marquis: How can ESOPs be used to address economic injustice caused by wealth disparity?

Graves: Wealth inequality in America has not been this bad since the 1776 version of Europe the Founding Fathers left behind. It is unacceptable. In America today, 1% of American families have fifteen times the wealth of the entire bottom 50%. We solved this once. We should solve it again.

There is a lot to consider here including the non-working poor, access to healthcare and, critically, early childhood education. Certainly, the federal minimum wage should be debated thoughtfully and thoroughly.

Create Amazing offers a third leg of opportunity to the stool…another 100 million workers turned into owners vs the 14 million who exist today. This would create, predictably, American capitalism on steroids and, more importantly, would assure that the success of this greater capitalism was equitably shared with all who made it possible. Create Amazing does not argue for the redistribution of wealth in America. In fact, it argues directly against it. Generational wealth should be earned…but it can be, one employee owner at a time.

Marquis: What can the government do to promote employee ownership?

Graves: Usually when I get this question, I quickly answer…just do nothing but stay out of our way. In this case, however, there is more and more that the federal and most state governments can do to the help the formation of ESOPs and clear the way to greater economic justice. The most important, without question, is to streamline the process by which existing private companies can transition to employee ownership including incentives to encourage these transitions and their financing options.

But again, please do no harm. It’s just as important that the current budget and tax revenue debate in Washington D.C. not have unintended consequences for ESOPs such as limiting qualified retirement savings or the short-term thinking that often comes with offsets. As with any form of ownership, ESOPs prosper as the economy prospers…but thankfully, in a more just way.

Marquis: If a company wants to become employee owned, what are some of the initial steps they should do?

Graves: Always start with Why?

Whether or not to make the big leap to employee ownership must begin with having the right ‘Why.’ Love for your people, American competitiveness, economic justice…all good starters.

After ‘Why’ there are many sources for information including The ESOP Association, the Employee S-Corporations of America and the National Center for Employee Ownership. Of course, there are also several terrific books on the subject from academia to experienced CEOS. After a lot of reading and likely, some soul searching, my first step would be to hire a great ESOP attorney…the key here is someone who specializes every day in the special fiduciary duties that come with an employee-owned firm.

What you will find, I promise, is that the road forward is clear but not simple. In fact, I guarantee you this won’t be easy, but I also guarantee that it will be worth it. Done right, turning workers into owners will lead to explosive growth…for you, for your firm, for our country.


Would You Entrust Your Life To An Ad Tech Algorithm?

Would you entrust your life to an algorithm? Perhaps the advanced algorithms used in self-driving cars or the simple algorithms used in high-speed elevators at modern hotels — the ones with no buttons on the inside. You might assume that the parties

that developed these algorithms know what they are doing; you might even assume they have safety measures built-in. But algorithms are simple if-then statements — “if this happens, then do that.” Even the most elaborate algorithms are just multi-step if-then statements, or nested ones — if-then statements inside other if-then statements. As such, they are limited. What if the input they were looking for was missing? What if there’s a new scenario that was not accounted for in the laundry list of if-then statements?

The algorithms are not sentient; they cannot think for themselves and accommodate previously unforeseen scenarios. Algorithms also do not have morals, common sense or judgment. They slavishly do the calculations they were created to do; but that doesn’t mean they can’t kill you — think self-driving cars and high-speed elevators.

But what does this have to do with ad tech and digital marketing? Simple. You are entrusting your livelihood to algorithms, specifically your digital advertising budgets to ad tech algorithms. You assume the ad tech vendors that developed them know what they are doing. You may even assume the algorithms help you do better digital marketing. But they don’t. Ad tech algorithms are designed to separate marketers from their money as fast as possible. Don’t believe me? Consider the following.

Real Time Bidding Algorithms
Just like with high-frequency trading (“HFT”) on Wall Street, ad tech has fashioned RTB (“real-time bidding”) platforms that purportedly help marketers buy ads by the trillions on sites and apps by the millions. Note that all of this was completely unnecessary if advertisers bought real ads from real publishers with real human audiences in the first place. But let’s suspend disbelief for a few more minutes so we can dig in. In theory, when a webpage is loaded in a browser, multiple ad slots become available for advertisers to place ads into. Each ad slot sends out “bid requests” to auction off that opportunity. Multiple bids, sometimes dozens, are submitted by advertisers. The winning bid wins the right to serve the ad into that specific ad slot at that specific time.

All of this happens in mere milliseconds so the ad can be served within a reasonable amount of time after the person visits the webpage. But since the advent of real-time bidding, many layers of competing algorithms have been added on top to help various parties make more money. The enormous amount of computation takes time; sometimes it takes so much time that the ad is not served in time before the person has moved on — i.e. scrolled further down on their mobile device. That’s why you see blank rectangles marked “ad” with nothing in it. Advertisers won the bid, even though the ad wasn’t served in time or didn’t arrive in time to be displayed on-screen. The RTB algorithms don’t have this feedback loop so they literally don’t know the ad wasn’t served to completion — not “viewable” (no opportunity to be seen). But advertisers still paid for it.

Viewability and Fraud Detection Algorithms
Because of problems like viewability (above) and fraud (ads loaded by bots not humans), a crop of detection companies were created to help advertisers detect these problems. They threw more algorithms at the problems. But the problem was that bad actors’ algorithms were more advanced and able to trick the detection companies’ algorithms. So viewability and IVT (invalid traffic) problems were not detected. Newsweek used off-the-shelf malicious code to alter viewability measurements so that non-viewable ads could be sold as 100% viewable. The malicious algorithm defeated the detection algorithm. Fraudsters also buy traffic specifically designed to evade the detection algorithms of IVT vendors. The fake traffic is made from headless browsers (browsers without screens) and malware on devices. These software programs mimic humans’ behaviors like mouse movements, page scrolling, and clicks and touch events to trick the detection algorithms into not marking them as “invalid.” That’s how the bad guys’ algorithms “get away with it.” Also, note that if you train the detection algorithms on existing bots, that’s what it will look for (and miss all the other forms of fraud that are many times larger). See: Ad Fraud is More Than Just Bots. That’s why marketers should not entrust their digital ad budgets to the protection of viewability and IVT detection algorithms. Not only are those ad budgets not protected, marketers are wasting even more money paying for protection services that don’t work — remember the part about “separating marketers from their money as fast as possible?”

Algorithms Optimizing for Win Rates, Click Rates, etc.
Assuming we ignore all of the above problems with algorithms doing real time bidding, ad serving, and viewability and fraud detection, there’s still the problem of algorithms optimizing for the wrong things — i.e. parameters that are not aligned with marketers’ business outcomes. I have previously written about the easy-to-measure “vanity metrics” that marketers use to judge the performance of their digital marketing campaigns. Obviously higher click rates don’t necessarily mean more sales or better business outcomes, especially if you realize bots love to click ads while humans don’t.

But let’s blame the ad tech algorithms instead of the marketers. The algorithms used to optimize campaigns are “tuned” to optimize for easy-to-measure things like click rates, win rates, etc. More specifically, when algorithms see higher click rates, they increase bids or budget allocation to those sources; when algorithms see win rates that are too low, they raise bids to try to win more auctions. As you can imagine there are countless other ways the algorithms can be tuned — for example, “if the campaign is lagging behind in spending, then increase pacing so the money can be spent faster.”

Ad tech algorithms optimize for win rates and click rates because those are the data it can see and use in if-then calculations — if click rate is higher for site A, allocate more budget to site A. Sadly, site A uses bot traffic; bots click more than humans, so the ad tech algorithm just allocated more of your budget to the fraudster operating site A. Similarly, fake sites exhibit higher win rates, so ad tech algorithms faithfully allocate more budget to fake sites, unbeknownst to the marketers.

So What?
Hopefully marketers reading this are starting to realize that the algorithms are not tuned to help them do better digital marketing, but instead are tuned to help them spend as fast as possible (so ad tech companies can make money as fast as possible). Advertisers are entrusting their ad budgets to algorithms created by ad tech companies. These ad tech companies answer to their investors and their top priority is to make money and give a return to their investors, not to help you do better digital marketing.

Even if they keep telling you their algorithms are designed to help you improve your digital marketing, how could they? They don’t even ingest your sales data to use in their if-then statements and optimization algorithms. (I realize a handful of ad tech companies do). The vast majority of ad tech algorithms are tuned for optimizing towards higher win rates and click rates, which means they are sending more of your money to fake and fraudulent sites and apps — deliberately. By design, those algorithms are separating advertisers like you from your money as fast as possible. Would you entrust your livelihood and your digital ad budgets to ad tech algorithms?


When In Doubt, Trust Yourself To Do Hard Things And Take That Leap

Last week was a big one for my family.

My oldest son Lachlan graduated college and my youngest son Matthew graduated high school. Matt’s graduation was all the more special given that of the four graduations in our family over the last 12 months (another from high school and my PhD), his was the only one that was done in person.

Matt’s graduation was also very poignant for me given the huge disruption he’s had to navigate during his high school years. In particular, attending four high schools across three continents (with three separate curriculums) over the span of 14 months due to relocations with my husband’s (former) employer. Clearly not a recommendation in any ‘how to raise a teen’ handbook.

After relocating to Singapore from Australia, Matt pleaded with my husband and me to let him move 10,000 miles across the world to attend a military-style boarding school in California. Despite our reservations, we decided to trust that, while only 15, he had sufficient self-awareness to know what he needed to thrive – to develop his strengths and pursue his passions (and that it was not in the hyper academically-focused educational environment of Singapore.)

The hot August day I dropped him off Matt at his new school was a tough one on my heartstrings. As my was a fiercely independent youngest child waved me goodbye, I fought back tears until I was out of sight, then began my 10,000 trek back to Singapore.

The youthful wings he spread three year ago have only grown stronger and broader. As our family sprung to our feet to cheer wildly, I knew the decision to support him to fly so far, so young, had been the right one. Even despite the pandemic that left him semi-homeless when his school abruptly closed in March 2020 and Singapore close its borders to non-residents (including children of expats.)

Of course, our family situation is unique. Yet my reason for writing this column is because every one of us will arrive at decision points along our career, leadership and life journey that call upon us to do hard things; to trust that we have a larger capacity for rising to life’s challenges (and heart-tugging moments) than we may have given ourselves credit for.

Learning to ‘trust our wings’ can not only spare ourselves needless suffering and stress, but will embolden us to take the leap of faith in ourselves (and others) in those moments when it matters most. (If you haven’t had one lately, it’s coming.)

Psychologist William James once said, “Most people live in a highly restricted circle of their full potential.” It’s my hypothesis that the underlying reason for living smaller lives than we are capable of living is that we simply fear we lack what it takes to do what inspires us most deeply and blossom into the person (and leader) we have it within us to become.

In my work around the world, I often encounter people (including those in senior leadership roles) who tell me how they wish they were braver, more confident, and self-assured.

I get it. Me too.

Yet only when we dare to trust ourselves, not our doubts, can we discover how much we can actually do and build our capacity to do even more. Or to use the wings analogy, to discover the strength of our wings and how far they can carry us.

The last 12+ months have taught us that we human beings are more resilient and adaptable than we may often realize. Not only that, but that those situations that test us the most also teach us the most, building our ‘muscles for life’ to bounce forward from setbacks – better and braver – and find opportunity in the midst of our adversity.

Last month Matt’s application to attend the US Naval Academy was denied. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed for him. Yet if one thing is certain, wherever life takes him, he will succeed and make his mark. Not because things will always go to plan, but because he will always make a plan B (or C or D) and because, as his school President, Major General Bartell, told me in references to his leadership over this last incredibly challenging year, Matt will always find a way to make any situation better for himself and those around him. ‘People naturally follow Matt,’ he said.

Sure I’m a proud parent and clearly biased (thank you for indulging me.) But in today’s culture of fear and risk aversion, the world and workplaces desperately need more leaders like Matt – men and women, young and not-so-young – with the courage to trust their strengths and use them to serve others. It needs more people from every background willing to step up and do hard things, even when it requires breaking ranks with the comfortable and familiar.

Whatever challenge you are facing now, ask yourself this question:

What would you do right now if you trusted yourself that, whatever happens, you can handle it?

Just for today, decide to trust in your capacity to do hard things and choose self-trust over self-doubt and courage over comfort.

Then tomorrow, do the same.

Your wings are stronger than you know and will take you further than you think.


Signs you have a toxic boss and how to navigate them

Good work is my win, ‘bad’ work is your problem.
Landed a new client? Built a winning proposal? Being accountable and producing good work is a sure-fire way to boost an employee’s morale however, if a colleague or even worse boss, positions it as their own and steals the credit, it is harmful to an employee’s wellbeing.

Solution: Lay the groundwork before you have even started the scope of work by acting in complete transparency. Providing assets such as Google docs that everyone can view, an email stream that updates all parties on progress throughout and a complete overview of work once it is completed consistently relates the work back to you, making it difficult for anyone to legitimately claim it as their own.

An evolution in micromanagement
Micromanagement from a boss can inflict additional pressure on an employee, especially when working from home. Constant calls, messages, and emails (especially with colleagues cc’d in) can see the receiver feel incompetent and undermined. Understandably, this kind of behaviour can soon become toxic to the environment.

Solution: Play it firm, and fair. If you do not appreciate micromanagement, assert your expertise in the field to make it clear that you are more than capable of the task. Outline the tasks that you often complete with input and give examples of when you have often met deadlines.

‘It’s easy’.
Whether it is the task in hand or referring to your role as a whole, a boss proclaiming that what you are doing is ‘easy’ is undermining. Such comments also project a sense of needlessness to a job role and with a portrayal that it is unnecessary. Without question, this can be considered as toxic.

Solution: Acknowledge the comment and ignore the context by asking questions. For instance –

Do you think? Which parts are easy?
How so?
Why do you believe it is easy?
Digging a little deeper leads the person to think about their comments further as they attempt to elaborate. This can have them question their comments and really think about the meaning behind their words.

Your door is always open.
As the UKs workforce continues to navigate lockdown and working from home, it can feel like the office has 24 access to you. Constant out of office communication can lead a person to feel controlled by their workplace as they are never fully disconnected. If a boss invades your personal limits by surfacing out of hours, this is displaying toxic behaviour.

Solution: Set boundaries. An email out of office auto response does not have to be limited to annual leave. Setting it at EOP outlining when you can respond manages expectations. Voicemails can also be used in the same way as OOO auto responses.

Fear led management.
Ultimatums or management that is built upon a foundation of unapproachable behaviour is toxic. If you feel that your tasks are unfairly critiqued, your job is always put in jeopardy or there are always consequences laid in front of you, the situation may be deemed toxic.

Solution: Keep a diary of situations that you feel are toxic. If you have evidence that aligns with each diary entry, such as email chains, file them also. Arrange a chat with HR and discuss the situation. Employees can forget that HR is an impartial voice supporting them that is there to provide solutions.

Feeling that your boss is exerting toxic behaviour does not have to be tolerated. Remember, it does not have to carry on that there are tools available to you that safeguard your wellbeing in the workplace.


The battle for talent: Workers have an edge over employers as the pandemic wanes

Over the past decades, rapid digital transformation has enabled organizations to completely reimagine the way they work and manage talent. From reliable video conferencing platforms to digital collaboration software, to ubiquitous cloud-based connectivity, and a data-centric approach to strategic decision-making powered by the synergy between artificial and human intelligence, an imaginary worker from the 1950s would surely marvel at the current landscape of work as if they were in a Black Mirror episode.

And yet, it took a pandemic to truly accelerate this trend and transform the way most people work day to day, leveraging these foundational aspects of technology to dramatically change how we approach jobs and careers, perhaps forever. Indeed, for those with the skills to work remotely, the crisis has turbocharged an unparalleled shift toward more flexible work, and being able to live one life that better blends work and home — trends we know workers have wanted for some time.

Technology and Transformation
Examining the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
Technology has the potential to be a great enabler, providing humans with the tools to remain emotionally and socially connected even while in physical isolation, and the crisis has been the critical catalyst for change. At the onset of this crisis, talent literally left the building, and we’re now beginning to realize that in many places, it is unlikely to come back. In what will surely count as one of the strongest demonstrations for the extraordinary human capacity for adaptability, workers of the world have been able to remain productive even in lockdown.

Humanyze, a technology firm that specializes in social sensing (led by MIT’s Ben Waber, who coined the now widely-used term people analytics), mined anonymous company e-mail, chat, and calendar data to find that working without an office has actually extended people’s working time by an average 10–20%, while also reducing work-related stress and negative emotions, increasing confidence and well-being, and increasing communication with close collaborators by a staggering 40%. In the early days of the pandemic, Microsoft reported a 200% increase in virtual meetings (mining their client data from Microsoft Teams), with a total of 2.7 billion meetings per day. Although virtual teams and remote work were already quite prevalent prior to Covid-19, it is likely that overall collaboration will actually increase when everyone is remote, with firms like Twitter and Square announcing their employees can work from home forever, and early indicators suggesting that business collaboration is stronger now than before the pandemic.

As we look to the new next, unsurprisingly, many people have no desire to return to the office full-time, and, by extension, be forced to live close to it, especially if it is there mostly for symbolic or decorative purposes. As our newly released ManpowerGroup global analysis shows, 8 in 10 workers want more remote work to attain a healthier work-life fusion. To be sure, we had been talking about the benefits of an agile, hybrid, and fluid workforce for some time, but the pandemic marks the formal entrance to the age of digital nomads and a personalized workforce, with five salient trends (and opportunities) to consider:

1. Technology Is Deepening Human Connections: Discussions about new technologies, such as AI, often paint a bleak and dehumanizing picture. For example, the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari, has warned of the rise of a “useless class” of humans. And there are vastly exaggerated alarm bells being rung over automation. A more obvious trend so far has been that humans working with, and enhanced by, AI, almost always produce better results than humans without AI, or AI without humans. While the crisis accelerated the use of technology, which enabled the decoupling of work from a “place”, this shift was already occurring as a large proportion of organizations — large, medium, and small — made necessary investments in online collaboration tools like Zoom and Teams, growing the market for collaboration software to more than $45 billion globally (resulting in a 300% increase in Zoom’s share price since the pandemic started).

Technology is rapidly becoming more human. We aren’t simply collaborating; we are running businesses, visiting family, attending weddings, and educating our children through technology, making the virtual world more humane, forging deep digital connections that are founded on true human connectedness. The crisis has converted collaboration software to “cohabitation software,” with Microsoft reporting a 10% increase in social meetings (including “pajama day” or “meet my pet day”) during the past few months. All this allows us to exist “in the same space at the same time” together, while we determine the place.

2. Building Culture Outside the Building: Last year, when the world could not even imagine the present state of affairs, we presented our research on What Workers Want, and a Fortune 500 CEO asked us: “How do you possibly build culture when you don’t sit together”? Our response was that culture doesn’t exist within walls; it exists within people, so you have to build culture through people, wherever they sit. We could tell he was skeptical — yet the pandemic has proven that we can and must build culture from living rooms and home offices across the country. Workers knew this a while ago. It’s why people may use the exact same technology yet experience work in a very different way when they move from one company to another. Fundamentally, culture is “how we do things around here,” and it’s the sum of default behaviors, preferences, values, and decisions that make each organization a unique habitat, regardless of whether people frequent an office or not.

Now company leaders are realizing it as well. Leaders can focus on building culture anywhere by refraining from micromanaging, getting over the politics of presentism, and learning to measure what each employee actually produces and contributes to the organization with as much objectivity and data as possible. Above all, by nurturing trust and fairness in relationships with employees, leaders can upgrade the company culture even in a virtual-only world.

3. Work That Supports Life: Our ManpowerGroup research shows that the second concern after health for workers post-crisis is maintaining flexibility. Most workers want to work remotely a few days a week; they want a hybrid workplace between work and home that allows for better balance. But the office does still have a role in human connection. Companies like Ford are taking this as a moment to redesign how office space works. Others are investing in new hubs where people come together to collaborate and socialize. Gen Z employees are most positive about coming back into the office (on their terms), and they, especially, look to the workplace as a source of socialization as much as a place to network and learn. Gen X and Boomers, who are leading many companies today, enjoy the separation that the physical workplace brings in their efforts to keep work and home a bit more separate.

It’s critical for leaders to realize that while workers may still want to occasionally come to the office, few want to come in every day. For jobs that must be in-person, it’s going to be important to flex the hours to minimize the commute, flex the shift to allow parents to be part-time teachers, and flex the days to enable the workforce to work in a way that supports life.

4. Screens as the Great Equalizer: The great thing about video calls is that the boxes are all the same size — it’s a great equalizer. Prior to the crisis, we had all been in meetings where a portion of the team was in person and part was online. The online participants were primarily bystanders to the actual meeting. There was an advantage to being “in the room,” akin to being in the right place at the right time, and saying the right thing to the right person.

As companies work to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion, technology provides the level playing field most groups want. Not only is it harder to engage in office politics, show-off, or manage up when you are in a Zoom call and everyone is watching, but the ability to capture, record, and analyze meetings data provides organizations with hard facts to evaluate DE&I in real-time. Diversity analytics, including a measure of how much people from different groups speak during meetings, whether they are included or excluded from the informal social networks that govern the power dynamics of an organization, and whether their ideas and comments are well-received by the group, promises to accelerate progress in a still dysfunctional area. It is a wonderful silver lining that technology and the global health crisis have sanitized a lot of the toxic politics and nepotism that corrupt the meritocratic ideal of talent-centric organizations: it is a lot harder to “pretend to work” when nobody sees you or cares about where you are.

5. Talent Geographically Unleashed: The virus isn’t confined by borders, and neither is talent in a virtual world. For years, the model has been the same; when you’re interested in hiring talent, an early question is often “Will you relocate?” On most talent plans around the world, it’s the biggest career-limiting question, as it’s restricted career advancement and company growth for decades. However, in recent years, we have seen an empowerment of skilled talent calling the shots on separating where they choose to live and where they contribute to work. Software developers experienced the earliest shift — the work followed the talent. Then, with record low unemployment in many areas of the world last year, we saw this openness to location expand into other sectors, such as banking and consumer goods.

Technology has now untethered talent from location. Talented individuals with in-demand skills in any sector now realize they can live where they choose and work where they are qualified. And employers now realize they can source “best of” talent from anywhere in the world as long as they have internet connectivity. The idea that workers have to physically move to get a job is gone, along with the costs of relocation. It’s actually quite simple: talented workers want to be free — free from geographic borders, free from physical location expectations, and free from government restrictions. As The Economist estimates, opening borders to free up talent would result in a $78 trillion increase in global GDP: “Labor is the world’s most valuable commodity — yet, thanks to strict immigration regulation, most of it goes to waste.” If technology and cultural organizational changes enable people to do their work from wherever they want, they will set talent free even with current immigration laws and restrictions, countering the recent political trend to slow down globalization in favor of nationalist policies.


Workplace and workforce have now been separated, while work, home, and school have been brought together. Technology is moving humanity away from the office and back into homes across our nation every day. We are building culture outside of buildings, with work that supports life on a more even playing field, with talent that can come from anywhere. As we look to the future, it’s time to unleash these new way of working for the long-term, with a focus on well-being, equality, and productivity that can work for both employers and employees long after this crisis ends. It’s time to embrace the truly global talent pool that is available to drive growth, regardless of where those people call home.

In short, the global talent pool has arrived, and talent is the new global currency… if businesses have the culture, confidence, and technology to tap into it.

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Four Steps to Sustainable Business Model Innovation

You may have noticed that every day there’s another announcement about companies making new climate commitments, asset managers outlining their plans for ESG integration, or regulators proposing new disclosures or extending producers’ responsibilities. Corporate coalitions like the World Economic Forum International Business Council and the US Business Roundtable endorse a more stakeholder-inclusive corporate capitalism while industry coalitions work to solve their members’ shared sustainability challenges. And employees and consumers call on employers and brands to take environmental and social challenges seriously. All of this makes clear that we have entered a new era for business, one in which sustaining competitive advantage requires companies to transform their business models for sustainability.

Company leaders need a broader, more systemic understanding of these dynamic sustainability challenges and the ways that their companies can play a part in addressing them. Fortunately, as some farsighted businesses are discovering, the most powerful opportunities for profitable innovation are embedded in these same challenges. Let’s consider three examples.

The first is Telenor, the leading Norwegian mobile operator. In 2008, having entered Pakistan three years earlier, it joined forces with the microfinance bank Tameer. With support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), they launched a new service called Easypaisa, providing mobile-based financial services to the unbanked and underbanked. By the end of 2019, Telenor Microfinance Bank (the result of Telenor’s acquisition of Tameer) boasted the largest branchless banking service in Pakistan, growing its Easypaisa mobile wallet user base to 6.4 million, its depositor base to 17 million, and the transactions volume through its agent network to about PKR 1 trillion (approximately $6 billion). This service has significantly advanced financial inclusion in Pakistan and established Telenor as a major telecom enterprise there.

Or consider Ajinomoto, a global food and biotech company based in Japan. It produces seasonings, sweeteners, and pharmaceuticals. As part of its 2030 vision and growth strategy to “help one billion people worldwide lead a healthier life,” Ajinomoto is exploring a new “personalized nutrition for health” business. Combining its core nutrition expertise and new technology, the company aims to provide customers with digitally enabled diagnostics, analytics, and product recommendations. These would guide people toward the kind of well-balanced amino acid intake that boosts cognitive and physiological functions and helps prevent aging-related diseases like dementia—a prominent societal issue in Japan.

Another example is Indigo Ag, a US-based agricultural technology startup that was valued at $1.4 billion in 2017. In 2019, the company launched a service called Indigo Carbon to help incentivize farmers to remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in their soil. The service provides technologies and recommendations for regenerative agriculture practices. The ultimate goal is to pay farmers for each ton of carbon captured and then sell certifications to companies looking to offset their carbon footprints. By supporting a transparent carbon credit marketplace, Indigo Carbon creates benefits for all participants: the farmers, the companies buying the offsets, the planet, and its own business.

What do these three companies have in common? Regardless of industry, geography, or size, they (and dozens of others like them) are innovating business models—building on and expanding beyond their core assets and capabilities—to address significant environmental and societal challenges in their local contexts. In this way, they create new sources of value and competitive advantage for their business.

In our research, we have studied more than 100 cases of companies that are practicing what we call “Sustainable Business Model Innovation” (SBM-I). We have found that the most advanced of these companies, the “front-runners,” combine environmental, societal, and financial priorities to re-imagine their core business models and even shift the boundaries of competition.

One might expect the front-runners to consist mainly of smaller enterprises, branded through their visible social or environmental missions. But most of them are actually global corporations that have gradually developed new business models that create both sustainability and long-term competitive advantage.

The core practice for SBM-I is an iterative innovation cycle, shown in Exhibit 1. With each round, the company gains scale, experience, and market presence for its initiative; these reinforce both the business advantage and the environmental and societal benefits generated.

1. Expand the Business Canvas

So how can you bring this cycle to life in your company? The first step is to develop a rich understanding of the broader stakeholder ecosystem in which the company operates and of the environmental and societal issues and trends that might affect this ecosystem. As part of this diagnosis, you explore the potential impacts of ecosystem dynamics and issues on your business model. This will allow you to identify a range of business vulnerabilities and opportunities tied to environmental and societal issues. Some of these are good starting points for focused SBM-I.

More specifically, we recommend the following:

Expand the business canvas by mapping the wider ecosystem of stakeholders and societal issues in which the business operates. Ask yourself: Who are the key stakeholders in the system? What are the material environmental and societal issues and trends? How do stakeholders and environmental and societal issues directly or indirectly impact all the different parts of the business model?
Stress-test the business model (current or potential) within this broader map. How do stakeholder dynamics and environmental and societal issues constrain or hold back your business model? Where do limitations in the system create vulnerabilities for the business model?
Extrapolate trends and build materiality scenarios. Look at today’s environmental and societal trends and think about how they might evolve over time. In addition, build scenarios to envision completely different, more extreme versions of the future (as opposed to linearly projecting trends) to stretch your thinking. And then, under these scenarios, ask yourself: How might environmental and societal issues change over time? How might stakeholders’ perceptions of and attitudes toward those issues shift? What would be the effects on the system map and the business model?
Explore scaling up the business. Imagine the business model at different scales of activity. Suppose your business grew three- or five-fold over the next few years. Where might breaking points or opportunities arise? What happens to the externalities the business creates? How do risks and opportunities change?
Identify innovation opportunity spaces or “strategic intervention points” (SIPs). These are points at which targeted action or innovation could alter stakeholder dynamics, positively impact the environmental or societal issues, reduce the vulnerabilities of the business model, or even create new business value opportunities.
Look for difficulties, gaps, and risks to arise from the analysis. For example, your company’s own lines of business might contribute to the environmental or societal issue and impact the growth of the business today. Also, don’t just rely on your own thinking. Cultivate outsiders who can provide complementary and thought-provoking perspectives.

In a recent interview, Christine Rodwell, former vice president of business development cities at Veolia, explained that “to walk the talk on sustainability, companies need to listen to their external stakeholders. They should create a committee of critical friends (across public, social, and academic sectors) who will challenge them and advise them to develop business solutions that create meaningful environmental and societal benefits.”

To understand what expanding a business canvas looks like in practice, consider the hypothetical example of a consumer packaged goods (CPG) manufacturing company engaged in a real-world dilemma: the toxic effect of plastic packaging on natural habitats, particularly in the world’s oceans. About 18 billion pounds of plastic waste enter the world’s oceans each year. This is equivalent to five grocery bags of trash on every foot of coastline. Plastic pollution causes extensive damage to life on land and at sea, including toxic contamination, strangulation, blockage of digestive passages, and endocrine-related reproductive problems for people as well as animals. Concerns about this problem reached a tipping point in the mid-2010s, as studies confirmed the damage.

As industrial leaders in this field know all too well, the complexities of gathering, cleaning, sorting, recycling, and reusing plastics have made it costly and difficult to address this issue. Companies that step forward with effective and financially viable solutions will not only gain enormous goodwill but are also likely to build high-growth businesses.

But where do you start? And where do you focus innovation efforts and investments to tackle such a complex, multifaceted environmental issue? Reflecting the SBM-I cycle approach, Exhibit 2 shows what a stakeholder-centric systems map for the plastics issue could look like from the point of view of a CPG company. This map uses basic systems dynamics principles to capture the most significant interrelationships among the CPG company, the environmental issue at stake, and key stakeholders (consumers, policymakers, civil society, waste collectors and recyclers, and plastics manufacturers). The arrows show patterns of cause and effect. For example, when urbanization increases, so does the cost of landfilling.

The power of this diagram (versus more traditional, linear depictions) comes in part from its ability to reveal where delays, rebound effects, or tipping points might be active in the system. For instance, the node labeled “environmental and recycling awareness” will influence changes in several consumer habits—but only after a delay. Such awareness cannot be seen as a quick-fix solution, but over time it will help change the dynamics of the entire system.

The boxes in the exhibit represent the opportunity spaces or strategic intervention points (SIPs) that become evident during this step. In this example, a few of the SIPs for our CPG company are as follows: shifting to new packaging formats; setting up plastic collection initiatives; lobbying for government programs like deposit return systems; joining precompetitive coalitions that invest in recycling infrastructure and new recycling technology; and educating and nudging consumers to consume and dispose of packaging in more sustainable ways.

2. Innovate for a Resilient Business Model

The first step in the cycle will have led you to identify the opportunity spaces that hold potential for both financial returns and societal value. You must then transform your business model, or imagine an entirely new one, so that you can seize these opportunities. In this second step, you innovate and develop new aspects of that new business model. You are seeking to bypass current constraints, break tradeoffs, deploy technological advances, and perhaps integrate activities that were previously kept separate. You should ideate a new business model to integrate and reinforce both business advantage and environmental and societal benefits.

In related research, we introduced and defined seven archetypal business models that optimize for both societal and business value. Here we illustrate how they might apply to the plastics waste challenge.

Own the origins. Change production inputs to generate societal and environmental benefits. For instance, HP is working with waste collectors in a partnership with the First Mile Coalition in Haiti. HP has invested $2 million in a local facility to produce clean, high-quality recycled plastics that can then be used as input in an array of HP personal computer products and ink cartridges, reducing the environmental footprint of those products. Four years after its launch in 2016, the program had already diverted approximately 1.7 million pounds (771 metric tons) of plastic materials (equivalent to more than 60 million plastic bottles) from waterways and oceans and created income opportunities for 1,100 Haitians (with 1,000 more expected in coming years). Thanks to this and other efforts, HP boasted the world’s most sustainable PC portfolio in May 2020. This included, for example, the HP Elite Dragonfly, the first PC manufactured with ocean-bound plastic.
Own the whole cycle. Create environmental and societal impact by influencing the product usage cycle from cradle to grave. Since the 1990s, Grupo AlEn, a leader in home cleaning products based in Monterrey, has invested and scaled up its in-house plastic recycling operations to become one of the largest plastic recyclers in Mexico. AlEn now operates 30 routes and 6,200 collection points in the Monterrey area, recycling more than 50,000 tons of PET and HDPE per year. This business expansion has given AlEn an exclusive supply of recycled plastics, enabling it to create distinctive, greener packaging at a relatively stable cost.
Expand societal value. Expand the environmental and societal value of products and services, and capture value in pricing, market share, and loyalty. In 2018, PepsiCo acquired Sodastream, the world’s leading at-home sparkling water maker. Building on this technology, PepsiCo has begun to bring packaging-free, customizable beverages to workplaces, college campuses, and airports. This new business positions PepsiCo to win in the increasingly personalized beverage market and to save an estimated 67 billion single-use plastic bottles by 2025.
Expand the value chains. Innovate by layering onto the business ecosystems of customers or of partners in other industries. In Chile, Algramo’s innovative bulk distribution system replaces single-use plastic with RFID-equipped reusable containers. Since 2013, the startup has scaled up its business by partnering with more than 2,000 family-owned stores across Santiago. They dispense affordable food and staple products “al gramo” (Spanish for “by the gram”) and reward customers for reusing containers. Algramo’s model not only helps the environment but also benefits the urban poor, who previously had to pay high prices for small quantities of products, in wasteful, individually wrapped packets.
Re-localize and regionalize. Shorten and reconfigure global value chains to bring societal benefits closer to home. In Brazil, BASF has developed a solution to a local issue: waste certificate fraud. Some collectors and recyclers claim credits for recycled materials that they didn’t actually process or that aren’t actually recycled. Partnering with Kryha, a digital blockchain studio, and Recicleiros, an NGO that supports waste collectors and their cooperatives, BASF developed an online platform called ReciChain. This platform enables accurate and secured data tracking throughout the recycling value chain, to improve the quality of operations and guarantee the validity of manufacturers’ certificates and claims.
Energize the brand. Encode, promote, and monetize the full environmental and societal value of products and services, and use that leverage to engage customers in novel ways. The innovative manufacturing company 3M released the latest version of its Thinsulate insulation product in 2019. This is “100% recycled featherless insulation” made from recycled plastic bottles. Building on this accomplishment, 3M worked with the high-end apparel brand Askov Finlayson to create “the world’s first climate-positive parka,” producing 3,000 parkas in 2019 as an inspiring demonstration project.
Build across sectors. Create new business models in collaboration with government and nonprofit organizations, particularly in rapidly developing economies, to improve the business ecosystem and societal proposition. Together, SC Johnson and the social enterprise Plastic Bank have opened nine recycling centers in Indonesia to collect and recycle plastic before it reaches the ocean. This partnership also plays an important societal role, helping families in impoverished areas who collect plastic waste by buying it at a premium from them. In 2019, the partnership announced a ground-breaking, three-year deal to create 509 plastic collection points, including locations in Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Brazil. In aggregate, these points are expected to collect 30,000 metric tons of plastic over three years—the equivalent of stopping 1.5 billion plastic bottles from entering waterways and the ocean. On the business side, among other benefits, this collaboration will secure a steady supply of high-quality recycled plastics and help SC Johnson meet its 2025 packaging goals.
These seven archetypes can be starting points for developing your own business model innovation. Adapt them, and combine several together to develop a more comprehensive solution to environmental and societal issues relevant to your enterprise. Interestingly, among the 102 in-depth SBM-I cases that we explored in our research, 75% of the SBM-I leaders (the “front-runners”) combine three or more archetypes. This contrasts with less than 30% in the two other groups: the “ecosystem leaders” and the “initiative leaders,” whose efforts tend to be more narrowly focused.

In addition to exploring the possibilities inherent in these seven archetypes, take inspiration in the lessons learned from SBM-I front-runners. Front-runners see sustainability as a source of competitive advantage. In line with their long-term strategies, they continuously iterate and fine-tune their business models, always seeking to deepen their beneficial impact. They explicitly seek to understand and fix the root causes of environmental and societal challenges—as some of our plastics recyclers did, addressing not just the environmental concerns but also the social aspects of the issue. These companies also use digital technologies wherever possible, to break economic constraints and unlock new solutions. They practice an intensive form of stakeholder engagement: partnering with nonprofits and governments, operating across organizational boundaries, and pooling resources with other enterprises, even competitors. Last but not least, they experiment with new forms of value capture, such as blended financing sources, to de-risk and amplify their own investments. After all, notwithstanding their environmental and social track records, the front-runners are still in business to show a profit and return investment to shareholders.

3. Link to Drivers of Value and Competitive Advantage

In the third stage of the cycle, test, iterate, and refine your business model ideas or concepts (from the second step) to ensure that they will yield the environmental and societal benefits intended, and that the benefits will translate into value and advantage for the company. A business with weak profit margins cannot invest in innovation to amplify and scale environmental and societal benefits.

The objective of this step is to keep assessing and reengineering the business model, so that it continually improves the resilience of the business and the benefits to society. The following questions, based on our research into the characteristics of robust, resilient business models, can help you navigate this part of the process:

Can the business model scale effectively? Can it be replicated across all your business units or the markets you serve, without diminishing returns?
Will the business model differentiate your brand or product and make it more competitive in the marketplace?
Will it reduce the risk of commoditization, by being hard for others to imitate? Will its distinctiveness help you retain some control over pricing?
Can it leverage network effects? For example, can it attract the kinds of customers and suppliers that make other customers feel compelled to join?
Does the business model harness business ecosystems—including the larger industry, the value chain, and everyone who interacts with your products, services, and practices—for advantage and sustainability?
Does the business model naturally create meaningful environmental and societal benefits?
Will the environmental and societal benefits remain durable against changing trends over time, even as the business model scales up?
Does the business model increase returns to shareholders as well? Are the financial benefits linked to the environmental and societal benefits in some significant way?
Finally, does the model animate your company’s purpose? Does it boost engagement and loyalty between the company and its employees, customers, investors, and other stakeholders?
Exhibit 3 shows how a company might assess its business model against these nine questions. The resulting footprint reveals how robust and resilient the business model is and identifies where it could be improved to unlock further advantage and value for the company.

The fuller the footprint, the better. Among the front-runners in our sample, 90% score “high” on at least five of the nine attributes, as opposed to only 30% in the other groups. The front-runners also show superior average scores on every single dimension.

4. Scale the Initiative

The full potential value of sustainable business model innovation is achieved only when the new business model is brought to scale: engaging people in the company, across the supply chain, in the company’s networks, and in its ecosystems to expand impact and advantage.

To accomplish this, companies can leverage three enablers. First, partnerships with other organizations, within or across industries or sectors, can help a company pool resources, fill capability gaps, and unlock new markets. Almost 90% of the front-runners have broadened their efforts this way. Second, digital technology (leveraged by 80% of the front-runners) can help create new distribution channels that reach previously unserved or underserved populations at a fraction of the cost of their predecessors. Third, companies that adopt SBM-I tend to develop cultures and leadership values that attract and engage people inside and outside their boundaries. Indeed, all of the front-runners explicitly mention the environmental and societal impact they seek to deliver in their vision, purpose, or mission statements.

Consider the example of BIMA, a mission-driven provider of mobile-delivered health and insurance services that started operations in Ghana in 2010. Its innovative digital technology platform and its partnership model (which comprises telecom providers, mobile money providers, and insurance underwriters) have enabled it to rapidly scale its innovative business model. BIMA now provides affordable, easy-to-manage life and health insurance to more than 35 million low-income customers across ten emerging economies. BIMA’s customers have access to its services through their mobile phones. Many of them are lower income families who earn less than $10 a day. About 75% of them are obtaining insurance for the first time in their lives. These societal benefits are at the core of BIMA’s strategy and mission; the company’s website says explicitly that its “purpose is to protect the future of every family.”

The four-step innovation cycle we propose in this article offers companies a way to systematically integrate and solve for social and business value in one business model. Most of the companies that begin this journey are already skilled at optimizing for business advantage. They may already recognize the importance of taking into account their environmental and societal impacts. With this approach, they are now ready to take on innovation for a business that optimizes for both business and social value.


The Business Impact Of HR Capabilities: It’s Far Bigger Than You Thought

This summer is the two-year anniversary of the Josh Bersin Academy and I want to give you an update. Not only have we grown to more than 30,000 members and 400+ corporate clients, we discovered something important. The capabilities of HR are the biggest opportunity you have to make your company grow. Let me explain.

As many of you know, we have not only introduced an entire academy of professional development for HR (more than 80 hours of credentialed training, 500 learning resources, 20+ learning accelerators), last year we introduced the JBA Global Capability Project.

In that Project, which has involved a year of research and collaboration with clients, we identified 94 business capabilities that define how HR professionals perform.

Today more than 4,000 Academy members have taken the capability assessment (it takes about 15 minutes), and our clients have been using the results. And as I discuss in the podcast, several of our large clients took the detailed data from the JBA Capability Assessment and correlated it against employee retention, engagement, and productivity.

And guess what they found. Among all the factors that contribute to employee experience and productivity, the capabilities of HR are among the strongest contributors.

In other words, developing and aligning your HR function may be the most important business imperative you have for the competitive labor market ahead.

Two of our clients are now using this data to specifically target our Capability Accelerators (the learning journeys that pinpoint learning programs for capability gaps) and creating strategic development programs for different HR teams. L’Oreal, for example, just told us last week that the most important factor in the success of their talent acquisition is the continuous training of their recruiters.

Other companies (Lego, Astra Zeneca, Walmart, and others) have similarly explained that their HR Business Partners, who are typically the most “pivotal” role in HR, are the critical point of need. These companies are using the JBA to pinpoint development programs, job rotation, and special assignments for HR Business Partners. And the Academy has an entire learning journey of education, case studies, and a special masterclass on consulting for HR Business Partners.

But There’s More

In our 2019 work with IBM on the HR 3.0 study, which surveyed and interviewed nearly 2,000 global corporations, we found an even stronger correlation. Let me summarize the findings.

In that study, we evaluated dozens of their HR Practices and correlated dozens of practices to company growth rate, profitability vs. competition, financial efficiency vs. competition, and innovation.

We then categorized each company’s HR Capabilities in five groups: A) very poor or no investment at all, B) Poor, C) Fair to good, D) Good to excellent, and E) World-class. And the results are astounding.

Revenue Growth:

Companies with World-class HR skills are 4.5 times more likely to be “significantly outperformers” in revenue growth and they are 1.5 times more likely to be “outperformers” in growth.

Companies with Poor and Fair to poor HR skills are half as likely to be outperformers in revenue growth and are never leaders in their industry in growth.


Companies with world-class HR skills are 5.5 X more likely to be “significantly more profitable than peers” and 2X more likely to be “more profitable than peers.”

Companies with good to excellent HR skills are 2.5 X more likely to be “significantly more profitable than peers” and 2X more likely to be “more profitable than peers.”

Companies with Poor and Fair to Poor HR skills are also half as likely to be outperformers in profitability and never leaders in profitability.


World-class HR skills companies are 6X more likely to be “significantly more innovative” and 1.8 X more likely to be “more innovative”

Companies with poor and fair to poor HR skills are again half as likely to be innovative, and never leaders in this category.

Impact of Poor HR Skills

Finally, if we look at the bottom “very low” HR skills companies, those who are very poor at HR, they are 10X less likely to be innovative and none of them are “more innovative” than peers. They NEVER outperform their peers in revenue growth. And they are 6X less likely to be profitability leaders.

Or to summarize, companies with world-class HR skills are in the 95% percentile in revenue growth, 92% percentile n innovation, and 86% percentile in profitability. Companies with poor HR skills are never revenue growth leaders, only 3% are above average in innovation, and only 10% are above average in profitability.

HR Capabilities Are The Key to Belonging and DEI

One more statistic. In our big DEI study Elevating Equity, we looked at 80 Diversity practices, and once again HR skills came out on top. Companies with strong HR capabilities in DEI are 4.5 times more likely to have a strong sense of belonging, 3.3 times more likely to engage and retain people, and 2.8 times more likely to be seen as a DEI leader among job candidates. Very important stuff.

(And, by the way, among the 94 capabilities in our HR model, DEI is the lowest-rated among global HR professionals – so this is one to pay attention to.)

This Is Why We Must Invest In HR

The bottom line is simple. In today’s competitive and highly disruptive labor market, companies must invest in the capabilities of HR. And that doesn’t just mean hiring a lot of people – it means training, upskilling, and providing job rotation, mentorship, and alignment programs for every single HR professional.

As I explain in the podcast, everything is about Employee Experience right now. The entire pandemic response and hybrid work craze is a massive focus on making employees safe, productive, and aligned. And as the labor market grows, companies are bending over backwards to make work easier, better, and more attractive.

The HR team is central to this mission. As a large Asian conglomerate client discovered, the business units with low HR capabilities have huge problems with retention, engagement, and performance. Why? They are not executing well at recruitment, onboarding, performance management, and leadership alignment. These are things strong HR leaders can fix – but in their case, some of their business units have HR teams that are totally transactional in nature.

We Are Here To Help

I don’t typically write articles to promote what we do, but as our two-year anniversary arrives, I want to reinforce how important these findings are. You now have a business case to upskill your HR team and implement the Josh Bersin Academy. Our program is proven (Our NetPromoter score is higher than Apple!), we tailor it to your company’s needs (we integrate it with your infrastructure and existing programs), and our Global HR Capability Project will pinpoint the precise areas that will help your company grow.


Are You Really Communicating? Don’t Try To ‘Wing It’

More than half a century ago, author and columnist Sydney Harris offered some wise counsel that seems especially relevant today: “The words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.”

Apparently, a lot of people in politics, academe, business and even (especially?) in the so-called communication world didn’t get the message.

A good primer on the basics can be found in Mastering Communication at Work: How to Lead, Manage, and Influence. Written by Ethan F. Becker and Jon Wortmann, the book clearly shows that good communication is not a skill that can be simply “improvised.” People who try to “wing it” with a speech or presentation frequently suffer crash landings. But communication skill is definitely something that can be acquired and refined through learning and practice.

Ethan Becker—who works with clients like Apple, IBM, Bain Capital, YouTube, and the New York Giants—offers communication tips that help anyone at any level in the business world.

Rodger Dean Duncan: “Match your listener’s tendency” is the first technique you teach. What does that mean?


Ethan Becker: It means that all listeners have the tendency to communicate in one of two ways—inductively or deductively. If you can match your listener’s tendency you will be more successful. Inductive people like the information given to them with the background details before the conclusion of the thought. Deductive people like the conclusion first followed by the background details. Exactly opposite of each other.

Duncan: Many audiences—in a business meeting, for example—are of course composed of both inductive and deductive thinkers. How can a message be calibrated to appeal to both?

Ethan Becker
Ethan Becker .
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Becker: When speaking to a group of people, you must decide the purpose of what you are saying and who you are speaking to. Topics that are more familiar to the group can be delivered deductively. Less familiar topics should take an inductive approach. If you are not sure or you get a question from someone, listen for whether the question is asked inductively or deductively and respond in kind. Senior executives tend to prefer deductive organization for sure. It’s best to be prepared to present ideas either way. Listening will be a key skill to help you decide.

Duncan: How does communication affect a person’s credibility, and how does credibility affect a person’s communication?

Becker: Both of these affect the other. Sadly, credibility can be hijacked or faked. Having a title or position may imply credibility, but we all know that’s not always true. On the other hand, people who are able to communicate their ideas in a clear, concise, and consistent manner almost always get credibility.

Credibility is relative. So, what establishes credibility to one may have no impact for another. Is the source of your credibility while presenting to senior management where you went to college or whether you reviewed last quarter’s data over the weekend? Some investors might feel you are credible because you cite data from your clinical trial. As a leader or manager, you may be given credibility from your title, but the first time you communicate feedback in a radically ineffective way, you lose credibility.

Duncan: “Employee engagement” is something every business should strive to nurture and improve. What specific communication practices contribute to that?

Becker: The simple and most direct answer is authenticity and empathy, neither of which is necessarily easy to have or implement. Leaders must begin with the desire and ability to communicate these two qualities. Employees will see and feel it. Of course, there is the aspect of knowing the work and being able to lead. Yet, these two qualities are what every manager or leader should strive to exhibit. As those things are learned and perfected, the employee engagement will follow.

Duncan: Some so-called leaders seem to have a special knack for sabotaging their own effectiveness. What are the most common communication mistakes that undermine leader effectiveness?

Becker: First, may be how they define “effectiveness.” If it’s founded in personal accomplishments or recognition, that is a mistake. Leaders must have followers. No one likes to follow a person who seems to be self-centered or who does not recognize the value and contribution of each team member. Second, may be not delegating, which is often connected to not trusting others. Third, may be the inability to communicate as both a group leader and/or as a one-on-one mentor, coach or leader. My mantra is “Attitudes Become Communication.” The way we think becomes the way we communicate. All of these sensitivities and skills can be learned.

Duncan: You describe framing as the intentional choosing of words to set the expectations of listeners. Give us an example of how framing might work for a business meeting and how it might work in a one-on-one conversation.

Becker: Words shape perception, so choose them wisely. Be careful, because words may have different meanings in different cultures. A frame you use in the United States might not resonate the same way with someone in Malaysia.

Let’s consider a business meeting where it’s announced that the company needs to cut a team from ten down to four.

Option A: Unfortunately, given the new orders from management, it’s time to decide who gets cut from the team.

This frame will inspire the group to look for poor performers and complainers. The first word is a negative word, and indicates that whatever comes next is bad. “Cut from the team” is a figure of speech that takes many people back to childhood when you are “not good enough” to play the game. This frame sets a negative feeling to the group and paints management as uncaring and demanding.

Option B: Given the new direction, let’s discuss what the ideal team looks like if we have the budget for only four people.

This will have the same result, a list of who stays, but with more clarity. It also places very little attention on management, feels exciting to focus on the future vision, and will result with high quality job descriptions.

Now, let’s consider a performance evaluation where 5 is the highest score.

Option A: I’m sorry but I have to give you a 2 on your follow through. What happened? Why didn’t you get this project done on time?

Sure, this informs about the score of 2. It also results with the person feeling bad, resentful, and likely demotivated. The discussion that follows will likely be focused on rehashing, complaining, and finger pointing.

Option B: Your quarterly score this time came in at a 2. How we can we get you up to a 3 or 4 for the next quarter?

This results in the same information about the person getting a 2, but places the focus on doing better. It paints an image that this is just one of many scores, just like in any game. Rather than dwelling on the past, the focus is on changing for the future.

Want to know if your framing will be effective? Practice out loud, record yourself, and play it back. Also practice with a peer. Listen for your tone of voice while you’re at it.

Duncan: Acknowledging that we’ve heard and appreciated someone’s view is critical to good communication. What does that validation look like in terms of observable behavior?

Becker: Validation can be seen in head nodding, eyebrow raising, smiling, simple sounds like “Oh, I see,” or more established responses such as paraphrasing or further questioning. Done well, people will feel that you are listening. Done poorly and you will come off as condescending. Done not at all, and people have no idea if you are receiving their messages.

A common problem is that people feel like validation is the same as agreement. Sure, if I agree with you, that is a form of validation and providing positive paralanguage comes naturally. But what if I don’t agree with you? I can still validate your contribution to a conversation or point of view.

Duncan: How do good communicators spot their own defensiveness, and how do they defuse it in others?

Becker: Good communicators, especially those in more senior management or leadership roles almost always seek the objective view and recommendation of others. That may be a trusted friend or a speech coach. Highly sensitive and self-aware people can use video or audio recordings of their behavior. Without some semblance of these options, it is almost impossible to get an accurate view of your defensiveness.

Duncan: You relate the story of how Abraham Lincoln wrote “hot letters” to people who opposed his views or who even attacked him personally. But then he didn’t send the letters. What can today’s communicators learn from Abe?

Becker: One of the best lessons that translate into modern society is do not send an email that has emotion attached to it. Write it out, step away, read it. Read it again. Place yourself in the role of the receiver. Then decide whether to send it. Usually, email written in a moment of emotion is best not sent. Or imitate Abe and send it to yourself. See how it feels to receive and read it. While folks are pretty controlled on Linkedin, other more casual social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook are filled with emotional outbursts. It’s one thing for a celebrity, who most people will never meet, to do it. It’s another, when it’s done by your own work colleague.

Duncan: What are best practices of people who solicit feedback on the effectiveness of their own communication?

Becker: One of the most important things is to have the right mindset before and during the feedback. It may or may not be what you like hearing. However, it’s the perception of that person. Simply thank them for it and don’t commit to making any specific changes until you have had a separate opportunity to think about it.

Once you have the feedback, if you decide to seek validation from others, be careful not to accidentally spin it. It’s easy to ask for feedback with a frame that clearly leads the other person. “Jim said he thinks I talk too much? You don’t think I do, do you?” Instead, try framing it as “I got some highly valuable feedback yesterday. Do you feel that at times, I include too many details?”

Duncan: Meetings consume (and, arguably, waste) enormous amounts of time in the workplace. What recipe do you suggest for improving the effectiveness of meetings?

Becker: Know the purpose of the meeting. For instance, is it a brainstorming meeting? Is it a problem-solving meeting? Is it a meet and greet meeting? Is it an information gathering meeting? etc.

Once you know the purpose(s), then decide who should be there, why, and how long the meeting should be. It often helps to assign every topic on the agenda with a time limit. For example, one computer programming team, developed a version of an agile meeting which is about 20 minutes and conducted standing. Understanding how to facilitate a meeting effectively is pretty simple. Being able to do it, takes practice. The leader of the group does not always have to be the facilitator. On some teams, we recommend rotating the role of facilitator to encourage engagement.

Duncan: What can companies do to help their leaders get better at communication?

Becker: Many companies place their focus on leadership training initiatives that have pretty thin modules on communication. I say flip that. Place your effort, time, and target on communication programs first, then introduce other leadership competencies like purpose and values and you’ll end up with strong leaders. This order has proven to be a much stronger scaffolding approach.