Friday, November 27, 2009

s+b's Best Business Books 2009

Editing this year's Best Business Books special section for strategy+business was a terrific experience. We had an insightful and articulate team of essayists who winnowed through the stacks, and Guy Billout's illustrations are great. Here's my intro:

No matter what the future holds, the Great Recession of 2008–09 has had a seismic impact on the global business landscape and has called into question its philosophical and systemic foundations.

Certainly, it has been keenly felt among publishers and booksellers. In May 2009, year-to-date sales of professional books in the U.S. were down 6.8 percent from the year before, according to the Association of American Publishers. The recession also colors the writing — and the reading — of this year’s s+b best business books essays in ways both obvious and subtle.

The most direct manifestation is evident in the appraisal by Financial Times commentator Clive Crook of the books that seek to make sense of the recession, its implications, and its ramifications. In barely more than a year, the business section has become crowded with such books, but with the story still unfolding, none of them yet are comprehensive. Crook’s picks provide the multiple levels of perspective needed to appreciate the recession’s many facets.

Ayesha Khanna, managing director of Hybrid Realities, and Parag Khanna, New America Foundation senior research fellow, team up to review books on the changing topology of global business. They find changes in regional trading patterns and increasingly dynamic emerging economies that will challenge any established player — all evidence of an ongoing shift in competitive power that is sure to accelerate if the U.S. economy remains stagnant.

As one might expect, our management and leadership essays are rife with recession links. In the former, Judith F. Samuelson, the founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program, searches out books that reveal the recession’s silver lining: its challenges to outmoded ways of thinking about management and governance. In the leadership essay, Charles Handy, whose memoir was one of 2008’s Top Shelf selections, mines books on topics as diverse as America’s Puritan settlers and the Buddhist Tzu Chi movement for insights into how to begin mending the torn fabric of leadership.

The University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business professor James O’Toole grounds his review of this year’s best biographies in a hefty tome about a 19th-century prime mover, John Stuart Mill, whose advocacy of free markets and private ownership resonates amid the dramatic government response to this economic crisis. IMD professor Phil Rosenzweig returns for an encore performance in the strategy category, pointing us toward books on intellectual property and dynamic capabilities in an effort to identify enduring strategic advantage. Rosenzweig also recommends a new book on Enron that takes us back to the last recession and explores the perils of stretching any strategy too far.

Marketing maven Catharine P. Taylor is back as well, with a proposition that should raise executive eyebrows: Branding is becoming an open source endeavor. She calls out Twitter — the subject of almost as many new books as the recession — as one of the leading technological mechanisms enabling this phenomenon. Steven Levy, senior writer at Wired and newcomer to our pages, broadens the thesis by reviewing books that explore the disruptive power of technology and what happens when companies such as MySpace don’t heed that power.

This year’s best business books help us understand current conditions and chart a secure course forward. With luck, next year’s best books will offer similar insight into a recovery of historic proportions.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Interview: Dick Grote on Employee Discipline

“You can’t punish people into commitment,” says Dick Grote, who first implemented a non-punitive employee discipline system as Frito-Lay’s Director of Training and Development in the 1970s. He is the author of Discipline Without Punishment: The Proven Strategy That Turns Problem Employees into Superior Performers (Amacom) and president of Addison, Texas-based Grote Consulting Corporation.

Why is disciplining employees such a tough job for managers?
This is a difficult thing to do, to sit down with another person and talk about the fact that they are not doing a good job. And when you have to keep on working with that person, the stakes go up. The other thing is all of the concern today about discrimination suits and legal liability. Supervisors are typically scared to death that if they say anything to anybody, then they are going to be facing Johnnie Cochran.

What are the most common mistakes managers make with regard to discipline?
Too often managers think that the purpose of disciplinary action is to terminate the employee in a way that can survive a legal challenge. That point of view is way too limited. I think there are four objectives for any discipline process. The first objective, obviously, is to solve the problem. The second objective is to maintain and enhance the relationship. The third is to build personal responsibility. The fourth is to build compelling defensibility.

You say that termination represents the failure of a discipline system. Why?
What we need to recognize is that the purpose of discipline is to bring about change. Suzie is coming to work late. So we give Suzie a first warning. But Suzie doesn’t change and so we move to a second step. She keeps coming to work late. So we move to a final step and Suzie keeps coming into work late. At that point we realize that our goal of bringing about change has failed and now it’s time for Suzie to find a job where they don’t care about punctuality. That is why termination is a failure of the process.

How does a Discipline Without Punishment (DWP) process work?
The first formal step is Reminder One, a serious conversation that puts the employee formally on notice that change is required. If that doesn’t do the trick, you go to Reminder Two. Another serious conversation, this time formally documented in a memo to the employee. If that still doesn’t work, you move to Decision Making Leave, a one-day, paid suspension where the employee is required to make a final decision either to change or quit. Now, one of two things usually happens: either they change or they don’t and another problem comes up which makes termination very easy.

The point of DWP is that we are eliminating the warnings, the reprimands, and the unpaid suspensions. We are replacing it with something much tougher, the demand that people take responsibility for their own behavior. That puts all the responsibility on the employees’ shoulders and that is where it belongs.

Can a manager use the principles of DWP without organizational support?
Absolutely. I think the first thing is the recognition that you are really trying to bring about a change. Learn how to hold a good performance improvement discussion and gain an agreement to change.

There is another thing. When you are documenting disciplinary action, you are documenting the discussion about the problem. That is why you can only do it after you have had the conversation. The effective way is to talk first, write later.

Grote’s Recommended Reads

A Message to Garcia by Elbert Hubbard. “As far as a general understanding of individual responsibility, there is nothing better.”

Coaching for Improved Work Performance by Ferdinand Fournies. “Very good at providing step-by-step instructions and vivid examples of coaching situations.”

Analyzing Performance Problems: Or, You Really Oughta Wanna--How to Figure out Why People Aren't Doing What They Should Be, and What to do About It by Robert Mager. “Shows that the solutions to a lot of people problems come by providing feedback, arranging appropriate consequences and getting rid of obstacles that prevent people from doing the job right.”