Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Brian Grazer on curiosity

My review for Financial Times:

Review: A Curious Mind, by Brian Grazer

by Theodore Kinni
I had expected Brian Grazer, with his phenomenal success as a producer of films including Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, and his odd habit of hounding notable people such as scientist Jonas Salk and writer Isaac Asimov until they agree to meet him for a “curiosity conversation”, to make a fascinating subject for a book.
Maybe that is why I found A Curious Mind curiously disappointing. A book that should have given us the inside scoop on a self-made member of Hollywood’s power elite turns out to be a rather lightweight paean to the benefits of curiosity.
Grazer, supported by business book writer Charles Fishman, attributes the lion’s share of his success to a single trait: “Life isn’t about finding the answers, it’s about asking the questions.” But he finds it hard to shoehorn his own career into this reductionist frame. For instance, he quickly notes that questions are not enough; you have to listen to the answers and be willing to act on them. And then there are the curious times that he becomes “anti-curious” because he has come to a decision. “Thanks anyway,” Grazer says, “I don’t want your critique.”
A Curious Mind is punctuated by vignettes from 63-year-old Grazer’s life and career that provide far more insight the rest here 

Quelling your inner Stalin

How to Stop Diminishing and Start Amplifying Your Employees’ Best Work

Posted by & filed under Business, Content - Highlights and Reviews, leading teams, management, managing yourself.

By Theodore Kinni
Theodore Kinni has written, ghosted, or edited more than 20 business books. He was book review editor for strategy+business for 7 years.

I took a free online leadership assessment created by the Wiseman Group the other day. The good news: I got a near perfect score. The bad news: the assessment measures the degree to which I would diminish people if I were leading them!

Leaders who are “diminishers” weaken employee performance by draining their momentum, sapping their energy, and otherwise feeding on them, according to Liz Wiseman, who, with Greg McKeown, is the author of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. Many of the behaviors that diminishers exhibit are self-aggrandizing and simply do not take into account the welfare and interests of employees. But, sometimes, diminishing behaviors can actually be well-intentioned—such as when a leader acts as a buffer between their people and the larger organization, or is overly eager to leap to the rescue whenever people are struggling. Such behaviors can diminish accidentally: For example, by rescuing employees too quickly, a leader can cut them off from learning and empowerment opportunities.

The managerial opposite of diminishers is what Wiseman calls multipliers. Leaders who are multipliers, explains the former head of HR development at Oracle, amplify the efforts of their people, enhancing overall output and allowing their employees and their companies to flourish. Multipliers, she writes, “access and revitalize the intelligence in the people around them.” They “create genius …and make everyone smarter and more capable.”

How can you become a multiplier? Wiseman and McKeown say that any leader can achieve multiplier status by practicing five disciplines the rest here

Friday, March 20, 2015

A look back at Cialdini's classic book on influence

The Six Principles that Influence People to Say “Yes”

By Theodore Kinni
Theodore Kinni has written, ghosted, or edited more than 20 business books. He was book review editor for strategy+business for 7 years.

Long before writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Dan Pink started picking through scientific studies for business tips, there was Robert Cialdini and his classic book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.  The first edition of the book, which was based in part on Cialdini’s own research, was published in 1984. Since then, it has racked up sales of more than 2 million copies.

“I can admit it freely now. All my life I’ve been a patsy,” the Arizona State psychology professor writes in the book’s introduction. “For as long as I can recall, I’ve been an easy mark for the pitches of peddlers, fund-raisers, and operators of one sort or another.” Influence was written as a defensive weapon for the patsy in all of us, but it quickly became a bible for sales and marketing types, too. And from there it spread to business leaders.

Good leaders don’t play their followers for patsies—if they did, they wouldn’t be leaders for long. Nevertheless, they must be able convince people to follow them and to do the things that they ask. In Influence, Cialdini offers up six basic psychological principles—reciprocity, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity—that any leader can use to obtain compliance. They work because they contain triggers that set off fixed-action patterns within us.“Click and the appropriate tape is activated; whirr and out rolls the standard sequence of behaviors,” Cialdini explains... read the rest here

Friday, March 13, 2015

Some tips for giving feedback

Making Employee Feedback Sessions Positive (Even When They Are Negative)

By Theodore Kinni

Theodore Kinni has written, ghosted, or edited more than 20 business books. He was book review editor for strategy+business for 7 years.

To study stress, a couple of scientists offered free job application coaching to unemployed people. The scientists brought each unwitting subject into the lab for a practice interview, during which an interviewer—a ringer, of course—gave increasingly negative feedback, starting with disgusted looks and moving to outright criticism. Understandably, the interviewees’ stress levels climbed the charts.

The moral of the story isn’t to avoid scientists looking for subjects, although that may not necessarily be a bad idea. Instead, says psychologist Daniel Goleman, who made emotional intelligence a byword in the business world, “Managers and supervisors should be aware that this can be what happens to people if you focus in performance feedback solely on what they did wrong, rather than how they can improve and what they did well.”

Giving employees feedback—in formal reviews and in the course of daily events—can be one of the most uncomfortable jobs that managers face, and it is one for which they are often unprepared. I’m no paragon of constructive feedback myself, but I’ve read some really good books by some really smart people about it the rest here

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Will Berkshire profit without Buffett?

My new book post on strategy+business is up:

Does Berkshire’s Culture Ensure Its Future?

Warren Buffett, who will turn 85 this August, has had an extraordinarily long run of business success—such a long run, in fact, that there has been much speculation in recent years about how Berkshire Hathaway will fare after its chief architect is gone. Of course, many companies survive, and prosper, after the loss of charismatic leaders. Apple, for example, recently posted a record quarterly profit of US$18 billion. But as it was with Steve Jobs, the concern about Buffett is understandable—the Oracle of Omaha is credited with personally parlaying an investment in a fading New England textile manufacturer in 1962 into the unlikely conglomerate that is now perched at number four on the Fortune 500 list.

Berkshire’s 2013 revenues were $182 billion, on which the company reaped a profit of $19 billion. Under Buffett’s guiding hand, the Berkshire family has grown to include 50 or so direct subsidiaries—a few of which qualify as conglomerates in and of themselves—and the company has tens of billions of dollars of cash on hand, with which he could acquire even more. “If Berkshire were a country, and its revenues its gross national product, the company would be among the top 50 world economies, rivaling Ireland, Kuwait, and New Zealand,” writes George Washington University Law School professor Lawrence A. Cunningham, the author of Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2014).

Shelves of books have been written about Buffett and Berkshire, including Alice Schroeder’s terrific biography, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life (Bantam, 2008), which this magazine named as one of the best business books in 2009. But Cunningham takes a new tack: He asks what the company’s “moat” is—that is, what protection it has from competitive challenges.

Cunningham rejects out of hand the idea that Buffett’s presence is the moat, writing “mortality means no person can be a moat, because that would not be a durable advantage.” It’s also not the company’s financial might, Cunningham adds. The float provided by Berkshire’s insurance businesses and its investments in the stock of other companies only “strengthen[s] Berkshire’s fortress.”

What, then, is Berkshire’s moat? The answer, says the author: "Berkshire’s distinctive corporate culture. Berkshire spent the last five decades acquiring a group of wholly owned subsidiaries of bewildering variety but united by a set of distinctive core values.”

Cunningham finds nine shared cultural traits among Berkshire’s subsidiaries. This conveniently allows him to use “BERKSHIRE” as an acronym, even though it requires some clunky labeling. The traits:
·         Budget conscious, as in thriftiness
·         Earnest, as in keeping promises
·         Reputation, as in personal and corporate integrity
·         Kinship, in terms of legacy and a family orientation
·         Self-starters, as in entrepreneurial behavior
·         Hands off, as in delegating decisions and responsibility
·         Investor savvy, in terms of capital investment
·         Rudimentary, as in easy-to-understand businesses
·         Eternal, as in a long-term perspective

The foundation for these traits is Buffett’s investment philosophy, but often they already exist in the businesses he acquires: He buys what he values. And when the Berkshire values aren’t present or seem threatened, he spreads and reinforces them. After Buffet discovered that a senior Berkshire executive had profited personally from an acquisition, for example, he accepted the executive’s resignation and drafted a memo to all employees that warned, “Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding; lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.”

Although Cunningham’s inquiry into Berkshire’s values and culture is interesting (as are the histories of the companies that make up the conglomerate), Berkshire Beyond Buffett isn’t all that convincing. Will the company prosper without its founder? It certainly might—it’s a profit-generating powerhouse. But the book didn’t persuade me that Berkshire’s culture (and not Buffet or something else entirely) is the principal source of its competitive advantage.

Cunningham argues that a person can’t be a durable competitive moat, but isn’t Buffett exactly that? He built Berkshire one acquisition and investment at a time over a half-century. And how long is “durable” when it comes to competitive advantage anyway? There are some smart people who are convinced that there is no such thing these days. 

Further, while some company cultures seem to serve as moats—the culture in Disney’s parks and resorts comes to mind—isn’t it more likely that culture is really what Cunningham characterizes as a fortress strengthener, like a float that could keep a small country above water? In and of itself, would a culture built on the “BERKSHIRE” values be able to save the proverbially doomed buggy-whip company? I don’t find these questions addressed in the book. 

Despite the outstanding issues, I found Berkshire Beyond Buffett a worthy read. Cunningham’s thesis hasn’t convinced me to run out and buy a block of Berkshire’s A stock at $200,000+ per share. (Oh, to have a personal float of such magnitude!) But the book does provide insights into the values and culture that have buoyed one of the great conglomerates of all time.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

I did a Q&A with an interesting guy for Stanford Business Magazine:

What We Can Learn from Ancient Athens’ Manufacturing Industry
A former vice president at Boston Consulting Group analyzes an ancient sector and how it parallels changes in today’s economy.
Consultants often analyze industries, but Peter Acton has taken a much bigger step back in time than most. When the former vice president at the Boston Consulting Group decided to pursue a PhD in ancient history at the University of Melbourne, he chose the manufacturing sector in Athens in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. as the subject of his thesis and, now, his new book, Poiesis: Manufacturing in Classical Athens (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Poiesis portrays classical Athens as a vibrant society of makers. Moreover, Acton’s application of modern theories of competitive advantage to an ancient economy offers a promising new analytical framework for historians. Acton received his MBA from Stanford in 1980. Here are excerpts of a conversation with him about his new book.
Classical Athens is commonly associated with a flowering of the arts, philosophical thought, and democracy. How did manufacturing fit into the picture?
When you look at the high standard of living in Athens and think about all the things Athenians needed — housing, furniture, pottery, clothing, shoes, armor, ships, and public buildings — you realize it had to be a busy manufacturing city. Oddly, however, that reality wasn’t reflected in the scholarly literature, which has never paid much attention to how Athenians made a living ... read the rest here.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Three tips for better meetings


By Theodore Kinni

Theodore Kinni has written, ghosted, or edited more than 20 business books. He was book review editor for strategy+business for 7 years.

Fed up with his team’s lack of productivity, the manager calls everyone together yet again. Iron-fisted, he declares, “We’re are going to continue having these meetings, every day, until I find out why no work is getting done.”

I know it’s not a howler of a joke, but then it’s hard to squeeze a laugh out of as pervasive a bane of organizational life as meetings. Think about how much of their time managers spend in meetings (25-50 percent, per Brian Tracy). Then, tally up the labor costs—to say nothing of the impact on productivity and the opportunity costs. It’s no laughing matter.

So what’s to be done about meetings? I went looking for suggestions in Safari and found a slew of ideas. Here are three of the most intriguing: the rest here.