Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Write your own story

What’s Your (Leadership) Story?

Posted by & filed under Business, leadership, 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.

There’s been a lot written about the power of storytelling in business. In fact, the concept has become mainstream enough that one company recently hired a bestselling novelist as its chief storytelling officer.

Stories can be used for lots of purposes in business. Annette Simmons calls out six of them in Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Use Your Own Stories to Communicate with Power and Impact : “who am I” stories; “why I’m here” stories; “vision” stories; “values in action” stories; “teaching” stories; and “I know what you’re thinking” stories.

As a leader, you can pick and choose among these different types of stories, but in Your Leadership Story: Use Your Story to Energize, Inspire, and Motivate, Timothy J. Tobin, Marriott International’s vice president of global learning and leadership development, makes a pretty compelling argument that you should always start with a story that is about yourself. Crafting such a story is as much about clarifying how you view your self and your situation as it is about communicating who you are to others.

Tobin sees your own story as an amalgam of several of Simmons’ story types, including who am I, why I’m here, and vision and values stories. “Your leadership story communicates the message of identity: who you are as a leader, what you believe in, what drives you and defines you as a leader, and how you act,” writes Tobin.

Why do you need to tell this story about yourself? “If you do not take primary authorship of your story, it will be crafted exclusively through the perceptions of others,” explains Tobin. “And… others’ interpretations may not be accurate. Or worse, their motivations may not support your story.”

Crafting your leadership story is a lot like writing a novel: It includes plot, characters, conflict, theme, and setting. ...read the rest here

Monday, June 22, 2015

The vagaries of innovation

My new book post on s+b Blogs

The Wright Stuff

What if you demonstrated a world-changing invention and nobody noticed? For years, that was the fate of the two self-taught men who pioneered a quantum leap in human transportation.

On December 17, 1903, on the windy Outer Banks of North Carolina, Wilbur and Orville Wright made four short flights in a crude flying machine that they had built in their bicycle shop back in Dayton, Ohio. Totaling less than 1,500 feet and witnessed by only five men (three of them from a nearby life-saving station in Kitty Hawk), the flights were a signal achievement in human history. “Their flights that morning were the first ever in which a piloted machine took off under its own power into the air in full flight, sailed forward with no loss of speed, and landed at a point as high as that from which it started,” writes David McCullough in his new biography The Wright Brothers (Simon & Schuster, 2015).

The story of how the Wright Brothers mastered the challenge of powered flight is a fascinating one, and as you might expect from a writer and historian of McCullough’s stature, it is told well and in detail. McCullough, the dean of popular historians and the author of landmark books on engineering feats such as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, describes how the brothers constructed their planes by trial and error — hand-shaping the propellers and the wings, and, with the help of Charlie Taylor, their sole employee at the bicycle shop, machining a simple gas engine from a block purchased from the Aluminum Company of America (now Alcoa). They then taught themselves to fly. They never flew together, lest they both die in a crash and fail in their quest.

It’s a story of human ingenuity that I remember reading as a boy, and it is no less inspiring decades later. But, as McCullough pointed out in a talk he gave in Kitty Hawk last fall, the really odd thing about it is that for years after those first flights in 1903, no one appeared to notice or care that two bicycle mechanics had actually achieved the age-old dream of flight (and on a shoestring budget of less than US$1,000). Certainly aviation was newsworthy: from 1898 to 1903, the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Department of War had sunk $50,000 into a failed effort at powered flight, and several European governments were also pursuing aviation projects. But even though the newspapers picked up the story (from a telegram the brothers sent home to their father and sister), the world did not beat a path to their door.

Instead, the brothers returned to Dayton virtually unheralded. They continued to build and sell bicycles, and invested their profits in the ongoing development of their Wright Flyer. To save money, they stopped traveling to the Outer Banks for test flights and began using a cow pasture outside Dayton, which they rented from a local banker who thought them “fools.”

In January 1905, with more than 105 flights under their belts, the brothers sent a letter offering their invention to the U.S. Department of War. They promptly received a standard letter of rejection. In October 1905, by which time they were routinely making flights of 25 miles and more, they again offered the Flyer to the War Department. Again, their offer was rejected.

It wasn’t until the end of 1905 — two years after their first powered flights — that the Wright Brothers were finally able to make a deal for their invention. A representative of a syndicate of French businessmen traveled to Dayton and agreed to purchase a Flyer as gift to the French government. “According to the agreement,” McCullough writes, “the brothers were to receive one million francs, or $200,000, for one machine, on the condition that they provided demonstration flights, during which the machine fulfilled certain requirements in altitude, distance, and speed.”

Even then, it took the Wright Brothers another two-and-a-half years to win widespread recognition for their feat. In the summer of 1908, Wilbur flew at Le Mans in order to fulfill the terms of the French contract. Suddenly, the entire world recognized the brothers’ achievement. Almost five years after their first flights, the two became celebrities overnight.

Unfortunately for aspiring entrepreneurs seeking insights on how to commercialize technological breakthroughs, that’s pretty much the end of the story for McCullough — he sums up most of the rest of the brothers’ lives in an epilogue. In 1909, they formed the Wright Company, but ended up devoting most of their energies to filing and fighting patent suits. Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912 at age 45, leaving an estate of approximately $300,000. Orville sold the company in 1918, just a few years after airplanes were first used by military forces in World War I. When he died in 1948, his estate was valued at just over $1 million.

“On July 20, 1969,” concludes McCullough, “when Neil Armstrong, another American born and raised in southwestern Ohio, stepped onto the moon, he carried with him, in tribute to the Wright brothers, a small swatch of the muslin from the wing of their 1903 Flyer.” That’s a nice bit of recognition. But it seems short shrift for ushering in a technological revolution that changed the world and spawned an industry that will generate about $240 billion in sales in the U.S. alone this year.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Lessons from yesterday's titans

The Selfie Strategy

The photograph of the three tuxedo-clad titans of industry on the cover of Strategy Rules: Five Timeless Lessons from Bill Gates, Andy Grove, and Steve Jobs (HarperBusiness, 2015) could have just as easily been taken in 1898 as 1998. In the only picture of the three CEOs together, Gates, Grove, and Jobs smile out at us as if from the pantheon of business. As long as you remember names like Rockefeller, Edison, and Ford, they seem to be thinking, you will remember us, too.

Rightly so. When the photo was taken, Andy Grove had just been named “Man of the Year” by Time magazine. He was getting ready to step down as the CEO of Intel, where, √† la Ford, he had dominated his industry by continuously bringing cheaper, more powerful microprocessors to market. Bill Gates — the Rockefeller of his era — was the head of the world’s most powerful software company, an accused monopolist, and already the richest person on earth. Steve Jobs had returned Apple to profitability after a decade in exile, and was just beginning a run of disruptive innovation that would have made Edison envious.

Given the shelves of books that have already been written about the three CEOs who were most instrumental in shaping the personal computer era, it’s hard to imagine the need for yet another book about any of them. But the authors of this first comparative study of the three men, b-school profs David Yoffie and Michael Cusumano, are convinced otherwise: “We concluded that their approaches could help managers and entrepreneurs think more systematically about strategy, as well as execution, because they tackled key problems in similar ways.” And they know whereof they speak: Yoffie teaches international business administration at Harvard Business School and Cusumano is a management professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

For the most part, the strategic similarities of the CEOs are unsurprising. Yoffie and Cusumano tell us that each had a long-term vision for his company, but then took the essential second step of connecting vision to action. They made big, bold bets, but stopped short of all-or-nothing wagers that risked the survival of enterprises. They developed platforms and ecosystems rather than just products and services. They deployed the considerable leverage and power at their disposal to create competitive advantage (perhaps overly so, given that each of these companies attracted the unwelcome attentions of antitrust regulators).

The final similarity shared by Gates, Grove, and Jobs, however, is one that comes with warnings. The authors call it a personal anchor: “the leader’s unique skills and business insights.” For Gates, it was programming chops and a deep understanding of software. For Grove, it was engineering excellence and discipline. And for Jobs, it was an obsessive focus on design and user experience.
Although their personal anchors were very different, each CEO used them in the same ways, according to Yoffie and Cusumano. “The anchors drove their day-to-day focus as CEOs and guided strategic thinking as well as helped them make decisions ranging from who to recruit and how to delegate authority,” they write. The values and priorities they embodied became elevated into organizational routines and competencies that remain in place even today at Microsoft, Intel, and Apple.” In other words, these three leaders built their companies in their own images — and built them to last far beyond their tenures at the helm.

Despite the profitable persistence of these three companies, I couldn’t help but be troubled by this argument. The idea that you — or any leader — should “shape the organization around your personal anchor” is a dangerous one. The authors admit that it is a double-edged sword: “We can trace many of the limitations that Microsoft, Intel, and Apple have displayed in recent years to the decisions that Gates, Grove, and Jobs made as well as to the cultures and business models that they established.” Microsoft’s focus on programming and software, for example, is one reason its forays into other markets — like search, smartphones, and social networking — have been “slow and awkward.” Intel is still tied to Moore’s Law and the PC market even as the demand for microprocessors has expanded into mobile devices and the Internet of Things. And like its founder, Apple — now the world’s largest company by market capitalization and its most valuable brand — seems unable to move beyond serial innovation and the risks that entails.

In fact, much of the discussion in the book around utilizing your personal anchor is focused on how to temper its effects. Anchors provide much-needed ballast and stability. But they also limit movement, and if they become too large, or are moved too swiftly, they can cause the ship to capsize. Just so, you need to become aware of how your personal anchor can drag you and your company down, the authors warn. You need to build a leadership team that balances its weaknesses and distributes executive power. You need to cast a wide net for information and continually test the logic behind your decisions.

Gates, Grove, and Jobs certainly possessed weighty personal anchors, and they happened to appear in the right place and time to put them to profitable use. But you should think twice before you tie your personal anchor to your company and chuck it overboard.