07th May 2008

Writing to be understood

By Jefferson Flanders

Writers who look to persuade, explain, analyze, or inform need to be understood. They fail if their readers don’t comprehend, or understand, what they have written. While in theory clear thinking should translate into clear writing, in practice that transformation doesn’t always happen. Writing to be understood can prove difficult even for experienced, organized writers who have carefully thought through—in advance—what they plan to communicate.

And what about the less prepared: those who employ the writing process to help get their thoughts in order? Some approach the blank page with a relatively blank mind, trusting that the discipline of writing will clarify and organize their thinking. This can be a successful, although risky, strategy. William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White note in their classic The Elements of Style that “writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.”

Whether you “think and then write,” or “write to think,” the goal is the same: to be understood. In either case, the best measure of clarity in writing is simple: does the reader get it? Does the reader understand your message or argument as you meant it to be understood?

If the reader cannot follow your writing, or finds it confusing, or difficult to decipher, you are not writing clearly. (This imaginary reader should be representative of your broader audience). You may believe your argument makes sense, or that you have captured its essence on paper, but if the reader doesn’t get it, then you have missed the mark. Clarity in writing should lead to comprehension.

Some writers are mystified that what seems crystal clear to them on the page somehow gets “lost in translation” for the reader. (This is why it is always a good idea to ask a colleague or friend to read and review your work with a critical eye before exposing it to a wider audience). Yet this disconnect is understandable, even natural. As Joseph M. Williams has observed: “Our own writing always seems clearer to us than it does to our readers, because we read into it what we wanted to mean when we wrote it, an advantage our readers lack.” The writer, perhaps too close to the work, can suffer from what can be called author’s myopia and lose perspective.

One practical way to bridge this gap is to imagine writing for your reader as a conversation—albeit a one-way conversation. Unlike a real dialog, you don’t have the opportunity to clarify and elaborate as you go along. Since you are restricted to one-way communication, you must anticipate the reader’s likely questions. Mentally construct a list of potential Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), and then make sure they are answered in your writing.

Remember that the reader’s primary concern is: “What am I being told? And why should I care?” It’s up to the writer to understand and clearly state the purpose of his or her writing (for example, a request for a revised budget, an appeal for new legislation, an analysis of a short story), to relate his or her central message, and to explain why it matters.

Emphasizing a central message helps provide structure. In persuasive writing of any kind, explaining your important ideas will require sharing your reasoning and your supporting evidence with the reader. This is where clear thinking can help inform your writing. By evaluating sources, weighing evidence, developing a hypothesis, and fashioning a logical and effective argument—in advance—there’s a coherent train of thought ready to transfer to paper. The order and flow of ideas will follow a logical progression, which makes it easier for the reader to comprehend.

In practice, clear writing will be simple, but not simplistic. Clear writers follow a few basic principles. They look to inform, and engage, the reader. They explain complex concepts in a step-by-step fashion. Their writing—the paragraphs, phrases, and words—reflect a reader-focused approach. They make sentences and paragraphs no longer than absolutely necessary. Whenever possible they write in the active voice, and select the concrete word or phrase, as opposed to the abstract, to illustrate their point. They write to be understood. Their reward: a reader who gets it.

Jefferson Flanders is an author, educator and independent journalist. He blogs on issues of the day at Neither Red nor Blue.


Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

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05th May 2008

Benefit from managing your boss!

By Karen McHenry

As with many things in life, working well with your boss is a two-way street. You expect your supervisor to manage you and to give you direction. However, managing your boss can actually be a good way to advance your career.

What does it mean to manage your boss? Sometimes managing your supervisor is also referred to as “managing up.” Managing up is really all about creating and maintaining a relationship with your boss. When people have a strong rapport, they are more likely to work cooperatively and productively. Relationships tend to flourish in situations where people have complementary personalities. However, personality is only part of the equation. There are specific actions that you can take to start building a stronger relationship with your manager. Here are two things you can do:

  • Take time to understand your manager’s perspective. It’s important to take the time to understand who your manager is. What are his or her qualities and characteristics? From a business perspective, what does your manager need to achieve? This information will give you good insight into how you can help your manager succeed and also what to expect when working with him or her.”Managing upwards must be an active process,” says Steve Miu, director of technical marketing at Signiant, a software company. “To expect it to happen automatically or easily is unrealistic.”
  • Work on developing trust. All strong relationships are built on trust. By delivering your work dependably and demonstrating your integrity, you can show your manager that you are a trusted partner. Having a trustworthy and dependable team is invaluable to managers, when the pressure mounts to meet deadlines and goals.

Once you have started the process of cultivating a healthy relationship with your boss, there are particular work styles that help to maintain that connection. Best practices include the following:

  • Confirm expectations. Before embarking on an assignment, be sure that you have a clear understanding about what your manager expects. No one likes surprises and there is nothing worse than spending time on a project, only to find that your assumptions about what was needed were incorrect. Communicating openly with your supervisor definitely can help in this area.
  • Learn about your manager’s work style. As you spend time with your boss, you will learn how he or she prefers to work. Perhaps they prefer to communicate through e-mail, or maybe they like to have brief status meetings early in the morning, before the rush of the day begins. With this knowledge, you can tailor your interactions with your manager to best meet his or her preferences.
  • Understand what is important. For different assignments, your manager may be looking for different types of information or presentation styles. It is important to understand what format will be most useful for a deliverable, such as a quantitative analysis, an executive level presentation, or a written report.

    Steve Miu notes, “Be sure to understand all the information that a manager needs. He or she may want data on all the parameters of an ongoing assignment, so it can be reported up the management chain through status reports or other vehicles. Every company has different standards, based on its technology and market. These factors can influence the types of information you need to communicate to your manager.”
  • Respect your manager’s time.In today’s hectic business environment, time is perhaps the most constrained resource. Respect your supervisor’s time by saving the most important questions for him or her, and handling as many issues independently as possible. If there are tasks or duties that you can assume for your manager, it is likely to be much appreciated.
  • Provide positive feedback.As employees, we value positive feedback and the same goes for our managers. If there are certain things that you feel your manager is doing well, let him or her know. If your feedback is sincere, you shouldn’t fear that it will be perceived as empty praise or an attempt to curry favor.

By following these guidelines, you will be on a path to forging an improved and more productive relationship with your manager. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule and you may run into difficult supervisors from time to time. Bear in mind that there will always be circumstances and attitudes you cannot change. Don’t take it personally and realize that the best thing you can do is to bring a positive attitude to the situation.

You may be thinking that this managing up business seems like a lot of work. If you are wondering whether it’s worth the trouble, consider the possible benefits. By becoming a trusted employee who understands and meets your manager’s expectations, you are more likely to receive positive performance reviews. In addition, you are more likely to receive interesting and high-visibility projects. If and when the time comes to consider another job, the relationship you have built with your manager will translate into positive references. Given these facts, can you afford not to manage up?

Karen McHenry consults to the software industry on strategy and new product development, writes on business, technology and career issues, and teaches at Endicott College.


Copyright © 2008 Karen McHenry

All rights reserved

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04th May 2008

Rethinking your career? How a career coach can help

By Karen McHenry

“What is the right career for me?” Whether you are a seasoned professional or a recent college graduate, you may be asking yourself this question. Sometimes this career consideration can feel overwhelming, and you may not know where to begin to find the answer. Many people have had success using a career coach to guide them through this process of self-discovery.

Career coaches offer assistance in many different areas. For example, some clients may be looking to identify the right career field. Others may want to transition from one field to a completely different one. In some instances, professionals will hire career coaches to refine their interviewing skills or to help them become more effective at networking.

Carol Donohue wanted to transition from a job in software product marketing to a career as an independent marketing consultant. Carol explained that: “I was at a juncture in my career where I felt I needed change. I had been doing a lot of thinking about my future and what I wanted to do, who I wanted to become. I had conversations with friends who said they had worked with a career coach and that the experience had helped them find their niche in life.”

For those who want to find the right career, one of the primary benefits that a coach provides is a set of tools and exercises that help to identify passions, interests, and skills. By aligning passions with skills, the career coach and the client can then narrow down which jobs and industries might be most suitable. Following a structured process tends to make the experience more productive.

Deirdre McEachern of VIP Coaching said, “In our experience, many clients come to us after spending time and money on the ‘trial and error’ method. By working through a targeted process with a career coach, our clients make their career change more quickly and experience more lasting success.”

Finding and selecting a coach

If you hire a career coach, you will usually meet with them on a weekly basis. Coaching may be conducted in individual sessions (where you meet one-on-one with the coach), or with a group with similar goals. The meetings may be conducted by phone, in-person, or over e-mail. It is very common for career coaches to meet with clients by phone. Pricing for career coaching services may vary. Some coaches charge on a per session basis, while others have created “packages” which include certain assessments and a specific number of coaching sessions.

One of the best ways to find a career coach is through word of mouth. Ask friends and colleagues if they have ever used a career coach and would they recommend them. Alternatively, you can consult one of the associations that trains and certifies coaches, such as Coach U (www.coachinc.com), The Coaches Training Institute (www.thecoaches.com), or the International Coach Federation (www.coachfederation.org/ICF/).

Most career coaches offer a free introductory meeting to potential clients. This is a good way to determine whether your style complements that of the coach, and also to obtain answers to questions that you may have. Working with a career coach typically involves a lot of one-on-one time. You want to be sure that you like the coach and feel comfortable with him or her. During the introductory interview, you may want to ask questions such as:

  • How long have you been a career coach?
  • How much experience do you have helping people like me, who are looking to find the right career?
  • What type of process would we follow, if we worked together?
  • What kind of training and certifications do you have?
  • How much do you estimate it will cost to work with you?
  • How many sessions do you think it will require to help me identify the best career for me?

Each coach uses a slightly different methodology for helping clients to uncover the right career for them. You will also likely discuss topics such as the type of work environment you enjoy most (small or large workplace, low stress or action-oriented, collaborative or competitive office culture, etc.) and when during your career you’ve been happiest.

Assessments

It is also common to complete various types of tests or assessment tools which are designed to uncover your innate skills, the types of activities that you enjoy doing, as well as what fields you feel passionate about.

You might be asked to complete the Highlands Ability Battery (www.highlandsco.com/battery.php) to discover your innate abilities. To better understand your style of interacting with others, you might complete the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test or a similar assessment. The coach may ask you to evaluate your work-life balance using tools like the “Wheel of Life” assessment or the StressMap.

“We highly recommend innate abilities testing, such as the Highlands Ability Battery,” Deirdre McEachern said. “Many people discover hidden strengths, abilities and talents that provide the powerful foundation for their career change.”

In addition to these types of assessment tools, you will engage in directed discussions with the career coach about what types of careers align with your interests and skills. Don’t be surprised if the coach suggests that you conduct some informational interviews with people who work in those fields. This is a good way to get insight into what an industry or a particular position is really like.

“I really enjoyed the experience of exploring my innate abilities because I felt that it put me more in touch with the right career,” Carol Donohue said. “Working with a coach forced me to network with others in careers I explored and allowed me to try on lots of different hats. You immediately are able to identify whether it’s a fit or not and that process enabled me to narrow down my career choices and finally settle on one area and industry that would allow me to satisfy my inner desires and passions for my work.”

Working with a career coach may not be for everyone. However, if you are rethinking your career, it can be an effective way to jump start the process.

Karen McHenry consults to the software industry on strategy and new product development, writes on business, technology and career issues, and teaches at Endicott College.


Copyright © 2008 Karen McHenry

All rights reserved

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16th Apr 2008

Networking in the Internet Age

By Karen McHenry

Networking as a way to enhance a career is nothing new. However, networking in today’s world has taken on a different look with the advent of the Internet. Before we delve into how to use online sites most effectively, let’s back up for a moment and consider why networking is important.

While many people scour online job postings for new opportunities, the truth is that many jobs are never advertised. Often companies need assistance in different areas, but overworked managers never find enough time and energy to formally budget for and publicize the job openings. Networking is a great way to learn about these types of jobs.

Recent college graduates and people new to networking should keep a couple of guidelines in mind, as they embark on the process. The essence of networking is creating two-way connections with people, with the goal of sharing information and helping one another. Building a network doesn’t happen overnight. Patience and persistence are key success factors.

Networking effectively

Online networking sites have gained a great deal of visibility in the past few years. However, these resources are just one component in a networking toolkit. Time-tested networking techniques, like informational interviewing, professional associations, and alumni organizations, are still excellent ways to find people with similar interests. Informational/exploratory interviewing can be particularly useful for recent college graduates who are exploring different industries and career paths. (See “Ten Tips: Effective Exploratory Interviews“).

There are numerous networking sites, such as LinkedIn, Plaxo Pulse, Facebook, Spock, and others. One of the most popular for business networking is LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com). LinkedIn currently has over 20 million members, with an average age of 41. These online networking sites offer a convenient way to create and maintain a network, and they also are a common way for recruiters to search for promising candidates.

Matt Benati, Director of Product Management at Application Security Inc., found his current position through LinkedIn. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the job found him. Benati commented, “The stars aligned for me. My current boss was looking on LinkedIn for people with product management expertise. He saw my profile and cold-called me. I interviewed and got the job.”

Ways to use LinkedIn to maximum advantage include:

  • Creating a profile outlining your professional and educational experience
  • Incorporating keywords and skills into your profile that emphasize your professional goals
  • Building an online network by connecting with people you trust from school and work settings
  • Asking co-workers and managers to provide recommendations for your work

Online networking sites can be a particularly effective way to develop a network in a new geographic area. Before accepting his Massachusetts-based job at Application Security Inc., Matt Benati was also considering a move to the Atlanta area. He found that LinkedIn was instrumental to developing contacts in that city. Benati explained, “I found a position at a company in Atlanta which looked interesting. I searched LinkedIn to see if there were any members who worked there. I learned that the hiring manager was three degrees removed from my network. I asked one of my contacts to pass my information to his acquaintance in Atlanta who knew the hiring manager. Not only did I learn more about the company that I was initially interested in, but I also had an informational interview with the person who passed my information along to the hiring manager.”

Networking is all about building relationships – whether it is through online communications, phone conversations, or in-person meetings. Showing good manners is a sure way to create a foundation of goodwill in your network. Be sure to:

  • Respect others’ time when scheduling and conducting meetings.
  • Keep your word, if you have committed to helping others with developing new contacts or by providing information.
  • Express your thanks through an email or note. Most people like to help others. It is always nice to know that efforts are appreciated.

For those who are patient, employ a full portfolio of networking approaches, and use a few etiquette tips, networking is sure to have great outcomes. You never know who you will meet and what hidden career opportunities may be uncovered!

Karen McHenry consults to the software industry on strategy and new product development, writes on business, technology and career issues, and teaches at Endicott College.


Copyright © 2008 Karen McHenry

All rights reserved

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20th Nov 2007

Clear thinking and common fallacies

By Jefferson Flanders

No discussion of clear thinking is complete without considering some of the more common fallacies—mistakes in reasoning or flaws in logic—encountered in many seemingly persuasive arguments.

Many of these fallacies were first identified centuries ago by teachers of classical Greek and Roman rhetoric, and there are good reasons for their persistence into the 21st century. These fallacies, despite their flaws, can be persuasive and on the surface can appear quite logical; some tap into primal emotions in a convincing (albeit irrational) way.

Much of the fallacious thinking resident in business and management circles appeals to our natural sense of optimism. Anthropologists and genetic scientists have identified a biological basis for optimism, and it appears that hopefulness about the future may very well be a hard-coded human trait. In his 1979 book Optimism: The Biology of Hope, Lionel Tiger argued that optimism developed to encourage early humans to persevere in the dangerous and risky task of hunting.

One modern form of optimism—expecting future returns on investment and effort—has become a vital part of any market-based economy. Entrepreneurs and innovators must embrace a risky future to succeed. Yet that trait also leads to the starry-eyed behavior of investors during market bubbles and the willingness of credulous managers to believe over-optimistic projections of growth. The management challenge is to bring the proper level of skepticism to judgments about the future, without missing opportunities because of risk-aversion or timidity.

The endless growth fallacy is often found in high technology and other fast-growing sectors of the economy. It assumes past performance (market penetration, unit volume growth, upward sales trends) can be seamlessly projected into the future (“There’s more where that came from!”). The key question to ask when considering such bullish arguments is this: how likely is it that growth can be sustained? Yes, there may still be an upside—but what is its likelihood? And how can we better forecast the inevitable slowdown? Seasoned venture capitalists and private equity investors will tell you that they mentally discount growth projections by a significant factor when making investment decisions.

The sunk cost fallacy—agreeing to commit additional funds for a project or investment in the hopes of recouping an original investment—is explicitly noted and taught in many accounting courses, yet it remains a common, and understandable trap. A successful entrepreneur once told me, “Thank God for sunk costs,” because he believed an early financial commitment made investors more psychologically likely to continue funding his ventures (“In for a penny, in for a pound.”) Indeed, there are enough cases where sustained investment yielded superior returns (think Amazon.com, or Yahoo) that the notion of backing a longshot, or of not abandoning a potential winner too quickly can be very seductive. However those making disciplined managerial decisions should focus on the immediate and likely prospects for the future success of a project, proposal or investment without factoring in prior commitments in corporate support or funding. The more independent that assessment can be, the better the outcome.

When analyzing proposals or projections for the future, too often managers fall prey to the false precision fallacy and are impressed by detailed financial estimates and painstakingly developed spreadsheets. Yet a projection of $109,975.25 is no more valid than one of $110,000, although the natural human tendency is to believe that something calculated to the second decimal point is somehow more accurate. Some analysts can be fooled into believing that extensive calculations and financial detail reflects careful planning and forecasting (which is one reason why swindlers and con men are eager to supply extensive projections)—this may or may not be true. Insisting on a range of projections, and isolating the underlying key variables and assumptions, represents one way to avoid falling into the false precision trap. Such a process also acts as a reminder of the uncertainty of forecasts.

The appeal to authority fallacy exists in business, but also in academic and political discourse. It is particularly effective in organizations that value hierarchy. One variation can be seen in the truism that “no purchasing manager ever was fired for selecting IBM.” Another example of an appeal to authority: when a given course of action is based on the advice of management consultants or because respected or feared competitors have adopted it. Again, making decisions on the merits of the situation is the wiser response—for there is no real safety in numbers (competitors can make mistakes), and consultants are fallible.

While hope (with perhaps a dash of greed) underlies many common logical fallacies in the world of business, other all-too-human traits—fear and suspicion—play a large part in fallacious political argument. Ad hominen (from the Latin: ”against the man”) attacks and appeals to emotion have become common in modern politics. They hold a special allure for the partisan.

Attacking a candidate or elected official on personal grounds, such as questioning their character, integrity, or motives, allows for a transfer of perceived wickedness from the target to his or her policies or proposals. If Candidate X is shifty, dishonest and immoral, then we are less likely to consider his or her tax plan on its merits. Ad hominem attacks often play on fear and suspicion; for example, the attempt to associate Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama with deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by referring to Obama by his full name: Barack Hussein Obama. Campaign managers and political consultants have long known that “going negative” is effective (especially in suppressing voter turnout), which is why negative personal attacks are so prevalent.

Appeals to emotion seek to replace a measured consideration of an argument or policy with a less rational response, drawing on both powerful positive feelings (hope, sympathy, piety, belonging, compassion) and negative ones (fear, resentment, anger). These emotional appeals often rely on evocative images (flags, smiling children, etc.) and loaded language designed to trigger those feelings. They employ words and phrases such as: God, country, patriotism, working people, terrorist threat, our way of life, etc. Loaded language often acts on us at a sub-conscious level, evoking emotions that can cloud our judgment.

What are effective antidotes to fallacious thinking? Some universities and business schools have added critical thinking courses as a way to arm their graduates with a better understanding of how arguments can be twisted or distorted. In the political arena, organizations like FactCheck.org now analyze candidates’ rhetoric and advertising claims and publicly warn of misleading or fallacious reasoning. All of these efforts share a common premise: identifying and analyzing logical faults and mistakes in reasoning—pointing out the fallacies—is crucial in achieving clarity in thought.

Jefferson Flanders is an author, educator and independent journalist. He blogs on issues of the day at Neither Red nor Blue.


Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders

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05th Oct 2007

The leader as learner

By D. Quinn Mills

The world is changing very quickly. For anyone in business there are new products, new services, new technology, new customers, and new competitors. Furthermore, new people are entering the work force with experience and education that is up-to-date—people who understand what is happening now in the world around us.

The result of all this change is that if we are going to be successful in a leadership position, we need to keep up. Just having achieved a leadership position isn’t enough. We have to show that we are worthy of it—we have to be successful in it. So leaders, to keep up, must become learners as well. Perhaps we’ve been focused on our jobs (and we’re good at them), but as fresh developments and new technologies impact our industry and what we do, we have to learn about them.

This is a challenge for some of us. It may have been a while since we went to school, or read much outside of work. We’re used to teaching others, not learning much except in the narrow context of our jobs—what we need to know immediately to do our work. We’re not sure we’re able to learn effectively any more; and the more we hesitate, the more there is that is new that we must master, and so the more reluctant we become. This can become a serious barrier in which we don’t learn what we need to know to be successful in the months and years ahead.

In many businesses learning is not given much respect. We’re too busy to have time for learning, seems to be the attitude. An organization’s culture may not be particularly welcoming to those who want to take the time and make the effort to learn. But if we don’t, then we may become outdated and fail.

Effective learning

There is a lot of talk in business magazines and management circles about life-long learning, and to some degree we all are involved in it. We do learn from out experience, daily. But the sort of ordinary learning that occurs without any effort, just be doing our jobs, isn’t sufficient to keep us up-to-date with major developments.

Each of us should make a commitment to significant learning so that we keep up with what is going to be important to our leadership roles.

How do we learn? It has never been easier. There are courses offered in a variety of subjects for working people now that in the past didn’t exist when colleges and universities focused on young people who weren’t yet working. There are night courses and weekend seminars. There is training offered online. There are articles about new things in business magazines and at websites. We should include some time for learning activities when we set priorities for our time.

What should we learn about? To some degree we can determine that for ourselves by listening carefully to our peers and by watching news shows, magazines, and trade publications. We should take a pro-active role toward what we need to know about—if something keeps coming up and I don’t know what it’s about, it goes on my list of “Get-to-Know’s.”

We might also ask our boss, and our boss’s boss—what is coming up that is important that I should know about? Years ago, companies took the responsibility of keeping their managers up-to-date by sending them to training courses. That’s not as common or reliable today. It’s our responsibility to keep up and remain aware of trends and changes.

Leaders are also role models. If we integrate continuous learning into our responsibilities, we send the message to everyone in the organization about the value of learning. In a constantly changing and competitive world, that is a vital message to send.

D. Quinn Mills, the Alfred J. Weatherhead Jr. Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (emeritus), consults with major corporations in the U.S. and globally. He has written extensively on leadership, strategy, and management issues.


Copyright © 2007 D. Quinn Mills

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24th Sep 2007

Recruiting future leaders

By D. Quinn Mills

Leaders are undoubtedly the key to the success of any organization, and consequently recruiting them is among the most important tasks of an organization. How can we make sure we get the leadership recruitment process and outcome right? What should we look for in future leaders?

We should look for certain key qualities in a management candidate, and for evidence that he or she has already demonstrated those qualities to a substantial degree in some aspect of his or her life.

What are the key qualities to look for? They are those found in leaders in any organization: decisiveness, conviction, integrity, adaptability, emotional toughness and emotional resonance, commitment, intelligence, emotional sensitivity, and imagination.

This is a long list, and yet it provides a guide for the qualities you should look for in recruiting future leaders. It is possible to assess candidates for these qualities as they go through the recruitment process, from resume screening to interviewing.

Looking for leadership qualities

A brief review of these qualities, and suggestions on what specifics to look for, should prove helpful

Decisiveness. An effective leader must be able to make decisions on time and correctly. Decisiveness in big things can often be shown in small matters––does the person quickly decide about meeting times and places, or is even a small decision about such things difficult for him or her? Decision-making effectiveness is hard to measure. An applicant’s prior employers and associates can be asked about her or his decision-making ability, but reliability of responses is often suspect. Most other kinds of evidence can be equally uncertain. So the probation period of a new manager on a job is the time in which his or her decision-making capability and decisiveness—and leadership capability—can be measured.

Conviction. A leader must have conviction about what he or she is doing. Does a person we’re considering hiring believe in what we’re doing? Conviction has to be demonstrated in the actual situation. If we merely ask a person about his or her convictions, the person may mislead us or respond as they think we want them to. We can sometimes tell from a person’s personality if he or she is a positive person in his or her attitudes, and likely, therefore, to have sincere convictions.

Integrity. A leader must have integrity. Without it, her or she can’t be trusted. This is a difficult quality to assess during recruitment, but there are some signals to consider. Is the candidate’s resume accurate, or are there exaggerations of responsibility? If there multiple interviews in the process (now very common), does the candidate change their story or answer depending on who is interviewing? On a more positive note, are there signs in the candidate’s background that they take integrity seriously?

Adaptability. In all most all instances a leader must be adaptable so that he or she can master changing circumstances. Adaptability can be assessed in many ways. Has the candidate had to deal with a job loss or other significant changes in their life? Have they led an organizational change effort in the past? How did the applicant handle any changes in the recruitment process (being asked to alter the interview schedule, etc.)?

Emotional toughness and resonance. A leader must have tenacity and courage in the face of difficulty—what behaviorists call emotional toughness. A leader must not break down in front of the people he or she is leading when things get rough. If a person isn’t tough, others won’t follow him or her. A candidate for a leadership position can be asked about times in which she or he demonstrated courage, and people who offer recommendations can be asked about evidence of emotional toughness. At the same time, a leader should be able to understand and empathize with the feelings of others—this quality behaviorists call emotional resonance. In difficult times, the leader should know that his followers are frightened; in good times that they are complacent. He should feel what they feel, and if necessary, be able to counter inappropriate feelings. Emotional resonance can not be measured, but it can be observed in a structured setting.

Commitment. A leader must show commitment to what he is doing, and be able to persuade others to make commitments as well. Here is where past involvement can be scrutinized: has the candidate shown a long-term commitment to charities, hobbies, or activities? Has the candidate held leadership roles in any of these groups or activities?

Intelligence. A leader needs intelligence enough to understand his mission and to be able to help others understand it. Applied intelligence can be measured by school grades and by tests, so it is one of the easiest qualities of leadership to identify.

Imagination. In some instances in which a leader operates with independence, he or she must be able to have enough imagination to resolve problems and change directions in the accomplishment of a mission. Imagination is not easy to ascertain; there are some formal tests and puzzles that give insight into how a person thinks and if there is novelty in his or her approach to challenges. Again, looking at the candidate’s work and school history may prove helpful.

It makes sense to look for these qualities not only when an organization is recruiting for future leadership, but also when it is assessing its management team for leadership development. Few candidates or managers will possess all of these qualities naturally, but many of them can be developed and enhanced through training, experience on the job, and exposure to new challenges.

D. Quinn Mills, the Alfred J. Weatherhead Jr. Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (emeritus), consults with major corporations in the U.S. and globally. He has written extensively on leadership, strategy, and management issues.


Copyright © 2007 D. Quinn Mills

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17th Sep 2007

Developing women as leaders

By D. Quinn Mills

For social and historical reasons, women face special challenges in reaching leadership positions and any organizational development program must address those challenges effectively.

The role of leaders in our organizations is to energize other people so that they accomplish the work of the organization as well as possible. This means that the leader must communicate well and be perceived as a person who can point the way for others.

In many national cultures it is said that the preferred communications styles for women and men differ. If this is the case, then the means of developing women leaders for our organizations might differ substantially from that of men.

For the most part, that is not the case in America. For example, a top woman executive addressed a diverse (in terms of race, gender, nationality, type of work experience) audience of several hundred middle-level professionals and managers from a variety of companies. She was quickly perceived by virtually all of them as a leader.

After her presentation, those who commented about her style noted that she appeared confident, in charge, and was “clear, organized, and boiled some fairly complex issue into five key takeaways.” There was nothing gender-specific about these favorable comments—they could have been made about a male executive. This suggests that the communication styles expected of a leader are similar among the genders.

What are the personality characteristics we expect of leaders: do they differ by gender? Probably not. Leaders want to be perceived in our culture as professional, tough and smart.

Being professional means that we are emotionally balanced and collected, that we treat people with courtesy and respect; that when we have to discipline a person, we do it in private and politely, not yell at the person across the floor of the office, factory or trading room.

Tough means that we have high standards, for performance and for honesty; that we hold ourselves and others to those high standards; that if there is a crisis, we remain calm and work to solve the problem; that when things are going badly, we keep good spirits and persevere. Tough does not mean nasty or angry or mean. It is perfectly consistent with being professional.

Smart means that we know how to get things done on time and efficiently; that we learn quickly; that we can show others what to do; that we understand what is really going on; that we are imaginative in resolving problems; that when others tell us about situations, we catch on quickly and correctly understand what we’re being told.

Based on these qualities, there need be no difference between men and women in building a reputation for leadership. A man doesn’t have to seem tougher than a woman, nor a woman less tough than a man. A woman doesn’t have to conceal her intelligence; nor a man his courtesy. These qualities—professional, tough, smart—are business-related qualities, appropriate to people in leadership positions, or aspiring to leadership positions, whatever their gender.

Developing female leaders, therefore, can take the same form as developing male leaders in many aspects. The work assignments that potential female leaders receive should be designed to give them experience in the key elements of leadership in the organization, and knowledge about how it works.

They should receive formal training at each important stage of advancement in their careers so that they know what will be expected of them and how to do it. They should be assigned mentors to assist them in understanding the mores of the organization, and in some instances should have coaches to help learn aspects of interpersonal behavior best suited to lead others. These elements of development are standard for women and men.

Special challenges

But women face special challenges in attaining leadership positions. There remains discrimination against women executives, including refusal to accept women as leaders, and efforts to derail women’s career advancement. In the development of women leaders, therefore, it is necessary for senior executives to be always on the lookout to see that women are treated fairly and actually given the opportunities and development which are intended.

Men do not face many of the issues women do in regards to child-rearing. Obvious as this is, it is necessary to repeat because its implications are so often ignored. Because many women at certain times in their lives bear and care for children, they should have a more flexible schedule than men. This is not unfair to men. Instead, it merely reflects a fundamental gender difference, and removes a barrier to advancement in our organizations which exists if women are treated as if they were men.

Special flexibility should be provided to women who are mothers, both in their daily schedules and in their career paths. The exact nature of the schedule flexibility provided depends on the organization and its structure. To not do so can become a competitive disadvantage, robbing an organization of some of its most talented and hard-working leaders.

Some women have over many years managed to advance to leadership positions without protection against discrimination and/or special flexibility in scheduling. Undoubtedly, others will continue to do so. But a great many promising female leaders are derailed in their progress toward leadership positions by the failure of organizations to prevent discrimination against them and by failure to provide necessary flexibility in schedules.

D. Quinn Mills, the Alfred J. Weatherhead Jr. Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (emeritus), consults with major corporations in the U.S. and globally. He has written extensively on leadership, strategy, and management issues.


Copyright © 2007 D. Quinn Mills

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14th Sep 2007

Multiple hypotheses and clear thinking

By Jefferson Flanders

The word “hypothesis” has been passed down to us from the Greek rhetorical tradition; it is a compound: “hypo,” which means “under,” and “thesis,” which can be translated as “a placing, proposition.” The word’s overall meaning, therefore, is “the basis of an argument.”

Developing a hypothesis, then, establishes the base—the foundation—for any argument or problem-solving. Starting with a tentative hypothesis remains a central element in both the scientific method, and in disciplined clear thinking.

Problem-solvers in management, government, law, medicine, or other disciplines often adapt elements of the scientific method: formulating the question, generating a hypothesis or hypotheses, considering the evidence, and settling on the most likely answer or conclusion. Whether corporate financial analysts trying to choose between capital investment projects, or accident investigators looking at the cause of an aircraft crash, or attorneys building a defense in a civil suit, the step-by-step thinking process they employ roughly resembles the practice of science, (albeit often without the experimentation and replication of results that are fundamental to the scientific method.)

This sequential, linear approach isn’t the only way to address problem-solving—there are more unbounded and perhaps more creative ways of thinking available—but it has the benefits of being time-tested and relatively transparent to others.

One or many suppositions?

One common question: is it more effective to start with a single likely hypothesis, and abandon it only if and when solid evidence disproves it, or to test multiple hypotheses before settling on the best possible explanation? While I favor the multiple working hypotheses approach, largely because it fosters a more open process, there are many successful problem-solvers who favor starting with the best initial supposition and looking for its validation.

Early in my career, I worked with an alumnus of one of the top New York management consulting firms who insisted on beginning any project with what he called “a go-in hypothesis.”

My colleague believed that his training and experience allowed him to quickly fashion a highly probable hypothesis, and that the task then became finding the supporting evidence and confirming his conclusions. This caused some tension between us—I wanted to research, fact find, and interview and then mull over the accumulated data before developing any tentative explanations.

He saw it differently, arguing that initial educated hunches usually proved to be correct and that his approach was faster and more decisive. If the “go-in hypothesis” proved wrong, it could always be altered or abandoned.

I had to concede that my preferred method took more time; I argued that beginning the process by listing all of the possible answers or outcomes helped minimize bias and surfaced unpopular or neglected ideas for consideration. We would be less likely to miss something, or overlook a solution. My colleague wasn’t convinced; he placed a greater value on decisiveness (understanding American business culture and its hunger for certainty better than I did) and so we did it his way (he also was senior to me). I did try to keep the process as open to second opinions and alternative explanations.

Since then, I have become more convinced of the benefits of starting with multiple working hypotheses—they naturally spark the questioning process that lies at the heart of critical thinking. A series of questions naturally follow. Have all possibilities been considered (including the bizarre and “unthinkable”)? What suppositions can be ruled out and why? How strong is the evidence supporting a given explanation? What additional information is missing? The simple act of enumerating the possibilities can lead to second thoughts—and second thoughts should be welcomed for the insights they can provide.

The dangers of locking in to a given hypothesis too early in the process has long been recognized. Geologist and university president Thomas Chamberlin noted this more than a century ago, observing:

If our vision is narrowed by preconceived theory as to what will happen, we are almost certain to misinterpret the facts and to misjudge the issue. If, on the other hand, we have in mind hypothetical forecasts of the various contingencies that may arise, we shall be the more likely to recognize the true facts when they do present themselves. Instead of being biased by the anticipation of a given phase, the mind is rendered open and alert by the anticipation of one of many phases, and is free not only, but is predisposed, to recognize correctly the one that does appear.

Moreover, there are practical reasons for considering a number of hypotheses. Whenever proposed solutions are controversial or may face opposition, a problem-solver should be better equipped to provide the reasons for why alternatives were not chosen if multiple hypotheses have been tested and found wanting. (In a way, this can be seen as the equivalent of a student “showing their work” when solving a math or physics problem.)

Considering multiple hypotheses will not insure arriving at the right answer. You may discover that new information supports a hypothesis you ruled out, or disproves one you have selected (in biologist Thomas Henry Huxley’s memorable phrase “…the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”) Yet starting with multiple hypotheses does encourage intellectual openness and broad fact finding; it furthers inquiry and focused questioning; and it recognizes the provisional nature of any of the conclusions we arrive at—all hallmarks of clear thinking.

Jefferson Flanders is an author, educator and independent journalist. He blogs on issues of the day at Neither Red nor Blue.


Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders

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04th Sep 2007

Leadership: Communicating in a crisis

By D. Quinn Mills

Crises of all sorts arise, confronting leaders with major challenges. Sometimes the crisis is major; sometimes it is minor. Sometimes people think it is more important than the facts suggest; sometimes they think it is less important than merited. The responsibility of the leader is to put any crisis in proper perspective, and to lead people out of it, to resolve
the situation for them.

There are many elements to resolving a crisis, but among the most important is the communications surrounding it. Fortunately, we have more and better methods of communication at our disposal today than ever before, ranging from broadcast (mass media) to narrowcast (e-mail). But can a leader use them well?

The September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City represented a crisis of first order for the United States and, more specifically for the people of the city and their mayor. fire and death and a crisis for the major of New York. Rudy Giuliani responded well—so well that he is now a candidate for President of the United States. Communications with the people of the city of New York were central to his response to the crisis. What did he handle communicating during this crisis?

Communicating in a crisis: 9/11

First, Giuliani got in touch with the mass media (TV and radio) and made himself available to them at almost all times. His message was simple: the authorities of the city were in charge and were responding and that the people of the city should keep calm. It is important to remember that at this key juncture, neither the mayor nor the people of the city had any idea if the attacks on the World Trade Center were all that was to come—they were worried that there would be more, and perhaps even more devastating attacks.

Giuliani’s first responsibility was to prevent a panic in the city. He did not lie to the people of the city; he told them that he didn’t know if there would be more attacks: but he assured them that the city’s leadership was alert and would inform them of the situation as it developed and do all that could be done to protect them and their families and friends. “Stay calm!” was the first message, delivered with conviction by the mayor through the mass media.

Second, the mayor did more than talk to the people, he went to the scene of the tragedy and there directed the efforts of law enforcement officers to keep order and of fire fighters to control the conflagration. With him he took the mass media reporters so that they could show and tell the people of the city that the authorities were actually on the scene acting effectively. The message was sent not just by words, but through actions. The actions gave credence to the words—people heard the mayor call for calm and they saw him on the scene of the disaster, in control and calm himself.

Third, the mayor communicated compassion and concern for the victims of the attack and for their families, many of whom were in terrible ignorance about who had been spared and who had been lost. Compassion was as important to the mayor’s message as coolness and competence in the emergency.

Fourth, communication was continual. In the absence of authoritative and accurate information, rumors abound and people are driven to extravagant emotions and acts by exaggeration and other misinformation. The mayor and his staff were almost always there on the media when people looked. It was an admirable performance by Mayor Giuliani.

But it was not a perfect performance by New York’s embattled mayor. While communicating effectively with the people of the city, his first responsibility, Giuliani failed to communicate as effectively with elements of the uniformed services coping with the disaster—so that there remains today bitterness among some elements of the uniformed services about the mayor’s performance on that critical day.

The Johnson & Johnson example

The classic effective performance in a business crisis communication involved the Johnson & Johnson company almost two decades ago, when its pain reliever Tylenol was tampered with in a few locations. The mass media coverage sparked rumors of tampering on a huge scale, presenting the company with a very serious emergency. Johnson & Johnson’s leadership was urged by some to try to minimize the situation, because to remove the product from shelves all over the country would be very expensive, something no for-profit company wants to endure unless it must. But the leadership of the firm decided that the best way to confront the crisis was with a powerful communication package of words and actions. The actions would give credibility to the words.

The firm promised the American customer that Tylenol would be safe on the shelves of the nation’s stores, or it would not be there. To prove the words true, an announcement was made that the product would in fact be removed from shelves nationally ­ so that there could be no risk of any further poisoning. This was done; the tampering was isolated and ended, and the product was returned to store shelves repackaged for greater safety and very quickly resumed its position as the leading product for sales in the pain relief area. Again, the leaders involved did an outstanding job of communicating concern and a resolve to set matters right—communicating at the same time the underlying values of Johnson & Johnson.

In recent years allegations of corrupt management have seriously embarrassed some major American not-for-profit organizations, among them the United Way and the Red Cross. Such allegations threaten to undermine popular support for the organizations, imperiling their financial base (people won’t give to an organization they think is corrupt) and their ability to give assistance in time of disaster.

In these crises leaders had to communicate with the public as a whole and with the employees of the organizations. The message is much the same: the incidents are isolated to certain chapters of the organizations; they are being investigated and will be dealt with; immediate action is being taken to stop any misbehavior; contributors and employees alike can trust the national leadership of the organizations to prevent any further problems of the type.

The keys a leader for effective communication in a crisis? A leader should stay cool and reflect confidence; he or she must match words and deeds; and recognize that decisive steps should be taken and communicated. People watch closely in a crisis to see whether the leader is backing up the public message with concrete action and that whatever is said, is done. Whether a government, corporate, or non-profit leader the “rules” for communicating in a crisis remain the same: stay calm, remember that symbols matter, show your concern and empathy, and provide the most accurate information possible.

D. Quinn Mills, the Alfred J. Weatherhead Jr. Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (emeritus), consults with major corporations in the U.S. and globally. He has written extensively on leadership, strategy, and management issues.


Copyright © 2007 D. Quinn Mills

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