I love this Vanity Fair story about an adoptee who used Google Earth to find his childhood home, and eventually his mother, twenty years after hopping on the wrong train in a busy Indian train station. For anyone that has ever felt a longing to find and understand where they came from, this is a heart-warming story.
The story of the rapid decline of JCPenney under Ron Johnson’s leadership is one of the most shocking business stories of recent years. Bringing in the genius behind Apple’s retail stores seemed like a no-brainer when he first arrived at JCPenney. He came in with a vision and exciting new ideas about how to turn around the struggling retailer. What I’m not sure that he came in with, was a willingness to listen to the smart people around him that had spent their careers at JCPenney.
There seems to be a bias that leaders bring to turn-around jobs like JCPenney, best summarized as the “Outsiders Know Better” bias. It’s understandable why it happens. JCPenney had been struggling for a long time and something needed to change. It’s easy for a new CEO to assume that the people who were working there were not world-class, so the new CEO brings in a lot of people to surround him that he can trust. He’s worked with them before, they share the same experience, and have the same vision. And that’s exactly what Mr. Johnson did at JCPenney.
The problem is, for as much as JCPenney could learn from Mr. Johnson’s and his experience at Apple, he could have learned just as much about the realities of discount retailing from the people who had spent their careers in JCPenney. Perhaps paying more attention to those realities would have prevented the rapid decline that the company has experienced. I’m certain that there were widespread concerns within JCPenney about how the end of coupons, a staple of their business, would cause a dramatic drop in traffic. But it seems like those kinds of concerns, among others, were never dealt with. I think that highlights a key challenge that new leaders face – understanding the difference between 1) managing the risk that they have picked the right strategy, and 2) managing the risk that the organization will successfully execute it. What many leaders don’t realize is that the best way to manage both risks is by listening to the people in the organization they lead and enrolling them in the strategy conversation.
I often use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a reference when talking to leaders about making change happen. All too often, resistance from the organization is seen as a case of people being stuck in their ways and a sign that some people need to be shown the door. Tough questions about the strategy don’t get asked, and possible pitfalls don’t get identified. People keep their heads down and keep their jobs safe. That attitude can create a massive conflict for people. Do I open my mouth and disagree with the strategy? Or do I stay quiet and go home every night worrying about when things are eventually going to fall apart? In either case, I’m operating at a very low level of the hierarchy of needs and I’m probably not very productive.
I believe that ultimately, most people want to believe in the direction their company is headed and do their best to help make it a success. And to do so, they need to be given the opportunity to understand rather than being asked to simply follow. By allowing their teams to ask questions, leaders can understand what is worrying their people about achieving this new future and learn from it themselves. Not only can a leader gain commitment through this course, but they might unearth some unseen land mines in their strategy in the process which they can work together to solve.
The reason that this back-and-forth doesn’t happen is that many leaders don’t have a good understanding of how to design such a two-way conversation in a positive, constructive way. They are concerned that it will open up more issues than it will resolve. Many worry that this would be seen a sign of weakness instead of a sign of leadership, but it certainly doesn’t need to be when handled correctly.
Would following this kind of approach have resulted in a very-different JCPenney today? Would a more creative and successful strategy been discovered by taking the best of Apple and the best of JCPenney rather than blowing up the business model altogether? While we will never know for sure, it would have provided a forum for important conversations and possibly identified conflicts between the new strategy and the old JCPenney that needed to be resolved in order to be successful. And as we know real innovation most often happens in resolving conflicts, not by simply applying best-practices learned from another company, even one as successful as Apple.
What have been your experiences with living through changes in company strategy?
Over the years, I’ve probably passed this video on to well over a hundred people. It’s a short, simple lesson in leadership and, just as importantly, follwership. The core lesson is that the most important person to a movement is the first follower. That first follower transforms the lone nut into a leader.
But what strikes me the most about this video is the lesson that the leader needs to embrace that first follower as an equal, inviting them into the movement and making it easy for them to invite others. The leader needs to make it all about the movement and not himself.
I wonder if Derek Sivers realized that he was following his own advice by making an easy to share, three-minute video. Or if he was unconsciously practicing what he preached?
In any case, I invite you to become part of the movement and share this with others.
For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been part of CrossFit for the last year. It’s not only been a great way for me to get into better shape than I’ve been in at least a decade, its also provided a fun opportunity to meet new people not only here in Miami Beach, but also in Seattle and other places I’ve visited around the country.
One of the things that makes CrossFit unique is the competitive nature of the sport. Whether competing against friends, ourselves, or the steady march of time, the idea of getting better everyday is ingrained into the sport. Nowhere has that been more apparent than in the CrossFit Games Open. The Open is a series of five workouts that competitors compete over the course of five weeks, with the top scorers moving on to a regional competition. For the vast majority of people, there are no dreams of medals, the only physical trophies are bizarrely-mangled-hands-that-most-closely-resemble-what-you’d-see-at-a-crime-scene-and-clearly-show-that-someone-needs to-work-on-his-pull-up-technique. Instead we’re there to prove that we can and to see if we have improved since last year’s competition.
And I think that last point is the really important one. Its so easy to fall into the way of thinking that getting older means that we start slowing down, getting weaker, accepting that we’re not going to be as fast or as strong as we used to. While that will probably be the case for Usain Bolt, its not necessarily the case for the rest of us. And that’s why I have so much respect for the people that I see at the gym everyday. I might not know everyone’s name and we might not hang out on the weekends, but I have a special respect for how hard they push themselves in order to improve, week after week and year after year.
Two of my good friends, Gabriel Baldinucci at Singularity Univeristy and Nigel Smith at AARP, often talks about the coming future where the average life expectancy will get longer and longer as medical science and technology continue to improve. What will happen when our average lifespan is 100? What will that mean for how we think about concepts like retirement and old-age? Will we start to outlive our bodies’ usefulness and need to rely on prosthetics to get around?
Personally speaking, I made a commitment to fight that decline and that’s why I often spend my evenings doing pull-ups, push-ups, squats and box jumps until I can’t do any more. And that’s why I’ll be back again next year, pushing myself harder, and hoping that with the work I’ll put in over the course of the next 12 months I’ll be in the top half of competitors in 2014. This year I’ll probably end up around the 40th percentile of competitors (the snatches killed me). And while I’m not really competing against anyone else, I know that personally speaking there’s no way I can be happy about being in the 40th percentile of anything for very long. None of us should. Not when we can start getting better, everyday.
This is a great article about how a group of students at William and Marry created a fake All-American team back in 1972, just to honor their schools best player. I have to wonder if it could ever happen again in our advanced age of technology and media…or if it would be even easier to do today. In any case, kudos to these guys for having the creativity and perseverance it took to pull this off and keep up the ruse for 40 years!