Russ Allison

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Notes on BlackRock's Women's Leadership Forum

Russell Allison - Tuesday, September 13, 2016

I was delighted to discover that Peggy Klaus has been writing about a program I’ve been proud to be associated with at BlackRock. In a recent NYT article, she points out how that company’s Women’s Leadership Forum broadly differentiates itself from other diversity and inclusion efforts in corporate America, emphasizing how BlackRock has had the senior leadership engagement and support necessary to really make a difference.

Further, Klaus has written a follow up to her article that outlines critical factors that have made the Women's Leadership Forum successful both in the short term and the long run. As you might expect, I agree with all ten of her points, but would flesh out point #4 - Start With a 360 Degree Assessment. What we do in this program includes an online 360-Degree Assessment, but also augments it with a personal interview and stakeholder interviews as well as a business-oriented personality inventory. This multi-source approach provides more robust feedback for the participant and provides more traction for them when they begin to build their development plan with their coach and sponsor.


News From The Authenticity Wars

Russell Allison - Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Authentic Leadership is a topic I’ve discussed with friends, fellow coaches, and anyone who is interested in how leadership works. In fact, last year I weighed in on something that HBR writer Herminia Ibarra dubbed the "Authenticity Paradox." Much more recently bestselling writer and professor Adam Grant took to the NYT Sunday Review to explain "Unless You're Oprah, 'Be Yourself' Is Terrible Advice." It's a pithy article that covers several criticisms/worries about the ways that the Authentic Leadership movement may give leaders a rationale to justify their bad behavior as just "being themselves." Things got even more interesting when Brené Brown, one of the foremost advocates of Authentic Leadership, took to the internet to take exception with Grant’s article. He used a small quote from one of her books and she was not pleased. (This is pretty exciting stuff in the world of leadership development).

If you want to follow along, here’s some of my thoughts after discussing it with one of my team members, who was also watching the debate unfold in real time last week:

1. Both of the articles are good and worth reading. Grant successfully points out several short-comings of the ways Authentic Leadership can be /is being misused in the world of management and leadership development. Brown really does the same thing and makes a good attempt at rescuing the concept from those who might misuse it. Where Grant ends his article with a call for Sincerity over Authenticity, Brown spends her time outlining the way (not to be too redundant) "real" Authenticity Leadership should work.

2. Having said that, Brown's rebuttal seems an over-reaction to Grant's perspective. I found the tone uncharacteristically sharp considering that they seem to be in agreement about many important ideas. I wonder if it is (in part) an effort by Brown to be "truly authentic" and model the way she calls for people to respond to situations like this. Its understandable that someone would not like their life's work to be reduced to just a few sentences, and then to have those sentences used as a bit of a straw man to potentially undermine that work. While Grant might say he was simplifying for the sake of accessibility to readers, you get why Brown felt she needed to respond.

3. My favorite part of this whole back-and-forth has been the online discussion between the two principals afterward. The point-counterpoint comments section of Brown's article, as well as a clarifying article written by Grant, makes me hopeful that this entire debate will move the discussion forward and bear more fruit. Their post-article commentary really enhances the learning instead of degrades it, as they both try to see the others’ key ideas and remain collegial and respectful. People who have a hard time disagreeing constructively can learn a lot from how Grant and Brown are handling themselves here.

4. My bottom line is that both Grant and Brown make very helpful points. If Grant is advocating that the goal should be Sincerity instead of unchecked Authenticity as he defines them -- I can wholeheartedly agree. I also share his belief that just about all virtues can become destructive when overused. Having said that, in the richness of her full ideas, Brown offers really useful and effective advice to people about how they can be powerful, inspiring leaders.

Toxic Coworkers and their Impact

Russell Allison - Friday, March 25, 2016

I just read an article (linked to this  HBS paper) with the thought-provoking conclusion that the cost savings you get by avoiding the hiring of a toxic worker* is 2.5 times the anticipated gain of hiring an all-star worker. So, NOT hiring a catastrophic worker is more important than hiring an exceptional one.

This reinforces the value of good hiring processes that not only help you find the best candidate but also make it less likely that you will hire one of the worst ones. A key insight this article provides is that doing so effectively may require you to think harder about "high productivity" as part of your selection criteria, as toxic workers often use their high productivity or "ability to get results" as a cover for bad behavior.

Beyond thinking about selection processes, I'm also reminded that there is not much practical advice for how a person should best deal with a toxic worker, which seems like important information as long a organizations keep hiring them. So here is some quick, practical advice for individuals at all levels of an organization for how to cope with that toxic coworker:

For People with a Toxic Supervisor: The most common types of toxic supervisor can be characterized as bullies, credit-stealers, or perfectionists. For each of these types one of the best things you can do is to set boundaries that allow you to stand up for yourself. Bullies prey on the timid, credit-stealers on the meek, and perfectionists on the unsure. By asserting yourself clearly and strategically, you can help ensure that a toxic supervisor keeps their bad behavior in check. Another good plan is to be thorough about documentation. A toxic person is an opportunist and being thorough at keeping a record of what that person is doing (or not doing) and what you are doing (or not) will remove the kind of ambiguity that this person thrives in. 

For People with a Toxic Peer: The people that you work alongside are often toxic in specific ways as well. If they are bullies, credit-stealers, or perfectionists, the tips above will help. However, if your toxic coworker is a pleaser, whiner, or master manipulator there are other things you can do. For the pleaser or whiner, remember that you can't control their sycophantic or complaining behavior, but you can control how your react to it. If you can't just ignore the behavior, a frank discussion with your supervisor about how/why a co-worker's behavior is bad for morale might help, even if action is slow to come. The master-manipulator is harder to deal with and working to make sure you are as removed as possible from their sphere of influence is a good idea. 

For People with a Toxic Direct Report: Fortunately, as as supervisor you can manage a toxic worker appropriately out of the organization if you have clear evidence that they are not performing to your expectations.  In a small number of cases, I've seen coaching or feedback help toxic people learn the perspective and skills necessary to curtail their corrosive behavior. Just remember that no amount of extreme productivity from an unrepentant toxic worker can really justify keeping them around, as toxic behavior can be contagious and will create other problems for you down the line.

*From the research study: "a toxic worker is defined as a worker that engages in behavior that is harmful to an organization, including either its property or people."

March Madness and Productivity (revisited)

Russell Allison - Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Every year right around now, business-oriented news sources like to offer statistics on the loss of productivity related to March Madness, office pools, and other similar activities. I've blogged my thoughts on this before. But just when I was thinking about filling out a bracket this year, another related productivity article in the WSJ caught my attention.     

Basically, ASU researchers have come up with software that discourages workers from spending time online at work doing things that aren't job related - or as they style it,"cyberloafing". According to the article, the software works when added to a company's network by dividing "the Internet into sites that employees can always, sometimes, or never visit, and uses on-screen warnings to give employees reminders when they are visiting sites that may not be work-related." The software also tracks the total minutes spent on a website in the day and blocks access after 90 total minutes that can only be overridden with supervisor approval.

While I suppose that this is an effective way for dealing with sites that should just probably never be visited at work, and is also a fine way to allow a "reasonable" amount of time on social media sites that are often necessary or beneficial for a job, I'm usually leery of any method that addresses workplace productivity from the prohibition/controlling side of the equation. It's also a slippery slope of trying to automate effective management and supervision. 

I'm a bigger fan of initiatives that create more employee engagement or set clear expectations for productivity with fewer restrictions on how and when it gets done. Frankly, hours worked (or the amount of time spent on work during a work day) is not the goal of any important job I can think of - instead it's quality and quantity of output that is most important. So a person that cyberloafs more and delivers quality work on time is more valuable than a person that doesn't cyberloaf at all but disappoints in terms of results. And for anyone who thinks that without time spent cyberloafing a good employee will deliver more quality work, that's not necessarily true.

In a nutshell, my advice to managers and leaders is to concentrate on engagement and/or making clear expectations about performance without resorting to trying to control the minute-by-minute or even hour by hour behavior of your people. You will experience higher morale and have a better grasp on the abilities and shortcoming of your people, which can be leveraged accordingly.

Introverts, Extroverts and Susan Cain's Quiet

Russell Allison - Monday, March 07, 2016

I'm generally interested in reading more about how introverts are critical to a good team and how they can be the difference makers in several situations. The recent increase in these articles is clearly justified given that our culture tends to naturally value the contributions of more extroverted leaders than introverted ones, at least on the surface. Further, extroverts, or even ambiverts (people on the middle third of the introversion/extroversion spectrum), often have a hard time understanding introverts, communicating with them, or even being really aware of their contributions.

Even though I'm sure that Susan Cain wrote her 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won't Stop Talking as an effort to make a case for the value of introverts in the professional world, I tend to find it much more useful as a tool to help people on all parts of the introversion/extroversion spectrum to better understand and leverage the more introverted people around them. 

Cain's book starts by outlining what she calls "The Extrovert Ideal" - basically, the parts of American culture that value extroversion over introversion. Then she goes on to explore several ideas, including whether or not extreme introverts can ever become capable public speakers (yes), whether introverts often act in ways beneficial to business when extroverts don't (again yes), and whether there are successful cultures that value introversion more than extroversion (still yes). But the best part of the book, in my view, is near the end where Cain gives practical advice on how to better communicate with your "opposite" on the spectrum and how to successfully raise "quiet" kids in a world that often loves loud ones.  

Having said that, Quiet is not a perfect book. One of the biggest shortcomings is the oversimplification of how much people vary on the introversion/extroversion spectrum.  In fact, as with most normal or near-normal distributions, there are relatively few people that are extreme introverts or extroverts and most people fall somewhere in between. In fact, labeling someone as simply "introverted" or "extroverted" if they fall on that third of the spectrum is likely inaccurate in most cases. It's unwieldy, but it is much better to think about people who are "more introverted" or "more extroverted" than average. There is also not enough consideration given to the chunk of people in that middle third of the spectrum that are now sometimes called "ambiverts" - people who display both introverted and extroverted tendencies depending on situation or mood. Finally, even though I think that more extroverted people will benefit immensely from reading this book as a way to understand the more introverted people in their lives, the book often reads a bit too much like an attack on extroverts than it does advocacy for introverts -- unfortunately, I think that will turn off some people that would benefit from its ideas. 

Regardless, I have recommended Quiet to more introverted leaders I have coached, especially when they are looking to find their footing in a new position or who may be needing to find some tools to becoming a more effective speaker. I also recommend it (with the caveats outlined above) to more extroverted people who want or need to understand colleagues or family members who are challenging for them. There is plenty of good advice, thoughts, and insights for people on all parts of the introversion/extroversion spectrum to make the book worth reading.


My new favorite thing: Eric Barker

Russell Allison - Thursday, February 18, 2016

I recently got turned on to the scrumptious blog called Barking Up The Wrong Tree. The author, Eric Barker has been "bringing science-based answers and expert insight on how to be awesome at life" to his readers for several years now and has a weekly email subscription service with nearly 250,000 subscribers. There are many, clearly helpful and concise posts like - How To Focus: 5 Research-Backed Secrets To Concentration and How To Make Your Mind Happy: 5 Secrets To Mindfulness. Plus, there's also a helpful best of/search page that helps the curious but busy person to find things more easily and quickly. 

Most importantly, it is all entertaining, science-based awesomeness.

Please give Barking up the Wrong Tree a look. If you don't like it, you will be the first person I know who doesn't, and I'll immediately investigate my own assumptions.  


qui tacet consentire videtur: The Merits of Silence = Agreement

Russell Allison - Thursday, February 11, 2016

I just finished reading a recent HBR piece that tells a story about a manager who holds a meeting of 20 contributors and outlines a big initiative. When the manager asks for feedback around potential issues, the contributors do not voice many important concerns. Meeting adjourned. But later, several contributors approach the manager with big "uh ohs" about the plan. The manager feels like that ship has sailed and is frustrated. How does any manager get their people to voice concerns in that meeting instead of after (or not at all)?

While the two authors of the piece offer some good ideas for ways to generate more participation in meetings, I think their initial conclusion is potentially misguided.

The initial conclusion and advice is to establish the ground rule that "Silence Denotes Agreement" (kind of like the old wedding convention of the officiant telling the assembled crowd that if there any objections to the union "speak now or forever hold your peace.") Then the rest of the article explains some pretty good ways to overcome the understandable reasons why people are reluctant to share their objections in meetings. Having said that, here's a couple of points that the article my be missing:

1. In 2016, is a meeting of 20 people the best way to both outline a big initiative AND expect that all of the good feedback and/or valid concerns be voiced during that same meeting? I'd like to believe that the scenario proposed was overly simple for brevity's sake. But in my experience, many leaders expect too much from meetings, have them too often as a way to build consensus or come to clarity, and get frustrated when these meetings aren't effective. Meetings can't (and shouldn't) do too much at a time and they are a notoriously suboptimal place to build consensus or come to clarity. 

2. Similarly, if the leader in this scenario is looking for a broad discussion of the issues around the new initiative, then he/she should have been soliciting feedback from the 20 contributors well ahead of time and already know much of their feedback and objections before getting them in all in a room together.  Furthermore, after laying all of this feedback on the table during the meeting and discussing it, the leader would be better off saying something like, "I know this is a lot to digest, let me know if you have any more questions or concerns in the next week and then I'll let you know how we will address them." 

3. Finally, the core problem that we are trying to solve here is how to reduce passive-resistance in your team. However, pushing them to follow a "silence = agreement" rule doesn't necessarily help people who struggle in this area. The modern corporation teaches leaders how to appear outwardly cooperative quite well, and I have coached executives who have been told by their bosses to "push back harder in meetings, or I don't want to hear about it later" and what they get is not more push back, but less feedback of any kind. With those folks, often you need to have the individual or the team work on the idea of not just working around conflict, but through the conflict for really productive conversations. Every group and every team is different, so the path to just how to handle that conflict is best co-created within that group. 

It's a good article with good advice.  However, don't necessarily swallow the advice all in one bite. You might find that you institute a new rule for your meetings that creates a new version of the same problem. 

Should CEOs really be central to choosing your new logo?

Russell Allison - Wednesday, February 03, 2016

I just read this article on the controversial new logo change and rebranding project for Uber - the transportation and logistics unicorn start-up that has been valued as high as $60B - and I was struck by how it includes a cautionary tale about having very senior leaders involved in a project. 

To sum up the story - Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has been planning/working on this logo change for 3 years. He knew that it was an important step as his company had morphed from offering one service in a small number of markets to offering different options in urban areas spread across the globe. Consequently he wanted the rebranding to help tell the story of Uber to both new employees and customers.

But instead of trusting this project to an outside company, Kalanick worked closely with Uber design director Shalin Amin and a dozen or so other internal people on the redesign. In my view, too closely as they reached a point where the design team realized that the choice of colors for the new logo scheme was being overly influenced by Kalakick's own personal style. At that point, he decided to take a step back and Amin and his team established a set of principals that other designers could work with. From there on, it seems like the project really started moving forward to completion. 

Kalanick's close involvement with this process is exactly the kind of under-delegation that I see senior leaders doing all of the time. Too often, leaders will give a project to their team and then still be highly involved with the low-level decision making and idea generation. This creates several problems:

1. The power differential between the leader and the team will almost always bend the process toward what the leader wants (or what the team thinks the leader wants) in ways that are counter-productive. 

2. An over-involved leader lacks the critical distance to make clear decisions about the results of the project because he/she is too close to the granular issues and not able to focus on the merits of the results.

3. In a similar way, both mission and timeline creep are much more likely when the leader is down in the trenches instead of above the fray holding a team accountable, aimed in the right direction, and focused on the task at hand.

All three appear in the Uber scenario, and its a good concrete example of how CEOs and senior executives can sometimes only get the results they need by letting go of details that are below their pay grade. 






Idiosyncratic Secrets to Success

Russell Allison - Saturday, November 14, 2015

I keep seeing this article/interview from Fast Company where a Microsoft executive shares some of the unconventional secrets to her success. Or at least the first four are unconventional: 1) being lazy and procrastinating, 2) using her inbox as a to do list, 3) spending lots of time looking at social media, and 4) taking quiet time every morning to focus. (The fifth is to "finish what you start" and that is about as orthodox a strategy for success that I can think of). The interview, I assume intentionally, makes all of this sound a bit crazy. But I liked it, and here's why:

If being lazy or a procrastinator makes you a smarter and more efficient worker, then by all means channel those personality traits and use them to your advantage. If using your inbox as a to do list works for you, then there is no reason to fall prey to the fetish of Inbox Zero. Sometimes there are good ideas being shared on social media, both from customers and from thought leaders. And taking some quiet time to think or practice Mindfulness in the morning is often a good thing.

What I like best is that this executive has found a way to think of her strengths and weaknesses in a constructive and authentic way. There are no perfect leaders and many of our strengths have corresponding risks, but she has found a way to craft a positive story about how she is successful in way that is true to her. That allows her to be at her best and to inspire the others around her, probably more effectively than someone who checks all the conventional boxes for how a leader is supposed to be effective.



You Are A Brand!

Russell Allison - Wednesday, October 28, 2015

I recently finished re-reading You Are A Brand! - Catherine Kaputa's 2010 book.  The subtitle of the book - How Smart People Brand Themselves For Business Success is a pretty good synopsis of what a reader will find in there. Its worth checking out if you have an interest in the topic, with a mix of pretty good ideas interspersed with plenty of filler generalizations and Shakespeare quotes.  Here's a quick recap of the best and worst parts of the book:

The Best

Kaputa clearly knows her stuff and provides concrete, real-life examples of how people can use her ideas to help themselves with their careers. Though the names and industries of her examples have been changed to protect the innocent, they are well documented and provide keen insight. I especially liked Chapter 2, "Think Different to Become a Brand Apart." Here Kaputa deftly shows that in the same way that a successful product brand is about differentiation, this same basic ideas can be used to set a person apart from their colleagues. There are good ideas here that I’ll leverage in my coaching, such as finding your Unique Selling Proposition and/or doing a SWOT Analysis for your reputation. Self-awareness and strategic thinking are great attributes to cultivate.

The Worst

Although there are several gems of insight, they must be culled from constant Shakespeare quotes, graphics, subtitles, and pull-quotes. All of this filler is probably intended to make the book seem snappy and easy to read, but instead makes some of the good content seem disjointed or overly superficial. In general, readers who dislike “surface over substance” arguments are going to have trouble embracing the book. 

The Verdict

You Are A Brand! is a book that I can recommend despite it's flaws because a few of the insights are critical to some leaders. As long as you are not put off or distracted by the filler parts of the book, you will find plenty of good advice. I particularly recommend the book to people that are looking to stand out after being overlooked or are making the leap to start a new job and want to be more successful on day one.

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