What Qualities Make a Successful Leader?

Why do people choose to do business with one person and not another? What qualities make successful leaders? I was recently asked how what qualities people seek in a leader. The conversation went like this:

Q: “What makes us choose one individual over others for a leadership position?”

A: Various factors, depending on the position and individual circumstances. In general, however, here’s my short list:

  • “Ideology, bias confirmation, personal appeal. In rare instances, thoughtful analysis.”

Q: What do you mean by personal appeal? Charm? A work record in what area? What if none of the candidates had a leadership role before? What strengths would you look for?

A: Personal appeal = charisma. What I look for is an ability to lead and influence. That is:

  • Good at working cross functionally, empowering and inspiring reports to perform at their best, and a good communicator up down and sideways, internally and externally;
  • Strategic thinking with a focus on the customer and the key metrics of success;
  • Professional knowledge and integrity.

Q: Sounds like they would be confident, self-assured and focused then. I think what makes a person charismatic is their level of confidence and self-assurance, no?

A: I believe that’s a goodly component of it. But wouldn’t a person also need to be relate-able and persuasive, so as not to be perceived as just a smug fake?

Q: So you don’t think they’re being themselves? I mean, I read Bill Clinton’s autobiography and realized from that he had an extremely boring life. I mean, it was full of just political career preparation through out the whole thing. He was like a well-oiled machine for one task only. Out of the political sphere he was practically absent.

A: Bill Clinton is a career-driven/goal-oriented achiever for whom image making is just another important part of the job. However,  I think part of his appeal stems from the ability to project a sincere empathy and comfort around diverse groups of people (“I feel your pain.”) Barach Obama projects a similiar appeal, but it is dampened by a more introverted, wonkish image.

“Being themselves” is a good way of noting that beneath the carefully preparation, a sense of what the individual’s natural tendencies are emerges through a combination of verbal and nonverbal cues.

The Myth of Exceptionalism

One definition of influence is:

“a force one person (the agent) exerts on someone else (the target) to induce a change in the target, including changes in behaviors, opinions, attitudes, goals, needs and values” and “the ability to affect the behavior of others in a particular direction.” To influence, a leader uses strategies or tactics, actual behaviors designed to change another person’s attitudes, beliefs, values or actions.

But what does that working definition actually tell us about the qualities required to wield influence? Exactly nothing.

The conversation around leadership and influence tends to be vague and abstract like this, focusing either on the hard (technique; a set of skills that only the most empowered can bring to bear) or the soft (innate exceptional qualities that can’t be defined or reproduced.)

Framing leadership as either a hard or soft skill, with no gradation in between contains within it a specific fallacious premise of exceptionalism. Whether leadership is perceived as an innate quality or the quality of a rare self-made individual, leadership is still held beyond the reach of the common person. Whether a leader is anointed by heaven or self-made, (s)he is privileged to possess an exceptional talent of the ratified few.  Leadership is seldom presented as a worksman-like skill that any diligent, thoughtful employee can learn, practice and develop.

What is most unhelpful about this mythology of leadership is that it can lead to: arbitrary promotions based on personal connections rather than merit (which is detrimental to the organization); or disparagement of individual initiative, ambition and self-development (detrimental to the both the individual and the organization.

Bringing the Hard and The Soft Together

If we aim to create more effective organizations, we need to take the myth of exceptionalism out of management. We need to encourage, develop and reward merit rather than privilege and personal connections.

Influence and Leadership are not the domain of the ratified few but the product of hard skills, including organization, communication, and cross-functional project leadership, and soft skills, including interpersonal communication and, yes, that factor of personal appeal. This is why we judge some individuals in positions of power to be effective and others, not.

The aim of the organization should be to develop well balanced leaders who can bring hard and soft skills together.

The Soft Skills: Personal Appeal

Regarding the soft skills, the charisma factor need not, and should not, be a predominant component. As demonstrated by the example of ex president George W. Bush, who was elected partly because of the factor of personal appeal (“someone you could have a beer with”) but lacked the hard skills to make wise decisions when in office, it is a combination of hard and soft skills that makes for a well balanced leader.

What is personal appeal, and can it be developed? People tend to find appeal from the ability to identify with someone. This effect holds very strongly in business: people want to do business with people who are “like me.” For instance, Hispanic customers will wait long periods in a bank to do business with an Hispanic banker, and South Asian customers will come into a bank branch outside their communities to meet with an Indian or Pakistani representative.

This argues for diversity in the workplace, but it also argues that employees need to develop a diverse mindset – the ability to develop empathy and champion the customer – both the internal and external customers. The most successful marketers are the ones who represent the internal voice of the external customer.

For example, take Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney. His campaign has been hampered by the perception that he is privileged and out of touch with the middle class. There is a sense of stiffness and inability to relate to the common person. Still, entrepreneur Mark Cuban is willing to overlook these personal limitations because he senses that, as a businessman, he is “someone like me.” The effect is so powerful that, even though candidate Romney’s tax plan remains vague and muddled, Mark Cuban comes away with a favorable opinion of it nonetheless. In his article, My Opinion On The Governor Romney Tax Plan, Mr. Cuban explains the essence of Mr. Romney’s appeal for him:

I see some of me in him. When it comes to my companies, I know what i want to do and I have complete confidence that I will get to where i need to go. I might not always get there, but I tend to only get into businesses and battles where I am extremely confident I can come out ahead. My failures have never stopped me from having absolute confidence in how I approach business. I have the feeling that Governor Romney has this trait to a far greater degree than even I do. No failure will ever slow down Governor Romney’s confidence.

Mr. Cuban is willing to give a pass to Governor Romney’s vagueness on policy because he sees the measure of the man as the success factor.  Because “that’s how I am, and I see myself in him.”

I am not advocating mirroring as a qualification for leadership. Governor Romney has changed his position every which way the winds blow, and therefore appears to have a serious deficit in the area of integrity.   Manipulative gimmickry is no substitute for real empathy and the willingness to reach out, listen, understand and help people by focusing on their needs, rather than one’s own – a diverse mindset.


Personal appeal is not something that should be cultivated in lieu of hard skills, effort and integrity. But it has its place and impacts not just image, but performance. The key to soft leadership skills is that in the business environment, one must report up, as well as down and laterally by delivering the perception of value that each stakeholder wants. For the CEO, bottom line metrics on how a marketing campaign has moved the needle and resulting in increased acquisitions, engagement and retention are more important than how many clicks a site has garnered. For the CIO, it may be the opposite. Fortunately, soft leadership skills, like hard skills can be cultivated.

Marketing and leadership are commonly misunderstood as the projection of some kind of air of authority. In fact, both disciplines require that one meet customers’ needs. Whether you are marketing to consumer groups, or reporting to a CEO, you need to grasp what it is they expect and deliver accordingly.


A Prominent Neuroscientist’s Take On Workplace Conversation

Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, the Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College, recently published a book entitled Words can Change Your Brain co-authored with  Loyola Marymount University communications expert Mark Robert Waldman).

Compassionate Communication

The authors discovered a valuable strategy called Compassionate Communication, a 12-step strategy that allows anyone to create a special bond with whomever they are speaking that aligns both brains to work together as one. In this unique state—free from conflict and distrust—we can communicate more effectively, listen more deeply, collaborate without effort, and succeed more quickly at any task. The following comprises key points of an interview with Dr. Newberg conducted by Steven Kotler in Forbes:

Q1: What are the forms of communication?

While we usually think about language, both written and spoken, as the main way of communicating, research shows that we communicate in so many other ways including facial expressions, eye movements, body position, and body language. For example, a recent brainscan study found that one can tell, by looking at a CEO’s face, if he or she is trustworthy, has strong leadership skills, and is financially successful in governing the corporation.

Q2: What are the most important things being communicated?

While we always need to be able to communicate our thoughts and ideas to others, in business, it appears that being able to communicate your values and vision may be just as important. For example, researchers in the management department at Drexel University in Philadelphia recently conducted a 100-year profile study of 75 CEOs of major league baseball teams. Those who encouraged confidence and optimism in their teams won more games and attracted more fan attendance. And they showed more concern for others than for themselves. But CEOs who showed signs of conceit, vanity, and egotism won the fewest games and attracted the least number of fans. Here we see that kindness and positive support makes all the difference in the workplace. For example, Marcial Losada, the director of the Center for Advanced Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, showed that in the business world, the most successful teams of individuals were those who were the most positive when communicating to each other.  Such values are essential to communicate in the workplace.

Q3: What Is The Value of “Making Money”?

Interestingly, making money rarely shows up on an individual’s personal or professional values list.  So why do so many people equate money with personal satisfaction, even though the research is clear that social satisfaction is more rewarding?  Neuroscience provides a possible explanation.  It turns out that monetary and social rewards stimulate the same neural circuits in the brain.  Every time a person contemplates his or her personal and social values, it stimulates the same reward circuit in the brain.  This research strongly suggests that focusing on your inner values can be both pleasurable and rewarding, and that it should neurologically reinforce behaviors that are associated with the values individuals believe in the most.

Q4: Why Is Focusing on One’s Inner Values So Important for Effective Face-To-Face Organizational Communication?

Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, considered by many to be one of the 50 most powerful women in the world, recently posted a blog entry about the importance of directly addressing values in the boardroom: “In organizations that I call ‘supercorps’—companies that are innovative, profitable, and responsible—widespread dialogue about the interpretation and application of values enhances accountability, collaboration, and initiative”.

Dr. Kanter finds that when people share and discuss their deepest values in the business world, it strengthens the alignment of the entire group.  Employees’ personal values become integrated with the company’s policy, and this helps to guide the ethical choices of the corporation.  Discussing business values openly, Kanter argues, eliminates the need to impose impersonal and coercive rules.

The organization becomes a community united by shared purpose, which reinforces teamwork and collaboration.  People can be more readily relied upon to do the right thing, and to guide their colleagues to do the same, once they buy into and internalize core principles.  People can become more aware of the drivers and impact of their behavior.  And, as I have seen in leading companies, active consideration of core values and purpose can unlock creative potential.

Q5: Is it important to bring the value of compassion into the art of negotiation?

Creating a sense of compassion as part of the negotiating practice in business may have profound effects. Deborah Kolb, at the Simmons College Graduate School of Management, emphasizes the importance of showing deep and genuine appreciation when negotiating with others: “Appreciative moves alter the tone or atmosphere so that a more collaborative exchange is possible.” This, she adds, helps to insure that all bargainers establish a common trust, away from “unspoken power plays and into the light of true dialogue.”  And remember: the more you communicate in a warm, supportive, enthusiastic, and genuinely caring way, the more you will be perceived as a transformational leader.

Overall, the evidence shows that developing improved communication techniques, particularly those that rely on personal values and also compassion, can have a potentially dramatic effect within businesses. Such communication may be able to enhance the success, cohesion, and productivity of a business. We have begun to develop and test specific approaches to improving communication and describe these approaches in our book, Words Can Change Your Brain.

Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better?

Marissa Mayer speaks onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Dinner New York City at Hudson Room at the Time Warner Center on May 24, 2011 in New York City.

Now that Yahoo has hired Google executive Marissa Mayer to be its next CEO, the subject of feminine leadership is topical.  Maker, 37,  is extraordinary by any standards. She was one of Google’s earliest employees who began her career at Google in 1999 after getting her master’s degree in computer science from Stanford. Fred Amoroso, Yahoo’s chairman, says the board was drawn to Mayer’s “unparalleled track record in technology, design, and product execution.” Among Mayer’s list of talents and accomplishments, she is a math whiz with a photographic memory. In her time at Google, she led teams that produced many of the company’s most recognizable products, including the development of its flagship search product and the iconic Google homepage. She managed the launch of more than 100 features and products including Google News, and Gmail and is credited with overseeing the creation of much of the clean, uncluttered “look and feel” of many Google products.

Do Women Really Make Better Leaders?

Articles over the years have claimed that women make better managers than men, including this article by Forbes. According to Forbes, research shows that “strong market growth among European companies is most likely to occur where there is a higher proportion of women in senior management teams.” It shows that firms with more women on their boards “outperform their rivals with a 42% higher return on sales, 66% higher return on invested capital and 53% higher return on equity.”

Other research cited in Harvard business review found that teams which involve women are more intelligent than teams made up of men alone.  Professors Woolley and Malone, along with Christopher Chabris, Sandy Pentland, and Nada Hashmi, gave subjects aged 18 to 60 standard intelligence tests and assigned them randomly to teams. Each team was asked to complete several tasks—including brainstorming, decision making, and visual puzzles—and to solve one complex problem, and the teams were given intelligence scores based on their performance. Surprisingly, the teams that had members with higher IQs didn’t earn much higher scores, but those that had more women did. According to the researchers:

Malone: It’s a preliminary finding—and not a conventional one. The standard argument is that diversity is good and you should have both men and women in a group. But so far, the data show, the more women, the better.

Woolley: We have early evidence that performance may flatten out at the extreme end—that there should be a little gender diversity rather than all women.

But does this mean that women are inherently better managers than men? I’ll provide the answer to that question at the end of this article.

Smarter Work Groups

The study cited above found that women tend to make a group work better. Here are the key findings:

Smarter Groups Listen and Share Better: The study saw no strong correlation with individual IQs. Although 10 of the smartest people could make the smartest group, it wouldn’t necessarily be the most effective. What great groups share is not that the members are all very smart but that they listen to each other, share criticism constructively, have open minds, and aren’t autocratic. In fact the study showed that  groups that had smart people dominating the conversation were not very intelligent groups.

Smarter Groups Are Moderately Diverse: The research also finds that extremely homogeneous or extremely diverse groups aren’t as intelligent – a moderate level of cognitive diversity is most effective.

Collective Intelligence can be Designed: Although you can change an individual’s intelligence only so much, the study’s authors believe that it’s completely possible to markedly change a group’s intelligence. You could increase it by changing members or incentives for collaboration, for instance. There is evidence to suggest that collective intelligence exists at the organizational level, too. Companies that do well at scanning the environment and setting targets also excel at managing internal operations and mentoring employees—and have better financial performance. Consistent performance across disparate areas of functioning suggests an organizational collective intelligence, which could be used to predict company performance.

5 Feminine Leadership Secrets

So what are the successful qualities that tend to be more highly developed in women? Forbes put together a list of 5. I took 4 of theirs, and added a 5th of my own:

1. Communication: Harvard Business School professor Nitin Nohria, who writes that great leaders “spend the bulk of their time communicating.” Women are thought to be better at verbalizing what they think.

2. Perspective: It is important to have diverse viewpoints, and the best way to do this is to bring in people who understand those viewpoints intimately. Chief executive of the National Skills Academy for Financial Services (NSAFS), Sylvian Perrins, writes in the Financial Times, that she believes that women look at problems differently and provide a complementary point of view:

They are well placed to understand their customers and stakeholders and ensure the industry benefits from fresh perspectives, new ideas and broader experiences. It is always good to see things from different perspectives and if women are not represented on boards their point of view and a large proportion of the general population’s view wouldn’t be heard. Consequently, having different genders and ethnicities brings a tangible added value to the business. The best teams are made up of a different mixture of skills and backgrounds which bring spark and innovation to organisations.

3. Empathy: According to a white paper published by the Center for Creative Leadership, the ability to understand what others are feeling — to detect if they are overworked or struggling — is a skill that “clearly contributes to effective leadership,”

4. Risk Aware, Long-term Thinking 

Halla Tomasdottir and Kristin Petursdottir

The tendency to think long term  has come to be seen as a feminine trait. In particular, according to investment firm CEO Halla Tomadottir: “We [are] very careful, and very risk-aware – risk-aware, not risk-averse. Women are risk-aware, men are risk takers.

Halla Tomasdottir and Kristin Petursdottir, set up investment firm Audur Capital in Iceland in 2007, with Kristin as CEO, believing that the male-female balance matters because each bring different values to the table. Women, in particular, they believe Says Halla, the Audur chairman:

Women tend to bring a lot to the table. They think more long-term, they think about the team, and not only themselves. They think more about people, and they see other business opportunities than men.

There is another, crucial difference, they find: “Women are willing to ask stupid questions. We want to understand. We won’t take risks we don’t understand, so we ask: what is sub-prime? Who’ll pay these loans back?”

Prioritizing Corporate Governance: Part of being risk-aware is greater emphasis on corporate governance. Halla says:

You do need people that put ethics and corporate governance high on the agenda. I have learnt through years in personnel management that women tend to put these values higher on the agenda. They’re also interested in a wider definition of what’s a good return.

Results Speak Louder Than Words: Kristin and Halla are convinced that their results prove them right:

Our values got us through the crisis. We tripled out wealth management business when everyone else was losing business. We achieved this through trust, and the things we stand for. And straight talking. We told our clients things that they would not have been told elsewhere. We believe in being authentic to our clients, that’s in our DNA.

5. Work Life Balance

In my personal experience, organizations where there was a greater representation of women among management placed greater emphasis on work life balance. As women still tend to be the caregivers at the home, these organizations were more open to flexible work arrangements, including flexible work schedules and telecommuting. Undoubtedly, female management has had a positive influence on corporate culture in this area.

“Feminine” Leadership Qualities

study by Bain and Company of female leaders found that female interviewees felt that women were advantaged in six of 10 leadership characteristics identified.  These include the ability to empower others and to be a listener. The women interviewed felt that some of their traditionally feminine traits are an advantage, particularly in forming relationships with clients and colleagues. Examples these women leaders cited include:

  • Building relationships: “Women are generally calm and don’t possess a huge amount of ego upfront, which is helpful for building relationships with Main Street CEOs.”
  • Investing in others: “Women are better at consensus building and care more about people and how they are feeling about their roles.”
  • Reading people: “Women tend to be more empathetic and better listeners than their male counterparts, which makes them better at reading people.”

Bottom Line: Sensibilities, Not Gender, Determine Leadership Style

So are women really better managers than men? Anecdotal claims make for a compelling narrative and an empowering myth, but, in fact, the most reliable research reveals that leadership style is independent of gender:

Those contending that leadership competencies are largely the domain of the female gender are as guilty of stereotyping as those who would equate effective leadership with male characteristics.

Woolley states:

Many studies have shown that women tend to score higher on tests of social sensitivity than men do. So what is really important is to have people who are high in social sensitivity, whether they are men or women.

The fact is, it isn’t accurate to identify the leadership qualities typically enumerated as female leadership qualities as male or female., or engage in gender stereotyping.

The good news for both genders is that the qualities that society traditionally associates with women are  possessed by men as well.

3 Takeaways: The important takeaways are these:

  • Certain qualities that society associates with “the feminine” make for good management skills. These are qualities that leaders of either gender can tap into.
  • Diversity improves organizational effectiveness.
  • Work life balance makes for a better work environment

As leaders, we should be open to new learning. If qualities that are traditionally associated with feminine behavior appear to make for improved leadership, we should be prepared to embrace them. Gender equality and parity is not only a basic human right, but adds perspective, balance and improves organizational results.

Snap! principle of successful “feminine” leadership qualities:

Be as much in touch with “feminine” as “masculine” leadership qualities.

The Mindful Manager

Here is an excerpt from a Huff Post article by Adam Weinberg, President World Learning, that make a point about some fundamental business skills that are not necessarily taught in most formal curricula.

It is interesting to note that they coincide with certain principles of Buddhist practice related to overcoming mental conditioning, which is what is needed to “think outside the box,” but that also inform judgment and action and impact results. Please note that Buddhism as described herein is not properly religion, but rather a methodology for the practice of mental cultivation.

“In its essence, leadership is about putting theory into practice — figuring out what needs to be done, learning how to do it, but then finding the motivation to take meaningful action…As an educator, I think about the obligation to help rising generations acquire a few key attributes that are in short supply. Three of these are at the top of my mind these days.

  1. First, we need people with stellar cross-cultural skills. The future will not only be shaped by how well we transcend differences, but how well we synthesize differences into new ways of thinking and acting.
  2. Second, we need people who can practice insight to see through complexity and chaos to find simple and elegant solutions. Fundamentally, it is about making connections that previously eluded us between seemingly disparate thoughts, in ways that allow us to find clever, simple and practical solutions to problems that seemed intractable.
  3. Third, we need to nurture patience and perseverance. Most things that matter take time. This will become truer over time, as the organizations that shape our lives and the problems we face grow in size. Change happens when a group of people stick with an idea over a sustained period, working through early setbacks to eventually succeed.

Modern society does not foster these traits. Educational institutions can be a countervailing force when they create spaces for young people to work together over sustained periods to identify problems and engage in problem solving that encourages them to ask new questions, draw connections, and find new ways to address old problems.”

Business Skills and Buddhist Mindfulness

A Wall Street Journal article by Beth Gardiner discusses how business schools are beginning to embrace the teaching and studying of mindfulness, the Buddhist approach to increasing awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings, a practice whose popularity has been growing in the corporate world.

Some M.B.A. and executive-education courses offer techniques to help executives calm their minds and increase their focus, which, they hold, “are crucial for those hoping to succeed in an increasingly frenetic environment where distractions from an always-buzzing phone to pressure for strong quarterly profit reports constantly impinge on decisions.”

The technique is important for executives who want to become aware of reflexive, emotional reactions that can lead to bad decisions.

Surveying Institutional Mindfulness

Ms. Donde Ashmos Plowman, dean of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Business Administration has also examined the mindfulness of organizations, a concept previously introduced by Karl Weick, at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

Mindful organizations are those that pay close attention to what is happening within the organization, and are ready to correct mistakes rather than punishing workers who report them and respond quickly to changes or problems, Ms. Plowman said.
Since critics have accused business schools of culpability in the many high-profile lapses of corporate ethics in recent years, Dean Plowman felt that studying the schools’ state of institutional mindfulness might provide indications of their readiness for self-correction. She tried to quantify the mindfulness of 180 different business schools by providing questionnaires to deans and other administrators.

The researchers noticed that deans rated their schools’ mindfulness more highly than did those working for them. Ms. Plowman concludes:

It’s easy for people at the head of an organization to end up in a bubble. That really alerted me to say, ‘What do I need to do as a dean to improve the way we communicate?’

Mindfulness for Culture Change

Lausanne, Switzerland’s IMD business school leadership professor Ben Bryant introduces executive education students to techniques for concentrating on their breathing and becoming aware of sounds to help them center themselves at the office or in a business meeting.

Mr. Bryant feels it is worthwhile to help decision makers better direct their attention. He states that, for CEOs in particular:

It’s the smallest things that they do that have huge ripple effects. Because their lives are so busy and so loaded up with things, they miss too many opportunities to make either themselves or their organizations different.

In instituting “the mindful approach to changing culture,” Professor Bryant notes that the engineering approach to corporate change that CEOs and managers tend to be comfortable with, while a good start, it is also extremely limited.

The Engineering Approach to Changing Culture

Of six levels of innovation culture that can be identified, 3 of these – slogans, incubation and compliance – form an “engineering approach” to shaping culture. They represent clear, relatively easy-to-implement actions that can be taken to “fix” the company so that its culture encourages innovation:

Slogan level:  A slogan should reflect company culture, and many are also created to shape culture, but the reality rarely lives up to the rhetoric. A disconnect often exists between what an organization says it values through the slogan (innovation) and the message being sent out by top management to employees (make the numbers with no surprises).

Incubation level: This level appoints a chief innovation manager or creates different groups, such as corporate venture units, “skunkworks” and new product development teams to be  responsible for innovation. According to Professor Bryant, research shows that 80-90% of company corporate venture units fail, however, and are also not sufficient to shape an innovative culture.

Compliance level: This refers to systems and processes put in place to direct innovative behaviors and activities, including: suggestion schemes to encourage creativity; NPD processes and stage-gating to help with decision making and coordination of innovative ideas; and reward and recognition programs. These processes are designed to “drag” people into an innovative way of thinking, but even these are still not enough to make the transition to a truly innovative culture.

3 Levels of Innovation Culture

The last three levels of innovation culture – attention, disruption, and interaction – that form the base of the pyramid. Forming the “mindful approach,” these take into account the fact that people watch and take their cue from top-level leaders – and every word and action of such leaders is important. Because achieving these levels requires managers to change often unconscious behaviors and overturn rituals, routines, and processes that reinforce deeply routed traditional values rather than inspire innovation, the practice of mindfulness should inform their thoughts, words and actions.

Attention level: Even if a company has implemented an engineering approach to changing culture, it will do little if the top-level leaders are not paying attention to actions and people that promote innovation. If managers are focused on processes and outputs that never deviate from a defined standard, there will be no innovation. Also, giving attention to people based on their place in the organization’s hierarchy instead of their expertise also impedes innovation. Leaders who truly want an innovative culture need to “switch their attention to variance over the mean, context over content, risk over creativity, and knowledge over status.

Disruption level: Senior managers need to manage the tension between conformity and disruption to allow innovation to occur. The way in which people who do not conform are treated sends a message to other employees, and an army of “good soldiers” will never become innovative.  One way to achieve this is for managers themselves to act disruptively, but with skill – pushing the company out of its comfort zone and showing direction, much like some of the iconoclastic stories associated with Zen masters. Small, symbolic actions that take people by surprise can lead to real culture change.

Interaction level: What happens “in the moment” when a leader interacts with employees is critical to a company’s culture. Whether a leader inspires fear or challenge, and shows ambiguity, or focus, defensiveness or a willingness to learn, pessimism or optimism, such information is communicated in a split second, and often unconsciously. This level is the hardest to achieve, requiring leaders to be constantly self-aware in every interaction with their people.

Mindfulness for Self Management

Jeremy Hunter, who teaches at the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University outside Los Angeles, believes mindfulness should be at the center of business schools’ teaching because it is about improving the quality of attention, which is key to productivity in the modern workplace.

In a series of four seven-week executive-education classes, and a separate course for M.B.A. students, Professor Hunter teaches what he calls self-management, “managing your insides so you can deal with your outsides better.” He often starts class with a brief meditation, and covers topics like managing emotional reactions and dealing with change:

To me, it’s fundamental to how work gets done these days. Basically, that’s what work is, attention.

Best Practice: One of Professor Hunter’s student became frustrated with weekly work meetings where staff were more focused on their cellphones than the discussion.  After taking the course, he became convinced that the answer was  to insist that everyone depoist their phones into a box before starting. The weekly gathering soon became so much more efficient that it was cut from from 90 minutes to an hour.

Mindfulness for Leadership Effectiveness

At Harvard Business School, leadership professor William George focuses on helping businesspeople to better understand their emotions. He ran a two-day conference in 2010 on mindful leadership with a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, and has meditated regularly since 1975.

In his executive-education class on leadership development, he instructs students who include CEOs to open up to others about their toughest experiences.

Such conversations can increase self-awareness, which Professor George sees as central to good leadership. It isn’t a lack of intelligence that causes executives to make poor decisions, but a lack of awareness of the feelings that drive their reactions, he said.

It’s the inability to admit your own mistakes, or your fear of failure, your fear of rejection, your desire to be seen as Mr. Perfect, or Ms. Perfect in front of groups, that’s what leads to failure. It’s amazing to me how executives in their 40s or 50s who are running giant enterprises can get really into this.

The comments spurred by The Wall Street Journal article shows the increasing acceptance of mindfulness as an organizational tool.  Dr. Gaby Cora of Executive Health and Wealth Institute writes: “This is exactly the core of my work assisting C-level executives and entrepreneurs who are leading under pressure. I help them maximize their performance and productivity while being well, healthy, and experiencing peace of mind.”

Nurturing Success

“Be careful what you water your dreams with. Water them with worry and fear and you will produce weeds that choke the life from your dream. Water them with optimism and solutions and you will cultivate success. Always be on the lookout for ways to turn a problem into an opportunity for success. Always be on the lookout for ways to nurture your dream.”
― Lao Tzu (老子: Old Man) a philosopher said to be a contemporary of Confucius known as author of the Tao Te Ching,

The Tao of Marketing

The Tao Te Ching (道德經: 道 dào “way”; 德 dé “virtue”; 經 jīng “power.”) urges man to return to the unseen, immensely powerful yet supremely humble  root of being ( Dao – or Way).  While many act “unnaturally”, against the natural balance of things,  The Tao Te Ching intends to lead one to a “return” to one’s natural state, in harmony with things.  Rhetoric and conventional wisdom are critically assessed as inherently biased and artificial..

The Wu Wei Principle

Wu wei (無爲 ,”non-action”) is a multifaceted concept and practice, reflected in the words “not forcing”,”acting spontaneously”, “flowing with the moment,” or “effortless action.” Laozi used the term broadly with simplicity and humility as key virtues, often in contrast to selfish action. On a political level, it means avoiding such circumstances as war, harsh laws and heavy taxes.

Wu Wei also reflects an important marketing principle, the Voice of The Customer, which involves attaining a deep understanding of and responding to your customer’s hierarchy of values and beliefs.

To create a successful marketing strategy you have to bridge the gap between hearing your customers’ voices and being able to translate them into tangible results. This requires a process for:

  1.  Getting to know your customers and learning their point of view;
  2.  Charting a course of action based on your customers’ preferences;
  3. Aligning the organization around new insights acquired;
  4. Gaining buy-in for the resulting initiatives;
  5. Rigorously executing for successful outcomes.

Recommended reading: Voices into Choices: Acting on the Voice of the Customer

Applications to Social Media Marketing

Brian Clark at Copy Blogger describes how theWu Wei principle can be applied to online Marketing:

Are you beating your head against the wall trying to tell people a story they don’t want to hear? Stop…Wu wei means your marketing story is in harmony with the desires of your market. On the other hand, when you exert your will against your market, you disrupt that harmony and hit the wall.

The successful online marketer understands her audience first and foremost. She focuses less on what she’d like to say and concentrates on finding the story the audience wants to hear…

Micro-entrepreneurs and small businesses are perfectly positioned to provide that consistent authentic relationship with online content marketing…If you’re tuned in to your audience, they’ll tell you everything you need to do and say to benefit them while succeeding yourself. Acting in harmony with the desires of your market is entrepreneurial effortless action, and it’s the way social media marketing works.

Recommended Reading: Seth Godin’s  All Marketers are Liars: The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-Trust World


The Gallup Path to Business Performance

The Gallup Path: Microeconomics

Gallup developed a model to describe the path between employees’ individual contribution and the company’s ultimate business outcome – an increase in company value, usually measured by increase in stock price and market valuation.

The Gallup Path was created from the study of how the world’s best companies have created sustainable, authentic growth through maximizing their relationships with their customers and employees, using research of more than 25 million customers, 7 million employees, 250,000 managers, and 40,000 leaders in more than 500 organizations around the world.

From this research Gallup created an integrated solution that businesses in various economic sectors can use to drive performance throughout their organizations. But the bottom line is that maximizing individual performance drives company performance.

1. Real Profit Increase Drives Stock Increase

Of the variables that influence a company’s market that are in its control, real profit increase is the most important driver of stock increase (sustained vs. short-term profitability.) These exclude creative accounting, such as write-downs, aggressive one-time charges, or forcing orders for products at the end-of-period to overstate revenue, and include:

  • Solid operational initiatives, such as improving process efficiency or cutting costs.
  • Sustained profit increase from normal operations.

2. Sustainable Growth Drives Real Profit Increase

Real profit increase can only be driven by sustainable growth, as opposed to “bought growth.” A company can buy growth through various techniques that create a  spike in your revenue while failing to address the issue of sustaining that revenue, and typically undermining it, including:

  • Acquiring another company’s revenue stream.
  • Slashing prices.
  • Opening as many new locations as possible as quickly as possible.

Sustainable growth is measured by metrics such as revenue per store, or revenue per product, or number of services used per customer which reveal whether or not your revenue stream is robust.
3. Engaged Customers Drive Sustainable Growth

The most critical driver of sustainable growth is an expanding base of engaged customers, and in some industries it is critical to have a growing base of engaged customers who are willing to pay a premium price. It is even better if these engaged customers become advocates, thereby creating a large, vocal, and unpaid sales force.

True customer engagement is created, not just by sales and marketing communications (“brand promise”), but  providing a superior product and service (“brand experience.”) A company can only create a growing number of engaged customers if its brand experience matches or exceeds its brand promise.

4. Engaged Employees Drive Customer Engagement

“Fully engaged” employees are an important subject of Gallup research and can answer all the questions in the Gallup Q12 with a strong affirmative. This tool correlates employee attitudes to five outcome measures: 1. employee retention, 2. productivity, 3. customer satisfaction/engagement, 4. safety, and 5. profitability. In addition to the strong link between engaged employees and customer engagement, there are often direct links between an increase in the number of engaged employees and profit, through increases in productivity, or decreases in employee turnover.

5. The Right Managers Drive Employee Engagement

At the entry point of The Path, you must first identify the employees’ individual strengths, to position individuals to perform roles that capitalize on these strengths.  The key is to identify a person’s dominant themes of talent, then refine them with knowledge and skills (Gallup believes that companies spend too much time focusing on  skills and knowledge and not nearly enough on their talents, which are the basis of strength and success. Gallup tools for this include its strengths-based selection and strengths-based development.

To engage talented employees successfully means selecting and developing great managers. Companies that are unable to create this kind of environment will lose more talented people than they keep by miscasting, overpromoting, undervaluing, and otherwise misusing the talented employees who do stay. Lacking talented people in the right roles, this company will have to revert to less robust routes to performance:

  • Overreliance on marketing.
  • Acquisition
  • Frantic push for “bought” growth.

Success Stories in Financial Services

These Gallup Management Journal articles and case studies provide case studies at each link of the Path, including

Snap! principle of a “path” to business performance:

Company performance is driven by maximizing individual performance.

Maria Konnikova, in her Scientific American article Why Are We So Afraid of Creativity? asks:

Don’t we live in a society that thrives on the idea of innovation and creative thought? The age of the entrepreneur, of the man of ideas, of Steve Jobs and the think different motto? We may say we value creativity, but in our heart of hearts, imagination can scare us.

Fear Favors The Devil You Know

The paradox of organizations, institutions, and individual decision makers  is that, while they state that creativity is an important goal, they often reject creative ideas. A 1995 Creativity Research study found that, while creativity is held as an important goal of education, teachers dislike students who show curiosity and creative thought.

Because we dislike uncertainty, we work hard to reduce it, often by making habitual, practical choices that protect the status quo. Imagination introduces risk in the form of untested “counterfactuals,” a recombination of elements in new ways that are frightening and potentially embarrassing, since there’s no guarantee of success.

Measuring Fear of Creativity

New research suggests that we may hold an unconscious bias against creative ideas. You may have read about the Implicit Association Test (IAT) in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink. It identifies discrepancies between consciously held beliefs and unconscious biases, testing for implicit bias toward any number of groups  by looking at reaction times for associations between positive and negative attributes and pictures of group representatives. The speed of categorization in each of these circumstances determines your implicit bias. To take the racial example, if you are faster to categorize when “European American” and “good” share a key and “African American” and “bad” share a key, it is taken as evidence of an implicit race bias.

While the IAT has shown a prevalence of unconscious biases in areas such as race, gender, sexual orientation, age, mental disease, and disability, it has now been expanded to creativity. In a series of studies, participants had to complete the same good-bad category pairing  with two words that expressed an attitude that was either practical (such as  functionalconstructive, or useful) or creative (novel, inventive, original). The result: even those people who had explicitly ranked creativity as high on their list of positive attributes showed an implicit bias against it relative to practicality under conditions of uncertainty.

They also rated an idea that had been pre-tested as creative as less creative than their more certain counterparts – exhibiting a failure to see creativity for what it was when directly faced with it.

The implications for business are clear. The implicit bias against creativity can cause a culture of fear to overtake an environment in which groundbreaking ideas are fostered. As Albert Einstein put it, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Research by Beerman and colleagues published in the Journal of Positive Psychology suggests that curiosity is one of five strengths closely related to life satisfaction. The other four are gratitude, optimism, zest and the ability to love and be loved.  So how might one go about developing this strength?

The Harvard School of Creativity

The study of creativity at business schools is a relatively new phenomenon, dating back to the 1980s.  A Harvard Business School article by Julia Hanna called Getting Down to the Business of Creativity highlights the work of three professors in Harvard Business School’s Entrepreneurial Management unit who focus on the study of creativity. They agree that the romantic notion of creativity as a rare quality bestowed on a chosen few, has been debunked, and they show that it can be fostered organizationally.

“Creativity does have a reputation for being magical,” says Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile. “One myth is that it’s associated with the particular personality or genius of a person—and in fact, creativity does depend to some extent on the intelligence, expertise, talent, and experience of an individual. But it also depends on creative thinking as a skill that involves qualities such as the propensity to take risks and to turn a problem on its head to get a new perspective. That can be learned.”

Diversity: In her course Managing for Creativity, Amabile divides students into brainstorming groups to work on a problem. The groups are assembled to create maximum diversity in cultures, disciplines, and backgrounds—the intersection where creativity is most likely to occur, according to The Medici Effect, a book by Frans Johansson.

Motivation: Another driver of creativity is motivation.  “The desire to do something because you find it deeply satisfying and personally challenging inspires the highest levels of creativity, whether it’s in the arts, sciences, or business,” she says.  Amabile conducted a three-year study of 238 professionals from seven companies in the high-tech, consumer products, and chemicals industries. They asked the subjects who were working on projects requiring creative effort to fill out a daily electronic diary form that required numerical answers to questions about their work that day, as well as their emotions, motivation, and work environment. They were also asked to describe what they’d done that day and to include a brief description of one event at work that stood out in their minds.

Positive emotion: Amabile found that ‘inner work life’ directly influences creativity and other aspects of performance.” This reinforces previous laboratory studies that have demonstrated the causal relationship between emotion and creativity. Positive emotion is tied to higher creativity and negative feelings linked to lower motivation and creativity.  The diary findings also showed a positive carry-over effect in creativity and productivity one day and even two days after a worker reported being in a good mood.

How to Promote a Culture of Creativity

So what can managers and entrepreneurs do to promote a healthy, positive inner work life among employees? What Amabile and Kramer discovered was that people have their best days and do their best work when they are allowed to make progress. “Big breakthroughs are great, but we found that even incremental progress evokes a powerfully positive inner work life.”

Be in tune with your employees’ “inner work lives: Her research suggests that most managers are not in tune with the inner work lives of their employees; nor do they appreciate how pervasive the effects of inner work life can be on performance.” Fostering a positive inner work life  can be as easy as this:

  • Support employees’ progress in their work every day.
  • Set clear and meaningful goals for them.
  • Provide direct help, versus hindrance.
  • Offer adequate resources and time.
  • Respond to successes and failures by drawing on the experience as a learning opportunity, not just a moment to praise or reprimand.
  • Establish a culture where people are treated with respect.

Innovative Ventures Pay Off Big

Best Practice # 1: Changing the consumer mind set – In her new course, Leading Innovative Ventures, Harvard Business School professor Mary Tripsas introduces conceptual models to help students launch and creatively manage new businesses, stand-alone or within an established organization.

She notes that a truly novel product or service has repercussions beyond the narrowly defined product space. Suppliers, complementary producers, distribution channels, and consumers must often develop new capabilities, beliefs, and behaviors for the product to succeed.

The difficulties faced by a new company introducing innovation within an established industry are illustrated by  a company called Montague, which developed a folding bicycle with the look and feel of a traditional bike. The impediment was that most people conjure up an image of a small-wheeled, oddly shaped vehicle that they wouldn’t categorize as a ‘real’ bicycle.

Harry Montague, an avid cyclist, wanted a real bicycle that would fold—something to use for serious cycling that was sturdier than available folding models. He designed and built a prototype and discovered that others wanted to buy one.” His son David became interested in commercializing the innovation, and they cofounded the company in 1987. Today, Montague is the world’s leading producer of full-sized folding bicycles, and its products have proven durable enough to be air-dropped for use by paratroopers in the U.S. military.

 Best Practice # 2: Responding to changing market conditions – The ability to respond quickly to changing market conditions demands high levels of creativity. In Fujifilm: A Second Foundation, a case coauthored with Harvard Business School associate professor Giovanni Gavetti and Yaichi Aoshima of Hitotsubashi University, Tripsas presents the dilemma Fujifilm faced as its core film business vanished in age of digital technology.

Instead of focusing only on digital imaging, the obvious substitute for analog photography, Fuji branched out into new markets that exploit its specialty chemical expertise. The challenges to screen and prioritize the multitude of possible new applications, and to shift the mindset of an organization that has long held the identity of an ‘imaging’ company.

President and CEO Shigetaka Komori  restructured of the company in 2006. It meant letting go 5,000 employees and managing the transition to a more diversified product line based on the company’s proprietary technologies.

One application is the manufacture of protective film for flat panel displays from cellulose triacetate, the same material that is coated with chemicals to make analog film. Sales of materials for flat panel displays were $1.2 billion in 2006, with the market expected to double in size by 2009.

The company is also expanding into cosmetics and dietary supplements as the technology that prevents film from fading is also effective in skin care.

To implement the strategy, Fuji established a centralized R&D lab, increased its mergers and acquisitions of companies that had synergies with the company’s businesses, and formed a small venture capital fund for exploratory investments.

Komori also initiated a reorganization that created six new divisions within the company while simultaneously streamlining management and infrastructure at the corporate level. He held numerous meetings and discussions with small groups of middle managers about Fuji’s future direction, and asked each of the company’s top 1,000 employees to write a two-page memo identifying the opportunities and challenges for Fuji’s growth.

Tripsas says: “As a manager, you need to create a culture that will convince people to kick off the filters they’re used to applying and to think more broadly. “Ironically, while the emphasis in these types of transitions is frequently on developing the capabilities needed to attack new markets, it is the shift in the mindset of employees that can prove most difficult.”

Snap Principle of Fostering Creativity:

Be in tune with your employees’ “inner work lives. Promote a culture that embraces diversity, motivation, positive emotion and meaningful communication.

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