Performing Under Pressure: Lessons from the Ebola Story

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When you have to solve a problem big or small, the difference between success and failure often depends on the simplest actions. Consider the massive problem of containing a virus like Ebola. What separates contagion and containment comes down to little details, like using three pairs of gloves instead of one, and applying hand sanitizer after stripping off each layer. Ebola treatment guidelines reveal the importance and the difficulty of paying attention to details when you need to perform under pressure. It might seem easy to follow basic procedures for removing parts of a protective suit in a particular order. But remember that doctors treating Ebola patients are often physically and mentally exhausted by the end of a shift; under these circumstances, following the most rudimentary sequence of steps can be a challenge. When experienced professionals are tired and stressed, mistakes happen. The most basic behaviors are easy to overlook,Continue Reading >

Soft Skills, Hard Results

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“The tongue is the only tool that gets sharper with use.” – Washington Irving Since HP was founded in 1939, it has made lots of money in the highly technical business of computer hardware.  But when the HP board recently made the decision to hire Meg Whitman to replace CEO Leo Apotheker, it placed a bet on that softest of soft skills — communication. Ray Lane, HP’s executive chairman of the board, explained the decision: “The board believes that the job of the HP CEO now requires additional attributes to successfully execute on the company’s strategy. Meg Whitman has the right operational and communication skills and leadership abilities to deliver improved execution and financial performance.”  Not surprisingly, Whitman agrees.  In a recent interview with All Things Digital, she said: “What HP needs now more than anything else is management skills, communication skills, and a commitment to executional excellence, all ofContinue Reading >

Ultimatums

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The topic hardly matters.  You have the facts to prove you are right.  As the great English novelist Jane Austen put it: “How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!”  Modern psychologists chalk it up to “confirmation bias.”  When there is a conflict, it is easy to think you are justified in giving an ultimatum. Think again. People who get things done take time to win support for their ideas.  They know the facts never “speak for themselves.”  They avoid my-way-or-the-highway tactics. On a recent visit to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, I came across good example of the pointlessness of ultimatums.  In 1952, a board member resigned in protest over the proposed purchase of Mark Rothko’s abstract work “No. 10.”  The result?  The painting today hangs prominently in the museum, while the board member is forgotten.   His dramatic action did nothing to forestall the purchase, andContinue Reading >

The Science of Management

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The results are in: management matters.  The data-junkies at Google have the numbers to show that you need more than technical knowledge to run a successful business. You need leaders who can coach, empathize, encourage, and inspire.  These seemingly unmeasurable skills make all the difference. The most striking aspect of the Google research, done under the name Project Oxygen, is that it highlights eight managerial “good behaviors” that, even without sifting through the company’s database of 10,000 observations, you might have guessed are important.  Number one is being a good coach, followed by empowering and being interested in your people, focusing on results, communicating well, promoting career development, and having a clear vision.  The least important of the eight: having technical knowledge. Google’s Vice President for “people operations,” Laszlo Bock, describes the practical import of the research in the simplest terms.  He says that good managers are “accessible” and haveContinue Reading >

Experiment

A chemist experiments in the lab

To succeed in business, you have to deliver the cold, hard numbers: revenue, profit, market share, and shareholder value.  But you also need to pay attention to people-oriented issues such as management and leadership.  Hence, the classic tension between “hard” and “soft,” numbers and people.  The very best executives are able to resolve it.  They experiment. Take Starbucks’ founder and CEO Howard Schultz.  Over time, he has learned the value of experimenting.  When Shultz first decided to enter the instant coffee market, he planned a big, splashy rollout like the one that launched Sorbetto, a yogurt smoothie drink.  After much promotional fanfare across the country – ads, banners, special machines — Sorbetto in a matter of months disappeared without a trace.  His team vividly remembered that disappointing reception and convinced Shultz to proceed this time in a more experimental way.  Starbucks first piloted its instant coffee product, Via, in theContinue Reading >

Perseverance

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Most companies struggle to implement strategic and operational changes.  Only about a third are successful.  Imagine, then, how hard it must be to change a continent.  Yet that is precisely what Mo Ibrahim is trying to do in Africa.  Even if your ambitions are somewhat more limited – transforming, say, a Fortune 10 corporation – you can learn from how Ibrahim has taken up his mega-challenge. Ibrahim is a billionaire who made his fortune in telecommunications.  After he sold his company Celtel, he turned his attention to improving governance among African nations.  Plenty of critics dismissed Ibrahim’s quest as a fool’s errand.  But he persevered, creating positive incentives for change and drawing international attention to the issue of governance in Africa. Ibrahim holds a contrarian point of view about the relationship between governance and one of the biggest problems facing Africa — extreme poverty.  Mainstream policy experts view it asContinue Reading >

Too Much of a Good Thing

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You can have too much of a good thing, like rich food, exercise, partying, or electronic communication.  All of these topics merit careful consideration, but this seems to be an especially good time to reflect on the last one.  The news is full of stories about how, in various forms, electronic communication is extending the boundaries of human intelligence, making it easier to do business, and promoting freedom around the globe.  But is it? One thing is certain: expectations are high.  Take the recent publicity generated by the IBM super-computer Watson. The electronic whiz handily defeated two “Jeopardy!” champions.   “What we have done is advance artificial intelligence by miles,” says John E. Kelly III, IBM Senior Vice President and director of IBM research. The victory prompted journalists and experts to reflect on human vs. machine questions both frivolous and profound.  The consensus is that computers have not yet achieved trueContinue Reading >

What is the problem?

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The next time you have to solve a problem, start by asking how to define it. You will save yourself lots of time and irritation if you slow down long enough to reach a thoughtful answer. As the great American engineer and inventor Charles Kettering put it: “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.”

Cross Cultural Communications

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Every day you engage in cross-cultural communication. With your co-workers, friends, children, and spouse. An abundance of research shows that, often without knowing it, you cross from one culture to another at work and in social settings. At work, there is the culture of the finance department, where people speak the language of return-on-investment and spend lots of time assembling profit-and-loss projections. In the culture of sales, by contrast, your co-workers focus on relationships and devote a good part of their schedules to visiting customers in the field. Jay Lorsch, a management expert who spent years studying collaboration in the workplace, observed that “recurring conflict is inevitable” among people from different functions. The reason is that they have different priorities, professional values, and mind-sets. The strategic planner is thinking about scenarios that may develop two years from now. The call center supervisor is worried about the volume her staff hasContinue Reading >

Tweaks and Overhauls

Roger Federer playing tennis

Only a small, select group of people can or wants to be an elite athlete like Roger Federer.  But everybody can learn from how he manages his own professional and personal development: through a series of tweaks rather than dramatic, game-changing overhauls. Federer has a coach, the former pro-tour player Paul Annacone, who topped out at No. 12 in the world in the 1980s.  Annacone describes his role in modest terms: “There’s no magic pill, no secret whispering with voodoo dolls going on.”  He knows the importance of keeping expectations in check.  “People tend to get sensationalistic about what’s going on,” he says, “ and I think it’s my job to kind of help keep that perspective.” When it comes to self-improvement, Federer has some obvious advantages, not the least of which are his enormous talent and an awesome track record of success.  Yet even for someone at the topContinue Reading >

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