Author Archives: Laurie Olberding

Desperate Times

Category : 2021

In Spanish, it sounds like a line from an old western movie you can’t remember the title of, “Tiempos desesperados requieren medidas desesperadas.”

Italians probably say it while eating bruschetta, risotto, or something carbonara, “A mali estremi estremi rimedi.”

The French pair it with a glass of Merlot, “Aux grands maux les grands moyens.”

With due respect to our friends in the Netherlands, “Wanhopige tijden vragen om wanhopige maatregelen” has an appealing lilt, but it is a mouthful to pronounce.

In English, we know this line simply as, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

Forget about COVID, the latest natural disaster, or the political crisis du jour. For a moment, apply this iconic statement to your career and your brand. In the unpredictable, ever-evolving environment in which we now work, what measures have you taken to prepare for a strategic or unexpected move to a new role or different realm of responsibility?

For many corporate boards, the 2020 priority was keeping people in their C-suite chairs and hanging on for dear life while the repercussions of a pandemic repeatedly slammed into every industry and business across the globe like an ominous creature from a Steven Spielberg movie. Boards of Directors and senior leaders invested endless hours in monitoring the pandemic’s impact on corporate financial stability, employee well-being, and what it would take to keep customers engaging with an enterprise. The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance reported that at companies in the Russell 3000 (the largest 3,000 U.S. companies, representing about 98% of the investable U.S. equity market), CEO transitions dropped in the second quarter of 2020.1

The uncertainty emerging in C-suites across the globe seems characteristically close to the wistful musings of Mary Poppins’ friend, Bert.

Winds in the east, mist coming in,
Like something is brewin’ and bout to begin.
Can’t put me finger on what lies in store,
But I fear what’s to happen all happened before.

During 2021, Andy Jassy at Amazon, Tom Nolan at Kendra Scott, and Bob Jordan at Southwest Airlines benefitted from these winds of change as Jeff Bezos, Kendra Scott, and Gary Kelly announced they would vacate their CEO chairs for successors. In less-visible enterprises, boards and those responsible for a cohesive plan of succession are assessing whether the team currently enjoying the rarefied air of execudom can lead their organizations through the next iteration of what the business will look like—back to the office, hybrid, work-from-home, or text-from-outer space.

Boards can’t allow the relentless pandemic, political pandemonium, and supply chain gridlock to distract them from their responsibility to anticipate and plan for executive turnover and develop the leaders needed to assume broader roles of responsibility. Few companies can absorb the expense or fully mitigate the risk of replacing all the top talent with outsiders. It will likely take a blended strategy of recruiting a few new voices, while strengthening the capabilities of select leaders in the organization.

A competent executive presenting a definitive personal brand can harness these winds of uncertainty and change to create a new opportunity in the coming months. The first of three ideas is here—with two more to follow in our next blog.

Market your expertise, not your experience.

One of the greatest risks facing leaders as they progress in their careers is mistaking experience for expertise. Corporate histories are punctuated with accounts of executives who tried to replicate what they did in a past role in a new setting with unfortunate results.

Experience is personal contact with an event—an acquisition, a new product launch, a global expansion, or a business reinvention. Expertise is relevant knowledge and pertinent skills taken from an event that can be repurposed and applied in a new context. Length of time on a road does not equate to distance traveled and exposure to an event does not ensure anything valuable was learned through the experience. We don’t become effective decision makers because of our experiences. We become wise decision makers when we develop expertise in effective decision making while going through a spectrum of experiences.

Even if expertise is gained through an event, a wise leader is careful to not assume the same approach, strategy, or plan can be directly applied in a new context. After researching the good and bad decisions in scores of recognized companies, Dartmouth professor Sydney Finkelstein made two observations any executive wanting to capture the winds of opportunity will be careful to remember. Finkelstein noted,

“. . . more than half of flawed decisions result from leaders working from memories or experiences similar to the current situation but really aren’t,” and

“. . . We are at most risk of making bad decisions when we have enough experience to believe that we are right.”2

Distinct personal brands communicate capabilities and expertise as measurable value contributions, presented in a way that an executive team or Board of Directors can easily recognize as relevant and bringing needed expertise independent of an industry or business sector. Experience often requires industry context to have relevance. Expertise is relevant and transferable across multiple industries and markets.

A wise executive can use the experience/expertise dynamic to evaluate potential opportunities as well. If the questions asked by a recruiter or board are more about what you did than what you learned, more about what happened than what you took away from what happened, it may be an indication the company is looking for yesterday’s solution for today’s challenge.

1 https://corpgov.law.harvard.edu/2021/01/15/ceo-succession-practices-in-the-russell-3000-and-sp-500/

2 Finkelstein, Sydney. Think Again: Why Good Leader Make Bad Decisions. http://mba.tuck.dartmouth.edu/pages/faculty/syd.finkelstein/thinkagain/


Broken Tools and Misused Words

Category : 2021

Words are like tools. Over time, misuse, neglect, and carelessness can render a tool or a word incapable of accomplishing its original purpose.

  • If you use a screwdriver as a chisel enough times, you’ll need to buy a new screwdriver.
  • Repeatedly tapping in nails with a crescent wrench will get the job done—and trash the wrench.
  • Cut enough of the wrong stuff with a hand saw and its only use will be as a musical instrument in a country band, next to some dude playing rhythm with a clay jug.

Common words that are shop-worn and severely damaged by misuse or outright neglect include leisure, recreation, and downtime. In our hyper-speed business culture, we tend to throw these words into one bucket of meaning, making them synonyms for the same idea, while they hold vastly different meanings—and distinct value for us.

The word leisure debuted around the 14th century meaning time at one’s disposal, freedom from necessary occupations and doing something without haste or deliberation. There is nothing new to see there. Most of us think of leisure as time remaining after priorities are cared for, after work is done, or when we have “free time.”

The deeper meaning of leisure is hidden in its French and Latin origins where the root of the word means to “be allowed.” The original intent of leisure is time we allow for ourselves or give ourselves. Leisure is allocated purposefully, deliberately, even judiciously. Leisure isn’t something we get as a reward for what we’ve done. Leisure is something we give ourselves as an investment toward what we want to achieve. Making time for leisure recognizes there are always competing priorities with voices much louder than our mind or body’s cry for relief. By engaging in leisure, we choose to ignore the Siren’s call for more activity and allow ourselves to pause and engage in other pursuits.

We throw the word recreation around like an old hammer, thinking it is indestructible, so it doesn’t require much attention or maintenance. When we hear recreation originally meant to “create again, renew, regenerate,” we smile affirmingly, telling ourselves that’s what we think recreation means, so no big deal. The disconnect comes when we look at what we do in the name of recreation.

Early use of recreation included recovery from illness, invigorating, and restoring. For many people, efforts to re-create leave them more tired and in worse shape than they started. While sitting in a stadium consuming beer and bad pizza for three hours may be fun—it misses the mark for recreation. Netflix binging provides an enjoyable, perhaps desperately-needed distraction, but it falls far from the goal of recreation. A week of late-night partying at an exclusive resort looks far more re-creative on a website than the lame attempt at restoration it offers in real-time.

Our journey through the jungle of misused words takes on new intensity when we look at the word downtime. A casual dinner with friends, a visit to a museum, reading a good book, or channel-surfing on a Friday night are all ways people say they’re getting some “downtime.” Unfortunately, those activities don’t come close to capturing the intent of this important component of a healthy life.

Downtime has its origins in industry and manufacturing, referring to deliberate, planned periods during which a computer system, machine, or assembly line is taken out of action and unavailable for use. Downtime is costly, so like people, businesses don’t allocate predictive maintenance well and this neglect is estimated to cost companies $50 billion annually. When a piece of technology or equipment is not proactively given downtime, the machine takes it—usually at a very inopportune time and with greater expense to the business.

Our minds are far more complex and sophisticated than any piece of equipment, and they require deliberate, planned periods of inactivity to operate with optimum health and efficiency. Emerging research indicates the human brain has two important systems that operate together—and distinctly different from one another.

The Task Positive Network or TPN is active during attention-demanding activities. This system includes conscious attention toward our external environment, use of our senses, awareness of our internal condition, and the execution of mental and physical action. When we are at work, juggling a myriad of responsibilities, engaged in critical thinking and decision making, and implementing our latest strategic plan, the TPN is in full operation, giving us the cognitive skills we need for these executive functions.

The Default Mode Network or DMN becomes engaged when our focus goes inward rather than on our external world or circumstances. The DMN is linked to our ethical framework, memories, creativity, and how we define our sense of self. The regions of the brain linked to DMN becomes more active when we are alert, but not focused on or processing information—when we meditate, daydream, envision the future, or recall pleasant memories.

Here is where definitions become important. Scrolling through the last wave of posts on Facebook or Instagram is not downtime. Three hours of playing video games is not downtime. Posting a dozen Tic Tok videos is not downtime. These activities all demand attention and while they may be ways to use leisure, they are not downtime.

Genuine downtime is like allocating time to predictive maintenance in a factory. Deliberately choosing to energize memory, creative thinking, and purposeful daydreaming can make a significant contribution to our effectiveness when we again focus the TPN toward cognitively challenging responsibilities. Without adding needless angst, research by the National Institutes of Health is exploring whether common neurologic challenges like Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, and mood disorders may have links to dysfunction or disease in the DMN.

To function at full capacity and capability, our bodies need what leisure and recreation provide. To engage with full mental strength and capability, our minds need another kind of leisure, a purposeful shift from that which demands attention to mental actions that refresh our emotional systems and ensure that when we make critical decisions in life and business, we are acting with the confidence that body and mind are working in full cooperation.


Trivial Pursuits

Category : 2021

It only required the frustration of some lost Scrabble tiles, 45 minutes, and a napkin for high school dropout Chris Haney and his friend Scott Abbott to birth what would become the popular board game Trivial Pursuit. The game debuted in 1981, and five years later, 20 million copies were confirming the “importance” of the mass of minutia tumbling around in human brains. The game is now available in 26 countries and 17 languages.

Trivia is defined as “that which is of little value or importance.” The Latin origin of the word is trivium or crossroads, and the meaning of trivium evolved to define information that is commonplace or found everywhere. Closely related is the concept of minutia, “the small, precise, or trivial details of something.” Whether motivated by curiosity, entertainment, or an innate competitiveness, when we are right about a piece of information, a drop of dopamine is released in our brains, and we like it, giving trivia a subtly addictive power in our minds.

While trivia offers a nice diversion or the foundation for an evening of fun around a table, an executive consumed by data, details, and the unimportant easily loses strategic focus and personal impact quickly diminishes. The quest for differentiation among peers can subtly intoxicate a leader into believing something no one else knows makes a defining difference, and the executive wanders into what British historian G.M. Young called, “ . . . the Waste Land of Experts, each knowing so much about so little that he can neither be contradicted nor is worth contradicting, ” (Victorian England: Portrait of an Age).

It is easy for a talented leader to articulate a vision for an enterprise or a company, while slowly losing the vision for his or her own life. The Greeks referred to this as lacking telos—losing sight of an ultimate objective or aim. Before long, a leader’s mental and emotional systems will look for a way to resolve the cognitive dissonance. If resolution isn’t found, the executive’s ability to see and create energy around a corporate vision is minimized while the leader searches through the fog to find the telos for his or her life.

Some clear indicators reveal when a leader is losing telos—

·        Getting things done becomes more important than doing the right things.

·        What becomes more important than why.

·        Expedience becomes more important than truth.

·        Maintaining an image becomes more important than living authentically.

·        Accomplishments become more important than relationships.

·        Achieving a promotion becomes more important than delivering results.

When telos is lost, boredom quickly fills its place. A previously engaged and effective leader lacking a personal vision pursues mental and emotional stimulation in the trivia, the minutia of a job. Leadership is replaced with control as a micromanager is born, and orchestrating activity quickly becomes more important than driving results. Legendary entrepreneur and business icon Mary Kay Ash noted, “In absence of clearly defined goals we become strangely loyal to performing daily acts of trivia.”

Burned out and bored executives don’t lack for ideas. They may drive a flurry of activity and change in the form of—

·        Marching toward an acquisition long after due diligence says the quest will create value.

·        Pursuing a new product or different market to gratify ego more than to capture an opportunity.

·        Leading a corporate reorganization that creates the chaos the leader needs to feel engaged.

·        Encouraging teams to compete for resources because the relational tension is entertaining.

Our information-rich culture doesn’t help a leader trying to regain a focus on information that is valuable more than what is available. Immediate and ubiquitous access to a computer screen or a mobile device can give a leader an easy, and often addictive shot of trivia-stimulated dopamine. Click rates and reviews define importance. In his characteristic candor and dry wit, veteran broadcaster David Brinkley admitted, “When there is no news, we will give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were.” It is helpful to remember Brinkley worked most of his career when there were three news networks deciding what was important and when you should hear it.

 

Former General Electric chairman Jack Welch had very Welchian way of helping strategic leaders avoid becoming trivia-driven executives, suggesting, “An overburdened, overstretched executive is the best executive, because he or she does not have the time to meddle, to deal in trivia, to bother people.” Thanks, Jack.

What can an executive do to regain a lost vision?

·        Get away from the noise. Effective leaders that produce enduring results know the value of temporarily, and regularly separating themselves from a ceaseless flow of trivia into their lives. They determine what is important by volition, not volume. They welcome, even nurture a new thought in their minds. They believe silence is more than golden—it is essential to survival.

·        Resist the urge. A trivia-addicted mind will convince an executive that he or she cannot survive without a nearly real-time awareness of what is happening, who is saying what, and predictions about what will happen next.

·        Read a book from an earlier century. The vocabularies and sentence structures employed by late 19th or early 20th century writers force a reader to slow down, pause, and think deeply. Writers of that era were informers more than entertainers, so their insights have an enduring relevance designed to last beyond a news cycle.

·        Refuse to allow your calendar to define your value. A full calendar measures activity, it does not define value. Rube Goldberg’s machines illustrated that a flurry of activity can look productive, while leaving you near the same place where you started. Any executive lacking the inner strength to allocate time to reflection and thinking will quickly become consumed by trivial pursuits.

Though she lacked sight after the first 19 months of her life, Helen Keller believed, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight and no vision.”