Thursday, February 7, 2019

A Bit of Camelot at Microsoft

Some say Satya Nadella is Microsoft’s knight in shining armor. It turns out the metaphor is not so far-fetched.

While he may not know it, the Microsoft CEO is channeling a bit of King Arthur. And Redmond, Washington shows some hints of Camelot.

Simone Stolzoff profiled Nadella in a recent Quartz article, which was striking in the way it tracked some of the characteristics of King Arthur outlined in my book Camelot, Inc. Arthur, likely a composite figure stitched together over a few centuries, has uncanny resonance in today’s world of business and politics.

In the case of Mr. Nadella, whom I know only through articles and interviews, we see an unassuming ruler/CEO who commands a far-flung empire/company. Here are a few of the Arthurian traits seen in Mr. Nadella:

Humility. Arthur was known to be “of the people” and eschewed many formalities. Nadella famously had a stage lowered so he wasn’t seen looking down on the audience, literally and figuratively. Bluster was out, thoughtfulness was in. Pomp and circumstance gave way to being relatable and approachable.

Accountability. Arthur established a new civil code, which was applied equally even when it put his own family at risk. When Nadella botched an answer and sounded insensitive to the issue of women and pay raises, he admitted it quickly and wrote a message to the company.

Articulating Mission and Vision. Arthur inherited a chaotic kingdom with threats from within and abroad. He created common purpose and common values, uniting the country, brought relative peace, and did what was right and good, not what was convenient or conventional. Numerous challenges faced Microsoft when Nadella took control but his first order of business was to address the company’s mission and culture. He knew being too deeply in love with their 20th century idea of “a computer on every desk” would leave Microsoft behind in the 21st. A new rallying point needed to be created.

Communication. Among its many symbolic aspects, the Round Table was a gathering place. Arthur demanded occasional face-to-face time to rekindle relationships and share ideas because his knights were most often far out in the countryside enforcing the new laws. At Microsoft, employees are invited for “One Week” — an annual meeting to “drum up new ideas, tackle problems, create change and make a difference.”

Learn, Do, Repeat. Well before he knew he was to be King (and knew of his noble birth), young Arthur was tutored by Merlin who told him (in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King), “Learn why the world wags and what wags it.” And when Arthur thought he failed, Merlin reminded him “It was an experiment. Experiments lead to new ones.” Microsoft made a business and cultural leap when it adopted a learning mindset. “We went from a culture of know-it-alls to a culture of learn-it-alls,” said Chris Capossela, Microsoft’s chief marketing officer.

There are many more parallels and, to be sure, we can learn much about what not to do, too, from King Arthur. For now, I’ll be happy that a little bit of Arthur lives on. I only wish there were more leaders to include in the story.

Between posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Four Steps to Save $69 Million


For some industry watchers, it was only a matter of time. Former Fox star Megyn Kelly crashed at NBC. Media analyst Bill Carter said network executives might have been blinded by "glamor glare. That's the effect that sometimes emanates from a glowing-hot-on-air talent. It can lead to temporary loss of vision." It's been reported that Kelly's position in NBC's blindspot may cost up to $69 million.

After CNN posted “Megyn Kelly was never a fit for NBC” in a headline, I began to think about how one should counsel management. How do you cut down the “glare” and improve the ability to peer into blindspots?

It’s clear that one can’t hope and wish for good intentions to pay off. There’s work involved. “We need to use both the gut and analytical approaches to decisions, particularly for high-stakes stuff. And we need to do analysis well,” said Ken Shotts, professor of Political Economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business speaking on matters unrelated to Kelly. Neil Malhotra, another professor of Political Economy at Stanford added, “Very high-functioning people don’t often understand that they use their intellect to rationalize their gut.” 

So, pulling from my mostly successful track record in building teams, here are four filters for evaluating job candidates:

1.   Find a Cultural Fit. Team members need to share values, and a common commitment to the mission and vision of the organization. It does not mean hiring clones. Diversity of background and diversity of thought adds important perspective and helps sharpen ideas.

2.   Ensure Brand Consistency. While every team member is an ambassador, high profile individuals have a larger impact on the organization’s brand. Carter reported that network’s top news executive, Andrew Lack, “seemed seduced by the idea of stretching the appeal of NBC News.” There’s a big difference, of course, between stretching your connection – or modifying the organization’s identity – and breaking it. Obviously, Kelly’s scandalous racial comments crossed an undeniable line.

3.   Understand the Difference Between Aptitude and Intelligence. Kelly is smart – no question. Carter, who said she was “icily appealing on Fox News as a solo act,” was a flop when pushed “to emulate Oprah Winfrey by playing warm and wise.” I’m sure we can all point to capable people who floundered in the wrong environment.

4.   Avoid Groupthink. Groupthink is not just thinking in groups. Dr. Irving L. Janis, as a research psychologist at Yale in 1971, said it’s “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ striving for unanimity overrides their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” Bottom line: Avoid yes-people and allow alternate, even unconventional, views to be aired.

The consequences of overlooking these steps can be devastating. And I don’t only mean the $69 million “oops” in the Kelly case. There could be anything from grousing and low productivity to reputational damage and loss of business.

It’s true that people make or break an organization. Rushing a decision to fill the box is a mistake. It’s essential to take the time to plan, assess, and question when building a cohesive, ethical, high performance team.

Between posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Your Plate That’s Full of Stuff to Do? Break It.



On second thought, don't break it. Trade it in for a different kind of plate - I'll explain.

Plates are flat but we put our projects, with different dimensions, priorities and timelines, onto the same surface. They can mingle together like the turkey gravy, cranberry sauce and mashed sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving. While putting those together on one fork may not be tragic, dropping projects onto the same pile can create confusion, delay and lost opportunities.  

Using the “plate” for our to-dos is a two-dimensional fix for our four-dimensional problems. We need tiers, like those multilevel plates stacked with petits fours, little cookies and tiny tarts that we see on the buffet line. This metaphor only takes us so far, though. We won’t be successful if all we do is group seemingly like projects into different stacks. This is about how to first think about the assignments.

It’s a given that all assignments require us to operate in both the trenches and the wide-open skies. Vision and execution are sometimes difficult to balance but the big picture is not mutually exclusive of paying attention to the details.

With all that as the backdrop, I offer a top-line approach to evaluating what’s on your plate – the 4 R’s of Realigning Workload:

1.     Risk – potential impact of doing, not doing
2.     Range – short, medium, long term issues and influences
3.     Requirements – data, time, money, personnel
4.     Return on investment – financial, reputation, safety/security

Perspective and flexibility are crucial to finding success with this or any other methodology. The values placed on any of these components may depend on where you are in the organization, your responsibilities and their scope, and what you have to lose or gain. In addition, the way we approach various projects will require different combinations of thinking processes along a spectrum from concrete and narrow to critical and analytical to inspired and visionary.

In fast-paced environments, we’re often driven more by deadlines than the importance of the task or issue. Using the 4 R’s, we can make more informed decisions and apply resources more effectively. So let’s not be too put-off by a little process; it’s not a dirty word. Discipline is needed in finding creative solutions to our challenges and opportunities.


Between posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Find the Courage to Ask and Receive



The Surprising Power of Questions, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, is great but not surprising. It’s well accepted that asking questions “spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and performance improvement, it builds rapport and trust among team members. And it can mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards.”

So, if asking questions is so important and productive why aren’t people more inquisitive? Why don’t more leaders create a culture of questions?

The HBR authors share some answers including egocentricity, apathy, overconfidence and not understanding the value of good questions.  But the most important reason, from my internal and external consulting experiences, is fear: Fear of the answer; fear of being wrong; fear of looking foolish; fear of having wasted time and money, fear of having to spend time and money, and fear of losing power.

It’s not only learning to embrace the question that’s important, it’s learning to embrace the answer.

Yes, we need the courage to ask, to have the inquisitiveness to learn more, and to take the initiative to interact with our stakeholders. But we need the courage and ability to put the organizational needs above our own; we need to identify the anxieties and work our way through with an “eye on the prize.” Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Fear has come into play when I’ve been asked to help fix a problem concerning corporate or brand reputation. The expectation is the delivery of a new public relations program, story placements, or an advertising campaign. It’s the “stuff” of communications and marketing that is wanted. Unfortunately, there is often less of an interest in first determining the issues – asking and answering the questions – underpinning the problem. Leaders must not be intimidated by what research might uncover.

Future leaders must also learn to question; it’s an essential element in a mentoring relationship. Good mentors know this, even in legend. When the future King Arthur asked, “Would you mind if I asked you a question?” Merlyn answered, “It is what I am for.”

In the workplace, we need to open to Q&A from those above, below and beside us. But seeking questions and answers is also of personal importance. There’s no way to fix or foster a relationship unless one is open to an exchange, and hearing and acting on the information.

I’ll end it here with some questions: Was this helpful? How do we move this forward? How have you found success in this arena? What other articles, resources on this subject have you found valuable? When have you encouraged others to seek questions and answers? I welcome your answers.


Between posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.