Monday, September 26, 2011

The Form and Substance Disconnect at HP

More on the CEO Merry-Go-Round
It was just a couple of weeks ago that I wrote about the ham-handed firing of Carol Bartz at Yahoo! (Another Botched Corporate Transition) and now it's here-we-go-again at HP. In the earlier article, I noted that the ouster of Mark Hurd and the poor preparation of HP's Board of Directors was used as an example in chapter 13 of Camelot, Inc. (Passing the Candle: Succession Planning). It was Leo Apotheker who took over from Mr. Hurd less than a year ago and now it's Meg Whitman taking over from Mr. Apotheker.

What was at the core of Mr. Apotheker's failure? Was it a flawed turnaround strategy? After all, his plan to spin-off the $40 billion PC business (hard won by another former CEO, Carly Fiorina, through the controversial acquisition of Compaq) and the deal to buy Autonomy, a software maker, for a hefty $10.3 billion caused a gigantic gasp of concern on Wall Street and among HP's 320,000 employees. No. Ms. Whitman told The Wall Street Journal that she endorsed the strategy. "I think the strategy is right," said Ms. Whitman.*

Apparently, the substance was there but his ability to articulate and communicate the plan was not. In the WSJ article, it was reported that Mr. Apotheker informed almost no one of his business intentions; enormously important decisions were a complete surprise to key people, including the head of the PC unit, Todd Bradley. In addition, he "appeared unable to explain the moves to investors" and the board felt that he "failed to rally his troops well and staffers believed "he was not clear on the strategy, not articulating clearly what the direction was."" Board Chairman Ray Lane said, "We didn't see an executive team working on the same page or working together."

Intellect and vision are hugely important attributes but Mr. Apotheker came up short in other areas of great consequence: communication and team work. As I point out in chapter 6, How to Be the Best Knight: Marrying Method and Manner, we're a package; one dimensional leadership doesn't cut it. It's essential to understand the array of audiences that have a potential impact on success or failure, and to be able to convey information in a clear and timely fashion.

And, lone wolves have no place in leadership roles. Of course, the CEO must ultimately make a decision; it can, indeed, be a lonely job. But leading means providing a forum for sharing ideas and brainstorming others, building relationships and creating an environment of trust, and communicating in a way that inspires others to believe and to follow.

Maybe part of the problem is the lack of incentive to succeed; the CEO merry-go-round has been quite lucrative -- a reported $13 million of Mr. Apotheker and $10 million for Ms. Bartz, for example. (Dear Yahoo!, I'd be willing to be fired for $5 million.) So, while the boards review their CEO vetting procedures and succession plans, they should also take a hard look at compensation schemes and success measures. Failure can be a two-way street.

* Ben Worthen, Justin Scheck, Joann Lublin, H-P Defends Hasty Whitman Hire, The Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2011

Between blog posts, you can follow me @pauloestreicher.

Friday, September 23, 2011

How Google, IBM and Others Can Help Hold Feet to the Fire

A Proposal to Harness Computing Power to Showcase the Truth During Political Debates
Like so many, I'm profoundly disturbed when facts are ignored or twisted. I bristle especially when it comes to junk science and false health claims. Politics aside, Michele Bachmann's repeated assertion that Merck's HPV vaccine may cause mental retardation goes beyond inaccurate; it directly undermines public health. She ignores the experience of millions (and the lives saved, the disease prevented), clinical evidence, and the findings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. It would be an absolute crime if Ms. Bachmann's fear-mongering statement leads to just one girl eventually getting cervical cancer because her mother decided against vaccination. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts."

Of course, health advocates, and public health and medical professionals blitzed the news media with the actual facts, which were 100 percent contrary to the presidential hopeful's claim. Unfortunately, the damage was already done. For some, the corrections will stick in their brains; for others, however, it will be in one ear and out the other. In Camelot, Inc., I addressed the challenge of undoing false or misleading statements: "It’s difficult to defeat because once in place, misinformation is terribly difficult to retract and, harder still, to erase from one’s memory. In a study of nearly 900 participants, researchers showed that “the repetition of tentative news stories, even if they are subsequently disconfirmed, can assist in the creation of false memories in a substantial proportion of people.”* Once the information is published “its subsequent correction does not alter people’s beliefs unless they are suspicious about the motives underlying the events the news stories are about.” And, “when people ignore corrections, they do so irrespective of how certain they are that the corrections occurred.” The bottom line is that people may continue to rely on misinformation even when a subsequent retraction is made and remembered."

Following last night's Republican debate, Ms. Bachmann denied saying that the vaccine was "potentially dangerous." "I didn't make that claim nor did I make that statement," she countered. And, yet, anyone can read the transcripts or look at YouTube to see and hear for themselves that she said it again and again. Of course, there were plenty of other flagrant violations of the truth by the other candidates. In the debate follow up, and others comment on the veracity of some of their key statements. It's important and worthwhile and... maybe too late to matter. How many listen to the pundits after the main event is over or read the news articles the next day? Just some small fraction of the debate audience, I'll bet.

So, here's a proposal that will hold every candidates' feet to the fire. Let's have all the fact checking completed during the debate. Before everyone shakes hands and calls it a night, a final segment is added: the candidates are confronted with their false or misleading talking points (maybe even a report card on how accurate or truthful they've been) and are asked to address the issues right then and there. During the course of the debate, all of the statements could be crunched through the vast holdings of credible, objective knowledge. Google was a co-sponsor of last night's debate, for crying out loud. And, if IBM's Watson computer can win at Jeopardy!, there's no reason that near-real time fact checking couldn't be a reality. It could be PolitiFact's Truth-O-Meter(TM) on steroids. No opinion sites or blogs would be part of the fact checking database -- only transcripts, proceedings and testimony; almanacs and atlases; laws, regulations and policy statements; credible survey data, and peer-reviewed research reports.

Google/YouTube and Twitter have expanded interest and engagement in the political debates. Here's a way for them and others to ensure that the widening audience gets the facts and not the flimflam.

* Lewandowsky, S., et. al., “Memory for Fact, Fiction, and Misinformation” (2005), Psychological Science, 16(3):190-195.

Between blog posts, you can follow me @pauloestreicher.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Another Botched Corporate Transition

When Will They Ever Learn?
The news this week that Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz was fired took me back to Mark Hurd's departure from HP last year. I used Mr. Hurd and the HP Board as an example in chapter 13,
Passing the Candle: Succession Planning, in my book, Camelot, Inc.: Leadership and Management Insights from King Arthur and the Round Table. While Yahoo! stock rose and HP stock dropped in the immediate aftermath, both actions left a leadership vacuum -- the Boards acted without naming a successor. Indeed, both companies didn't appear to have a succession mechanism nor was a search firm in place. I wrote, "Succession for executives and managers must not be left to chance; evaluation of internal and external talent, along with a predetermined, orderly process for transition, is required to help guarantee the organization's ongoing success."

In the case of Ms. Bartz, though, a number of other book chapters were violated such as chapter 8, Picking Your Battles: Navigating through Your Audience and Environment. It was a less than graceful exit when she sent an e-mail to 14,000 staffers saying, "I am very sad to tell you that I've just been fired over the phone by Yahoo's Chairman of the Board." In an interview with Fortune, she expanded her remarks by saying, "
These people f****ed me over."1 Will that help her to create trust in future relationships? Does that embody professionalism? And, in a blow to chapter 14, Destiny and Legacy: Making Your Personal and Professional Mark, is that how she wants to be remembered?

Of course, the Chairman, Roy Bostock, also trampled on chapter 8 as well as chapter 10, Realism and Idealism: Balancing Vision and Execution. The key take-aways are that one can't allow things to boil over and that important issues - no matter how awkward or uncomfortable - must be handled face-to-face. Ms. Bartz said she called him out on the cowardly handling of the termination by asking, "Why don't you have the balls to tell me yourself?"1

All of this begs the question of whether or not Ms. Bartz was the best choice when she was hired in 2009. In chapter 5, Creating a Round Table: Assembling the Right Team, the importance of vetting and fit - skills, personality, philosophy - are discussed. In an open letter, Yahoo! investor Daniel Loeb noted that Yahoo has cycled through four CEOs in four years. He said, "This board's failures have destroyed value for all Yahoo stakeholders." Ms. Bartz was brought in to turn around a struggling Yahoo! but mostly divested or shut down struggling units and shed employees. She "failed in that she could not build new growth engines for the company."2 And was her "take no prisoners" approach appropriate for Yahoo? As an outsider, I don't know but reports of poor relationships with Asian partners and a "proclivity for verbal gaffes" indicate that trouble probably started early on.3

So, Yahoo looks amateurish and ill-prepared, calls for ousting some Board members have begun, Ms. Bartz will probably continue to embarrass Yahoo! and herself for a while, and no one learned any management or communication lessons. Hint: I'm available for some consulting and I'll bring copies of my book.

1. Patricia Sellers, Fortune, Sep. 8, 2011
2. Maxwell Wessel, HBR Blog Network, Sep. 7, 2011
3. Kara Swisher, All Things Digital, Sep. 6, 2011

Between blog posts, you can follow me @pauloestreicher.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Trickle-Down of Distrust

How We Elect Leaders Is Pulling America Apart
Cause and effect are often difficult to prove. This is especially true when there are a lot of "moving parts." When it comes to all of the unrest in the world, we have to examine and weigh the contributions of economics, religion, culture, ego, etc. In health care, the complexities and differences in our genetics and in the way research is conducted leads frequently to conflicting reports on nutrition, drugs, supplements, diagnostic tests, etc.

There are also a lot of moving parts in the political arena and here, too, cause and effect are hard to prove. For example, take a look at the gridlock in Washington, and the expanding and deepening incivility in the capitol and across the nation. Is it worse today than in the past? In fact, there has been plenty of political hate over the centuries. We've seen greed, lies, propaganda, impeachment and attempted impeachment, duels, assassinations and attempted assassinations.

And, yet, this all feels different and not in a good way. Never before has there been such a low level of trust in Government and never before have our leaders trusted each other less. There are many factors, of course, that have conspired to whip-up this historic, stomach-turning divisiveness and cynicism. As I said, it's tough to put one's finger on a single cause and effect but here's one hypothesis: Our endless election cycle is destroying America -- our progress, our ethics, and our empathy and cohesion as a people.

Campaigns used to be episodic -- there was a campaign "season." After a few months of electioneering, the bulk of the name-calling and character assassination would be over; politicians would get back to business. There was plenty of time between election cycles for people to make-up, form relationships, and build some mutual respect and trust. Not today.

With drawn-out primaries, the influence of PACs and SuperPACs, the blurring of reporting and opinion and 24/7 media coverage, presidential contenders (not to mention House members) never stop campaigning. And, they never stop bashing their opposition. It's become more strident, more shocking, in the same way we crave more and more stimulation and outrageous behavior in reality TV shows, radio programs and computer games. The baseline of acceptability, what we're calling normal, has been shifting for some time. In my view, however, the line has been crossed.

Conventional wisdom tells us that politicians are thick-skinned; it's "just politics," no one takes it personally. Wrong. The rhetoric has become more personal and it is, indeed, being taken personally. We can see all the grudges that have formed, with little hope of repair. But the real victims of the constant criticisms are us -- the American people. We're told day in and day out by just about everyone who's out of power that the Government is incompetent. We can't trust the Government to lead. We're told by a great number of companies in highly regulated industries that we can't trust the Government to guide economic development. We're driven to take sides. We're told it's all or nothing.

Sadly, with all the repetition, we're buying-in to the message. Our trust in government has eroded to its lowest point since scientific political polling began. The self-fulfilling prophecy is for real.

Should we have blind faith in government institutions? Of course not! But the side effects of all the political positioning and posturing is that we've become meaner, less tolerant and more uncompromising. With heals dug-in, few are optimistic that our leaders will deliver any meaningful solutions to our enormous challenges. While our Founding Fathers would marvel at our technological advances, they'd be horrified to see the increasing dysfunction and distrust. Their words are quoted often but heeded rarely. The "big picture" is lost while politicians ride the endless merry-go-round of raising and spending campaign cash and undermining the very institution they claim to cherish.

Between blog posts, you can follow me @pauloestreicher.