Author Archives: Laurie Olberding

CEO Tenure, Turmoil, and Turnover

Category : 2019

If current trends remain, over 430 people will step into new CEO roles in big companies this year. While HBO, Symantec, and Wells Fargo already used some of the 2019 opportunity inventory, there should be an abundance of openings in the second half of the year. Jocoseness (sounds more sophisticated than humor) aside, knowing how to traverse the changing CEO terrain is critical to your future success.

It helps if you know the back-story.  A record 17.5% of CEOs at the world’s 2,500 largest companies (by market cap) left their jobs in 2018. Two-thirds of the turnovers were planned successions. Twenty percent were forced, consistent with past trends. The noticeable change in 2018 was that for the first time, more CEO’s (39 percent) were fired for “ethical lapses” than for poor financial results or board tensions. CEO misbehavior or improper conduct by other employees in these “lapses” included fraud, bribery, sexual indiscretions, insider trading, and inflated resumes. This doesn’t mean today’s CEOs and their teams are less ethical than their predecessors – it does mean it is harder today to get away with misbehavior now than in the past.

While the median tenure for top executives has averaged five years over the past two decades, nearly 20 percent of all CEOs remain for ten or more years. While longevity can positively impact long-term results, transitioning those top execs doesn’t. PWC found that “69 percent of successors who replaced a long serving CEO in the top performance quartile ended up in the bottom two performance quartiles.” Per-Ola Karlsson, partner and leader of PWC’s strategy business noted, “Their successors typically both deliver lower returns to shareholders and are noticeably more likely to be dismissed than the legend they succeeded as well as their peers.”[i]

Whether the company is large or small, whatever created the open chair, here are five ways to make the most of a new CEO opportunity-now or later.

  1. Determine if the board wants change-or wants to talk about change. Especially if you are replacing a founding CEO, get clear consensus from the board about whether they expect you to extend the former CEO’s legacy or create your own. Even when financial performance and market demands press for change, some board members may resist giving you the freedom needed to accomplish what you were hired to do. Taking responsibility without getting the needed authority is a path to disaster.
  2. Identify critical relationships and invest in them. Your external network will help you keep your sanity. Your internal network will determine if you keep your job. While you invest in building relationships with your team, quickly determine who influences those you lead and make fostering those relationships a priority. Knowledge is often stored in unlikely places. Find out who really knows what’s going on in the company and buy that person lots of coffee.
  3. Let go of what you did in a former company-no one cares. People that spend a lot of time talking about the past aren’t considered experienced-they they’re considered “out of touch.” When the resident in the top chair changes, people want to know what you will do – not what you did.
  4. Expect people to be self-protective. Our brains perceive life events as threats or rewards. Most often, major changes are initially viewed as threats and our fight or flee instinct goes to work. During a time of corporate musical chairs people desperately want to know when the music stops there will be a chair for them. Don’t waste time telling people to trust you. Show them they can. Their self-protective mechanism will remain in place until they decide to let it down.
  5. Lead them through digital transformation and AI – or figure out how to get it done. Anyone stepping into a CEO spot needs to be prepared to navigate the rapids of digital transformation and artificial intelligence. A long-tenured CEO may have made self-preservation a priority over technology acceleration, leaving you some catching up to do. If you lack the expertise-get someone who has it to help you lead the way. In digital transformation Master Yoda is right-“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
[i] CEO Success study by PwC’s Strategy&; https://www.strategy-business.com/article/Succeeding-the-long-serving-legend-in-the-corner-office?gko=90171


Shakespeare and Your Career Brand

Category : 2019

The golf brand – Titleist – is derived from the word “titlist”, which means “title holder”.

Romeo was a Montague. The bitter feud between his family and the Capulets made his love for Juliet untenable. His family title made Romeo the enemy, but who he was did not, compelling Juliet to offer the immortal words, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

While your career is four centuries removed from Shakespeare, Juliet’s words capture an important principle of executive brand management. Communicating what you do is far more important than communicating what someone calls what you do. From the mail room to the board room, defining yourself by a role or title puts you in the box of whatever another person thinks that title means.

By function, job titles have a limited scope. They define your responsibilities (sales, finance, human resources). Titles capture the scope of your responsibilities (global, regional, national). A title also quickly places you in a hierarchy of authority (C-level, VP, director).

Unfortunately, even at senior levels, titles have become the playground for well-intended efforts to make someone feel better about a job. Enter the Brand Ambassador, the Innovation Catalyst, and the Chief Experience Officer (offering an alternative way to get a CEO title). When Justin Timberlake invested in Bai Brands, he was anointed their Chief Flavor Officer and the face for a $100M marketing campaign. Job platform Indeed reported a 90% increase in the use of the word Ninja in job titles last year. If you want Guru or Ninja in your title, Indeed says to look for a job in California or Texas. If you want to be a Hero, New Jersey and New York are where to focus your search.

Reputations outshine pedigrees any day. The new generation of British royals are trying to demonstrate that while they got their titles by birth or marriage, they want to build their reputations on how they use their positions to bring value to the nation and its people. An executive building a brand on a title often spends more time posturing than performing. Rank becomes more important than skills. When asked what he/she does, a job title or three-letter acronym is given in response. The executive cares more about how she is perceived than the value she brings. When a title-driven executive loses a job, he often loses his identity and sometimes, the emperor painfully discovers he was wearing no clothes.

There was a time when the path to the C-suite was well-defined – director, VP, Sr VP, and you’re in the club. In progressive companies, the path to a room with a view (if the company still has private offices) is much less distinct. Executives that market expertise and capabilities rather than titles, find greater success transitioning to a key leadership role. These leaders talk about strengths, contributions, and quantified results in transferable terms that are relevant across companies, industries, and markets.

From America to Britain to Poland to Sri Lanka, there are 59 versions of the “Got Talent” franchise running. There are zero “Got a Title” shows. Career longevity, professional growth, and brand differentiation emerge from a concerted effort to expand a portfolio of capabilities and expertise-not grasp for the next rung on the title ladder.


Learning…the Hard Way

Category : 2019

Whoever said experience is the best teacher should have paid more attention to the curriculum. Life often gives the test first and the lesson later. Some lessons from experience should be obvious enough to not require taking the test for yourself. Lessons like . . .

  • You should pay attention during the Segway tour orientation.
  • Whatever comes after, “I dare you,” probably isn’t worth trying.
  • Flammable means it’s flammable.
  • You won’t always remember where you parked at the airport.
  • A private message on social media is never private.

A professional career has a curriculum of its own. Some valuable lessons are learned best by experience. A few principles every professional needs to discover are acquired less painfully by observation than by participation. The list below is a valuable reminder that duplicity knows no limits and even at executive levels these dynamics can be present.

An open door should not be confused with an open mind.

Many companies and their leaders promote an open door policy. Executives symbolically keep their office doors open. Private offices are built with glass walls. Some leaders symbolically move their desks into the middle of the cube farm to demonstrate availability and openness. But in some organizations, employees quickly discover proximity should not be confused with transparency-or even interest. While open door policies promote communication up, down, and across the company, the willingness of leaders to receive the information that is shared, may not keep pace with the policy.

In 2016, Professors at Pepperdine University[1] created an assessment to measure what they called intellectual humility-a key factor in developing open-mindedness. The four traits selected for measurement were-

  • Having respect for other viewpoints.
  • Not being intellectually overconfident.
  • Separating one’s ego from one’s intellect.
  • Willingness to revise one’s own viewpoint.

This list is a good lodestar for a leader wanting to ensure there is an open mind inside the open door.

Feedback that is requested may not be wanted.

Film producer and founder of Paramount Pictures, Sam Goldwyn said, “I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their job.” More than one idealistic leader has learned the hard way that a request for feedback is not always an invitation to offer it. When someone says, “Take a look at this and let me know what you think,” ask what kind of input is wanted before offering a response. Otherwise, you may encounter that uncomfortable moment when you discover the request for feedback is like a Midwesterner inviting you on their porch to visit. The first invitation is being polite. The second invitation means you should sit.

People saying they agree does not mean they agree.

It happens in team meetings and conference rooms dozens of times a day. People say they agree with a decision, but what happens by text and email after people return to their desks is anything but agreement. Group chats and texting are the water cooler of the 21st century.

Psychologists have a name for what looks like agreement but is really something else. The indirect resistance and the avoidance of direct confrontation is called passive aggressive behavior. Procrastination, ignoring emails, withholding information, and avoiding responsibility or accountability are reliable indicators that the “Yes” you heard in the meeting isn’t being matched with action.

Airport control towers and pilots communicate in a way that would benefit teams in corporate environments. Whatever direction the control tower gives, the pilot must repeat it verbatim. There is no confusion. Perhaps simply asking, “What did we all just agree to?” will help expose the tacit agreement that has little connection to what people do after the meeting.

A team player without a viewpoint is a minion.

Those squishy yellow creatures that talk gibberish and bring comedic relief to Despicable Me and Minions should not be confused with their corporate namesake. In a movie, Bob, Kevin, and Stuart are adorable because creator Pierre Coffin created them to be silly and short on proactive thinking. In business, their counterparts are unintentionally damaging.

The most valuable contribution a leader brings to a discussion is a personal viewpoint and a perspective. To hold back in a discussion or to defer when your viewpoint is counter to the dominant opinion robs colleagues and the organization of the contributions and benefit that only you bring. Other people can assess the same information, but none can evaluate data from the vantage point you bring. In many organizations, raising a dissenting voice or pausing to ask what could go wrong, quickly gets you labeled a not being a “team player.” History is full of tragic events that followed someone not holding to a counterpoint when the rest if the crowd ran in another direction.

The voice of reason is not the discourse of a hardened skeptic or professional cynic. There is a difference between the mantra “we tried that before and it will never work” and the desire to identify what could get in the way of success and eliminating it before a plan is executed.

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wisely reminded us, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” Your time on the corporate gridiron will be marked by plenty of fumbles and mistakes. Trying to avoid making any will keep you on the sideline without any chance of scoring a touchdown. But you don’t need to get hit with every tackle to be a good player. Watch others and learn from them without getting the wind knocked out of you.


Humility, Self-Preservation, and the Art of the Humblebrag

Category : 2019

“Nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility,”

(Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

The Oxford English Dictionary contains more than 829,000 words, senses, and compounds. Over 2,000 words were added to this tome in 2018. Business evolution gave us new terms like e-signature, biohacking, force quit, and airplane mode. Shifts in culture produced notables like vape, binge-watch, a new meaning for the word snowflake, and humblebrag.

A humblebrag is making “an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement with the actual intention of drawing attention to something of which one is proud,” (Oxford Dictionary). Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn provide a wide platform for executive humblebragging. Search #humblebrag on Twitter and the results are endless.

  • A well-known comedian wrote, “Being famous and having a fender bender is weird. You want to be upset but the other driver’s (sic) just thrilled & giddy that it’s you.”
  • One Hollywood celebrity shared, “Totally walked down the wrong escalator at the airport from the flash of the cameras. Go me . . . “
  • A former White House Press Secretary bemoaned, “They just announced my flight at LaGuardia is number 15 for takeoff. I miss Air Force One!!”

Popular web articles attempt to help people traverse the humblebrag minefield with –

  • How to Brag at Work (Without Sounding Like a Jerk)
  • How to Humblebrag at Work to Get Ahead
  • The Tricks to Bragging at Work Without Sounding Arrogant

The obvious implication is that regardless of what floor your elevator stops at, when you humblebrag you may not get ahead, you can sound like a jerk, and you may be perceived as arrogant. Life is full of trade-offs . . .

The Shakespearian question to brag or not to brag pops up in an executive interview with the oft-repeated, “Tell me about your biggest weakness.” The candidate is faced with deciding to be genuinely transparent about something he or she doesn’t do well, or choosing to feign humility while engaging in blatant self-promotion with a line like-

  • So much international travel makes it difficult to build relationships with executives at my club.
  • My drive for perfection makes me impatient with underperformers.
  • I’ve been told my intellect makes it hard for people to relate to me.
  • I’ve found I need to be more deliberate when discussing financials with my team-they don’t seem to grasp numbers as quickly as I do.

A famous 19th century orator noted, “I do hate, of all things, that humility which lives in the face.” Valid research concludes when you try wearing humility on your face, you need to leave room for the egg.

Francesca Gina and Michael Norton at Harvard teamed up with Ovul Sezer at the University of North Carolina to conduct a series of studies into humblebragging, presenting their findings in a paper titled Humblebragging: A Distinct-and Ineffective-Self-Presentation Strategy. Their experiments produced a straightforward conclusion-humblebragging doesn’t get you liked or respected because it is overshadowed by insincerity.

“Perceived sincerity is a critical factor in determining the success of self-presentation . . . We suggest that despite its prevalence, humblebragging may be ineffective in making a favorable impression due to the perceived insincerity it generates . . .” (Gina, Norton, & Sezer). The research went a step farther, noting that humblebraggers are not only considered less sincere, they are considered less competent than those who outwardly brag.

Here are four actions that will keep you out of the humblebrag vortex.

  • Own who you are. No executive is omnicompetent and every executive has one or more areas of weakness. Glossing over a valid competence gap with a humblebrag redirect makes the executive look more like Houdini than a leader. People trust-and follow someone they know tells the truth-even when it doesn’t make the leader’s image shine. Don’t worry about what people think of you . . . they rarely do.
  • Promote your contributions-not yourself. A brand is built on results, not rhetoric. There is nothing wrong with owning and talking about how you helped a company (if it isn’t all you talk about). If you bring on board a record of accomplishment-sell it. Just don’t try to disguise your obvious competence in a ruse of feigned humility or cloaked in a humblebrag.
  • Pursue genuine humility. While rarely chosen as a corporate competence, humility is a quality we highly value in those who aren’t aware they have it. Humility isn’t denying one’s abilities or hiding one’s faults. Humility is leveraging your abilities every way possible while staying keenly aware of when you need others to complement your gaps. Ken Blanchard wisely notes that, “People with humility don’t think less of themselves, they just think of themselves less.”
  • Be candid-and discreet. Avoiding humblebragging isn’t an invitation to be a walking tabloid about your life. Transparency expects truthfulness but doesn’t require full disclosure about every detail.

Author Gene Brown is right. “The really tough thing about humility is you can’t brag about it.”


Still Flying … Lessons In Resilience

Category : 2019

Resilience is making a comeback in our corporate vocabulary. From Angela Duckworth’s best-selling Grit to the U.S. Army’s Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Program to companies trying to ensure their own cyber survival, resilience is gaining new ground.

Resilience, perseverance, and tenacity were frequent themes during memorial events remembering Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher. Between tears of appreciation and laughter over Kelleher’s unconventional and often edgy approach to anything he did, celebrating the life of this Texas legend became a testimony to the resilience of the company he founded.

A market disruptor before disruption was cool, Southwest began in 1969, but didn’t take off until 1971. Before they could put a plane in the air, three competing airlines filed suit to end Southwest before it began. Kelleher fought the suit to the U.S. Supreme Court and in December 1970, the high court sided with Southwest. Even with the Wright Amendment clipping their wings for 35 years, perseverance and resilience enabled Southwest to become the largest domestic carrier in the United States. In January 2018, the airline announced a 45th consecutive year of profitability.

What makes a person or a company of people resilient? What does it take to recover quickly from a set-back, to spring back into shape after getting hit, or to bounce back again and again from a series of adverse events or stressful circumstances?

The U.S. Army’s resilience initiative includes three training components-mental toughness, signature strengths, and strong relationships. Psychology Today identifies factors of resilience as a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to regulate emotions, and the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback.

Resilience isn’t being smarter than everyone. A study of West Point cadets that make it through their initial training found no correlation between aptitude and grit. And resilience is more than staying at a task after all your resources are depleted. Studies find resilience is developed, not decreed. It is a set of thoughts, behaviors, and deliberate actions that enable a person to recover, reinvent, and return to a goal.

How do we develop this valuable trait? Resilient people are –

Positive

In a 2015 article in Harvard Business Review, Shawn Anchor reported 10 years of research found, “when the brain can think positively, productivity improves by 31%, sales increase by 37%, and creativity and revenues can triple.” Anchor went on to say, “the greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain.”

Rested

Research from Texas A&M University found the key to resilience is working hard and then stopping, recovering, and trying again. Building resilience requires adequate moments of recovery. A scheduled short break during an intense push, shifting attention to a different subject or task, or carving out time for genuine relaxation on a weekend all contribute to a rested and resilient executive. Resilient executives know that to be fully engaged, the brain needs space to gain new perspectives and regain energy.

Relational

When William Casey was the Army Chief of Staff, he launched the Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program to proactively address the challenges impacting soldiers and their families resulting from multiple deployments. The goal was to provide preventative skills that would enable soldiers and their families to face adversity and bounce back stronger than when they started. While not without critics, the program had found building resilience and enhancing performance needs to equally address the physical, social, emotional, family and spiritual dimensions of a soldier’s life. Soldiers weather combat best when they have a solid network of strong relationships.

Pragmatic

Resilient leaders are self-aware, accept their limitations, and recognize the fallacies in a plan before they invest more time in something that is designed to fail. These leaders reject the learned helplessness that comes from hiding personal uncertainty under the guise of “risk management.” They own failure as an honest and valued instructor and engage in self-corrective action to find a better road to success.

One final caveat. The downside of cultivating resilience is that you must face situations requiring it to develop it. Considered by many to be a political wash-out in his 50’s, twenty years later Winston Churchill led England through some of the most difficult days in its history. The resilience he called for in the British people was the same resilience he developed in his life, discovering in the crucible of difficulty that, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”


NFL Game Balls

Category : 2019

Are Companies Wisest to Buy Results or Potential?
(or, why is a NFL football broken in before play begins)

(Somewhat Related Preamble: have you noticed that NFL game balls are not used right out of the box? The shiny, slick surface has been removed so that the balls perform in the intended fashion and at the highest level.)

At age 32, Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay made history when he was hired as the youngest NFL coach in modern history. He is joined by six other NFL head coaches under the age of 45. Over the past 20 years, the average NFL coaching hire was 48 years old.

So, what was John Elway thinking when he gave 60-year-old Vic Fangio a four-year contract to lead the Denver Broncos? While other NFL franchises are hiring for the future, Elway chose to leverage the past. When announcing his choice, Elway noted, “There are few things that Vic has not seen in 40 years of coaching. He’s been great on the defensive side of the ball . . . with a simple, detailed approach that gets results. With his intelligence and experience, Vic is as good of a football coach as you can find.”

Many companies think the only place to find qualified candidates is at the fountain of youth. At age 32, Mark Zuckerberg heads the list of the youngest Fortune 500 CEOs. Warren Buffett carries the distinction of the oldest Fortune 500 top executive at age 85. That translates to Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway giving the market 96 quarters of earnings as a Fortune 500 and a stock price around $300,000 per share. Zuckerberg can market 16 quarters of earnings and a stock price closer to $150 per share.

Progressive employers are re-thinking their strategy and hiring professionals with broad resumes of contributions and expertise. How does an executive position his/herself for longevity in a competitive market?

Build the brand around miles traveled, not how long you’ve been on the road.

Many executives on the back half of their career journey aren’t considered for a senior role because they attempt to sell their experience, not expertise and value. Companies are hiring for where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, and what you’ve done-not for how long you’ve been traveling. When an executive talks about “experience” to someone young enough to be their child, the leader unconsciously promotes ageism stereotypes.

Maintain your relevance and transferability.

Being the guardian of a legacy system or proprietary process is a liability, not insurance. Some people mistakenly think creating indispensability is a sure way to ensure career longevity. In a market propelled by disruptive innovation and emerging technologies, refusing to reinvent oneself is a sure way to bring a career journey to an abrupt end. Executives at former telecom giants painfully discovered failing to keep up with industry evolutions was a fast way to look like a dinosaur.

Headline your brand, not your title.

Scan LinkedIn and you see many executives use their headline (the most important part of a profile) to list a current title, not a value contribution. Executives that successfully extend their career journeys demonstrate versatility by clearly communicating how they impact cash, growth, profitability, etc. A solid brand positions someone in the market by promoting results and value. A title promotes an expectation that may have little to do with impact.

Show you have the energy to keep up with the team.

The pace of business and the frequency of change are staggering. Even young professionals are, at times, overwhelmed with employer expectations and job demands. An executive wanting to stay in the game demonstrates he/she has the stamina and energy to keep playing when others want to sit out an inning. Trying to hide greying hair with a poor dye-job or talking about how many hours you played golf over the weekend isn’t how a leader communicates youthfulness. Taking care of your health, losing that extra 20 pounds, and maintaining a pace of work that parallels younger colleagues is a better formula for longevity.

John Elway isn’t the only person hiring someone who brings 40 years of success to a role. Branding, positioning, and engaging with all you bring a potential employer attracts the attention of companies that want results, not potential.