The Importance of White Space

Category : 2018

How much does your life resemble a webpage designed by an amateur? Competition, short attention spans, distractions, and the fear people won’t stay on a page compel inexperienced web designers to fill every available inch of screen space with content. Parallel factors push executives to fill their lives in a similar way.

Experienced designers know effective design balances images, graphics, or text (positive elements) with white space (negative elements) to ensure the important isn’t crowded out by the insignificant.

 White Space 

Makes it easier to call attention to what is important.
Keeps the unrelated separate.
Engages people more fully.
Creates balance.

White space does for design what white space does in an executive’s life. It creates the room needed to ensure balance, keep the focus on what’s important, and it allows the executive to fully engage with life. Too much white space and we become inefficient and scattered. Too little white space and we follow Henry Kissinger’s playbook when he said, “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.”

The early days of a new year are often marked by commitments, resolutions, and promises to do more, not less. Maybe the key to a more productive 2019 is planning as seriously for what you won’t do as for what will receive your time and energy.

An executive finds desperately needed white space in life the same way a designer creates white space on a page.

Be deliberate.

Designers know white space is created as deliberately as every other element on a page. Good executives engage with a broad spectrum of people and absorb huge amounts of information every day. They are expected to do that, and it takes time-a lot of it. The most effective executives have developed the maturity to no longer evaluate their worth by how many appointments are on a schedule or how many meetings they attend. Their sense of who they are is secure, so they judiciously choose what gets onto the calendar. They naturally create white space by ensuring that purpose determines priorities. They are comfortable saying, “I’m sorry, that time on my calendar is already filled (with white space),” and they offer no explanation or excuse.

Figure out what is primary and keep it that way.

Good designers determine the principal element on a page and they use white space to keep that importance clear. Executives short on white space often haven’t given up trying to prove they can be good at what they aren’t good at. The best leaders have dropped the ruse of omnicompetece and they target their energies toward leveraging strengths, not compensating for gaps.

Use spacing and padding.

Designers know text needs spacing and images need padding-extra room that allows a word or picture to do its work. Knowing a day rarely unfolds as anticipated, a wise executive wanting to maximize his/her impact creates margins of space around important events in a day that allow the leader to mentally shift from one topic (or decision) to another. We gain clarity in decision-making when we aren’t peering through the lingering fog of a previous meeting.

Replace borders with color.

From our first experience with a crayon to learning to drive a car we are told to “stay in the lines.” Many executives advance to senior levels “staying in their lanes” and believing the expertise they developed early in a career will ensure success at higher levels of responsibility. Borrowing from Marshall Goldsmith, “What got you here, won’t get you (or make you successful) there.” Forward-thinking executives recognize that lasting career growth demands no longer operating within the staid border of expertise and leveraging white space to make time to interact with a broad spectrum of people and ideas in the unpredictable color of relational engagement. White space in a life creates white space in the mind where thoughts are challenged, new options are considered, and innovation proliferates.

Jan Tschichold, a pioneer in the world of graphic design was right. “White space is . . . an active element, not a passive background.”


Brand Velocity

Category : 2018

The end of year brings with it two extremes – times of reflection as we enjoy Christmas carols,

mistletoe, lights, and one more glass of eggnog. This season also brings tremendous velocity with end-of-year deadlines, lists of things to do, and invitations from people we don’t know to events we don’t think we can miss.

The final days of a year are also when career trajectories get a more thorough review. This reflection often prompts a desire for change-a new role, a compensation increase, a promotion, a move to a different employer.

Savvy professionals leverage these moments of reflection to assess their brand velocity. The word velocity comes from velox, the Latin word for swift, and implies movement in one direction. The elements of velocity are also the blocks of a solid end-of the-year brand strategy-a destination, a path, speed, and lift

A Destination:

Unfortunately, some professionals approach their careers like “Alice” in Lewis Carroll’s famous story.  Meeting the Cheshire Cat, Alice asks, “Would you please tell me which way I ought to go from here?”  The Cat replies, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” Alice responds that she doesn’t much care where she goes, to which the cat responds, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

With brand clarity an executive doesn’t waste time considering career options that only offer more cash and a bigger title. An executive with a clear picture of how he/she contributes value and impacts results can more readily move past an opportunity that is interesting to one that is engaging.

A Path:

Even a clear destination, needs an intentional path to get there. Over the next several weeks gyms fill with people convinced they need to “get into shape.” By mid-March attendance returns to normal because well-intended excitement about health lacked a plan and the fortitude to sustain the effort, severely limiting the outcome.

Brands emerge as a positive outcome of consistent, intentional, and sustained action built around an executive’s strengths and unique differentiators. You can’t expect to achieve the goal of a desirable first quarter or midyear career shift without designing and implementing a brand strategy–now. Brands and careers develop in tandem as you build your reputation for results, refine your marketing message, and clearly communicate your impact on what matters to CEOs and Boards.

Speed:

“We’re lost, but we’re making good time,” makes for an amusing Yogi Berra quote-and a very poor brand strategy. In a competitive market, tempo is critical, and it is effective when aimed at a clear destination using a defined path. The origin of our word “speed” means to succeed or prosper. No one moves ahead unless they move forward. Speed creates the energy that is required for the last component of velocity.

Lift:

Something flowing over the surface of a body generally exerts an upward force that overcomes the force of gravity and creates lift. Dynamic lift (as in aerodynamic or hydrodynamic) requires movement to occur. A clear destination, a reliable path, and the appropriate amount of speed combine to create the lift required to propel a brand and career to new heights. Any executive looking hard enough will find a plethora of negative reasons for not embracing the risk inherent in any change. Career lift overcomes those resisting forces, allowing a leader to move to brand-expanding options.

A healthy combination of reflection and activity can create the velocity needed to move your career to a new place. Make the most of the holidays by defining and implementing your brand strategy and initiating the actions that will give you reasons to reflect with gratitude at this time next year.


Digital Technology and the Executive’s Brand

Category : 2018

From big data to analytics to artificial intelligence, digital transformation is driving a seismic shift in the corporate landscape. Executives who leverage the potential of cyber technologies will accelerate rapid growth in their companies while creating dynamic career opportunities for themselves. Leaders adopting a “give it time” mentality will see their professional lives take a trajectory similar to that of companies ignoring this new reality.

The majority of digital transformations fail. A poll last year by technology giant Wipro found that one in five executives say digital transformation is a waste of time. An August 2018 issue of CIO magazine cited the lack of CEO sponsorship, resistance to change, and lack of pace as “specific impediments” to an enterprise becoming a digital leader.

Enterprises are not designed for rapid and adaptive change. As companies grow, they must develop systems and processes that ensure consistent delivery of quality goods and services. The need for systematizing business as it is, fuels a tendency for an executive to embrace change to the degree it doesn’t upset his or her current world.

It’s difficult if not impossible to sponsor a dynamic you don’t understand. Korn Ferry reports that across industries, the average age of a C-suite executive is 58 years old. It is safe to assume the average age of board members is higher. While remembering the day their first personal computer appeared on their desks, these leaders now carry in their pockets more computing power than found in their first PCs. Technology is an addition to their lives, not an ever-present conduit for personal agility.

PayPal CEO Dan Schulman says, “The biggest impediment to a company’s future success is its past success. The same could be said of C-suite executives. This group needs to embrace Marshall Goldsmith’s axiom, “What got you here, won’t get you there.” Senior executives cannot settle with trying to incorporate digital transformation “where it fits” in a current skill set or career strategy any more than they can cautiously engage with the digitization of their businesses. C-suite leaders who want a meaningful role and a credible voice five years from now, will find and use the coordinates for digital transformation to plot a path for lasting relevance.

In a recent report, consulting giant KPMG noted, “True digital transformation starts with the customer and works inwards, connecting capabilities to ensure that every part of the organization is built around delivering great customer experiences.” An executive wanting to build a strong personal brand around digital transformation will look at customers both outside and inside the enterprise. He or she will move beyond accommodating digital transformation to leveraging it to improve communication, create greater transparency, and accelerate responsiveness in every direction.

While speaking of businesses, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also speaks to leaders when he says, “In today’s era of volatility, there is no other way but to re-invent. The only sustainable advantage you can have over others is agility . . . nothing else is sustainable, everything else you create, someone else will replicate.”

Branding is about differentiation. Digital transformation across the globe creates an unmatched opportunity for leaders who are willing to create a unique and highly-valued brand for themselves.


Putting People on the Ledge

Category : 2018

The image is so Rockwellian and the setting so unique that many say the photo is faked. Wherever you fall on the authenticity spectrum, the carefully-staged picture of eleven construction workers eating lunch on an I-beam, 850 feet above Manhattan’s 41st street accomplished its purpose. Staged as a publicity event in 1932 during the final phase of constructing Rockefeller Center, a creative photographer found a way to shout to the world that Americans were dreaming, constructing, and most importantly-working.

Eighty years later, many workers from New York to Los Angeles feel like they are sitting on a beam-or at least a ledge, and they want off. We’re still dreaming and working. We’re still creating innovations in stone and code that create opportunity and generate economic growth. But as companies and HR organizations try to put the latest trends in corporate culture, workplace structure, and employee engagement into systems that aren’t ready for change, the result is, to borrow Seth Godin’s idea – a meatball sundae – combining two good things that don’t go together.

After multiple losses of valuable talent, a company found the courage to look at exit interviews and own what they saw. The leaders discovered and admitted, they were a top-down, autocratic organization run by a close-knit leadership team and couldn’t function any other way. Whatever business experts said they ought to be, they knew what they were-and they stopped ladling meatballs on their sundae of success in an effort to be what they weren’t.

As the open office concept gained steam, companies from Amazon to Zale have tried to make working at the office feel like working at Starbucks. For many businesses, an open office space filled with tables and intimate conference spaces is a perfect fit for the work people do. Forcing that design on a business that demands confidentiality and discretion puts people on a ledge of discomfort while they try to reconcile what they do with an environment they’ve been told will help them interact more with one another.

A July 2018 article by Dice cited research that found “face-to-face interactions decreased roughly 70 percent as the office opened up.” People generated 56 percent more email and received 20 percent more email. Workers sent 75 percent more words via messaging apps. Researchers found, “In boundaryless space, electronic interaction replaced F2F interaction.”

Consulting companies offer a plethora of change management initiatives and new ways to navigate the risks associated with major corporate shifts of any kind. Why? Because most change initiatives get initiated but don’t endure. Efforts to get people to act differently (the true measure of corporate culture) are not accompanied by the harder work of helping people think differently. The result is the same thing that happens at your local gym in January. The place is packed with people that were told in December to act differently, but don’t invest the needed time in learning to think differently. By March, reality prevails over intent, and the crowd at the gym gets back to its normal size.

This is not an advocation for stuffy, staid, and sclerosis-like environments. It is an encouragement to avoid creating unnecessary stress by ensuring any change in culture is, to borrow from design thinking-

  • Desirable – There is the necessary human commitment to make it work.
  • Viable – The business has the capacity to make it happen.
  • Feasible – The company has the technical capability (internal resources) to be successful.

Putting people on a ledge makes great photography – but not always a great place to work.


Winning The Corporate Long Game

Category : 2018

What can an executive looking for career longevity learn from companies that found their way through repeated cycles of change, disruption, and competition?

Start by looking at those who lost the game. Only 74 (15%) of the inaugural Standard and Poor’s (S&P) 500 companies remain on the list today. A mere 12 of those companies have outperformed the S&P index. Only 11% (54 companies) of the original Fortune 500 are still contributing to the global economy.

Woolworth’s, Eastern Airlines, Blockbuster, General Foods, Kodak, and maybe soon-to-be-added Sears-were names on the marquee of corporate success for decades. Their failed strategies make them footnotes in business school case studies. In 2018, 126-year-old GE became a S&P used-to-be.

What causes the great to fail? A Credit Suisse study, cited in an August 24, 2017 article in Money concludes, “the disruptive force of technology is killing off older companies earlier and at a much faster rate than decades ago, squeezing employers, investors, and other stakeholders.”

Really?

The survival or demise of a transnational enterprise has more to do with decisions than disruption. The forces of change in our global economy are unavoidable. How executives respond to those dynamics determines the lifespan of a company-and the longevity of the leader. Executives in companies that employ those forces thrive. Those that fail to adapt are quickly forgotten. Netflix, Amazon, Twitter, and Salesforce.com enjoy places of prominence on the S&P today. They, like all of the long-term S&P companies must make prudent, forward-thinking decisions to remain viable contenders.

The difference is determined by decisions. Though slightly dated, a 2010 McKinsey survey of 2,207 executives, found only 28% rated their strategic decisions as “generally good.” Sixty percent saw bad decisions made as frequently as good. McKinsey concluded, “the proclivity of bad decision making is usually intensified by poor decision-making systems in organizations.” Executive development firm Navalent’s 10-year longitudinal study on executive leadership concluded that 61% of executives appointed to senior leadership roles were not ready for the challenges they encountered. Perhaps that helps explain why over 50% of executives fail within the first 18 months in the role.

The decisions an executive makes to ensure his/her longevity closely parallel what companies must do to survive in an unpredictable and unprecedented market.

Recognize and engage disruptive forces. When executives and the companies they lead encounter the unexpected, they do well to take a chapter from the playbook of Jujitsu. “Ju” means to be flexible, pliable, yielding. Jitsu is an art or technique. Combined, they create a method of using an opponent’s force rather than confronting it with an opposing force. This does not mean executives and enterprises accept the “resistance is futile” message of a Star Trek Borg. It does mean leaders who want more than a shooting star career trajectory must give serious attention to assessing and adapting both the impact and nuance of business evolution. We manage change no more than we manage time. All we do with both is manage the choices that determine our outcomes. Industry changing innovation is disruptive. Downsizing, rightsizing, offshoring, and unexpected terminations are realties of the 21st century. Leaders and companies that thrive in disruption do so by engagement not avoidance.

Release what worked in the past. A powerful mantra for any executive wanting longevity is to look at any situation remembering, “This is not that.” When an acquisition opportunity looks like one completed successfully in the past, it isn’t the same and should not be managed as if it is. Quaker Oats’ highly successful acquisition of Gatorade in 1988 prompted their purchase of Snapple in 1993 for $1.7 billion. Multiple unanticipated factors made this one of the worst acquisition stories in history, and Snapple was sold four years later for $300 million. An effort to replicate a past success in a new environment is an inadequate response to today’s market dynamics. The same job title in a different context, demands a fresh approach.

Re-invent. Re-invent. Re-invent. Western Union used to send telegrams-now it sends money. Gaming giant Nintendo started as a playing card company. IT services company Wipro began by manufacturing and selling vegetable oil to Indian housewives. American Express morphed from serving banks, to offering money orders, to creating the first traveler’s checks, to the global financial services and travel company it is today. Executives with successful long game strategies learn how to market their contributions more than their experience. They speak of their capabilities in industry-agnostic terms. Leaders positioned for ensuring success are willing to move out of a comfort zone of familiarity to the unknown of opportunity.

No stranger to opportunity, failure, and innovation, Richard Branson wisely reminds us “Every success story is a tale of constant adaptation, revision, and change.”


Toxic Collaboration

Category : 2018

If you feel like most of your day is invested in email, meetings, and phone calls-you’re right. Those near-constant collaborative engagements consume 85% of the day for most people, according to research by Connected Commons, cited in the July-August Harvard Business Review.

Are those 51 hours of your 60-hour week (or near 80 hours of your 90-hour week) driving results or driving you crazy?

That is a question worth asking. A parallel article in the same HBR issue looks at how CEOs use their time. The research concludes, “It is vital for CEOs to block off meaningful amounts of uninterrupted time alone to give themselves space to think, reflect, and prepare,” (HBR, p. 50). Meaningful reflection and endless collaboration are mutually exclusive options.

Collaboration isn’t on-site baristas, free snacks, office areas that look like Starbucks, ping-pong in the COO’s office, first Friday neck massages in the lobby, or a really great document management system. Collaboration is “the action of working with someone to produce or create something.” While that is the intended goal of hours invested in hard-to-understand conference calls (“Can you hear me now?”) and easily-misinterpreted email (“That’s not what I meant.”), evidence indicates that for some leaders, collaboration is as destructive as it is productive.

The need to be needed, a well-intended desire to be seen as helpful (aka team player), and a lack of self-management are powerful accelerants for the all-consuming fire of collaboration. The factor that separates this all-consuming beast from its more productive cousin is value.

People that maximize these points of connection have learned when and how to recognize they are no longer bringing value and excuse themselves when they aren’t. Being a team player doesn’t require being on the field every minute of every game. One executive was quoted by HBR saying, “I have come to the realization that if people really need me they will find me. I am probably skipping 30% of my meetings now, and work seems to be getting done just fine.”

The leader that wants to engage with a team, while taking back some of that 85%, will eliminate hours in meetings and the emails that follow them by simply requiring that anyone wanting the leader’s time, clarify what value they think the leader brings to the issue, problem, or topic. If that question can’t be answered, the leader will be wise to reconsider his/her participation. When copied on another email chain, a leader would benefit from remembering that everything that arrives in an in-box does not demand a response.

Collaboration is here to stay. Whether it is leveraged productively is the leader’s choice.