HBR March/April 2019: Educating the next generation of leaders

Harvard Business Review

March/April 2019
Annotated Table of Contents

1. Adi Ignatius, Profit and purpose

Adi Ignatius, the editor in chief of HBR, introduces the dual-purpose playbook article in this issue, which presents strategies for combining profit and purpose successfully.

Idea watch

2. HBR Team, A novel way to boost customer satisfaction

Analysing company email can provide useful insights about the factors that contribute to greater customer satisfaction. Research at Genpact sampled emails at four points over more than two years, a total of 4.5 million messages, and scored them across four dimensions: directness of communication, simplicity of language, speed of response, and consistent points of contact for clients. Teams that were presented with feed-back on the research results and net consistency scores regularly were able to increase desirable behaviours. Overall the net client satisfaction of these teams went up by 17 per cent compared with the control group. A brief interview with the lead of innovation at Genpact discusses the research design and the broader relevance of the results beyond transactional roles.

3. Alison Beard, You shouldn’t volunteer to help your co-workers

Researches led by Russell Johnson, interviewed here, asked managers to make a record of the success of their offers to help their peers, whether solicited or unsolicited, as well as their own feelings after the interaction. Unsolicited help was neither appreciated by the recipient nor fulfilling for the volunteer. On the whole, participants preferred to guard their autonomy to learn from their own mistakes rather than receive unsolicited help. To be effective and impact positively on relationships, offers of help need to be casual and non-committal, allowing for easy take-up or refusal, as appropriate. The dynamics of offering, giving or receiving help may be even more complicated in situations where power is asymmetrical.

4. Jeremy Andrus, Traeger’s CEO, on cleaning up a toxic culture

Andrus presents his experience of acquiring shares and becoming the CEO of Traeger, a maker of wood pellet grills for barbecues. The majority shareholder at the time was actively involved in the day-to-day running of the company contributing to a toxic culture. But even when he was bought out the negative dynamics did not abate. Eventually Andrus relocated the headquarters of the company from Oregon to Utah, the smaller of the two company sites. The move allowed him to let go of many of the old timers who refused to embrace an ethos of easy collaboration and to adapt to upgrades in processes and controls.

Spotlight: Educating the next generation of leaders

5. Mihnea Moldoveanu and Das Narayandas, The future of leadership development

This article draws on the research and direct experience of Moldoveanu and Narayandas at the Rotman School of Management and Harvard Business School respectively to outline the shifting landscape of both provision and demand for executive education. Noting the impact of technological change on both the means of delivery and the nature of work skills required, they suggest that leadership education will be influenced increasingly by the availability of a larger array of providers in the ‘personal learning cloud’. This will lead to greater democratisation and customisation of learning as the emphasis falls increasingly on taking instruction out of the classroom and into the workplace. The development of soft skills, including “communicative, interpretive, affective, and perceptual skills”, which are vital for collaborative work in the new knowledge economy, will become easier to monitor and measure, providing greater transparency for the return on investment in learning.

6. Reid Hoffman, Chris Yeh and Ben Casnocha, Learn from people, not classes

Hoffman, Yeh and Casnocha provide examples to show how asking people within their networks directly for help allowed them to learn and resolve thorny problems.

7. Chief Learning Officers Roundtable, “We are giving ownership of development to individuals”

Sankaranarayanan Padmanabhan, Executive Chairman of Tata, Samantha Hammock, Chief Learning Officer at American Express and Nick van Dam, retired Global Chief Learning Officer at McKinsey & Company, respond to questions from HBR editors Amy Bernstein and Daniel McGinn. The interviewees note the strong role of in-house academies, the variable effectiveness of online training in the acquisition of soft and hard (technical) skills and the need to encourage employees to take initiative and direct their own professional development.


8. Adam Brandenburger, Strategy needs creativity

Brandenburger argues that breakthroughs in articulating new business models or defining truly new business opportunities rarely emerge simply through an analytical effort to understand a particular area, however rigorous or well-structured. To facilitate creative leaps, it is useful to free up the process by trying out a variety of imaginative, yet disciplined operations. These include: contrast or reversing the dominant assumptions in a field; combination of unusual elements; deliberate adoption of constraints, raising the stakes and moving beyond obvious solutions; and exploring how similar problems have been solved in other contexts.

9. Lisa B. Kwan, The collaboration blind spot

Kwan asks why well-meaning collaboration initiatives introduced from above fail to take off as the departments involved sabotage them more or less overtly. She finds that when such lack of progress occurs it is usually because existential concerns, to do with identity, legitimacy and control were not properly acknowledged and safeguarded. As well as defining these terms and identifying tell-tale behaviours, Kwan suggests strategies for minimising resistance and provides detailed discussion through three stylised examples of attempted (and sometimes successful) collaboration at three companies from the energy, insurance, and construction sectors.

10. Safi Bahcall, The innovation equation

When do dynamic, innovative start-ups tip over into bureaucratic, politicised organisations where getting ahead takes precedence over generating breakthrough ideas? Bahcall contends that this change is due not to a shift in culture, but to growth in numbers in tandem to the unchecked evolution of four control parameters: equity fraction (the link between pay and quality of work); fitness ratio (the extent to which project-skill fit is more important than return on politics); management span (average number of direct reports per manager); and salary growth (the step-up in base salary as linked to rank). Paying attention to the influence of these factors can help organisations remain innovative even as they expand. Bahcall suggests a number of rules of thumb to keep in mind: focus on results, not rank; eliminate politics; use soft equity rather than cash; invest in training; ensure a good match between skills and projects; widen management spans as far as possible; appoint a chief innovation officer to monitor these factors.

11. Christian Bason and Robert O. Austin, The right way to lead design thinking

Implementing design thinking to uncover problems and find superior solutions can be a challenging process. Seemingly robust programs and organisations might learn that they have been disappointing their customers for some time. As new ideas are put forward, the work of exploration may engender feelings of frustration: solutions could take time to emerge and the path towards resolution can appear long, ambiguous and uncertain. Moving from proposed solutions to adoption and implementation might also be fraught by uncertainty and awkwardness as all involved learn new roles and ways of doing things. In all of these scenarios, the quality of the leadership provided is key to helping all participants to maintain confidence in their ability to rise to the occasion and work through issues towards a successful outcome.

12. Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, The feedback fallacy

Buckingham and Goodall revisit, and question, the assumptions behind the broad consensus that feedback is both useful and necessary, i.e. the theories of the source of truth, of learning and of excellence. An external, seemingly objective observer notices problematic behaviours, can provide instruction on the best way of doing things and defines excellence for us. In fact, rating people is notoriously unreliable, as definitions of attributes and qualities can be quite idiosyncratic. Instead of gladly taking up instruction, humans tend to go into the ‘fight or flight’ mode when they are assessed critically. And finally what excellence looks like depends a great deal in a particular, complex, even unique context. Across all of these dimensions, however, substituting reflection for feed-back can yield much better results and the article offers practical examples on how reflective comments could help us develop by building on what we already do well.

13. Ryan W. Buell, Operational transparency

Buell draws on his extensive research with banks, websites, manufacturers, restaurants and others to argue that selective operational transparency can have beneficial effects for both employees and customers. Having the opportunity to show what they do and to see who benefits from their work, can help employees sustain their motivation and sense of purpose. For customers, understanding how exactly they are being served can foster trust, loyalty and appreciation. Such disclosures can also generate additional risks, by revealing things people do not want to see, reflecting negatively on the company’s performance, or creating undue anxiety for employees. Thus, Buell is careful to explain in detail the downsides that would also need to be taken into account to design effective operational transparency.

14. Laura Empson, How to lead your fellow rainmakers

Empson reconstructs the broad processes and constraints for effective, collective, leadership in professional services firms. Power is dispersed, distributed among nominally equal partners who value their autonomy and give support on a conditional and contingent basis. As a result, any contender for the position of ‘first among equals’ would have to establish legitimacy by demonstrating ability to earn and deliver stellar client work. They would also have to continually maintain alliances and mobilise the loyalties of their colleagues in support of a shared sense of purpose, while remaining sincere and authentic. Moreover, setting and achieving collective objectives almost always requires continual negotiation to maintain a degree of equilibrium of divergent interests. These tensions and processes are amply illustrated with case studies and discussion of typical scenarios.

15. Julie Battilana, Anne-Claire Pache, Metin Sengul, and Marissa Kimsey, The dual-purpose playbook

Combining successfully the pursuit of financial gain and social purpose requires deliberate work to balance divergent pressures across a number of management processes. These include: setting and monitoring dual goals; structuring the organisation to deliver on both types of goals; hiring and socialising employees to understand and work to reconcile the goals; and promoting a leadership team that continually seeks to find solutions that respect both sets of imperatives. Battilana et al provide practical suggestions and illustrate how dual purpose can be achieved in practice through discussion of examples such as Grameen Veolia Water, Dimagi, Vox Capital, Revolution Foods, Banco Solidario, and Oftalmología Salauno among others.


15. Kieran Setiya, Facing your mid-career crisis

To an extent, experiencing regret is a normal part of life, especially at the mid-point when it becomes clear that some of our early aspirations will never be fulfilled. Such regret is positive proof that we can appreciate different values and forms of experience even if we could not pursue them all to the same extent. Even in cases where we feel that we took a wrong turn, it helps to appreciate that our choices have brought us to our current situation which has its own unique, valuable lessons and forms of fulfilment. To combat the sense of ennui that comes with dealing with a preponderance of mundane and predictable tasks, Setiya suggests that we pursue projects that enliven and restore our sense of wonder and existential involvement and that we focus on process, downplaying the end result of various activities.

16. Thales Teixeira, Case study: Should a direct-to-consumer company start selling on Amazon?

This case study usefully reviews the experience of third parties selling on the Amazon platform. Access to a potentially larger consumer base needs to be balanced against losing control over certain types of commercially sensitive data and the threats to brand identity in a crowded market place.

17. Sarah Cliffe, Race at work

Cliffe reviews three books and two podcasts on race at work, including the recent memoir by Michelle Obama. They all contribute to developing greater awareness of the obstacles and barriers encountered by racial minorities in the USA.

18. Alison Beard, Life’s work: An interview with Cal Ripken Jr.

In his two-decade career as an All-Star shortstop and third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, Ripken played—at times alongside his coach and manager father, Cal Sr., and his second baseman brother, Billy—in a record-setting 2,632 consecutive games, earning him the nickname Iron Man. Since retiring, in 2001, he has run a youth baseball organization and a charitable foundation. He says: the only way to be successful is to work through your issues and control what you can control.