HBR | Learning to Appreciate Disagreement at Work

Recently I was conferring with  a client who said to me, “You don’t really like confrontation, do you?”

Well, no, I don’t. Like many people, I will do a lot to avoid confrontation of any sort.

In my youth I learned that if I couldn’t get what I needed by raw persuasion or simple niceness, I could negotiate or barter. Both of those are good, valuable skills, often in demand. But there are limitations to their effectiveness. Some of the best ideas result from the willingness to begin in a psychically painful place of conflict — those inherently confrontational points where what we know collides with what we don’t want to know.

So I often go out of my way to avoid disagreement, searching for the win-win that means no one has to feel like a loser. But the truth is that if no idea loses, no idea, including the best one, can win.

For our own good, that means we have to face off against our unwillingness to confront. We have to face off against the idea that simple disagreements are a zero-sum game, with a winner and a loser. How do we do that?

To start, we can draw some finer and more-nuanced distinctions. My daughter recently solicited my opinion on something. I gave it to her, and she immediately disagreed. “Why did you ask, if you weren’t going to listen?” I replied, using a favorite phrase of mothers everywhere. “I did listen,” she explained. “I just didn’t agree.” Such distinctions can help disagreement become less disagreeable.

In The Right Fight, Saj-nicole Joni offers a framework for deciding which disagreements can be productive. The criteria are that you’re fighting over something that genuinely matters, that it’s something one of the combatants has the power to change, and that you’re following clear rules of engagement. In these situations, entering the fray simply means that we care enough to risk the discomfort of conflict for the greater good.

Drawing these sorts of distinctions can help us change how think about conflict and recognize that such discomfort — such dissonance — has value. My background is originally in music, as a pianist; in music, dissonance often is the source of beauty. Music critic Anthony Tommasini,writing on the long evolution of Western music, remarked, “If the composer and the listener would just let go of major and minor moorings, we could all revel in the daring and intense beauty of dissonance.”

Tommasini also notes that Brahms’s now-beloved First Symphony was described in 1w883 as “full of irritant and restless discords.” What has changed? Not the music. It’s us. We evolved from rejecting the symphony — which on first hearing was unfamiliar, foreign, and even distasteful — to appreciating it.

We all love our comfortable ideas; we cling to our opinionated moorings as if for survival. But being able to truly hear the contrary ideas of others without complaint or affront facilitates success and enriches life. We may even find ourselves agreeable to things we initially found disagreeable — if we dare to give ourselves and others a chance.

This post originally published at Harvard Business Review

HBR | Building Rapport Across Cultures

For the better part of my career, I’ve worked in the United States and Latin America, where I went first as a missionary, then as an investment banker, and eventually as an equity analyst for Merrill Lynch. Going to and from there for work is now second nature for me. But over the past few months I’ve found myself doing more consulting in other places, including Turkey and Germany, and planning speaking trips in Singapore, Mauritius, and Australia. In these places, I often find myself back at square one, trying to decipher what it takes to successfully work across cultures.

I decided to sit down and think about what had worked so well for me in Latin America, and figure out if I could turn it into a generalizable principle that would help me in other cultures. Here’s my list:

Learn the language.

This is not always possible, but when it is, there is no better way to communicate. Though I was born in Spain, I’m not a native Spanish speaker. But I know enough of the language to have social conversations, and even if the business discussions are most often conducted in English, my understanding of Spanish enhances my understanding of Spanish-speaking cultures. Even a limited understanding of another language helps us decode the culture — not just what is being said, but how other people feel. When we humble ourselves to learn another person’s language, we are acknowledging the value of that person; we signal that we find them worth an investment.

Learning the language can also have a revealing effect on us individually. Spanish, for example, is much more emotive than English, and I find I am much more animated and much bolder when speaking Spanish. It turns out that this kind of multicultural personality is a common phenomenon when communicating in a second (or third, etc.) language.

Genuinely enter the other person’s world.

This is simpler, and more obvious, if the person you are dealing with is your client or someone you have to impress. It’s much harder to remember when you are the client or the person of higher status. Even when carrying a big stick, if you speak softly and remain sensitive to the person you’re dealing with, there’s a foundation for mutual respect.

Another way to enter a foreign world is to read about the culture — use your flight to read up on some local history, or sink into a memoir or even a novel. Though not always entirely accurate, it can nevertheless broaden your worldview.

Avoid jargon and employ body language.

If you’re speaking your native tongue and your counterparts aren’t fluent in it, speak plainly. I’m not saying you should shout slowly at your interlocutor — that’s patronizing. But make clarity your principal objective. And always avoid sarcasm. As long as you’re respectful, most people will be willing to forgive the inevitable faux pas of the foreigner.

Be willing to ramp up your body language to convey that you like the people you’re dealing with and are pleased to be dealing with them. When I first went to Latin America, and understood very little, I began smiling more, as it was the only way I knew to communicate to people that I liked them. Of course, smiling is not the answer throughout the world, so study up on the cultural preferences and sensitivities of the locales in which you will be working.

Find a translator/interpreter.

I recently spoke to a person inside a Fortune 50 company who was dealing with piracy issues in China. The person having the conversation was Turkish and was making absolutely no headway. Finally he got a developer colleague who was Chinese on the phone and the problem was resolved in five minutes.

“Localization” is a whole service industry dedicated to helping businesses adapt (localize) their products or services for individual targeted countries. Dave Hunt, a 40-year veteran of this industry, describes it this way: “Localization involves translation and much more beyond language.” For example, a social enterprise he knew of was offering cooking classes in a developing economy. In one of the early classes, the instructor started to pare a bushel of apples, only to discover that apples were considered a rare luxury — even a single apple was beyond the economic reach of the students. Localization specialists can help organizations avoid such mistakes, making a long-term cross-cultural business relationship more likely to succeed. In some cases legal requirements will make such a facilitator essential.

Share a meal.

Obviously, this is difficult if you’re collaborating with someone with technology rather than face to face, but if you’re in their country, eat their traditional food. At home, share your traditional meal. Breaking bread together produces oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that strengthens feelings of connectedness and facilitates working together. In one set of experiments negotiators who shared a meal walked away with an average of $6.7 million more in deals than those who didn’t eat together.

Relish the diversity.

It’s tempting to believe that always working within our own culture would be easier. Beyond the obvious limitations on our opportunities, it is sometimes more difficult. It can be easy to assume that we’re on the same page when we’re speaking the same language, when in fact we aren’t. This complacency is dangerous. The extra effort exerted to negotiate across differences is more frequently rewarded by breakthrough ideas.

It’s not always easy to work across cultures, but do the hard work of trotting across the globe intellectually, and you’ll find that you feel right at home.

This post originally published at Harvard Business Review



HBR | What It’s Like When a Stay-at-Home Dad Goes Back to Work

Almost a year ago, our family upended itself and moved from Boston, our home of nearly 15 years, to central Virginia so my husband could accept a position at Southern Virginia University, an up-and-coming liberal arts university.

With a PhD in molecular biology from Columbia University, Roger had published a paper in Nature and was pursuing a promising career as an assistant professor at University of Massachusetts Medical School. That was a decade ago.

Our children were eight and four, and I was constantly traveling for business. We decided that our children needed more parental involvement, a scenario faced by many dual-career couples.

And so my husband paused his career to become a stay-at-home dad. In 2012 only about 21% (420,000) of the 2,000,000 stay-at-home fathers in the U.S. were home to care for their children; the rest were home for other reasons. It’s a small club.

Our children benefitted tremendously — and of course I did, too. My husband, frazzled from the solo juggling of work and family during my frequent business trips, was relieved to put family first, a closely held value.

What didn’t benefit was his career.

When we were ready for him to on-ramp, as Sylvia Ann Hewlett calls it, we found that men returning to work face different obstacles. For women, relaunching is tough but increasingly doable — the path may be arduous, but at least it is well trod. A woman’s sabbatical for family reasons can be explained, and such leaves of absence are comprehensible if still disadvantageous. But for men there effectively is no path. Some of our biases about gender roles are stubbornly persistent. People think there must be something wrong with a man who leaves his career to rear his children; they wonder if he’s hiding something, or least think there might be more to the story.

In fact, during that first year, Roger’s colleagues were incredulous. Was he really leaving? Or just looking for a new opportunity? Job offers appeared out of nowhere. He declined them repeatedly.
Seven years later, with our kids in middle school and high school, Roger started to make inquiries, still believing he was marketable. His superb credentials didn’t garner even a nibble, except for the suggestion that he try volunteer work. It was discouraging, depressing. Beyond the perceived oddness of his career hiatus, academia, with its tenure track, is not especially friendly to career interruptions. He nearly gave up, thinking his career was over.

But last year, with our oldest child graduating from high school, he doubled down, tapped into his network, and got a shot at teaching biology, chemistry, and biochemistry at Southern Virginia University. If he’d stayed in the workforce originally, his path would have led him in the direction of research. Now he’s focused on teaching and aiding the entrepreneurial effort to expand this small university. He loves the classroom, where there is potential for both career and personal development. In the academic world, focusing on teaching is seen as a step back — but to my husband his new job is a promising step, with new space to grow and flourish.

Because I’m self-employed now, I can live and work anywhere. That’s a luxury I wouldn’t have enjoyed earlier in my career — when working on Wall Street, for instance, not only because finance requires a foothold in New York or London, but also because in those years there wasn’t sophisticated technology to facilitate working remotely. It is impossible to overstate how these technological developments have expanded the choices available to many working couples. At this stage of my career, the question was never would we move to Virginia to accept my husband’s opportunity; the question was how could we not do so.

The dilemmas faced by dual career couples involve trade-offs — often very difficult ones. It is usually only as we pursue a particular path that we discover what all the challenges will be. They are largely opaque at the start of the journey, and they vary depending on situational specifics. But here are a few of the things we’ve learned from our experience that may be helpful to other couples who consider this option:

First, it’s more difficult to on-ramp in some professions than others. My husband’s field is science, which is always rapidly evolving. And academia, as noted, doesn’t make this easy either. Carol Fishman Cohen, cofounder of iRelaunch, has a lot of experience with on-rampers and emphasized this: “I’ve seen thousands of relaunches, but only four into tenure track positions. Your husband would be the fifth.” In many fields of endeavor we can quickly become dated and left behind. Regardless of your industry, plan your workforce reentry — including how to remain current in your discipline — before you exit, especially if you plan to be out for more than a year.

Second, although Roger’s gender seemed to be an impediment to on-ramping — since stay-at-home dads are still a rarity — we did see some specific advantages from it. A man’s professional network, if cultivated and maintained, seems to provide avenues back into a career that are often more helpful than those enjoyed by women. Our networks tend to tilt toward our own gender, and men are more likely to be in positions of influence in organizations. In contrast, women seem to have less ability to give other women a leg up (research backs this up, and unfortunately the same is true for people of color). Perhaps that won’t be true for you, but it has been true in our experience.

Third, attention has been directed toward the impact of income inequity on the male ego, but the bigger challenge may be adjusting to the loss of a “work” identity. This can be difficult for anyone, but for men the effect may be amplified. It can take an emotional toll that shouldn’t be underestimated. And a stay-at-home dad won’t have the same network of support that stay-at-home moms may be able to develop. I have a huge network of women who are lead parents, but for a variety of reasons that wasn’t a network my husband could plug into.

Fourth, while mothers are often portrayed as doing “the hardest job in the world” or “the most important job there is,” fathers are more likely to be portrayed as incompetent buffoons who can’t figure out how to change a diaper or dress their children properly. Some of this comes from women, some from other dads, and some from the media. But fathers who take primary responsibility for the care of their children make important contributions — they shouldn’t be mocked or emasculated. No one benefits from a dialogue that demeans the work of anyone who chooses to be a career parent.

Fifth, when you do relaunch, talk about it. Says Fishman Cohen, “Part of the problem is there are not enough examples of men returning to work after years away. One of our priorities at iRelaunch is to feature hundreds of return-to-work success stories in our articles and on our website. However, we have trouble getting men to go on record when they successfully return. They keep telling us they would rather everyone forget they ever took a career break in the first place. That shows the stigma is still alive and well. As more men take career breaks for caregiving reasons and then successfully relaunch careers, I expect this will change.”

For every family, there are multiple roles to be filled. As couples — whether they’re dual-career, career/job, career/stay-at-home, off-ramped, on-ramped, or otherwise — we divide and conquer depending on our respective circumstances. I got used to my husband managing an awesome array of details at home. I still don’t really know how to cook. Someday that may need to change. Perhaps the key to success is adaptability — being able to invent and reinvent, shifting priorities as needed within the constant context of satisfying both our personal and familial needs and ambitions.

This article was coauthored with the on-ramped Roger Johnson, an assistant professor of biology at Southern Virginia University.

This post originally published at Harvard Business Review




HBR | Keeping Anxious Thoughts at Bay


Anxiety can feel like a swarm of flies, buzzing inside your head.

You’re stuck in traffic. You’re going to miss your flight, and the game-changing meeting at the other end of it. Your presentation is poorly executed; you’re not going to win the new client. There goes the promotion, and maybe worse. You’re a neglectful parent, an unsupportive spouse. You spend too much time at work, and still it’s not enough. You have an impossible deadline to meet. And, even worse, a company dinner. Is there no way out of that? There’s a haggard image in the mirror. Haggard and fat. You eat wrong, sleep wrong, don’t get enough exercise. And are you saving enough for retirement?

If only thoughts like these could be swatted away like so many pesky insects. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that in any given twelve month period, over 18% of adult Americans will suffer from an anxiety disorder, one of the most common forms of psychological illness. Even for those whose anxiety doesn’t rise to the level of a “disorder,” anxious thoughts can become unwelcome, nearly constant companions.

Of course, anxiety isn’t always bad — sometimes it’s a whetstone, honing the sharper edge we need to perform well and successfully achieve our goals. But disorder sufferers should seek professional assistance, and everyone can benefit from a few simple techniques that help keep anxiety at a manageable, even productive level. When I work with coaching clients, I offer these suggestions as a way to start:

Impose structure. We are uncomfortable — yes, anxious — operating in a void. Too much disorganized space, including mental space, can feel oddly oppressive. So bring some order to the chaos: make a list. Write down what you need to do, and a plan to get it done. Tackle the distasteful tasks first and get them over with – procrastinating will only increase your anxiety. If your problem is not too much to do, but too little (which can be worse, in its way), seek out additional activities to stay busy and avoid brooding.

Reduce or eliminate physical stressors. The same behaviors that are generally good for our health also help ward off or control anxiety. Establish a routine for adequate sleep. Drink plenty of water. Reduce or eliminate caffeine and alcohol consumption, both known anxiety aggravators. Eat well. The Mayo Clinic, among other top health providers, publishes excellent suggestions for dietary practices that can help you keep internal peace. Identify your go-to self-medications:sugar, pizza, chocolate, Diet Coke, and make an effort to avoid them when anxiety hovers on the horizon. Meditation and deep-breathing exercises can also provide relief.

Add exercise to your routine. You may not be a world-class athlete, but exercise is an aid to peak mental performance for everyone, and provides resistance to psychological distress. “Science has also provided some evidence that physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people. Exercise may improve mental health by helping the brain cope better with stress. In one study, researchers found that those who got regular vigorous exercise were 25% less likely to develop depression or an anxiety disorder over the next five years.” Taking a walk, observing the world outside your office, and breathing some fresh air makes a great midday stress reliever.

Pace yourself. It’s okay to slow down sometimes. There is wisdom in the ancient tale of the Tortoise and the Hare, and old clichés like “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” Take a break. Nobody can do everything, so feel liberated to say no to demands on your time or energy that you know you can’t satisfy without undue anxiety. Say yes to activities that help you relax: a meal with people you love, a leisurely shower, listening to music, reading a book. We’re not just working to advance our careers; we’re trying to advance the quality of our lives. Think of this as interval training – like an elite athlete using cycles of work and recovery to get stronger, you can alternate hard work with rest to become more productive and resilient.

And perhaps most importantly, remember that while techniques and structures like these can help us organize for accomplishment, they don’t give us control over outcomes. Coping with anxiety requires that we give up illusions that we can always be in charge. “Trying to control life isn’t natural, and bracing yourself for potential danger creates both psychological and physiological stress, which only depletes us and leads to anxiety,” says clinical psychologist, Dr. Joseph Luciani, author of Self-Coaching: The Powerful Program to Beat Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety of one sort or another will likely be buzzing around our minds most of our days. But a single fly is preferable to a swarm. A few techniques like these can help reduce the buzzing in our heads to white noise.

This post originally published at Harvard Business Review.

HBR | Should You Give Up on Your New Dream?

You’ve recently launched your brainchild — maybe a new business, a new career path, or a new role inside your existing company.

But things aren’t off to a roaring start. Is it just the low end of the S-curve of growth, the flat line before things start to improve? Or is it just…well…a flat line?

No one wants to declare their dream dead unless it is, in fact, dead. But if yours is on life support and you’re channeling valuable resources into a flat-lining cause, you may need to recognize the inevitable. How can you know when it’s too soon to give up? I have evaluated thousands of new ventures and helped hundreds of career-dreamers, and I’d suggest that affirmative answers to the following questions suggest that you’re on the low end of the curve — but that growth is coming.

Does your business (or position in your company) occupy an otherwise unoccupied niche? Do you meet a need that isn’t being met or a need that isn’t recognized yet? Your novel contribution may be brilliant, even if initial interest is listless. You’re in good company: many game-changers have garnered little attention in their nascent stages. The Wright brothers tested their flying machines without an audience for years, encountering skepticism and apathy. The first powered flights weren’t covered by the press, and few outside the immediate neighborhood even believed they’d occurred. The Wrights were visionaries; they persevered until their genius flew up the S-curve and off the charts. A slow start isn’t the whole story.

Are you playing to your strengths? We want to do what we love, but sometimes our passion doesn’t intersect with our strengths. It’s important to identify your true gifts. Honestly assess these abilities relative to the resources your enterprise requires. Are they comparable? Or are you pursuing a passion for which you’re poorly adapted? If you really don’t know, seek out a few honest friends or mentors and ask them to be straight with you.

Based on your answers to the previous questions, have you assumed the right risks? If the competition is fierce, then you’ve embraced a higher probability of failing. If you’ve carved a niche that you occupy from a position of strength, then it’s time to settle in and persevere.

Do you find your work difficult but not debilitating? Do you face the new day with enthusiasm even though it’s daunting? Robust growth may yet be on the way. But the work of Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch, associate professors of psychology, demonstrates that continuing to pursue the wrong goals can increase levels of the inflammatory molecule C-reactive protein, which is linked to health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and early aging in adults. Dreading your work, or suffering adverse physical conditions, is symptomatic of a flat-lining curve.

Are you gaining momentum? Momentum can be quantified. There are many metrics that can be measured: numbers of customers or closed transactions, level of exposure, pipeline prospects, etc. If your metrics show improvement or increasing growth, it’s time to double down. In 2004, Bravo launchedProject Runway, the competitive reality TV show for aspiring designers. The Nielsen ratings showed fewer than 2 in 1,000 people watched the premiere, one-tenth of the Bravo projection. Weeks 2–4 were no better. But instead of giving up on it and reverting to sure-bet programming, Bravo showed the first three episodes again and again. A month later, the ratings had quadrupled. They still weren’t at the initial projection of 20 in 1,000 viewers, but as momentum accelerated, the low end of the S-curve was soon a thing of the past.

Knowing When to Pull the Plug

Any disruptive change results in at least a short-term loss of efficiency. And there are plenty of times when the only thing standing between us and the outcome we desire is patience and perseverance. But other times there’s just no viable prescription for success. Even when we follow the right regimen, nearly two-thirds of new enterprises are doomed. According to data from CEB, 50–70% of new executives fail.

Negative responses to the questions above suggest that it might be time to pull the plug. To the culturally popular “winners never quit” mentality, marketing guru Seth Godin retorts, “Winners quit all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time.”

Believing that additional doses of time and/or money will save the day is tempting — we are all sensitive to the sunk-cost fallacy. But knowing when to pull the plug can be the difference between sinking a rowboat and sinking the Titanic.

Even if your curve has flatlined, experience is a great instructor. Problems are solved by eliminating variables. Failed adventures help us chart a smarter path the next time. The Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand has studied competitive surfers and determined they typically spend 8% of their time riding waves, 54% paddling, and 28% waiting. No one would suggest that the paddling, waiting, and inevitable wipeouts aren’t integral to their ultimate success. The next wave to roll in may well be the S-curve you’ve been waiting for.

Originally published at Harvard Business Review

HBR | I’m a Female Author, So Why Did I Want a Man to Narrate My Audiobook?

I have been very public in my advocacy for women and girls. In 2012, I published a book titled Dare, Dream, Do with the express purpose of inspiring women to dream — to believe that it is our birthright. In 2013, I co-founded Forty Women OVER 40 to Watch in order to spotlight women who are reinventing and disrupting. Then in 2014, I co-founded the Springboard Fund to invest in women-led businesses. I’ve written many pieces for Harvard Business Review designed to help women get ahead at work.

I am woman. Hear me roar.

But something strange happened when my publisher, Bibliomotion, presented me with 11 possible Audible narrators for my second business book, Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work. My knee-jerk response was to choose a man.

Research and experience offer an explanation. Across industries, the default vocal setting is male. Voiceovers for movie trailers are 99% male. Research suggests both men and women tend to trust male voices more — particularly deep, authoritative ones. (James Earl Jones, anyone?) Even when we’re rating female voices, we tend to prefer lower-pitched ones, especially for leadership positions, apparently assuming the owners of such voices will be more trustworthy, more competent, and stronger.

If I wanted people to buy my book – and of course, I did – I had to confront the reality that both men and women are more likely to part with their money when the voice doing the asking is male. My experience raising money for a fund majority-owned by men (Disruptive Innovation Fund) versus one dominated by women (Springboard) bears this out, but there’s also a fair amount of academic research in this area. For instance, a series of experiments conducted by researchers from Harvard, Wharton, and MIT found that male entrepreneurs were more likely to receive funding from investors. In one of the experiments, study subjects watched pitch videos narrated by either a man or a woman. (The content of the videos was identical.) When asked to guess which pitch had gotten funding, 68% of the subjects preferred the male-narrated pitches – regardless of their own gender.

There is an exception, sort of. When it comes to service, both sexes prefer women. That’s one reason robotic voices like those on your GPS or Siri tend to be female. When automakers first installed automated voice prompts in cars decades ago, their consumer research found that people overwhelmingly preferred female voices to male ones. Scientific studies have shown that people generally find women’s voices more pleasing than men’s. One study even found fetuses reacted to the sound of their mother’s voice but had no distinct reaction to their father’s voice. Perhaps that’s because the idea of service aligns with stereotypes about femininity. When it’s a voice attending to our needs, we want it to be female. When it’s a voice persuading us or conveying expertise, we want it to be male.

So who can blame me for automatically going for a male narrator? What if choosing a female narrator cut my audiobook sales by two-thirds? The data suggested that a male voice would sell my book better – and make it sound more authoritative and trustworthy.

But I had to ask myself: Was my decision based purely on logic, or was my own bias talking back to me? Which led to an even harder question: “Do I put more stock in men’s voices and ideas than women’s, even my own?”

You sometimes have to take a step back to grow. Despite my initial gut reaction, I chose a woman narrator. In retrospect, there was no other real choice. If I’m telling my readers to dare, dream, and disrupt the status quo, then I have to put principle before potential profit. I have to confront my own hidden biases head-on: women’s voices must be heard, starting with my own.

Originally published at Harvard Business Review

HBR | What Do You Do Well That Others Don’t?

In 2013, Jayne Juvan became one of the youngest partners ever at the Cleveland-based law firm Roetzel & Andress — thanks to Twitter.

When Juvan started using social media a decade ago, very few lawyers used such tools.  They didn’t see the opportunity.  But after only a few months of blogging, Crain’s Cleveland Business interviewed Juvan on the use of social media for lawyers. She then began to land clients through social media.

Juvan got some political flack from fellow lawyers, but she didn’t back off.  Good thing.  In 2007 and 2008, the economy collapsed.  She sidestepped layoffs, in part because of her social media efforts. In 2013, when she was being considered for promotion to partner, the fact that prominent professionals were following her on Twitter bolstered her case in a major way.

Two years after making partner, at age thirty-four, her billing reports placed her in the small percentage of women with over $500,000 of business a year. Once Juvan had acquired the competency she needed to practice the law, social media became a distinctive strength, propelling her into the partnership ranks at a law firm.

We often emphasize the importance of identifying and playing to our strengths. One of my favorite pieces of advice on this score is Marcus Buckingham’s explanation that “strengths clamor for your attention in the most basic way, and using them makes you feel strong–invigorated, inquisitive, successful.”  What’s notable about Juvan’s strength is that she’s not only good at social media, she’s good at something other lawyers typically aren’t. This is more than a strength — it’s  a distinctive strength.

A distinctive strength is something you do well that others don’t. Consider Horace Dediu, one of the foremost analysts of Apple.

A Romanian-born, US educated analyst, Dediu studied engineering in college, received an MBA but kept a lifelong passion for technology.  After observing the technology market in the 90s as a developer and manager, he came to believe phones would disrupt the PC, and chose to work at Finland’s Nokia. But instead of phone companies disrupting the computer companies, a new set of platforms emerged, changing telecom’s direction. After nearly a decade at Nokia, Dediu used the knowledge he’d gained inside a “disrupted” sector to start analyzing the disruptors. Throw in his willingness to think and iterate out loud, something that highly regulated Wall Street analysts can’t do, and you have a distinctive strength.  Dediu has become a pre-eminent analyst of Apple, known for his spot-on predictions of their financials.

Sometimes you land upon your distinctive strength out of desperation. That’s what happened to Lieutenant Joe “Duck Duck” Geeseman. He had planned on teaching neuroscience at the college level, but when he graduated the job market was abysmal.  So he started looking for unmet needs outside of academia. He applied to Facebook and Google (to possibly work with data algorithms), to Hershey’s and Kraft (to be a food scientist), and to casino game companies (to make algorithms and stimuli that would keep people playing longer).  Because his mother was an army officer, he also applied to the military.

It turns out the military was really interested in his PhD in neuroscience. (The United States Navy has more than thirty active duty aerospace psychologists). Lieutenant Geeseman’s expertise in neuroscience and psychology has served as a distinctive strength as he designs aircraft and pilot interfaces.

Disruptive companies and ideas upend markets by doing something truly different— they see a need, an empty space waiting to be filled, and they dare to create something for which a market may not yet exist.  But ultimately companies don’t disrupt; people do.

So inventory your strengths, yes, but make sure you identify what you do well that others don’t. Just as companies can create new markets by being distinctive, so can you.

This post originally published at Harvard Business Review.


HBR | What to Do When Your Personal Growth Stalls

We’ve all hit a wall at some point. You may run up against a competitor you cannot beat. You might lose your job despite your best efforts. You could be doing everything you can – but still not getting that promotion. But whatever the cause, what feels like a roadblock could be your first step on a new growth journey – as long as that step is backwards.

When you can’t go forward, the only way to keep moving at all is to take a step back. As entrepreneur Barbara Corcoran shared on the TV show Shark Tank when talking about starting Corcoran Real Estate, the tony residential brokerage firm in Manhattan, “By anyone’s standard I was a success. But I knew I was going bankrupt. And you know what I did – I went out and took a full-time job while I worked my business. There is nothing wrong with stepping back before you go forward.” As we see from Corcoran’s experience, sideways or backwards sometimes turns into a slingshot.

We see this all the time in the corporate strategy world – companies that have hit a wall take a step back, reassess, and then move forward. Consider Tractor Supply, founded in 1938 to sell tractor parts to the six million farms in the United States. Growing steadily, the company went public in the 1950s. But by the late 1960s, due to more reliable tractors needing fewer replacement parts and the decline in farms from 6 million to 3 million, Tractor Supply was struggling. Over the next twelve years, Tractor Supply was acquired twice, and had five different presidents. After seeing a significant number of store closings and a revenue decline to $100 million, several key executives participated in a leveraged buyout in the early ’80s.

The new owners plowed into the data and discovered that, while the number of commercial farmers was decreasing, hobby farming was on the rise. This suggested a strategic pivot away from supplying tractor parts, and toward general farm and ranch supplies. Says former CEO Joe Scarlett, “One of our key goals was to become the pet supply store for people who own horses.” Today, Tractor Supply has grown to 1,400 stores, three times more than its next five competitors combined, with revenue north of $5 billion, and is a successful chain of stores for home improvement, agriculture, lawn, and garden care.

Of course, Tractor Supply is not alone – they were doing what so many startups do. According to Tufts’ University professor Amar Bhide, 70% of all successful new businesses end up with a strategy different than the one they originally pursued. The sequence of events for these companies is almost always the same: step back, reassess, and then pivot or jump to a new strategy.

So when you feel like you’ve gotten stuck in your own personal growth journey, take a page from their playbook. Ask yourself: why have I stopped growing? What does the data tell me? And what adjacent areas might let me grow again? Then take a deep breath – and a step back.

When we’ve gotten too close to a wall, it completely fills our line of sight, preventing us from getting an accurate view of our surroundings. It’s like the mobile game Close Up. First you see an extreme close-up of an object, but then the frame slowly pans out, revealing what the object really is. Until the camera pulls back, it is nearly impossible to identify what you’re looking at.

Many people struggle with stepping back because of the psychological ramifications. For some, stepping back is tantamount to admitting they’ve failed. Others may believe they are tougher than the wall and can simply smash their way through. Still others just want to ignore the reality of their situation, continuing to spin their wheels until they run out of gas. How many of us have said to a recruiter, “I can’t take a lower salary” or “Any move has to be a step up”?

This type of rigidity can be disastrous, while flexibility and a willingness to pivot can greatly enhance your chances for success.

Article originally published at Harvard Business Review

HBR | Rejecting Ideas Doesn’t Have to Cause Resentment

When I worked on Wall Street, my husband was doing postgraduate work at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in molecular biology. His research involved growing cells in beautiful pink-colored media. But the cell culture never stayed pink for long. Within three or four days the media would change to a dingy light brown. As the cells used nutrients, they produced byproducts, some of which were inhibitory to growth, and even toxic.

Much of how I view sustaining an innovative business culture comes from observing my husband maintain those cell cultures. Growing and maintaining a culture is an active process, which utilizes resources and generates byproducts. The dirty little secret of innovative cultures is that some byproducts are inhibitory to growth—and any organization that is not prepared to handle these toxins quickly puts itself at risk of contamination and failure.

Most innovative companies have an impressive ability to generate lots of ideas. Attached to each idea is someone’s dream. But not every idea can be pursued, which can make people grow angry, jealous, or bitter. If left unattended, these negative byproducts can become toxic, killing off projects and discouraging others.

Companies can avoid bitterness by making the message clear: no to your idea, yes to you. Consider the experience of Peter Eder-Buys, an IT executive at W.L. Gore & Assoc., a manufacturing company best known for its breathable fabric Gore-Tex. He and several other employees had presented ideas for the restructuring of the controller’s function and the calculation of transfer prices within the company. His idea failed to garner sufficient votes. Upset by his loss, his wound could have festered. But because his colleagues solicited his feedback and worked on getting a consensus, he didn’t become resentful. Eder-Buys told me, “Even though my ideas were not adopted, I was taken seriously and treated equally.” In time, he became one of the project’s biggest proponents.

Even when you do your best to be encouraging, rejection can stick. One small U.S. town government is facing intractable gridlock because one town commissioner’s idea met some resistance. In order to ease the town’s budgetary strain, one commissioner suggested charging residents a minimum fee for using the town’s recycling service. His colleague who had championed the recycling initiative turned vitriolic. He berated those in favor of the recycling fee–and got in the way of their proposals. And the mayor was too burned out to call out his bad behavior.

For organizations dealing with this kind of toxic or vengeful behavior, there are really only two options for preserving your innovative culture: reformation or termination. If you envision that the resentful party can still be a positive contributor, point out the unacceptable behavior while reaffirming your commitment to that individual. If the individual is unable or unwilling to reform, then they have to be removed. No scientist would ever endanger the outcome of an experiment by allowing toxins to build up in their cell culture, nor should any organization, manager, or mayor, tolerate toxic behavior spoiling the positive effects of an innovative culture.

One company that has found a unique way of dealing with toxic behavior is Riot Games, the maker of League of Legends. As Riot enjoyed an influx of new, inexperienced players, established players who considered themselves experts were subjecting newcomers to derogatory and disparaging comments. The negative behavior spread, threatening the company’s goal of creating a fun, collegial gaming environment and affecting the bottom line. Players who were subjected to abusive behavior were 320% more likely to quit. To counteract this trend, Riot started temporarily banning players for inappropriate or abusive behavior. The bans have gone a long ways toward removing the toxic behavior. Moreover, Riot has found that if you tell the players why they are being banned, half of them reform—and if you can show them evidence, that number jumps to 70%.

Giving a “timeout” to employees who are dismissive or actively haze new or more junior people is not always feasible, but calling out bad behavior is. Jeffery Lin, the Lead Game Designer of Social Systems at Riot is quoted as saying, “When a society (managers, employees and clients) is silent, deviant behaviors emerge, and they can become the norm.” Sometimes we turn a blind eye to this behavior because the bullies have standing or we just don’t want to deal with the upheaval and consequences of reprimanding the offender. But the danger of toxic behavior destroying what you have built is real and must be addressed.

My biologist husband found that to keep his cell cultures clean, healthy, and growing, he had to wash away inhibitory byproducts, re-plate the cells into a fresh medium, and at times, actively add antibiotics to remove a virulent contamination. The same applies to the unpleasant byproducts of a growing innovative business culture: management must be vigilant in keeping its cultural petri dish clean.

This article was co-authored with Roger Johnson, who holds a PhD in microbiology from Columbia University, and is a former assistant professor at UMass Medical School.

HBR | Why Today’s Teens Are More Entrepreneurial than Their Parents

My teenage daughter is going to Korea for two weeks this summer. Which meant she needed to earn nearly $3,000. So she decided to become an entrepreneur, and started a baking business that is financing her trip to Korea — one $5 loaf of hot, homemade bread, and $12 fresh-out-of-the-oven pan of cinnamon rolls at a time.

This is different from the work my husband and I did as teens; I worked as a cashier at a Burger Pit in San Jose, Calif., and my husband worked on a pick-your-own berry farm in southern Maryland. But among my daughter’s peers, becoming an entrepreneur appears to be the rule, not the exception.

The abysmal job market for teens is forcing many of them to think differently about work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the teen employment rate from 1950-2000 hovered around 45%, but since then has steadily declined. As of 2011, only 26% of teens were employed. Certainly the reasons for this decline are multifaceted, from a struggling economy, to competition with older workers, to time conflicts, to the fact that many teens just don’t want traditional “teen jobs.”

A quick poll of my peers revealed that about 60% of them had traditional “teen” jobs; flipping burgers, waiting tables, and the catchall “office work” — typing, filing, and reception. But when I asked what their children do to earn money, only 12% of them had jobs that I would describe as traditional teen jobs. A whopping 70% had jobs that are best described as self-employed; ranging from owner/operator of Diva Day Care to selling on eBay to teaching piano lessons. Today’s teens are getting a completely different work experience than I did – and it’s better preparing them to be innovators.

The media is playing an important role in this shift. Shows like “Shark Tank,” featuring young entrepreneurs, and local and national media covering feel good stories about successful teens have changed the way our youth view work. In fact, according to a Gallup poll, 8 out of 10 kids want to be their own boss, and 4 out of 10 want to start their own business.

There’s also a groundswell of support from parents and adults, generally. I saw this with my daughter’s business. Our friends and neighbors could just as easily have bought their bread and cinnamon rolls at the grocery store, but when they saw that my daughter was willing to get up at 5AM on Saturday to make fresh baked bread they were inclined to support her.

In addition to the ho-hum job market, and changing cultural zeitgeist, technology is changing where, when and how early we begin to work. Take, for example, Calum Brannan, a British teen who started PPLParty.com, a social networking site for clubbers, 17-year-old Nick D’Aloisio, an Australian app developer who sold his company Summly, that summarizes the news, to Yahoo for $30 million. Or Adora Svitak, an American writer, speaker and advocate who was introduced to the world at the age of six and whose 2010 TED talk “What Adults Can Learn From Kids” has over 3 million views. For these teens, the expanse of their network is not limited to their physical location. Because of technology, their “lemonade stand” can be on any street corner of any city in the world.

And don’t forget the competitive college admissions market. In order to get into the best colleges, teens must differentiate themselves. This means excelling academically as well as participating in evening and weekend extracurriculars. Not only does this leave little time for the kind of work their parents did after school, those part-time jobs to most admissions committees simply aren’t impressive enough. It is no longer sufficient to be civic-minded by showing up for a town cleanup, you need to organize the cleanup and run it for several years. You can’t tell the college that you love journalism and then only write 2-3 articles for the school paper. You need to write dozens of articles and then publish them in multiple sources. Or better yet, start your own newspaper – online. The need to be different is forcing them to innovate and diversify in ways that previous generations never did.

This unique confluence of circumstances – a tough economy, increasingly competitive college market, expanding networks and shifts in technology – is creating a culture of innovators. Needing to, and having the opportunity to, shape themselves into something quite different than their parents, the rising generation instinctively understands personal disruption. Some people call post-millennials Generation Z, but I think a more appropriate moniker would be Generation (I)nnovation.

The article was co-authored with Roger Johnson, who holds a PhD in microbiology from Columbia University, and is former Assistant Professor at UMass Medical School. He is the lead parent of our bread-baking, headed-to-Korea, daughter.



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