10/7 2013

Making a “Brilliant Mistake” — and Finding Success in Failures

Are mistakes something to be avoided at all costs?  Absolutely not, according to author Paul Schoenmaker…

Schoenmaker, a professor at Wharton’s Mack Center for Technological Innovation, has recently published Brilliant Mistakes:  Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure.   In this book, Schoenmaker points-out that many so-called “colossal” mistakes have actually allowed companies to find new technologies, uncover untapped markets, develop completely new projects — and, in some cases, have even allowed a company to revolutionize itself.

In his book, Schoenmaker illustrates how a long list of inventions — including ATM machines, organic food, and tobacco-free cigarettes — were judged as major failures at the time, but eventually proved to be brilliant conceptualizations.   Schoenmaker states that there are many ideas floating around in corporate America that are being dismissed as foolish — but that are likely to be regarded as similarly brilliant in the future.

Schoenmaker argues that leaders need to focus on creating a corporate culture that allows for productive mistakes to occur.  Indeed, a leader (or a corporate culture) that is punitive about mistakes — or that shortchanges the importance of creating innovative approaches to problems, even if the approach is not successful — will soon find themselves suffering from an innovation gap.

For both managers and leaders, Schoenmaker suggests that there are two different ways of profiting from mistakes:

  • Being open to learning from professional and/or personal errors to identify new ways forward
  • Deliberately making mistakes — or challenging convention wisdom — as a way to speed-up learning in your organization

Leaders can use Brilliant Mistakes to change their views about the merits of making mistakes, and will also see numerous business examples of where mistakes have been used to an advantage by gifted leaders.  Leaders will also get a sense of what types of mistakes “to” make.

Coinciding with the release of his book, the Wharton School has also announced the formation of a “Brilliant Mistakes Contest”, where participants will be encouraged to share a personal or business mistake, describe what was learned from it, and discuss how it opened new opportunities.

04/27 2013

Carlos Ghosn’s Success = Not Speaking Japanese

Carlos Ghosn had to face skeptics — and deal with a shaky alliance between two car companies — when he became CEO of combined operations between Renault and Nissan.   He posted an article in Business Week (December 12, 2011 edition) where he reflected on the factors that allowed him to be successful in this endeavor.

Ghosn left Renault in 1999 and moved to Japan to revive Nissan.  Brazilian-born and a citizen of France, Ghosn had little in common with Nissan’s Japanese leadership team.   In addition, Ghosn claims that every single change that was needed at Nissan went against everything that the Japanese valued about their company.

Given the scope of change that Ghosn felt was needed — and given the long-standing practices that he sought to change all at once — it may well be that his lack of understanding of the Japanese language was a key to his success.  By not understanding the language, Ghosn was immune from hearing exactly what his Japanese counterparts were saying about him.   He actually sees this communication “barrier” as being a key ingredient in his success.

By not being able to understand what was being said about him, Ghosn was more emboldened to make the substantive changes needed at Nissan.   According to his Business Week article, Ghosn points-out that while Nissan wanted results, they did not want change.  Being polite, his Japanese counterparts would not directly disagree with any of his decisions, but would instead find work-arounds (or propose something else) so as to avoid needed changes.

In the end, Ghosn claims that he found the sense of commitment common to the Japanese people to be an important ingredient to his success as leader at Nissan.   Specifically, once Ghosn made clear his personal commitment to Nissan’s success, he found that his Japanese leadership team was much more aligned with his overall direction for the company.

Even when having to pursue objectives that were totally contrary to Japanese culture — such as reducing headcount in a culture that values lifetime employment, or challenging seniority in a culture that respects those older than yourself — Ghosn was able to engender support because others could sense his personal commitment to Nissan’s success.

Finally, Ghosn claims that it was important for him to not completely ignore his earlier responsibilities at Renault as he pursued his work at Nissan.  As CEO of both companies, Ghosn had real responsibilities to both companies — and given the amount of his time required by Nissan, it would have been easy for Renault employees to be jealous or resentful of the time and resources being consumed by their partner company.  Despite this, Ghosn claims to have been “fair and even” in his treatment of both companies, and now that Nissan has experienced a major turn-around in recent years, he is spending most of his time dealing with the Renault brand.

04/13 2013

Do Millenials Shun One-On-One Mentoring?

Are millennials shunning the traditional one-on-one mentoring model in favor of developing a broad series of different types of mentors?   The answer appears to be “yes”, based on a recent article in Blomberg Businessweek.

Writing in the March 18 edition of the magazine, Marina Khidekel writes that for many millennials, being paired with a single mentor to guide their career development is as old-fashioned as a “three martini lunch”.  Embedded in this mindset is the idea that a young professional will serve in a wide variety of roles — in a wide variety of organizations — which necessitates a much more broad-based, mentoring “board of directors” who can serve different roles as needed through the course of one’s career.

In addition, many of the mentoring “relationships” that are developed by millennials are more likely to resemble a Twitter conversation or Facebook post, as opposed to the long-term, “deep” relationships that were the norm in the past.   These relationship tend to be short-termed and informal — and they also tend to end before the relationship becomes a “chore” to either mentor or mentee.

Citing numerous studies, Khidekel points-out that while structured, mandatory mentoring programs are still common in large companies, many firms are experimenting with other forms of mentoring.    Popular options include team mentoring or peer mentoring, where groups of like-minded individuals gather to share advice with each other.  So-called “reverse” mentoring involves pairing older workers with younger employees as away of ensuring that older employees remain up-to-date with emerging issues and new technology.   Finally, “speed mentoring” somewhat resembles speed dating — with mentees working in short bursts with a wide variety of mentors, each of whom can supply targeted career and functional/technical advice.

While it may be premature to declare the traditional model of mentoring “dead”, organizations are encouraged to note that millennials may not see such traditional arrangements as entirely satisfactory.   The article points out that millennials not only place less credence on the experience of their older counterparts, only 2% of millennial respondents in a recent survey indicated that a formal mentor was their greatest source of career guidance or support (spouses/partners and parents actually received much higher ratings).   Many millennials feels as though they can contribute at a high level now — so waiting in lines, or waiting for a promotion via the corporate hierarchy — can seem like a foreign concept to them.

Mentors have their own issues with millennial mentees, as well — ranging from providing feedback on the inappropriateness of texting or using a Smartphone during a conversation, and the importance of adhering to schedules and deadlines.  The most common gripe of mentors?    Waiting for days for millennials to respond to emails…

Organizations are encouraged to consider more formal mentoring arrangements for the early stages of career development (on-boarding new hires in a way to ensure they have broad exposure to the organization, for example), but then are also encouraged to incorporate other mentoring practices to meet the later career needs of millenials.  Such a hybrid approach is likely to do a better job of meeting the needs of both millennials and their mentors.

04/7 2013

60% of Employers Have Trouble Attracting Critical Skill Workers

In a market full of job seekers, the majority of North American employers have trouble attracting critical skill workers, according to the 2011/2012 Towers Watson Talent Management and Rewards Study.   This study included data collected from 316 organizations in a wide variety of industries.

According to the study, this problem is seen as continuing beyond the economic recovery, which will make the retention of specific employee groups a top business priority.

In tough economic times, it is important for employers to identify the critical talent in their organization and ensure that they are rewarded for their contributions in a way that is important to them.    The study identifies critical skill employees as those who possess skills the organization needs most to compete, and those whose contributions contribute most to the organization’s overall success.   While this may seem an obvious area of need, the study found that only 44% of organizations identify such critical skill employees.

Employers continue to react to economic uncertainty by tightening merit budgets while expecting more work hours from their employees.  However, these expectations can affect the work/life balance of critical skill employees, which can lead to lower retention of these employees.

The study identified three key principles that are related to an organization’s ability to retain critical skill employees:

  1. Integration — this involves ensuring that all reward and talent management programs align with each other, as well as with the overall business strategy of the organization.   This involves ensuring that the critical skills needed by the organization are understood and documented, and that systems and methods exist for recognizing and rewarding these skills
  2. Segmentation — this involves crafting different reward and recognition systems for different parts of the organization.  Specifically, by understanding which employees have the most impact on the bottom line and constructing programs to reward and retain these employees, organizations can maximize their return on investment and be successful.
  3. Agility — this refers to the organization’s ability to quickly develop plans and strategies to meet changing business or economic conditions .  Examples might include flexible benefits, comp time, alternative work schedules, or telecommuting.

The study found that organizations following the above principles were over twice as likely to be seen as high-performing companies.  Such organizations are seen as having less trouble attracting and retaining critical skill employees.

An overview of this study was provided in the January 2012 edition of Florida Trend magazine.  A full copy of the research study is available by going to



04/4 2013

Are 2/3 of Your Employees Ready to Leave?

The answer may be “yes”, according to a recent study by Deloitte Consulting titled “Talent Edge 2020”.

The study — discussed in a recent Fast Company blog authored by Diana O’Brien and Alice Kwan — references a longitudinal study being conducted by Deloitte.  Started in 2010, the latest survey results were released in January 2012 — and indicate that over 70% of  leaders have concerns about their company’s ability to retain top talent, with another 2/3 expressing the same concern about the retention of high-potential employees.

And with survey results showing that only about 1/3 of employees at larger firms planning on staying with their firms after the recession ends, these concerns are well-founded.  Already, incumbents with skills that are in high demand are not waiting to change companies — and many of those who are leaving are doing so due to dissatisfaction with their company’s leadership.

The survey also points-out that while over half of the companies surveyed believe that leadership development is a high priority, few believe that their organization’s capabilities will allow them to meet this challenge.  In addition, some companies express concern around investing too much in leadership development — fearing that their investment will be lost should employees leave the organization regardless of the company’s best efforts.

But while turnover will always be a part of business life, companies still stand the best chance of retaining high potential employees if they create a corporate culture that invests in employees and values their ongoing development.  Younger employees, in particular, feel the need to work for organizations where their efforts matter –and where they are recognized for their performance, and given opportunities to further develop.

In conclusion, O’Brien and Kwan point-out that if 2 out of 3 employees are ready to leave their jobs, it underscores that there is a high degree of dissatisfaction across the entire corporate sector.   Taking active steps to ensure that employees feel that their contribution is valued — and that the company is interested in their career development — is one way of decreasing turnover and increasing overall employee satisfaction.