Getting Curious Gets Results

Curiosity might kill the cat, as the old saying goes, but it might just bring your business back to life. This month’s edition of Harvard Business Review focuses its spotlight on “The Business Case for Curiosity.” Harvard business professor Francesca Gino provides many thought-provoking ideas and practical ideas in her cover article. She also helped me realize how pivotal curiosity has been to the growth and success of Intertech, even though we do not expressly call it that.

“When we are curious, we view tough situations more creatively and have less defensive reactions to stress,” she notes. I’ve seen this very dynamic in meetings with senior leaders. We all ask a lot of questions and challenge each other to think deeper. Sometimes the best ideas emerge because one leader was particularly curious about a particular issue and kept pushing back with more questions.

Knowing that we all have a shared investment in the company’s success makes it easier to stay curious and not get defensive. This is an important part of our company culture too, which is why we host an annual Town Hall for employees to talk and share their ideas, concerns and recommendations (more about that below).

But, back to Professor Gino’s idea in brief: “Leaders say they value employees who question or explore things but research shows that they largely suppress curiosity, out of fear that it will increase risk and undermine efficiency. . . Curiosity improves engagement and collaboration. Curious people make better choices, improve their company’s performance, and help their company adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures. . . Leaders should encourage curiosity in themselves and others by making small changes to the design of their organization and the ways they manage their employees.”

She then lays out five ways leaders can bolster curiosity at work:

  1. Hire for curiosity. Google asks applicants: “Have you ever found yourself unable to stop learning something you’ve never encountered before? Why? What kept you persistent?” Finding people who keep learning out of personal interest is a good sign that they’re innately curious. A question I ask in interviews is “What is the last book you read for professional development?” To ensure they’ve read what they say they’ve said, I follow this question with “What is the biggest thing you learned from that book?”
  2. Model inquisitiveness. From our leadership to sales teams, we agree upon and read a book per quarter. Then we share insights we can apply to our firm.  I read The Economist and several other periodicals, two daily papers, multiple economic and business forecasting newsletters, and at any given time, a couple of books.  I also have always believed it’s important to listen more than I speak as a leader. In my book, The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership, I devote chapter 84 to the importance of listening to employees and to asking key questions. Listening to customers also is key, particularly in the early stages of a new project when we are working to understand expectations. Last, I look for ways to double down on learning and turn time commuting or running the kids around into learning with Audible and Blinklist.
  3. Emphasize learning goals. This one really hit home with me. Every Intertech team member has an annual learning goal. In an industry like software, staying ahead of the curve is essential. Notes Professor Gino, “Leaders can help employees adopt a learning mindset by communicating the importance of learning and by rewarding people not only for their performance but for the learning needed to get there.”
  4. Let employees explore and broaden their interests. I’ll admit that in the press of daily business, this can be hard. Employees with proven expertise are extremely valuable. But we know the best employees are most excited about learning new skills and staying ahead of the pack. Every month, we have a company-wide “Second Friday BBQ” lunch (being honest, the BBQ turns into subs or pizza when the snow starts flying in Minnesota). On the Second Friday BBQ, one or more team members deliver a chalk talk on an emerging technology.
  5. Have “Why?” “What If. . .” and “How might we. . .?” days. As I referred to earlier, our annual Town Hall meeting is dedicated to just such questions. Employees take a half-day off from their regular client projects to gather in small groups to explore how we do things and how we can do things differently or better. This feedback is provided to senior managers anonymously so employees feel completely free to speak their minds and ask tough questions. It’s one of the most valuable management tools we have and employees consistently tell us they appreciate the chance to share in this way. In the past, we’ve also used a concept we call “FedEx Day” where employees have 24 hours to work on whatever they choose then present their results to the company.

Staying curious might be difficult when you’ve been running a business for a long time, but resist the trap of thinking you know it all. No matter what your industry, it’s no doubt changing at the speed of light. Curiosity is the only way to keep growing your business and your mind!

How CEOs Manage Time

“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.”

This wise observation is attributed to poet Emily Dickinson, the famous reclusive writer who lived her entire life at her family home in Massachusetts. She did not hold or attend meetings, deal with email, supervise employees or seek to advance an agenda as a company CEO. Yet, Dickinson put her finger firmly on the most important point in business and in life: time is fleeting and it’s the most precious of all our resources in life. Time is, in fact, the “stuff” that life is made of!

This point also is front and center in a new article, “How CEOs Manage Time,” in the July-August issue of Harvard Business Review. The article summarizes a study of CEOs at 27 large companies for 13 weeks by Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria and Harvard Business School Professor Michael E. Porter.

Nohria and Porter note that being a CEO is challenging and that effective time management is key because stakes are high. “The success of CEOs has enormous consequences—good or bad—for employees, customers, communities, wealth creation and the trajectory of economies and even societies. Being a CEO has gotten harder as the size and scope of the job continue to grow, organizational complexity rises, technology advances, competition increases, and CEO accountability intensifies,” they write.

As the CEO of a mid-sized privately-owned company, I face many of the same challenges as CEOs at large, public companies but on a smaller scale and without the pressure of meeting shareholder expectations. Still, this study resonates with me and I’d to share a few article highlights for other CEOs who may not have time to read HBR and to add my two cents of course!

The job of CEO can be all consuming. Many CEOs spend nearly 10 hours each business day, plus close to four hours on both Saturday and Sunday attending to business. CEOs in the Harvard study also reported working 2.4 hours daily while on vacation. Many also travel for work, which means being away from family on many nights and even weekends.

How can CEOs keep their jobs from consuming them and destroying their families? The authors have several suggestions:

  • Make time for personal well-being, including health, fitness and rest. If you’ve read my book, “The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership,” you know I’m firmly committed to personal work/life balance. That’s why I take time to every morning to exercise, meditate, visualize, read/write, and spend time with my kiddos before heading to the office.
  • Make time for family. In The 100, I’ve shared before how the annual fishing trips with my dad before he died are responsible for some of the most precious memories I have of him. Since then, my wife Linda and I have instituted Second Sunday Family Dinners at our place. This includes my mom, our siblings and their kids. Because it’s the same day every month it’s been easier for family members to make it part of their regular schedule.
  • Avoid the lure of e-email. Whatever your email of choice, use the spam features to help manage the avalanche of email overwhelming most CEO inboxes. I also recommend limiting the number of times each day that you check your email. Most critical: only handle a message once versus letting it clog up your inbox or slip from your mind.
  • Be agenda driven. Note the authors, “A clear and effective agenda optimizes the CEO’s limited time; without one, demands from the loudest constituencies will take over, and the most important work won’t get done.”
  • Rely heavily on direct reports. This advice is golden. At Intertech, we use cascading daily huddles to ensure all have a chance to share status and to highlight any stuck items. Huddles “bubble up” and once it’s time for my daily huddle with my direct reports, I’m able to gain a clear understanding of what’s happening with key projects and clients without having to wade into the weeds. We also build regular opportunities into our schedule for all-company meetings. And a variety of informal social gatherings provide a chance for me to talk with all employees, or at least those that would like to chat with me directly.
  • Make meetings shorter and more effective. I devote considerable time to the topic of meeting management in “The 100,” but this advice is a great summary!
  • Allow for accessibility and spontaneity. While it’s tough to be available on a moment’s notice as CEO, leaving a little room in your schedule for spontaneous conversations makes sense. As the authors note, “Spontaneity and accessibility enhance a CEO’s legitimacy. Leaders whose schedules are always booked up or whose EAs see themselves as gatekeepers and say no to too many people risk being viewed as imperious, self-important, or out of touch. EAs play a key role in finding the right balance here.”

I could go on, but you need to manage your time effectively too. If you can find the time, though, please check out my book for more tips such as these. The time you save will be invaluable.

Workplace Freedom Yields Engaged Employees

Freedom is a big deal in America. People fight, and even die, for the right to be free.

But what about at work?

Isn’t work the antithesis of freedom? We’re supposed to show up and do what we’re told. If that sounds like an antiquated idea, you might be surprised to learn that it’s still the modus operandi in a majority of U.S. companies according to Harvard Business School professor Ranjay Gulati in a recent HBR article, “Structure That’s Not Stifling”  (May/June 2018).

Gulati’s thesis: “Most leaders view employee freedom and operational control as antagonists in a tug-of-war that can have only one winner. So they tend to pour their resources into regulating workers’ behavior – often unknowingly putting a damper on commitment, innovation and performance. . . By giving people a clear sense of the organization’s purpose, priorities and principles—that is, a galvanizing framework—leaders can equip them to make autonomous decisions that are in the company’s best interests. Employees should be involved in identifying and articulating those guidelines.”

Rarely do I hit upon a single article that so neatly lines up with my own perspective, but if you’ve read my book “The 100: Building Blocks of Business Leadership” you know how much I value employee freedom. We also have evolved systems – annual employee town hall meetings, open door policies, and regular communication that reinforces our values — to ensure that freedom is governed by a flexible framework in which our people have a large say.

From giving our people freedom to decide when, where and how they get their work done, to ensuring all team members have access to resources to keep growing their skills and moving their careers in the direction they choose, Intertech is all about employee empowerment.  As a leader, this empowerment results in freedom.

But freedom at work also means freedom to think. Professor Gulati defines freedom at work as “trusting employees to think and act independently on behalf of the organization. It may also include allowing them to find fulfillment and express themselves.”

As social media empowers people to express themselves, an expectation for more autonomy at work naturally results. And as a business owner, I would argue that’s a good thing! Employees who know it’s OK – and even encouraged – to make decisions on their own tend to be more engaged, energized and productive. Sadly, I appear to be in the minority according to Gulati’s research.

He references earlier Harvard researchers that advised, “Companies need to shift to a model built on engaging corporate purpose, effective management processes that encourage individual initiative, and a people policy focused on developing employees’ capabilities rather than on monitoring their behavior.”  (“Changing the Role of Top Management: Beyond Systems to People,” HBR, May-June 1995). Gulati shares that 23 years since that original article was published in HBR, a majority of U.S. companies still embrace the old control and command model

Maybe my ability to give more control to employees stems from how I was raised.

Growing up on a farm, my folks believed we should be encouraged to make decisions and to act upon them, even if that meant sometimes making a mistake.

I’ll never forget the day I sheared the axel on our family truck because I was revving the truck while parking brake was engaged. Rather than giving me the devil, my dad just smiled and said, “If you never do anything, you’ll never make a mistake.”

In that moment I learned to stop fearing mistakes and to trust myself to make decisions and to act. I urge you to give your employees a flexible structure that emphasizes what matters in the big picture, then stepping out of their way and letting them reach organizational goals in the ways that make most sense to them.

It’s the only way they – and your organization – will ever get anything done!

30 Free Life and Business Tools

We’ve all been seduced by those that magic word “FREE.” It’s right up there with “life hacks” and “ageless” in its power to reel in even sophisticated consumers. Often, of course, we often find “free” comes with strings attached or the freebee is so lame you’d just as soon wished you’d passed.

I hope you’ll put aside all that valuable consumer experience and consider that I have something free to offer and valuable.  I’m talking about the couple of dozen free resource downloads that come with my book “The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership.”

The free downloads you’ll find associated with my book include templates and checklists. These are free, don’t require sharing your information, and don’t require a book purchase.

These tools are my go-to resources for:

Self Management:

Business Management:

Recruiting

Employee Management:

As you work through the takeaways in my book or the associated free resources, please feel free to reach out to me with any questions.