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!

Being a Great Place to Work takes Work

Image result for mspbj best places to work images

Intertech has been named a Great Place to Work for the 14th time by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal. We also were included in similar lists in the Star Tribune and Minnesota Business magazine earlier this year. These honors mean a lot because they validate my original dream of creating a great place to work where great people do great work for great clients!

Sorry, I know that’s a lot of “greats” but it truly sums up the vision and reality of Intertech today, thanks to hard work by a lot of incredible people. If you’ve read my book, “The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership,” you know about the multiple strategies we use to make sure Intertech remains a great place – for employees and customers.

My book, of course, offers my personal perspective and philosophy on business management. For today’s blog post, I thought it might be interesting to share the verbatim feedback of Intertech employees. These comments are gleaned from employee feedback shared (anonymously) in the survey used by Minnesota Business magazine in determining the winners of this year’s “Best Place” competition. To keep it simple, I’ve organized the feedback into five primary categories. I hope this candid employee feedback helps you as you think about building your own positive work culture.

 

Recognition/Make a Difference

“I can make a big difference in how the company succeeds by my work. I enjoy my role here.”

“There are a lot of opportunities for anyone willing to keep an open mind and seek out the space they would like to conquer.”

“Management listens to my ideas.”

“Many things make me feel appreciated at Intertech, from personal thank you notes from Tom to our ACE program.”

“There are opportunities to learn new things, get experience by working with smart people and make important decisions for clients.”

“We have a yearly meeting to have the employees try to help grow and change the company by figuring out new ideas to try. If you have an idea for something new, they will hear you out and see if it is something that would add value.”

 

Professional Development

“Internal and external training is paid for by the company.”

“I have latitude to try new things.”

 “I have freedom to influence my career.”

 “I am able to continuously learn and challenge myself each day.”

 “This position has allowed me to increase my work skills.

“The training has been good.”

 

Respect/Trust

“They just trust me to get my work done.”

“I am not micromanaged.”

 “I am free to handle my customers and have company support when I need help.”

 

Work-Life Balance/Flexibility

“Intertech is VERY flexible, which allows me to still be in the supportive family role I want to be in at home.”

 “The days and hours are flexible, and the workplace environment is healthy and encouraging.”

 “The flexibility is much more than I could have hoped for.”

 “I routinely receive input supporting the importance of family life. As long as I fulfill my obligations, I am given a great deal of flexibility in work hours, location, time off, etc.”

 

 Great People

 “My colleagues are absolutely top notch!”

 “From peers to management, everyone is truly top notch.”

 “The people are great, not only in professional excellence but in personal goodness.”

 “Fun people and environment.”

 “My co-workers are accountable and I can depend on them.”

 

And my personal favorite anonymous employee comment:

 When asked “What does Intertech do efficiently and well,” an employee wrote:

 “There are too many things to choose from! From … training to consulting, we are all committed to excellence and it shows!”

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.

Good Leaders Mentor

If you’re a leader, you’re also a teacher – whether you realize it or not. A recent Harvard Business Review article, “The Best Leaders are Great Teachers” by Sydney Finkelstein (Jan/Feb 2018) made me think more about this important role leaders share. For many of us, teaching others happens simply by setting examples (good or bad). That’s powerful and important, but taking an intentional approach is worth the time and effort too. In fact, Finkelstein, faculty director for the Center for Leadership at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, argues that taking an intentional approach to teaching within your organization will strengthen your staff and drive superior business performance.

This makes sense but how do you go about it? Organizational leaders are busy people and adding “teaching” to your already groaning “to do” list might sound daunting. But Finkelstein, who has studied world-class leaders for more than a decade, has found that it’s easier than you might suspect. He found that “teaching” can be defined broadly, falling into three main categories:

  1. Pointers on professionalism
  2. Technical knowledge
  3. Broader life lessons

He also found that many looked for opportunities on the fly, in addition to formal scheduled opportunities (such as annual reviews). Many also created teaching moments, often by taking protégés off-site for informal conversations in less stressful situations. I’m a big believer in setting a schedule, like meeting every quarter, to ensure consistency. And when it comes to teaching by example, nothing beats sticking to your scheduled appointments and respecting everyone’s time by starting and stopping as scheduled. I’ve developed a few teaching tips and mentoring techniques of my own over the years:

  1. If you’re an introvert, let the voice in your head come out (they can’t read your mind!).
  2. Recommend other thought leaders that can positively influence thinking. Whether it’s a book, course or other coaches, I always try to provide additional resources to inspire those I’m coaching or advising.
  3. Help other people in their network when possible, such as people who may report up to the person you’re coaching or teaching.
  4. Use your network and frequently ask, “who in my network might be able to help this person with what her or she is trying to achieve?”
  5. Remember that no relationship lasts forever. Know when you’ve imparted most of what you have to offer and be on the lookout for someone else who may be able to teach/inspire your mentee in new ways.

Finkelstein notes that leaders in his extensive study helped to make lessons “stick” by (1) customizing instruction to the needs, personality and development path of each individual, (2) asking pertinent questions to deepen learning, and (3) modeling the behavior they want others to practice.”

Here’s my practical advice to those seeking to maximize the benefits of a mentoring relationship:

  1. Listen and don’t be defensive.
  2. Take notes. It shows you’re taking things seriously.
  3. Follow-up on action items.
  4. Do what you promise or clearly explain why you did not.
  5. Say thank you in a meaningful way. In most cases, your mentor has more than enough money and doesn’t need a gift. Most people, however, are hoping to make an impact. Let your mentor know that he or she did and how that is making a difference in your life or career.
  6. Pay it forward. Look for someone you can teach or mentor and pass along the valuable lessons you’ve learned yourself!