Leadership Is Not a Solitary Task

July 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

An inspiring historical story is once again making the rounds at least partially because of its inclusion in Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath. In it, Gladwell tells the story of the French town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, which became a safe haven for Jews in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. Led by minister André Trocmé, the residents of Le Chambon-sur-Lignonsaved between 3,000 and 3,500 Jews (in addition to others seeking refuge) from 1940 until the end of the war, bringing them into the community and hiding them from French and Nazi officials. By any measure, their actions were courageous and inspiring. They were also an example of the power of community in leadership.

We often think of leadership as a solitary task. Buying into Thomas Carlyle’s “great man” theory of history, we speak of leadership in solitary and personal terms. And certainly, history is filled with examples of men and women like Trocmé, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Theresa who took bold individual action. But most real change — even the change driven by those aforementioned leaders — is community-driven and community-focused. Some of the greatest accomplishments in business, politics, and culture have come not from individual initiative alone but from those working inwith, and for community.

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After Graduating, Keep Community First

July 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

Community is the heart of university. Students mix with other similarly aged people in an environment ripe with social activity, friendship, ideation, and discussion. It’s the most powerful element of college or graduate school — and also the most jarring to leave behind.

Social isolation often follows graduation. I know firsthand. After college, I moved to Washington, D.C., and ended up living in the suburbs near work for a year, struggling to connect with others in a new city where few friends lived nearby. And after graduate school, I moved to Atlanta, but had to commute for one year back and forth to Boston where my wife was finishing grad school — a schedule that made it nearly impossible to get involved with friends or organizations in the city I called home. During those times, I found myself unfulfilled, lonely, and restless — struggling to rediscover the community and connection I’d taken for granted the year before.

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Six Components of a Great Corporate Culture

July 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

The benefits of a strong corporate culture are both intuitive and supported by social science.According to James L. Heskett, culture “can account for 20-30% of the differential in corporate performance when compared with ‘culturally unremarkable’ competitors.” And HBR writers have offered advice on navigating different geographic culturesselecting jobs based on culturechanging cultures, and offering feedback across cultures, among other topics.

But what makes a culture? Each culture is unique and myriad factors go into creating one, but I’ve observed at least six common components of great cultures. Isolating those elements can be the first step to building a differentiated culture and a lasting organization.

1. Vision: A great culture starts with a vision or mission statement. These simple turns of phrase guide a company’s values and provide it with purpose. That purpose, in turn, orients every decision employees make. When they are deeply authentic and prominently displayed, good vision statements can even help orient customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders. Nonprofits often excel at having compelling, simple vision statements. The Alzheimer’s Association, for example, is dedicated to “a world without Alzheimer’s.” And Oxfam envisions “a just world without poverty.” A vision statement is a simple but foundational element of culture.

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Old-School Business Practices Worth Bringing Back

July 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

In general, the business community is obsessed with what Michael Lewis once termed the “new, new thing.” It’s that faith in a kind of kaizen-in-all-things that has led to innumerable technological, organizational, and social advances in the corporate world. It’s why factories are now safer, hybrid cars are cheaper, board rooms are growing gradually more diverse, and instant communication via email and other technologies is becoming the norm. Progress is good, and the business community has made real advances over the last 50-60 years.

But are there elements of mid-twentieth-century business culture that may be worth preserving? Reading responses to my recent posts on the benefits of reading and of writing personal notes, I was struck by how many commenters waxed nostalgic for these (as many called them) “old school”practices. There was a sense that while progress has been made, certain practices of mid-twentieth-century business culture merit a second look in the modern workplace. That got me thinking — beyond reading books and handwriting notes, what other “old school” office habits might be worth resurrecting? At least five suggestions came to mind:

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Handwritten Notes Are a Rare Commodity. They’re Also More Important Than Ever.

July 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

When I was a college student interning in Washington, D.C., a senior manager, Bridgett, made a habit of treating each intern to lunch over the summer. When my turn rolled around, it was no surprise that Bridgett proved an adept conversationalist and an excellent host. Several weeks after I’d returned to college, however, I was surprised to find an envelope from Bridgett in my mailbox. It contained a handwritten note and a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, a book she’d recommended over lunch. I barely knew Bridgett, but her note said that I’d helped her organization and that she appreciated it and wished me luck. It was a gesture that stayed with me and forever led me to view Bridgett as a thoughtful person. Personal handwritten notes grow rarer by the day. According to the U.S. Postal Service’s annual survey, the average home only received a personal letter once every seven weeks in 2010, down from once every two weeks in 1987. And The Wall Street Journal recently lamented the “lost art of the handwritten note.” Some might claim that in a wired world — where emails, tweets, and text messages are more accessible than handwritten notes — this is the natural evolution of communication. Who has time for stamps, stationery, and “manual” spell-check, after all? But I think it’s premature to write off the importance of handwritten notes. They remain impactful and unique in several ways.

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The Upside of Downtime

January 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

With Jackie Coleman

One of Jackie’s first jobs after graduate school necessitated that she be on call 24/7. That schedule tested her ability to leave work at the office and fully engage with the rest of her life. Similarly, John spent time in consulting where the sometimes hectic travel and work schedules forced him to think hard about how to guard personal time — to “punch out” from work and create downtime to recharge and rejuvenate.

Many modern workers find it hard to take downtime. The idea of leaving work so cleanly at the office seems quaint in a world of smartphones, laptops, and global companies that are always on to accommodate employees from Hoboken to Hong Kong. But drawing brighter lines between work and time off — family, friends, outside activities, and old-fashioned daydreaming — has clear benefits for productivity, creativity, and wellness. There’s an upside to downtime.

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The Benefits of Poetry for Professionals

January 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Wallace Stevens was one of America’s greatest poets. The author of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”and “The Idea of Order at Key West” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1955 and offered a prestigious faculty position at Harvard University. Stevens turned it down. He didn’t want to give up his position as Vice President of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.

This lyrically inclined insurance executive was far from alone in occupying the intersect of business and poetry. Dana Gioia, a poet, Stanford Business School grad, and former General Foods executive, notes that T.S. Eliot spent a decade at Lloyd’s Bank of London; and many other poets including James DickeyA.R. Ammons, and Edmund Clarence Stedman navigated stints in business.

I’ve written in the past about how business leaders should be readers, but even those of us prone to read avidly often restrict ourselves to contemporary nonfiction or novels. By doing so, we overlook a genre that could be valuable to our personal and professional development: poetry. Here’s why we shouldn’t.

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