Make it OK for employees to challenge your ideas — Hal Gregersen

Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center

Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center

From Harvard Business Review

Kodak. Sears. Borders. The mere mention of any of these companies brings to mind the struggle to stay relevant amid today’s technology and boundless alternatives. But behind each of them lies a deeper story of at least one leader who is or was “sheltered” from the reality of their business.

This dangerous “white space” where leaders don’t know what they don’t know is a critical one. But often, leaders — especially senior ones — fail to seek information that makes them uncomfortable or fail to engage with individuals who challenge them. As a result, they miss the opportunity to transform insights at the edge of a company into valuable actions at the core.

Nandan Nilekani, an Indian entrepreneur, bureaucrat, and politician who co-founded Infosys and was appointed by the Indian prime minister to serve as Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), believes it’s vital to keep this channel of communication open in any leadership position.

“If you’re a leader, you can put yourself in a cocoon … a good news cocoon” said Nilekani during our recent discussion. “Everyone says, ‘It’s alright, there’s no problem,’ and the next day everything’s wrong.”

So how do leaders keep themselves from being isolated at the top? For Nilekani, it comes down to one vital factor: asking and being asked uncomfortable questions.

The question “Why are we the way we are?” inspired him to write his book, Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation, which discusses the education, demographics, and infrastructure of his native country. Following his work with the UIDAI to help create a government database of the entire population of India (named “the biggest social project on the planet”) and his recent campaign for Indian National Congress, the question “How do you get kids to read and how do you get kids to learn arithmetic?” drove Nilekani to create a scaleable solution to bridge the education gap for younger generations in India and other parts of the world. And the umbrella question that defines Nilekani’s leadership journey is, perhaps not surprisingly, “What is it that I can do to have the best possible impact on the most possible people?”

Read the full post at the Harvard Business Review.

Hal Gregersen is Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center and a Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management

 

Leading digital transformation — George Westerman

MIT Sloan Research Scientist George Westerman

From TechCrunch

Digital technologies — from social media to mobile computing to big data to the Internet of everything — are transforming businesses in every industry.

Do you want to have conversations with your customers in ways that surveys and focus groups never could? Social media can make that happen. Do you want to make your employees more productive anywhere and anytime? Try mobile computing. Do you want to understand what’s really happening in your company so you can make informed decisions rather than just working by instinct? Big data analytics can do that. Do you want to kick the pants off your competitors through digital customer engagement or business model innovations? That can happen, too.

In my research on digital transformation, I’ve been amazed to see how many digital activities companies are undertaking, especially in non-digital industries. But despite all of this activity, relatively few companies were really doing it well. Why are some able to do amazing things with digital technologies, while others just do “more of the same”? What makes some firms “digital masters” while the majority of them lag behind?

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How branding 101 can make leaders more mindful of diversity — Renée Richardson Gosline

MIT Sloan Prof. Renée Richardson Gosline

From The Conversation

A few years ago, I overheard two of my MBA students talking after class about their “personal brands.”

At the time, I was amused. But then I kept hearing more about this notion of “my brand.” I noticed it was the subject of articles in Forbes and Harvard Business Review. Suddenly, I saw book upon book devoted to the topic. The conversation centered around bolstering your personal brand by tweeting the right things, highlighting certain attributes in your LinkedIn profile and ingratiating yourself with other powerful personal brands.

Frankly, I bristle at the phrase “personal brand.” We are not products, we are people. The way we present ourselves should be authentic, not part of a sales pitch or advertising campaign. But then I got to thinking: is there a way to apply branding’s best practices to develop greater leadership?

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Joining forces: Keys to successful corporate collaboration and leadership for sustainability — David Kiron

MIT Sloan Management Review Executive Editor David Kiron

MIT Sloan Management Review Executive Editor David Kiron

Once upon a time, resource-intensive industries—like paper manufacturing—faced constant criticism and public pressure from environmental groups. Attacks by Greenpeace on Asia Pulp & Paper (AP&P), for example, caused some customers to withdraw their orders.

But times are changing.

When, in 2012, AP&P wanted to remake its business model and how it acquires raw material — a significant undertaking—it waved the white flag and invited Greenpeace into the boardroom to help the company change its forestry sourcing practices.

“Never in our history had our shareholders sat in the same room with a ‘radical’ NGO like Greenpeace,” says Aida Greenbury, an AP&P managing director.  “So it’s quite groundbreaking that we now sit together in our boardroom to discuss strategy and incorporate their input.”

AP&P’s experience is just one example of the burgeoning phenomenon of companies collaborating for sustainability, with a focus on transformational, strategic results. The practice of corporate sustainability is steadily moving beyond ad hoc.

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General Motors should expect more failed parts — Steven Spear

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Steven Spear

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Steven Spear

From USA Today

General Motors CEO Mary Barra appeared before a Senate panel once again Thursday to discuss the company’s flawed ignition switches and vowed that GM will “do all it can to make certain that this does not happen again.”

In terms of damage control, much of what Barra and GM appear to be doing right now is positive: fessing up about product failures, bringing in outside investigators and firing employees that failed to take appropriate measures.

And while these are important steps, they amount only to a good, if somewhat belated, crisis management strategy. In fact, these efforts pale against the very real organizational challenges that lay ahead for GM and Barra. In order make good on her promise to Congress, Barra must prevent the kinds of engineering failures that caused the ignition problems in the first place and the organizational failures that propelled the problem to its current tragic magnitude. And that will mean changing the culture at GM.

Engineers like to be right. They like to prove that they have the correct answer.

Highly trained and highly motivated to solve problems, at the point of releasing a design or demonstrating a model or a prototype, everything in them is wired to prove that they’ve arrived at the right answer. The premium is so high on being “right” that even when data starts proving them wrong, they work to show that they are right somehow. They seek to explain what is happening is an exceptional outlier or an aberration; not that it is a sign of a problem. Read More »