Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Immelt's GE: Reset's Poster Child

Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, is fast becoming the poster child for Reset in the US corporate community.

My friend Jon Hoch from Connecticut was the first to point this out to me. He sees Immelt's GE (and Ford Motor Company as well) as looking at the current turmoil and uncertainty as an opportunity for adaptation and Reset, rather than hunkering down and waiting out the storm.

If you are wondering what Reset looks like in practice, look at Immelt and GE.

In February, he refused an $11.7 million bonus to which he was contractually entitled.

Then, he cut the treasured annual GE dividend, a symbol of GE's consistent growth and stability, for the first time since 1938. The next day, as the stock dipped to its lowest point since 1993, Immelt personally invested in the company buying 50,000 shares.

He has shrunk GE Capital (GE's finance unit) by 30%, both to reduce volatility in the company and in recognition of the fact that the financial industry will be much more highly regulated than it has been in the past. He has made it clear that more cuts are coming.

In his letter to shareholders, dated early February and released with the GE Annual Report in March, he took full responsibility for the bad news, but also challenged his GE colleagues to be energized, not frightened by the challenges facing them. If they are frightened, he told them, they should leave. If, however, they are energized, the opportunity to transform GE should be "thrilling." He also confirmed that the company would be pumping $10 billion into technological research and development.

Then in his mid-April speech at the annual shareholders meeting, Immelt predicted that GE would Reset, but so would capitalism with government permanently playing a more robust role as industrial policy advocate, financier,and partner.

So, let's tease out the Reset principles here.

First, Immelt has recognized that the future is unknown and unknowable, except that it will be very different from the past.

Second, he has chosen between the expendable and the essential. Reset is a time to make hard decisions about what to preserve of all that is valued and created success(i.e. manufacturing), and what to leave behind in order to survive and thrive in the new world (i.e. GE Capital and the 50 years of never cutting the dividend). All this while taking responsibility for each decision and for the pain they are causing those involved.

Third, model the behavior you are asking of others, so that people see you, too, feeling pain and taking risks (ie invest your own money).

Fourth, be simultaneously brutally realistic and unflaggingly optimistic.

Fifth, run some experiments, make some big bets, invest in the future.

Sixth, practice interdependence by challenging and inspiring own own people to take responsibility for joining you on the journey and reinventing the future.

These are ideas that can be applied to any business, non-profit, or government agency. What is required is courage and skill.

Immelt is making big bets and taking big risks. If he is right more often than he is wrong, GE will be even stronger in the future than it has been in the past. If he is wrong more often......

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Obama's Leadership and the CIA memos

My favorite definition of leadership: leadership is about disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.

By that measure, President Barack Obama is now facing the toughest leadership test of his 100-day old Presidency. He made an Obama-like decision, looking forward and not backward, to not investigate or prosecute those responsible for carrying out the "enhanced interrogation" methods on al Queda suspects in 2002 and 2003.

Curageously, he went to the CIA and faced those most worried about the backlash from the memos and his condemnation of the techniques they authorized.

As Obama surely expected, the release of the memos generated criticism on the right and a new wave of publicly expressed angst on the left from the usual sources, such as Senator Patrick Leahy and MoveOn. And then, inevitably, they were soon followed by a self-righteous column from NYT columnist Paul Krugman.

My assumption is that Obama assumed that predictable sources on the right and left would vent for a while and then it would all blow over, as happened with his selection of Reverend Rick Warren to particpate in the Inauguration.

But then he made a tactical error. Courting trouble, but presumablky to try to calm the waters hestirrede up on the left, Obama allowed for the possibility of prosecuting the authorizers of the now-banned behavior. (Presumably he would have to include those Members of Congress from both political parties on the Senate and House Intelligence Committees who, according to Congressman Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, had been briefed on the techniques and has approved the funding them.)

Obama is walking a razor's edge here. He has given those who seek a pound of flesh from the Bushies an avenue for doing so. He had been willing to take heat from both extremes for his release-the-memos-condemn-the-methods-but-no-retribution stance, to avoid what he believed was the worst scenario, a long, divisive, partisan, ideological, and diversionary series of investigations and prosecutions. Now, under pressure, he may have opened the door just enough to get that dreaded outcome as well.

As we learned from the ridiculous Clinton impeachment process, nothing can come from such show trials except taking the attention and energy of Congress and we the people away from the tough choices the country is having to face in order to get the economy moving again.

And as we learned from Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon (and have been reminded by Gerald Seib in his recent Wall Street Journal column), the political fallout from trying to avoid a long, drawn out show trial can be considerable.

This is not South Africa where a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was needed to try to heal the great decades-long scar of apartheid that had split the country in two.

Obama was right to balance government truth-telling with no looking backward, tactically wrong to throw a bone to his critics on the left. He may be risking his other priorities being sidelined if the Justice Department or the Congress start looking for scapegoats big time.

With his re-election still 3 1/2 years away and lots of other problems facing the country, there maybe enough time for Obama to get by this one.

But from a leadership perspective, it is not yet clear that he has figured out how to disappoint his own people at a rate they can absorb.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Living Adaptive Leadership

Harder than I expected to stay focused on work while looking out over rolling farmland, gently ascending up to the town of Collevecchio here in the province of Lazio about an hour northeast of Rome.

But here I am, following the Red Sox and the Celtics, reading newspapers online, and trying to stay current and make connections, as if the world would stop if I did not know what was going on.

For example, in Tuesday's Boston Globe, Paula D. Broadwell wrote an op-ed piece extolling General David Petraeus as the embodiment of someone practicing adaptive leadership. The piece is worth reading. (Full disclosure: Broadwell, a major in the US Army, is now a pre-doctoral Research Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership (CPL) at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). My colleague Ron Heifetz and I teach leadership at HKS, and Ron was the founding director of CPL. But we do not know her.)

Broadwell accurately identifies some of the core assumptions of adaptive leadership. The first is that leadership is about skills that can be learned by anyone.

The issue of whether leadership can be learned, or more precisely, whether it can be taught, is the subject of this week's debate on the Washington Post's On Leadership blog. The question was stimulated by the provocative piece that Thomas Ricks, the Post's military correspondent, published on Sunday suggesting that the service academies be abolished.

Despite my making a living teaching and consulting on leadership, I am much more convinced that leadership can be learned than that it can be taught.

The resistance to that idea typically comes from two sometimes overlapping sources: (1) people who think they've "got it" and (2) people in positions of senior authority who fear loss of control and diminishing the deference of subordinates that they enjoy so much if there really were to be a culture of leadership throughout the organization, if leadership was the responsibility of everyone.

Broadwell's second core idea from adaptive leadership that Petraeus embodies is that the capacity of organizations to adapt to new realities depends on whether the culture expects leadership throughout the organization, not just at the top.

Petraeus and many others in the military have realized that in a rapidly-changing situation, where people on the ground are constantly having to adapt to new and unanticipated external and internal realities, the creativity, judgment, and experimentation that are elements of leadership must be the province of everyone in the organization.

Petraeus and the military are not alone. Last weekend I spent some time with Lee Baca, the innovative elected Sheriff of Los Angeles County. Baca, too, believes in leadership throughout the organization and has run experiments that have challenged and shocked his colleagues in the law enforcement community. For example, Baca has developed a program offering gang members education as an alternative to incarceration. And instead of being sued by advocates for fairer treatment of people in jail, he has partnered with them. Take a look at his website. Everyone of the 14,500 people who work in his Department signs on to a value statement that begins, "As a leader in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department....". Not bad.

So, how is it in your organization, your family, your company, your non-profit, your community? where does the responsibility lie for leadership How prepared are your people with the skills necessary to adapt, to survive and thrive, in the face of accelerated pace of change and continuing uncertainty?

It will be interesting to see whether the challenge of coping with the current turmoil and foggy future will generate a similar commitment to adaptive and disseminated leadership in the private sector where, in my experience and observation, hierarchical responsibility for leadership usually still prevails.

This afternoon I go to Milan for meetings with senior corporate folks from Italian-based companies. I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Reset Lives...and Relives

A short post today before going off to Italy for 11 days of work and relaxation.

Meeting there with several Italian companies and senior officials, through the good offices of our friends, clients and partners at Watson Wyatt. I am anxious to see if the Italian private sector is looking at the current reality differently than the US firms we have been doing business with in the past six months.

There was a fabulous piece in this week's New Yorker by James Surowiecki entitled Hanging Tough, which tells the whole Reset story, but from history, the 1930's, the last time that Reset was required.

The article tells the story of how two cereal companies, Post and Kellogg, responded to the Depression. Post hunkered down, cut expenses, and concentrated on survival. Kellogg Reset, making investments, innovating, and creating new products. The result was that Kellogg became the industry's top dog, and has remained there ever since.

Surowiecki acknowledges economist Frank Knight's useful distinction between risk and uncertainty, which is very applicable in today's world. Hunkering down is a risk calculation, assessing the odds, playing it safe, controlling what you can control. Reset is an uncertainty calculation, suggesting that when you do not know what lies ahead, you have an opportunity to make quantum leaps and quantum change, but you also risk sheer survival if none of the investments pay off. It is the difference, as Surowiecki suggests, between risking "missing the boat" and risking "sinking the boat." It is no wonder that so many firms and organizations are playing it safe.

But this is a blog about leadership, after all. And leadership is about taking smart risks smartly in service of the mission. And if you believe in the mission, have the courage to test that belief, and the skill to test is wisely there is an opportunity out there.

United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is doing just that.

Pressed to make severe budget cuts, he is using the moment to introduce fundamental strategic changes in defense spending and, by extension, defense policy itself. He is trying to move this country from an old and mostly successful idea about wars and how to fight them, to facing a new reality, when war will not be nation state against nation state, but international nation state coalitions against global non-state aggregations of destabilizers of one persuasion or another.

To their credit, the hunkering down Members of Congress and their allies in what President Dwight Eisenhower in his Farewell Address famously labeled the "military industrial complex" are not fooled, as the New York Times pointed out last week in Elizabeth Bumiller's coverage of Gates' budget-selling road trip.

That ferocious opposition Gates is facing is evidence that he is on to something big and important.

Sadly, in one respect, Gates is smart enough to know that he can only deliver so much bad news at any one time. Pacing the work is one of the core skills in leading adaptive change. You cannot go faster than the pace at which people can absorb the discomforting adaptations. As a consequence, as reported again by Bumiller in the Times, Gates will not take on gays in the military any time soon.

We at CLA are on to week two of our column in the Washington Post's On Leadership blog. Take a look. Send in a question.

And I am going to try an experiment in Italy, in the spirit of experimentation that needs to characterize our response to the current reality. I am going to try to blog at least every other day, short posts, and do so without sending out e-mail notification to my list. Hope you will stay connected and give me feedback.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Reset: What to do when you don't know what to do

"What do we do to do when we are in important jobs and we really don't know what to do? Many, many people are in exactly that position this evening. Only their spouses know."
e-mail from J., a CEO of a large company in the Midwest

My friend J. is not alone. People I talk with are sensing that we are in a period of fundamental change, where the assumptions of how the world works, of how our lives work, of how we work, are shifting in ways that we can barely see, never mind comprehend and internalize so we can plan for the future.

For our family, it looks like this. I am no longer thinking about retiring, both because our finances look less certain (and just plain less) and because this is the most interesting time I have lived in since the 1960s. I don't want to miss it. And I want to have a hand, small as it may be, in shaping the future in my particular worlds: our firm, Cambridge Leadership Associates, the Kennedy School at Harvard, where I have been teaching for 28 years, and my circle of family and friends.

My wife, Lynn Staley, retired last summer after a distinguished 30-year career in publication design. She received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of News Design. She always worried about what would happen if she stopped working. She couldn't picture anything between 70-hour work weeks and sitting in front of the tv eating bonbons.

Like my friend J. and the people he described, Lynn did not know what to do when she did not know what to do.

But she has found her way to things that she postponed all her adult life: returning to drawing, studying languages, and experimenting in the kitchen, most recently creating her own unique version of a Seder plate (recipe on request). And, perhaps most interesting, important, and satisfying, she's been nurturing relationships and collaborating with friends and family in ways that are just starting to evolve.

What do you do when you do not know what to do?

Professionally, our firm is caught up in this extraordinary period of potential transformation. We are trying our best to live up to the advice we are paid to give to other organizations. But we, too, do not know what to do. Like President Obama, we've never been here before. We're making guesses and trying to invent new ways.

In the past six months, we have been talking and working with organizations in the US and abroad, across all three sectors, Fortune 500 companies, public servants in Europe, philanthropists in the US, all wrestling with some version of that question.

We don't have the answer. But our assumption is that the future is yet to be invented. At no time in my life has there been so much uncertainty about what lies ahead. But that reality suggests that each of us has the opportunity, if not the responsibility, to create the wave, rather than waiting for it to come and trying to ride it forward.

This is the spirit of explorers, entrepreneurs, inventors and artists. They understand what it means to look at the future and see it as a tabula rasa waiting to be filled in. They are motivated by the uncertainty, not crippled by it. They are willing to step into the void, without a road map or a destination.

How can we emulate that spirit in our own lives?

Here are four ideas: live your purpose, run experiments, practice interdependence, and nurture conflict.

First, it all begins with purpose: clarify what is most important to you, distinguish what, of all that you value, you can leave behind in the interests of moving forward.

Here's an example of purpose. My friend Ron David says "Relationships are primary. Everything else is derivative." You may or may not agree, but if he believes what he says, and I think he does, then every little decision he makes, as well as all the big ones, can be seen through that prism.

For me, purpose becomes more relevant because time is running out. "What am I going to do with the time I have left?" When I was in law school in the early 1960's, I signed up to do voter registration in the South. The Dean called me into his office and told me not to go, that it would hurt my legal career. I regret to this day that I took his advice. Frank Rich's column in the Sunday New York Times was all about the economic meltdown giving young people an opportunity to follow their most noble purposes.

Now that the era of boundless consumption is over, what really counts for you? And what can you do to live your purpose, to make it alive for you every day?

Next, adapting to a new reality and living your purpose require running experiments rather than solving problems. Take risks. At work, try new ways of holding a meeting, of dealing with subordinates, of talking to your boss. If e-mail is driving you crazy, stop trying to answer them. Send them back an automatic response, like those answering service messages, saying that you will return their e-mail, "as soon as you can." Hold people accountable for their commitments. Hold yourself accountable for yours: take the risk of showing your kids that you love them by putting them ahead of work. If you are a male who believes in gender equity, don't accept a speaking engagement unless there are a significant portion of women no the program.

Third, after purpose and experimentation, acknowledge interdependence. Give up the illusion that you are an autonomous human being or organization. Instead of saying publicly, "It sure sucks to be Bill," when some thing goes wrong in Bill's division in the company, say "I think we've got a problem."

I spent last week as faculty chair of a one-week leadership program at the Harvard Kennedy School. A woman left the program the day before it ended. Most of the group steadfastly hung onto the belief that we as a community had no role or responsibility in her early departure; either she acted independently, autonomously, or that it was my fault, as the senior authority. But it seems irrefutable that each of us, by what we did or what we did not do, including the woman herself, created the conditions that led to her departure. Collective responsibility is a hard pill to swallow. But we all own a piece of the current reality.

Practicing interdependence means initiating conversations, alliances, partnerships, networks and collaborations that you have never tried before. Look for leadership in your organization - and in your family for that matter – from people at every level.

Fourth and finally, embrace conflict as a precondition for progress. Realize that change is difficult because it involves loss. Our colleague Ron Heifetz says that "People do not resist change. They resist change that they do not think is going to be good for them. They resist loss, or the threat of loss."

There can be no real change without resistance, loss, and conflict, generated by those who have an investment in the status quo. So celebrate conflict as a sign of real work being done. Nurture it, orchestrate it, manage it, but don’t squash it.

Obama continues to model the behavior, reaching out to people across the globe in a way that no US President has previously done. He re-surfaced the immigration issue without a plan, knowing that it would stimulate a response he could not control, but that the conversation would be good for the country. And he's not the only one who is modeling the behavior. A fellow named Joe Works in Humboldt, Kansas, makes trailer hitches. His business is down 50% this year. But instead of laying people off, he is paying his people to do projects in the community, like planting public gardens and rehabbing a church.

People who expected the future to be clear are starting all over again. In the forthcoming era of what Paul Krugman called “boring banks”, people coming into the job market are going to have to figure out what, other than money, floats their boat. The New York Times News in Review had a piece about new kinds of career choices.

Even those addicted to money as an end in itself are having to figure out what to do when they do not know what to do. The Sunday New York Times had a front page story on talented people leaving Wall Street, some of them for more purposeful lives.

Of course, in the end, there is no good answer to my friend J's question about what to do when you do not know what to do. If you are a senior authority figure like he is, you are expected to know the way. So step one is to change those expectations, so your people know you are all in this Reset business together.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Reset and Reading - Into the Mainstream

Before we start, two news bulletins: Starting Tuesday, April 13, our firm will have a regular weekly feature on the home page of the Washington Post's On Leadership website. It's called Leadership House Call. The idea is that you - and yes, I mean you, will send us a current leadership challenge, and we will comment on it and stimulate a wider conversation on the issue. PLEASE send your dilemmas to: leadership@washingtonpost.com. We will need a small framing title and a way to identify you. Thanks.

And news bulletin number two: my colleague Alexander Grashow and I published a piece on Reset on the Huffington Post last week. Here's the URL if you want to take a look: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marty-linsky-and-alexander-grashow/obama-is-reset---are-you_b_181467.html

Did you notice the cover of the April 6 issue of Time Magazine? A big red Reset Button. And a terrific cover story by Kurt Anderson called The End of Excess. As Anderson wrote, "This is the end of the world as we've known it. But it isn't the end of the world." Read Anderson's Time essay. It is the best statement of apocalyptic optimism I have seen.

William Safire throws a little cold water on Reset in his weekly On Language essay in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. He describes it as plebeian and quotes the NY Times technology Q&A columnist as describing Reset as "the magic button" to make everything all right again.

But to me Reset is a lot scarier than that. The way we - and Anderson - have been using the word, Reset is about starting from scratch, questioning assumptions, and deep systemic change. Nothing easy about that because Reset is about risk and loss.

That is why having Joel Klein as Chancellor of the New York City School system with Michael Bloomberg as Mayor is the best chance we have for transforming public schools. Both of them have had fabulously successful careers before their current roles. Both are willing to take risks because they are well off enough financially and reputationally that they have nothing to lose. And both are willing to sacrifice other priorities, including popularity, in order to try some experiments to unlock a system that is the shame of America. It is what makes me nervous about the economic team of Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner. Summers is trying to resurrect his reputation, which floundered in the wake of a failed Harvard Presidency and in his contributions to the deregulation of the financial industry which contributed mightily to the current collapse. Geithner, of course, was presiding at the NY Fed when it all fell apart. They have too much personally at sake to take the kind of risks and heat that the present crisis requires.

Reset ideas are everywhere, in public, private and non-profit sectors. Anderson has a whole raft of them in his piece. I have seen big examples this week in education, the practice of law, medicine and philanthropy. Keep your eyes and ears open and send me what seems to fit.

Speaking of eyes and ears, Reset in reading had already set in before the economy collapsed, and the financial turmoil only has accelerated a process that has been well underway.

I remember a scene nearly a year ago at our family Sunday morning breakfast table, with my wife, Lynn Staley, our son Max, and his wonderful girlfriend Meredith Jacks. An audiotape of the conversation would have revealed nothing out of the ordinary: a family in New york City sitting around reading the New York Times and engaging in conversation about what was interesting to us. But a videotape would have told a very different story: Max and Meredith were reading the newspaper on their computers while us old folks were doing the hard copy thing.

Max and Meredith's generation is already getting most of their reading done online and I, like many of my generation, could not imagine not having the crinkle of a newspaper in my hands.....until I got my Kindle, that is.

Now, we have bookshelves in almost every room of our house. Most are overflowing. I love to read, to curl up with a book before going to bed, to plow through the carton of books I take with me on vacation, or to sit with on a lazy Sunday in our apartment or in Central Park reading and sharing the mood and the space.

In our consulting work, we often talk about how the pain has to be palpable enough for individuals and organizations to take on deep change. Well, the pain in my right leg from stenosis in my back, was sending me a signal that lugging a handful of books on my business trips - most of which I was too tired from work to read - was not so smart. My colleagues at Cambridge Leadership Associates bought me a Kindle from Amazon last summer. Better to shell out $350 than have the old man collapse, they must have reasoned.

The Kindle has changed my life. I never thought I could live without turning the pages. I can. I never thought I could live without sticking Post-its on pages, or making notes to myself on the inside cover. I can. I never thought I could live without the satisfaction of turning that last page in a book. This too, I can. It is the size and weight of a typical paperback. It can hold 1500 books. And I could get magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, delivered to the device as well. (No, I haven't yet succumbed to reading the Times on my Kindle.)

It is less and less likely that I will ever buy another book in the traditional format. I will certainly buy a lot less of them than I have done in the past. Now, I buy the book I want on Amazon (from the 250,000 that are available) at the computer in my home office and by the time I walk across the hall to me bedroom where the Kindle is plugged in, the book is already downloaded. At $9.99 or less.

The Kindle is not perfect. But it is close. And the Kindle 2 is even closer, at least according to the New York Times guru on personal technology, David Pogue.

Since 2006, Sony has its own device, the Sony Reader. Sony has also just created a strategic alliance with Google to meet the Kindle challenge. Google has finally worked out an agreement with authors and publishers to provide access to its huge digitized inventory on line, although Microsoft and others are trying to get in the way of the agreement every being implemented. The war for our virtual book, magazine and newspaper business is in full swing.

Google "newspaper closes". You'll get 3.8 million hits. Two weeks ago, it was one of my old favorites, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, that went web-only. And the New York times reported this weekend that it has threatened the union with closing the Boston Globe where both my wife and I were gainfully employed some time ago.

As a former newspaper journalist I am not one to mourn the loss of newspapers. I have more information, more good information, at my fingertips than I ever did before. slowly, I am getting comfortable with getting information virtually, spurred on by friends, family and colleagues for whom this is second nature. It is Reset, and it is happening right before my eyes.