The calls for organizational innovation always intensify during a crisis. Sure, many leadership qualities and behaviors are in high demand right now, including the ability to handle your own and others’ emotions, the skill to set clear expectations and hold people accountable, and the gumption to make the tough calls. But the one trait I hear asked for most often is the ability to innovate — to think about problems in new ways and move swiftly to create novel solutions.
Innovative ingenuity is an individual skill. But it is powerfully affected by organizational culture. Many companies are very effective at squashing innovation, often unintentionally. How often have you heard leaders respond to a new idea with, “Oh, we already tried that and it didn’t work?” Or watched as new ideas were ignored, dismissed, or even stolen. And then leaders wonder why their team members aren’t frequently bringing them bold, creative ideas.
There was big news in Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR leadership, last summer. The CEOs of more than 180 major companies signed a document announcing that big corporations should no longer focus exclusively on maximizing shareholder profits. Jamie Dimon, Chair of the Business Roundtable and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, presented a statement that business leaders should focus on delivering value to all their stakeholders — to customers, employees, suppliers, and local communities, as well as their shareholders.
When I wrote about it at the time, I saw it as a shocking shift in how businesses would measure their success. But I was also skeptical. One of the main drivers of change in a business is what gets measured. So I said:
“Watch what the CEOs do about measuring their companies’ success. If they focus solely on stock price, then their statement was just window-dressing. They and their companies will continue to emphasize short-term shareholder value above all else. But if their quarterly reports and analyst calls start highlighting other measures, then perhaps they really mean to change the game. It should be interesting.”
I’ve been calling this a challenging summer, but that doesn’t quite seem to capture it at this point. We’re dealing with the pandemic and all the medical concerns it raises. We’re facing an economic crisis of mammoth proportions. We’re revving up for a contentious election. We’re struggling with complex and painful racial justice issues. Here in Chicago we just had a wave of tornadoes pass through. The stress and anxiety just seem to keep on coming.
How do you make it through? Where do you find the reservoirs of strength and hope and determination that you need to keep going?
Olivia de Havilland just passed away at the age of 104. The tribute to this great movie star in the Chicago Tribune (July 28, 2020) praised her “talent, ambition, and luminosity,” which pretty much says it all. As Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, as Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood, and in numerous other starring roles, she lit up the screen.
She was a standout off-screen as well. At a time when the Hollywood studios locked movie stars into oppressive contracts, de Havilland challenged the system and won. The result of her court victory is called “the de Havilland law” to this day.
Sounds like a life well-lived. That may have been at least in part because of her very clear-eyed vision of what she wanted. At the age of 18, de Havilland tested for a starring role opposite Errol Flynn. She won the role and went on the star with him in six more films. During that screen test, when they were off-camera, Flynn asked her, “What do you want out of life?” She thought for a moment and responded, “I would like respect for difficult work, well done.”
James is the Chief Human Resource Officer at a Company G, a professional services firm. For years he has been committed to increasing the diversity of the employee population at the firm, especially at the mid- and senior-management levels. He is well aware of the beneficial impacts of diversity on multiple measures of company success, from innovation to customer relations to profitability. He has the backing of the CEO and the senior leadership team. He has helped to establish Employee Resource Groups for women, LGBTQ, and members of racial minority groups. He has brought in trainers to increase employees’ awareness of racial and gender bias and stereotyping. Every year he has been tracking the number of new minority hires. And the numbers haven’t budged.
This summer, the sharply increased focus on racial injustice and exclusion has led James to reflect once more on his own attitudes and biases. It has renewed his commitment to make a difference on the diversity front at Company G. But he is very frustrated – what else can he do that will really make a difference?
For the third time in a row, Bill used up most of his time in our coaching session to talk about how anxious and overwhelmed he was feeling. A senior executive in a large transportation company, Bill normally had a very calm demeanor, to the extent that others sometimes perceived him as remote or disengaged. But now, week after week, he was finding himself reactive and overwrought.
My first thought was, “Well, of course!” Almost everyone I’m talking to these days, both personally and professionally, is reactive and overwrought. By now we’re all exhausted from the uncertainty, sadness, fear, and relentless accommodations we are making as we try to navigate through the crisis. It seems endless. This is the world we’re living in.
I hate the phrase “new normal” to describe this horrible time we’re living through and what lies ahead. I wrote about the phrase in early May, quoting my colleague, Constance Dierickx, who said, “This situation is not the new normal; it is a time of extreme disruption.” To me, “new normal” implies resigning yourself, settling, saying, “Well, I guess this is the way it’s going to be and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
And then, a couple of weeks ago I attended a panel sponsored by the Executives’ Club of Chicago on “Reinventing to Reopen: How to Succeed in our New Normal.” One of the speakers introduced the phrase “the new better.”
Twice in my career, I’ve had to answer the question of what to do when you get laid off.
In 1980, the psychiatric hospital where I worked half-time eliminated all the part-time jobs. I was laid off. I had just had my first child and we had just bought our first house. It was awful.
In 2009, when the economy was tanking, the consulting firm where I was working laid off one-third of its consultants in one day. It took me one week to realize that there were no jobs for someone in my field — no one was hiring. It was awful.
But in both cases, it didn’t stay awful.
Here’s a leadership case study: It’s May 29, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s four days after the murder of George Floyd. You’re the mayor of the city and you learn that a peaceful demonstration has been followed by widespread violence and looting.
What do you do?
Here in Illinois, the COVID restrictions are beginning to loosen. Personally, I had ten people at my home for dinner last Friday. I hope to have my hair cut soon. And on the professional front, employers are talking about when and how to have their teams begin returning to work.
In some ways, shutting down the office was easier. The rules were announced and companies sent their people home. Sure, there were a lot of technological and process issues that had to be solved fast, but at least it was clear. Unless you were an essential worker, everyone had to go home — period.
Now — it’s a lot murkier. When should an employer bring people back? What are the precautions that need to be in place? Maybe it would just be better to let people continue to work virtually? After all, many employers have found that the online work force was just as productive as they were in the office.
I like writing about Wendy Rhoades, the high-flying performance coach on the Showtime show Billions. Having said that, I want to make two things clear. First, Wendy Rhoades is a fictional character. She is not real. This is important in a world where fact and fiction are often very muddled. Second, Wendy is not a moral exemplar. She lives and works in a world whose moral code is highly problematic. She has already gotten in trouble for a lapse in her professional ethics, and my guess is that she’ll continue to make some very shady choices.
So why do I keep writing about her? She is an intriguing character, she’s a powerful female figure, and she demonstrates some of the tactics of successful performance coaching. It’s the last point that keeps me watching the show and writing about what I see.
The building project was a total disaster. It had been underway for decades and was nowhere near completion. In fact, it looked more like a ruin than a building under construction. A half-dozen architects had already worked on the project, and the multiple designs were incompatible and badly conceived.
I love it when I discover a great new word — a word I’ve never heard before that describes something in a useful and specific way. A few years ago my treasured new word was “sprezzatura,” an Italian word that means “the art of making things look easy.” What a great word — and what a great description of how to carry yourself in many difficult situations.
My newest word is “bricolage.” I came across it recently in an article about innovation. It’s a French word that means “the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available.”