The Chief Innovation Officer’s 100-Day Plan

Congratulations! Your energy and track record of successfully launching high-impact initiatives scored you a plum role heading up innovation. Expectations are high, but some skeptics in the organization feel that innovation is an overhyped buzzword that doesn’t justify being a separate function. So, what can you do in your first 100 days to set things off on the right track?

Over the past decade we’ve helped dozens of leaders through their first 100 days. Based on our experience, augmented by in-depth interviews with a few of the most seasoned practitioners with which we have worked, we suggest that innovation leaders put the following five items on their 100-day punch list.

Spend quality time with every member of the executive committee. This should go without saying, but it’s vitally important to develop relationships with the CEO, business unit leaders, and other key executives to understand the company’s strategy, so that the innovation approach and projects you pursue align with overall corporate goals. Brad Gambill, who over the past few years has played a leading role in strategy and innovation at LGE, SingTel, and TE Connectivity, believes the first 100 days are an ideal time to “ask dumb questions and master the basics of the business.” He particularly suggests focusing on the things “everyone else takes for granted and thinks are obvious but aren’t quite so obvious to people coming in from the outside.” So don’t be afraid to ask why a decision-making meeting ran the way it did or challenge the wisdom of pursuing a certain strategy or project.

It is particularly important to understand these executives’ views of two things – innovation’s role in helping the company achieve its growth goals and your role in leading innovation. Is innovation intended to improve and expand the existing business, or is it meant to redefine the company itself and the industry in which it operates? Do executives expect you to establish and incubate a growth businesses, act as a coach to existing teams, or focus on establishing a culture of innovation so that new ideas emerge organically?

As you invest time with top executives, you should begin to understand the organizational relationship between your innovation work and the current business. Are leaders willing to give up some of their human and financial resources to advance innovation? Are you expected to recruit a separate team from within and beyond the company? Or are you expected to spin straw into gold by working without dedicated resources? Will leaders support you if you propose radical changes to people, structures, processes, and roadmaps, or are you supposed to change everything but in a way that no one notices?

Zero in the most critical organizational roadblocks to innovation. Chances are, you won’t get the same answers to these questions from everyone you talk to. Those areas where executives disagree with one another will define the most immediate (and often the most fundamental) challenges and opportunities you’ll face in your role.

As quickly as possible within your first 100 days, therefore, you will need to understand where the fault lines lay in your company. Pay particular attention to the three hidden determinants of your company’s true strategy – how it funds and staffs projects, how it measures and rewards performance, and how it allocates overall budgets. A clear understanding of where leaders’ priorities fail to match what the company is actually funding and rewarding will help you identify the biggest hurdles to achieving your longer-term agenda, and where short-term workarounds are required.

Define your intent firmly but flexibly. You don’t need to have all the answers perfectly formulated from the beginning. But you should have a perspective – even on Day 1 – regarding how your role as the innovation leader can help the organization achieve its overall strategy. Look for ways to stretch the boundaries of current innovation efforts, but remember you are not the CEO or CTO. You need them to want to support you, not worry that you are gunning for their jobs. Gambill suggests one way to build this trust is never to bring up a problem without also proposing a solution. The CEO “has lots of people who know how to point out problems; it is important to establish yourself as a problem solver and confidant as quickly as possible.”

Determine how you plan to balance your efforts between developing ideas, supporting initiatives in other parts of the organization, and creating an overall culture of innovation. Those are related, but distinctly different, tasks. Don’t get too rooted to your initial perspective. Be as adaptable in your approach as you will be when you work on specific ideas.

Develop your own view of the innovation landscape around the company. Colin Watts, who has played a leadership role in innovation and strategy functions at Walgreens, Campbell Soup, Johnson & Johnson, and Weight Watchers, suggests getting a “clear market definition ideally grounded in customer insights.” Companies tend to define their world based on the categories in which they compete or the products they offer. However, customers are always on the lookout for the best way to get a job done and don’t really care what industries or categories the solutions happen to fall into. Understanding how customers make their choices often reveals a completely different set of competitors, redefining the market in which your company operates, its role in the market, and the basis for business success.

Watts also suggests zeroing in on the adjacencies that have the potential to shape your market. As he notes, “There is no such thing as an isolated market anymore.” Through an innovation lens you are likely to see early signs of change that the core business might have missed.

Develop a first-cut portfolio of short and longer-term efforts, with a few planned quick losses. A key component of your job, of course, will likely be to advance a set of innovation initiatives. Some may already be in progress. There may be a backlog of ideas waiting to be developed. Or the raw material might be a bit rougher, existing primarily in people’s heads. Regardless, in the first 100 days you want to come up with a clear view of some of the specific things on which you will plan to work. Some of these might be very specific initiatives, like identifying product-market fit for a new technology. Some might involve investigating broader areas of opportunity (for example, “wearables”). Some may involve developing specific capabilities. One specific capability Watts suggests building as an “investment that will pay back for years to come” is a “fast and cheap way to pilot ideas and products.”

Savvy innovation leaders place some long-term bets that they start to explore while also quickly addressing some more immediate business opportunities to earn credibility. If your portfolio is all filled with near-in ideas, some people in the core organization might naturally ask why they can’t do what you are doing themselves. And you are probably missing the most exciting and possibly disruptive ideas in your space. But if the portfolio is filled only with further out ideas, you run the risk that organizational patience will run out as you do the long, hard work of developing them.

When considering quick wins, don’t avoid quick losses. True innovation requires an organization to stop avoiding failure and see the benefits of learning from it. But failure remains very scary to everyone. Have enough things going on that you can tolerate a quick loss without damaging your overall pipeline. As Watts says, “You may be able to do it fast or do it cheap or do it reliably but not likely all three.” Make sure that you and your executive sponsors loudly and proudly celebrate the first project you stop when it becomes clear it won’t work.

That feels like a lot for 100 days, and it is. Innovation has the power to positively transform an organization, but no one said it was going to be easy.


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A Process for Human-Algorithm Decision Making

Think for a moment about how an organization makes a decision. First come the facts, the data that will inform the decision. Using these facts, someone formulates alternative courses of action and evaluates them according to agreed-on criteria. The decision maker then chooses the best alternative, and the organization commits itself to action.

Advanced analytics can automate parts of this sequence; it offers the prospect of faster, better-informed decisions and substantially lower costs. But unless you’re prepared to transform how people work together throughout the decision-making process, you’re likely to be disappointed.

Take a simple example: a company’s collections function. In years past, dozens of collection agents would receive hundreds of randomly allocated delinquent accounts every day, each one with a few facts about the customer. Each agent then reviewed a standard list of alternatives and decided how he or she would try to collect what was owed.

Today, an algorithm can assemble many more facts about the accounts than any human being could easily process: lengthy payment histories, extensive demographic data, and so on. Using these facts, it can separate the accounts into simple categories, say red-yellow-green.

Now the alternative courses of action are simpler. Red ones — low value, unlikely to pay— go straight to a collection agency. Green ones — high value, likely to pay — go to specially trained callers for white-glove service. The yellow ones require a careful review of alternatives and much more human intervention before a decision is reached.

Within the yellow and green categories, sophisticated test-and-learn experiments can inform the decisions that remain. Agents can discover from these experiments which channels and messages generate the greatest financial return while minimizing costs and customer dissatisfaction. They can thus optimize their choices about how to pursue delinquent accounts.

The new way of doing things is better and more efficient. But look at how it changes the process itself — and what’s expected of the people involved:

  • Software now assists with the collection and analysis of critical information, eliminating tasks once done by human beings. But people have to determine which facts to collect and how to weight them.
  • Red-yellow-green or other simple categorization schemes can speed up the formulation of alternatives. Advanced analytic models can incorporate the experience of an organization’s best decision makers, helping to eliminate alternatives that are less viable than others and focusing the evaluation on the most promising courses of action. People will require training in how to use the insights from the new decision-support tools.
  • Within the yellow and green groups, test-and-learn results can dramatically improve the quality of decisions an organization makes. People will still need to figure out what experiments to run and then interpret the results.

The new decision procedures are likely to require investments in technology — for example, software that embeds rules and new decision logic into the workflow systems. They’ll also require redesigning people’s roles to fit with the new process. The possible need for new skills could mean extensive retraining and may require hiring new talent altogether.

The use of analytics can hugely improve the quality of your decisions and can increase decision process efficiency by as much as 25%. When executed well, it leads to higher customer and employee satisfaction. But analytics alone won’t achieve these results; the decision process needs to change, with people learning new skills and taking on new roles. The transformation is organizational as well as technological, and is more extensive than many companies imagine.


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9 Habits That Lead to Terrible Decisions

Several years ago we came up with a great idea for a new leadership-development offering we thought would be valuable to everyone. We had research demonstrating that when people embarked on a self-development program, their success increased dramatically when they received follow-up encouragement.  We developed a software application to offer that sort of encouragement. People could enter their development goals, and the software would send them reminders every week or month asking how they were doing, to motivate them to keep on going. We invested a lot of time and money in this product.

But it turned out that people did not like receiving the e-mails and found them more annoying than motivating. Some of our users came up with a name for this type of software. They called it “nagware.” Needless to say, this product never reached the potential we had envisioned.  Thinking about the decisions we had made to create this disappointing result led us to ask the question, “What causes well-meaning people to make poor decisions?”

Some possibilities came immediately to mind – people make poor decisions when under severe time pressure or when they don’t have access to all the important information (unless they’re are explaining the decision to their boss, and then it is often someone else’s fault).

But we wanted a more objective answer. In an effort to understand the root cause of poor decision making, we looked at 360-feedback data from more than 50,000 leaders and compared the behavior of those who were perceived to be making poor decisions with that of the people perceived to be making very good decisions. We did a factor analysis of the behaviors that made the most statistical difference between the best and worst decision makers. Nine factors emerged as the most common paths to poor decision making. Here they are in order from most to least significant.

  1. Laziness. This showed up as a failure to check facts, to take the initiative, to confirm assumptions, or to gather additional input. Basically, such people were perceived to be sloppy in their work and unwilling to put themselves out. They relied on past experience and expected results simply to be an extrapolation of the past.
  2. Not anticipating unexpected events. It is discouraging to consistently consider the possibility of negative events in our lives, and so most people assume the worst will not happen. Unfortunately, bad things happen fairly often. People die, get divorced, and have accidents. Markets crash, house prices go down, and friends are unreliable. There is excellent research demonstrating that if people just take the time to consider what might go wrong, they are actually very good at anticipating problems. But many people just get so excited about a decision they are making that they never take the time to do that simple due-diligence.
  3. Indecisiveness. At the other end of the scale, when faced with a complex decision that will be based on constantly changing data, it’s easy to continue to study the data, ask for one more report, or perform yet one more analysis before a decision gets made. When the reports and the analysis take much longer than expected, poor decision makers delay, and the opportunity is missed. It takes courage to look at the data, consider the consequences responsibly, and then move forward. Oftentimes indecision is worse than making the wrong decision. Those most paralyzed by fear are the ones who believe that one mistake will ruin their careers and so avoid any risk at all.
  4. Remaining locked in the past. Some people make poor decisions because they’re using the same old data or processes they always have. Such people get used to approaches that worked in the past and tend not to look for approaches that will work better. Better the devil they know. But, too often, when a decision is destined to go wrong, it’s because the old process is based on assumptions that are no longer true. Poor decision makers fail to keep those base assumptions in mind when applying the tried and true.
  5. Having no strategic alignment. Bad decisions sometimes stem from a failure to connect the problem to the overall strategy. In the absence of a clear strategy that provides context, many solutions appear to make sense. When tightly linked to a clear strategy, the better solutions quickly begin to rise to the top.
  6. Over-dependence. Some decisions are never made because one person is waiting for another, who in turn is waiting for someone else’s decision or input. Effective decision makers find a way to act independently when necessary.
  7. Isolation. Some of those leaders are waiting for input because they’ve not taken steps to get it in a timely manner or have not established the relationships that would enable them to draw on other people’s expertise when they need to. All our research (and many others’) on effective decision making recognizes that involving others with the relevant knowledge, experience, and expertise improves the quality of the decision. This is not news. So the question is why. Sometimes people lack the necessary networking skills to access the right information. Other times, we’ve found, people do not involve others because they want the credit for a decision. Unfortunately they get to take the blame for the bad decisions, as well.
  8. Lack of technical depth. Organizations today are very complex, and even the best leaders do not have enough technical depth to fully understand multifaceted issues. But when decision makers rely on others’ knowledge and expertise without any perspective of their own, they have a difficult time integrating that information to make effective decisions. And when they lack even basic knowledge and expertise, they have no way to tell if a decision is brilliant or terrible. We continue to find that the best executives have deep expertise. And when they still don’t have the technical depth to understand the implications of the decisions they face, they make it their business to find the talent they need to help them.
  9. Failure to communicate the what, where, when, and how associated with their decisions. Some good decisions become bad decisions because people don’t understand – or even know about — them. Communicating a decision, its rational and implications, is critical to the successful implementation of a decision.

Waiting too long for others’ input. Failing to get the right input at the right time. Failing to understand that input through insufficient skills. Failing to understand when something that worked in the past will not work now. Failing to know when to make a decision without all the right information and when to wait for more advice. It’s no wonder good people make bad decisions. The path to good decision making is narrow, and it’s far from straight. But keeping in mind the pitfalls can make any leader a more effective decision maker.


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The Right Way to Present Your Business Case

You’ve already put a great deal of work into preparing a solid business case for your project or idea. But when it comes to the critical presentation phase, how do you earn the support of decision makers in the room? How do you present your case so that it’s clear and straightforward while also persuasive?

What the Experts Say
Without a winning delivery, even the best-laid business plans are at a disadvantage. “The idea may be great, but if it’s not communicated well, it won’t get any traction,” says Nancy Duarte, the author of the HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations and CEO of Duarte, Inc., a company specializing in presentations and corporate messaging workshops. A memorable presentation transforms “numbers on a page” into something more tangible, says Raymond Sheen, author of the HBR Guide to Building Your Business Case. “It becomes a business opportunity that we’re grasping, a problem we’re resolving, a step forward for the company.” Here’s how to create a persuasive pitch.

Craft an emotional story
You may be tempted to stick to facts and figures to do the persuading for you, but great presenters know that the best way to hook an audience is through a story. This ‘story’ can be as simple as outlining the need, impact, and solution; the key is to present what’s at stake through a clear arc. But the more you can inject an emotional appeal or human connection into your narrative, the stronger and more memorable your case will be. That could mean illustrating the effects of a proposed customer management system with testimonials from actual customers, or describing how the data-sharing project you want to expand helped keep employees connected during a major outage. “With a business case, odds are that you’re trying to insert change,” says Duarte. “The first reaction to that change is typically fear,” and the only real way to get your audience to overcome their reluctance is to “appeal to the heart and not the mind.”

Lead with the need
In order to grab the attention of your audience from the outset, immediately identify the business need you are trying to address. Begin by asking yourself, “What is the message that I’m trying to get across?” says Sheen. Is there a market opportunity the company is overlooking? Does the firm need a new IT system? Clearly articulate this need as soon as you begin, because no matter how well researched or innovative your solution, you won’t get support if the need isn’t apparent or convincing. “Make sure you also show how that the need aligns with corporate goals and strategies,” Sheen says. “Just because you see an opportunity doesn’t mean that the business will want to pursue it.”

Address your audience’s concerns
Addressing the individuals concerns of stakeholders in the room will go a long way toward winning you allies. “If the finance person frets about keeping expenses under control, discuss expense numbers,” says Sheen. “If you have someone who is interested in growth in Asia, show how your project helps the company grow in the region.” Research past presentations and the outcomes to make sure you have your bases covered. If there are “issues that other projects have had, you should have an answer for those,” says Sheen. You might also consider giving decision makers a preview of your presentation ahead of time, and asking for their input. You can then salt their recommendations into your presentation, which will increase their investment in your success. “When you let people feel like they co-created your content, then they’ll not only support you but then they’ll feel empowered as ambassadors,” says Duarte. “They’ll feel like they’re representing their own idea.”

Find the right medium for your message
Well-presented data can do wonders for persuading an audience. But overwhelming slides with needless detail or trotting out tired visuals will also quickly lose you favor. Think carefully about the message you want to convey. Does a bar graph, table, or pie chart more effectively present your position? Are you able to circulate documents ahead of time, which might affect the data you want to emphasize in the actual presentation? Or will a unique, more entertaining route be more persuasive? “You have to know the best medium for the information,” says Duarte.

Don’t forget to connect
But above all, make sure you avoid “relying so much on your slides that you forget to make that human connection,” says Duarte. It might also be worthwhile to use colorful metaphors, videos, or other multimedia to make your point stand out. But sometimes simpler can be better, says Duarte. One of her clients convinced his CEO to fund a multimillion project by relying on basic graphics he drew on a whiteboard. The real power of his presentation, she says, was in the strength of his narrative.

Have an elevator pitch ready
No matter how much time you’re allotted to present, you won’t know until you walk into the room whether you’ll actually have 5 minutes — or 50. It’s critical to have a short elevator pitch ready in the event your time is short. “Know which one or two slides you’re going to pull out, the ones that can tell the story,” says Sheen. By the same token, you may be asked to do a deeper dive into one facet of your case in the middle of the presentation. That’s when having some appendix slides can be helpful, so that you can expand on certain elements of your case. You don’t need to have every data point memorized, Sheen says, but if someone asks, ‘What happens if we expand into Eastern Europe?’ you need to know what the general effect might be. It’s critical to “plan for short,” says Sheen, “and be prepared to go long.”

Principles to Remember

Do:

• Tell a story — it will make your case more persuasive and memorable
• Spell out the business need — it gives the audience a reason to listen
• Have both a short and long version ready — you never know how much time you will have

Don’t:

• Overlook stakeholders’ pet concerns — address them directly to win allies in the room
• Overwhelm your audience with needless detail
• Read directly from your slides — no one wants to attend a boring read-along

Case study #1: Build buy-in ahead of time
Erik Mason, the marketing communications manager for an aesthetic skin laser company in the Northeast, felt the firm needed a new image. “Other companies with slicker marketing were gaining market share even though they had inferior technology,” Mason says.

Mason decided to pitch a total rebranding — a new logo, new tagline, and new copy and photography for ads and communications — to the new executive team brought in to prep the company for an IPO. The price tag? An 8-fold increase in the marketing budget. “Marketing was a bit of a nebulous concept for the executive team,” he says. “They knew they needed to do it,” but they weren’t sure why or what tangible effect a new marketing strategy might have.

To build support for his case, Mason approached executive team members individually to ask them what they thought competitors were doing right, and how that compared with their own company’s strategy. Those conversations “gave me a roadmap of sorts for how I needed to present the recommendations to them,” Mason says, “so it felt tailored to them based on their input.”

He crafted the presentation as a story of each of the company’s primary competitors, showcasing their branding and visuals side-by-side with their marketing spending and earnings. That analysis not only showed those with the most compelling brands and integrated marketing support had impressive revenues, but also the most positive performances on Wall Street, a helpful fact given the company’s IPO aspirations. “The cases showed how a marketing investment pays ahead, especially when it comes to shareholder value,” says Mason, now the head of his own marketing firm.

Not long after, the executive team approved a full funding of Mason’s initiative. And in short order, the company achieved consistent double-digit sales growth — and a successful IPO.

Case study #2: Impress with unique visuals
When the 2008 financial crisis necessitated painful cuts at a Silicon Valley insurance company, chief information officer Jag Randhawa knew he needed a creative solution to boost morale and keep employees engaged. He decided to try to launch a bottom-up innovation program, which would allow IT employees to submit ideas to improve customer service, business processes, and products. But first, he needed the approval of management.

Randhawa didn’t yet have data to illustrate how the program might work, only anecdotal evidence from companies in other industries. He knew that if he wanted to persuade management, he would have to make an emotional appeal.

When it came time to present, Randhawa began by asking his audience to do a selective attention exercise, also known as the “invisible gorilla” exercise. The task involves watching a video and counting how many basketball passes are made between players wearing white jerseys. Most viewers are so focused on counting the passes that they completely overlook the man dressed as a gorilla who walks through the frame. Randhawa’s audience was no different.

Not only did the video lighten the mood, “it was also very relevant to my core message,” says Randhawa. “It demonstrated the need to have extra sets of eyes on a problem and the importance of diverse perspectives that employees can offer.” As the management team asked questions about how the program might work, it was clear that Randhawa’s hook had worked. There was already a “clear sense of collective ownership,” he says. In the end, he received an overwhelming “yes” to implement the program.

For more on how to build a business case from scratch, see the HBR Guide to Building a Business Case Ebook + Tools.


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Make Your Marketing Content Useful

Marketing messages are for consumption, just like products. Your audience will value your brand and engage with it if you create content that’s more meaningful than all the listicles and other hackneyed advice out there — content that’s worthy of publication in its own right. That’s not to say you should recycle your white papers and expect people to ferret out what’s useful. Good content meets audiences where they are, and it’s tailored to them.

John Battelle alluded to all this in his 2009 prediction that agencies would become publishers, and vice versa, and I just knew he was right. So I began writing books and digital content to help my firm’s target audience address a pressing need — creating and delivering effective business presentations. That decision transformed my company. Until that point, we had done no formal marketing. In the few years since, we have experimented with almost every possible publishing channel.

One of the first things I learned is that readers don’t like it when you try to sell them something. If the content itself isn’t useful, people won’t consume it and your pitch will be lost on them anyway. You can sell more overtly through other avenues, but trust that your readers are smart enough to associate the value of your message with your brand. They’ll know where to look when they need the goods or services you provide.

For example, take Red Bull, the energy drink maker. Though it uses traditional marketing tactics, such as sponsorships and commercials, it also produces The Red Bulletin, a monthly magazine (print and digital) that delivers stories about sports, adventure, music, and other topics its target audience cares about. Whether or not you purchase Red Bull energy drinks, you can connect with the brand and lifestyle.

Offering content like this for free doesn’t mean taking a loss. My firm initially released my book Resonate as a multi-touch digital offering on iTunes for $17.99. When we changed the price to free, people downloaded more books in the first week than we sold the entire previous year. Because it got a lot of traffic, the book was promoted on the iBooks homepage, which exposed it to an even broader audience. And our business saw a huge bump in inbound project queries, which trumped the revenue we would have received from book sales.

Distributing through channels with analytics is key, though. In the traditional publishing model, the publisher and reseller retain the names of your readers, but when you are the publisher of your message, you get “paid” in loyalty and data — lots of data. Use marketing software to make sense of all that information and to look for patterns in who is consuming your content, which pieces people spend the most time reading, and so on. If the content is compelling enough, readers will willingly give their e-mail addresses to get it. That’s more valuable than cash, because unlike a transaction, ongoing communication creates and strengthens connection.

The more shareable the media, the better. If you create a great slide, for instance, people will pass it around and reuse it. It’s a self-contained, easy-to-copy bit of insight. One of our publishing experiments was to release a full-color, full-length book for free in PowerPoint. The book, Slidedocs, established guidelines for using presentation software as a publishing tool, and the numbers showed that the market was hungry for that information. To date, it has yielded 145,288 views on SlideShare, 100,000 views on our website, and 21,420 e-mail addresses. We offered a piece of useful content, and we were rewarded with an outstanding new community of fans, followers, and friends.

A good book seems to sell itself. Ideally, marketing content should function the same way. Your material will be read — and spread — if it’s useful to others. So find out what your target customers are craving, and feed it to them.


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Competing for Talent in Every Geography

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In the late 1990s, Steven Hankin of McKinsey provoked a lot of discussion when he coined the phrase “the war for talent.” As the phrase became more popular (and was elaborated in a book), others used it to warn corporations of impending talent shortfalls, advocating that it be considered a strategic business challenge that required attention at the highest levels. With the dot-com burst, the recession, and other upheavals, the imperative took a backseat, but the challenge still remains.

The original thesis of the war for talent was predicated on significant demographic shifts, like aging populations in the West. While still relevant, those shifts are now just part of the equation. Consider several new realities:

  • Many countries insist that foreign companies benefit the local community. Jobs have become a currency, and economic policymakers use them as a part of the bargain for entry.
  • Many foreign companies that had an edge a couple of decades ago now face competition for local talent from newly prestigious home-grown companies that are able to tune their talent strategies to that particular context.
  • It is increasingly difficult to send expats to some of the newer frontiers of growth. Talent is needed in Angola, Mozambique, Mongolia, Vietnam — places where the infrastructure is different from what an expat would experience in London, Paris, Singapore, or Sydney.
  • Skill levels vary widely. Multinationals accustomed to attracting talent trained in the West now have to recruit locally where education levels can sometimes be inconsistent.

GE is one of many corporations now confronting these challenges. Operating in more than 170 countries, in multiple businesses that range from financial services to jet engines, and with more than 60% of our workforce based outside the United States, we must compete in every geography and get it right. Clearly, a multimodal talent strategy is required.

In the United States, and in West European markets, the challenges center around talent replenishment and knowledge transfer to assure that productivity remains high even as the Baby Boomer population starts to retire. We have a number of initiatives to address these challenges, including apprenticeships, partnerships to promote academic achievement and to assist public school students pursue advanced degrees, and programs to hire and train veterans of the armed forces and help recent graduates build critical leadership skills.

In Africa, where talent potential is great but education and skill levels vary and are still developing, we are starting to work with local universities and technical institutions to co-create a curriculum that will strengthen skills, particularly in technical disciplines. Further, we have appointed an advisory council consisting of eminent professors and practitioners from the continent who can help identify mutual needs and ensure long-term talent development.

In other countries where an advanced talent pool is more established, notably China and India, competition is intense. Here, training and continuing education are critical differentiators in terms of hiring and engaging employees. Our leadership-development centers in Shanghai and Bengaluru (or Bangalore) are therefore very important for us to show our commitment to our talent.

In addition to a differentiated talent strategy based on geographical needs, we are also fine-tuning our talent agenda based on other shifts. A few years ago, we invited a group of early career high-performers to advise the company on how best to factor their specific needs into GE leadership processes. One thing that stood out in their report was the question of retention. We have all heard the hypothesis that members of the Millennial generation have a greater tendency to move from company to company in the first few years after they step into the corporate world. The Global New Directions team, as it was called, advised: “Don’t try to retain us; instead inspire us to stay.” That idea prompted our businesses to connect more openly with our purpose, and the deeply embedded sense of mission that our employees share. The newer generation wants to know the “onlyness” — what is it that only your company can do to benefit the world and how that aspiration can inspire them to take up the cause.

The challenge is far from over, and we need to keep fine-tuning our approach at both global and local levels. Nevertheless, a strong workforce-planning focus that helps to size demand in different geographies and is coupled with an appropriate level of investment in learning and development are key to address this business challenge. Our leaders take this seriously. It is integral to long-term differentiation.


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How to Help an Underperformer

As a manager, you can’t accept underperformance. It’s frustrating, time-consuming, and it can demoralize the other people on your team. But what do you do about an employee who isn’t performing up to snuff? How do you help turn around the problematic behavior? And how long do you let it go on before you cut your losses?

What the Experts Say
Your company may have a prescribed way of handling an underperformer, but most of those recommended processes aren’t that useful, says Jean-François Manzoni, a professor of management at INSEAD and coauthor of The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People to Fail. “When you talk to senior executives, they’ll usually acknowledge that those don’t work,” he says. So chances are, it’s up to you as the manager to figure out what to do. “When people encounter an issue with underperformance, they really are on their own,” says Joseph Weintraub, a professor of management and organizational behavior at Babson College and coauthor of the book, The Coaching Manager: Developing Top Talent in Business. Here’s how to stage a productive intervention.

Don’t ignore the problem
Too often these issues go unaddressed.  “Most performance problems aren’t dealt with directly,” says Weintraub. “More often, instead of taking action, the manager will transfer the person somewhere else or let him stay put without doing anything.” This is the wrong approach. Never allow underperformance to fester on your team. It’s rare that these situations resolve themselves. It’ll just get worse. You’ll become more and more irritated and that’s going to show and make the person uncomfortable,” says Manzoni. If you have an issue, take steps toward solving it as soon as possible.

Consider what’s causing the problem
Is the person a poor fit for the job? Does she lack the necessary skills? Or is she just misunderstanding expectations? There is very often a mismatch between what managers and employees think is important when it comes to performance, Weintraub explains. It’s critical to consider the role you might be playing in the problem. “You may have contributed to the negative situation,” says Manzoni. “After all, it’s rare that it’s all the subordinate’s fault just as it’s rare that it’s all the boss’s.” Don’t focus exclusively on what the underperformer needs to do to remedy the situation — think about what changes you can make as well.

Ask others what you might be missing
Before you act, make sure to look at the problem objectively. You might talk to the person’s previous boss or someone who’s worked with him, or conduct a 360 review. When approaching other people, though, do it carefully and confidentially. Manzoni suggests you might say something like: “I’m worried that my frustration may be clouding my judgment. All I can see are the mistakes he’s making. I want to make an honest effort to see what I’m missing.” Look for evidence that might prove your assumptions wrong.

Talk to the underperformer
Once you’ve checked in with others, talk to the employee directly. Explain exactly what you’re observing, how the team’s work is affected, and make clear that you want to help. Manzoni suggests the conversation go something like this: “I’m seeing issues with your performance. I believe that you can do better and I know that I may be contributing to the problem. So how do we get out of this? How do we improve?” It’s important to engage the person in brainstorming solutions. “Ask them to come up with ideas,” says Weintraub. Don’t expect an immediate response though. The person may need time to digest your feedback and come back later with some proposals.

Confirm whether the person is coachable
You can’t coach someone who doesn’t agree that they need help. In the initial conversation — and throughout the intervention — it’s critical that the employee acknowledge the problem. “If someone says, ‘I am who I am’ or implies that they’re not going to change, then you’ve got to make a decision whether you can live with the issue and at what cost,” says Weintraub. On the other hand, if you see a willingness to change and a genuine interest in improving, chances are you can work together to turn things around.

Make a plan
Create a concrete plan for what both you and the employee are going to do differently, agreeing on measurable actions so you can mark progress. You should also ask what resources the employee needs to accomplish those goals. You don’t want her to make promises she can’t meet. Then, give her time. “Everyone needs time to change and maybe learn or acquire new skills,” says Weintraub.

Regularly monitor their progress
It may seem obvious, but unfortunately, many managers fail to follow up. Ask the person to check in with you regularly, or set up a time and date in the future to check progress. It may be helpful to ask the employee if he has someone that he’d like you to enlist in the effort. Weintraub suggests you ask: “Is there anyone you trust who can provide me with feedback about how well you’re doing in making these changes?” Doing this sends a positive message: “It says I want this to work and I want you to feel comfortable; I’m not going to sneak around your back.”

Respect confidentiality
Along the way, it’s important to keep what’s happening confidential — while also letting others know you’re working on the underperformance problem. Manzoni admits that this is a tricky line to tow. Don’t discuss the specific details with others, he says. But you might tell them something like: “Bill and I are working together on his output and lately we’ve had good discussions. I need your help in being as positive and supportive as you can.”

If there isn’t improvement, take action
If things don’t get better, change the tenor of the discussion. “At some point you leave coaching and get into the consequences speech. You might say, ‘Let me be very clear that this is the third time this has happened and since your behavior hasn’t changed, I need to explain the consequences,’” says Weintraub. Disciplinary actions, particularly letting someone go, shouldn’t be taken lightly. “When you fire somebody, it not only affects that person, but also you, the firm, and everybody around you,” says Manzoni.

While it may be painful to fire someone, it may be the best option for your team. “It’s disheartening if you see the person next to you not performing,” says Weintraub. Manzoni elaborates: “The person you’re asking to leave is only one of the stakeholders. The people left behind are the more important ones . . . When people feel the process is fair, they’re willing to accept a negative outcome.”

Praise and reward positive change
Of course if the person makes positive changes, say so. Make clear that you’re noticing the developments and reward him accordingly. “At some point, if the non-performer has improved, be sure to take them off the death spiral. You want a team that can make mistakes and learn from them,” says Weintraub.

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Take action as soon as possible­ — the sooner you intervene the better
  • Consider how you might be contributing to the performance issues
  • Make a concrete, measurable plan for improvement

Don’t:

  • Forget to follow up — monitor their progress regularly
  • Waste your time trying to coach someone who is unwilling to admit that there’s an issue
  • Talk about specific performance issues with others on the team

Case study#1: Be ready to invest time
Allie Rogovin managed a five-person team at Teach for America when she brought in Max* as a recruiting coordinator. The job had two main responsibilities: completing administrative duties that supported the recruiting team and managing special projects. Allie recognized that the administrative component wasn’t that exciting. “So I let him know that the better and faster he completed these tasks, the more time he’d have for the fun projects,” she says. But before long, Max was struggling with the core part of his role. “I realized a couple months into the job he wasn’t getting his administrative duties done in time,” she says.

Allie started by giving Max an action plan template. She asked him to take 20 minutes at the end of each day to enter and prioritize all of his tasks . She then reviewed his list every evening and gave him input on how he might shuffle his priorities for the next day. They also started meeting three times a week instead of just once a week.

“He was a very valuable team member and I knew he could do a good job. That made me want to invest time in working with him,” she says. She continued meeting with Max regularly and reviewing his priorities for three months. “I didn’t think it was going to be that long but I wanted to see that he was building new habits,” says Allie. Max still occasionally missed deadlines but he was showing definite signs of improvement. “We tweaked the plan along the way and he eventually got into the swing of things,” she says.

“I frankly wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t see huge potential in him,” says Allie.

Case study #2: Make clear what needs to change
Bill Wright*, a business developer at a residential building company, hired a new project manager last summer. We’ll call him Jack. Right from the start, Bill saw performance issues. One of Jack’s primary responsibilities was to develop small projects. That meant defining the scope of the project, talking with homeowners, negotiating with subcontractors, and coordinating with design professionals. “He was taking too long to get things done. What should’ve taken days, was taking three to four weeks,” Bill says. This was problematic for many reasons: “I was supposed to be billing his time to the client but I couldn’t bill for the amount of time he was putting in. Plus I had disgruntled homeowners who were wondering why things were taking so long.”

Bill met with Jack weekly to review the current workload, prioritize tasks, and resolve any issues. “I wanted to help him move things forward but eventually I got so frustrated that I started to take projects over,” Bill says. At Jack’s 90-day review, Bill had a frank conversation with his employee about the consequences of not being able to turn around his performance. “When I asked what he needed, Jack said that he wanted more than an hour of my time each week to get more input on his work. I said I was happy to do that and asked him to go ahead and schedule a regular meeting time,” Bill says. But Jack never followed up or put any additional time on Bill’s calendar.

“It was very clear that it wasn’t working out. There were never signs of any progress.” That’s when Bill sat Jack down and made it clear that his job was on the line. Again, there was no change in behavior, so several weeks later, he let Jack go. “I look back on it and realize I made a bad hire. I recently hired his replacement and it’s like night and day. He already gets the job.”

*Not their real names


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