6 Hacks Leaders & CEOs Use to Achieve Success

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Winston Churchill Rolling

Studying the biographies of great leaders is often an intimidating experience. As you skim the resumes of your favorite business heroes and read the obituaries of your much-loved political leader you think to yourself, “That can never be me.”

But that’s far from the truth. Most leaders had a pretty harrowing journey to the top and wouldn’t have achieved their success without relying on pragmatic, micro-skills that anybody can learn.

Follows are a few specific skills used by history’s greatest leaders that anyone can master:

1. Don’t let the judgment of others get in your way

Henry Ford was described by those who knew him as a “rather shiftless farmboy-turned mechanic who, at the age of thirty, was spending most of nights tinkering in a back room or laughing and joking with boys.”

Not high praise.

More damning was Henry’s father. One observer wrote, “I could see that old Mr. Ford was ashamed of a grown-up man like Henry fussing over a little thing like a quadricycle.”

Henry knew that his father didn’t approve and was “heartbroken”  about it. However, that didn’t stop him from fussing with his “quadricycle.”

Leaders need to dismiss criticisms. The path to success is often stop-and-go due to naysayers and doubters. Focus and persistence pays off.

2. Talk to everyone

Sam Walton writes in his biography, “In college…I would always speak to the person coming towards me. If I knew them, I would call them by name, but even if I didn’t I would still speak them.”

This positive, happy-go-lucky attitude made him recognizable to everyone on campus. Sure, he might of made some people think twice about his over-eagerness, but at least they knew who he was.

Walton’s talk-to-everyone policy paid off. “I was elected president of the senior men’s honor society,” Walton writes, “and officer in my fraternity, and president of the senior class.”

Like Walton, leaders should try to make it habit to talk to everyone they can. Some conversations may be unprofitable, but the conversational practice can help leaders earn respect from customers, loan officers, and clients.

3. Take every job seriously

In 1849 Andrew Carnegie became a telegraph messenger. By all accounts it was a dull, boring job.

However, Carnegie, unlike the droves of other young men who crowded the industry, didn’t think the gig was all that bad. He mastered the trade and got a raise. Over time he learned who each mover-and-shaker in Pittsburgh’s business community was since he helped send their messages via telegram.

Carnegie became so good at the art of telegraphing he could write down messages by ear rather than by studying sheets of transcribed Morse code.

When the Pennsylvania Railroad needed a new telegraph office manager—Carnegie, although young, was the only logical choice.

Carnegie was now on the ground floor of America’s fastest growing industry. He proved himself capable and, of course, the rest is history.

Leaders should handle all assignments, projects, and duties with respect and interest. A little application can go a long way.

4. It’s OK to be scared of risk

George Eastman didn’t quit his job at the Rochester Savings Bank when he started tinkering around with cameras, film, and dry plates. He stuck to his banking duties and only played with his camera equipment on the weekends and evenings. He may have remained at the bank longer while he experimented with his camera gear if it weren’t for the bank’s cruel management. They didn’t offer Eastman a promotion and instead gave it to a son of one of the bank managers. Furious, Eastman quit and started his small business, which grew into Eastman Kodak.

Eastman felt no rush to jump into business and didn’t enjoy the risks of entrepreneurship. He patiently developed products and inventions in his spare time and only started his own company only after being forced into unemployment.

Leaders need not be mavericks and renegades. They can wait it out for the right moment.

5. You don’t have to be a stick in the mud

Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines, used humor to market his company, talk to his customers, and communicate with his staff.

Kelleher displayed his natural good humor when another company sued Southwest over a trademarked slogan. Kelleher took the legal battle into his own hands and challenged the CEO of the suing company to an arm-wrestling match. Kelleher won.

The relaxed, quirky atmosphere helped make Southwest a company people could relate to and trust. Kelleher’s easy ways and charm helped create an environment where it was fun to work.

But Kelleher was always the consummate professional. He comments, “What really adds up to professionalism is being very good at what you do in a very modest way.” Kelleher knew that he could have a good time just as long as the work got done.

Leaders don’t always need to be cold, reserved figures. They can be relatable and can enjoy a good time.

6. Burst the knowledge bubble

During WWII Prime Minister Winston Churchill failed to adequately defend Singapore, figuring that the minimal defenses stationed there were enough and that the Japanese forces in the Pacific theater wouldn’t dare attack what was considered an impregnable island.

However, Churchill and his staffers guessed wrong. Japanese forces descended on the island on Feb. 15th, 1942 and easily captured “60,000 Imperial troops in Singapore – 16,000 British, 14,000 Australian and 32,000 Indian soldiers.”  Not to mention resources and equipment.

Churchill accepted defeat and admitted he “ought to have known” about the danger. He asked four questions of his staff to figure out how he could have been so horribly informed. They were: “Why didn’t I know, why didn’t my advisers know, why wasn’t I told, why didn’t I ask?”

The disaster taught Churchill to be critical of what he knew and what he was told. Moreover, he forced himself to break out of his knowledge bubble by asking himself about his lack of inquisitiveness.  These invaluable questions help Churchill navigate the rest of the war with more conviction and confidence.

Individuals must actively break their knowledge bubble and make sure they are looking beyond what they are told. Leaders who look beyond what they are told and ask more probing, deeper questions will have a leg up on the competition.

Obstacles to Change in the Academic Setting

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professor-in-reposeUniversities and colleges are faced with unprecedented challenges.  Institutions of higher education cannot be managed by wishful thinking or the belief that everything will “work out.” For years, this traditional mindset allowed academic institutions to perch on an isolated peak in the midst of an oasis. This idyllic state can no longer be sustained.

The reality is simple.  Resources are limited. Expansion is restricted. Technology is changing the core pedagogy. Students and their parents are no longer complacent consumers. In this context universities and colleges must change while adhering to their core mission of excellence in research, teaching, and outreach. They must become agile, entrepreneurial, and creative.

However, the very processes and structures that have allowed universities and colleges to expand in earlier times and under different circumstances are now sources of deep inertia and resistance to change.  It may be the case that it is harder to drive change in institutions of higher learning than in private-sector organizations. What are the underlying factors that cause universities and colleges to resist change?

Intransigent culture

Institutions of higher education have long taken pride in their culture.  From the biggest Ivy League school to the smallest private institution, individual traditions have drawn students, engaged faculty and staff, and sustained the interest and support of alumni.  However, culture and traditions that have been useful in building a sense of community may be a source of resistance to change.

Turf protection

Universities and colleges are riddled with artificial divisions.  Questions of turf arise in schools, departments, and fields. Collaboration and cooperation are the first casualties of turf battles.  Lasting change cannot be put into place when people are overly worried about losing ground, personally or professionally.

Administrative and faculty divide

Administrators have a distinctly different role in than faculty do, and these roles sometimes clash.  Administrators are usually more concerned with the bottom-line and maximizing income and faculty are first committed to excellence in teaching and research, and not as obsessed with how the bills are paid.  It is important to recognize the potential conflict that can be caused by differing administrative and faculty mindsets.

Power pendulum

The power pendulum swings with regularity in the university setting.  Sometimes higher ed gets on a “centralization” kick, where core support functions (IT, HR, Finance) are done by a single office.  Other times higher ed goes in the opposite direction, and gives schools and departments more latitude in how they operate, and allows more decisions to be made on a local level.  Both centralization and decentralization pose different obstacles to change.

Duplication of structures

What is the mission of a university? Ask a dozen people and there will be a dozen answers.  Multiple missions within the university can lead to a duplication of administrative structures—and therefore, a greater acreage of turf that needs to be protected.

It is clear that the 21st century will usher in great change for universities and colleges, and no one is certain what this “change” will look like.  There are built-in obstacles that make change difficult (some may say impossible), but by first recognizing what stands in the way of change, administrators and faculty can begin to deal with the factors that stand in the way of change, and clear the way for the next generation of students.

Yahoo takes the Lead

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In an industry-defining moment, Marissa Mayer taking on the position as Yahoo’s new CEO marks the youngest CEO to head a Fortune 500 Company, and the first woman to take on the role while expecting.

More than anything, it is the symbolic aspect of this event that makes the story so compelling. Only 37 years old, Mayer has already proven that she has the credentials for the post. Since joining Google in 1994, she has been an engineer, designer, product manager, and key spokesperson for the company. She held key roles in Google Search, Google Images, Google News, Google Maps, Google Books, Google Product Search, Google Toolbar, iGoogle, and Gmail. She also oversaw the layout of Google’s famous search homepage.

Many industry experts were surprised to hear Yahoo’s choice for the young new leader of the company. To couple the news, hours after Yahoo’s public announcement, Mayer sent out the now-famous tweet that she will soon be expecting a baby boy.

Yahoo’s move makes a bold statement in a season when the debate on female leadership and work-life balance has taken center-stage since the publishing of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” A former director of policy planning at the State Department, Slaughter has become a central critic of the inflexible work culture that she claims made juggling high-profile government work along with raising two sons near-impossible, and led her to step down from her government post.

In recent years, Yahoo has been struggling to define itself as a relevant internet directory and search engine. Perhaps then, the company has decided to boldly begin its process of transformation in the spirit of progress.  When Mayer revealed her pregnancy to Yahoo’s Board of Directors last month, she claimed that no one raised any concerns, which implies Yahoo’s evolved thinking. She has also stated that she plans to take no more than a couple of weeks off for maternity leave and will work through it from home.

Many women are analyzing Mayer’s decision in light of the struggle for work-life balance. While some criticize her as a poor role-model for working women, many others hail her for embracing two challenges at once. Mayer herself seems to indicate that she simply prefers to stay in the rhythm of things. In any light, Mayer certainly has her work cut out for her in upcoming months.

Between a company that has many problems to fix and a woman who is supremely intelligent and eager to take on the task, one can hope this leadership transition marks the start of a synergetic relationship, as well as a cultural shift for women executives.

Inc. Article: The 5 Traits of High-Potential Employees

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As your company grows too big for you to do everything–the way you do now–you’re going to give over some of the leadership. (Relax. This is a good thing!) For reasons of staff morale, economy, and your own precious peace of mind, it’s better to find your new generation of leaders inside the company. But there’s a rub. Not every longtime loyal employee is really suited to be a leader.

Read the rest of “The 5 Traits of High-Potential Employees” at Inc.

Women in Leadership Spotlight: Sheryl Sandberg

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In recent years, the name Sheryl Sandberg has appeared frequently on lists such as: “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” by Fortune, “50 Women to Watch” by The Wall Street Journal, “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” by Forbes, and “100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time.

A former graduate of Harvard Business School and current Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Inc., Ms. Sandberg is a prominent face representing women in leadership. She has spoken on the topic at venues such as Barnard’s Commencement address in May 2011 and Harvard Business School’s commencement this past May. Her speech “Why we have too few Women Leaders” given at a TED conference, has over one million online views, indicative that people are listening to her inspiring words.

Indeed inspiration and encouragement seem to be the qualities that distinguish Sandberg’s approach to increasing women in the workforce. This contrasts with many discussions of women and leadership that strongly critique institutional flaws and outside causes of the gender gap in leadership.

Essentially, Sandberg does not disagree with any of the systemic problems that exist. However, she primarily focuses her discussion on what women should actively do at an individual level to reach the highest rungs of leadership and management.

Her speeches include three key pieces of advice to women: 1) Sit at the table, 2) Make your partner a partner, and 3) Don’t leave until you have to leave. She implies that each of these three actions has important implications for women’s ultimate career trajectories.

For example, telling women to sit at the table stems from years of witnessing first-hand that women tend to sit on the side of the room. She believes this represents the tendency of women to systematically underestimate their own abilities, compared to men who overestimate it. This psychological barrier prevents women from getting promotions, negotiating their salaries, and ultimately owning their own success.

When Sandberg talks about “making your partner a partner,” she refers to women having to create an equitable relationship with their spouse so that the burdens of home life and family life are evenly shared. Only in such relationships can women and their spouses be allowed to invest equal time and energy into their career developments.

Finally, Sandberg’s third piece of advice again hinges on frequent psychological tendencies of women. Women prematurely worry about their future work-life balance and self-select themselves out of opportunities before such sacrifices need to be made. Examples include women who opt out of intense medical fellowships during medical school, or women who decide not to try for partner after years of work in a law firm. She warns that premature worries become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If later women struggle with work-life balance, all their forsaken opportunities deter them from selecting work over other life activities.

Sandberg’s approach to closing the leadership gap stems from an internal impetus for women to close the ambition gap. She urges all women to take on compelling projects, embrace advancement opportunities, and enrich themselves in the fields most appealing to them. Women must feel challenged and passionate about what they do, otherwise they will drop out of the workforce feeling bored and undervalued.

Studies clearly show that women have everything it takes to become successful leaders. But maybe Sandberg is on to something. Before they can change the system, perhaps women have to change their actions first.

Why Can’t Good People Get Jobs?

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A recent interview between the Wall Street Journal and Wharton Business School’s Director of Management Peter Cappelli discussed his new book Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs. Over the scope of this short interview, he discussed his take on the perceived gap between employers who claim there is a lack of qualified candidates for jobs, and candidates who question why they have been struggling to land jobs they’ve applied to.

His main take on the disconnect underlying this issue is a lack of employers wanting to train prospective job candidates. Presumably, employers are having more difficulty in hiring candidates not because there are less academically qualified people in the market, but because companies are seeking to fill open job roles only with candidates who already have highly similar work experience in very similar companies. Essentially, companies want to do what he describes as “plug and play.”

Additionally, as companies add elaborate prerequisites that they expect candidates to already have, they render it vastly difficult for candidates who have only the academic background or have been unemployed for some time from getting a fair chance at being considered. Coupled with increased reliance on Human Resources application systems that filter out candidates based on resume terminology and selective filters, many capable candidates feel kicked to the curb.

To hear more about what Peter Cappelli thinks are the main three problems that companies and candidates should address to diminish the hiring gap, check out the interview.

Is their good news if we buy into Mr. Cappelli’s view? At least then we can be relieved that the symptom is not the diagnoses. Not facing a true “talent shortage” crisis, we can hope that a better matching of good candidates with open jobs will be efficiently achieved with a bit of targeted restructuring of the hiring process!

What Happened to all the Executive M.B.A.s?

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Executive M.B.A. programs have been growing in popularity in the United States since its inception at the University of Chicago in 1943. Traditionally, they have been used by companies to advance promising internal employees whom they want to develop into their future leaders.

Over the past several decades, it was quite popular for a company to identify pools of “rising talent” and sponsor them as candidates for Executive M.B.A. degrees at various higher level educational institutions. If candidates were admitted to the program, a tripartite relationship would be established between the sponsoring employer, the prospective student, and the university.

For a while, the benefits of an executive M.B.A. have seemed quite clear. Employees can continue working in their present organizations while obtaining a degree similar to an M.B.A. at a fraction of the normal cost and time. Additionally, the practical skills they attain from the program can be applied to their positions immediately as well as after program completion.

Subsequent to completing the degree, employees aim to rise faster within their organizations and increase their salaries. Likewise, many companies are content sponsoring employees who return to the company with increased loyalty, thereby helping the company with long-term succession planning. The degree has thus served as a promising strategy for leadership development and retention.

However, a recent article from the Wall Street Journal highlights changes in sponsorship trends for executive M.B.A. programs. With tighter budgets companies have been cutting back their investments in educational sponsorship. This results in more students taking it upon themselves to finance their executive M.B.A. educations, leading to more mixed outcomes upon program completion.

According to a survey of about 290 member schools by the Executive M.B.A. Council, only 27% of executive M.B.A. students received full financial sponsorship from their employers last year, down from 34% in 2007. In response to fewer sponsorships, more and more students are using career services offered by their schools in order to open alternate doors for them, rather than simply returning to their previous or current companies.

In response to increasing demand, many schools are offering greater career-coaching services to assist their executive M.B.A. students find new job opportunities. The article sites The Anderson School of Management at UCLA and the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University as prime examples of schools that have invested in personalized coaching services.

But does the decrease in executive M.B.A. sponsorships and the emergence of more career-coaching programs indicate a trend we should be concerned with?

While such trends could seem indicative of companies being less interested in investing in their own human capital, the answer to this question really depends on what glasses you are wearing. From the vantage point of companies, it could just be that they have not found executive M.B.A. degrees quite as useful in practice as they seemed in theory. From the perspective of schools, it could be that they are simply responding to students who have been urging for them to provide more options of post-graduate work. Or students may now be more are willing to finance their own degrees knowing that they will be less obligated to return to a previous employer. The best we can do for now is to keep a keen eye on the trajectories of our most recent executive M.B.A students to see what paths they follow.

How Do You Organize a Leadership Training Program?

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Yesterday Professor Samuel Bacharach’s article, Unbundling Leadership, was published on TrainingIndustry.com.

The article lays out a leadership training strategy that targets high-potential employees and ensures their future leadership success.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“In selecting a leadership program that is relevant for your organization, you want to make sure that:

– The leadership construct is presented as specific trainable skills.
– The training vocabulary is integrated with the business function.
– There is a serious partnership with the top leadership team.
– A networking training cohort is created to ensure follow-through.”

Sonnet 94 & Leadership

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Leaders are defined by their deeds, not their words. Everyone is capable of coming up with a vision, a set of goals, or a decent idea, but not everyone is up to getting things done.

Shakespeare said as much in sonnet 94.

In the first eight lines of the sonnet Shakespeare says that a person who has the power to move others, but resists temptations will “inherit heaven’s graces.” These people are the “lords and owners of their faces.”

Those that don’t wield their power to hurt or to brag can expect to benefit.

The remaining lines of the sonnet describe a summer flower. If the flower were to meet a “base infection”, Shakespeare states, it would smell worse than a weed. The moral of the sonnet: deeds shape a person’s character, regardless of their position.

Leaders know that their actions define who they are, but it’s an easily forgotten lesson in the day-to-day rush.

Literary critic Harold Bloom argues that in order to truly know a poem, one should memorize it. Leaders should commit the following sonnet to memory so they can not only internalize it’s important argument, but also feel it.

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow,
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.