Never-Ending Stories–The Green Screen, Walt Disney, and Your Own Organization’s Cultural Lore

Walt Disney Storyteller Statue

The beginnings of a legendary company: the “Storytellers” statue at Disney California Adventure Park tells millions of visitors the story of young Walt Disney’s humble arrival to California in 1923.
Photos by: Loren Javier on Flickr

Once upon a time, in the early 1990s, long before Harry Potter was even a twinkle in the mind’s eye of J.K. Rowling, there was a popular children’s fantasy film called “The Never-Ending Story.”  My then pre-teen nieces were huge fans of the movie; so I took them and their mom to see the studio where the film had been made in Munich, my home at that time.

I vividly remember their bewilderment and disappointment when they found that the star of the film, a furry beast, couldn’t really fly; but that the illusion was created with special effects on a green screen. It was somewhat a “coming of age” moment when they learned that appearances are often deceiving and reality may actually be camouflaged by “smoke and mirrors.”

In my family, that chapter in my nieces’ youth is a “never-ending story,” one that is oft repeated and part of our family lore. It’s part of the rich tapestry of our shared family experiences. Now that they’ve grown up, the details of that trip have faded; but the lesson learned will be passed on to the next generation. Aunt Connie will make sure that happens.

In your ”business family,” are there stories that are often retold because they capture the so-called Zeitgeist of a particular time? As with The Walt Disney Company, do these stories demonstrate truths that your people have discovered or reflect clearly your company’s culture and spirit? Are you–or your communications teams or your company historian or archivist–recording these stories and legends for posterity? Ask, assess, then act. We’re here to help!

Strategic Leadership: 6 defined habits that lead to breakthough successes

Strategic thinking in a fishbowl

Strategic leaders question prevailing assumptions and consider alternative approaches.
Illustration by hikingartist.com

A strategic mindset is the difference between leading decisively and “swimming in circles,” even when faced with constant change and increasing uncertainty.

Occasionally the leadership message boards I subscribe to online reveal a golden nugget that fits directly into the zone of thought leadership. Paul J.H. Schoemaker from the Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania recently published this piece on the “6 Habits of True Strategic Leaders.” Schoemaker defines these habits as:

  • Anticipate
  • Think Critically
  • Interpret
  • Decide
  • Align
  • Learn

What habits help you step back from the day-to-day demands of leadership and analyze the bigger picture? Fill in the list with additional habits of your own by sharing them with others in the comments section. And my own foundational habits? They are “Ask, assess, then act.”

Remembering Stephen Covey: The Right Time Left for Thinking

stephen covey

Stephen Covey: reflecting on his important (or urgent?) legacy

Tributes for noted business strategist Stephen Covey, who died in late July, could be found not just in business publications, but also in mass media. That indicates the broad popularity of this inspiring businessman, who authored a series of Seven Habits books and launched a multinational franchise of time management products and services.

I worked several years for a rival spin-off company, Franklin Quest Consulting Group, which eventually was folded back into Covey’s vast empire. We were fortunate to be exposed closeup to the strategic concepts, tools and applications of the Seven Habits model.

Our job title, ”productivity experts,” didn’t exactly nail down the broad range of lessons we hammered out with drug development teams around the world. Part of the small group of European consultants in Scientific Services, we worked globally to bring rigor and discipline to the writing process used by pharmaceutical companies that were submitting drug applications to regulators. We also helped them prototype the regulatory documents and find the most compelling messages to persuade the health authorities to approve the drugs.

As you can imagine, the techniques we used, although based on the Seven Habits concepts, had to be tailored for the specific situation of filing new drug applications.  When handling such a large amount of data — some dossiers included a quarter of a million pages of background documentation — with rapidly approaching deadlines, it was critical to be able to distinguish between the urgent and the important.

Knowing how to identify and then manage ”the urgent” and ”the important” is an important skill for a good thought leader. This central tenet of the Seven Habits methodology promotes effective time management and always, always allows time for contemplation.

Do you practice Stephen Covey’s healthy business habits? Do you possess the right skill set to manage ”the urgent” and “the important” and still have time left for “the thinking”  in your daily schedule? Ask, assess, then act. We’re here to help.


Four Colorful Leadership Lessons from the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony

For the last in this series of blogs on the Olympics, I wanted to share some thought leadership lessons I saw on display during the opening ceremony.

London olympics opening ceremony

Leadership is the difference between teams working in chaos and those working in concert.
Photo by Shimelle Laine on Flickr

Lesson 1: Motivate individuals with impressive team goals

Picture Danny Boyle as the CEO of a small company with 7,500 volunteers. How did he inspire them to “work” an average of 150 hours each? We can only speculate, but perhaps having seen other Olympic opening ceremonies, the participants knew that their individual part would make an important contribution to the whole. Are you as a thought leader helping your teams see the bigger picture and understand how they are involved in a worthy cause?

Lesson 2: Recognize all the people who make successes possible

Those who helped to build the monumental Olympic Stadium were invited to take part in the opening ceremony, too, and donned hard hats to stand sentry at the entrance to the field. Are you as a thought leader aware of the contribution others have made to your success? Do you give credit where credit is due? Do you publicly praise and reward behind-the-scenes workers?

Lesson 3: Be prepared to give direction immediately, in real time

Comedian Rowan Atkinson, with his finger on one piano key and his mind apparently elsewhere, paid little attention to what the conductor or the rest of the orchestra did. The results were predictable but comic. Many of the other performers, even the children bouncing on beds, appeared to be wearing earpieces that allowed their leaders to give them real-time feedback and direction. Are you as a thought leader ”in people’s ears” and helping employees improve their performance just in time?

Lesson 4: Understand and use the power of humor

Arguably one of the most memorable moments of the show was the video of James Bond and Queen Elizabeth. She clearly demonstrated one lesson for all leaders: Don’t take yourself too seriously. In her acting debut, the Queen exuded a sense of fun and captured the spirit of the moment well. But she then entered the royal box with a grand sense of ceremony and great aplomb. Do you as a thought leader know when it’s an appropriate time for humor and when it isn’t?

Ask, assess, then act. We’re here to help.

Looking at the Olympics Through Rose-Colored Glasses

The spectacular extravaganza that was the Olympics Opening Ceremony lived up to all the hype, in my opinion. And that was no small feat, in part because the hype wasn’t being built on actual facts.

By keeping the overall vision of the ceremony a surprise to media and the public, all we knew was that it was going to be BIG and quintessentially British. Anticipation added to the eventual enjoyment of the event for many people.

Thames River Police Boarding Teams in Olympics Security Exercise, London

Metropolitan Thames River Police practice boarding techniques during an Olympic Games security exercise. From Defence Images on Flickr

Others, however, aren’t looking at the Olympics through rose-colored glasses. They view the event as an “unseemly binge,” in the words of The New York Times editorial writer Roger Cohen.

In his article “A Troubled Feel in London,” Cohen also discussed the extreme concern the Brits had about security at the Olympics — flames that were fanned by the media –and he used the psychological term “transference” to describe their angst:

“People are anxious about their lives in Britain and the West so they’ve decided to be anxious about the Olympics,” he wrote.

How are you as a thought leader handling the daily pressure of your own Olympic struggles in the business world? What are you doing when your teams seem to becoming more and more anxious in this challenging economy? Do you give them more facts and less hype so that they can see your company’s situation in a true light? Ask, assess, then act. We’re here to help.

Gold Matters – Do Silver and Bronze Matter, Too?

It would seem strange not to write about the Olympics during the summer of 2012; so although I’m not a fan of sports, the event seems to have some important business lessons embedded in it…oh, and it fits the color theme of the current blog series. (See Gray Matters Part 1 and Part 2 and the 3-part Pink Matter series, linked below.)

unofficial lodnon 2102 Oimplycs

One way to avoid the strict usage requirements surrounding the Olympics; photo via thedrum.co.uk

In doing some research for the blog, I uncovered a few pieces of trivia. I discovered that I couldn’t depict the colored Olympic rings on my site without permission as there are so many restrictions on the use of that trademarked symbol in the guidelines about social media in the Olympics.

According to Wikipedia, the colors of those interlocking rings have a symbolism explained by their creator and the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, in 1912: blue stands for Europe, black for Africa, red for Americas, yellow for Asia and green for Oceania. He saw these as the five parts of the world that practiced healthy competition.

If that were true, however, why is it that a hundred years later, the Olympics have, for the very first time, women athletes participating from each country? In the XXXth Olympiad, pink definitely matters, as you can read in three other recent blogs in this series. See Pink Matters Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.)

But the colors that matter most in any Olympic games are gold, silver and bronze. Not everyone can be winners in sport — or in business for that matter. If all teammates do their personal best, the company should reward that performance appropriately even when the team doesn’t “take home the gold.”
Jacques Rogge, the Olympic Committee president, made that lesson clear during his speech at the opening ceremony:

…honor is determined not by whether you win, but by how you compete. Character counts far more than medals.”

Are you as a thought leader competing fairly and encouraging your teams to strive for faster, stronger, higher, better, more honorable performance? Ask, assess, then act. We’re here to help.

Pink Matters, Part 3: Female leaders “having it all:” Myth or achievable goal?

The last of these three blogs also focuses on the so-called ”pink ghetto” where women linger in staff jobs while their male counterparts continue to rise to the top. This blog will look at some of the views and statistics that appeared in Annie Marie Slaughter‘s article in the July-August edition of Atlantic called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.

With such a controversial title and data-driven content that sometimes challenges conventional wisdom, the article has stirred up a ”fe-maelstrom” of commentary from business men and women alike.

Slaughter blames the structure of organizational life for making it difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to have a high-powered full-time career and at the same time to be fully involved as a wife and mother.

It’s a proposition that has been around for at least two decades, according to the daughter of Felice Schwartz, who wrote an article titled “Management Women and the New Facts of Life,” published in the Harvard Business Review. Schwartz’s daughter explained in an HBR blog that what women needed most in the workplace in the 1990s was more flexibility from organizations in balancing family and work at different times during their careers. And they still need it today, the daughter explained:

“The key to making it possible for women (and men) to effectively combine work and family, both Slaughter and my mother agreed, is for employers to provide more options about how, when, and where to do their work.”

In the Atlantic cover article, Slaughter warns women not to believe those who say, ”You can have it all. You just can’t have it all at once.” She points out several half truths about women in the workplace, some of which resonate and some of which contradict, the opinions expressed in the video by Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, as covered in my last blog.

  • It’s possible if you are just committed enough
  • It’s possible if you marry the right person
  • It’s possible if you sequence it right

Critics of these concepts cite various reasons that the workplace today is filled with women who suffer from the ”tiara syndrome,” which means that women feel entitled to the wear the corporate crown and lead the professional procession to the top. They also voice concern that the sense of entitlement that some women feel is a mask for not working hard enough to achieve that goal. ”I didn’t get the job because I’m a woman,” can be a convenient excuse to cover her low performance.

Is your organization actively dealing effectively with pink matters — as well as gray matters? If you as a thought leader are still uncertain, then it’s definitely time to ask, assess, then act.  We’re here to help!

See related posts:
Part 2: Practical advice for aspiring women business leadersPart 1: Pink Matters: Women are still scarce in the C-suite

Pink Matters, Part 2: Practical advice for aspiring women business leaders

TED talks sheryl sandberg on women leadersMy 30-year-old stepdaughter recently sent me an interesting and entertaining video link  featuring Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. Sandberg pointed out some of the gender inequities in the business world and offered three ”self-help remedies”:

  1. Sit at the table. Sandberg has seen women who don’t take a seat at the table in important meetings but remain on the sidelines, both literally and metaphorically.
  2. Make your partner a real partner. Sandberg emphasized the importance of having a supportive spouse as you climb the career ladder.
  3. Don’t leave before you leave. Sandberg noted a tendency among women in child-bearing years to stop ”raising their hands” well before they actually need to take maternity leave.

Sandberg also cited a Harvard Business School study that showed how success and likeability were positively correlated in men, but not in women. Gender stereotypes can be reinforced by the lack of positive role models for women in the workplace — women who are successful and well liked by male and female co-workers.

It’s not that most women don’t want to be successful.  A study by the Center for Talent Innovation found that 91% of senior-level UK women surveyed, compared with 76% of UK men, want to be promoted.

On a lighter note, however, journalist Arianna Huffington thinks that women have a more difficult time being successful in their careers for another reason. They don’t get enough sleep. In fact, she says, that’s why women really should sleep their way to the top…in a chaste way, of course.

Are you as a thought leader clearing away the barriers for women in your organization and helping them find the way to success at the top? Ask, assess, then act. We’re here to help!

See related posts:Part 3: Female leaders “having it all:” Myth or achievable goal?
Part 1: Pink Matters: Women are still scarce in the C-suite

Pink Matters, Part 1: Women are still scarce in the C-suite

You might have noted a recent trend in this blog to focus on color. An obvious color combination to describe a major water conference like Singapore International Water Week was ”blue and gold and green.” The last two blog entries were about the ”gray ceiling,” and this one is about the ”pink ghetto.”

”Pink ghetto” is a trendy buzzword for women hitting a glass ceiling and not being able to break through it. Rather than ‘living in the boardrooms,’ they remain in the so-called pink ghetto of middle management in staff roles.

A new McKinsey & Co. study reports that 50% to 65% of women at the vice-president level and higher are in staff roles, compared with only 41% to 48% of men, who are more likely to be in the line jobs that lead to the top.

According to data from the Center for Talent Innovation, U.S. women make up only 34% of what they refer to as the “marzipan layer,” the talent-rich level right below the icing on the corporate cake. UK women comprise just 24%.

Click to view at full size

To open the gates of the pink ghetto, one INSEAD professor of organizational behavior, Herminia Ibarra, suggested that CEOs who want better results should commit to assigning women to business-critical roles.

Ibarra cited the Corporate Gender Gap Report report she co-authored for the World Economic Forum (PDF), In which the top HR person in the largest companies of 20 OECD countries: “Among the assignments that you consider to be business critical/important, what percentage, in your opinion, are currently held by women (e.g., key start-ups, turnarounds, and line roles in key business units or markets)?” Sadly but not surprisingly, the most common answers were “0-10%” or “not measured.”

Her solution is to apply what she calls the 70-20-10 rule. In addition to 20% of learning and development coming from mentoring and 10% coming from classroom learning, 70% should come from on-the-job learning through stretch assignments in pivotal roles.

Other research by the Center for Talent Innovation also suggested that mentorship, strategic alliances or sponsorship is vital: UK women with sponsors are 52% more likely to be satisfied with their rate of advancement than those without.

Are you as a thought leader focused on effective ways to get deserving women out of the pink ghetto and into the C-suite? Ask, assess, then act. We’re here to help!

See related posts:
Part 3: Female leaders “having it all:” Myth or achievable goal?
Part 2: Practical advice for aspiring women business leaders

Another Gray Matter: Dorian Gray and Lessons in Authentic Leadership

What can you as a modern thought leader learn from the Gothic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray?

the picture of dorian gray

Leaders should consider the unintended, negative consequences of “faking it on the facade.” (Image from the1945 film, The Picture of Dorian Gray)

It’s been decades since I taught this work by Oscar Wilde, but I remember the strong impact it had on students when they first read it. As I’m currently covering “gray matters” in this blog (seethe postings Gray Matters Part 1 and Part 2), I thought I’d look at how the 19th century book might apply to the business world today.

First, a reminder of the story’s plot: To say that the eponymous character Dorian Gray was a vain man is an understatement. Extreme vanity drove him to sell his soul so that a portrait painted of him would grow old instead of himself. Unfortunately, not only did Dorian continue to age in the painting, his portrait also grew more hideous with each ugly thought, word and deed he committed in real life.

The morals of the story are clear. For example, “be careful what you wish for,” “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” or “what we do has an impact on who we are.”

But the key point I’d like to make here is that Dorian Gray on the outside did not mirror who he was on the inside. To be an authentic, respected thought leader, what’s outside has to reflect who you truly are.

Does your outside match what’s on the inside? Are you trying to fake it on the façade? Are you perceived as a “genuine” thought leader? Ask, assess, then act. We’re here to help.

See related posts:
Gray Matters Part 2: Engage your organization’s emerging, next-generation leadersGray Matters Part 1: Assessing executive career opportunities after age 50

Download links for Project Gutenberg ebooks: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

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