Saturday, August 30, 2008

How Stellar Women Succeed

Boris Groysberg, an Assistant Professor in the Organizational Behavior unit at the Harvard Business School, wrote "How Star Women Build Portable Skills" published February 1, 2008 in the Harvard Business Review.

Prof. Groysberg found that star women "thrived in new work environments" because they built "portable skills," specifically:

1. women invested more in external relationships (breadth of networks) and
2. women conducted far more due diligence which helped them make good strategic decisions (depth of analysis).

Rather than focus on the "whys" behind women’s choices (many of which might perhaps be negative), Prof. Groysberg focused on the consequences of their choices which actually were beneficial for the women. Star women increased their performance and "maintained their shine" which translated into added value to both the receiving company and to the outstanding women, themselves. Presumably, the companies that lost the star women suffered the consequences of letting good talent escape their confines, and those firms probably will pay the price in both performance and value declines.

In separate research published in 2005, "What Differences Make a Difference: The Promise and Reality of Diverse Teams in Organizations," Elizabeth Mannix (Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University) and Margaret A. Neale (Stanford Graduate School of Business) struggled to reconcile two different views of diversity: one pessimistic and the other optimistic. Is the glass half empty or is it half full?

Profs. Mannix and Neale looked at alternative definitions and categories of "diversity" in an effort to determine when, where and how "differences" might have positive impacts on organizational performance. They concluded that heterogeneous groups have a greater tendency to enhance group performance because they expand "information processing" which is exactly comparable to Professor Groysberg’s finding that women benefit from tapping larger external linkages or networks.

Diversity matters not by uniting similar attributes or fostering common socialization together (i.e., building girls-only or guys-only groups), but rather by exposing organizational participants to the learning processes engendered by "different backgrounds, networks, information, and skills." It's not just the skirt, it's the world-view.

"This added information should improve group outcome even though it might create
coordination problems for the group." (Mannix.)

The first portable skill Prof. Groysberg cited was: bringing in more and better information from outside the group. Travel abroad heightens one’s appreciation of one’s culture, but also compels the traveler to test one’s personal experiences and capabilities within the larger world setting. Sometimes we struggle with language differences, but we benefit from the inter-human valuation process which results when others see we are at least attempting to understand and learn from their world.

The second portable skill he cited was: a willingness and ability to ask effective, deeper and more probing questions in order to get a better handle on possible risks and to challenge traditional assumptions or preconceived notions which may no longer be valid.

These skills are essential as groups evolve new strategies to deal, effectively and successfully, with the more complex challenges of today’s business operations. As we look at failed company after disastrously failed company today, we realize we are watching lemmings chase each other over a cliff, playing follow-the-leader into risky investments and unsubstantiated valuations.

Prof. Groysberg also mentions the need for more business case studies to help all of us (women and men) understand how successful women in business leadership today are making the choices that propel them forward -– the choices that make their stars shine.

Note there is no stated need to study all of the possible rationales that women or others have used in the past to keep their light hidden under the bushels. We do not need to hear more about what has kept other women down.

We need more cases investigating how successful women perform and achieve positions of leadership in business today. What choices do stellar women make at each stage in their successful careers?

Here is an interesting test:

How many readers actually went to the Harvard Business Case web site and downloaded his paper? You can purchase a copy for $6.50: Article #R0802D.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1225/R0802D

Mannix and Neale’s research can be found at the American Psychological Society: Vol. 6, No. 2 (October 2005). APS:
http://www.psychologicalscience.org/pdf/pspi/pspi6_2.pdf

It’s not enough simply to read the abbreviated interview: women need to read the original research, too. Sometimes the best, long-term strategy is to take the road less traveled. Depth as well as breadth.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Rating the Ratings Agencies

When I was young, I (first) listened on the radio, then (later) watched on television, The Lone Ranger. After he and Tonto saved the town from evil marauders, the Lone Ranger would quietly exist toward the setting sun, leaving only a Silver Bullet as a reminder of all the good work they had performed for the citizens.

Now I’m an adult and know that there’s no such thing as a Silver Bullet capable of keeping us safe from hazard. Which is why I was so interested in a study recently released by the Rock Center for Corporate Governance, ("Rating the Ratings: How Good are Commercial Governance Ratings", May 2008).

Some of the more significant lessons from this comprehensive study by Robert Daines, Professor of Finance (with Ian Gow, Doctoral Candidate, and David Larcher, Professor of Accounting: are these:

1. at best, there is "only a tenuous link between the ratings and future performance of the companies."
2. in all three case (Audit Integrity, Governance Metrics International and The Corporate Library), the correlations [between their ratings and five metrics of future performance] were small and "did not appear to be useful."
3. In the case of industry giant, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), there was NO significant correlation.
4. There was essentially no relation between [ISS’s] governance ratings and ISS’s own proxy recommendations to shareholders.
5. There is surprisingly little correlation among the indices compiled by the ratings firms even thought they all use the same SEC public data.

"Given the time and money spent by public companies on improving governance ratings does not appear to result in significant value for shareholders."

Sorry, but it looks as if there still is no such thing as "a Silver Bullet."

Friday, August 15, 2008

What's Wrong With This Picture?

Recently I tuned into a video replay of a conference on Women in the Media available at FORA.TV (they’re something of a YouTube for the more serious set).

A fair amount of the discussion concerned the New York-based Women’s Media Center, the nonprofit organization that is doing a great deal to advance the case that mainstream media could benefit from more women journalists, radio and newspaper commentators. They argue that women need to make their presence know in the blogsphere and that the major political debates certainly could use women of the caliber of Gwen Ifill, Katty Kay of the BBC or Norah O’Donnell as questioners in the main event, not merely in the softball side game, interviewing the second fiddle veeps.

I quizzed a NPR producer about why Gwen Ifill was not worthy of handling the McCain-Obama "Main Event" debate. The producer thought it was because she "probably" would not ask tough questions of Obama, the Black Candidate. Not the Gwenn Ifill I know – she doesn’t hesitate to take on the tough issues. By that logic, who is capable of handling the Biden-Palin debate -– only a eunich?

The real reason that we do not have women journalists or commentators is that women, among the public, are not demanding that it happen. Instead, women seem to prefer to have a Father Knows Best Figure or Little Girl Next Door reading the teleprompter news, rather than doing the hard work of researching the issues. Women in the audience still want the public news broadcasts to be like the Soap Operas: "nice."

Women in journalism are hiding behind "nice," non-threatening nonprofit organizations that study the issues to death, never debate them full frontal. The Women’s Media Center or the Pew Center try not to offend anyone, hoping to quietly nudge the major networks into the 21st Century.

Only Arianna Huffington has the proverbial cajones to support any reasonable semblance of a public debate. Gloria Steinem, Peggy Noonan and Maureen Dowd write "opinion pieces" like little girls afraid they might get their pinafores messy in the real world. Women have given more ink and tele-time to the shenanigans of Palin’s children and hairdos than they ever gave to Hillary Clinton’s very genuine campaign to address the substantive economic, public policy and international affairs issues that will determine our future.

Women get the media that they demand: pessimistic or optimistic. If they want Pap, by heaven they will get Pap from the major media outlets. If television and radio only blare out the modern day equivalent of a 1930s melodrama, day in and day out, then it’s our own fault for staying tuned and giving trivia the attention and air time it does not deserve in the 21st century economy.

And why is it that the three largest mega-media outlets (the dominant publication corporations) in the world pander exclusively to women readership and focus only on style, dress, food, consumerism and excess-consumption ad nauseaum? Magazines now try to intimidate me into reducing my damn carbon footprint with guilt-ridden articles oriented to "women only" telling them how to buy up new stuff and make new pledges to save the planet with their dumb economic choices. Don’t women care about investment? Savings? Credit? The value of their portfolios and retirement funds? Is Suzie Orman the only woman qualified to speak on women’s financial stability?

Why is it that all of those for-women-only, for-profit magazines don’t speak to any of the major economic, human or public policy issues that the Women’s Media Center considers vital? Why is the WMC unable to market itself and its views in the same for-profit world in which the major networks exist, the major studios exist, the major news media production centers exist? Why do women’s organizations have to be "NOT" for-profit, but always telling FOR-profit companies how they should be doing business?

There’s really something wrong with this picture.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Someone HAS To Do Something!

The idea that "somebody HAS to do something to solve all my problems" really is not the type of strategic, solution-oriented thinking demanded by contemporary complex challenges. "Action needed" doesn’t quite cut it either.

When we say we want more women on boards of directors at public companies, we do need to look at who can do what, how, why, where and when.

Recently, I faced a new challenge for which I had not yet been trained. I did not yet have the experience, so I contacted “an expert” for advice. The "expert" confirmed for me that the challenge was huge, that I was at a disadvantage, that other more experienced and successful people had addressed the issue thusly:

She spelled out for me the demands I "should" bring forward on behalf of the righteousness of my position. As I heard the itemized shopping list of demands, I wondered if my negotiating position and my experience truly warranted the results that she accurately indicated "others" (older, more successful, and more experienced) had won.

Fortunately, I also spoke with a sage advisor whose judgment had served me well for years. He counseled me, asking me to choose what were my most important goals in resolving this challenge. What were my priorities, not what were others’ priorities? He took a position opposite of mine so I could see for myself what would be the reaction to my position, should I argue as the expert had recommended? How far was I willing to sacrifice? He suggested alternative positions, strategies, wording and phrasing. I tested them out on myself and again with him.

When it came time to get back into the middle of the negotiations, I was anxious but at least clearer in my own mind about what was important for me to achieve and why. It was an interesting learning experience where I gained some things and deferred on others.

Perhaps, someday in the future, I will be in a stronger position to gain more and sacrifice less. But, in order to get to that position, someday in the future, I have to go through today’s challenge and exit this process with more knowledge than when I began this journey. I could not have accomplished that goal if I had simply accepted the "expert’s advice," arguing her righteous and indignant demands. She had nothing at stake. I had everything at stake.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Just a Little Diversity

I just received my Alumnae Magazine from my graduate school and perused the class notes pages. It was interesting to sort of tally up the photos on t6hose pages. There were a lot of photos of Mom with the new baby and, increasingly, Dad with the new baby. (I attended a public university where the graduates are split roughly 65-35 male to female, currently.) I observed that the Big Shots (the ¼ page with the larger photo and prominent text) were dominated by men promoted to CEO, President or another position of leadership. The only quarter-page Big Shots that included women were: 1 death and 1 co-author of a new book with her husband.

Should I blame the publication? The class secretaries? The University? Or might it be that women graduates who HAVE achieved positions of leadership (CEOs, Presidents, Board members) have a greater tendency to shun the limelight, hide their success blushingly under the bushel basket, and simply not forward their success stories and their professionally-taken head shots to their alumnae magazines with the appropriate publicist copy?

Might it be that women have the greater tendency to send in the photos of their kids as “my greatest achievement.” That tells me: “Here, this is what I’m doing with that $100,000 plus education you gave me. This is how I’m using it today.”

Actually, that’s fine: that’s called choice. But, I would really like to see a few more women strut their stuff when they achieve something in addition, along the way. Just for a little variety. You know: just a little diversity.