Friday, June 29, 2012

Virtual Distance International

We keep hearing about “flexibility” in organizations and workplaces -- the prerequisites to attracting and retaining valuable human resources, whether they are women or millennials or any other work segment not conditioned to the traditional hierarchical organizational model. Yet, we still expect “white, male, command and control” leadership to change their essential colors and centuries of socialization and adopt modern workplace paradigms through the suasion of normative arguments -- because “it’s the right thing to do.” 

Not likely to happen.  Buggy whip companies did not voluntarily convert themselves into automobile manufacturers. What IS more likely to happen is that successful emerging companies in the digital communications era will adopt dramatically different workplace operational models and beat the competitive pants off recalcitrant ancients.

What do those new organizational models look like? Ask Dr. Karen Sobel-Lojeski, author of Leading the Virtual Workforce: How Great Leaders Transform Organizations in the 21st Century and Uniting the Virtual Workforce: Transforming Leadership and Innovation in the Globally Integrated Enterprise (with Richard Reilly), and founder of the Virtual Distance Institute (

To explain “virtual distance,” Dr. Sobel-Lojeski first diagnoses the symptomatic “problems:”

·        After more than a decade of technological communication, why are people in the workplace feeling increasingly displaced and isolated?
·        With almost unlimited flexibility on where and when one worked, how could it be that so many people were feeling more stressed than ever?
·        In spite of all the media hype about productivity increases, what was causing personal productivity actually to be decreasing by every measure of extensive workforce and management surveys?

Karen discovered the concept, and coined the phrase, “virtual distance” to describe the psychological distance that begins to grow when humans rely heavily on information and communication technologies. “While physical distances still posed challenges, it was social and emotional distances that were exponentially rising. Ironically — as the world shrank in terms of communication reach — huge cracks in human relations were shaking the very foundations of work.”

Based on her extensive research of the problems, she developed the Virtual Distance Index as a tool to measure underlying factors and present the assessments in a summary manner to depict exactly how much and where Virtual Distance dissonance exists in an organization. Eleven measured benchmarks provide the framework for corrective measures and organizational improvements. Karen clusters these into three groups: physical (consisting of three distance factors), operational and affinity (four factors each) to “help pinpoint the root causes of Virtual Distance within a specific team or between teams. [The Virtual Distance Index] can also suggest directions for improving organizational performance and innovation.”

The diagnosis and assessment can impact critical organizational success factors such as: customer satisfaction, innovation, performance, learning, organizational citizenship behavior, trust, job satisfaction, role and goal clarity, among others.

When Virtual Distance is high, innovation, trust, job satisfaction, performance, and leadership effectiveness all are sacrificed, and measurably so. When companies act to consciously reduce Virtual Distance, team members work together and maximize each other’s contributions and the success of the team.

Through case studies based on her extensive research, Karen provides specific examples of the costs and adverse consequences of high Virtual Distance and the benefits and rewards of actions that reduce Virtual Distance in the workplace.  Amorphous concepts, like “flexibility,” are replaced by concrete analyses and assessments of what companies can do to improve worker satisfaction and output in today’s more complex digital communication-dependent enterprises.

Karen just finalized an agreement with Babson College to offer (in 2012) the first Virtual Distance Management Certification program to train managers to be Virtual Distance Management Professionals.

This June, she delivered several keynote addresses and workshops in Oslo, Norway and Stockholm, Sweden at the Stockholm School of Economics.

Finally, the World Economic Forum’s Global Leadership Fellows Programme added two sessions on Virtual Distance to this year’s weeklong leadership program held at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

All providing clear evidence that the global economic marketplace sees Virtual Distance as a crucial part of managing today’s more valuable human resources in the modern digital workplace.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Purpose of a Company and of a Board

Ann Ehringer, Ph.D. is Chief Executive Officer, Chairman and Owner of S.P. Land, Inc. (a real estate holding entity) since 1992 and S.P. Lodge, Inc. dba Saddle Peak Lodge (a fine-dining restaurant entity) since 1993. Dr. Ehringer has been Director of Axium Technologies, Inc. (formerly Dycam Inc.) since June 1995 and served as Advisor of Arcada Communications, Inc. since July 1995. From 1990 to 1996, she was a Management Consultant and Chairman of The Executive Committee (TEC), an executive education organization of 4,000 Chief Executive Officers.

Dr. Ehringer received her B.A. from the University of Hawaii in 1960, her M.A. from Stanford University in 1967, a diploma from the Owner and President Management Program of the Harvard Business School in 1982 and her Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in 1992.

As a panelist at a recent Association for Corporate Governance event in Woodland Hills, Dr. Ehringer spoke on the topics, “What is the purpose of a company?” and “What is the purpose of a board?” Because she provided such complete and cogent answers to these questions, I am taking the liberty of sharing my notes here.

A company?

The essential purpose of a company is to make money; make spendable income; develop technology, products, and services; express yourself; build a team; create an enduring legacy; and do good by doing well.

A board?

The purpose of a board is:
  • to assemble a group of people you trust and would listen to;
  • to gather around your business people you like and respect, advisors who believe in you, advisors who share and respect your personal and company values;
  • to bring together people who are comfortable talking about values, people with no personal agenda, who can give you honest, objective, and candid feedback;
  • to access people who can disagree while hearing you, people who are open to hearing you and your viewpoint, people who are open to being influenced by you;
  • to tap expertise that otherwise would not be available to you;
  • to expand your connections in your industry;
  • to expose you to management with perspectives, knowledge, and leadership experience you might not have; to give partners and investors a way of having input.
Decision-making qualities?

A good board of advisors will help you make better decisions; they are strategic decision-makers.  What qualities are required to make good decisions?

Analysis: know what you know and what you need to know;  get the questions right.

Feeling: know what is your emotional investment in the outcome; know that you care about the decisions (that you are tuned into the value of your feelings and emotional involvement in the decision’s outcome).

Patterns: start with the analysis and confirm with the feelings

Intuition: tacit knowledge, solid knowledge about the business at hand within this industry; knowing what does and does not translate to this company’s situation.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

On a Pedestal or In the Dumps?

A recent article by a Forbes magazine contributor suggested, rather emphatically, that she was cowered or intimidated or in awe of a woman panelist at a Woman in the Boardroom event.  The woman panelist was head of an area engineering college, degreed in the sciences, and accomplished by many measures.  She did not participate in the event to overwhelm her audience.  She came to share, advise, encourage, and counsel women to aspire to leadership.  She came to help, teach, and mentor.

The writer took a little away from that message by focusing on HER perception of a talent or competency gap between the two of them.  It was not the speaker, but rather the listener, who discounted the message by concluding her worth was less than the other woman’s.  In fact, the writer’s credentials were as worthy -- in her chosen field -- as the panelist -- in her’s. 

Susan Murphy (and Pat Heim) know about this propensity to pull down a leading woman to your own lower point of self-esteem (See: In the Company of Women -- an absolute “must read”,)

If women persist in searching for the lowest common denominator among themselves, how could they ever expect to rise to their potential, to better levels of thought, effort, work, income or anything?

Women mistakenly think that by pointing out how they (humbly) are meek and lesser than others (typically, other women; especially women leaders), that this is the path to heaven -- being loved (friended??) by others in this “little girl clique.” 

“See me not show you up?  See how nice I am to denigrate myself in your presence?”

That’s not genuine humility -- it’s self-deprecation.  And it really is not pretty.  Nor is it a viable strategy for success.  What if everyone agrees with that self-assessment?  What is the likelihood anyone would place their trust in that person? It’s a losing strategy: she may win over a few like-minded friends, but they’re all sinking in the same boat of self-induced misery.

Women are trying, almost desperately, to “not be like a man” -- trying to avoid the excesses of one-upmanship or climbing the ladder of success over the backs of colleagues.  Nobody said women have that as the only alternative.

Our woman writer could have simply shown the woman panelist sincere, genuine respect for her accomplishments and expertise in her field.  She could have let her own competence -- in her field of research and exposition -- provide a beacon on the academician’s talent and contributions to her profession and society.  Those contributions include re-constituting core STEM courses to interest and attract more diverse students to learn her profession and become as excited by its power as she is.

There is only so much real estate (inches of text) in any article.  Devoting even one line or paragraph to that little girl game takes away inches that could be devoted to real thought, substantive issues, and valuable insight.

I too had the opportunity to meet the woman panelist, the college president.  I saw no evidence that she would ever place herself on a pedestal, remote or distant from the women she encounters.  I felt her sincerity, intellectual depth, generosity, and a genuine excitement about learning.  I would not claim to be an equal -- in her field of endeavor -- but I would not want her to think that I wasn’t worth every minute she chose to spend talking with me and teaching me what she could in our brief conversation together.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.” --- Desiderata

What IS the Problem, Anyway?

It is truly impressive when you see a business person focus with laser-like precision on defining a worthy problem she/he is willing to solve as an entrepreneur. Why is it important to hit the problem nail squarely and soundly?

Because, a  well-defined problem leads to the best possible solution which in turn lets you know exactly who is the customer who shares the need, who is willing to pay to have the need addressed, and on to the definition of a viable revenue model and a successful business.

On the other hand, mis-diagnosis of the problem means you end up trying to solve some other problem which is less important and less worthy or valued by the marketplace. If you’re only aiming at a “nice to have” target or wishful thinking, your solution will be wishy-washy, a pack of hopes and dreams that somebody somewhere might like, but they’ll probably not pay anything. They’ll sit on their hands and wallets hoping you’ll be na├»ve enough to give away the store with the best possible intentions and the emptiest possible cash register.

There are some products or services for which people will not pay anything or at least nothing close to real market value. Having meaningful discussion, among women, about the real value of, and their willingness to pay for, some products and solutions -- but not others -- certainly would be a worthy economic exercise. 

Do you think women could actually do that without stepping into the quicksand of feminism jargon -- pro or con?  Could women discuss opportunity costs without reverting to guilt trips about their choices?  Could they evaluate the market value and their personal willingness to pay without calling together some sisterhood presumptions that “we’re all in this together?”

ForbesWomen recently produced their list of 100 “best websites for women” -- the majority of which focused on parenthood/homemaking, food, style, fashion.  Very few of the blogs were substantive “thinking women” offerings.  Only a few were oriented to entrepreneurship, while the massive preponderance of the list were dedicated to “how to survive in a man’s world” -- as if women were alien visitors from some distant planet. Or as if women can only consume that which men produce for them or other women produce for women to attract men.

Only when women perceive themselves to be True Independent Economic Actors in the Marketplace of Life will they begin to have the courage to define their own problems clearly enough that they could -- next -- build meaningful solutions, then viable revenue models to sustain those efforts with full-bore teams, then substantive businesses that could thrive in today’s marketplace.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Revisiting An Old Friend

Just before I finished my first book, I bought several texts on corporate governance to see how they addressed “the diversity issue” -- the number/shares of women on corporate boards of directors.  I’d forgotten how impressed I was by Drs. Richard LeBlanc and James Gilles’ book, Inside the Boardroom: How Boards Really Work and the coming Revolution in Corporate Governance (Wiley: 2005) until I was reminded of it in an NACD webinar on the topic of the Leadership Challenge.  

If you are serving on a board, this book will provide perspective on what’s going well and what could be improved.  If you aspire to a board role, it provides insight into the internal working of boards -- good or bad.  If you are a student of governance, it conveys an impressive historical overview of the structural or regulatory environment surrounding corporate boards.  If you are an entrepreneur or CEO of a nascent company, it helps you anticipate the landmines you might encounter as you build your own board.

In essence, Inside the Boardroom is two books based on the extensive research of private boards conducted by Dr. LeBlanc between 1998 and 2003.  The first half of the book focuses on board structure, so-called “best practices” as to form, function, and the regulatory strictures to which boards must adhere.  The second half is what sets the book apart and places it leagues ahead of others.  With very careful adherence to confidentialities, Dr. LeBlanc shows us how boards truly function as small groups of business decision-makers.  

The Appendices inform us of how he managed this unprecedented entre into the entrails of 29 private sector company boards, observing and interviewing 197 directors discretely and getting their permission to be quoted (albeit anonymously).

Chapters 6 through 10 reveal the inner functioning, processes, personalities, behaviors, and director types.  Dr. LeBlanc shows us the reality of this quote from Jeffrey A Sonnenfeld, professor at the Yale University School of Management: “human dynamics of boards [constitute] social systems where leadership character, individual values, decision making processes, conflict management, and strategic thinking will truly differentiate a firm’s governance.” (p. 135).

Dr. LeBlanc hypothesizes that the “effectiveness” of a board (and by extension, that of the company) is a function of structure (as a minimum criterion), as well as the specifics of behaviors or natures and competencies of its members -- taken altogether in the soup of its processes (how well a board rejuvenates itself through recruitment and cleaning away deadwood).

Dr. LeBlanc’s focus on dissonant vs. constructive behaviors constitutes the best lessons from Inside.  Explicit quotes from sitting directors, CEOs, and chairs let the reader “see inside the boardroom,” while also seeing inside ones’ own self to judge our own behaviors.  “Where does my behavior stand on the spectrum described here?” is the inevitable self-examination that results from reading the second half of the book.  If directors (or prospective candidates) would ask these questions of themselves more often, perhaps the “revolution in corporate governance” described in his concluding chapter would be here by now.

The effective board is one which is led well, but also one where the interrelationship among individual decision-makers is excellent.  Boards, first and foremost, are responsible for the success or failure of their own governance, their own selection of just the right talent and competencies, and their own performance “inside the boardroom.”  These are the elements that have the potential to assure outstanding performance by the board and, by extension, the excellence of the corporation they oversee.

There He Goes Again!

Douglas Branson is at it again.  In his latest screed, Pathways for Women to Senior Management Positions and Board Seats: An A-Z List (May 21, 2012), the Professor doesn’t really talk about governance.  Rather, his list should be titled, “Twenty-six ancient stereotypes, myths, biases, and discriminations that have ever kept women out of advancement.”  Why does he persist in this? Because he really wants to keep women discouraged, and this certainly is how to do it.

If you are a woman aspiring to personal or professional advancement, these harangues feel like a verbal pummeling. If roles were changed and Prof. Branson’s A-Z list referred to people of color, the list would consist of The N Word, reminiscences about Steppin Fetchit, allegations of natural dance tendencies, propensities towards gangs, failure to perform in school, and other brutally un-substantiated urban myths. Prof. Branson would like to remind women, minorities or other  diverse populations of all the stigmas and insults they might have faced in the past, ensuring that they should “keep themselves in their place at the back of the bus.”

But, since it’s about women, Prof. Branson knows that heads will delicately nod as if in agreement. It’s safe to denigrate the millions of women who have overcome ancient biases and prejudices. It is no longer safe to insult Blacks, Latinos, or other diverse populations -- it is considered insulting, as it should.

Branson’s ultimate purpose in keeping old stereotypes fresh in the minds of leadership prospects is verbal intimidation sufficiently demeaning that it pushes uncertain members out of the competition. That leaves more of the pie for guys like Branson.

This is his effort at subconscious mind programming.  If you tell someone, “You will never get good grades,” you condition that person to have low self-confidence.  She/he will doubt that any effort would produce the desired rewards.  If you say this enough times, as Prof. Branson certainly has over the years, you create a false belief in her/his mind that actually could affect the individual’s personality or the behavior.  

Instilling doubts fosters hesitance and promotes insecurity.  It’s like bullying, only much more subtle and insidious. Doubts, properly re-enforced, discourage action -- freezing those who otherwise might compete if they could believe the playing field were level.

That, after all, is the goal of the Professor and his ilk.  Remind enough women how hard the challenge of leadership once was, in the past when there were just a few like you, and we (men) will be able to keep prospective talent like you out of the running. That will make it easier for intimidators, like Branson, to pursue their ambitions.  

Unless of course, women of courage figure out the real game that some guys are playing and shine the bright light of truth on the denizens ‘neath the rock.