Monday, September 3, 2018

Our Aspirations. And those of our Organizations

A few months ago I had lunch with Marcus Monk, an alumnus of the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Marcus played collegiate football and basketball for the Arkansas Razorbacks and then played in professional sports in the US and Europe.

Marcus grew up in Lepanto Arkansas -- a relatively less developed part of Arkansas. Growing up where he did, he hadn’t seen the opportunities the world offered and it was hard for him to develop high aspirations for himself.  But he had something going for him – He was very good at basketball and football. His basketball talent was spotted and he got to travel for competitions.  He talked about how his visits to North West Arkansas and Dallas impacted him. He saw a world that was full of opportunities. One that he had not seen before. And these opportunities served as the foundation for his aspirations. They motivated him and changed his life.

Marcus had a great college career in football and basketball, had a short career in the NFL, and then played Basketball in Europe. He then returned to the Walton College for his MBA and that’s when I got to know him. While Marcus is known for his sports career I have been so much more impressed with what he has done for the kids in Eastern Arkansas. He started a basketball league for them – one in which they get an opportunity to play and travel to various cities. As he put it, this league gave those kids a chance to see the world, to see what was possible, and to change their lives by building high aspirations (Details of Marcus’ work with the kids is a story for another blog).  At one point during our lunch I asked Marcus whether being in an area with few opportunities made him frustrated as a youth. His response stunned me for its simplicity, humility and depth –“You know, in life, if all you’ve ever seen and eaten is rice, then that’s your world – that’s all you think of eating. You don’t miss anything else because you don’t know anything better exists.”

Marcus Monk, while on an India Study
Abroad program during his MBA program
at the Sam Walton College of Business
(University of Arkansas).
I’ve thought many times about that conversation. And thought about how we create high aspirations in ourselves, in our kids, and those we work with. There is significant research in the management literature that high aspirations lead to greater motivation and better outcomes for individuals who have them. The amount of life exposures we or our kids experience is certainly one of them. Our supportiveness to our kids and mentees when their aspirations are forming is another. But our support can’t be automatic and blind either. I remember a time when my daughter was in elementary school. She worked on periodic projects for a particular class. She worked hard, but could have worked harder. There were a few errors in her weekly projects for the class. But her teacher was encouraging. And often she would give her an A+ ‘for effort’ anyway. It sounded great. Till one day when my daughter was working on her project, and I spotted an error. I pointed it out. But she said no worries…she would probably get an A anyway. It was a lesson I never forgot. Blind encouragement can also lower aspirations for excellence.

And this leads to an interesting leadership challenge. Organizational leaders today often create visions and aspirations for their organizations. Such visions are designed to provide direction and unity to an organization. But, especially in large organizations, this can be hard. For instance, imagine a health care organization that aspires to be the best in the world in geriatric care. A very noble aspiration. But that aspiration is unlikely to connect to the organization’s internal auditor, who spends her days going through financial transactions. She may have a very different set of goals that can’t easily link to the organizational vision. In fact, several research studies have shown that when organizations have such noble visions, if their employees cannot link their work and associated short term goals with them, it actually leads to reduced employee engagement.

A recent article published in the journal “Administrative Science Quarterly” addresses some of these issues. The author, Andrew Carton, performed an inductive analysis to determine how John F. Kennedy’s Vision for NASA to land a man on the moon (within 10 years) was translated for NASA employees. His research identified several actions that can be taken. One of the proposed actions includes keeping the organization’s vision clear and simple. Too many elements in the vision create confusion. A second factor is the need to associate the vision with clear measurable objectives that help measure our progress towards the realization of this vision.  However, these measures should not solely be distal measures that are to be accomplished over a long period of time.  There have to be clear intermediate markers or ‘stepping stones’ that show the path the organization has to take to achieve its vision over time.

Within the organization, the leaders and managers have to try and link employee tasks and short term goals to these milestones. It is much easier to create the linkages of specialized employee work to these intermediate milestones than to the distal objectives embodied in the vision.  When done successfully, it reaps huge benefits as employees’ aspirations begin to align with those of the organizations, giving their work so much more meaning. A successful effort that uses organizational aspirations to impart meaningfulness to employee tasks, is best summarized in the title of Andrew Crane’s paper.  “I’m not mopping the floors, I’m putting a man on the moon.”

Sunday, January 14, 2018

7 Inspirational Quotes to Guide us at Work and Life

Over the years, I have come across some profound quotations from some very wise folks. They have often acted as rudders as I work through life’s complex issues. These 7 quotes, in my opinion serve as great guideposts as we work through life and careers.
1.   “My goal in life is to unite my avocation with my vocation,
As my two eyes make one in sight.” 
Robert Frost, Two Tramps in Mudtime.
Robert Frost kindled in me an appreciation for poetry – his poems were the first poems I read that were not required for a course. These two lines – the need to fuse what you love with what you do for a living can be a powerful path to satisfaction.

2.    If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it.” W. C. Fields.
I was very inspired by the original tale from Robert Bruce and the Spider. But as I grew older, this variation from WC Fields made so much more sense…For me, it’s always been a balance between persistence and realism. The best outcomes are not easily achieved and failure should not deter us. Persistence clearly matters. But sometimes we may be trying too hard at the wrong thing. In those instances, backing off and going a different direction may yield better outcomes.

3.   “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” Mahatma Gandhi
These wise words from Gandhi have been the hardest to put into practice. It is a fact that at work and in life people often hurt us – whether through action, inaction, words or snubs. And the desire to retaliate is high. But in practice, avoiding retaliation has always served me better  - It has become so much easier as I grew older as I realized how easily I unintentionally hurt others. And so I don’t retaliate in the hope that others won’t retaliate for my unintentional missteps.

4.   Alice: “Would you tell me please which way I ought to go from here”
Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
Alice: “I don’t much care where…”
Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
Alice: “As long as I get somewhere…”
Cheshire Cat: “Oh, you’re sure to do that if only you walk long enough.”
From Alice in Wonderland

So often in life, I find myself doing things for random reasons – everyone does it, it seemed the right thing to do, or its seems cool…Staying busy could make me feel that I was getting somewhere. I try (sometimes unsuccessfully) to figure out what I need to do. And then I can decide whether a specific action will get me there.
Of course, the last two lines are great when one does not know where to go… just trying something is better than being paralyzed into inaction. And often times the act of doing things helps understand where we want to go.  

5.   “Easy is not the goal.” Ed Catmull in Creativity Inc.

Compared to most of the other quotations in this list, I learnt this one relatively late. Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, wrote this in the book: “Creativity Inc.”. He was talking about the care they take while making Pixar movies. In one of the book’s chapters he described a choice they made while making Monsters Inc. While making the scenes based on Sully and Mike’s room they had to make a CD Rack…with a bunch of compact disks stored in a tower. They spent hours making sure that each CD in the rack had a title and artwork…something that no one in the audience would notice, and for a scent that lasted no more than 20 seconds. While agreeing this may have been excessive, Catmull made a point that I had come to realize a few years ago…in the things that matter, easy is not the goal. As we perform tasks and activities, it always seems expedient to take an easy way out on some key aspects of the task…don’t worry about the cover page of a report, don’t worry about proper formatting, and so on. But with every such decision we make our work and our activity a little more ordinary – till it loses all distinctiveness. It is a stepping-stone to mediocrity.  

6.    “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.Bertrand Russell, British Mathematician and Philosopher.

This statement from the British mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russel is one of my favorites. Something that I always try to talk about in a decision-making or a leadership class. Russell was commenting on the fact that any complex situation has many sides to it. Wise people will see those different sides and the pros and cons of various solutions. They will find it harder to be sure that any course of action is the right one. Enter someone who is less wise, who can’t see all sides to the problem. This person bangs the table and says…of course this action is the right one…and the uncertain wise folks are likely to agree with him or her….

7.     Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire  Albert Einstein

This quote from Einstein is something I came across when transitioning to an academic career. It is tempting to focus exclusively on filling the student’s pail with canned information. But Einstein’ vision was powerful – Teachers need to transform students to becoming continuous learners – to always seek the knowledge they need to solve ever-evolving problems.