Delegates at the International Conference on Management Leadership and Governance are in for a treat next week. Dr Leonard Schlesinger, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard and leading company director (including Forbes and Demandware), is the keynote speaker on Fri March 21. He'll be talking about the entrepreneurial thought process and the conversion of thinking into action.
Dr Schlesinger is highly regarded in the business and academic communities, and I'm looking forward to hearing what he has to say. I'll post a summary of his talk here, as part of my commitment to provide reflections and comments throughout the ICMLG'14 conference, for the benefit of those that can't attend.
The International Conference on Management Leadership and Governance (ICMLG) is only a week away. This year, the conference is being held at Babson College, just outside Boston. The programme looks really interesting. I'll post reflections and comments here during the conference, so please check back if you are interested.
I leave home on Mon 17 on the Air New Zealand evening flight to San Francisco, to meet a United flight across to Boston. The conference dates are 20–21 March, so I will have some time beforehand to reacquaint myself with a city that I last visited 20 years ago, and to attend meetings with some highly regarded governance advisors who are based in Boston. My paper will be presented on the first day of the conference, and I will chair a session the second morning.
Immediately after the conference, I fly out to northern Minnesota, to visit the family I lived with as an exchange student 35 years ago. It'll be my first trip back since 1990, and possibly the last time I see my now elderly host parents. While the schedule is tight, I am looking forward to this trip very much. I'll keep you informed.
An email arrived from the convenors of the upcoming British Academy of Management conference a couple of days ago. It contained a request to review submissions from two different authors hoping to have their papers accepted onto the conference programme. The review process is a double-blind affair, meaning I don't know the author's identity and they don't know who reviewed their paper. My membership on the review panel is a consequence of submitting a paper myself. Submitters are asked to review other papers, which is fair enough.
I printed both of the papers today (I review documents the old fashioned way—with a pen in hand). On first glance, one of the papers appears to be well-written and the other less so. As I skimmed through the less well written paper (ahead of a comprehensive review in the next week or so), my mind wandered towards thoughts of quality, acceptance threshold and the reputation of the conference. Superficially, the paper is marginal in terms of acceptability. When I read the paper thoroughly, I must form an opinion about the paper: should it be rejected or should it be accepted albeit with robust feedback? Without wishing to preempt the review process, my instinct suggests the provision of robust feedback is probably the better choice, because it creates a learning opportunity. It's simple really. My paper is going through the same process. How would I like to be treated? Some carefully crafted statements will probably be required, so that any biases I might have in terms of the topic, the way the paper has been written, or from my first impressions are kept in check. Fortunately, I have a couple of weeks to complete the review and decide how to respond.
I have just been asked to consider a nomination to become deputy chair of the New Zealand Vintage Car Club (Wellington Branch). I've been interested in old cars for as long as I can remember—particularly Lancia, Alfa Romeo and Triumph cars from the 1950s and 1960s. (In case you are wondering, the car in the picture is our current indulgence.) We joined the VCC a few years ago, to meet others with similar interests beyond the marques we are most interested in. Now this unexpected approach has come.
While it's an honour to be asked to contribute to the leadership of an organisation, a most important consideration is whether one has the expertise and the time to do the job well. Sometimes the best response is to decline the invitation, despite the confidence others have in you, and the organisation and role being in one's sweet spot.
The challenge for us all is to ensure that we make excellent contributions in whatever we take on. The VCC role includes two meetings a month (committee meeting plus monthly branch meeting) and attendance at various events. It would be fun, but it would also be a diversion. In my case, the priority for the year is to complete the doctorate. Other important contributory tasks include writing and presenting papers at international conferences, facilitating professional development courses for the IoD, a tiny amount of consulting and keeping (somewhat) fit. Something would have to go if I took on the VCC role, but it can't be anything on my priority list, thus my decision. Do you face similar dilemmas?
The New Zealand government has just announced the introduction of new health and safety legislation. It requires companies to keep their employees safe or face some stiff penalties. While many boards and senior management teams display responsible attitudes towards the safety of their employees, some have been been quite cavalier in their approach. The reforms include making directors personally liable for breeches—the penalties being fines of up to $3m (companies) and $600,000 (individuals).
Some may see the proposal as being 'over the top'. However, it has been well signalled: new guidelines for directors were announced ten months ago, in May 2013. The proposal will be a helpful addition to the governance landscape if it drives directors towards taking greater responsibility for their decisions. Certainly, the move towards holding directors accountable for inaction will be welcomed by many.
The glass ceiling seems to be alive and operating well in New Zealand—or so a reporter's interpretation of a recently published report by Grant Thornton would have us believe.
Whereas New Zealand was the first country in the world to embrace universal adult suffrage, it now ranks 15th in terms of the proportion of senior executive positions held by women (down from fourth a decade ago). The reporter seems to have used this statistic to make the glass ceiling claim. The Grant Thornton spokesman has made similar claims. However, when one reads the Grant Thornton report more carefully, the picture is actually somewhat different. The global average has also stalled. The proportion of women in senior executive positions jumped from 19% to 24% in the three years from 2004 to 2007 but has remained largely static since. (The New Zealand proportion is 31%.)
Rather than make speculative claims, of a glass ceiling, the discussion needs to centre on why the proportion has stalled. It could be that a quarter to a third is representative of the number of effective female leaders available to contribute. Or, it could be that more are willing, but they lack the expertise to be truly effective when measured against male counterparts. Or, it could be due to a myriad of other contributing factors. Whatever the reason, business and society would be well served by finding out. Notwithstanding this, simplistic approaches (like counting things) are unhelpful. They cannot produce anything more than correlations, statements of what 'is' and emotive claims. The problem is complex, so a different research approach is required to reveal the underlying mechanisms. However, such research is typically slow and demanding, as I've discovered in my own research work. In the meantime, reporters like Mr Foreman would be well served by taking a little more care in their reporting.
* For the record, I am a strong advocate of appointing the best and most capable person to any role, regardless of their gender or any other diversity variable.
One of the greatest challenges I face on a daily basis is that of overcoming jargon—of understanding industry- and topic-specific language that is common parlance within a community but akin to a foreign language without. For example, some of the jargon words that I have had to embrace as a researcher include 'ontology', 'epistemology' and 'dialectic'.
A recent survey, which asked 2392 people about information technology jargon, illustrates the point well. You may laugh at some of the responses in the report, wondering how people could be so naive, or you may smile, because you are can relate to some of them. Either way, the point remains: that jargon expedites effective communication within a community, but it is a barrier to effective communication beyond.
However, the language used in this article exposes a disturbing undercurrent: that members of the IT community seem to expect that everyone else knows and embraces their jargon. Perhaps it is the pervasiveness of computers and technology in our lives. Perhaps it is hubris. Perhaps it is something else, or a combination of things. Whatever it is, I challenge it. If one is not a member of a community to which the jargon pertains, why is knowledge of such jargon necessary? My wife does not expect her patients to understand the jargon she uses with her medical colleagues, so she avoids certain words or provides an explanation during consultations. Equally, she does not expect to know about HTML or ABS. She simply wants to use the computer and to drive the car. It is a matter of professional ethic to remove or explain jargon, for the sake of effective communication between consenting adults. I look forward to the day that the technology sector grows up.
A new piece of research, about boards and performance, confirms what many people already know: the power of 'team' is more conducive to performance than individual brilliance is. You see it all the time in team sports. Whether it's the Seattle Seahawks, Sky Procycling or the All Blacks of New Zealand, the collective power of a cohesive team, working towards a single goal, is a much stronger proposition than a team of individuals, as brilliantly capable as some of the individuals may be.
Boards of directors are no different. Celebrity directors or notables with important political, investment or other business connections are no match for a cohesive board that works as one towards an agreed goal. Given the widespread knowledge of this principle, why do so many shareholders and activist investors continue to promote candidates that play as individuals the moment they enter the boardroom?
What is happening at Qantas, Australia's once great national airline? While other airlines, including Air New Zealand, are performing well and generating solid returns, Qantas has fallen off its perch. Profits are down and jobs are being axed. Many commentators have published articles in the past few days about the impending demise of Qantas, including this one published in the Sydney Morning Herald. While claims of impending demise may be impetuous, a sorry pattern of neglect is apparent. The board of directors is nowhere to be seen.
The board has the delegation to oversee the performance of the company, in accordance with the shareholder's wishes. Yet the board has not been mentioned. It has remained remarkably silent. We don't know what its been doing. Have the directors been actively working in the back room, or have they fallen asleep at the wheel? Clearly a series of mis-steps and mishaps have beset Qantas and placed it on a downward trajectory. The job of the board is to respond. It is the board's job to set strategy, appoint a CEO to implement it and make adjustments when needed. Will CEO Alan Joyce (just 42 years old when appointed) and others be sacked? Maybe. Should they be? If Alan Joyce has failed to implement the approved strategy then possibly. However, if the board has not crafted an appropriate strategy, or if it has not made adjustments in response to unexpected situations and changing market dynamics, then the board itself is culpable.
Clearly, there are more moves to be played out yet, including the possibility of a bailout by the government (that happened to Air New Zealand—over a decade ago now). However, we need to hear from the board, to see some leadership in what is obviously a time of crisis. After all, the accountability buck stops there.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.