Category Archives: Leadership

Questions that Leaders (and Learners) Ask

Source: HBR, Apr 2017

The best teachers all have at least one thing in common: they ask great questions. They ask questions that force students to move beyond simple answers, that test their reasoning, that spark curiosity, and that generate new insights. They ask questions that inspire students to think, and to think deeply.

As a business leader, you might have years of experience and the confidence of your organization behind you, so it may be tempting to think that your job is to always have the right answers. But great leaders have to inspire the same curiosity, creativity, and deeper thinking in their employees that great teachers inspire in their students – and that starts with asking the right questions. Any answer is only as good as the question asked.

As a dean, I find it useful to remember the statement often (perhaps spuriously) attributed to Albert Einstein that if he had an hour to solve a problem, and his life depended on it, he would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask.

Yet asking a good question is not an easy task. It requires us to look beyond simple solutions and to encourage colleagues to do the same. It requires courage and tact, to generate hard questions without sparking defensiveness, as well as being open to new ideas and to questioning untested assumptions. It requires being willing to listen and follow up.

I believe there are some essential questions that are useful across a variety of contexts, including, and perhaps especially, the workplace. In fact, I gave a commencement speech last year on this topic, suggesting to students from the Harvard Graduate School of Education that there are really only five essential questions in life. Although the audience was future educators, I believe these questions are equally valuable for anyone in a position to lead or influence others.

“Wait, What?”

Too often, we jump to conclusions without having enough information. We listen just long enough to form a quick opinion, and then we either endorse or oppose what has been said. This puts us at risk of making faulty judgments, leaving key assumptions untested, and missing out on potential opportunities.

Leaders (as well as their employees) need to be able to ask colleagues and direct reports to slow down and explain in more detail what is being proposed, especially if something doesn’t quite sound right or seems too easy to be a lasting solution. Asking “Wait, what?” is an exercise in understanding, which is critical to making informed judgments and decisions—whether in the office or the boardroom.

“I wonder why …?” or “I wonder if …?”

Children are far better than adults at questioning the world around them – nothing is beyond interrogation. When children wonder why the sky is blue, they prompt others to think, reason, and explain things anew. Similarly, leaders have to remain curious about their organizations in order to bring new ideas to bear on longstanding challenges.

Wondering why something is the way it is will sometimes lead to an unsatisfactory answer—as in, we do it this way because it’s easier and that’s the way we have always done it. But asking “I wonder why…” is the first step in overcoming the inertia that can stifle growth and opportunity for leaders and employees alike. That’s because it inevitably leads to the perfect follow up: “I wonder if things could be done differently?” This can begin the process of creating change by sparking the interest and curiosity of those with whom you work.

“Couldn’t we at least…?”

Most of us have had the experience of sitting through a contentious meeting, where stakeholders are polarized, progress is stalled, and consensus feels like a pipe dream. Asking “couldn’t we at least?” is the question that can help you and your colleagues get unstuck on an issue. It can get you started on a first step, even if you are not entirely sure where you will end. Perhaps you might first find some common ground by asking: “Couldn’t we at least agree on some basic principles?” or “Couldn’t we at least begin, and re-evaluate at a later time?”

“How can I help?”

The instinct to lend a hand to someone in need is one of our most admirable traits as human beings, but we often don’t stop to think about the best way to help. Instead, we swoop in and try to save the day. This frequently does more harm than good: it can unintentionally disempower, or even insult, those who need to take charge.

So when a colleague or direct report is complaining about an issue or expressing frustration, rather than jumping to offer solutions, try asking, “How can I help?” This forces your colleague to think clearly about the problem to be solved, and whether and how you can actually help. It helps your colleagues define the problem, which is the first step toward owning and solving it.

“What truly matters?”

This question might seem obvious, but I don’t think any of us ask it often enough. “What truly matters?” is not a question that you should wait to ask when you are on vacation or are retired. It should be a regular conversation, externally and internally. For example, it’s a useful way to simplify complicated situations, like sensitive personnel issues. It can also help you stay grounded when you have grand ambitions, like an organizational restructuring. And it can make even your weekly meetings more efficient and productive, by keeping people focused on the right priorities. Asking this often will not only make your work life smoother, but also help you find balance in the broader context of your life.

Leaders should ask these questions both on a daily basis and during critical moments. Of course, these aren’t the only questions to ask; context certainly matters. But I have found these five to be a very practical and useful way to ensure understanding, generate new ideas, inspire progress, encourage responsibility, and remain focused on what is genuinely important.

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Making Business Decisions

Source: Business Insider, Apr 2017

“You have to somehow make high-quality, high-velocity decisions. Easy for start-ups and very challenging for large organizations,” he writes.

So he outlined a couple of steps for that.

1. Learn to work with just enough data, aiming for most of what you need (70%) instead of gunning for near certainty (90%).

2. Get comfortable with uncertainty by staying flexible after the decision is made. “Many decisions are reversible, two-way doors,” he writes. And for those decisions that can be easily undone use “a light-weight process.” You can tell if it’s a light-weight decision by answering the question: “So what if you’re wrong?” he writes.

3. Instead of focusing on avoiding mistakes by making perfect decisions, become a master of “quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.”

4. Finally, for the biggies, those decisions that are not reversible or that have a big impact on customers, employees or partners, turn the traditional idea of buy-in/approval on its head. Go with “disagree and commit.

“If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, ‘Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?’” Bezos writes.

Focus

Source: Both Sides of the Table, Apr 2017

Only those with maniacal focus on results and a willingness not to engage in every activity achieve extraordinary results.

Choosing Between a Startup and a Tech Giant

Source: Business Insider, Apr 2017

1. ‘Do I want to eventually found my own tech startup?’

“I meet a lot of people who say, ‘Oh eventually I want to start my own company, but I’ll join Google now,’” he says. “My advice there is to always to just go and join a startup. That’s where you’ll actually learn how to start a new company. That’s where you will see a lot of mistakes made, and a lot of successes as well.”

A smaller company might provide you with a broader experience, which you’ll need if you plan to strike out on your own.

2. ‘What drives me?’

“If you are someone who gets a lot of ideas, like you’re showering in the morning and you just have an idea, in a startup, you can have that idea live and serving users by that afternoon,” Otasevic says. “In bigger companies like Google or Facebook, you’ll probably need a month to roll that out.”

So if you’re driven by speed and constant, fast innovations, go for a smaller team. That being said, Otasevic says that your fast changes may go unappreciated by users, if your startup lacks a big reach.

“Everything you release in Google or Facebook will have millions of eyeballs on it,” he says.

In order to figure out where you should take your talents, consider where you’re more motivated by speed or impact.

3. ‘What do I want to learn?’

“People often just settle for conventional wisdom like, ‘Oh, Google has a great engineering team and therefore I will learn a lot there,’” he says. “Yeah, but what do you want to learn? Go deep.”

He says that companies like Google offer excellent learning experience in terms of large-scale systems, while startups can provide more education on building things up from scratch.

4. ‘In what environment do I work best?’

Many tech giants like Google come with great perks and strong company values.

“Google has a great culture, in terms of engineering,” he says. “Intellectual curiosity is a value. That’s been Google’s philosophy in hiring forever. You want to hire people who are extremely curious and passionate about the world’s problems.”

On the other hand, tiny startups can also provide you with a close, fun environment, if you’re on a great team.

“You really feel that people on the team are like your family,” Otasevic says. “You’re pulling in the same direction. Everything that goes good or bad, you’ll get through it together.”

Renaissance Technologies Black Box Returns

Source: Bloomberg, Nov 2016

Mercer and Brown went to IBM’s management in 1993 with a bold proposition, says a person who knows the two: Let them build models to manage a portion of the colossal company’s then-$28 billion pension fund. IBM balked, questioning what computational linguists would know about overseeing investments. But the duo’s fascination with financial markets was just beginning.

 

BIll Gates’ Advice to His 19-Year Old Self

Source: CNBC, Feb 2017
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If the 61-year-old Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Bill Gates could whisper in the ear of his 19-year-old-self, he would have a few things to say about what he’s learned.

Intelligence is multifaceted

“I would explain that smartness is not single-dimensional and not quite as important as I thought it was back then,” Gates says.
While he now realizes that IQ may be overrated, Gates has often emphasized the importance of being curious. An interest in the world can and should be fostered, he says.
“I think having parents and teachers reinforce your curiosity and explain what they are fascinated with makes a big difference,” Gates says.
He encourages people to remain committed to learning throughout their lives. “A lot of people lose their curiosity as they get older, which is a shame,” he says. “One thing that helps nowadays is that if you get confused about something it is easier than ever to find an article or video to make things clear.”

 

5 Increasingly Dominant Tech Companies

Source: Zero Hedge, Apr 2017

  1. The most valuable companies in the U.S. are increasingly tech companies.
  2. The concentration of value (as denoted by market cap) being created in tech, is increasingly being created by the five largest companies, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon (aka FAMGA)
  3. The concentration of market cap in just five hands will have an increasingly profound impact on innovation and wealth concentration in the U.S..