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Five Questions from Advent Season

Category: Leadership and Management Lessons

Almost all Americans, regardless of their religious beliefs, are impacted by the Christmas holiday. But until last week, I had not really thought about the impact the Christian Advent season should have on us, probably because most people don’t really think about it. And we should (more about that later).

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

The Christmas Retail Industry. This year it is expected the Christmas retail industry will surpass $620 billion, which is about 20 percent of retail sales for the whole year. Retailers during this period hire about 770,000 supplemental workers, most of whom will lose their job by New Year’s Day. And, if you sell Christmas trees this time of year as I do with my Rotary Club, you might be interested to know that the Christmas tree segment itself is a $1 billion industry.

Christmas has become a frenzy of activity - shopping, traveling, and going to parties. And then there are the movies - It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf, Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, and so on. I’m sure you have a favorite. Jim Carrey’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas is #1 all-time Christmas movie at the box office.

Advent and Christmas. Last Sunday at my Church our pastor, Emily Heath, taught us an important lesson that has leadership implications. Emily said that although these movies are “Christmas-themed” they are really Advent movies – they are about someone who comes to understand Christmas by making a change.

Emily said, “Even when everything is coming down around George Bailey, he learns to see the world through grateful eyes. Ebenezer Scrooge sees the truth about himself, becomes a compassionate and kind soul, and changes his miserly ways. Charlie Brown hears Linus recite the Christmas story, and he learns what Christmas is all about. And even the Grinch hears the Whos down in Whoville singing despite the fact he stole Christmas, and his heart grows three sizes that day.

“Those are their Advent stories. Each has an Advent that prepares them for Christmas. And each arrives at Christmas day different than they were when the season of Advent started. They are, in some way, transformed. And transformation is what Advent is all about.”

Transformation. Emily’s message resonated with me. I think it is a good time of year for each of us to look at ourselves and think how we can become a better person. Here are five questions I am asking myself based on lessons from the movie characters and the Advent season:

  1. How can I show others I am grateful for our relationship and their effort?
  2. Can I show more compassion and kindness toward others?
  3. If I sometimes lose my temper or use sarcasm, how can I be more peaceful and respectful?
  4. How can I put others first and be less selfish?
  5. In what ways can I be more joyful, hopeful, and optimistic?

My hope for leaders everywhere is that they ask themselves these types of questions and strive to become better people. I know I will try.  

December 15, 2014 19:27

Can Curiosity Nourish the Soul of Your Culture?

Category: Company Culture

What makes you curious? Have you ever noticed how happy you are when you pursue a curiosity? Imagine what it would be like to work on a team where every person is encouraged to pursue curiosities that advance the organization’s mission. There is no doubt in my mind human curiosity plays an important role in building healthy, vibrant organizational cultures

This week I have been thinking about human curiosity because I have read about Alan Turing, Larry Page, Airbnb, and visited a unique college-alternative in Amesbury, Massachusetts called InventiveLabs. At the center of all these stories is curiosity.

Poster for 'The Imitation Game'

Alan Turing. Most people have never heard of Alan Turing. This week the movie The Imitation Game opened in theaters, and it tells the story of how Turing’s curiosity to invent a machine that could out-think the human mind helped win World War II.

During the war, the Germans had invented and were using a special mechanical machine called the Enigma for enciphering and deciphering secret messages. This machine used a number of random computations to mix up letters so that messages and orders could be sent from German leaders to their field commanders without the British and American forces being able to break the code. The randomness of the Enigma’s coding made it appear unbreakable, and it was for many years. But thanks in part to the genius and curiosity of Turing, who invented an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine and secretly break the codes, we learned in advance what the Germans were going to do. And, according to Winston Churchill, Turing’s work shortened the War by two to four years.

Larry Page. This month Fortune magazine named Larry Page, the CEO and one of the founders of Google, its Businessperson of the Year. While we have all read about the creative work environment at Google, I think Page’s infectious curiosity is what drives its success. Page’s mantra “Dream it, then go build it” encourages individuals on the Google team and in its “moonshot factory” to be curious. The article points to projects like high-tech balloons, nanoparticles, and robots. Often, the larger a company gets, the less employee curiosity is encouraged. So far at Google, it is still flourishing due largely to Page’s curiosity leadership.

Airbnb. Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia were curious one day back in 2008. Strapped for cash, the two wondered if they could rent-out floor space and air mattresses in their apartment to convention attendees in San Francisco. Knowing their low price would attract budget conscious attendees, they used e-mail and a quick website to test their idea. Shortly thereafter they, along with another tech saavy friend of Gebbia, Nathan Blecharczyk, upgraded their website. They targeted a large tech convention in Austin and the Democratic National Convention in Denver and had modest success.

The Founders of Airbnb

Still curious and strapped for cash, they got involved with the start-up incubator Y Combination and received good advice – go focus on New York City. The rest is history. Airbnb this year matched 10 million curious visitors with homeowners with space to spare. Their website now has 800,000 unit listings and, according to Inc. magazine,who named Airbnb Business of the Year, they are larger than any hotel chain in the world.


InventiveLabs. College is not for everyone, and a small start-up in Amesbury, Massachuetts knows it. The founders had a unique idea for those high school graduates who decided college was not for them: come here and be curious. Located on the top floor of a remodeled mill, InventiveLabs has all the space and tools for young people to explore their curiosities and, hopefully, create ideas that can be developed into small businesses. If you are curious how one of the founders displays his resume, you can see Tom Bergeron’s resume “map” here.

This morning on the Today Show I saw a story about a curious cat that found its way into a family’s moving box. The family sadly couldn’t find their cat and had to move thousands of miles away without it. Then, some 36 days later, when the family unpacked a box at their new home, the cat appeared – alive and pretty well.

So, curiosity does not always kill the cat.

As I visit our teams and company clients I am now looking for how organizations effectively harness the power of personal curiosity. I hope you will look as well and share examples you see of innovative curiosity in your organizations.

December 04, 2014 19:01

Powerful Women Dealing with Weak Cultures – Part 2

Categories: Women Leaders , Company Culture , Ethics

In last week's blog post, I wrote about Ginni Rometty, Fortune Magazine’s most powerful business leader, and how she is trying to transform IBM. This week I will write about Janet Yellen, Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and touch on her organizational challenge that is almost too large and complex for one human being.

Janet Yellen

Most of you probably missed this - the Federal Reserve Bank (“The Fed”) celebrated its 100th birthday this week. Without boring you too much, you should know that The Fed is a large, relatively independent organization responsible for supervising and regulating the U.S. banking system, member banks’ foreign activities, and foreign banks’ activities in the U.S. They also now have responsibility for “supervising” how banks are following all the new laws passed by Congress that dealt with abuses contributing to the financial meltdown in 2008-2009.

And, it is this last responsibility that concerns me most.

New Bank Regulations. Congress passed a series of very complex laws and ordered banks to comply with these new regulations. Our country has a history of passing laws that often punish the innocent and fail to reach or impact the guilty and, in my opinion, these new laws are perfect examples. The impact of these new regulations on small and mid-sized banks, the banks that did nothing to contribute to the meltdown, is ridiculous – just ask your local banker.

And what is the impact on large banks and investment houses like Goldman-Sachs? Virtually zero. Why? Because The Fed’s work culture and passive employee personalities are ill-suited for the direct, aggressive cultures and personalities of the large banks they need to regulate.

A Passive-Aggressive Culture Challenge. The job of most federal regulators is to study paperwork. If we were to review the best personality profile for one who is especially good at this they would likely be passive, introverted, patient, and detail-oriented. And because of the prevalence of these personalities at The Fed, its culture is similar. However, the personalities of the financially successful bankers are nearly the complete opposite – they are aggressive and dominating, extroverted, impatient for action, and likely lower on the detail scale. Any of us can see now who will win the battle of these two cultures.

The Secret Recordings of Carmen Segarra. The Fed in New York tried to deal with this and following a report by David Beim, started to hire regulators who were more aggressive to deal with the larger bank personalities. Carmen Segarra was one of these hires and her case shows what can happen when an outsider with an opposite personality is thrown into a passive culture. (You can either read a brief summary of her story at ProPublica or listen to a podcast of her story and her actual tape recordings at This American Life.)

Segarra was just what The Fed needed - a smart, aggressive, extroverted, impatient lawyer committed to the mission of making sure large banks avoided excessive risks and conflicts of interest. Not too long into her job she found that her supervisors at The Fed were more concerned with how her personality was disrupting The Fed’s cultural status-quo than how she was helping them regulate the large banks.

Carmen Segarra

Supervisors started ordering Segarra to behave in ways she thought were undermining the intentions of the new regulatory directives given to The Fed by Congress. So, she started secretly recording meetings. After she refused to soften her stance on the point that Goldman-Sachs had no real conflict of interest policy, she was terminated. It is unlikely she was fired for that reason; it was more likely related to how she was disrupting the quiet culture at The Fed.

When I listened to the one-hour podcast noted above I could hear how weak the most senior regulator at Goldman-Sachs was – I was astonished. Even I would have been more aggressive than this guy!

What does this all tell me? While the new regulations are hand-cuffing our small and mid-sized bankers, the wolves at the large banks are still running the hen-house. And, Janet Yellen, who is a skilled economist and highly regarded professional, has her hands full trying to change The Fed’s passive regulatory culture.  

November 21, 2014 21:03

Powerful Women Dealing with Weak Cultures – Part 1

Categories: Women Leaders , Company Culture

Entrenched organizational culture is the biggest challenge two of Fortune magazine’s most powerful women leaders, Ginni Rometty of IBM and Janet Yellen of the Federal Reserve Bank, are dealing with. And when I read about their corporate cultures and problems, one seems to have a better chance of success than the other. Let me start with Ginni Rometty.

Ginni Rometty

Ginni Rometty, who was named Fortune’s most powerful woman business leader this year, certainly has her hands full. Rometty, 58, is the ninth CEO of IBM, where she started as a systems engineer 33 years ago. IBM is a huge bureaucracy with many layers built over 103 years – it now has 431,000 employees operating in 170 countries. The problem Rometty now faces is how to get the company to evolve with the times and move forward successfully without fighting change, instead of staying stuck in the past and losing customers to competitors.

Rometty knows IBM has to change internally or it will slowly die. And, while she is very aware that everything she does is scrutinized by employees, shareholders, competitors, and bloggers like Bob Cringely, she seems to have all the qualities needed to achieve substantive change, even if she does not please everyone.

In the Fortune article examples of Rometty’s effective communication and collaboration styles are described. They also share three of “Ginni’s Rules”: 1. Don’t protect the past; 2. Never be defined by your products; and 3. Always transform yourself.

Using regular webcasts and a new training program called “Think Academy”, she is now in touch with and getting input from thousands of employees across the globe. John Kelly at IBM was quoted as saying, “She has this unique ability to make you comfortable in the change while still being uncomfortable. It’s really hard to explain.” Rometty’s vision for IBM’s reinvention is to concentrate globally on big data, cloud services, and engagement (mobile and social networking technologies).

Rometty has used her collaborative skills to partner with Apple, a former competitor, to cross-sell each other’s business services. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, says this of Rometty: “I think she is wicked smart…she has an incredible ability to partner and can make tough decisions and do so decisively. And she sees things as they really are.”

It sounds to me with Rometty’s leadership skills, IBM has a fighting chance to innovate and change – something most large bureaucracies cannot do, and they usually shrink and die.

This brings me next to Janet Yellon, Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Honestly, her challenge is almost too large and complex for one human being. I will briefly explore the organizational abyss that is the Federal Reserve Bank next, in Part 2. 

November 13, 2014 22:08

Women in Business – Four Short Stories

Category: Women Leaders

Last week I watched the PBS special Women in Business and read the October 6th issue of Fortune magazine, which featured the 50 Most Powerful Women. Today I thought I would introduce you to four business women who caught my interest.

Dr. Ann Marie Sastry

Anne Marie Sastry. Hidden within the Fortune pages is the intriguing story of a former engineering professor at the University of Michigan, Dr. Anne Marie Sastry. Dr. Sastry has started a company that invented a new kind of battery that may revolutionize the electric car industry. The company is called Sakti3 and its battery would allow electric cars to travel 300 miles on a single charge and cost much less than current batteries. It will be interesting to see how Dr. Sastry figures out how to scale the product and deal with Elon Musk, the inventor-entrepreneur behind Tesla.

Barbara Banke. If you drink wine you have probably heard of Jackson Family Wines, the largest producer of premium wines in the United States. Its Kendall-Jackson Vintner Reserve Chardonnay is the best-selling chardonnay in the country. Barbara Banke is the CEO and is leading its strategy to expand its vineyard holdings up into Oregon. One of their strategic concerns is whether or not American wine drinkers will embrace wines made from non-California grapes. The Fortune story of how Banke got involved in the business and how she is leading the research behind how the tastes of millennials are impacting the wine industry is very interesting.

The Honest Company cleaning products

Jessica Alba. Have you heard of The Honest Company? It is a $150 million e-commerce business founded and led by actress Jessica Alba. Here is what she wrote in Inc Magazine about why she started the business: “I founded The Honest Company on this idea: Everything that touches you and your family--everything in your home--needs to be nontoxic, needs to be effective and beautiful to look at, and needs to be affordable. I really wanted it to have an e-commerce model. What are the things that all parents need? Diapers and wipes, for sure. And then a mix of cleaning and personal care products. Wouldn't it be great if you could pick five things and get them delivered through a monthly subscription?”

Sharon Anderson Wright. Here in the east we have not seen Wright’s business, Half Price Books. But it is a very popular chain of book/audio stores that has carved out a niche over 30 years. Wright took over the disorganized business from her mother and has grown it into a $240 million business today with over 120 locations in 16 states. The business story in Fortune is worth reading because it tells of how a business got started in a simple, low cost fashion, and then grew under a second-generation leader, Sharon Wright.

Next week I am going to write about the challenges that two powerful women leaders, Ginni Rometty of IBM and Janet Yellen of the Federal Reserve Bank, are having with their own organizations’ cultures.

November 07, 2014 13:39
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Steve Wood is the President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Leddy Group and Work Opportunities Unlimited Inc. (WOU). In addition, Steve provides strategic planning and organizational development consulting services to clients.


Prior to joining the company, Steve spent 17 years in the banking industry where he was promoted to Senior Vice President and Senior Commercial Loan Officer.



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