The Rules of Engagement (A Note on Teams)

Machiavelli’s misfortune in inspiring the eponymous adjective “machiavellian” stems from his notorious work, The Prince, in which, he is the courtier advising his prince on leadership strategy. He argues that a new leader, upon assuming his position, should immediately arrange for all unavoidable tyrannies against his people to be committed early on in his tenure, leaving him thereafter with the agreeable task of winning their affection over time by subsequent and sustained benevolence. Shorn of its power dynamic, Machiavelli is simply arguing that the leader manage the expectations (to use contemporary business jargon) of his people by establishing the terms of engagement early on in the game. Thus an effective leader projects himself as both smart enough to recognize the necessary “tyrannies” he is obliged to engage in as leader, and courageous enough to execute them immediately.[1] Setting the terms of the relationship was one of my key insights during the past 15 years of working in Japan and most recently in my MBA program, the validity of which was well-tested in my experiences working with both highly functional and highly dysfunctional teams.

In the first team, we started off our initial meeting with a certain formality characterized by a pre-set agenda, and a tangible post-meeting goal: the creation of a team code of conduct, or ‘constitution.’ The inevitable ‘tyrannies’ such as re-motivating a team member who slacks off, for example, were easily resolved as the terms of engagement were already set in place. Thus, as the term progressed, and many other teams began to fray amidst the growing stress, we grew closer-knit and more effective as a team. Our success as a well functioning team was not only reflected in our grades for group projects, but more importantly in the fact that in later courses (when we had some choice of team members), the three of the original four who found ourselves in the same class inevitably gravitated towards one another, doubtless to replicate the magic we had conjured the year before.

In contrast, my second team (which through a seemingly fortunate coincidence included two of my good friends), proved to be a disaster.  While there were probably many causal factors, one of them definitely would have been the degree of informality and the lack of mutually agreed upon protocols which characterized our meetings. Thus when inevitable conflicts arose, we degenerated into destructive criticism which largely arose out of mismanaged and misaligned expectations. Similarly the lack of success of my second team was marked by lower evaluations on group projects, and more significantly by our firm desire NOT to work with one another again should we have any choice in the matter.

While in both cases, there are arguably many other factors affecting both the actions and outcomes of my teams’ experiences (hence the ‘insight’ rather than definitive ‘proof’), the necessity of A) soberly identifying the necessary challenges that arise in any team and B) setting expectations at the outset, has been a key learning experience for me. It has also served me in good stead in subsequent relationships I made. Thus, what I had theoretically understood 15 years ago in my literary studies of Machiavelli’s work, I had rigorously experienced in subsequent years, and which is now crystallized into a key insight.

[1] I have retained Machiavelli’s masculine pronoun, given its antecedent, Lorenzo de Medici, while asserting that the insights would equally apply to the feminine pronoun, though in keeping with the rhetoric of scholarly publications, I am obliged to call on more studies to be done in this area of undoubtedly profitable research.

A Darker Side of Mentoring

I asked my 7-year old daughter for the first time the other day, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” For some reason or the other this particular question had never surfaced in our many previous conversations (and she is quite gregarious, taking after me, as has been observed—which is not necessarily a compliment).

She replied rather uncertainly, and after some thought. “I want to be a doctor.” Something in her eyes sought my approval.

“A doctor? That’s interesting. Why a doctor?”

Again that uncertain tone, making a statement as if it were a question. “Because I want to help people?…”

“Oh really? Ok, so why would you like to do that?” I was adopting a casual conversational tone in much the same way as I would in asking her which bedtime story she would like me to read her before bed.

“Oh!”  Deep thought, and then more confidently she replies, “Actually, I don’t want to be a doctor.”

“Ok. Why not?”

“Because I am not interested in being a doctor.”


“Actually, I would like to be a pilot!” she exclaimed. And so the conversation continued.

I realized that this is a conversation that many a parent and child may have, but the reaction of the parent would determine the outcome. For instance, if I had responded to her “help people” quaver with a big smile, maybe a hug and a statement of how proud I was of her noble and altruistic motives, perhaps I might have gotten a different response. It is quite likely that she would have picked up on this fondest of parental ambitions for their children (i.e. to be a doctor) and the predictable canned response (i.e. to help people) somewhere: perhaps at school, from her friends, whispered in her ear by grandparents etc. How easy it would have been to yield to that ambitious parental desire; but how tragic might have been the possible outcome. We would never have known or even suspected that she had no desire to be a doctor—a fact that I may later explosively confront with her years later as she may give up on medical school, and in my opinion, having wasted those sacrifices I may have made for the extra coaching sessions, the ‘enriched’ streams in school curriculum, MCAT prep-school, the obsessions with grades, the greedily amassed ‘volunteer’ hours interning at hospitals, and all the other paraphernalia of getting her into med-school, and all for the simple and inconsequential reason that she didn’t want to be a doctor.

How does this domestic scene shed some light on our workplace interactions? Even in the most wonderful of scenarios where a boss does indeed have the best interests of the subordinate at heart, and most particularly in the case where a rising star has a been taken under the wing of the benevolent boss, so to speak, we see a variation of this scene play itself out. Think of that famous relationship between John Sculley and Steve Jobs, where so many parallels could be drawn to the father-son dyamic, which is just one of the many mentoring relationships that go awry. Even if one were to cast a glance at more commonplace occurrences that have surprised many a benevolent manager when a liked subordinate suddenly ups sticks and moves to a competitor. While the experience holds true for increasing numbers of women, the male pronoun still dominates the comments: “I always thought he was happy here” or “He had a great future here” are common comments that come from head-scratching managers, if they are not completely exploding at the ‘betrayal’ by that snake-in-the-grass whom I treated…ahem, like a son.

These relationships have a way of being heavily dependent on those first originating conversations, where under the benevolence of mentorship, the promising new talent is groomed in the image and expectations of the mentor, but often not of the mentee. The disappointed mentor may often exclaim “Why didn’t he just tell me? I would have listened! We need not have wasted this time and energy!” It is never easy to “just tell” and even more so when the mentee cares deeply about the impression made on the mentor, and appreciates the care and attention given by the mentor. Finally the ‘telling’ will have to happen, the dread the mentee feels having to finally come out with the ‘truth,’ the sense of betrayal the mentor may feel, the recriminations and the forever damaged relationship. I can look back on such moments from my youth and early adulthood as a mentee (and son), and in my later years as a mentor (and father). I can blame myself, my mentors or my mentees, but that does not break this potentially vicious cycle.

Or I can become more conscious of those originating conversations and of how much I am shaping the conversation or being shaped by the conversation. To return to the metaphor of the parent and child with which I started this entry, I can anticipate a possible objection from many an ambitious parent that “I know what is best for my child! I am looking out for my child’s best interests in the future!” which may very well be true, but then one should not be too surprised if the child confounds the parent’s expectations, or back in the business world if the mentee confounds the mentor’s expectations. I cannot offer to my daughter an opinion on the virtues of a career as a doctor or a pilot, but at least I know now what she wants, and more importantly what she does not want… and that is a start.

An Illuminating Blackout

On the afternoon of July 5th 2010, most of the people who worked in Toronto’s downtown core were somewhat discombobulated by a power failure. Once its cause was identified (transformer caught fire), and implications assessed to be relatively trivial (90% power restored in 3 hours), most people were given the rest of the day off, though some of them had to trudge down 30 stories of stairs as the elevators were not functioning. This incident did have an ominous antecedent, the massive power failure across the North America’s Eastern Coast in August 2003. It also provoked a sigh of relief: say for instance, what if the power failure had happened during the G20 Summit which was just the week before? Whatever one’s views of the Summit or of the global economy, such a power failure could have had quite unexpected outcomes.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s wonderfully engaging concept of Black Swan events (unpredictable, massively gamechanging, and post facto rationalized) obviously comes to mind. His basic argument is that future events are not predictable, so (from a business perspective) our naïve belief in the risk assessments of various models gives us a false sense of security until a massively game-changing event occurs. The black swan events can be negative e.g. the 2008 economic crisis, or they can be positive e.g. the rise of Google. The key issue I want to raise here is that of risk, and specifically in the context of business, where it is assumed to be brought under human control as much as possible.

The advanced research in Physics, Economics, Mathematics (and even in emerging sub-disciplines like Chaos theory) are brought to bear on the science of managing risk. The rewards are great and the reassurance of the science employed gives us, one and all, a sense of confidence that the risk is indeed being managed. One of the first big principles I studied in Finance was the difference between market risk (the spread of risk among all investments in the market), and unique risk (the risk associated with specific investments). The name of the game has become one of managing this latter type of risk through judicious portfolio management, but rarely does one (in a non-academic setting) consider the implications of the ever-present systematic risk. It is usually represented as a uniform band, probably because it recognizes the existence of less than perfect markets, exogenous conditions like black swans, which by being slight and rare respectively do get very thinly spread out over a large volume of transactions and extended period of time. But, to pursue this metaphor of risk being ‘spread out,’ presumably as butter is spread out on a slice of bread, the problem is that the topography of risk is not as smooth as a slice of bread; it is a combination of smooth plains as well as steep cliffs and deep crevasses. It is these exogenous, Non-quantifiable. Non-measureable, and largely undiscoverable species of risk that completely wipe out any risk-mitigating strategies that may have existed prior to their unexpected incidence.

How, for example, would Bear Stearns have been able to insure themselves against the actual risk associated with the mortgage-backed assets that ended up taking down the company? On a broader economic front, one could argue that it is precisely this sort of fear of a black swan event that would put such a massive fear into the minds of people’s disposition to invest, which would ironically end up crippling the economy: no one would want to transact business out of fear of that huge, unknown and unexpected risk. And they would be right. However, the ‘huge, unknown and unexpected risk’ is not mitigated: we can simply push that into a corner of our mind as we place more faith in calculations, analyses, reputations, novel financial models, and soon amidst all the paperwork, the excel sheets, the models—not to mention the deliberate book cooking, socialization of losses and privatization of gains—we have managed to take a junk bond and work it up to a triple A rating. The risk is not mitigated, it is just swept under the carpet.

Why does this happen? Being more familiar with human behaviour than with the complexities of finance, I would hazard a guess that it stems from a need for control. The market risk is so uncontrollable; the unique risk on the other hand yields itself to measurement, is affected by endogenous factors, and can be spread smoothly over efficiency frontiers (assuming a normal Gaussian distribution, a smooth and well-mapped topography of risk). Therefore when the one firm (or the one portfolio management team), wants to distinguish itself from the others, it seeks the people who will be able to make a difference in the areas that can be controlled, hence the physicists on Wall Street and the superstar financial consultants. As this controllable aspect of risk (unique risk & its predictive models) becomes more and more the differentiating factor between competing individuals, the ante gets upped, and the war for talent reaches unprecedented levels. Meanwhile, the really significant black swan type risks are safely ignored until it is too late and all hell breaks loose—as it did in 2008.

The most recent Toronto blackout is therefore a reminder that the world is not as predictable as we expect. Sometimes unpredictable events happen and have consequences. Yes, we all know that, and yet we get out of bed each morning and get on with the business of the day. The value of the reminder lies in never forgetting how much of the real impact of risk is exogenous, unquantifiable, unpredictable. That sobering consideration tempering our decisions and actions as we carry out the business of the day may well be our last defence against the market risk that threatens…well, the business of the day.

Taleb’s “Ten Principles for a Black Swan Robust World” Financial Times. April 7, 2009 is a short, entertaining and provocative recommendation. <;

Thinker’s Arithmetic

In 1784 in Germany, a seven-year old boy, Carl, was enrolled in a typical public school, one of those old schoolhouses where hundreds of poor pupils of varying ability congregate, and are taught by a disagreeable teacher whose primary tool of instruction was the liberal use of his whip: something out of a novel by Charles Dickens. The class was asked to sum all the numbers from 0 to 100, while the teacher probably settled at his desk for a nice long snooze as the pupils patiently pencilled away.

How would one usually approach this problem? Precisely the way that most of the students did:

0 + 1 + 2 + 3 + etc.

Carl, however, discomposed his teacher by announcing a few seconds later that the answer was 5050. He noticed that the numbers formed pairs of 100 i.e. 0 + 100 = 100, 1 + 99 = 100, … 49 + 51 = 100 to a total of 50 pairs. Then there was the single median number 50 which did not form a pair. Now the summing was easy: 50 pairs of 100 makes 5000, plus the median 50 makes 5050. From this simple arithmetical example, we can learn how new ways of seeing can substantially change our preconceived notions of approaching problems. Carl went on to become Carl Friedrich Gauss, one of the greatest mathematicians in history. But is this sort of revelatory insight only reserved for the geniuses of the world? I think not.

Having been a teacher and business coach for many years, I have seen similar moments of insight in my students. Thinking may start with a random thought or observation, but then one needs to grasp that thought and examine it: What does it imply? When is it true? When is it false? How can it be tested? What significance does it have to the problem at hand? In short, we start with a thought and we probe it, sift it through our experiences and learning until it gets converted from a mere thought to an insight. This is thinking.

One of the best ways to think is through the writing of my thought processes. Writing helps me ground my thoughts: they are right there on the page for me to recall, elaborate, modify and hopefully to illuminate. Consider how many interesting casual observations you make in the course of each day. If you were to pick just one of them and spend about 15 – 20 minutes writing about it, sifting through it, and mentally working through it, you have a journal, a record of the idea. Presumably in a class of over a hundred students there must have been at least one other pupil who noted the multiple pairs that added up to 100. Carl, on the other hand, thought through the observation until it yielded an insight. You doubtless have many thoughts and observations each day. Pick one, think through it, and write through it. Every day then becomes a day of discovery.

In Search of a Code

In a recent meeting I had with some fellow students and the MBA Programs Director to discuss the our Code of Academic Conduct that had come under media scrutiny due to some unfortunate pranks by some of the students, one Canadian student related (with some relish, I might add) an anecdote about an international student (a member of her team) who had copied and pasted a portion of text from Wikipedia in contribution to a team project report. When questioned, the international student admitted with some puzzlement that it was indeed from Wikipedia, which, given its open-source position, he did not realize needed to be properly referenced in the document. This anecdote sparked off the subsequent discussion which quickly degenerated into a trading of similar stories of by the other (Canadian) students present, which, while carefully circumventing the actual use of the term “international student” quite clearly implied in the traded stories that these instances of ignorance or malfeasance most likely originate among them. Lax academic standards in their home countries, pressures to produce work of idiomatically and structurally acceptable quality for academic work in a foreign language (English), or simple downright laziness to pull one’s weight on a team project, were all cited as possible reasons for this rash of substandard work.

Yet, the whole stream of stories emerging from the first Wikipedia one seemed to miss the key issue which is that of ignorance: ignorance about the specific protocols of scholarship in a specific discipline and in a specific language. Some students (international or local) have until now, not been instructed on the specific rituals of bibliographic citation that are agreed upon by the scholarly community of the Western Academy. I choose my words advisedly here. There is a mistaken notion among some semi-educated students here that until The MLA Handbook, or The Chicago Manual of Style, the action of willfully passing off as one’s own, or borrowing without acknowledgment, the work of others (i.e plagiarism) did not exist. I find it hard to believe that for any sustained body of continued scholarship to exist, the theft of another’s intellectual capital must have been regulated in some way—it is after all the “capital” of the scholarship industry.[1] The protocols simply change over time, and we learn new protocols.

What constitutes plagiarism, and how to cite within the correct protocols for a given academy is to be taught by those who know (i.e. teachers, fellow students and colleagues) for the betterment of knowledge usage and creation among all of its participants. Therefore, the issue at hand seems to get those of us unaware of the protocols and citation requirements, up to speed. This is no major task: as a student Mentor, it took me perhaps a couple of 1-hour sessions to bring my mentees up to speed on the specific requirements of academic writing in the Canadian university. I am happy to say that they are both genuinely conscientious students, and once they learned the “rules of the game,” they played admirably well within them, roundly trouncing their colleagues over the bell-curve with straight As on their subsequent essays. This training (no different from Excel modeling sessions) is a practical and necessary skill for all students, but most especially to those most in need of the skill. However, the facility in use of Excel does not imply some sort of moral superiority of those who happen to have acquired it over those who have not acquired it yet. The same is true of these protocols of bibliographic citation.

Another student was histrionically appalled that his team mate (another international student) had suggested in a team meeting that Blackberry phones could benefit from having email as an added feature. The appalled student concluded that such an ignorant comment deserved having the offender being rusticated from the program. It is quite likely that the offending team-mate probably assumed that Blackberry was simply another branded phone. Asia’s mobile technology has outpaced that of North America literally by generations, so it is quite possible that someone used to advanced mobile technology arriving from that part of the world may be ignorant of the primitive intermediate steps that were emerging though the supposedly “cutting edge” technology from Blackberry. If anything, the ignorance could arguably be that of the accuser, rather than the accused. Would the accuser then apply such stringent to himself and rusticate himself from the program?

This is a school after all, and it would be instructive to remember that famous reminder that we are given when we joined the program that this is a safe learning environment in which we can make (and learn from) our mistakes in practicing the skills required of our professions—in contrast to a working world where such errors may come with serious consequences. Let us teach our students and one another by all means, but that gloating by those who learned these protocols over those who did not as yet, is as distasteful as a person with eye-sight mocking a blind person who obliviously walked into an obstacle. Having lived outside the familiar space of Canada for the past 15 years, I know only too well of how blind I can be of serious breaches in protocol in lands that are new and foreign to me. We can all be inadvertently blind in that foreign space; we can make mistakes out of ignorance (even where they may have potentially serious consequences), but through the goodwill and guidance of our local colleagues, we can learn and adapt. I would like to hope that the respect for the dignity each student, the comradely support, and the desire to collectively grow as a school community would be a defining attribute of our particular institution, exemplified in all of its students. That spirit of mutual growth, and positive cooperation should probably be the defining spirit of a code of academic conduct here, rather than one which merely sets out a prescriptive list of Dos and Don’ts. I, for one would be proud to belong to such an institution, and count myself indeed fortunate that I can call my fellow students also my colleagues.

Note: The subsequent report that the Programs Director did compile for the Dean was, to her credit, scrupulously attentive to the needs and limitations of all students. This is a laudable step in the right direction, and one hopes the first of many in quest of a better code.

Works Cited:

Gonzalez-Crussi, F. A Short History of Medicine. New York: Modern Library, 2007.

[1] I recently discovered the etymological roots of torcular Herophili (a clump of nerves in the brain), which I had mechanically memorized in the days of my abortive medical studies: apparently, it translates from Latin as “The Herophilus Press” named after its discoverer, Herophilus (c. 335 – c. 280 B.C.), and which have been scrupulously attributed through over 2300 years of scholarship. This is the real and immortal reward of original discovery or creation in scholarship that the taboo of plagiarism so strongly proscribes against (and rightly so). (Medicine, 6)

Banking on a Gentleman’s Agreement

The culture associated with Wholesale Banking (“get the deal,” Type A personalities) vs. Retail Banking (stable, relationship-based)  is common in North America. The former is well-illustrated in the character of Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s movie Wall Street, summarized in his mantra of “greed is good;” The latter is your friendly banking advisor at your local CIBC branch where you go to have a chat about the mortgage, financing your kid’s college education, because, as their slogan says, “It’s worth a talk.” What struck me as interesting was the way in which this latter culture comes to dominate not just the retail segment of the market but also the wholesale segment in some other countries, such as for instance, Japan.

In the past 4 years before I came to Rotman I consulted to Shinsei Bank, helping their Japanese staff improve communication with their foreign managers. By way of background, Shinsei Bank was the former Long-Term Credit Bank (LTCB), which was formed in post-war Japan to finance the development of Japan’s industry and infrastructure that had been destroyed during the war. It was the most prestigious financial institution in the country, and its employees came from the elite universities of Japan. Following the crisis resulting from the burst of the bubble economy, LTCB had a huge amount of bad debt, which led to its bankruptcy and subsequent acquisition by an American Venture Fund (Ripplewood Holdings). The bank was reorganized, and one significant difference was that most of the top management came either from Wall Street or from other countries which share a similar ethos insofar at the Wholesale Banking culture was concerned. My job was to coach Japanese mid-level managers who had grown with the bank, suddenly having to not only effectively communicate with their foreign bosses, but who would also have to understand and wholeheartedly follow the ethos of their bosses.

That experience gave me some insights into how investment banking works in Japan. It is very much based on old-boy networks, relationships between individuals, relationships between institutions, and yet more of those relationships. The only way that it resembles Canada’s banks is in the retail sector where as we discussed today, the big Canadian banks have a “gentleman’s agreement.” The choice of words is not accidental, because it presupposes a social and cultural code of behaviour in which an unseemly fascination with wealth was so ruinous to one’s individual, family and professional reputation, that most CEOs would not have adopted the approach to pushing mergers for personal gain. The biggest challenge I faced working for Shinsei Bank is in finding a way to translate across that chasm: the chasm that separates the Wholesale Banker from the Retail banker in Canada. I have to admit that in all honesty, I was not very successful in effecting that translation, but it raised some questions that have shaped my MBA studies about the deeply-held values, and the reasoning processes that operate at such a sub-conscious level in the minds of people. It constantly amazes me how little control we have over those deeper thought processes which play such a significant role in the decisions and actions of those people we call employees, whether entry-level analyst or CEO. How does one distinguish one disposition from the other? That’s easy: by their actions shall you know them.

Beyond getting the horse to water

Over the weekend I had lunch with two friends from Rotman, and we inevitably got talking about organizational design. I summarized to them the key concepts of contingency theory (strategy orients the structure of an organization), the dominant logics, decision rights and the concept of fit between task and individual. We were all familiar with the congruence theory (between the formal and informal culture of an organization), so we did not discuss it in much detail. Where reached a deadlock was in if organizational design was supposed to incorporate individual motivation.

In reviewing my blogs, I have found that I seem to have been circling around this idea. The tools of organizational design, especially the concept of fit between task an individual, and the alignment between the people and the informal culture of an organization seemed to incorporate in a sense the motivation of the individual. But, there is a difference, as the proverb goes between getting the horse to water, and getting it to drink. In reviewing the cases and discussions from my past studies at Rotman, I still see that these tools and theories are admirably suited to designing an organization that accentuates and aligns the productivity of its employees with the achievement of corporate goals (getting the horse to water), but not specifically focusing on how to get a de-motivated individual to maximize his/her capabilities within a well-designed organization, or for that matter, bringing everyone to a certain level of internal motivation to maximize all the possibilities available (getting the horse to drink the water). The closest we get is in decision rights where we empower the individual to make decisions over issues that are within that person’s abilities and span of control. To a certain extent we can argue that this is also there in designing for fit.

In Power and Influence in Organizations, a course taught brilliantly by Jennifer Berdahl (at Rotman), we explored conceptions of power, and the most satisfactory one was defined as power being the able to control others’ desired outcomes. We usually see the power the employer or the boss having power over employees or subordinates respectively, but rarely do we acknowledge the power the opposite direction. The disgruntled employee, the de-motivated employee, the indifferent employee are all able to perform actions that control the CEO’s desired outcomes, often for the worse (think Mizuho Securities). In some cases, it may be actually the motivated employee, the morally-motivated employee, who then becomes the whistleblower (think Enron). Therefore, given the tremendous power that the employee potentially wields in an organization, should we also be explicitly considering how we can make people happy in a way that ensures that we mitigate the possible risk associated with making money. Here I am contrasting with the more common Krugman-like belief that the goal of a CEO is to focus on how we make money for the company (and not just make people happy). Of course, it is possible to make people happy with a free-for-all squandering resources that is counter-productive to the company’s financial goals. The trick therefore seems to be how to get people motivated to want to do their best in the job. Drawing from my experience as a teacher, I would say it is comparable to motivating my students to enjoy and build on the learning experience, despite the rigors of study, so that when they succeed, they will feel they have achieved something…and indeed they have achieved something special: the motivation to seek and conquer greater heights.

Getting HR off the back burner

Silence. Drop dead silence after a presentation can mean only one thing: the general attitude among members of the audience is “You are on your own!” Two partner guest speakers from the HR division of a prominent Canadian bank came to speak to students at the Rotman School of Management. They trolled through their extensive bios, their poorly designed slide deck, and limped through an incomprehensible case study based on TD’s acquisition of VFC. It was in the questions from the audience that the key issues of the case study came out: Luke Earl: What are the strategic reasons why TD acquired VFC? Mathew Thomas: What is the corporate culture of TD like both internally and externally? Jack Xu: Did they consider the integration issue before actually acquiring the company?

The issues in the case could have been concisely summed up as: TD acquired VFC, which was a small finance company. At the time TD already had a business unit which also did the same business as VFC, so the resulting organizational design choice was one of three options: A) continue with the status quo B) integrate both into a single business unit C) create a separate subsidiary organization with its own brand, organizational structure and strategy etc. What are some of the pros and cons for each option? Let’s list them on the board, and then discuss what the best option. 3 crisp sentences and one directive could have been delivered in 60 seconds, and the subsequent period spent in that bubbling discussion that characterizes Jim Fisher’s class (to which the guest speakers had been invited).

Interestingly enough, Jim Fisher did manage to turn that around in the last 30 minutes of class. The most interesting question he raised was about if Mr. Joe Manager (one of the guest speakers) would stay up at night worrying about organizational design issues. Probably not, and why not? Dawn-Marie King observed that given the relatively de-prioritized position of HR within an organization, perhaps that passivity is inevitable. Jim’s position is clear: “If I am running the organization, then I organize it; HR can come in afterwards and do the paperwork.” Ed Clark seems to be the organizer, as is evident in his statement on TD’s website: “Our mission is to be a better bank, and we believe the measure of our progress is not just our financial achievements; it’s whether or not our employees are proud to work for us, our customers are satisfied with the service we provide and the communities in which we work value us as a good neighbour and a positive contributor to their development and well-being.” Jack Welch also organized GE by empowering HR to take an active role (Assertive and committed statements start with “I believe we should do…” and they are dangerous because you are going out on a limb; you are taking a stand). How is this possible? I think it comes from taking ownership over your job, whether as CEO or as HR executive. In the case of Welch’s GE: team matters, culture matters, and winning matters. As we read from his books, Welch and his HR team DID stay up at night worrying about it. And maybe that is why Jack is Jack, and Joe is Joe.

The mechanized human or the humanized machine?

John Chambers’ recognition that Cisco “was designed for the industrial age of the past century when capital was the scarce resource, interaction costs were high and hierarchal authority and vertically integrated structures were the keys to efficient operations” (Bryan et. al. 12) probably lead to his desire to transform the company into its current “councils” and “boards” format which replicates the advantages of a matrix organization without its limitations (e.g. the diverse priorities associated with dotted and multiple reporting lines, figuring out the “unwritten” rules of the organization etc).

One major learning objective I took away Jim Fisher’s course in Organizational Design at the Rotman School of Management was that complexity exponentially increases with the number of employees assigned to different functions. This complexity lessens the “perfect” design of the organization largely because the communication between the different functions (e.g. design, procurement etc), and therefore the optimal decision-making ability in the actions associated with each function (e.g. whether to procure available materials instead of required materials would be based on design, quality control, sales etc). In a nutshell: optimal communication between different functions, and optimal decision-making at the relevant point (decision rights). This is precisely what Chambers is attempting to do through his culture of collaboration, replicable processes, and eating of one’s own dogfood.

While I applaud Chambers’ intentions, I have some concern about his implementation methodologies (30% of managers’ bonuses depend on their team interactions, their 5-year strategy, their 2-year vision and their 10-point execution plan) largely because they utilize external motivators, encourage homogeneity in communications processes, and may inadvertently encourage managers to develop expertise in their 5-year strategy, 2-year vision and 10-point execution plans over actually perfecting the art of decision making. Furthermore, despite the optimism of Bryan et. al. that digital technology will “promote efficient, effective and large-scale collaboration” as well as being able to “measure each person’s ‘assists,’” I do not believe (as they conclude) that such measures will “motivate employees to collaborate in ways that were not possible in the past” (16) to the expected or desired extent.

Abraham Maslov’s famous “Hierarchy of Needs” posits self actualization at the top of the human pyramid of needs, and I believe that as long as there are people working in these organizations, organizational design will have to consider these human factors affecting motivation. While Chambers’ revised matrix organization improves the process (as does Bryan’s digital technology), one needs to consider that the people’s strongest motivations are often internal rather than external: witness the advent of open sourcing and wikis as a 21st century example of people collaborating because of individual self-actualization. Thus I would see Drucker’s aspiration of “liberation and mobilization of human energies” as a timely reminder to Chambers’ objectives, with a strong emphasis on the human. This is not to imply that we somehow relativize all processes under the umbrella of recognizing the “human” component, but instead that we rigorously study how human behavior impacts their ability and motivation to engage in profitable activity. The weakest assumption of the industrial age was in assuming that humans were homogenous, programmable robots, well exemplified in the metaphoric connotations of the expression “command and control.” As we know from personal experience (e.g. managing families, friendships, politics etc) humans are infinitely more complex than that. In organizational design, we need to consider if we are going to unleash that fecund potential or tame it to a less complex, more-mechanized output.

Do Nice Guys (and Gals) Finish Last?

Over the past year I feel I have been co-opted (or perhaps co-opted myself) to be a “cultural relativism” iconoclast intent on examining many of the business models taught here for their resilience under the disintegrating hammer of US-centric assumptions. That “allowing for cultural differences…” sort of perfunctory acknowledgement by the researchers who create these models is perhaps perfunctory precisely because a more genuine engagement with the importance of how things are done differently elsewhere in the world, might otherwise thoroughly destroy the published (in HBR, no less!) triumph of such researchers’ models. This idol of glitter and gold would perhaps crumble if one were to direct attention to the culturally relativistic clay feet on which it has been erected, as is my intention in commenting on Barbara Tannen’s “The Power of Talk: Who gets Heard and Why.”

“The Idea at Work” précis which helpfully summarizes her argument in the form of useful advice points to a list of Donts (with the associated unintended consequences for those who engage in such career-assassinating behavior): don’t share credit, don’t act modest, don’t ask questions, don’t apologize, don’t “sandwich” negative feedback with positive reinforcement buffer, and some Dos: do aggressively challenge others’ ideas, do toot your achievement horn with your superiors, and do bluntly give orders to those below you.  Her paper (and complementary video) operates on a simple binary, one which is familiar to all of us if only as a simplistic stereotype of the aggressive Gordon Gekko man and the “feelgoody” Pollyanna woman. Women, in particular are victims of their innate feminine “niceness” that apparently emerges from their childhood instincts to “talk” while their masculine counterparts learn assertiveness from childhood instincts to “fight.” Apart from the benevolent sexism inherent in such positioning, it will no doubt come as a surprise to my daughters whose inherent instinct is to fight one another over toys (or primacy or whatever), that my wife and I are trying to socialize out of them by encouraging them in more civilized behavior and attitudes.

On the contrary, I propose that we view the evidence of her anecdotally, confirmation-biased, data through a different lens, one that doesn’t view men (or masculinity) as rude, self-promoting and selfish, or women (or femininity) as weak, unassertive and conflict-averse. The same objectives of being credited for ones work, being confident in one’s abilities (and enjoying that same confidence from one’s colleagues), and being clear in one’s feedback can also be achieved by BOTH men and women through friendly, civil and self-confident behavior. Yet, especially in North America, self-confidence is often considered an external attribute that if one does not already have, can be remedied by enrolling in “Assertiveness Training” courses in which machismo (rather than masculinity) is beaten into poor Pollyanna souls on their journey up the corporate ladder.

Interestingly enough, these sexist stereotypes of both women and men gave rise to a backlash in popular culture in the 1970s but were never properly explored for their specious assumptions. Thus, Carol Gilligan, Camille Paglia, and later John Gray (of Men are from Mars… fame) seemed to tacitly imply that on some level if women were to shed their “submissiveness” the only option open to them was to engage in chest-pounding machismo in all its glory. Consider an example from the popular culture: the popular entertainment of that period in the stand-up comedy of Eddie Murphy in particular. This feminine=submissive and masculine=aggressive underwent an interesting transformation in the sphere of sexual orientation, where the butch-and-femme or pitcher-and-catcher slang assigning sexual roles for homosexual women and men respectively began to be associated with this aggressive vs. submissive behavior.  It is also about this time that ethnic stereotypes began to enter the popular discourse associating aggressive behavior with African Americans, and submissive behavior with Asians (think of TV & Media of the time like A-Team, Shaft, etc). These stereotypes existed long before featuring in the pop-psychology books, in entertainment (including pornography), and sometimes in scholarly research from the 1980s onwards, which may have been responsible for their entrenchment in the North American popular imagination. However, with the increasing crossover of cultures through the economic development (e.g. Japan, Korea, India, China etc) Western researchers have had ample opportunity to examine how other cultures do things differently, and if these differences may be a useful opportunity for us North Americans to revisit some of our most deeply held sub-conscious assumptions about preferred social behavior.

Tannen mentions an Air Florida airline crash, whose black box recordings indicate that the co-pilot did discreetly indicate a few times of possible danger to his captain, but was ignored. Tannen’s response to a Japanese student who pointed out that perhaps a good learning objective from the Air Florida disaster would be to “train pilots to pick up on hints” is delivered in ringingly reprimanding tines that “people in powerful positions are likely to reward styles similar to their own” which is a not-so-subtle assertion that in the US (which is assumed to be the pinnacle of business power) if one were to get ahead, one had better ape the typical obnoxiousness of typically male business leaders. Really? Consider an interesting counter-example. In 1989 following the burst of Japan’s economic bubble, Lawrence Summers visited Japan on numerous occasions where he hectored away his opinions at Japan’s government and entire financial industry. They politely listened but essentially ignored him, for his whole personality and behavior was perceived to be immature, ignorant and fundamentally uncivilized—a conclusion many of the Harvard faculty came to over a decade later. Howell Raines in the New York Times debacle is equally instructive.

In many of the cultures of Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe substantial emphasis has been placed on modesty in describing oneself, and courtesy to others often through a sophisticated use of language to convey one’s meaning without giving offence, and thus to participate in society as a mature individual. Such people are neither considered aggressive boors, nor are they unassertive doormats: one only has to look at respected leaders to have emerged in history from Julius Caesar, Jesus, Ashoka, and Tokugawa Ieyasu to Nelson Maldela, John Paul II, Meg Whitman and Aung San Suu Kyi. Their self-confidence was an internal attribute and achieved through learning, experience and self-actualization, not through an assertiveness training seminar that timid souls might hasten to join to ease their discombobulating dismay arising out of reading Tannen’s article.


Tannen, Deborah. “The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why.” Harvard Business Review OnPoint. Product Number: 9977.