Leadership B.S. by Stanford University Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer (Book Review)

Few books open our eyes by revealing truths hiding in plain sight. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is one. Leadership B.S. by Jeff Pfeffer is another.

Many books, lessons, and word-of-mouth teachings about leadership are misleading, misrepresentative of real world experience, and based on feel-good ideals. There are five reasons why several things we are taught about leadership and management are wrong.

  1. Lack of Rigor — Many leadership lessons based on someone’s experience are not based on a systematic analysis of complete data, comprehensive understanding of circumstances, and other available options at the time. What worked for the winner may be simply chance (luck), weakness of the opposition, or insufficiently acknowledged help from others.
    ·
  2. Before and After — The behaviors that lead a person to a powerful leadership position are often not the same as the good qualities the person assumes later in life after they are already successful. Take the case of Bill Gates, who as a competitive businessman was a different person from the kind, caring philanthropist he is today.
    ·
  3. Delusion — Human beings have a positive, good impressions of ourselves that are often not accurate. Studies have shown that about 80% of people believe they are better car drivers than average, better looking than average, and better human beings than others. The Overconfidence effect and above average effect are well documented. How a successful leader feels they act (morally) is often quite different from what they actually do based on observation.
    ·
  4. Deception — Human beings, especially successful ones, lie, mislead, and often don’t give away their coveted secrets that given them their competitive edge. There is plenty of scientific evidence that lying is a common daily habit.
    ·
  5. Leaving a Legacy — Many leadership books and articles are written to make the author look good, to build a good reputation and brand for the leader, and to make money. They are not primarily written for the purpose of making other people successful, even if the author thinks so. This could be due to delusion, deception, or a bit of both.

 

For the above reasons, my friend Jeff Pfeffer and I sometimes say that most leadership books and products should be labeled like packs of cigarettes: “Warning: This information will make you feel good in the short term, but is likely to be harmful to your effectiveness,  career, and well-being.

So how should you minimize your time and effort wasted learning ineffective leadership and management methods that are likely to backfire?

I highly recommend reading the excellent book Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time by Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford University. It was finalist for the 2015 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year and Best business book of the week selected by Inc.com. This book will help you identify real and effective leadership and management lessons based on evidence that are more likely to work than platitudes.

In full disclosure, in the acknowledgements section of this book, Professor Pfeffer wrote:

This book was inspired in part by my interactions with Rajiv Pant. It was Rajiv who first used the phrase “feel-good leadership literature.” It was Rajiv who provided some of the stories and examples incorporated in this book. But mostly it was Rajiv Pant who helped me see how much damage was occurring because of the current incarnation of the leadership industry. Rajiv’s support and friendship mean a great deal, not only for this book but in my life.

Pfeffer, Jeffrey. Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time (pp. 221-222). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

How to be an effective CTO

A CTO’s job combines Culture, Technology, and Operations. Each of the three is necessary; a field of knowledge, experimentation, and learning in itself; and interdependent with the other two. To be successful as a CTO, you need to work on and continually master all three areas. If you’d like to see the responsibilities of a CTO as a picture, here is a mind map illustrating things CTOs are responsible for.

Culture

Culture, as the first part of a CTO’s job is the answer to who you are you as a team. A CTO’s role starts with the culture they develop, evolve, and lead by example.

Culture can be described as people, knowledge, and behaviors in a community connected by relationships, norms, and purpose.

The people in a CTO’s job include internal stakeholders and colleagues, engineering and product teams, partners, and external customers. As CTO, it is your job to foster constructive collaboration among them.

Regular sharing of knowledge among members and teams is essential for a culture to be developed, sustained, and evolved. As CTO, you are accountable and responsible for compiling, updating, and sharing knowledge among your teams, stakeholders, and customers.

Observed behaviors describe your culture as it really is. Talk is hollow if you and your teams don’t walk the walk. If you are in a leadership role, people observe what you do, and learn from and emulate what you do, far more than from what you say.

An article in the New York Times about Google’s findings on what makes teams effective reports: “Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather: One team may come to a consensus that avoiding disagreement is more valuable than debate; another team might develop a culture that encourages vigorous arguments and spurns groupthink. Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence is often profound. Team members may behave in certain ways as individuals — they may chafe against authority or prefer working independently — but when they gather, the group’s norms typically override individual proclivities and encourage deference to the team.”

I recently participated in a week-long Design Thinking workshop hosted by Matter.vc that used various activities to reinforce the critical importance of having norms in a team. The Matter boot camp is valuable because it brings many best practices in product development from successful startups to traditional media companies wanting to embrace lean and agile product engineering. The path to mastery is to practice, test, and learn.

The path to mastery is to practice, test, and learn.

As CTO, you need to appreciate, learn, and apply cognitive science, behavioral psychology, and social science with integrity and in ethical ways to develop a culture of excellence. You must not let a mentality of us-versus-them take root between technology staffers and other parts of the company. Remind yourself and your team members that your allegiance to your whole organization is not less than that to your department or team.

For example, if as CTO, you are resentful of the marketing department and you mock the Chief Marketing Officer and her team, then your team will absorb this poisonous behavior from you. If you disparage your boss behind her back while pretending to be loyal in front of her, your team will learn to do the same to you. If you put the needs and desires of the technology organization ahead of those of the overall organization, then the teams that report in to you are going to act similarly towards your overall technology team. To be a good corporate citizen and team player with your peers is not only the right thing to do, but is also in your self-interest.

A mistake that CTOs sometimes make is that they organize their team and prioritize their work based too much on what they think is best for the company mainly from the perspective of technology.

A mistake that CTOs sometimes make is that they organize their team and prioritize their work based too much on what they think is best for the company mainly from the perspective of technology. This results in their stakeholders not seeing eye to eye with the tech team, and stakeholders complain that “things here take forever to get done.” Whenever you hear something like “work takes ages to complete,” there is a deeper problem underneath: The real problem is that engineering and stakeholders are not on the same page about priorities and are not communicating sufficiently with each other about value, progress, problems, and risks.

You can implement the most suitable rapid development practices (e.g. continuous delivery, agile, and lean startup methodologies) and use the best modern techniques, tools, and technologies (e.g. microservices, machine learning, and magic :-)  ), that deliver projects with great speed, scalability, and success, but if you and your stakeholders are not in sync, things will be perceived as too slow, stubborn, and substandard.

Without a good culture, technologies and products decay and operations fail because people do not do the right things towards the shared mission.

Technology

Technology, as the core part of a CTO’s job, is the answer to what you do as a team.

Technology includes engineering, architecture, data, infrastructure, scalability, reliability, trust, security, privacy, and other ingredients. The specific areas of technology in a CTO’s purview vary based on the organization, its scale, and condition. Here is an example of an organizational structure that worked well for a smaller media company and another that helped a larger media company be successful.

Even though most CTO’s job duties do not include writing code yourself, to be a credible CTO, you need to not only know how to write good software code, but you should also enjoy doing it as a hobby. You must have a passion for many areas of technology combined with a perpetual desire to keep learning as technologies progress.

As CTO, you are the head coach, mentor, and guide to the technology staff. You preside and govern, not dictate or micromanage. You are not a middleman requiring every communication, decision, or solution to go through you. You are sincerely interested, engaged and involved in the work your teams do but you are not an obstacle. You are a connector who links the technology staff with other members of the organization.  You remember that you have two ears and two eyes but only one mouth, so you listen and observe more than you talk. You respect the makers and the managers who report in to you because you are both their teacher and their student.

Without good technology, operations are inefficient and have trouble overcoming roadblocks, resulting in undesirably slow progress and heavy costs. With good technology, there is a strong sense of pride and that helps develop a culture of excellence where recruiting, retention, and productivity flourish.

Operations

Operations, as the integrating part of a CTO’s job, is the answer to how you do your job as a team.

Operations can be described as how and how well things get done and are delivered. Operations span how resources (including costs) are allocated and managed, how processes and systems work, and how trade-offs should be made. They involve managing the portfolio of projects, products, and services; prioritization; and decommissioning and letting go of products and projects.

Any team that does product development, infrastructure engineering, or provision of services needs to be operationally effective. For this, you and your team need to track progress, record data, measure results, report results, compile lessons learned, and implement improvements. Continuously.

Operations are critical to every organization’s success. This is where the rubber hits the road. You can have a wonderful culture and innovative technologies, but if you don’t get projects done successfully, you won’t have the other two for long.

To put the above in context, I am sharing some tips from my recent talk at the Fastly 2016 Summit.

5 Lessons I learned as a CTO in major media companies

To succeed as a CTO or head of engineering, you need to work with the APIs of your fellow human beings

1. Instead of trying to be salesperson, be a friend

  • It is better to win people over, than to sell them your idea
    • Don’t push your solution. Draw others to your solution
    • Don’t pander either. Win over
  • Don’t make B.S. claims about future benefits of the project. Instead, emphasize the purpose and passion
  • Don’t try to falsely attach your infrastructure project to a product development the business has asked for. Present it on its own merit
  • Don’t spend your time as a technologist writing a business justification. Partner with a finance or business analyst to do that
  • Empathize with your business colleagues and help them empathize with you

2. Speak to the heart, not just to the brain

  • Go beyond making a rational business case. Generate excitement about the engineering work
    • Getting true buy-in requires evoking emotion and passion
    • Identify an external enemy
  • Share your genuine fears about potential losses resulting from getting hacked or systems crashing.
    • We are all averse to losses
  • Make it “our” project instead of “my” project. Request business stakeholders to talk about the project to their colleagues’ stakeholders, and bosses. Encourage them to include it in their presentations.
    • By doing this, they make a public commitment to it

3. Leverage reciprocity

  • Deliver successes to the business to build credibility first
    • Before you pitch a major infrastructure project
    • As a new employee, don’t use up your honeymoon credits on a project whose benefits to your stakeholders aren’t as clear
  • When your colleagues ask for something that you don’t value as much, be open minded to them
    • Your colleagues will reciprocate by embracing your ideas if you embrace theirs

4. Don’t be a “middleman.” Be a connector

  • If you are a CTO or senior manager, it is in your interest that your business colleagues know, appreciate, and have direct connections with your teammates
    • Their expertise supports and complements yours
    • They bring additional credibility
    • You make a stronger case as a team

Invite business colleagues to select gatherings of the product engineering teams

5. Regularly discuss your projects and their value with your colleagues

  • Never assume that your business colleagues won’t understand or appreciate technical stuff. Be a translator
  • A critical part of your job as a technologist is to regularly describe what you do and its value to your colleagues
  • …and vice versa. Take an interest in what they do

Where to go from here

So you are about to or have just started as a CTO or other technology leadership position. What’s a practical way to proceed? Here is a template for a 90 Day Plan for a CTO in a New Job.


This article is mirrored at LinkedIn.

Rajiv Pant is managing partner at Solutions at Scale, a technology leadership and management consulting firm that advises established companies and startups. Prior to this, as CTO at The New York Times, he led the development of numerous acclaimed products during his four year tenure. His leadership experience includes Conde Nast, Reddit, and Cox Media Group. Rajiv was honored as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

Suggested Template For Requesting a Meeting

Every time someone calls a meeting, they should consider using this simple template.

[ meeting-invitation-template begins ]

The desired outcome of this meeting is:

  • e.g. Come to agreement on solution for issue X
  • e.g. Make a decision about Y.
  • e.g. Share announcements about topic Z.
  • e.g. Continue to grow a good working relationship with each other by socializing in person.

Note: Explain what this meeting is meant to accomplish, instead of providing a description of the meeting. Focus on the desired result of the meeting. A meeting should accomplish one or more of three things:

  1. Solve problem(s)
  2. Make decision(s)
  3. Share knowledgeand agree to act on it and/or make it a practice
    • Knowledge, as in: data –leads-to–> information –leads-to–> knowledge –leads-to–> practice

You should come to this meeting because:

  • e.g. You are likely to have input into potential solutions for issue X
  • e.g. You are one of the folks who has a viewpoint on what decision to make regarding Y.
  • e.g. It would benefit you from hearing the announcements in this meeting.
  • e.g. This is your opportunity to ask questions about topic Z.

Note: Give the attendees at least one good reason to attend. Sometimes attendees have no idea why they are invited to this meeting. Don’t be seen as a waster of others’ time.

The guidelines for participating in this meeting are:

  • e.g. Please come prepared having read the document about ChaosMonkey.
  • e.g. Laptops & mobile communication devices are considered contraband during this meeting. If it is critical for you to have a computer during this meeting, bring a desktop computer :-)

Note: Set the expectations of the participations.

[ meeting-invitation-template ends ]

Further Reading & Thoughts:

Templates for Replying to Meeting Requests & Polite Ways to Decline Meetings

By default, we should only attend meetings where we are active participants, not passive attendees with not much to contribute to the desired outcome of the meeting. There are some exceptions to this like training sessions, educational presentations or others where the purpose for attendees is to learn something.

When I receive a meeting request, I often reply with the following text.

May I please request the following information in advance of this meeting? It will enable me to prepare, participate and be productive in the meeting.

  1. What do you recommend I should prepare in advance of this meeting?
  2. What decisions do we need to make at this meeting?
  3. What problems do we need to solve at this meeting?

Thank you in advance,

Time Management Tip: When you receive an invite for a meeting at work where you believe you may not add much value, reply to the invite with a polite message like:

Thank you for inviting me to this meeting. It seems from the subject, agenda, and attendees list that I’m not a required participant for this meeting. If I’m mistaken and my presence is required in this meeting, please accept my apologies and let me know that I should attend.

This is preferable to ignoring the meeting invite or declining without comment that may come across as rude.

To save time, you can save the above templates as text snippets to be inserted via a keyboard shortcut/macro or in a place from where you can quickly and easily copy and paste.

Discussion about declining meetings: https://plus.google.com/107443707510532643538/posts/inUkYy1Ufg7

When to have and when not to schedule meetings

Companies should, by default, avoid scheduling meetings that start before 10am or end after 5pm. If an employee comes to the office at 8am on some days, it is often to use the two hours of the morning before meetings to catch up and/or get a head start on the day. Meetings that start before 10am are often harmful overall since they put the attendees in reactive catch up mode for the rest of the day. Similarly, meetings that go on beyond 5pm (or worse, start after 5pm) take away valuable time from employees that they use to absorb information and events of the day, catch up with replying to email and get ready for the next work day.

i.e. Companies should consider any time outside the 10am to 5pm window to be not available for meetings and definitely not any weekly recurring meetings.

Preferably, employees who are ‘makers’ should have one 4-hour continuous block of time each day when they are free from meetings. (‘Makers’ differentiated from ‘Managers’)

50/25 Meeting Format

If you manage a team, value your team members time and want to improve productivity at your workplace with a simple change, consider implementing the 50/25 Meeting Recommendation that some companies are embracing. You can communicate something like the following to your team:

Dear Colleagues,

We deeply value your time, your productivity and your comfort at the workplace. As a part of our initiative to make your workday more productive, less hectic and better manageable, we recommend a 50/25 meeting format. It is simple concept: As much as possible, let us take all our meetings that are 1-hour long and shorten them to 50 minutes. For our meetings that are half-hour long, let us limit them to 25 minutes.

You will find that a 50 minute meeting will accomplish no less than a 60 minute meeting did and a 25 minute meeting will be as productive as a 30 minute one was. In fact, by having clear 50 minute and 25 minute deadlines, our meetings are likely to be better focused, on topic and more attentive. (For example: Since you will have time after the meeting to check email, there is likely to be less temptation to check emails during the meeting itself.)

The extra 10 and 5 minutes will give you valuable time back that could be used for many useful activities: Getting in the frame of mind for the next meeting or task; checking your messages to see if there is something urgent that needs your attention; or simply taking a bio break.

Please note that this not a mandate, but a recommendation. We realize that you may not be able to do this for every meeting. What we ask is that you consider doing this for meetings that you organize or can influence. As a result, we will make our great work culture even better, less stressful and even fun.

Further Reading & Thoughts:

  • NYTimes article about Larry Page, Google’s founder and new CEO instituting the same 50/25 meeting recommendation at Google:
  • http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/10/technology/googles-chief-works-to-trim-a-bloated-ship.html?pagewanted=all
  • If a meeting accomplishes all its goals in even less than the 50 or 25 minutes, please, by all means end the meeting even sooner.
  • We suggest that you do book the full hour or half hour in the calendar even as you implement the above so that others don’t schedule over the “10 minutes left over” in your calendar.

Thank you for considering this,

[Signature]

A discussion about this 50/25 Meeting Format: https://plus.google.com/107443707510532643538/posts/AtYgnmbhtqc

Using Laptops or Smartphones in Meetings

You might think that no one is noticing when you are using your phone if you try to hide it below the table surface, but you’d be mistaken. It is like picking your nose: Your being oblivious of others doesn’t make you invisible to them. Photo Credit: Brad Kagawa

Using smartphones — or worse, laptops — during in-person meetings diminishes productivity, is disrespectful to others and decreases your brainpower. Yes, scientific evidence indicates that multitasking makes people less intelligent.1

When you are  doing something unrelated on your phone or laptop in inappropriate situations (e.g. during business meetings), you lose out because you become oblivious to the environment, people, and subtleties around you.

However, there are a few situations where it makes good sense to use a laptop or smartphone during in-person meetings.

  • When you are the designated note-taker for this meeting.
    • Taking notes on a computer or smartphone saves time, and is more accurate than taking paper notes and digitizing them later.
    • Notes on paper can’t be searched easily, pile up as clutter and are less environmentally friendly.
    • It is more secure than taking notes on paper that can be forgotten and read by others who should not have access to the information.
    • Meeting notes and action items can be automatically saved in real time and shared quickly after the meeting.
    • There should be only one person taking notes during a meeting. If it is a negotiation between two opposing sides, then there should be no more than one note-taker per side.
  • When you need to quickly look something up that is relevant to the discussion and is either necessary or helpful to the meeting in progress.
  • Entering action items that come up during the meeting into your to-do-list so that you can focus on the meeting. This is useful for people who use the GTD system with a tool like OmniFocus.
  • Quickly and discreetly asking a question, or sharing an opinion or information over instant message without disturbing others in the meeting.
  • The distractions on the device could be managed if the user is disciplined and remains focussed on the meeting, perhaps even using the laptop to participate more actively in the meeting. After all, even a person using pen and paper can be distracted doodling or daydreaming.
  • This is the digital age.

Tip: When you bring a laptop to a group meeting or one-on-one meeting, each time respectfully explain to the others beforehand that you will use the laptop for taking notes and recording action items in your to do list only. Inform them that you will be focusing attention on the discussion and that the laptop is simply your digital notepad.

There are also many reasons against using laptops or smartphones during meetings:

  • It comes across as disrespectful to some other meeting attendees, especially those with traditional styles of working.
  • The laptop screen creates a “wall” between you and the people sitting across you.
  • The laptop does make it easy to get distracted into reading your email or other online activities. (A tablet like the iPad that lies flat on the table like a writing pad does not have this problem.)

Tip: At the start of your meeting, announce that if anyone needs to use their phone or laptop, they should step out of the room, use their device outside and return when done. This way, attendees have the freedom and won’t feel constrained.

In most situations, the drawbacks of using a laptop or smartphone during an in-person meeting far outweigh the benefits.

Tip: Provide a mobile phone charging area in your meeting rooms to encourage attendees to put away their mobile phones and participate.

What do you think? Here is link to a related discussion about using laptops, smartphones and other communications devices in meetings.

(Updated: 2014 July 26)

  1. The High Cost of Multitasking: http://blog.fuze.com/the-high-cost-of-multitasking-infographic/  []

Productive Business Meetings

Here are some suggestions for making business meetings more productive, efficient and effective.

Based on readers’ feedback, I have split this article into the following separate blog posts.

(Updated May 29, 2014.)

Confidence in Leaders & Managers and Their Performance: Reinforcing Loop

When stakeholders, executives and team members have confidence in the abilities of a leader/manager, it results in their lending greater support to that leader/manager. It also tends to make them more forgiving of mistakes made by the leader. Both of these things result in better performance, effectiveness and results from the leader. That, in turn causes the stakeholders, executives and team members to have even greater confidence in the abilities of the leader. This causal loop scenario is good for the leader’s career.

In the study of System Dynamics, this would be called a reinforcing loop as illustrated in the diagram. This is an example of applying Systems Thinking to a workplace scenario.

The reverse of this also holds. When stakeholders, executives and team members don’t have faith in a manager, it results in them not lending their support and effort to the project being led by the manager. It also causes them to be unforgiving when the manager makes mistakes. Those things result in problems and the project performing poorly. That, in turn results in the people having even less faith and confidence in the manager.

A manager needs to break out of such an undesirable reinforcing loop situation before it results in his/her downfall.

The ways out of such situations include:

  • The executives replace the manager. However, this is often an undesirable result for the manager.
  • The manager has the team work on some tasks in the project that he/she has a high probability of making successful. These help the manager gain the confidence of others.
  • The manager starts to perform other things well that help build confidence in his/her management qualities. For example, becoming highly responsive to emails and requests, following up after meetings and discussions, etc.
  • The manager starts to meet constructively and regularly with executives, stakeholders and team members one on one with the goal of developing and maintaining relationships of trust with them.