Need for luck and learning: constant and continuous

Last week was rich pickings for insightful stories, for me. I still remain captivated by the story, ‘The case against Google’. I blogged on it here.

The next story that I liked immensely was the story in Wall Street Journal on GE under Jeff Immelt.

I like such stories not for the reason that they vindicate my priors (I remind myself not to hold too many of them!) but because they make me think.

This one short paragraph summed up the story rather well:

But Mr. Immelt didn’t like hearing bad news, said several executives who worked with him, and didn’t like delivering bad news, either. He wanted people to make their sales and financial targets and thought he could make the numbers, too, they said. [Link]

Jena McGregor in Washington Post has a good follow-on article on this story. She writes,

The article puts GE well out of its usual role as management exemplar. And it shines a light on a problem endemic to corporate America, leadership experts say. People naturally avoid conflict and fear delivering bad news. But in professional workplaces where a can-do attitude is valued above all else, and fears about job security remain common, getting unvarnished feedback and speaking candidly can be especially hard.

There was an added complication for Jeff Immelt. He was a celebrity CEO. No matter how hard he tried, people would hesitate to share bad news.

From Jane McGregor’s article:

Being led by a celebrity CEO who succeeded a man once named “manager of the century” probably doesn’t help either. Immelt, who rose through GE’s sales and marketing ranks before leading its plastics and health care divisions, became CEO after a high-profile horse race to succeed Jack Welch that catapulted him into the spotlight. One of the most recognized faces of corporate America for the 16 years he held the job (he stepped down last year) Immelt led President Obama’s jobs council and was considered as a veteran corporate hand to replace Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.

Leadership experts say such prestige can create a “social distance” between the CEO and direct reports, even if they make efforts to improve personal relationships. (Immelt, for instance, was known to host dinners with one of the top 185 officers of the company each month at his home and reconvene for a few hours the next morning to talk about their careers and their performance.)

“People tend to not want to tell them the bad stuff,” said Tim Pollock, a professor of business at Penn State University who has studied celebrity CEOs. “They become starstruck; they’re less likely to want to speak up and say negative things.”

As with most things in life, this too could go wrong. You could create an organisation culture where everyone only brings up bad news and uses them as an excuse not to perform or deliver. There is a fine line and no one knows where it is drawn.

It requires repeated experimentation, trial and error, learning by trying and, above all, good luck, to figure out the right balance between fostering a culture of frankness, honesty and of positivism; right balance between awareness of limitations and of strengths too.

In general, today’s world is a high pressure world – not just in jobs or in businesses but in just about everything. From parenting to maintaining social networks, friendships, from pursuing multiple interests. The culture is one of doing so much in so short a time. Efficiency and scale, even in personal lives, pursuits and social interactions, are privileged. They used to be expected only in business organisations.

When people are running everywhere and in every place with no place to rest, pause and reflect, anyone who allows them to step back, reflect and question these will actually be deemed a saviour! People feel grateful to be allowed to voice their self-doubts and inner doubts, their anxieties and frustrations once in a while and feel connected with those who do not hesitate to let them know that they share these too!

Therefore, that CEO or leader who allows his lieutenants the odd opportunity to step back, to say NO and to warn him of over-reaching, should be received with gratefulness and will be reciprocated with trust, commitment and higher motivation actually. That is my guess.

Not without dangers. Someone might take advantage and someone might embarrass the leader publicly about this. Some one in the media might say that the leader is a shirker and the share price might nosedive! The leader will be out of his or her job soon.

It is not that easy to swim against the prevailing currents even if you are convinced that the current will eventually plunge into a ravine. Given time, it will be right. The GE story is an example. The company went with the social norms and ethos of the times – good news, optimism, success, high performance, not taking NO for answers and deadlines are yesterday, etc. Indeed, it defined the ethos and norms of the times. Has it succeeded? Now, we know that it has not.

But, it takes time to know that it does not work. Not many have that luxury of time or luck to take a bet against consensus norms and ethos and succeed. They have to live in a society and be part of it. Humans are social animals. They need to belong. Some of us actually come to like it. It is seductive. It is lonely to be not part of it. Not easy.

The best we can do is to be aware of how excessive any organisational culture can become and modulate it from time to time. No one size fits all and no one culture works in all situations.

Let us also not forget that these articles are appearing with the benefit of hindsight. Note this paragraph in the WSJ story:

Former GE Chief Financial Officer Keith Sherin, who worked alongside Mr. Immelt during challenges such as the financial crisis, said the CEO would methodically approach a problem with his team, consider multiple viewpoints and communicate regularly with the board, making sure executives stayed focused on the most important issues. “I never found him to be overly optimistic,” said Mr. Sherin, who retired in 2016.

To his credit, Jeff Immelt did not preach one thing and practise another. He believed in his model:

At a conference hosted by Axios in November, the month after he stepped down as chairman ahead of schedule, Mr. Immelt noted that GE is “125 years old; we go through cycles,” and said he was “fully confident that this company is going to thrive in the future.”

A spokesman for the former CEO pointed to his decision to purchase $8 million worth of GE shares in 2016 and 2017. That included 100,000 shares in mid-May at a price roughly twice today’s.

The only enduring lesson in all this is that in business as elsewhere, the need for luck and learning is constant and continuous.

Resilience

It is quite possible to misunderstand this otherwise useful long essay that appeared in ‘Wall Street Journal’ on Saturday (Nov. 11). It is about resilience. Celebrities and successful people – now and before – have invariably had difficult childhoods – broken homes, alcoholic and abusive parents, sexual abuse, bullying in school, etc.

Before we even begin to analyse the article, we have to state upfront that the study seems confined to the American cultural or family setting. Would the results be different in other societies? Possibly.

When one reads the article carefully, one realises that hardship is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for success or distinction later in life. Read this carefully:

Two-thirds of these high-risk children went on to have difficulties of their own, such as delinquency, unplanned pregnancies and underemployment. One-third, however, fared well. At school and at work, they did as well as, or better than, their low-risk peers from more affluent, stable homes. [Link]

Notice that two-thirds went on to have difficulties of their own. Therefore, some might be tempted to conclude that it is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition. If it is a necessary condition, then those who have comfortable lives as children should not be succeeding big. The evidence for that is mixed:

The Goertzels found that less than 15% of their famous men and women had been raised in supportive, untroubled homes, with another 10% in a mixed setting.

More interestingly, the one-third (see the earlier quoted text) who went on to be successful provided caring homes for their children:

In adulthood, they found supportive partners and built loving families that, often, differed greatly from the ones they grew up with.

The real issue is not whether one provides a rough or tough environment for their children to shine later in their lives. No one is going to wantonly deny their children comfort and affection, if they have a choice of providing them.

The question is whether and how one prepares them to face tough situations as and when they arise. Do we pamper, spoil them or readily provide support and not let them grow up on their own even as we stand ready to lend a helping hand when it becomes absolutely essential?

For example, when they have difficulties with their studies, do we abuse the school and teachers and bully them or encourage the children to work harder, to ask questions, to look inward and find out where they are going wrong and show them how to emerge out of it?

Some of the passages in the article reminds one of Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s inner search for meaning’:

Dr. Ehlers found that the extent to which prisoners had fought back in their own minds made a bigger difference than the severity of the abuse they had suffered. Those who felt mentally defeated—who felt like they were “nothing” or who quit caring what became of them—were more likely to report symptoms of PTSD later. By contrast, prisoners who had resisted from within—even if they appeared to have given up on the outside, by complying with guards or signing false confessions—fared better down the line.

So, how to enhance or cultivate resilience in children who grow up in comfortable setting? I found it hard to believe that the article does not mention the importance and usefulness of emotional security and affection that parents provide. Aren’t they supposed to be helpful for children to cope?

In fact, very successful people are usually rare. That is true by definition. So, children growing up in difficult environment can turn out to be somewhat extreme – either too successful or too badly.

Most of us will settle for our children to turn out to be moderately accomplished, emotionally stable adults who are also useful members and pillars of their community, if possible.

What do we need to do for them to tick these relatively modest goals? The article is a bit thin on that, in my view. Nonetheless, it is not empty. It offers some suggestions:

Take on long-form projects that feel like challenges rather than threats.

When life inevitably becomes difficult, own the fighter within. Resist defeat in your own mind.

Reach out to family, friends or professionals who care. … Seeking support is what resilient people do.

Engage in active coping…. Make a realistic plan to improve your situation, and work toward it day by day. Progress shores us up and calms us down.

Finally, remember the ways you have been courageous and strong.  (In other words, remember your stories of successful coping and resilience).

In sum, a useful article but if not carefully read, it can be misleading and lead to incorrect inferences too. Apologies if the article is behind a paywall. I read it because I saw a link to it in the Twitter handle of Jason Zweig.

Sagely advice

These are verbatim extracts from the article, ‘Finale’ written by James Taranto who compiled the ‘Best of the web’ for the Wall Street Journal for nine years.

In our own postelection conversations with Trump supporters, the predominant emotions we’ve detected have been joy and hope. It reminds us very much of the prevailing mood in the mainstream media around this time eight years ago.

No doubt before the election a lot of Trump supporters were angry about the incumbent and the status quo more generally. But the same was true of Obama supporters in 2008.

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Territorial animals fiercely defend their turf: “When a territory holder is challenged by a rival, the owner almost always wins the contest–usually within a matter of seconds,” observes biologist John Alcock in “Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach.” We’d say the same instinct is at work when the great apes who call themselves Homo sapiens defend their authority. When it is challenged, they can become vicious, prone to risky and unscrupulous behavior.

That, it seems to us, is the central story of our time. The left-liberal elite that attained cultural dominance between the 1960s and the 1980s—and that since 2008 has seen itself as being on the cusp of political dominance as well—is undergoing a crisis of authority, and its defenses are increasingly ferocious and unprincipled. Journalists lie or ignore important but politically uncongenial stories. Scientists suppress alternative hypotheses. Political organizations bully apolitical charities. The Internal Revenue Service persecutes dissenters. And campus censorship goes on still.

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We argued in November that Trump’s election was “probably a necessary corrective” to left-liberal authoritarianism—a point PJMedia’s Roger Kimball echoes in a recent column:

Among the many things that changed during the early hours of November 9 was a cultural dispensation that had been with us since at least the 1960s, the smug, “progressive” (don’t call it “liberal”) dispensation that had insinuated itself like a toxic fog throughout our cultural institutions—our media, our universities, our think tanks and beyond. So well established was this set of cultural assumptions, cultural presumptions, that it seemed to many like the state of nature: just there as is a mountain or an expanse of ocean. But it turns out it was just a human, all-too-human fabrication whose tawdriness is now as obvious as its fragility.

What we are witnessing is its dissolution. It won’t happen all at once and there are bound to be pockets of resistance. But they will become ever more irrelevant even if they become ever shriller and more histrionic. The anti-Trump establishment is correct that what is taking place is a sea change in our country. But they are wrong about its purport. It is rendering them utterly irrelevant even as it is boosting the confidence, strength, and competence of the country as a whole. Glad tidings indeed.

That may prove overly optimistic. On the other hand, do you see what we mean about joy and hope?

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Our advice to journalists who wish to improve the quality of their trade would be to lose their self-importance, overcome the temptation to pose as (or bow to) authority figures, and focus on the basic function of journalism, which is to tell stories. Journalists are not arbiters of truth; we are, unlike fiction writers (or for that matter politicians), constrainedby the truth. But fiction writers bear the heavier burden of making their stories believable.

When you think about journalism in this way, its failure in 2016 becomes very simple to understand. Whether you see Trump as a hero or a goat—or something in between, which is our still-tentative view—his unlikely ascension to the presidency was a hell of a story. Most journalists missed the story because they were too caught up in defending a system of cultural authority of which they had foolishly allowed themselves to become an integral part.