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InReview – Issue 48


Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders
by Warren Bennis and Robert J. Thomas; Boston, Harvard Business School, 2002; 221 pp.

Warren G. Bennis is professor and founding chair of The Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, author of 27 books on leadership, and a Pulitzer nominee. Robert J. Thomas is an associate partner and senior fellow with the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change, and author of What Machines Can’t Do.

Believing that leadership in a rapidly changing world requires both the wisdom of our elders and the insight of younger but proven leaders, Bennis and Thomas partnered together to research answers to two questions: (1) How do exceptional individuals learn to lead?, and (2) What does it take to lead for a lifetime? In answering these questions, the authors present a new theoretical model they believe can predict who is likely to become and remain a leader, and that can explain why others fail to rise to the challenge.

Exploring cross-generational leadership, the authors interviewed two groups of leaders and asked them to reveal what they had learned about leading, learning, and living well in the course of their very different lives and times. Geeks — proven leaders under age 35 who were the first generation to grow up “virtual, visual, and digital” were compared and contrasted with their “analog” Geezer counterparts — respected leaders over age 70 who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II.

Bennis and Thomas discovered that all interviewed leaders had weathered a powerful, personal transformational experience. Growing through this “crucible” was at the heart of becoming a true leader. Not all crucible experiences were harrowing, devastating, or traumatic but all were a critical turning point that left the individual forever changed. Leaders created meaning out of events that devastated non-leaders; they learned, sought the opportunities hidden in the crisis, and emerged resilient and optimistic.

Chapter 5, The Alchemy of Leadership, is particularly informative for two reasons. First, the authors identify four essential competencies leaders brought to their crucible experiences: (1) the ability to transcend adversity; (2) the ability to engage others in shared meaning; (3) a distinctive and compelling “voice,” described as a sense of purpose and self awareness; and (4) a sense of integrity and strong values.

Second, they discovered the powerful impact era has on shaping leaders. A core hypothesis of their research is that the era in which we are born has a profound impact on our lives, though we may not be aware of that impact. The authors found significant differences in “era-based” attitudes, needs, and perspectives between Geezers who came of age during the Depression “Era of Limits,” and Geeks who emerged in the dot-com “Era of Options.” Examples are:

GEEZERS’ CONCERNS

  • Making a living
  • Earning a good salary
  • Starting/supporting a family
  • Stability and security
  • Working hard to be rewarded by the system
  • Using retirement to enjoy life

GEEKS’ CONCERNS

  • Making history
  • Achieving personal wealth
  • Launching a career
  • Change and impermanence
  • Working hard so you can write your own rules
  • Achieving work/life balance along the way

Few gender differences were identified with the exception of crucible experiences. Males tended to have earlier crucible events, while women tended to have crucible events after notable professional success.

I highly recommend this well-written and engaging book to anyone passionate about leadership development. The authors have included many excerpts from the actual interviews that are revealing and instructive. Understanding what shapes, motivates, and rewards each new era of emerging leaders has relevance for companies seeking to attract and retain top talent to maintain their competitive advantage in a world of constant change.

Reviewed by Deborah Griffing

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The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World’s Most Powerful Company Really Works — and How It’s Transforming the American Economy by Charles Fishman; New York, Penguin Press, 2006; 294 pp.

Charles Fishman is senior editor of Fast Company. In 2005, he was awarded the Gerald Loeb Award, the highest award in business journalism. He was on the staff of the Washington Post, senior editor at the Orlando Sentinel and the News & Observer, and has appeared frequently on NPR, CNN, and Fox News.

The very mention of Wal-Mart often can be a lightning rod of diverse responses: marvelously low prices, underpaid workers, strong values that forbid allowing a vendor to pay for lunch, and relentless cost-cutting that can drive some firms into bankruptcy. It is not a simple picture. Charles Fishman takes on this complicated story with passion, a strong sense of fairness, a great sense of humor, and a flair for analogies. For example, when describing the salmon farm in Chile that is a major supplier for Wal-Mart, he writes, “The Atlantic salmon doesn’t appear naturally anywhere south of the equator. Farming salmon in Chile is a bit like farming penguins in the Rocky Mountains.”

Many have looked at the world’s largest, most influential company with a point they want to make — and the facts are there to support many points of view. Fishman balances the critics with a careful explanation of Wal-Mart’s side of the story, and balanced by careful analysis of Wal-Mart’s rhetoric.

And he tells stories. Many vendors were afraid to talk about Wal-Mart because it’s such a force, that they can’t afford to be on Wal-Mart’s bad side. But some did talk, including people from companies that had gone bankrupt, and executives who have moved on to other positions. Fishman interviewed these people and lets them tell us their own story in their own words. The conflicted nature of the picture shows through in a discussion with Nancy Ridlen, widow of the founder of Ridlen Adhesives. They went out of business after Wal-Mart pulled its order when they could not reduce their price another 10 percent. Speaking through tears, she confesses, “And yet, I do shop at Wal-Mart.”

Each year 93 percent of American households shop at Wal-Mart. This year, there will be 7.2 billion visits to Wal-Mart stores (there are 6.5 billion people on earth). Wal-Mart is bigger than Home Depot, Kroger, Target, Costco, Sears, and Kmart — combined!

What is his conclusion? Wal-Mart is a bit like the automobile. It has taken years to put structure around the automobile (speed limits, fuel mileage restrictions, etc.) so that we can enjoy its benefits and reduce its high costs to society (pollution, safety, etc.). So we must understand and work with Wal-Mart, Fishman concludes.

There may be some proponents or critics of Wal-Mart who would say some facts are wrong, some biases show through, etc. But I believe this is an outstanding book that should be read and discussed. It would be great (but not likely — another theme about the company) if Wal-Mart leaders would join in the discussion.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Defeating the Devil’s Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization by Tom Kelley (with Jonathan Littman); New York, Currency Doubleday, 2005; 276 pp.

Tom Kelley is the general manager of IDEO, an award-winning and innovative design firm. Besides being the author of The Ten Faces of Innovations, Kelley has also written the best seller, The Art of Innovation (2003). Kelley’s experience at IDEO has made him a leading expert in continuous business innovation.

My first observation was this book’s “innovative” use of materials and design. This is the only popular business book I’ve seen printed on high-gloss paper. This glossy paper is enhanced by the numerous photos spread liberally throughout the work. Then there is the use of color for running headers, quotes, and section headers all together making the book pleasing to the eye … as long as your reading light isn’t positioned to reflect off the page directly into your eyes!

Also the reader should be forewarned to pay particular attention to the subtitle, “IDEO’s Strategies for Beating the Devil’s Advocate & Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization.” In other words, this book is all about IDEO. Nearly all the examples provide insights into the brilliant work of IDEO employees. Though a bit self-aggrandizing, this isn’t a bad thing: IDEO’s success stories are excellent examples of how the firm continues to provide clients with authentic innovations that have significant bottom line results.

If you can get past the self-aggrandizing, there is a lot to be learned from this book. Kelley makes a persuasive case for diversity in project team make-up as a way to enhance innovation. Kelley classifies innovation skill sets into three categories: learning, organizing, and building personas. These are then broken down into the 10 “faces” of innovation, each face with its own chapter. The first three faces (The Anthropologist, The Experimenter, and The Cross-Pollinator) belong to the Learning Persona. The Hurdler, The Collaborator, and The Director fall into the Organizing Persona. Finally, The Experience Architect, The Set Designer, The Caregiver, and The Storyteller round out the Building Persona. Some chapters, or faces, are more well developed than others. Personally, I found the Anthropologist, the Cross-Pollinator, the Collaborator, and the Storyteller chapters to be the most insightful.

One of Kelly’s more insightful observations concerns the face of the Anthropologist, when Kelly boldly states, “… we don’t really believe that the best breakthrough innovations come from asking customers” (p.33). He then qualifies his comment by acknowledging though customers are great at evaluating current products, and good at making suggestions on how to improve current products, their insights are limited in suggesting new offerings. “Asking them how to reinvent your service offerings is a bit like asking someone on the street what NASA should do after it retires the space shuttle” (p. 33).

In the end Kelley points out one last important idea: You don’t need all 10 faces on every single project at every moment. Seek diversity when building a team, and call upon outside help (i.e., other faces) when needed to maximize innovation. Finally, I’m not sure if these 10 faces of innovation are the only 10. Read the book, start the conversation, and perhaps you’ll find a few new faces in your organization.

Reviewed by Ryan C. LaBrie

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