Thursday, February 23, 2012

Meetings, meetings, meetings….

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported this week on a study conducted  by researchers at the Harvard Business School and the London School of Economics. Tracking how CEO's use their time, they report that CEOs spend a third of their time in meetings. The WSJ report does not indicate whether researchers thought this was too much or too little. The article’s tone, and its placement on the front page of the newspaper’s “Marketplace” section, suggests that the time spent in meeting is consequential. We better pay attention to how CEO’s use meetings for better or for worse.

Interestingly, accompanying this article on the WSJ website, ( is a link to an article on how CEOs can run better meetings. The article suggests quite sensibly that the CEO should have an agenda, start on time, ban cell phones and assign meeting members to follow up on decisions taken at the meeting.  But these common sense suggestions stand in some tension to the article’s placement as a lead story. How could the subject be so serious if the maxims for using meeting time productively are so self-evident?

I want to suggest that the study and its report references, but then suppresses, a common experience-- that top team meetings can be distasteful, difficult and sometimes toxic. The question is why this should be? The answer lies in the corporation’s political nature, in the role of ambition as a prod for work, and on the climate of evaluation that pervades top team deliberations. Top team members live in two time zones; the here and now as it shapes their tasks and establishes the conditions for their success or failure, and the imagined future, in which ambitious executives strive to, and can, become CEOs themselves. The second time zone introduces competition and evaluation. Subordinates’ effectiveness is measured relative to one another, and the CEO of the team gauges his or her subordinates as potential successors, or even possible usurpers.

This second time zone diminishes the value of the pragmatic advice referenced on the WSJ web site. That is because the challenge is political not technical. How can a CEO lash together competing subordinates, particularly when the CEO himself or herself, uses this competition as a spur to performance, as a guide to promotion, and as a way to test subordinates’ loyalty?  If the CEO is uncomfortable with the resulting tension, with the interplay of power dynamics and real work, then meetings will prove difficult, labored, and poor vehicles for accomplishing tasks. 

Several decades ago it was more common for management theorists to pay attention to the corporation as a political organization. But this worldview gave way to two competing conceptions. One was the “economistic” view in which it was presumed that executives as “agents” of the shareholders, would act on behalf of the corporation as a whole because they would be rewarded, for example with stock options, when shareholders were rewarded. The incentive system eliminated the tension between the individual executive and the corporation as a whole.

The other view, based on the ideas of Organization Development and improvement, proposed that executives could form teams if good will, rational conduct, and when necessary, self-sacrifice, predominated.

While these two conceptions, one based on economics, and the other on a kind of positive psychology, may seem different, both share common roots in what we can call utopian thinking. The marketplace utopia eliminates all power dynamics by integrating interests automatically though its impact on incentives. The marketplace is the great emolument. The Organizational Development utopia eliminates power dynamics through exhortation and by propagating an image of the “ideal organization.” Utopias, by definition, are always beyond reach. But today we recognize that when we try to implement them, we risk destructive consequences. By failing to acknowledge the dark side, the utopian program drives it underground, where it becomes even more destructive.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Political leadership and the contraception contretemps

Many journalists have wondered why and how the Obama administration erred in first ruling that religious organizations had to offer their employees contraception services. Catholic supporters on the left had warned Obama about the political consequences of such a ruling. In other words, the blow-back was predicted.  Republicans framed the issue as an attack on religious liberty. Equally puzzling, the compromise, which the Obama administration hastily put together, had been discussed at length before the ruling was first pronounced; namely follow Hawaii’s example by requiring that insurers, rather than employers, offer contraceptive-service benefits.

I don’t want to discuss the political and ethical issues this contretemps has stirred up. But I am interested in the decision-making process that shaped it.  How and why do savvy leaders stumble, when in retrospect their error seems obvious, and moreover they are forewarned?

I think this incident highlights some of the tensions that suffuse the machinery of decision-making. Early on it seemed that the issue of providing contraception services was framed technically as a question of how to implement the new health care legislation. As Simone Campbell, the executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded my nuns, noted, “Even though a bunch of us weighed in and said there was this other layer of concern (the politics of religious sensibilities), it’s like it was above where they ordinarily focus, so it just didn't compute." Indeed after the blow-back threatened the administration’s political standing, some Obama appointees argued that they needed a year to work out the required compromise. As one insider noted, despite the blow-back, “administration officials did not feel a sense of urgency (my emphasis).”

One hypothesis is that by framing the issue of contraceptive services as a technical one, how to implement a complicated piece of legislation, administration officials lost touch with its vividness and therefore its emotionality. Urgency is starved when feelings are muted. Obama is vulnerable in this regard. Responding to the  Republicans' and the catholic left's outrage, he said, “I understand some folks in Washington want to treat this as another political wedge issue. But it shouldn't be. I certainly never saw it that way. This is an issue where people of good will on both sides of the debate have been sorting through some very complicated questions.” But of course as the blow-back indicated, issues that simulate strong feelings lead people to discount the good will of their opponents. Philosophy, the idea of good and bad replaces pragmatism. Indeed one criticism of Obama as a leader is based on the idea that he is too much the pragmatist.

The machinery of decision-making can also drain an issue of its vividness.  It creates the illusion of an orderly process, suggesting that events unfold logically, according to plan, as means and ends are synchronized.  But leaders make decisions on shifting sands. Implementing health care reform is no doubt a highly technical problem, filled with tradeoffs and complexities. But the administration was implementing the new health care law against a backdrop of questions about Obama’s electability. The recent announcement that unemployment had fallen raised hopes that Obama could yet win re-election.  The new policy on contraception, however, thoughtful, threatened to undermine this newly gained advantage. Moreover, the new policy was announced close to the time when 500 catholic social activists, many of whom were Obama’s allies in the in health care reform debate, would be meeting in Washington. Campbell warned Obama, “that if no compromise had been reached by then, all of them (the activists) would return to their parishes fired up about the contraception mandate.”

The blow-back, which led to Obama's backtracking, was one measure of the administration emotional distance from the electorate. Such distance, in the name of reasonableness, has the paradoxical effect of sustaining a certain level of naiveté. It was striking that after its own allies on the catholic left protested, some administration officials, according to an anonymous insider, imagined reframing the debate from one about religious liberty to one about “the war on women." I think we can safely call this a naïve idea. It overestimated the administration’s power to reframe a visceral and deep-seated debate in our culture, and it failed to account for Obama’s own cautious nature.

The constructive political leader has a to walk along a knife edge, staying emotionally engaged with the electorate while respecting the logic of planning, of adjudicating, and governing reasonably. The rabble-rouser chooses emotion over reason, the technocrat reason over emotion. Who can integrate the two?