Books We Trust: Interview with Frank Cespedes, author of Aligning Strategy and Sales: The Choices, Systems, and Behaviors that Drive Effective Selling (Harvard Business Review Press)

Aligning Strategies & SalesThis week sees the publication of a new book I want to bring to your attention. It’s by Frank Cespedes, a professor at Harvard Business School, and an old friend from our mutual consulting days. The book is called Aligning Strategy and Sales, and it might have been called “The Massive Business Gap Sitting Right Before Your Eyes.” To use an overly simple athletic metaphor, the handoff from strategy to sales is the source of a great deal of lost value.

I hesitate to call it a revolutionary book – but you haven’t seen anything like it. It’s very important. Especially for those of you in sales, I recommend it.

Meanwhile, here’s Frank.


CG: What brought you to this topic of aligning strategy and sales?

FC: My academic research always focused on go-to-market elements, including channels and sales management. Then, when I left academia and ran a business for 12 years, I had to meet payroll and sell. Then, after getting lucky in business and returning to academia, I taught Strategy for a few years. Despite decades of attention to planning, there is remarkably little research about how to link strategy with the nitty-gritty of field execution, especially sales efforts. If the gods of strategy even mention sales, it’s typically advice from a fortune cookie: get incentives right, or work as a team, or re-organize. In other words, do good and avoid evil.

CG: That sounds about par for the course.

FC: Conversely, there’s a vast literature about selling. Much is anecdotal, but some—Neil Rackham’s work is still the best, in my opinion—is grounded in good research. However, this advice is misleading in a different way: the consultants and trainers who make their living this way tend to promote the universal applicability of a particular selling methodology (again, Neil is an exception), and they treat sales in isolation from strategy. The result is that much sales training has a perverse effect: people work harder but not necessarily smarter. Selling, no matter how clever and creative, can’t generate sustained returns if it’s not linked to good strategy. That may sound obvious, but it’s not been discussed actionably.

CG: Let me get this straight: you’re saying there’s a big fat chasm of under-performance in business because strategy and sales don’t align? Just how big a deal are we talking about?

FC: None of this would matter much if de facto alignment were the norm. But it’s not. The research results are cited in my book and, as they say, they speak volumes. Studies find that few strategies—some research indicates less than 10%–are executed successfully and that, on average, firms deliver only 50-60% of the financial performance that their strategies and sales forecasts promise. That’s a lot of wasted money and effort. Ever wonder why I-Bankers and other capital-market analysts tend to be a cynical bunch? Companies regularly over-promise and under-deliver in their espoused strategic goals and sales forecasts.

CG: So, why does this happen?

One reason is that the strategic planning process in firms generates a disconnect with the requirements of sales decision making. About two-thirds of companies treat strategic planning as a periodic event, typically as part of the annual capital-budgeting process. Companies tend to do plans by business unit or P&L unit, even when sales sells across those units. The average corporate planning process takes an estimated 4-5 months per year. While this is going on, the market does what the market will do, and sales must respond issue by issue and account by account. In other words, even if the output of planning is a great strategy (clearly, a big if), the process itself often makes it irrelevant to sales executives.

CG: OK, I get the time disconnect. Give us a simple real world example of how all this can go wrong?

FC: Here’s an example I discuss in more detail in the book. It’s unfortunately representative. For many years, a company I’ll call Document Security Management (DSM) had a great business in retrieving, shredding and/or securely storing organizations’ documents. Executives and their assistants loved its one-stop-shop value proposition, and DSM’s sales force cultivated good relationships with them. DSM provided a complete service and their customers could then dedicate their high-paid lawyers and other professionals to better uses. By the early 2000s, however, cheaper digital storage technology, especially the cloud, changed the market. DSM’s CEO was determined not to be fatally “disrupted” by an emerging technology, and DSM introduced its own cloud-based storage and directed the sales force to bundle it with traditional services.

The results were awful. Many of the salespeople lacked the technical knowledge to work with clients’ IT departments. Pricing was a problem, because the physical and digital services had very different cost structures. And in spite of repeated training efforts, reps often sold only the lower-priced digital service, not the bundle. Contract renewals for traditional services fell sharply, as did profits. So DSM modified its sales compensation plan, but then digital sales declined and emerging competitors established strong footholds with multiyear contracts, effectively locking DSM out of accounts as storage increasingly migrated to the cloud. Ultimately, DSM spun off its digital unit and remains a much smaller company.

What’s the problem here? Surely, you can’t disagree with the basic strategic intent. Anyone who has absorbed the lessons of Clay Christensen’s work on disruptive innovation would find it hard to argue that DSM should not have responded to emerging market reality. That’s a recipe for becoming yet another case study about market myopia. The ultimate problem was senior leaders embarking on a strategy without considering the field realities facing the people key to executing that strategy at customers. And this occurs, very often, in many situations: M&A situations where the investment thesis rests on cross-selling or packaged solution bundles, entering a new segment with different buying processes, introducing a new product, scaling a business beyond early adopters, or dealing with new entrants.

Many senior executives, years removed from actual customer contact, are often blithely unaware of the embedded strategic commitments that sales activities daily represent. For example, executives can worry prudently and diligently all they want about disruptive innovators; you need a sales force aligned with strategy to do something about it. Otherwise, all you’re doing is worrying in a currently respectable manner.

CG: Wow. So, where do these disconnects happen? The subtitle of your book is “The Choices, Systems, and Behaviors that Drive Effective Selling.” What are they?

FC: The basic idea is this: In any business, value is created or destroyed in the marketplace with customers, not in planning meetings or training seminars. The market includes the industry you compete in, the customer segments where you choose to play, and the buying processes at customers that you sell and service. Those factors should inform strategy and required sales tasks—what salespeople must be good at to deliver and extract value and so implement your strategy effectively.

Then, the issue is aligning selling behaviors with those tasks. Managers basically have three levers to do that. People: who your salespeople are, what they know, how you hire and develop their skills so they can execute your strategy’s tasks, not those of a generic selling methodology or what they learned at another firm with a different strategy. Control Systems: performance management practices, including sales compensation and the metrics used to measure effectiveness. Sales Environment: the company context in which sales initiatives get developed and executed, how communication works (or not) across organizational boundaries, and how sales managers (not just reps) are selected and developed.

Ultimately, selling effectiveness is an outcome of these factors, not only the result of heroic efforts in the field. And this has very practical implications. If you’re a sales manager, this way of thinking may change how you select and use available selling resources, how you develop your people, and how you look at your own career and development needs. And if you’re a CEO, strategist, or Board member evaluating sales numbers, it can help you to avoid being a sucker for glib generalizations about selling–and, believe me, as someone who works with PE firms and has served on Boards, it happens.

CG: Can you say more about that? It seems that we hear daily about how social media and online technologies are “disintermediating” sales forces and transforming how companies sell.

FC: Yes, based on the business press, you could easily assume that proficiency with social media or digital marketing now determines business success. But consider the basics: US companies spend, annually, more than 3X on sales forces than they spend on all media advertising, 20X more than the total spent on digital marketing, and more than 100X what they currently spend on social media ads. Whenever I see those numbers, I always think about Mark Twain’s comment: “If you’re gonna’ put a lot of eggs in one basket, then keep your eye on that basket!”

CG: But what about all the claims of the Death of the Salesman? Just four years ago this was a big headline in the sales industry.

FC: It’s simply not true that sales forces are being replaced by ecommerce, social media, or other elements of the internet. According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people in sales occupations in 2012 was virtually the same as in 1992—before the rise of the internet. And this almost certainly understates the real numbers: as you know, business developers in many firms, especially professional services firms, are called Associates, Partners, Vice Presidents or Managing Directors, not placed in a “sales” category for reporting purposes.

In fact, if you peek behind the server farms of online firms themselves, you find face-to-face and inside sales organizations as the engine of profitable growth. At Groupon, over 45% of employees are in sales; at Google, it’s about 50%; and at Facebook, the sales force’s ability to translate “likes” into advertisers will make or break that company’s valuation going forward.

The internet is realigning sales tasks. For example, relatively few cars are actually bought online. But about 90% of Americans research the purchase via or other online source before going to a dealer. The average car shopper now spends more than 11 hours online and only 3.5 hours in trips to dealerships. But this makes selling more important, not less, because it puts more pressure on the sales person’s value-added during the shorter sales experience. Smartphones, online reviews, social media blogs—all these tools are having a similar effect across many buying/selling situations.

But, perhaps focused on technology or the media buzz, many execs ignore the implications for sales tasks and the links between Sales and other parts of their companies that deal with customers before and after actual selling takes place. Don’t believe the hype: salespeople, and the customer trust they do or don’t generate, are not becoming obsolete. With Paul Nunes of Accenture, I wrote an HBR article over a decade ago—at the height of another hype cycle when most commentary was predicting (in fact, assuming) disintermediation of sales forces. The article attracted a lot of attention, most of it very negative. We were labeled as reactionaries, oblivious to ‘disruptive innovation,’ and so on. But look at empirical reality years later: they were wrong, and we were right.

CG: What’s the biggest, over-arching problem or issue you see in the field of selling?

FC: Selling is probably the most contextually-determined set of skills in a company: what works there does not necessarily work here. There’s now a century of research about salespeople. Sales talent comes in all shapes and sizes, because selling jobs vary hugely in the kind of product or service sold, price points, the customers a rep is responsible for, the numbers and types of people contacted during sales calls, the relative importance of technical knowledge, and so on—in other words, selling effectiveness depends on the particular sales task. You wrote an excellent piece about this last year (“Half of What You’ve Learned about Sales is Wrong,” TrustMatters, April 15, 2013), and I agree with you: one size doesn’t fit all.

Yet, sweeping generalizations and outright stereotypes about “sales personalities” and the alleged core “traits” of effective salespeople still dominate the field. Why? The novelist Saul Bellow liked to explain the difference between ignorance and indifference this way: “I don’t know and I don’t care.” Many executives and sales managers don’t know about this research. In fact, as others have pointed out, many sales managers have a classic cloning bias: they hire in their own image. And many trainers and consultants just don’t care: they have a hammer, and everything looks like a nail.

In my experience, these generalizations are destructive and not just abstractions. They encourage quick-fix approaches that substitute for more fundamental sales and strategy issues confronting firms. Those approaches may be quick but rarely a fix. The stereotypes also blind managers to the interactions between strategy, sales tasks, and selling requirements that they are, presumably, paid to manage.

CG: OK, time for some key takeaways about aligning strategy and sales. Let’s focus first on the Strategy side.

FC: I don’t think I’m saying anything truly original about effective strategy formulation. But I don’t apologize for emphasizing the fundamentals because, for various reasons, executives and sales people tend to forget them. Many companies confuse strategy with things like purpose, vision, or values. That’s bad news for your firm and your career. It’s the responsibility of those crafting strategy to insist on those distinctions. Any organization’s strategy, purpose or vision cannot be independent of how the world changes. If you simply cling to those abstractions, you’re just stubborn, not principled, or you may believe your aspiration is just too big to fail; it’s not.

Then, you must communicate what your strategy means for market priorities, who are and are not your customers, and the implications for sales tasks. Most firms don’t do this—either because leaders are not clear about strategy or they worry this information will get to competitors. If the issue is the former, then clarify strategy: it’s hard for people to execute what they don’t understand. And if the issue is the latter, you have bigger problems to worry about than competitors reading your strategy documents if your salespeople don’t understand them.

CG: And the key takeaways for those carrying a bag or managing a sales effort?

FC: First, as always, People: You need disciplined hiring that’s linked to your strategy, focused and customized training initiatives, and on-going attention to broadening salespeople’s skills as markets and sales tasks change. Sorry, but almost all serious research about people in business underscores these fundamentals and debunks glib prescriptions about talent acquisition.

Second, Performance Reviews are still grossly underutilized levers for influencing behavior in many sales organizations. Busy managers treat them as drive-by conversations that are really about compensation, not review, evaluation, and development. But so much of strategy – sales alignment is only visible and manageable through on-going account and performance reviews. This is a trainable skill and there’s lots of room for improvement in most sales forces when it comes to conducting performance reviews.

Third, Perspective: Strategy is about confronting external market facts, and customers ultimately determine what are relevant selling behaviors today, not yesterday. It’s not the responsibility of the market to be kind to your strategy or current sales model. It’s your responsibility to understand the evolving market and its sales tasks. And you can’t do that from headquarters, the branch office, or solely through data analytics. A character in a John le Carre novel says something that every sales leader and C-suite executive should engrave on their desk or tattoo on some prominent body part: “A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world,” especially the sales world.

CG: Frank, this has been great. I’m still kind of amazed that there is such an enormous opportunity that’s been relatively overlooked; but there it is, and you’ve laid it out very clearly.

FC: Charlie, it’s truly been my pleasure. You’ve made TrustMatters a wonderful, straight-shooting medium for people to engage about sales. I thank you for the chance to add to that dialogue.

Building the Trust-based Organization

The Elephant of TrustDo your eyes glaze over at that title? Mine do. I always click on such titles, but am usually disappointed when I get what feels like low-content or high fluff-quotient material. So I set out to tighten up the perspective.

Tentative conclusions: sometimes the issue really is vague, fluffy, fog-sculpting content. More often, however, it’s more a situation of the blind men and the elephant: all describe a key component of the answer, but none have a holistic perspective.

The Parts of the Elephant

This is not an exhaustive taxonomy, but a great number of pieces about creating trust in organizations do fall into these categories. Here are the equivalents of the blind men seeking to describe the elephant of trust.

Trust as Communication. “Communications is fundamental to earning trust,” says Jodi MacPherson of Mercer in Ivey Business Journal. “At the heart of building trust is the process of communication.”

This approach gets one thing very right; trust is a relationship, not a static set of virtues or characteristics. Hence the connection between parties is key, and communication is the basic way parties relate to each other.

However, the communication approach begs one huge question – the content being communicated.

Trust as Reputation. The Edelman PR firm’s annual Trust Barometer has been a major communications success.  A sample statement:

Corporate reputation and trust are a company’s most important assets, and must be handled carefully…Beyond safeguarding a reputation, the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer findings reveal that businesses acquire a greater license to operate as they expand their mission and create more meaningful relationships…By identifying a company’s assets and weaknesses in the realm of trust, we help corporations uncover, define, exemplify and amplify their authentic identity in ways that resonate with stakeholders and inspire support of their business mission.

This approach has one big risk: by equating trust and reputation, the emphasis naturally falls more on managing the perception of the trustor, and less on managing the trustworthiness of the trustee.  It is also inherently corporate, and therefore impersonal.

Trust as Recipe.  There are probably more approaches that fall into this camp than any other.  It includes lists of (typically 4 – 6) actions, principles, insights, definitions, concepts which, if considered or managed or invented or followed or preached about, result in greater trust in an organization and between that organization and its stakeholders.

A good example is Ken Blanchard Company’s The Critical Link to a High-Involvement, High-Energy Workplace Begins with a Common Language.  They offer  four trust-busters (one of which is lack of communication), five trust-builders, and three rules to building leadership transparency.

Trust as Rules-Making. A Harvard Law blogpost titled Rebuilding Trust: the Corporate Governance Opportunity, Ira Milstein points out the critical roles that can be played by boards and shareholders in increasing trust.

A similar point is made from an Asian perspective, in Corporate Governance: Trust that Lasts, author Leonardo J. Matignas says “Corporate governance is not premised on a lack of trust. It simply ensures that trust is accompanied by practices and principles that will further strengthen it.”

While these views may appear slightly narrow, they’re part of a broader governance category that says corporate trust lies in better rule-making. If the game is out of control, we need to clarify the rules, tweak the goalposts, empower the referees, and not be afraid to make changes to the environment in which business operates legitimately as business.

The strength of this view lies in its linkage of business to society – the implicit statement that there is no Natural Law that says business has any right to stand alone outside a broader social context.

Trust as Shared Value. In Michael Porter and Mark Kramer’s notable 2010 HBR article Creating Shared Value, Porter auto-performs a conceptual sex-change operation on his previous work. The author of Competitive Strategy and the Five Forces affecting competitive success boldly charts out a world in which companies take the lead in formulating multilaterally beneficial, long-term projects for the greater betterment of all stakeholders. The lions and the lambs can get along after all, it seems.

Porter and Kramer deserve mention here because they have pinpointed something few others do – an unflinching claim that economic performance at a macro level is consistent with firms behaving at a micro-level in longer timeframes and in more multi-stakeholder collaborative manners. (Incidentally, this view reclaims Adam Smith from the clutches of the Milton Friedmans and Ayn Rands who suggest competition is purely about survival of the fittest, and restores to him a sense of Smith’s broader views as reflected in his Theory of Moral Sentiments).

They are not entirely alone. The Arthur Paige Society a few years ago published The Dynamics of Public Trust in Business, which similarly stated:

…trust creation is really an exercise in mutual value creation among parties who are unequal with respect to power, resources, and knowledge. We believe that a core condition for building public trust is the creation of approaches that create real value for all interested parties—businesses and public alike.

Of all the views, Trust-as-Shared-Value is the one most breathtaking in scope. The issue facing it is one of execution. There is a bit of a “then a miracle happens” quality, perhaps inevitable given the scope of envisioned change.

Seeing the Elephant Whole

All the five generic approaches above get something important right – but none of them constitute a full answer to “How do we make trust-based companies?”

So what would constitute a good answer?  It must have three parts: a Point of View, a Diagnosis, and a Prescription.

Crudely speaking, in the list above, Porter/Kramer’s Shared Value is a point of view lacking a prescription. Trust as Rule-Making is a diagnosis without prescriptions or a point of view, and Trust as Recipe is pretty much prescriptive in nature.

In Part II of this post, I offer my suggestion for how to best answer the question across all three dimensions.

The Number One Mental Illness in Business

Watch Your Blind Spot.Sometimes we don’t think right. Often we don’t think right, and we don’t even notice it. (This is well-described in a book called Blind Spot, by Banaji and Greenwald).

People in business have big blind spots, just as we do in other social milieu. Recently I’ve run across two items that, together, highlight one of the biggest blind spots of them all.  I don’t know what to call it, and I’d like your help in deciding that.

The two items popped up in neuroscience, and in business strategy.


I’ve written before about How Neuroscience Over-reaches in Business. In response to that particular article, reader Naomi Stanford sent me a stunningly good academic critique of the “neuro-leadership” research. Sober, laser-like, and devastating, it lists a number of reasons why the neuro-leadership crowd is up to non-sense.

It’s called Not Quite a Revolution: Scrutinizing Organizational Neuroscience in Leadership Studies, by Dirk Lindebaum and Mike Zundel. It’s tough going unless you love philosophy of science, but worth it if you’re into this issue.

I want to highlight just one of the many points they make, because it jumped out at me so strongly. In their words:

… we argue that a predominant focus upon neuro-science to the study of leadership as an individual difference excludes further important units of analysis…a more appropriate ontological locus of leadership resides in the dyadic relationship between a leader and follower – as opposed to a leader-centric or follower-centric locus…Our appreciation of the dyadic nature of leadership, coupled with the need to be contextually sensitive, is incongruent with the predominant view of organizational neuroscientists who view leadership largely as residing in the leader.

In other words: leadership is a relationship. It’s not [just] a character trait, a skill, or a neuron path residing in an individual, any more than is love, or trust. It’s a 1+1 = 3 situation. You can’t get to the whole by just analyzing the parts.

In leadership, this suggests the key doesn’t lie in examining (or training, or selecting) one party, but in understanding multiple parties in relationship.

What’s the name of this blind spot in neuroscience? The authors suggest it’s reductionism – a desire to break things down to simpler parts.

I think it also smacks of the cult of the individual.


Until the 1970s, business strategy was thought of in metaphors of war, and distinguished largely from tactics. But in the late 1960s, Bruce Henderson took a backwater part of strategy – competitive strategy – and turned it into a quantitative, matrix-hugging bounded idea set. Michael Porter put the finishing touches on it in Competitive Strategy in 1979.  The triumph of this view was so complete that the adjective has been redundant ever since. We now think all strategy is competitive strategy.

The essence of BCG and Porter’s worldview eerily presages the neuroscientists decades later. They saw the essence of strategy as lying within the single, solitary organism of the corporation (or the business unit, if you will).

Strategy, by this view, is all about the solitary struggle of each company to gain and sustain competitive advantage over the Hobbesian hordes who would do it in.  Nearly all business strategy today assumes the solitary nature of the business – the corporation is the atomic unit of business.

But strategy makes the same mistake the neuroscientists would make later. We are increasingly seeing that the successful businesses are not those who see themselves as valiantly struggling alone against the odds – they are instead those who collaborate, form trust-based relationships, and basically get along with the rest of business and society – rather than constantly struggling to ‘win’ against everyone else.

Again, 1+1 = 3. Unless you insist on looking only at 1, and then at 1 – in which case you’ll always end up with 2.

Here’s a small example: the Top Ten most trustworthy companies, over a three year period, outperformed the S&P by 24%.

What’s the name of this blind spot? Perhaps it’s reductionism again. Perhaps it’s the delight that economists like Milton Friedman take in pushing abstract models to the hilt. Perhaps it’s the alienated angst of Ayn Rand lovers. Perhaps it’s the thrill of the old Wild West rugged individualism, or maybe it’s just protectionism.

But whatever – I think the blind spot is the same in both cases.  It is a case of looking to individuals, instead of to relationships, for answers to what are most completely seen and understood as relationship problems.

The blind spot we’re stuck in – focusing on individuals, not relationships – carries multiple penalties. We should interview people for how they get along in groups – but instead we scrutinize their individual performances. College admissions look mainly at SAT scores and grades, not at social abilities. And I’m not even going to mention Congress.

In strategy, Michael Porter is an interesting case. A brilliant mind, he knows full well that the imperative of businesses these days is to get along. But in his recent writings, he is struggling to square the circle – to explain why a company must get along with others in order to gain maximum competitive success. The goal is inconsistent with the tactics for getting there. Companies who “do good” in order to “do well” end up doing neither.

We really need to stop seeing things this way in business, as elsewhere. We live in a relationship world. Thinking we are solitary Robinson Crusoes floating around on our solitary islands is sub-optimizing at best, and destructive at worst.

Expense Sheets and Cultures of Trust

Business travelers know the taxi expense fiddle. You ask the taxi driver for a receipt. He winks at you and gives you a blank form, implying you can fill it in later, and who’s to say how much that ride cost, wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

How honest are you about the number you write down? How honest do you think others are? Do you think it varies by occupation? By income level? By geography? Would a college professor from Ohio State be less, or more, honest than an associate at a New York private equity firm?

Does the typical response look different in Beijing than in New York? What about Paris? Or Buenos Aires?

What are the cultures of trust? And what drives them?

Chinese Receipts and American Rentals

In China, street vendors hawk fake receipts for sale, as if they were DVDs or watches or fast food.   An American instinctively thinks, “How corrupt!” And yes, it is.

The news is also rife with stories of massive graft in Chinese government, with mid-level officials buying Mercedes and expensive wines. We also hear horror stories emanating from China about food safety.

Clearly China has a problem with trust in government and business. We in the West can comfortably turn up our noses and tell ourselves that at least our trust issues are far more evolved.

Or are they? Consider the NY private equity partner and lawyer who engaged a broker to find a scarce rental in the Hamptons.  When the broker found them one, they brazenly approached the owner to cut out the middleman broker.

Consider the Big Company which, when charged with violating their self-advertised objectivity, independence and integrity came up with the novel defense that hey, nobody believes that crap anyway, so don’t hold us to it.

Leaving aside whether those kinds of violations are more “evolved,” they surely are different in kind. What are those differences?  What are the kinds?

Cultures of Trust

We often talk about trust in business as if it were a single, universal trait. It is not. Francis Fukuyama, in his seminal book Trust, wrote well about this. In China, the level of trust is very high within extended family relationships – but quite low outside it. The reasons are linked to China’s historical development.

By contrast, French society has a great deal of confidence in centralized, bureaucratic institutions, e.g. the Ecole Polytechnique, or wine labeling.  Trust in Japan is high within the island-bound nation/culture of Japan itself, but much lower when it comes to gaijin. In southern Italy and Eastern Europe, trust is often more tribal.  And so forth.

What is the culture of trust in the US, particularly in business? Given the nation’s short and melting-pot  based history, it’s not driven by a common culture or religion. Instead, there are two ideologies that play a particular role in determining the nature of trust in the US: freedom and capitalism.

The “brand” of the US has always pitched freedom as front and center, and not just religious freedom. For countless millions, it has meant freedom to make it economically, through the fruits of your own labor, if not for you then for your kids.

Closely linked to that is our view of capitalism. While of course there are nuances, the main view of business throughout our history has been a belief that the pursuit of individual good ends up benefiting society as a whole. Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand has been a welcome metaphor for US business over the years.

There are a whole lot of things to admire about that ideology; the US can point to its own economy as Exhibit A. But it does mean we look at trust in a  slightly different way than do Chinese, or Russians, or Chileans.

In particular, we look at it like rules in a game.

The rules of the game are clear, but they can change. We generally don’t like rules, but admit that some are necessary. We have referees to help interpret and enforce those rules. Occasionally, the refs get over-matched, and social change results (though usually not before some disaster makes it politically unavoidable).

The main rule is, stay within the rules. All else is fair game, until and unless the rules change.

That kind of ideology makes trust a little more conditional in the US than elsewhere. And there is good and bad in that as well. The good part is that Americans can move with the times, adjust, be flexible about issues of trust when the need arises. The rules of trust may change, but the game itself keeps its integrity.

The American trust problem arises, I think, when we stop treating business as a game. And we have. Etiquette is out. Simple agreements are so last-century – now they need hedging with counter-parties. And handshake deals? Last millennium.

The rules become exogenous to the game, seen as a hindrance, and only one rule survives– survival of the fittest. That’s where we’ve gotten to, and the results are ugly. The doctrine of competitive strategy says, at its heart, that relationships are a cruel myth – the only thing that matters is sustainable competitive advantage, over your customers, your employees, and everyone else.

We’ve marinated in that solitary stew long enough. In an increasingly inter-dependent world, the view of every-man-for-himself is a recipe for a circular firing squad.

A New Business Ideology?

Are things changing? Does Capitalism 2.0 require Adam Smith 2.0, or something even more radical? I’ll talk about that in an upcoming post.

Sales, Surgeons and Profits

iStock_000002256780XSmallThe NYTimes recently published Salesmen in the Surgical Suite, a look at some questionable sales practices in the US surrounding a robotic surgical technology called the da Vinci Surgical System, a product of Intuitive Surgical Inc. The article cites a case of severe damage to a patient due to inadequate training of surgeons, and a variety of documented practices by Intuitive pushing the limits of proper training and supervision.

My point is not to argue the case for or against the company; that’s being done already in a case filed against them. What I do want to touch on is how we should think about issues like this. In other words – just what kind of a problem do we have here?

Profit vs. Patients?

The ultimate issue, I suggest, is the relationship between a for-profit business and the well-being of the end-user customers. Health care is an extreme case, because of the direct link between the two; but in a sense, this is the same issue we face in a capitalist society for any good or service. Healthcare, and surgery in particular, are extreme cases, thus useful for clarifying issues.

There are three commonly heard points of view:

1. There is an innate conflict between the interests of the profit-seeking business sector and the ultimate good of the patients; this conflict must be regulated by a third party of some sort.

2. There is no innate conflict between business and patients, except insofar as business is regulated by governmental and other third parties, who inevitably just distort the ideal workings of pure markets.

3. There is no innate conflict between business and patients, except insofar as business misreads its own long-term self interest by being addicted to short-term fixes, leading to regulation – a self-inflicted shooting in the foot.

The first two arguments are endlessly hashed over, with much heat and little light, in all the various venues of the day: from Congress to HuffPost to talk radio to coffee shops. (I suspect this debate is largely a US debate, as most other developed economies have tilted toward the first viewpoint, far away from the second). I’m not going to change anyone’s mind about the relative merits of one and two.

But number three is interesting: it suggests that the business-society conflict is unnecessary, and that the solution lies largely within the hands of business itself. All that right vs. left, redneck vs. socialist shouting is nothing more than noise.

Is this a utopian, pollyana-ish view? Or is it very real?

The Best Interests of Business

We can reframe the issue as simply, “Is there or is there not a long-term fit between the interests of business and consumers?” Karl Marx answered in the negative, and claimed that the tension would ultimately result in revolution. I suggest that any right-thinking capitalist must answer in the affirmative – there must be a commonality of interest, else the doctrine of capitalism is of little use or interest.

But if that’s the case in the long run – why then isn’t it in the short run? Why do we see salespeople play with endangering people’s lives in order to get the order in before the end of the quarter? Why do companies fight for less regulation, commit economically foolish acts in order to smooth quarterly earnings, and prefer the net present monetized value of almost anything, rather than the longer-term asset that comes from brand, history and culture?

We live in a very imperfect business world, I suggest. We do not do a good job of assessing economic good, or even of assessing business value. We rely on definitions of value which are narrow, solely financial in nature, and short-term. The tyranny of the discount rate leads us to forego thinking about the next generation – it’s just un-economic to worry about something 40 years out, there’s not enough present value in it to justify it.  The Chinese have a history of looking at hundred-year timeframes; the US struggles to get past quarterly, and three years might as well be a lifetime.

The poverty of our financial calculus can be described several ways. Economists would say we do not take into account externalities, so we delude ourselves about the costs of degrading the environment. Social scientists describe it as resulting in a poverty of the spirit (a tone we hear echoed by those who preach ‘the final days of the empire’).

This poverty of calculus is supported by impoverished thinking. Adam Smith was brilliant; the caricatures of him that came down through Ayn Rand and the Chamber of Commerce retain nothing of his focus on the good of society, much less his work on the moral sentiments. Even business theory is impoverished – NPS and Five Forces just don’t have the sweep that we saw from Peter Drucker or even Sun Tsu.

What I’m suggesting is that business needs to radically re-think itself, across the board, into a long-term partnership with the rest of society. The commercial instinct of mankind ought to be a driver of value and wealth creation for all of society, and not hostage to an ongoing battle between haves and have-nots. Whether we need more or less government, more or less regulation, should not be the issue.  The issue should be how can business and society line up on the same team?

We really should be able to do better.

You Too Can Be a Strategy Consultant: Three Secret Tools Revealed

You always suspected it, and I’m here to tell you it’s true.

The art of general management and strategic consulting lies in the mastery of a few simple tools. Now, despite the inevitable threats against my person made by parties who do not want to see the Truth revealed, I am about to share with you, Trust Matters readers, the Three Strategic Secret Sauces. Guard them carefully.

Secret Sauce One: The Rule of the Axes.

Short form: Draw two axes.  Now decide what to label them.

You’ve seen this rule before, though perhaps you never noticed it for what it was. Consider:

  • • The Laffer Curve: tax rates by governmental revenue
  • • The classic Business Barnyard Matrix: market share by growth rate of a business
  • • Newspaper headline font levels on disaster stories by distance between the paper’s home town and the location of the disaster
  • • New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix (highbrow/lowbrow by brilliant/despicable)

Why is the Rule of the Axes such a hit? Because it simplifies complexity, immediately giving the axes-author the appearance of wisdom.
(Close cousins: Occam’s razor, and the rule of “always use 3-4 bullet points”)

Secret Sauce Two: The 80-20 Rule.

Short form: Look for concentration—in anything.

Classic formulations of the 80-20 rule include:

  • • 80% of the revenue/profit comes from 20% of the clients
  • • 80% of the taxes are paid by 20% of the citizens
  • • 80% of the crimes are committed by 20% of the population
  • • 80% of the Ivy League admissions come from 20% of the population

The 80-20 rule works because it forces the mind toward points of leverage. A good strategist always looks for maximum effect with minimum resources—just like a military general, or a change manager.  (Note: it doesn’t have to actually be 80/20, in fact it rarely is.  Anywhere above 60/40 can work.)

Secret Sauce Three: Vicious and Virtuous Circles.

Short form: Find what works, or doesn’t; add a few interim steps, draw them in a circle to make it appear permanent.

Here are some examples:

  • • Parental abuse drives fear, which drives aggression, which drives pre-emptive defense, which drives abuse
  • • US auto companies give up low-margin segment, which drives market share for low-margin Asian competitors, which increases their volume, which lowers price, which lowers margins, which causes US auto companies to give up the next-lower margin segment
  • • You empower what you fear
  • • The fastest way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.

The Circles are powerful because they force us out of traditional linear models, and because they make sense of what often appears contradictory. The Circles offer a narrative, and usually suggest points at which to intervene to change the narrative. They also sound amazingly like rules and laws of nature, even when they’re bogus.

So there you have it. And guess what:

  • • If you chart usage of these three tools against business success, you’ll find a clear correlation;
  • • In fact, 80% of general management and strategic consulting goes to the 20% who have mastered these three tools;
  • • The more these three tools get used, the better known they get, the more clients learn to recognize excellent tool mastery on the part of consultants, the more they get hired for excellent use of these three tools, and the more they get used.

Now you too can be quoted, command high rates, and gain that aura of the oracle that surrounds the Great Strategists. Just use the three tools.

Your financial tokens of gratitude for this revelation may be sent to me at Credit cards and PayPal are accepted. You’re welcome.

The Boston Consulting Group Caused the Recession

Like all good conspiracy theories, this one may have a few loose links.  But work with me here–it’s a good story.

The 70s: When Strategy Became Competitive Strategy

Back in the 60s, Bruce Henderson, chafing at Arthur D. Little, re-conceived competitive strategy.  He founded the Boston Consulting Group, who in the 70s introduced the world to concepts like the experience curve, the Doom Loop, and the barnyard strategy matrix

Together with Michael Porter, they redefined strategy from a vague, military idea, to a disciplined, quantitative analysis based on a Hobbesian view of the business world: a State of Nature as Competition.  Competitors lurked everywhere–including masquerading as your suppliers and your customers.  Henceforth, all talk of "strategy" would implicitly have “competitive” as a leading adjective.

It is hard to describe today the impact this new ideology had on the business community.  Suddenly the world made sense—everything was about competition, and everything was quantitative.  It was about winning, and the winner was the one who ran the numbers best.  Peter Drucker was so 10 minutes ago–now, if you couldn’t measure it, you couldn’t manage it.

The 90s: When Organizations Became Processes

In the early 90s, Michael Hammer  and James Champy wrote Reengineering the Corporation, and the other shoe dropped.   The other shoe was business process re-engineering.  Pre-Hammer, companies were functional organizations.  Post-Hammer, they were bundles of processes. 

Functional organizations were messy things that needed coordinating, leading, managing.  Processes could be broken out, modularized, tinker-toy-rebuilt, outsourced, and re-assembled—and despite Hammer’s later protestations, the idea remained attractively impersonal to its fans. 

The 00s: Metrics, Competition and Process Prepare the TinderBox

BCG, B-schools and other leading business thinkers embarked on a decade of exploring the implications.  The Holy Grail of business had become sustainable competitive advantage, which produced economic value added, which produced maximal shareholder value. 

You got there by achieving global scale in every business process: if you weren’t #1 or #2 in any process, you outsourced it to one who was.

Outsourcing to achieve scale through best practices meant multiplying transactions, reducing time-frames, and replacing messy relationships with tightly written contracts–or, better yet, markets, the truly impersonal solution.  Performance was quantitatively defined, included not only in contracts between companies, but in employee relationships with people (who were renamed “human capital” to fit the new business Esperanto—finance).  No need to inspire or manage through people; just craft a blend of  metrics and incentives, the way Skinner incented those white mice in his boxes.  Poster child: Jack Welch.

An example: the mortgage industry.  The purveyors of the competitive/process/metric paradigm saw mortgage as an industry that was regionally fragmented, structurally clumpy, high cost, stodgy, inefficient, illiquid, and highly subjective.

In 15 years, they transformed it.  The mortgage business became globally integrated, highly specialized (substituting markets for organizations via disintermediation), low-cost, nimble, cutting edge, efficient, liquid, and highly impersonal.  It became a market-driven, process-linked, globally efficient industry.  That’s all true.

It also became bereft of relationships; laden with perverse incentives; managed by serial transactors; stripped of any sense of responsibility; and governed solely by financial metrics.  In a business whose product already was money, the doubling-up emphasis on financial metrics obliterated any memory of other principles or values that might have once existed in the financial sector. 

The new mantra was IBGYBG. I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone; do the deal and let the next sucker clean it up.  The entire Meaning of Business became—to make more money than the other guys.  Period.

You work for your company–in theory, the shareholders.  Your company’s job is to win.  You win by beating others before they beat you.  Customers are walking wallets, sources of the poker chips you use to measure success.  Suppliers are to be played off against each other.  All parties are to be managed in clumps of processes, carrotted-and-sticked to behave in certain ways.  That, simply, is how it was supposed to work.  According to this mantra.

This ideology didn’t just happen.  It was four decades in the making. 

Bruce Henderson didn’t mean to do it—but he set the wheels in motion.  BCG, Hammer, Porter, and CSC-Index made it look enticing.  Economists and quant-wannabes from the HR, exec-comp and leadership world added their hops and spices to the brew.  Goldman Stanley and Morgan Sachs refined it; private equity and financial engineers distilled it; and Merrill Stearns, mortgage brokers and Joe the Plumber  got drunk on it.

Complicated?  Yes.  That’s where conspiracy theories come in; they let you simplify.  So pardon me if I just use the shorthand version: BCG caused the recession.

Why ‘Corporate Ethics’ is Usually an Oxymoron

David Brooks, as he occasionally does, knocks it out of the park in The End of Philosophy, in yesterday’s NY Times. The subject: moral reasoning.

Wait wait–don’t run away! It’s interesting–I promise!

We often think of morality as principles-driven. Whether religious or philosophical, if we hear “moral,” we’re inclined to think rule-following or deductive reasoning of some kind.

Not so, says Brooks, surveying current literature. Moral reasoning is much more emotional and intuitive than we think. It evolves evolutionarily, as part of our social development. Which, interestingly, puts it on a par with competition.

Evolution isn’t just survival of the fittest. Evolution also favors those groups who have learned to cooperate—competition isn’t just individual, it’s between collaborating groups.

Which means the urge to collaborate is about on par with the urge to compete. Both come from the same parts of the brain, the emotional centers.

This makes common sense on several dimensions. One is that ethics is fundamentally about relationships—not about rules. Even Immanuel Kant—about as principles-based a philosopher as they come—agrees with this (ethics consists in treating others as ends, not means).

Quick cut to business ethics programs. Sometimes phrased as “ethics and compliance” programs. Which leads us to oxymoron number 1: if you’re talking about complying with the law, you’re probably not talking about ethics.

When Harvard Business School started its ethics program in 2004, here’s how the new course (Leadership and Corporate Accountability) was positioned:

"LCA stems from a belief that business leaders play a crucial role in society. They and the companies they build and lead are expected to deliver strong financial results for investors, superior goods and services for customers, attractive work environments for employees, and innovative ideas for the future. At the same time, they are expected to observe the laws of the countries in which they operate, respect society’s ethical standards, and contribute to the communities of which they are part."

It’s hard not to see this as a course about the art of balancing. Balancing competing demands is something at which HBS does a wonderful job. But the course sounds no different at root from other courses that describe balancing competing constituencies in marketing, or production, or business strategy.

Corporate ethics, by this view, is far more corporate than ethical. It is about navigating a company through a minefield of, among other things, people who believe in something called “ethics.”

This view of ethics is to real ethics as a professor of religion is to a churchgoer. Oxymoron Number 2 is “corporate ethics.”

Programs like this almost always still have one assumption at root: the survival of the corporation in a complex, often hostile world. That is the same assumption at the heart of a course in corporate strategy. Proof? How many ethics courses contemplate the disollution of the company? About as many as strategy courses envisioning the same. Zilch.

Just as Machiavelli linked war and negotiation as alternative means to the success of the State, this view links strategy and ethics as alternative means to the success of the Company. In this environment, cooperation is not about ethics–it’s about negotiation to achieve competitive aims. It’s cooperation as means, not ends. It’s not ethical.

No surprise. Machiavelli doesn’t come to mind as a foremost ethicist.

The continued existence and prosperity of a Corporation or a State is very much what competition is about. It is not at all what ethics is about. In an increasingly connected world, a course about ethics would talk about the value of collaboration across and between companies, and how to manage based on it. I don’t see that happening.

Competition and ethics may both derive from evolutionary, emotional sources. But as long as one is subordinated to the other—as long as they’re teaching ethics down the hall from competitive strategy, with a common philosophical goal of corporate competitive success–the winner will be competitive strategy, and the loser will be ethics. No contest.

Too bad, because old-think in a new world is not what we need.


The Problem with B-Schools is the Problem with Business

The New York Times’ business section yesterday published an article by Kelly Holland (perhaps her best yet) titled, Is it Time to Retrain B-Schools?

The putative answer was ‘yes,’ and I agree. But what does that mean? From the article:

“It is so obvious that something big has failed. We can look the other way, but come on. The C.E.O.’s of those companies, those are people we used to brag about. We cannot say, ‘Well, it wasn’t our fault’ when there is such a systemic, widespread failure of leadership.” Ángel Cabrera, Dean,Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz.

“We lived through an enormous extended period of financial good times, and people became less focused on risks and risk management and more focused on making money. We need to move that focus back toward the center.” Jay Light, Dean, Harvard Business School

“The schools suffer from an overemphasis on rigor and an under-emphasis on relevance. Business schools have forgotten that they are a professional school.” Warren Bennis, USC Business School and noted leadership author.

“A kind of market fundamentalism took hold in business education. The new logic of shareholder primacy absolved management of any responsibility for anything other than financial results.” Rakesh Khurana, a professor at Harvard Business School

“Business creates value in terms of services and products. That’s what business delivers, just like medicine delivers a healthy person.” Sharon M. Oster, Dean, Yale School of Management.

“There are extraordinary things taking place in business education, and a lot that is very promising. But what’s the central theorem of business education? It’s wanting.” Judith F. Samuelson, Exec. Director, Business and Society Program, the Aspen Institute.

The bookend quotes have it right. Cabrera when he says there’s an obvious problem, and Samuelson when she says the central theorem of business education is wanting.
Those in the middle, IMHO, are not yet at the core of the answer.

So here’s my take.

The first post I ever did in this blog—October 2006—was looking back from a 30th reunion at Harvard Business School. It was about this very point, and I think it holds up. Here, in part, is what I said then:

The biggest single characteristic of business in future is that everything is getting connected. In a connected world, a focus on competitive relationships isn’t useful. What we need is an emphasis on connectivity, trust and collaboration.

HBS needs to teach less competitive differentiation and more collaborative value-adding; less how to win supply chain negotiations and more how everyone gains by operating them as a system; less about transactions, more about relationships.

We don’t need more ethics courses—we need an ethos of business itself.

Last I looked, the ethics course at HBS teaches a “balanced” approach to three spheres: competitive, legal, and social.

Meanwhile, down the hall in the core strategy courses, those same students are taught that business at its core is about corporate competition. To define strategy that way is to define ethics as a branch of strategy—how to steer the corporate ship between the Scylla and Charybdis of the law and society.

In that Hobbesian world-view, there is no room for an Other. And where there is no Other, There Just Cannot Be any such thing as “ethics.” “Business ethics” is become an oxymoron.

There can be no ethics until “strategy” reclassifies customers, suppliers and employees as co-equal with shareholders—rather than as categories of “competitive forces.”  Which is exactly what is taught now, and which lies at the heart of the matter. 

The solution doesn’t lie in Dean Oster’s redefinition of value; nor in Dean Light’s move back to the balanced risk center. Nor even in de-emphasizing shareholder value.

The solution lies in modernizing our ideas of how business actually works. Away from an ideology of corporate competition forged in the past. Toward recognizing the collaboration of many in the pursuit of commerce that is fast becoming reality today.

Collaboration is the new competition. We are not isolated anymore. We are all linked. It’s a fact, and one that our mental representations need to catch up to.

We can no longer afford competition-centric thinking—neither in business, nor in the b-schools.


Jack Welch Renounces Increasing Shareholder Value: Pigs Fly

First it was Saul on the road to Damascus. More recently, it was Alan Greenspan. Yesterday, Jack Welch seems to have had a conversion.

Speaking with the Financial Times, Welch said:

Jack Welch, who is regarded as the father of the “shareholder value” movement that has dominated the corporate world for more than 20 years, has said it was “a dumb idea” for executives to focus so heavily on quarterly profits and share price gains…

…“On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world,” he said. “Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy . . . Your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products…”

…The birth of the shareholder value movement is commonly traced to a speech that Mr Welch gave at New York’s Pierre hotel in 1981, shortly after taking the helm at GE.

What they’re talking about is the commonly held belief that “the purpose of business is to increase shareholder value.” That belief is variously attributed to Milton Friedman, Adam Smith, and “obvious commonsense,” none of whom are guilty as charged (though Friedman probably came close).

But no matter: it was what people heard, and used to justify all kinds of behavior for several decades. And Welch, whether he ever said specifically those words, has a great deal of responsibility for having advanced the idea. The FT is right to headline the significance of this conversion.

In any case, the newly converted Welch, to judge by the above quote, really does now get it right.

Profitability, shareholder value, even measures like EVA profoundly miss a point that Welch now articulates. Namely, ‘shareholder value is a result, not a strategy.’

I think what Welch means is that all economic results are properly viewed as outcomes, not as end-state goals or objectives.

This would be quite right.

Imagine two companies. One is devoted to increasing shareholder value (and EVA, etc.) by carefully finding out what customers want, and giving it to them.

The other is devoted to giving customers what they want—which results, among other things, in increased shareholder value, etc.

I suggest company #2 will do better in the not-very-long run. Because the company is being run for someone other than solely the financial stakeholders and managers.

Jack Welch is obviously no dummy. So it looks to me like his conversion experience has been thorough, and well thought out. If he can contribute to articulating this new view, it will go a long way to changing a deeply entrenched, increasingly dysfunctional and destructive ideology.

Let’s hope he does.