17 November 2010

"Retail Is War Without Blood": What Foot Locker's CEO Learned in the Army

Ken Hicks, the CEO of Foot Locker, formerly the president and chief merchandising officer of J.C. Penney's, graduated from the United States Military Academy and spent six years in the army just after the Vietnam War. HBR talked to Ken about how his time as a young officer prepared him for a career as a retail executive.

Tell me about a couple of things you learned from your military experience that have made you a more effective CEO.
When I took over my artillery battery, at age 25, I could shoot a cannon better than any of my section chiefs. And I had six guns. The only problem is, I could only shoot one gun at a time. I realized that what I had to do was train my section chiefs to be better cannoneers than I was. Because shooting 18% of the battery isn't going to be effective. And my job really wasn't to shoot a cannon, it was to develop an entire artillery battery.

So I learned that you're very dependent on your people to be their best. You train and develop and motivate them. People think in the army that you tell somebody to do something and they do it, and that's far from the truth. They actually have more options and pressures that can be very intense. Think about it — if somebody in Afghanistan screws up, they get sent back home. If they don't, they stay in combat.

To be a successful leader, you have to understand what skills are required and be competent at them, and you also have to have confidence. Sometimes people mistake confidence for leadership, or competence for leadership, but it takes both of them together.

Do you see any connections between how the military and the retail industry operate?
In retail and the military, you're very dependent on the people at the front or the selling floor. You realize how important the sale associate is. It's the same thing in the army; you're very dependent on your privates and specialists, and so you talk with them and learn from them. Six or eight months after I'd left J.C. Penney's, I was in a Penney's store looking at some merchandise, and an associate recognized me and came running across the floor to say hello. She remembered me because I'd treated her with respect and listened to her. That's what you have to do to inspire people. The people on the selling floor, just like the cannoneers, the gunners, and the infantry, are the ones who make everything happen.

How do you stay connected to frontline employees, besides going out and talking to them?
Recognition. I send out a little note card every month to the employees who perform best, thanking them for doing a good job. If you think about the military, people are willing to give their life in defense of the country and their friends, and what do they get for it? They get a ribbon on their chest. Everybody thinks recognition needs to be a big bonus or a promotion. It really doesn't. What you learn in the military is people do their work because they trust and respect you and they want you to be able to recognize them for that. I send out these cards and the next thing you know, they frame them and put them on the wall in their stores or their cubicles because it's important to them.

What else has made you successful as a senior leader?
Learning and studying each situation. When I was in the Army I had the opportunity to have lunch a couple of times with Omar Bradley. Here's a guy from history who led troops across Europe and commanded the war in Korea, and people would always ask him, who is the greatest general you served with? And he would say the greatest field commander was Patton. That's because Patton did his homework, he studied the map, and he knew where the enemy was going to be and where they needed to go. It's the same in business. You have to study the numbers and constantly try to understand where the opportunities are and how you can go after them.

I've got on my wall in my conference room the principles of war. And each of the principles of war apply in business. For example, mass: don't spread your troops out, don't spread your resources too thin. Unity of command: know who's in charge, who has responsibility and who doesn't. Security: don't be surprised, study the competition, know what's happening. I worked with a retailer who said, "Retail is war without blood." You study and spend a lot of time understanding the competition's situation. You learn not to overreact.

How do you communicate a clear mission?

You have to constantly reinforce it, so people always know why you're doing what you're doing: we're going after this because of that. Then people know why they're there and what they need to focus on and what they should do. You can empower them. One of the differences between our army and the Soviet army was that our tanks all had radios; every tank could communicate with every other tank. You could see the difference that made in mock battles. In the Russian army, the tank commander had a radio, and the platoon leaders, and all the other tanks just followed the leader and did whatever the leader wanted. If something happened to the leader's tank or they were lost, they didn't know what to do.

I assign a lot of projects to people and say, here's what we want to accomplish. You're the lead; you have responsibility. You bring the resources to bear, and let's accomplish it.

You're in a pretty volatile industry. How have you adjusted the way that you go about planning to take into account the rapid nature of change?
Constant communication and watchfulness. When I was in the army I was in a cavalry regiment, and one of the cavalry's jobs is to go out and scout. I send people out to our competitors' stores all the time. We look at the competition, the press, any venue we can think of where we will see new ideas and new things.

by This post is part of an HBR Spotlight examining leadership lessons from the military.

12 November 2010

4 ways to make people believe you

Credibility takes a life-time to build and a moment to lose - it is hard to believe the auditing skills of an Enron auditor. Credibility is also domain specific - you might trust your mom in several areas, but if she is not a surgeon, you probably wouldn’t trust her to perform a brain surgery on you (you probably wouldn’t trust your mom on dressing advice also). But, besides those extreme examples, there are ways to make your communication more credible. How to make people believe you?

1- The Sinatra test

“If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere else”, goes the song from Sinatra (thus the “Sinatra test”).  What this means if that if you can do something (like succeed in New York), this means that we can believe you will do well anywhere else. If you are an engineer hired by Google, probably you would be also by other tech companies. If your blender can blend an iPad, probably it can blend any food you manage to put in it. If you catered in the White House, probably you qualify for catering anywhere. So if you have examples that might look like a Sinatra test, use it.

I know most catering companies never did or will cater in the White House, but think on your turf: did you cater on the local town hall or for a local star rich entrepreneur ? So probably you can do great anywhere in the city.

2 - Add details, even when they are irrelevant

University of Michigan researchers ran a simulated trial where 2 groups of jurors were asked to assess the fitness of a mother to keep her 7 year-old son in her care. Each group heard the same carefully balanced arguments for and against the mother. One group however was given some vivid detail for the supporting arguments. As an example, one favorable argument was that the mother ensured her son washed and brushed his teeth before bed-time. In the vivid detail version they added "He uses a Star Wars toothbrush that looks like Darth Vader". The additional details were purposely irrelevant to the argument.

The impact? 6 out of 10 of the jurors hearing the vivid version of the favorable arguments judged the mother to be suitable, while only  4 out of 10 of the jurors who heard the vivid version of the unfavorable arguments judged the mother to be suitable. The irrelevant vivid details had a big impact! The explanation is that what you can picture vividly in your mind will look like closer to the truth.

3 - Give out the testing credentials

NBA rookies have a lot of young horny girls around them. If you are a young NBA rookie, it’s quite easy to get carried away and screw every single lady that compliments your size. To try to avoid rookies to get AIDS and get rustled by ladies who want to get pregnant and get their money every rookie attend an “intro to the league” seminar. There, the league could tell the NBA rookies that they should protect themselves because of AIDS and pregnancy, but that wouldn’t work (the common sense is also obvious, they probably would know this already – but knowing doesn’t lead to action). So instead they planted some very “dressed to kill” ladies at the conference hotel bar without the rookies knowing they were planted by the league. They made plans to meet with the ladies after the conference and so on. The next morning, all the ladies entered the conference room and announced: we all have AIDS. Boom, the rookies got it, they were this close to having sex with someone that had AIDS, they should better protect themselves. By allowing people to test something themselves, it makes it much more credible.

Another example is the “will it blend?” videos. You can see the blender doing its work and blending iPhones, iPads and whatever people put in there. This is already very credible because you can see it, but it is completely credible because you can test yourself. Get the freaking blender and put stuff there and see if it blends or not. The same way you can test other blenders and see if they are up for the test or not. It is very credible to test it yourself.

An old use of test credentials? Enter a clothes store, get what you want and try it on, look on the mirror, check for yourself if it is good or not. What would you believe more, your own judgment after you put the pants on in front of the mirror or that pushy sales clerk that, before you even try, is already saying that will look amazing on you?

4 - Make statistics accessible

Lots of people go for the “I will show you the data” approach to gain credibility. It doesn’t work so straightforward because, well, we are human beings. But statistics are great if used correctly: that being, making the statistics tangible to people.

If I tell you US and Russia have 28,000 nuclear warheads, well, it looks like a huge number, but how huge? We cannot picture it because it’s too big (and remember the example above of the Darth Vader toothbrush: if you can’t picture, it is less credible). The nonprofit Beyond War would arrange "house parties" in which a group of friends and neighbors would assemble to hear about the dangers of nuclear weapons. The organizer from Beyond War always brought a steel bucket and BBs (those small metal balls used as ammunition in air guns). He would drop one in - it would make a distinct sound - and say it was the power of the bomb at Hiroshima. He then described the devastation of this bomb. Then he'd drop 10 BBs into the bucket: This is the fire power of one U.S. or Soviet nuclear submarine. Then he had attendees close their eyes: He poured 5,000 BBs into the bucket saying it was today's arsenal of nuclear weapons. The point here is that in any statistic it doesn’t matter the exact number (who cares if it is 5, 10 or 50 thousand? It is too big number to picture), but the relationship used to make this number concrete to the audience.

Stephen Covey has a great example that emphasizes teamwork in his writings. He once tried to give the dry statistics: Only 37% of employees had a clear idea of their mission, only one in five was enthused etc. He got more impact when he mapped this onto a soccer team: "If a soccer team had this same statistics as those, only 4 out of 11 would know where their goal was ... etc."

This and much more appears on Made to Stick, an outstanding book about building messages that stick to people’s brains.

10 November 2010

We all want to be young

A great movie made by Box 1824 (a Brazilian research center on youth consumer and behaviour trends) on what is to be young. If you are somehow involved in communication, advertising, marketing or even lead young people, that is a must see.

We All Want to Be Young (leg) from box1824 on Vimeo.

09 November 2010

Gamefication 101 with Gabe Zichermann

It's not about games, but about using game-like mechanics to make things better (one old example of gamification is the "collect 10 coffee stamps, get one free" or similar). From Foursquare to Farmville and from Nike to the Navy, game mechanics like points, badges, levels, challenges, rewards and leaderboards are being used in ever greater numbers. But what does this mean for "traditional" marketing & UI/UX and how do you leverage this trend in your engagement strategy? Moreover, how do we measure success, and why will every company have a Chief Engagement Officer in the next few years? Find out more in this in-depth discussion with Gamification Expert, Gabe Zichermann - author of "Game-Based Marketing" and the Gamification.co blog, and Chair of the Gamification Summit.

08 November 2010

7 ways games reward the brain (TED Talk)

Smart TED Talk that looks like is about videogames, but it is in fact about our brains and what are the most important game mechanics (such as leveling up and probability of reward) that could be applied to the real world in business, government, education, to fight global warming, etc.

Tom Chatfield: 7 ways games reward the brain.

What would happen if you used game mechanics outside of games, such as in education and the business world? Can you imagine a game based workplace?

05 November 2010

Decision making paralysis in AIESEC Norway

This post will only make sense if you read the post about decision making paralysis.

When I was president of AIESEC Norway (…) we were not doing so good in our main types of sales: bring exchange students to work in companies and send Norwegian students to work abroad. Then we kind of intuitively narrowed the options for students to go on exchange – instead of promoting that they could go literally anywhere, at any point in time and to do all kinds of different jobs (which is true from the AIESEC product point of view), we started promoting around 5 specific countries, with a specific timeframe for the exchange and more or less set job (better defined, but not amazingly clear).

The result was that much more people made de decision and our numbers grew. Still there were a whole bunch of people that decided not to go on exchange, even after being accepted in the program. If I am not mistaken the number was quite high, like at least half of them, usually when they needed to pay and really decide  to go on exchange in definitive.

On the corporate sales we never managed to solve the problem, but I heard that today they are doing much better than before. Their approach? As I understand, they are specifying better the product (not anymore “any type of student, with any background, any time…” you get the picture). Now they are segmenting type of exchange (market expansion, IT, volunteer work, etc) and time (summer, winter…)

Both approaches clearly are tapping into the problems seen on the decision making paralysis post. And I think that both can be even better tailored to overcome even better the decision making paralysis. For example, giving even less choice to students in terms of job description and length of exchange (2 things that are more or less still very adaptable and susceptible to decision making paralysis due to too many good options).

04 November 2010

Changing Education Paradigms - AKA Sir Ken Robinson animated

Brilliant speech and brillent execution with cool stop-motion animations. It touches how schools serve only the industrial revolution model, how ADHD is not an epidemics, how scientists proved that most (98%) of kids are genius in being creative and how the same kids lose their edge after the educational system and much more cool stuff. Watch and learn:

03 November 2010

Could companies charge job applicants?

“If you click the ‘apply to this position’ button, your credit card will be charged $50,00”.

I never saw this, but I was wondering if companies that have an attractive brand could in fact charge job applicants as a way to reducing irrelevant applications, reducing the number for brands that get so many applications it becomes too resource demanding to sort all applications and, of course, help recruitment become a revenue stream, not only a cost center.

I am not talking about Average John Co., but to well known brands, like Google, Microsoft, Accenture, McKinsey and so on. I understand that looks too crazy, but also saying that the Earth was round was completely insane.

Would that make any sense to a company to do? Would it affect the employer brand? Could it have any positive effect?

02 November 2010

Linchpins are Sticky

If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you know I loved 2 books recently: Linchpin and Made to Stick. But even though they deal with different stuff, they have a common overall theme: being remarkable. Linchpin is about being remarkable and Made to Stick is about making ideas remarkable. Both deal with being remarkable in different ways, but a common trait of both is the “unexpected” as worth remembering. Break people’s guessing machine and the situation/story/person sticks to their minds.

I talked to hundreds of people in call centers, 99,9% of them were terrible, making me just to kill myself: the idiot waiting music, the robotic voice, the script that doesn’t fit with my question… last month I called the corporate travel booker of American Express, I was having some troubles to login, since it was my first time using it. The person that got my call was not only sounding genuinely human, she helped to solve my problem AND translated a document from Norwegian to English so I could understand better myself. An remarkable linchpin I will never forget – it broke my guessing machine by being human and by taking the extra mile of translating a small reference guide so I could learn.

Making ideas stick follow the same principle, one of the ways to make ideas stick is the unexpected. So there is no surprise when Made to Stick is full of linchpin stories, like :

A flight attendant that cracked jokes on the obligatory safety announcements, something like “If I could have your attention for a few moments, we sure would love to point out these safety features. If you haven’t been in an automobile since 1965, the proper way to fasten your seat belt is to slide the flat end into the buckle. To unfasten, lift it up on the buckle to release it. And as the song goes, there might be 50 ways to leave your lover, but there are only six ways to leave this aircraft: 2 forward exit doors, 2 over-the-wing removable windows, and 2 aft exit doors. The locations of each exit is clearly marked with signs over-head, as well as red and white disco lights along the floor of the aisle. Made ya look!”

Or an army cook that runs a mess hall in Iraq that, with the same supplies as any other US army kitchen, made military people drive hundreds of kilometers (even through zones considered dangerous) to eat his food. Suddenly the person responsible for the deserts starts saying that her cakes are “sexy” (how unexpected is “sexy” and “army food” in the same phrase?) If you talk to the cook who manages the whole stuff, he doesn’t say his role is to cook, no, he is in charge of the morale.

Key take-away: if you break people’s guessing machines, break the pattern, do something unexpected, they will remember you and/or your idea. The only thing you have to take care is to make unexpected for the sake of being unexpected. People will remember you if you are presenting a business idea and suddenly you take off your clothes, but while that does help you get remembered, people will remember the wrong stuff (that crazy guy who took off his clothes), not the business idea. So the unexpectedness has to be connected to the point you are trying to convey.

01 November 2010

Simple messages that stick: use schemas people already know

One of the ways to ensure a message sticks and is comprehended is to explain it with knowledge people already know (schemas). For example: most people don’t know what is an açaí. I can describe it in 2 ways:

1) The fruit, a small, round, black-purple drupe about 1 inch (25 mm) in circumference, is produced in branched panicles of 500 to 900 fruits. The açaí fruit has a single large seed about 0.25–0.40 inches (7–10 mm) in diameter. The exocarp of the ripe fruits is a deep purple color, or green, depending on the kind of açaí and its maturity. The mesocarp is pulpy and thin, with a consistent thickness of 1 mm or less. It surrounds the voluminous and hard endocarp, which contains a seed with a diminutive embryo and abundant endosperm. The seed makes up about 80% of the fruit.


2) Açaí is a fruit that looks like a darker purple grapes and its taste and consistency is more like a berry.

The first description is exactly what the Curse of Knowledge does to people: when you are a specialist in the subject, you want to be accurate. Accurate, yes, understood, no. Isn’t it a too high price to pay?

Using schemas, on the other hand, is not accurate, like the 2nd description, but it is easier to understand. Schemas are what people already know (you know what is “fruit”, “purple grapes” and “berry”, so it is easier to picture.

Have you ever tried to follow a recipe that said something “stir until you get a good consistency”. What the hell is a good consistency? Tell me how many minutes to stir this! Or simply use a schema I already know “stir until the consistency feels like hot mashed potato”.

A famous example of schemas are the high level concept Hollywood pitches: a one phrase that explains the movie. For example, Speed’s high level pitch was “Die Hard on a bus”. Bingo, you get the picture of what the movie will be about, which actors to chose, which director to pick - it is easy to understand because I already know Die Hard, this allows me to make the right decisions.

Another example of schemas are analogies that can be extrapolated. At Disney, for example, they call their employees “cast members”. If they are cast members, not employees, there is a range of assumptions you can make:

- Cast members don’t interview for a job, they audition for a role
- It's not an uniform, it's a costume
- Walking around in the park is being “on stage”
- People visiting Disney are guests, not customers

Just with a simple analogy, Disney make sure that no employee is smoking dressed in a Pluto costume or is just being random at the park, because you wouldn’t be random on stage during a play or you wouldn’t go smoking in your theater costume clothes.

If you want to make messages understood, make it simple: use schemas and analogies that people are comfortable with.

This and much more appears on Made to Stick, an outstanding book about building messages that stick to people’s brains.