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Personally I firmly believe that achieving creativity and innovation in science and beyond requires diversity… of thought! If you agree with this statement, let’s see if I can maintain your attention (I know, merely hearing – again – the ‘Diversity’ word might have turned you off!)

From my experience, most of us are not intentionally biased, yet in the same time not immune to the various cultural influences that have shaped our choices, including whom we feel “comfortable” associating with in our personal and professional relationships, or whom we might subconsciously stereotype or avoid. Also from experience, the best way to “cure” this is to have the opportunity to interact directly and learn first-hand from people who are different, then, by engaging in a more sustained and purposeful interactions with those with whom we discover common interests – which in my experience always had a positively innovative effect on what ever problem was at hand. To get started, one can always find at least one common denominator with almost anybody else on this planet: whether it is some of the shared personal or professional experiences or interests, stage in life or career, common acquaintances, hobbies, etc. I can always talk to other parents about our kids, other scientists about their own experiments, or anybody about countries they live(d) in and I might have been fortunate to visit, etc., etc.

Let’s try to define diversity. Statistics related to diversity usually capture data in terms of the “visible” (explicit) differences between people, e.g., gender, race, ethnic background, orientation, so this is what we have to rely on in terms of citing numbers. While these characteristics constitute a strong basis for diversity, i.e., people with different life and educational experiences may be likely to think, be motivated and act differently, I will however submit that these do not tell the whole story. Personality traits also play a major role, e.g., some of us are more creative or more analytical, “big picture” or micromanager type, while other are more directive or sensitive, direct or indirect, etc. So while we might look very different we might think alike, or might look very similar but have a very different perspective and approach to problem solving. These characteristics, I believe very important in shaping interactions and results, remain less acknowledged probably because they are more difficult to measure (assess and capture). However, making a conscious effort to engage people who represent several of these is important in creating a strong innovative team characterized by diversity of thought! My favorite kind of “constructive interference“…

Coming back to statistics, recent numbers provide evidence that while the situation might be slightly improving, gaps continue to exist between the demographics of talent diversity both in the USA and all over the world, and the higher in the hierarchy the less of it. These differences are true both in academia and in the industry (see list of references, incl. articles from “The New York Times” and “The Economist” and several statistics). One of the top reasons identified for the gap is the lack of role models, i.e. having in senior/high-profile positions people with whom various minorities could identify themselves. Seems to me this is a typical “chicken and the egg” type of problem: can’t attract/groom diverse people unless they can have access to role models, and you can’t have role models unless you had groomed or attracted them to join… How could this diversity ball get rolling???

Three main avenues could be explored for finding “cures” for this potential issue:

  1. Official/Institutional initiatives: aimed at designing programs and allocating funds for education and operational support
  2. Grass roots initiatives: creating “spontaneous” support networks, that provide a critical mass
  3. Personal initiatives: “upstart” individuals willing to get started “alone”, learn all the hard lessons and then pass on the learnings to willing newer recruits.

Diversity is a wast subject so I will try to focus on just one of the facets captured by statistics and recently highlighted in a few articles, likely because it is still March the “women’s history month”. Here are some published and personal experiences related to the situation of women in the work place.

  1. In the category of “official” initiatives,The New York Times” writes about the current status of women faculty at Harvard, which had attracted a lot of attention not too long ago due to the remarks of then president Larry Summers who said: “there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude,” which he said are reinforced by “lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.” By making this single comment, Summers helped with the status of women at Harvard more than could ever dreamed of! He single handedly brought so much public scrutiny that upon his resignation, Harvard appointed their first woman president (Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust) and instituted programs aimed at increasing representation of women faculty, specifically in previously seriously underrepresented scientific and engineering departments (for more details see original reference, below). The rest of academia and the private sector are not doing much better, especially in terms of women representation at the higher levels (see statistics for USA and Europe). In the USA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is prohibiting employment discrimination, however this is not universally applicable (see link for details). European countries have similar programs and have been passing additional related laws that aim at the next level of employment equity, including mandating that 40% of the corporate board membership be female. An article recently published in “The Economist” points out these measures would address the symptom but not the cause: not enough professional women to choose from for leadership positions! The article emphasizes that the best way to ensure an increase in the number of women on boards is to take steps to enable access of more women to the right experiences down on the corporate ladder. As with everything else, the human “talent pipeline” needs to be strong to generate a great output. My personal view on such initiatives is the while very useful to “keep us honest” and provide financial incentives and support, they are many times not very popular, especially with those who can not identify with the need and or the potential bias.
  2. The “grass roots” networks are by contrast those people choose to create and support. A truly great support system is created by people who are “like” and “unlike”, whether in terms of personal or professional characteristics (real diversity!) but are willing to understand, learn to appreciate differences and help widely. A person “like” me is able to share with me similar experiences, their “pain” and their tried strategies and successful solutions. “Unlike” people and professionals can help me understand the others’ perspectives and approaches. These represent a great opportunity for all of us to prove we are not biased. Such support networks can provide access to information via various sources (the best is directly from willing mentors!!) but also connect individuals with other education and work opportunities, including identification of collaborators. Also from personal experiences, the best mentors were those whom I had personally identified and approached for help, not the ones who have been “designated” to me via official programs.  In an effort to create support opportunities, I have startedMy Lab Your Lab” , a global online scientist professional community whose essential mission is to enable member-driven support. We encourage our members to reach out to seek and offer assistance from and to all.
  3. In the personal support category, I include individuals who have the courage to join work teams which are constituted from essentially different people to learn how to “survive” and actually thrive among them – diversity goes both ways! These individuals can become agents of change and the heart of the talent diversity snowball that allows it to form and get bigger… I think this works best when they voluntarily assume that role, because it is not an easy thing to do, requiring courage, extra time and effort, potentially at the expense of other professional goals. However, rewards could be great both for the person and the work place that facilitates such efforts. This is a very important point: the work environment needs to be supportive. No matter how accomplished and willing to help, such individual efforts will lead nowhere, just as the soil needs to be prepared, or else even the most exceptional seed will not survive.

One of my proudest contribution to diversity is related to my experience as a female and “biomedical” (medicine) faculty member joining a graduate program at the Georgia Institute of Technology: 100% male and 100% engineering. I think it helped that I am generally “gender blind” myself in work situations and I had been already operating for several years in another male dominated field, the world of academic cardiology. Yet, the first thing I thought of (because it was so obvious!!) and articulated to the people who had hired me was: “Next I will help you recruit some great female faculty”. Indeed they were on board with it, and together we proceeded to attract and hire two more women. Within a couple of years we became the “go to” place for female graduate biomedical engineering candidates, to the point where by the time I moved several years later, the student graduating class was 100 % (!) female. When asked why they chose Georgia Tech over other potentially more established programs, our graduate female students said that seeing several female faculty in the program helped them envision the possibility of academic success and increased their confidence that they would be able to relate if needed. Our ‘girls’ did not turn out to actually request or need much gender-specific help from us, the mere existence of female faculty had worked! My take home lesson was that it was worth taking the risk to be the first “one of a kind,” and getting involved in supporting efforts to attract and build a basis for more diversity which in turn engendered positive change and innovation.

So, several ways we can all get this ball rolling!

References:
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission http://www.eeoc.gov/employers/index.cfm
Lewin, T: “Women Making Gains on Faculty at Harvard”, The New Your times, March 13, 2010 http://nyti.ms/9QZyyX
Schumpeter: “Skirting the issue: Imposing quotas for women in boardrooms tackles a symptom of discrimination, not the cause” The Economist, March 11,m 2010 http://bit.ly/9rs8VA
EUR (2009) She figures 2009: Statistics and Indicators on Gender Equality in Science http://bit.ly/4QWnk5. EUR 23856 EN EUR 23856 EN (160 p.)
Leadley J (2009) Women in US academic medicine: Statistics and Benchmarking Report 2008-2009 http://bit.ly/8mB3e6. (34 p.)
AWIS (The Association of Women in Science) web page with links to various data sets http://bit.ly/97O2nF
“The Scientist” salary survey by gender and ethnicity http://bit.ly/d81RKP

Great quality life sciences fuel medical innovation, but great science usually requires “happy scientists”. Where are they now, and what can we learn about that makes them happy? Are they different from other people?

From the beginning I need to say that I can’t claim to have the definitive answer to this question. However the subject has been interesting to me as an educator and manager of scientists, and here are some personal comments triggered by looking at the 2009 surveys published by ‘The Scientist’, a magazine specializing in the life sciences, as well as other independent studies I had found on the overall topic of work and personal happiness. In case you can’t tell, these contain information that pertains to the factors that make scientists (and other working people) happy…

In their 2009 annual survey of “Best places to work” in academia, they listed the ‘top ranked 40 places’ in US and the ‘top 10 ranked internationally’ (you can see their surveys and methodology here). As someone with a scientific background would instinctively do, as soon as I saw data, several potential explanations immediately came to my mind (as well as more questions, that generated hypotheses I think would be nice to test…) But let me start with the data collected and made widely available thanks to ‘The Scientist.’

What makes an institution a great place to do science?
Venture some guesses? I will make the assumption that overall the responders’ sense of satisfaction for their place of work is related to its listed strengths. Those most often cited by all top ranked 40 US academic institutions were: ‘Research resources’ and ‘Infrastructure and environment’ (17 times each), also ‘Job satisfaction’ (11 times) and ‘Teaching and mentoring’ (9 times).

At my very first inspection, as one would expect, what caught my eye were places I am very familiar with (two of my previous home institutions). More specifically, Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia made the list within the top 5 (at #5), while Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston, MA came in at #39. The strengths listed for Emory were ‘Peers’ and ‘Job Satisfaction’, while for Brigham and Women’s these were ‘Management and Policies’ and ‘Infrastructure and Environment’.

Interestingly (I think) the ‘Pay’ category is cited as a strength only for 10 out of the top 40 institutions, and only once in the top five (University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, OK). Furthermore, the specific example that struck me when looking at the other survey about salary levels, was the observation that the average pay in the state of Georgia is lower compared to other US states, with the sole exception of the state of Ohio. Of note, another Georgia institution, the Medical College of Georgia, Augusta, GA also made the top 40 list in 2009, at #14. Again, I’m making the assumption that the “happy customers” of the first survey were the same with those paid less than the average US academic pay (a ‘side thought’ that came to mind was: ‘they might become less happy after seeing this US salary survey!’). Thus, based both on overall weight and the specific case, the pay per se did not seem to dampen scientists’ enthusiasm (at least not for these two GA work places!) One factor that was important was “job satisfaction”, which might be harder to define, yet there is information available on what motivates people and makes them feel they had a “great work day” (including later in this post).

Also, worth noting are the specific reasons for which some institutions are top and/or climbed really fast in the ranking. The institution ranked as #1 in the US, is Princeton, very small with only 203 full-time life scientists, which helps foster – indeed forces! – interdisciplinary collaborations/relationships. Max Planck’s Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Germany which ranked as the top institution internationally, also encourages strong cross-field collaborations and social interactions between scientists, strongly supported by their unusually democratic leadership system. Interestingly a common theme that lifted the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in the US ranking from 30th to the #4 place and brought the University of Groningen (in the Netherlands) directly at #4 in the ‘top 10’ world-wide, was their focus on recruiting and supporting young talent.

Thus, the 2009 survey results seem to be consistent with the fact that scientists are happiest when they are able to do the best possible science. This requires not only passion, curiosity, resilience, dedication, hard work, from the researchers themselves, but also a supportive environment, specifically enabling interdisciplinary collaborations through appropriate institutional policies and infrastructure. Hopefully administrators, regulators, and others with the power to influence the enviroment (of universities and other science-driven institutions) are paying attention to this type of feedback.

Do these findings surprise you in general/ do you work in any of these places? Any additional insights?

What makes people happy with their work in general?
This refers to the ‘job satisfaction’ definition, but also to the question whether things that make scientists happy are any different from those important to other professions?

For instance, the results of these scientists’ surveys seem to challenge the conclusion that ultimately “work IS about money”, as Susan M. Heathfield had drawn from her own research about what motivates people at About.com Guide, yet they likely do not surprise many of us. We all know many great (even if not famous) scientists who think more about giving through their work, rather than obtaining something from it, unless one would say they obtain the satisfaction of being able to figure out things that will ultimately “save the world”? Ms. Heathfiled does indicate – seemingly in an effort to recognize that some people have different motivation that: ’Some people work for love; others work for personal fulfillment. Others like to accomplish goals and feel as if they are contributing to something larger than themselves, something important. Some people have personal missions they accomplish through meaningful work. Others truly love what they do or the clients they serve. Some like the camaraderie and interaction with customers and coworkers. Other people like to fill their time with activity. Some workers like change, challenge, and diverse problems to solve.” Nice summary of why most scientists do their work, don’t you think?

An older theory known as the “Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory”(or the “two factor theory,”) suggests that job satisfaction and dissatisfaction are determined by different factors. This already indicated that the salary per se is not a positive motivator, but rather a “hygiene” factor.

  1. Factors that are work ‘motivators’ include challenging work, recognition, responsibility which give positive satisfaction, which arise from intrinsic conditions of the job itself, such as recognition, achievement, or personal growth.
  2. The work ‘hygiene factors’ which Herzberg suggested do not trigger positive satisfaction, are related to the work environment (e.g., company policies, supervisory practices, or wages/salary), and not necessarily related to the work itself, include: status, job security, salary and fringe benefits. However their absence leads to dissatisfaction, hence the name “hygiene” (its absence is hazardous).

What defines a ‘great work day’?
A Harvard Business Review study published in the latest issue (Amabile, T. M., Kramer, S. J “What really motivates workers”, HBR Jan-Feb 2010) concluded that the biggest factors in defining a workday as great was the perception of “making progress” and collaborations.

The authors underline the important role of the manager in making workers feel they had a great day. In the scientific slang, in an academic, as well as biotech/pharma laboratory, this personal might be refered to as the Principal Investigator (PI).

What a leader/manager should do:

  • Clarify goals
  • Use glitches as learning moments
  • Cultivate a culture of helpfulness, including rolling up own sleeves to pitch in
  • Recognize real progress (otherwise praise loses value)

The top three things a manager should avoid doing:

  • Changing goals autocratically
  • Being indecisive
  • Holding up resources

What makes people happy: common denominators and “diversity” in happiness

This is not off the topic, but it’s rather considering the whole person’s “happiness” as a combination of personal and professional aspirations.

In studying how personal/individual factors contribute to the overall human feeling of happiness, another report revealed that in fact both women and men share the two main sources of happiness: achieving professional/financial aspirations and… being married! (Plagnol and Easterlin, the Journal of Happiness Studies). These authors also discovered an inter-relationship between gender and age and happiness. Their conclusion was that… “Women end up less happy than men” because they feel less able to achieve their life goals. Women begin life happier than men but the difference wears off and by 48 yo, men are in average happier that women. Here are some age milestones that stood out from the gender comparison:
o 41: Age at which men’s financial satisfaction exceeds women’s financial satisfaction
o 48: Age at which men’s overall happiness exceeds women’s overall happiness
o 64: Age at which men’s satisfaction with family life exceeds women’s satisfaction

Harvard experts cited by Physics.org suggest the following rounded approach is most likely to create overall (lifelong) happiness:

  • Eat thoughtfully, exercise often, have daily ‘quiet’ time,
  • raise your children well, teach them to be kind!),
  • stash a few bucks away,
  • and ‘stop thinking it’s all about you! ‘ Giving money away creates lasting happiness compared to spending it on oneself which only creates a ‘buzz’, the kind of happiness that wears off quickly

What makes working couples happy?
Sharing responsibilities for paid (professional) and unpaid (house chores) work apparently works well in making working couples happier and more productive. For more insights see “Power couples”, The Scientist 2010, Volume 24 (1): 55.

What makes YOU happy?

 

References:
• ‘Best Places to Work 2009: Academia’, The Scientist Volume 23 (11) Page 43, 2009-11-01
• Heathfield, Susan M. ‘What motivates people’, About.com http://humanresources.about.com/od/rewardrecognition/a/needs_work.htm
• The ‘two factor theory’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motivator-Hygiene_theory
• Plagnol, Anke C. and Richard A. Easterlin, “Aspirations, Attainments, and Satisfaction: Life Cycle Differences Between American Women and Men.” 2008, Journal of Happiness Studies, http://www.springerlink.com/content/4j11681jx415315k/
• Wiens Carl, ‘Power couples’, The Scientist 2010, Volume 1: 55, 2010-01-01

What do Leningrad, cowboys, a Finnish rock band, and the Red Army Choir have in common? They perform together… “Sweet Home Alabama!!!”

OK, this might sound like something I could have made up after having too much eggnog this holiday season, but no, you can check it out for yourself. I’ll venture to say this is the most edgy and innovative interpretation of the old favorite.  The Finish band that calls itself the “Leningrad cowboys” obviously increased its appeal (and credentials?) compared to their earlier interpretation by adding to the mix another unexpected ingredient: the Red Army choir singing in English, vigorously and it seems in the same time nostalgically (although the song might have been the only reason for which many of the singers first heard about Alabama).  While the musical intersection of all these apparently disparate entities might not be something all of us think as great, courtesy of YouTube, at the time I am writing this 2,254,837 people saw the video which is rated as a perfect five star. The masses have spoken!

On my side this discovery strangely connected with the advice received this week from a Nordstrom customer representative: “if you can rock it, go for it!” after I had been contemplating – for some time – buying something that would normally land outside my comfort zone. I tried to make up my mind by briefly positioning the article in front of me – as you can do these days with some online retailers that have embraced “augmented reality” – and glancing in one of those large mirrors between racks. While doing this two separate times, several customers passing by exclaimed: “wow, that really looks good on you!” Maybe they were just trying to be nice, but getting the “independent” encouragement, made me believe that I might be able to “rock it.” I still have to test that idea by actually wearing the item this season… By the way, this experience also indicated to me that the ability to share the result of virtually trying stuff on is a feature that would be tremendously popular (online retailers might want to take note!).

Meanwhile, I thought that the shopping assistant’s “advice” might be just the way we need to start thinking more often in many other areas of our life to step out of our daily boxes. Think how to “rock it” in work-related endeavors, unleashing a remarkably innovative project, maybe? Many times the only limitation is that mental barrier we have created for ourselves. Our analytical brains are very good at creating “acceptable” frameworks for our thinking and behavior, providing all the reasons for which something might fail, including that it just may not fit with what is expected… How many times did you hear: “this is not how we do things around here?” So, here is another way to take a good tally: Do you need to innovate? If successful, can you envision a positive impact of your plan? Are you committed to doing what it takes to bring it to fruition? Are you (physically/mentally) capable of doing it? Then, finally… Why not???

The Finish band and the Red Army choir rocked it in front of huge enthusiastic crowds online and off line. More and more people take their chance – publicly – on testing their ability on TV and many more are watching them religiously. So, are you still a “wall flower,” looking sadly at the dance floor wondering why nobody can see that you can and would like to dance, or are you simply worried about looking out of place? Here is a suggestion for us in 2010: if we THINK we can dance, let’s go for it! At least, we will not forever wonder “what if I tried?” Some of us will get the big prize. It might even be you, but you’ll never know unless you go for it!

Agh, the lists are everywhere! These days you can’t find much to read that had not  been already organized that way. Most famous business gurus write books that are basically expanded lists that sell off the shelves, bloggers have numbered tips for everything. There are even friendly self-help materials that list all the great reasons for which you should present all you thoughts in the form of… well, lists!  No wonder, since great opinion leaders such as Guy Kawasaki tell us that writing lists is “an art” and for him this is the way to get him to read… I am getting worried: reading material that had not been already organized in a list might quickly become a “dying art“!

So, I feel compelled to speak up on behalf of those of us who might think this way. OK, I like reading lists – sometimes! For instance, this one that ranks the top five traits respondents found when asked to “decode leadership”. But besides dealing with categories that were ranked based one some sort of a quantitative analysis (e.g., “Top 10 cities for innovation”), or some logical successive action steps I might need to take to accomplish a very specific task, my poor brain, not very trained to remember things, is getting so confused these days trying to store and then quickly name or even remember how many things I needed to do to… save the world? innovate? get venture money? lose my belly flab in less than 2 weeks? And what were the only three steps I was supposed to take to become a proficient piano player?

Sometime this type of organization might actually be hard to my kind of mind! I do not think that everything can logically be listed, nor do I want to only read those things that can be… Should you, inspired blogger, try to make it easy for me by trying very hard to put together a list, please… don’t! Consider that while your thoughts on the subject might really get me thinking or fired up to spring into action, your conclusions might not make sense to me! Why do you want me to think that there are only ‘ten things’ I have to do to achieve X? Your specific list might not fit my intended use, or your implication that you hold the “definitive” truth in the matter might not sit well with some of us… Something else worth considering for those who like to put together “top 10”- types lists.  Brain researchers tell us that the longest sequence a normal person can recall on the fly contains about seven items – which might explain the popularity of that size group? The magnificent seven, and as many dwarfs, samurai, wonders of the world, deadly sins, seas, habits of… OK, better stop here, maybe there were more, I just cannot remember the rest!

Let me also share that there are people like me who go to the supermarket with a short shopping list: “milk, bread, fruit, something to cook for dinner” (basic drop dead lists), then still leave with a cart full of a jumble of fresh stuff, sticking on all sides – not quite clear what dinner will look and taste like – and with extra stuff for the next dinner(s), some chocolate, and maybe forgot to get the milk… OK, I know, I was told before, I should not shop for food when I am hungry: I might be tempted to make rush decisions, buy more than I need, etc., etc. Yet, consider that instead of immediately satiating my hunger by feeding from an orderly stack of boxes and cans of pre-cooked food, I am willing to postpone instant gratification to spend some time in the kitchen preparing a dinner like no other:

1.      not because I am the greatest chef, but

2.       because I enjoy getting involved in what I eat, and

3.       I like to surprise myself and anybody who dares to join.

Do you get my gist, Guy? lists can be usually formulated but might be less inspired than the idea behind them. And, for some of us, lists have limited use. Why make the list an ultimate goal? I, for one, have trouble remembering how many essential truths/definitive ways to do something someone else said there were… except those I could hum…. “mmmm… 50 ways to leave your lover….”

What is your leadership style? What is your boss’s style? I suggest you stop for a moment before going on reading my thoughts on the subject and do the following: close your eyes and think of three great leaders you admire most. Write down whom ever comes to mind first, we’ll come back to this later.

The other day I met a very interesting guy. By his own account he is a “hard-driving very outcome-oriented guy.”  I was indeed thoroughly impressed with his many diverse professional and personal achievements. Wow! He was very inquisitive, told me that he really “loves people” and to hear what they are doing, so he naturally asked about my achievements. Interestingly, although I am proud of them and I had thought about myself as a very strong, determined and outcome-oriented person (impression expressed by others about me many times), in that very moment wondered “did I have anything he could see even remotely matching his triumphs?” Not surprisingly he did not seem that impressed with my first shot at it. Upon further probing, he came back with a diagnostic for my “problem”: I am not good at presenting and demanding what he thought I “rightfully deserve,” and went on to tell me how I SHOULD demand it. I was impressed, he had great insights, the speed at which he diagnosed and solved my problem was dizzying, and his approach was likely to be very effective. The mirror he held almost instantly helped me learn something about myself. I realized I have been very good at proving myself over and over again achieving any of the seemingly impossible tasks I had chosen to tackle, but I had not been good at asking for upfront investments in my efforts before undertaking these challenges. I have always assumed that people will be able to appreciate the effort and proven success, and they will then be willing to further invest in me and my work. He told me that was not the way it usually works (yeah, I had noticed!) and that I needed to always announce “my price” up front. He even told me exactly what and how (“you need to lower your voice!”) I should say it.  Upon my spontaneous reaction to the style that does not come naturally to me, he went so far to say I was a “wimp”, and then added I needed to make it clear every time in the beginning of discussion that my proposition was a “take it or leave it” type. In fact, I realized then from his account that all his highlighted successes seemingly had been pre-ambled with this kind of offer to his prospective sponsors. He had been clearly successful in using it.

I walked away from our meeting convinced this method I had never tried was extremely efficient. It was not easy to hear his opinion about my deficiency, but being always on the lookout for learning new ways to solve problems and ways to better myself, I resolved to try it! I envisioned my next important conversation and me saying the words I was told to say… My brain confirmed it was a smart thing to do, but at the same time could not put back the various words indicated into sentences that sounded as elegantly incisive or convincing as when he had said them. I thought I must be dyslexic or maybe my somewhat limited command of the English language (as my fourth) kicked in… After trying again it dawned on me: I probably have had both problems, plus… it just wasn’t me! Some may love and some may hate my “style”, but this is what makes me, me. Yes, I could have probably obtained greater rewards or attained higher positions, but I can’t imagine becoming a different person altogether and still being able to communicate with and keep engaged the same dear friends, allies, and some “fans” I have had for years.  And with whom – or what – would I replace them? With people wowed by my achievements or subdued by my will, or maybe with well deserved ”rewards”… money, power??? And then I realized that even if I were successful in employing the ‘all or nothing’ dictatorial approach, the gained exchange would not appeal to me. So, I resolved that I needed to make sure I will never again completely forego the upfront discussion about ‘what’ would it take to have me take on a new challenge, but we are all different, so I’ll do it my way.

Now, back to you! I offered this preamble also to give you the time to come up with three names… Have you picked three leaders you admire most yet? Last chance! I promise it will help you a great deal with understanding yourself. This simple exercise asking me to focus on who I admired most has helped me discover what I value most and how I relate to people. Assuming that you have come up with three names, let’s think what they may reveal.

Here are what I think of as the three main categories of leadership styles: dictators, generals, and gurus.  I will succinctly try to define these categories to help you think ‘which leader type are you?’ and ‘what style do you prefer when led?’ I came up with the following summaries of the value proposition from their three perspectives and how they may relate to people they lead and with other leader types:

  • Dictator: “Take it or leave it! By the way: you WILL do it!” Dictators are sole decision-oriented leaders, they lead by “Fiat!” (“my way or the highway,” they can’t even imagine some else might have a better solution). They seek absolute power and rich material rewards. Dictators might fancy themselves as loved, but in fact they don’t care much about what ”troops” or “generals” think of them and, strangely, they seem to fear “gurus”…  So they send “troops” and generals to “war”, and “gurus” into exile (or worse).
  • General: “Take it, don’t leave it, I’ll lead you through”. Generals are action-oriented leaders, they lead by strategizing and charging in front of troops gathered behind them. Generals enjoy the power and material rewards, but what they seek most is glory, an interesting combination of delivering actual success and being perceived as a great leader. They have “skin in the game” and they know they can’t win without the help of others! So, good generals seek to earn the respect and love of their backing and seek the help and counsel of allies and advisors, including gurus.
  • Guru: “You don’t have to take it, but I’ll show you how it’s good for you.”  Gurus are thought leaders, they draw people to them by envisioning and by example, having the courage to dream, speak, and act before having the backing of any constituency…. Pure gurus are throwing their whole self and life into their truth or vision of the future and are willing to die for it, but expect no personal material or power rewards, rather seek enlightenment and the opportunity to help by sharing it with the “troops” and generals. Dictators are powerless in ordering gurus around or “buying” their support, and hence fear them. Gurus better stay away from dictators’ wrath… Interestingly, great gurus have attained eternal glory beyond that of most successful generals of their day. As they function best in the future, gurus’ glory usually grows with time and frequently only posthumously.

Do these ring any bells, do you recognize anybody: you, your CEO? We are all very complex, it would be amiss if I didn’t clarify that many leaders combine to some extent characteristics of the three “types”. There is no doubt in my mind that there are sophisticated or even charismatic dictators, visionary generals, as well as rather effective gurus… I propose that the best leaders are those who have the ability to flex their style to best match the circumstances, sensing and employing in each situation the most effective overall mix.  For instance, pure guru types will likely not be effective in the middle of a reorganization, but are essential in foreseeing the need for it and formulating its goals. Innovation requires a multifaceted leader or at least an enlightened one who will consult gurus (or be one themselves), be dictatorial when absolutely necessary, and overall lead like a great general for the implementation of a great strategy. Similarly, the “troops” vary in their preference of leaders: some prefer to be told what to do and how to do it, some perform at their best when inspired by leaders who only outline and/or allow possibilities. Besides knowing themselves, great leaders understand well their troops and their battles.

I feel that it’s only fair that I share with you the top three choices I made when given only two minutes during leadership training. I think this simple and very effective exercise has helped me a lot. The short time allowed seems important to me to reveal the “gut-reaction” type personal choices (information had been processed but yet unaltered by rationalization). Hearing from others what may sound as astonishing choices was also very telling. Suffice to say that after I had announced my three: Leonardo da Vinci, Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi, a person, who had picked Alexander the Great, Napoleon and… Hitler (!!! “he was charismatic???”) said to me that I obviously did not understand our assignment: the people I had chosen were obviously “not actual leaders” (“whom did they ever lead ?!?” he asked me)

“Would you please tolerate me, dictator… can you imagine that I actually prefer the guru’s leadership style?”

Oral session at an AHA meeting (AHA picture)

Oral session at an AHA meeting (AHA picture)

This topic popped up as I was working on putting together my itinerary for the upcoming annual meeting of the American Heart Association (AHA). Conferences are especially stimulating for me, as they represent a great intersection of people and ideas. Some may say planning should not be a big deal after years of attending conferences; yet, I can still easily become overwhelmed by rich content gatherings that bring together more than 20,000 people. My zest becomes my biggest problem: it may seem that during any of the long days, I would profit from and enjoy being able to attend more than a half a dozen… simultaneous presentations! So here are some thoughts:

Knowledge/Content: putting together an action plan!

1. Browse topics and speakers ahead of time. I know, I have trouble making proper time for this beforehand, but it always ends up being the best strategy to make the most of my conferences. Postponing until close to departure never works, somehow fires that will need to be put out will always occur just as I am about to take off…

2. Define your strategy, i.e. main goal(s). Ask yourself “what is the most important thing I could bring back after this year’s conference?” Will I want to be able to say: a) “I learned the latest details about a specific project I am working on” b) “I had the opportunity to meet/follow the work of… (specific people/groups)” c) “I was able to check on a specific technology” or d) “I got a good sense of the ‘hot topics’/ future trends?” When in doubt, dig deeper into who/what will be available at this year’s conference, e.g. read abstracts, quickly Google subject/presenters. Learned from experience: frequently the title is more interesting than the content itself! Maybe including in your schedule some of each works best. If on the other hand, the main purpose is to present your own stuff, make sure you alert/invite the people who should hear it. And don’t forget to plan time to check on the room, equipment, or to talk to potentially interested people after the presentation.

3. Use all available scheduling tools to make your life easier (e.g., online planners, personal calendars, alerts, etc.) Prioritize the content, produce a plan/schedule, and find information fast and easily (even when your brain might be half numb).

4. Check on feasibility of reaching presentation locations – can you actually make it from one event to the next on your schedule? If not, have a plan B, could be even just take a quick break and regroup rather than frantically missing half of the next event.

5. Be flexible and nimble, not only in terms of running from one session to another, but if you find that an unexpected topic is capturing your imagination, go for it! You may catch up with the previously planned speaker or topic another time or way.

6. Avoid the “burn!” After a couple of busy conference days, this is to be expected, plan even more purposefully, including breaks. “Spice it up”: mix various formats, contents. Don’t give up easily on your daily exercise routine, unless you really get a lot of mileage walking from session to session. There is also a benefit from using different muscles, maybe use the chance of having a hotel pool to swim instead?

Attendees – interacting with people at meetings is as important as absorbing the content – make time for them! I found that while this is engrained into the business culture (see my previous post on the professional benefits of social interactions at conferences), this may not come naturally to many science or technology-oriented people.

1. Attend interactive sessions, e.g. posters, they usually allow more quality interactions than the plenary sessions. Match your content priority with the format (or… strategy with tactics!), i.e., poster sessions are best for digging into technical details with the presenters, oral/plenary sessions are better to get a bird’s eye view of trends or hear what others might say/ask about a topic .

2. Listen and ask lots of questions, but, please, please, not as a series of excruciatingly detailed questions after an oral presentation… Avoid being one of those people! You will not be making any friends as you will be wasting everybody else’s Q&A great opportunity by insisting on some detail you only are interested in, and you might publicly demonstrate being the last one still in the dark… Asking the presenter technical details after the session always works best.

3. Best opportunity to make contact with people whose work you have followed. One of my greatest thrills when I started going to international conferences was to put a face on a name I only knew from their scientific reports, likely equivalent to that felt by people meeting their Hollywood favorite stars. Schedule time with these people ahead of time (authors’ contact info is mandatory for published reports, or you can Google any academic), or just plan to be where they are likely to be during the meeting to do some “star-gazing.” Take the opportunity to introduce yourself, be very brief, unless invited to elaborate.

4. Re-connect and stay in touch: Use conferences as an opportunity to touch base with previous colleagues, collaborators, mentors, who now work in different locations. Most people feel safer spending the whole time huddling with their current buddies, but you can do that without having to travel. Schedule meetings that do not interfere too much with the “flow”, e.g. go see them by their poster, after their presentation, attend alumni events, or purposefully schedule coffee, lunch, drink, etc. You can use social networks (e.g., LinkedInTwitterMy Lab Your Lab) to signal you will be attending or send invites. Use these after the meeting to re-connect and stay in touch.

5. Network! Go beyond the “known,” make an effort to strike up a conversation with people you don’t know, even if they do not work in an area directly related you current interests. It is often the best opportunity to learn something truly new and come back with great ideas for novel projects. For instance, ask people what are they working on, what is the most exciting angle/topic to them? By doing this, I became aware of a lot of great concepts that I was then able to connect with my own areas of interest and I also identified new collaborators to help me apply them, similarly, a lot of people found me! An easy recipe for innovation. Don’t forget to exchange contact information. You can also “solidify” new connections by inviting people to become part of your professional network.

Did you have some good tips to share with us?

I probably forgot many tips, but a very important one I have to make sure I don’t forget before going back to refining my overloaded itinerary (and packing)… Wear comfortable shoes!

No, this is not about Ballmer’s latest marketing campaign, but about evolutionary innovations.

Yes, Steve Ballmer presented the current state of economy characterized by necessity as the cornerstone of the latest Microsoft strategy/marketing campaign on innovation. I did not hear his recent presentation, but I read his column yesterday; I think he refers to IT innovations that would increase efficiency (not innovation) in other sectors. We’ll see how their strategy plays out.

I’ll focus today on the outcome of a strategy apparently implemented… 4 million years ago! After 15 yrs of study, 47 different authors contributed to 11 papers recently published in the October 2009 issue of Science magazine all dedicated to Ardipithecus (“Ardi”) ramidus and her environment. Ardi turned out to be the skeleton of a female who lived in Ethiopia earlier – by more than a million years! – than the previously declared oldest human skeleton, named “Lucy.” A lot of interesting and some quite controversial information came out of these studies.

One of the stories that caught my attention was what I consider a story (yet to be fully proven) of innovation driving the human species to evolve: the new theory about how we became bipedal. Based on anthropological evidence scientists suggested that faced with the crushing competition from the super confident super- successful alpha male for the attention of females, the beta male had to come up with a way to overcome his obvious physical handicap. His innovation was figuring out that he could walk so that he could use his front legs (arms) to bring back food to the females. See a summary. The posting plays on the catchy (walk for) “sex” issue, but we all know that at the root of it all is our survival instinct (at least it was 4 million years ago!). Females also must have collaborated to the string of innovations by making a mental leap as they figured out the value for species survival of a nurturing provider as a desirable alternative to the pure gift of strong physique genes. In the process they together also invented the monogamous bond and the family unit…  I hope you’ll agree that figuring out what women want – 4 million years ago – deserves special recognition by itself!

Couldn’t stop a chuckle thinking of what might have happen if this innovative strategy had not been implemented? (any sci-fi writers out there?) Maybe super sized humans would be still chasing each other on all fours, defending territories and herds, or worse, this race might have become extinct because not enough to go arount to take care of its abundant selfish progeny….

This might look as an ode to “the” innovative beta-male, but let’s quickly recap some of what we seem to have gained from his survival instinct fighting to overcome his physical handicap:

  • We became bipedal
  • We invented the monogamous bond and the concept of the family unit
  • We achieved biological diversity
  • We forced the alpha to adapt to add other offerings to their gift of purely physical attributes

Now, we could extend this thinking about evolutionary pressure to look at the fate of alpha empires, companies, and dictatorial leaders, who based on their significant advantage are driven by arrogance and entitlement. History shows that all eventually crash and burn due to popular rage, or, if they get lucky, they will get subtly replaced by the more innovative new kid(s) on the block: new economies, responsive businesses, thoughtful leaders. The quintessential question “so… does size matter?” could apply here too. My answer: Not if you quit trying to provide value to your constituency: nations, employees, customers, or allies.

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