Speaking Topics


Some Hard Truths About Leadership & Leadership Development: Making Leaders & Leader Development More Effective

(based on the book, Leadership B.S.: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time).

For literally decades, the world has seen books, blogs, Ted talks, executive development efforts, conferences, and similar activities focused on leadership—some estimates place the size of the leadership education and development budget just in the U.S. at $20 billion annually.  Nonetheless, almost every piece of evidence—on job satisfaction, trust in leaders, employee engagement, leadership success, and companies’ ratings of the efficacy of leadership development efforts—shows persistent failure and problems, with leader tenures getting shorter and employee engagement and trust getting worse.

Why?  And more importantly, what might organizations do to fix the ongoing crises in leadership?   I take on the simplistic nostrums that have beset the leadership industry and offer evidence-based, practical suggestions for enhancing both personal and organizational success.

Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance

(based on a book with that title published in 2018, by HarperCollins).

Even as companies bemoan high health care costs and the productivity lost from sick and absent workers, and even as employers institute policies to encourage their employees to practice healthier lifestyles, many work organizations have management practices that sicken and kill people and drive up health care costs in the process.  Stefanos Zenios, Joel Goh, and I estimate that there are more than 120,000 excess deaths annually and that 10% of health care spending in the U.S. result comes from management actions that harm people’s well-being and do not positively affect organizational performance.  Chronic disease, which comes in large measure from stress and the behaviors stress induces, is a worldwide problem with enormous social costs.  Stress comes largely from work.

Just as organizations increasingly focus on environmental sustainability as part of their employee and customer branding, to be socially responsible, and to save on the economic costs of waste and pollution, there are things employers can and should do to enhance human sustainability and cut down on social pollution, waste, and excess costs.

Overcoming the Knowing-Doing Gap: Turning Knowledge into Action

(based on the best-selling book, “The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge Into Action,” with Robert I. Sutton).

Organizations know what they need to do in domains ranging from talent management to employee engagement to M & A integration but often don’t do it.  Companies have spent millions of dollars building intranets and collaborative tools to capture and share knowledge, under the assumption that in a world in which intellectual capital is increasingly important, the company with the best knowledge management system wins.  The underlying assumption is right—intellectual capital and knowledge work are increasingly important.

But knowledge that isn’t turned into action is about as bad as action that is not informed by knowledge.  Our research has uncovered some important barriers to using and implementing knowledge and building a culture of action instead of just talk and analysis.  We have found examples and uncovered strategies and tools for overcoming the knowing-doing gap to build a culture of implementation.

Competitive Advantage Through People: Building Profits by Putting People First.

(based on the books, The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First; Competitive Advantage Through People; and Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People, with Charles A. O’Reilly).

The data are clear:  success does not come from mergers and consolidations to increase size, from being in high technology, from being in the “right” industry, or even from being first to market with an idea—after all, Xerox invented the first personal computer, Lipitor (from Pfizer) was the third statin drug to hit the market, Diner’s Club predated Visa (credit cards) by decades, and Amazon was at least the fourth company to begin selling books on line.  Studies of companies in numerous industries ranging from automobile manufacturing to semiconductors, studies of companies in multiple industries, and research in countries including the United Kingdom, Korea, Japan, Spain, and Germany demonstrate the strong correlation between how companies manage their people and their profits, productivity, and customer and employee retention.  Our research has identified the essential elements of high performance or high-commitment work arrangements, why these practices are effective, and what this means for building management systems and organizational culture.

Getting Things Done: Building Power and Influence

(based on the books Power: Why Some People Have It—and Others Don’t and Managing with Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations and one of the most popular elective courses at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business).

Although power is a word that sometimes has negative connotations, building power and influence is what effective leaders do and is essential to getting things done.  Moreover, building skills in managing organizational dynamics is what distinguishes between people who suffer derailments and those WHO have successful careers.

Over decades of research, we have uncovered what are effective ways of building and exercising influence, and some of the dilemmas and choices people face as they move through their careers in organizations.  It is possible to answer questions such as:  1) when is power and influence more important for getting things done;  2) what are the individual attributes associated with being influential, and how can these be developed;  3) what are some effective strategies and tactics for obtaining and using power; 4) how can you develop allies and supporters;  5) how do you build social networks that are both efficient and effective, 6) how can you deal effectively with opposition and with difficult opponents;  7) how can you more effectively speak and act with power and why is it important to do so, and 8) what are some pitfalls to those in positions of power, and how can these be avoided?

Our work helps people develop their clinical, observational skills, their ability to analyze and exercise influence effectively, and to think constructively about power and its use in getting things done in organizations of all sizes and types.

Practicing Evidence-Based Management

(based on the book Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management with Robert I. Sutton).

Many organizations decide what to do based on the past experience of senior leaders, ideology and belief, and with the casual benchmarking of observing what other companies are doing.  None of these represent effective ways of making decisions.  Meanwhile, companies have ignored massive amounts of evidence that speak to questions such as the effectiveness of stock options and incentive compensation, whether “winning the war for talent” is possible or even desirable, the effects of setting up internal competitive dynamics, and many other questions that are relevant to understanding management strategies and their effects.

The fact that knowledge about “what works” and why is so infrequently used provides an opportunity for information arbitrage in the management of companies that is similar to arbitrage opportunities in the financial markets, except the returns are both larger and less likely to be immediately imitated away.  Companies need to use more “evidence-based management” and employ a decision process that uncovers hidden assumptions and confronts them with what leaders know to be true.