As it stands, hiring for executive and leadership roles places immense pressure on companies and their founders. But it’s not about finding a quick hire to fill the role and ease the pressure. Now more than ever, executives who help steer the ship, collaborate successfully with partners, stakeholders, and staff, and can take a handle on things when business shifts are in high demand.
Here are the qualities every CEO will look for when hiring for their executive team this year:
They are multigenerational
If the previous year has taught us anything, it’s certainly the value of clear and concise communication. As some leaders were conducting business from vacation homes and golf courses, much to the frustration of employees, it’s been revealing for many organizations how little their leadership can effectively rally the troops.
A leader who embraces technology, communicates strongly, and understands the value of multigenerational employees will continue to be in high demand in 2021. These exceptional leaders seek out opportunities to better communicate and will analyze how employees contribute to the new blended model of leadership. They understand and will make sure everyone is on board, from Millennials to the old guard.
While navigating interviews, take note of candidates who mention nourishing and utilizing people’s strengths, those who have introduced new automations to make things easier for their team, or those who lead with empathy especially in a pandemic. Ultimately, you’re seeking out someone who not only demonstrates “teamwork” but lives and breathes that ethos to lead your business to the next level.
They have a specialty
Gone are the days of the traditionalist. Enter the specialist. In a post-pandemic world, executives who consistently deliver on customer success, optimize team performance and enhance culture, or improve business efficiencies will be in high demand as much of the world will be in a hybrid or remote-work model. These leaders will possess a deep understanding of your company vision and the sustainability of your business, a key ingredient in future-proofing your business.
How do you know you’ve found the leader who can take your business to the next level? The candidate’s work will speak for itself. Have they been successful in navigating pandemic decisions (large or small)? Have them speak candidly about the impact they’ve had, success, or challenges throughout the pandemic.
Just as exceptional as their communication skills are, leaders who thrive off data and make analytical decisions will be at the forefront of leadership teams this year. An executive who understands metrics and data makes decisions based on facts, not instinct. This data-first mind is particularly useful for proactive planning and especially important when blended office models, a flexible arrangement of both in-office and remote work, will become increasingly popular in 2021.
Just as the pandemic required businesses to pivot and make quick business decisions for precautionary COVID-19 measures, now business leaders are making reopening plans and moves based on their employees’ and customers’ needs. Potential leaders who can identify or provide examples where they have relied on data to plan, communicate, and execute strategies, whether team or consumer-based, should be high on your list of candidates. During the interview, listen closely throughout for insight as to how they formed conclusions or made bigger decisions pre- or post-pandemic.
In the movie “Sliding Doors,” Gwyneth Paltrow’s character follows two parallel storylines.
If she catches a train, her life takes one path. If she doesn’t, it leads in another direction. The film shows how a small, seemingly inconsequential change can drastically alter the course of your life.
Startups have sliding door moments, too. Over the course of building your company, you face several divergent paths. Some are obvious at the time, some only become clear in hindsight.
At Bleacher Report, we faced many such decision points. Two in particular stick out.
In the early days, our approach to content moderation was lax to non-existent. While everything published to B/R needed a sports angle, we took a loose interpretation of that lens.
As a result, the site had its fair share of unsavory content. This included posts and photo galleries that objectified women in sports. They had headlines like “Hottest WAGs (wives and girlfriends) in the NHL” or “25 Hot Cheerleader Pics.”
Looking back, I’m not proud to have contributed to the already misogynistic culture of sports. We accepted these posts as part of the “authentic fan conversation” encouraged within our community. In a development that should surprise nobody, they became some of our biggest traffic drivers.
So in a regrettable move, we took it a step further by launching a standalone section for this content called “Barely Sports.” Cringeworthy, I know.
According to our logic, giving this content its own section separated it from our more sports-focused coverage. After all, we told ourselves, if Sports Illustrated had a swimsuit issue, why shouldn’t we have Barely Sports?
But we failed to recognize that by creating the section, we encouraged and legitimized more of this content. When Barely Sports launched, we got some notes from disappointed readers. And while I’d like to say that negative audience feedback was enough to sway us, the reality is a bit different. We changed our minds about Barely Sports not because of morals, but for money.
Our newly hired head of ad sales made nixing Barely Sports his first priority. To land deals with major brand advertisers, B/R needed to clean up our image. And that meant getting rid of the T&A.
Money talks. Barely Sports bit the dust.
We were all in on brand advertising as our business model. And we knew deep down that the B/R brand would be stronger if we took a more inclusive approach to sports fandom.
Around the same time, another digital sports publisher picked up traction by taking things further than we ever did. I’m talking, of course, about Barstool Sports. As B/R took a more centrist approach to covering sports fandom, Barstool leaned into the extremes. And they built an incredible business doing so.
Barstool pulled off the strategy that B/R abandoned by making two critical innovations:
Barstool avoided depending on advertising as their only business model. Instead, their DTC approach cultivated an army of hardcore fans and monetized them directly.
To buttress the brand against controversy, Barstool put the personas of their creators front and center. Rather than journalists or commentators, they branded them as outrageous characters straight out of pro wrestling storylines. If Barstool is the WWE, then Dave Portnoy is their Vince McMahon.
They played their game, we played ours.
Almost The Athletic
A bit later down the road, B/R faced another crossroads that could have altered our journey.
From early on, we viewed B/R as the sports fan’s replacement for declining local media. We talked about it in our very first fundraising pitch. With local newspapers collapsing and sports pages contracting, we planned to fill the void by empowering fans, bloggers, and up-and-coming writers to cover their teams.
But as the future we predicted played out, we saw a new opportunity: What if we hired displaced writers from local sports sections?
Many well-known beat reporters and columnists were losing their jobs and looking for new homes for their bylines. Hiring them could improve the quality of our coverage, bring some of their audience over, and boost our legitimacy. We seriously considered the idea. But after debate, we decided it wasn’t for us. Again, our business model was a major consideration.
These sports journalists were well-known in their local markets. But their name value didn’t register with the national advertisers we worked with. On top of that, our positioning in the market placed B/R as a fresh, young voice in sports. Hiring away experienced writers from the sports media establishment would dilute that story.
So instead we doubled down on hiring web-native writers who fit our mold. By establishing B/R as the place for fresh new voices in sports, we cemented our status as the place for big brands to reach younger sports fans. Of course, we weren’t the only ones to recognize the opportunity in realigning local sportswriting talent. I wasn’t surprised when a few years later, The Athletic emerged and gained momentum.
What made The Athletic’s approach to the opportunity work? It’s the business model, stupid.
Rather than advertising, they built everything around paid subscription. By quantifying the number of subscribers each new writer could bring, they knew exactly how much they could pay for talent. And their market positioning as the replacement for the local sports page was crystal clear.
It’s fun to reflect back on these moments. In an alternate timeline, Bleacher Report could have ended up more like Barstool. Or The Athletic. But, as far as we know, we only have one timeline.
Everything worked out great for Bleacher Report. So I guess you could say we made the right choices.
When startups face these big decisions, they’re often framed in the most high-stakes way possible. One path could lead to success and riches. The other to failure and ruin.
The reality is a bit more nuanced. In most cases, both paths are viable. The key is heading in the direction that makes the most sense for your mission and business model. And remembering, too, that your competitors face their own forks in the road. Depending on the choices they make, they may cease to be competitors at all.
The internet contains multitudes. Even for digital sports publications, there are many paths to success. So don’t worry about the paths not taken. Focus on the one you’re on.
Dave Nemetz is the founder of Bleacher Report and Inverse and an expert on growing audiences and building communities. He writes a weekly newsletter about building and selling startups, growing audiences, and the mindset and creative processes employed by prolific makers.
Corporate giant Amazon is taking heat over reports of its WorkingWell initiative, a physical and mental health program intended to improve employee health in the retail giant’s fulfilment centres.
A leaked pamphlet, which Amazon has claimed was created in error and is not being circulated, encourages workers to invest in their own fitness and become “industrial athletes.” One aspect attracting particular attention is a plan for “AmaZen Booths.” Also called Mindful Practice Rooms, these kiosks are intended for employees to take breaks from work, experience periods of calm, and access mental health resources. Amazon deleted a social media post about the booths after being mocked on Twitter.
The details paint an unflattering picture of the company in light of its unprecedented rise in revenues, profits, and stock value during the pandemic. Critics of Amazon say the company’s unparalleled financial success is on the backs of its 1.3 million employees who are subject to precarious employment contracts – issues that came to a head after an unsuccessful campaign among some US-based Amazon workers to gain trade union recognition.
Commentators are also saying that these workers experience higher than average rates of workplace injuries and are treated like “galley slaves.” In such conditions, it is argued, a wellbeing initiative is beside the point.
These programs are gaining in popularity: COVID-19 has raised “wellness” up the agendas of corporations like never before – and not always in a good way. Many companies have introduced exercise classes, fruit, and other sticking-plaster solutions rather than measures that assess risk, focus on prevention, and prioritize “decent work” as a driver of both wellbeing and productivity.
Having been a judge for the Global Healthy Workplace Awards since 2014, I have run a critical eye over many corporate wellness programs. Like other big companies, Amazon faces the challenging balance of promoting employee wellbeing without being accused of tokenism.
In trying to improve worker wellness, companies often miss the mark. Here are some things they should keep in mind:
1. Health and productivity can and must coexist
To imply that there should be a binary choice between health and productivity is facile and misleading. One of the more breathtaking things I heard from a senior executive of a large UK organisation during the pandemic was this:
Frankly, I think that job stress is a more effective driver of productivity for us than wellbeing programs.
Far from being a niche or outdated opinion, this thinking is representative of a significant proportion of business leaders around the world. As it happens, this large organization is also very keen to tell anyone who will listen that “employee health, safety, and wellbeing is their biggest priority” – though when I checked their latest report to shareholders and prospective investors, the words “revenue” and “profits” outnumbered mentions of “safety” by a ratio of 25 to 1.
2. Lifestyle evangelism is no substitute for decent work
The former chief medical officer of UK telecoms giant BT, Dr. Paul Litchfield, famously derided what he called the “fruit and pilates” approach to workplace wellbeing. He argued that no amount of healthy snacks in canteens, “step challenges” or company fun runs can compensate for jobs with impossible deadlines or targets, or the stress of reporting to a manager who is a bully.
One of the founding fathers of modern motivation theory, Frederick Herzberg, once said: “if you want someone to do a good job, give them a good job to do.” Wellness programs that ignore this simple idea are unlikely to have an enduring impact.
3. Context is everything
The AmaZen Booths are no more than a contemporary take on many successful community and workplace mental health programs such as the “Men’s Shed” movement, which originated among working men in Australia in the 1990s. It targeted older men, who can often find being open about mental health very difficult, by offering resources and support which encouraged reflection and “help-seeking”.
Similar booths have been used successfully by some UK employers. Electricity supplier E.ON created a “Head Shed” to encourage employees to find out more about mental wellbeing, for instance.
The real test of Amazon’s version is whether it is part of a genuinely coherent program of initiatives that assess and reduce exposure to risk, and convince employees that the company really is prioritizing their wellbeing over the long term. Having a well-branded initiative on wellbeing is never enough by itself, especially if many employees’ everyday experience of work is that it is intense, strenuous and toxic.
4. Employers: Beware of ‘fool’s gold’
Employers need to be more critical consumers of wellbeing “miracle cures” offered by commercial providers. I have seen too many employers divert resources from unglamorous but evidence-based interventions (like having access to a good occupational health nurse) towards those meant to “showcase” their commitment to health and wellbeing.
Used by themselves, laughter coaches and head massages are really no more than perks, with little or no direct impact on health or productivity. Even very popular initiatives such as Mental Health First Aid have very little strong evidence of any long-term benefit.
Sadly, in the drive for more productivity, the health and wellbeing of employees can be among the first casualties. Reports of Amazon’s WorkingWell program have, so far, not been flattering. Its challenge – like many other corporations – is to sweep aside the cynicism and demonstrate that its efforts will have tangible benefits for all of its employees and are not just PR spin.
It claims to provide an insight into how prominent billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Michael Bloomberg take advantage of “tax avoidance strategies” beyond the reach of ordinary people.
Though there is general public consensus on the illegality of tax evasion – the act of deliberately not paying taxes that are due – much more variance exists in how the public evaluates and scrutinizes tax avoidance strategies that seek to minimize the amount an individual pays through legal loopholes. There is no suggestion that the billionaires in the ProPublica report did anything illegal.
A poll taken just before the 2016 election found that nearly half of Americans agreed with Donald Trump – another wealthy individual not averse to tax avoidance strategies – who noted that paying minimal or no taxes is “smart.” But two-thirds said it is “selfish” and 61% declared it to be “unpatriotic.”
As a scholar who studies business ethics, I see these differences in how individuals view and rationalize tax avoidance as being dependent on a person’s ethical foundations. Ethical foundations are the principles, norms, and values that guide individual or group beliefs and behaviors. They can shape what people believe is important – such as fairness, care for oneself or others, loyalty, and liberty – and guide judgments about what is right, or ethical, and what is wrong, or unethical.
Philosophers have debated these ethical foundations for centuries, coming up broadly with three different perspectives that are worth exploring in the context of tax avoidance strategies.
Thinkers from Immanuel Kant to John Rawls have offered what has been called the deontological argument. This emphasizes ethics based on adherence to rules, regulations, laws, and norms. Such an approach suggests that “what is right” is defined as that which is most in line with an individual’s responsibility and duty toward society.
Meanwhile, utilitarian philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham put forward an argument that recognizes the costs and benefits, or even trade-offs, in pursuing what is right. Under this belief system, called consequentialism, behaviors are ethical if the outcome is beneficial to the greatest number of people, even if it comes at a cost.
A third perspective comes in the shape of what is called the virtue ethical foundation that is associated with Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. This suggests that what is right is that which elevates the individual’s virtues and efforts toward moral excellence – defined by both avoiding vices and striving to do good. In this way, ethical behavior is that which enables the individual to achieve his or her most excellent moral self.
On morals and money
When applied to the tax avoidance strategies of individuals, each perspective offers a unique understanding of why individuals differ on what they view to be “right.”
An individual who adopts the deontological perspective likely evaluates a public figure’s tax avoidance strategies – and that of others – with less scrutiny. As long as an individual follows the tax code, and acts legally, the tax avoidance strategies are likely to be viewed by that individual as ethical.
In contrast, a consequentialist is likely to evaluate tax avoidance strategies by also looking at how those taxes could have been used to benefit society – by paying for schools and hospitals, for example. When one individual – be it a billionaire or any other person – avoids taxes, it increases the costs experienced by everyone else while also decreasing the benefits experienced by society as a whole.
The cost to society in terms of lesser funding for programs and services supported by tax dollars may be even greater when a wealthy individual avoids taxes, given what is likely a higher tax responsibility than that of individuals with modest incomes. Thus, consequentialist individuals may well conclude that tax avoidance strategies are unethical.
An individual who adopts the virtue perspective of Aristotle might evaluate tax avoidance strategies in the context of an individual’s other virtuous behaviors. If someone avoids taxes but provides financial support to other institutions or entities that are meaningful to the tax avoider but also produce benefits for society, then the virtuous individual may view this behavior with less disdain.
For example, someone may use tax avoidance strategies and direct some wealth to provide funding directly to an academic health care center for cancer research. But if that person employs tax avoidance strategies in the absence of any other virtuous behaviors, then the tax avoidance is likely to be seen and rationalized as unethical.
So whether tax avoidance strategies are viewed and rationalized as ethical or unethical likely depends on the ethical foundations of the person judging such actions.
But when it comes to public figures and the superrich, there are additional ethical concerns at play here. Public figures are evaluated not just on their own personal morality, but also by what influence their behaviors could have on others. If the superrich avoid taxes, it might signal to the public to do the same, which could have greater consequences. The public often demands more of the superrich – and ethics are no exception. The expectation is that these individuals, as leaders in society, should create benefits for society through their behaviors. As a result, these individuals may be held to a higher ethical standard and their behaviors more closely scrutinized.
As such, the question of whether the tax avoidance strategies of the ultrawealthy are “ethical” depends not only on the ethical foundation of the individual who views and judges the behavior but also on the expectation of the ultrawealthy to create benefits for society.
Side gigs can be a lucrative way to earn extra cash or expand your horizons – but is it worth the extra stress to have a side hustle and a full-time job?
Although the last decade has seen “the gig economy” blossom and prosper like never before, the concept of the side gig has existed for ages. Anyone looking to earn more money has found that an additional job of some sort is the quickest and easiest way to gain additional financial security.
With the pandemic, millions of Americans began picking up extra “gigs” working for companies including Instacart, Amazon, Uber, and countless other businesses that filled an important niche during COVID. Women were already at the heart of the gig economy long before the pandemic, and many more found themselves starting new side jobs over this last year and a half – perhaps while also holding down full-time positions and caring for loved ones … But working a full-time job and side hustle can be incredibly time consuming, and not always doable with everyone’s schedule. Here’s how to know if doing both may be right for you.
Working “second shift”
Before COVID, many women were likely already working a “second shift” as the primary caregiver for loved ones (such as children and aging parents) and were acting as the caretaker of their home. Once the pandemic hit, millions of women added “teacher” to their list of jobs, and the lines between work life and home life became particularly blurred … Even if your partner worked from home, you most likely continued to do a majority of the domestic work. As a result, it might not be possible to put extra time and energy into a side hustle right now.
And even if you have time for a side gig, taking it on might not be the healthiest option. Over time, it can become just one more ball to juggle rather than a financial relief or a place to put your passion and energy. Finding the elusive “work-life balance” – which, by the way, is a misnomer – becomes even more of a challenge and can take a toll on your mental and physical wellness. In fact, research shows that people who work more than 55 hours a week develop depression and anxiety at a higher rate than those who work standard hours.
We all need to give ourselves a little more grace and realize that working a full-time job, a side hustle, and taking care of a household isn’t always the right choice.
Is the side gig economy right for you?
If you’re deciding whether adding a side gig to your plate is the right move, consider the following:
1. Do you have an emergency fund?
If you have an emergency fund that can cover at least three to six months of non-discretionary expenses, that’s great! And it might mean that you don’t need to take on a side gig for the sole purpose of gaining extra income.
If you don’t currently have an emergency fund – or if it’s not enough to cover the essentials for a few months – then a side gig could be beneficial. Regardless, consider putting your emergency fund in an online account that generally pays higher interest.
2. How much do you have saved for retirement?
Ideally, you should save at least 15% of your net income for retirement. If you have access to a 401(k) through your full-time job and your employer offers a match, try to contribute enough to reach your match – and don’t forget that whatever your employer is contributing counts toward your savings target!
If you don’t have a retirement plan or can’t save 15% right now, that’s okay, too. We’re all at different places with our careers and savings goals. A side job that helps you bring in extra money can help boost your savings.
3. Can you devote energy to a side gig?
Extra money is certainly nice to have, but that is only one piece to consider. A side gig takes a lot of energy, resources, and time. Make sure it’s something you’re passionate about because there will be setbacks and days when you don’t feel like you’re making progress. Research and network with people who have similar side jobs to determine what it will take to add the job to your current load. If it seems like the side gig will add too much stress or unhappiness to your life – and take away from what you’re already doing – it might not be right for you.
Ultimately, it’s important to determine whether the financial rewards of a full-time job and side hustle outweigh the potential downsides. Burnout is real and very prevalent right now as people take on too many responsibilities. It’s important to make sure you have the time and energy not just for work and home life, but for yourself as well. If your side gig becomes successful enough, however, it might just be your ticket to pursuing your passion full time.
Women are just as inclined as men to vote against a policy to reduce a gender pay gap if they are personally benefiting from the status quo. This is one of the main findings of my new study, which was published in January 2021 in the journal Applied Economics Letters.
I conducted a series of laboratory experiments in which I recruited participants to do a 30-question quiz. The participants knew from the start that they would be paid based on the number of questions they answered correctly. In roughly half of the sessions, the quiz was written in a way to give men an advantage. I achieved this by choosing questions that were mainly on topics that surveys show men tend to be more interested in than women, such as sports and certain movie genres. The quiz for the other half of the sessions were designed in a similar way to give women an advantage.
In the version with a male bias, men answered an average of 21 questions correctly, while women answered only 13 right. This was meant to mimic the current real-world situation in which men, on average, earn more than women. The questions were carefully chosen so that the quiz that favored women had mirrored results: The average woman answered 21 correctly, the average man just 13.
Three times at different stages of the experiment participants voted to either be paid $1 for every correct answer or to give the group that was at a disadvantage a leg up. If the second payment option won the majority vote, the disadvantaged participants would get $1.25 per right answer, while those who benefited from the biased test would receive just 85 cents.
In all three votes, which had similar results, I found that women were actually more likely than men to vote against the policy that would have led to a narrowing of the pay gap when they earned more money in the quiz. On average, 96.8% of women’s votes were against the proposed corrective payment policy when they were more likely to correctly answer the questions, compared with 90.5% of the men’s votes when they had the edge.
In addition, when women were at a disadvantage, they were more likely to vote in favor of the corrective policy, with 79.5% supporting it versus 73% for the men.
While social science laboratory experiments like mine cannot fully capture every nuance, I believe my qualitative results are similar to what we would find in the real world.
And surveys have found that men are more likely to oppose measures to correct this gap and even question whether the gap exists in the first place. A 2019 SurveyMonkey poll showed that 46% of men believe the gender pay gap “is made up to serve a political purpose” rather than a “legitimate issue.”
My research suggests women might feel the same if the positions were reversed. Additionally, it suggests that men would also likely be equally vociferous in calling for a narrowing of the gap if they found themselves in a world where they were holding the short end of the stick.
Ideally, I hope this research will lead people to reexamine the positions they hold on issues like this one and consider how self-interest may be driving their arguments. Maybe it can lead to more understanding and increase the focus in these debates on the available evidence.
In my current and future work, I seek to experimentally determine people’s willingness to sacrifice personal financial gains in favor of an outcome that they see as serving the common good. This involves, for example, testing how much income the average employee or executive is willing to sacrifice to reduce income inequality.
The American education system is set up to teach and train individuals to become experts and key thought leaders in the specific fields that they choose. Given the rising costs of education, rarely can students choose more than one area to specialize in. If and when the day arrives that one wants to start a business of their own, it is quite the challenge to learn the fundamentals of entrepreneurship later and confidently do so. Additionally, many people have been trained in the sciences or the arts, so finance and accounting seem like foreign languages to them. So how are so many specialized healthcare professionals creating booming privately-owned businesses across the country?
As a formally trained Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm. D.), I had a unique advantage with an MBA in Entrepreneurship before enrolling in Pharmacy School. This opened my eyes and gave me the knowledge and inspiration to one day be able to start my own business. When most people hear of the Pharmacy profession, generally, they think about their local community Pharmacist at a nearby retail location. However, the skillset attained within school goes beyond the community realm and can be extremely useful in other areas. My career, post-Pharmacy School, began in industry where I learned more about the business of pharmaceuticals which gave me the knowledge base to co-found our own health and wellness company. My advice to all of the current students that ask is that they should focus on understanding the science and craft of therapeutics, as opposed to the specific job description that they think they may land after school. Once you are an expert in pharmacology, that skill set translates into many areas from community, clinical, industrial, and yes, entrepreneurial.
Many healthcare providers have taken a similar approach, including Dr. Akash Bajaj – a pain specialist and anesthesiologist who is the founder of Remedy Pain Solutions in Marina Del Ray, CA. Dr. Bajaj and I work together with brands TIDL Sport and CytoCx, where he serves as the Medical Director and has dual degrees with an MD and MPH. Physicians like Dr. Bajaj, who has been featured on the CBS TV hit series ‘Doctors,’ have had to build the plane as it is flying and have done an incredible job in the private practice space. No matter what the specialty, individuals can leverage these tips to make the most of their expertise and turn it into a profitable business while still serving the greater good:
1. Become a master of your craft
The first step is to immerse yourself within your training and specialty and have the confidence to be a key thought leader in the space. Do the extra research, spend the time to learn all of the new information and data in your field to truly understand the opportunity within. “I have been fortunate to be involved with several top academic institutions during my training. While the training was fantastic, there were areas that I felt could be improved for the ultimate outcome of increased access to high-quality healthcare,” said Dr. Bajaj. “Thankfully, this vision has resulted in great outcomes and happy patients.”
2. Identify the needs in your specialty that are currently not being addressed
The expertise and experience will help you identify specific pain points within the area. As we see more movement towards plant-based solutions in diet and general health, there is a need for true regulation and compliance within the industry. Taking a quality-focused pharmaceutical approach has become a core initiative of ours. It results in safe products for consumers and efficacious through the pro-quality approach that we take – a unique approach within the wellness industry.
3. Plan responsibly, but develop comfort with risk
“Ready. Fire. Aim!” as Dr. Bajaj puts it, “Time was not waiting for me to be fully prepared. Sometimes you have to take the leap.” In entrepreneurship, there are no guarantees, which is quite different from some of the career paths that we have trained for our entire academic life. Guaranteed salary, retirement plans, and annual bonuses are far from promised in your own business, and it is important to adapt accordingly. Everything will not go according to plan, and it is important to find comfort with that. As long the launchpad for growth has been established – patience is the biggest challenge, not security.
4. Be an expert in your craft, and a student of your business
One of the biggest challenges that many well-trained professionals face is going from being a teacher to being a student. Expertise in science does not translate to expertise in business. Entrepreneurs must be students of their business, regulatory bodies, and the market to be nimble enough to adapt accordingly. “Issues arise, and sometimes we feel like we have no idea how to deal with it, but it is important to be open-minded and learn from those that have gone through it. If they can do it, so can I,” said Dr. Bajaj. Additionally, it’s important to respond to the market and consumer base. Many experts may have a vision of what they believe is an ideal business, but no business is successful without consumer demand, so you must be open-minded enough to cater to that.
5. Part ways with traditional structure
Hourly shifts, call schedules, and a strict 9-5 are out of the window at the exact minute that you decide to start your own business. Instead of reading about drug facts or clinical guidelines, you will find yourself learning more about customer acquisition costs and digital marketing strategies – which can go well beyond traditional working hours. Any entrepreneur will tell you, be ready to work overtime until it is normal time week in and week out. This tends to be a large part of the struggle for professionals that have come from traditional work structures into the start-up space. Nights, evenings, and weekends are no longer blocked off. However, they serve as incredible times to get things done. In retrospect, as you build a business, these are the times you cherish, “I have learned to love the journey, not the destination. Even the bumps in the road are challenges that can teach you,” advised Dr. Bajaj.
We are fortunate to be a part of a generation where we see some of the most well-rounded people ever. The key characteristic that they all have in common is the versatility to not only specialize in different areas but also take calculated risks as they pursue new technologies and ventures. If you dare to think outside of the box, your expertise can carry you to places that you would have never imagined, and the best part? You are still, and always will be, the subject matter expert.
Companies have long been talking about how their boards need to be more diverse. But now the legal landscape is changing, with some states mandating that companies do more than talk.
In Illinois, for instance, boards of publicly owned companies are required to disclose female and minority board membership, as well as how they identify and appoint those members. California has gone even further, mandating that boards have at least one woman, as well as a certain number of directors from underrepresented racial, ethnic, or LGBTQ communities. Other states, including Washington, Colorado, and Pennsylvania, have also passed legislation to encourage diverse boards, and more are considering this step.
All of this means that, in addition to being an ethical and reputational imperative, boosting board diversity is quickly becoming a legal one as well. So what should companies keep in mind?
“Because there’s such a patchwork of inconsistent state statutes – and because many of these statutes are looking at different kinds of diversity – it’s very hard, from a compliance standpoint, to figure out a one-size-fits-all answer,” said Mark McCareins, codirector of Kellogg’s JDMBA program and a clinical professor of business law.
That said, there are certain things that companies should understand about this quickly evolving legal landscape.
At least for now, the real pressure is coming from investors
Not all of these new legal requirements come with teeth. While some of the new state regulations include fines for companies that fail to comply, others are merely advisory.
“Some of the new statutes say, ‘we want to know what you’re doing in this area, but we haven’t decided yet what we’re going to do if you don’t report or you report and the numbers aren’t to our liking,'” McCareins said.
There are also some inherent limits to just how strong their enforcement can be. For example, a company in one state can reincorporate in another if it feels overly burdened by the board regulations.
That’s why, at least for now, the larger incentive is reputational.
“The biggest hammer in all this is probably from a perception in the equity markets that you are not a company that plays by the rules,” McCareins said.
Investors are making their will known in other ways, too. Last year, the NASDAQ submitted a proposal to the SEC that called for instituting diversity requirements. And institutional investors such as BlackRock, Vanguard, and StateStreet have begun bringing shareholder lawsuits against firms over board composition.
“If I’m a public corporation, whether or not I’m currently under state or federal regulation, I’m probably going to be as concerned about what my investor base – and specifically my institutional investors – are thinking about this issue,” McCareins said.
As with other ESG issues such as climate change, McCareins predicts that scrutiny over board diversity from a range of stakeholders will only increase over time.
“Companies want to be ahead of the curve on this and other issues,” he said. “These statutes have brought it into the corporate mindset that there really hasn’t been sufficient progress to diversify corporate governance. So regulators and investors are going to start taking baby steps in the hopes of getting companies’ attention – and in the hopes that they end up doing the right thing.”
Consider your bylaws
All of this means that as companies anticipate new mandates, they must also consider whether their own bylaws could stand in their way.
“Let’s say our company has bylaws where a five-member board all have eight-year terms,” McCareins said. “They have just been appointed in the last year. The company would love to be more diverse, but now we’re stuck with this board for the next seven under our bylaws.”
This can put companies in a legal bind. A company that slow-rolls its compliance efforts may face legal action from shareholders. But if the company takes actions to comply with new state laws and runs afoul its own bylaws in the process, that may create other legal problems.
“You could see shareholder derivative suits against boards for not fulfilling their fiduciary duties,” McCareins said.
Ultimately the power to change the board’s bylaws resides in the hands of shareholders. After all, while boards typically make recommendations to reconfigure their own makeup, they cannot do so unilaterally.
“Let’s say shareholders vote and say, ‘no, we don’t want to change the bylaws,'” McCareins said. “That’s where the rubber hits the road and state regulatory policy runs head-on into the shareholders who own the company.”
McCareins recommends that the board’s governance committee start by gaining a comprehensive understanding of the applicable state DEI statutes.
“Where a change is – or will be – mandated, the governance committee then needs to formulate proposals to reflect these changes in board composition,” he said. “If the governance committee feels ill-equipped to evaluate DEI principles, an outside consultant in such matters can be brought in to assist.”
Embrace the opportunity
There is plenty of good advice out there on how to find and retain diverse board members – and set them up for success. (For instance, see here and here.)
McCareins advises companies to embrace the process – not just as a risk mitigation strategy, but as an opportunity for continued growth.
He recommends codifying the nomination criteria and diversity metrics that would comply with necessary requirements and would fit the company’s goals. In addition to boosting gender or racial diversity, this may also be an opportunity to diversify in terms of professional backgrounds or skills. Or perhaps it is an opportunity to recruit directors who can better represent the voices and experiences of diverse clients, customers, and other stakeholders.
“Every company is different and every company culture is different,” McCareins says. “It is up to the nominating committee to spend time early in the process to identify the metrics which make sense and are attainable for their business.”
While it’s natural to want to return to “the way things were,” instead of harping on nostalgia and what will be missed, you need to think about the long-term changes you can make in how your office works rather than temporary changes driven by the pandemic.
Here are four things I believe will make the office better if we leave them in the pre-pandemic era:
1. Hosting long and laborious meetings
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the number of meetings per person has risen by 12% since the pandemic, yet the average length of a meeting has declined by 20%. That means that despite people’s calendars getting booked more often, there’s a bigger appetite for bite-size meetings over the longer 60- or 90-minute sessions.
While COVID restrictions may force us to rethink meeting rooms, I’d challenge us to rethink the meeting itself. Let’s make better use of our time and energy by sending a pre-meeting memo and using our time together to align on actions and decisions. Or, rather than spending 30 minutes walking through updates, consider a Loom video and allow folks to react and respond asynchronously.
2. Scheduling after-work events
Before the pandemic, there was the notion that bonding and networking only happen in person. And those opportunities often happened after 5 p.m. Whether you’re a caregiver, have hobbies outside of work, are an introvert, or just want brighter lines between work and fun, we need to be more intentional about creating meaningful connections with our colleagues while still allowing folks to keep their work-life balance.
Instead of defaulting back to in-person, after-work events, I’ll be looking to add breaks within the workday where teams can connect and socialize that don’t start super early or end late so that everyone can attend whether they are in the office or working remotely.
3. Coming into the office when you’re sick
We’ve all felt the existential dread of walking into a conference room with someone who is coughing and sneezing. The only way we can return to working from an office is to learn from the past year and err on the side of caution when it comes to health.
My hope is that after a year of normalizing the concept that work isn’t just a place, employees will be more comfortable with staying home when feeling under the weather. It simply isn’t worth putting other employees and teammates at risk. For managers and leaders, the end of the pandemic shouldn’t mean the end of encouraging people to avoid the office if they aren’t feeling well.
No one should be expected to show up and tough it out, and no one should be rewarded for doing so.
4. Sitting through painful commute times
The average American worker spent 225 hours, or well over nine full calendar days, commuting before the pandemic. Seventy-five percent of Americans typically travel by car to get to work, which also has a negative impact on carbon emissions. There are definitely advantages to a commute, including separation between work and home and time to think or read, but for many people, commuting for hours at a time is something they would like to avoid doing every single day.
Providing options for employees to work when and where they work best will continue to be the best strategy for hiring and retaining top talent, and create less congestion on the road in the process.
While some have been counting down the days until they return to the office, there are a lot of people who are nervous about what that will look like and what’s expected of them. As business leaders, the return to the office is an opportunity to rebuild what worked and rethink what didn’t. Regardless of what you choose to keep or leave behind, your strategy should be rooted in empathy, clear communication, and a mission to create a better workplace than the one we left.
Jeff Immelt’s first day as CEO at General Electric was on September 10, 2001. The next day, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon shook the world, the financial markets, and GE’s business. The airplanes, one of them powered by GE engines, crashed into the WTC towers, which were insured by GE Capital.
At the time, GE was heavily invested in commercial aviation, insurance, and media – all three of which were rocked by September 11.
“It was the first terrorist event I had ever seen – that most Americans of my generation had ever seen,” Immelt told The Profile. “I think what you learn in a crisis is that good leaders absorb fear. They’re not accelerators of fear – they know how to manage a sense of calm while still being really clear about the challenges ahead.”
And unbeknownst to Immelt at the time, the challenges ahead were many. The terrorist attacks would be the first of a number of crises that Immelt had to grapple with in his time as CEO. He was at the helm of the company through the bursting of the dot com bubble, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the fall of Enron, and the 2008-09 financial crisis.
“You learn to hold two truths,” Immelt said. “You learn to say, ‘Things can always get worse, but here’s a dream that I have for the future, and I’m not going to give up on that.’ You learn how to make decisions even when you don’t know all the facts. In a crisis, you just got to make decisions.”
Unfortunately, many of the decisions that Immelt made in his 16 years at the helm of GE did not pan out in his favor nor were they particularly popular. At one point during his tenure, he characterized his role as CEO in this way: “I feel like I want to vomit all the time.”
“I never felt sorry for myself, but it was just the pressure and the consequences of all the decisions, how little was known,” he said. “That period of time – it was just relentless.”
Immelt succeeded Jack Welch, who was largely considered to be one of the best CEOs in the history of business. He had led GE through two decades of extraordinary corporate prosperity, so when he named Immelt as his successor, the pressure to perform was immense.
Even though Welch was no longer CEO, his legacy loomed. He was regarded by many as the greatest leader of his era by people both inside and outside the company.
During the summer of 2001, Immelt went on a golf trip with his friends before it was publicly announced he was CEO. In the locker room, a member asked him what he did for work, and he simply said, “I work at GE.” The man looked at him and said, “GE, huh? I feel sorry for the poor son of a bitch who’s taking Jack Welch’s place.”
Shareholders blamed Immelt for his inability to turn the company around and for allowing GE to lose $150 billion of market value under his watch. In his new book, “Hot Seat: What I Learned Leading a Great American Company,” Immelt doesn’t make excuses: He takes responsibility for his missteps and lists the thorniest mistakes he regrets making in his time as CEO. They include failing to generate more shareholder value from GE Capital, missing an opportunity to reset the company in the early 2000s, and not developing a deep enough bench of rising leaders.
“It’s a complicated story, and I didn’t want to seem defensive, so I wanted to let the reader be the judge,” he said. “I thought it was important for people to see the totality. That’s why I decided to write the book.”
In this conversation, Immelt shares what he’s learned about leading in crisis, how he’s taken responsibility for the consequences of his decisions, and why he believes the next generation of founders and CEOs need to be masters of chaos.
(Below is an excerpt of the interview, but I encourage you to listen and watch the full interview here)
Just to paint the picture here: Your predecessor Jack Welch was largely considered to be the best CEO in history.
IMMELT: Fortune magazine had named him the best manager of the previous century in the year 2000. That’s a pretty tough act to follow, but he was just very well known. He was a celebrity CEO – kind of like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos all wrapped up into one. He had done a good job, and he’d done it for a long time. He was very charismatic, and so that was a pretty daunting task. That was the person whose shoes I was stepping into. That was my task in 2001.
When you were offered the job as CEO, did you ever think, “Those are really big shoes to fill. Maybe I’m not the right person for this?”
You know, I was a realist. There was no way not to think that his image would cast a shadow. That’s just the real world. But I never really wanted to be him. I was a very different person, and I felt like that the job that the company needed was going to be different, and you have to make a choice of how much to honor the past versus how much to push forward.
So when I was at GE, I was never critical of him for over really 16 years, but I always wanted to do things my way and work on things I felt were gaps inside the company. You just have to be really comfortable with that judgment without dwelling on it for too long.
I was in Tokyo in 2014, and I was being interviewed in front of 2,000 people by the Nikkei press. We were in the green room, and the person interviewing me says, “What was it like following Jack Welch?” And I was like, “I’ve been asked that question in 100 languages, 30,000 times over the last few years.” We kind of laughed about it, so we go out on stage, and the first question was, “What was it like following Jack Welch?” So you just get used to making it part of your repertoire even though I never really carried it as a burden in terms of what I thought was important to the company.
What was your relationship to Welch when you became CEO?
I had immense respect for Jack, but when someone’s that powerful inside the company, it’s hard to have a mentorship relationship. I had other mentors, but not him. We had about eight months of overlap where I got a chance to ask him a ton of questions, and he was very helpful then. And then I think over the first four or five years, we had a good relationship, but I think the financial crisis kind of changed the nature of our relationship and made it a little more difficult.
Even through the arc of my career, every tough problem I ever encountered, I would ask his opinion – even when I didn’t really like him that much or when he didn’t really like me that much. I would always ask him for his opinion because he had great judgment, and he knew the company. We both cared about the company in different ways.
From the outside, things looked great. Under Welch, GE had been the most valuable company on earth for a period of time. Can you discuss the reality of the business that you inherited?
The business model was kind of an old-line industrial company that generated a lot of cash. That cash would go to a financial service company. We had a 50% stale industrial company, and 50% financial.
The perception didn’t quite match reality. We understood that as we were taking over, and I had conversations with the board. And that’s what we said about re-investing in the industrial company to try and rejuvenate the business while still growing financial services. That’s the decision we made. That’s one of the challenges that every leader runs into – it’s how do you match perception with reality?
Looking back now, do you wish you had been more clear and transparent about the reality of the business at the time?
There was a window of time after 9/11 when I think people after a crisis have a chance to reset their companies and their narrative. There was probably a window at that time when I had a chance to kind of reset: lower earnings, less financial services, and a really clear path of how much our industrial businesses needed to be invested in in order to get them positioned for the 21st century.
It’s a long-winded way to answer your question, but the answer is yes. There was a window. I do look back on that as something I wish I had done.
The 2008 financial crisis shook GE to the core. You had missed your earning numbers three weeks after you promised to hit them. And then Welch went on CNBC, where he said that if you missed earnings again, he would “be shocked beyond belief, and get a gun out and shoot you.” What was your reaction in that moment and how did you handle that?
Yeah, I was really hurt because, in 2008, I had very carefully never looked backward or pointed a finger at him. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re doing, there are like five moments in your life when you just need a friend. You screwed up, you know you screwed up, and you need somebody to give you their hand and not smack your butt. And he chose to smack my butt, not give me his hand – and you remember that.
I never thought it would be a good thing for the company to see us bickering in public, so I never did that, but we had a very direct, private conversation. It was a line of demarcation in our relationship for sure. Even after that, when I had a really tough decision to make, I always called him – even when we weren’t friends. I thought he had a good perspective that I could learn from and listen to.
Let’s be clear – I knew I goofed up. I knew that, but I was trying to recover, and I needed a friend. I just needed a hand. And what he did was just the opposite of that. He made a two- to three-day story become a one-month story. It was unnecessary roughness.
In your time as CEO, it was crisis after crisis after crisis and a lot of turbulence in your professional life. How did you manage to have a solid personal life?
I’ve always been good at compartmentalizing. I’ve always been good at focusing on staying in the moment to focusing on what needs to happen and trying to separate that from other things that I’m working on.
The fact of the matter is that I have a really great wife and a great daughter. And they were always really unaffected by what I was doing. Clearly, they read things and heard things, but they were always into the person and not the business person. That was a blessing.
There were days when hundreds of thousands of people hated me, but one person loved me, and that was enough to keep persevering into the future.
Shares plunged nearly 30% since you took over the company. How do you respond to the people and the shareholders who feel genuinely angry at you for the decisions you made as CEO?
Look, the share price is important. It was $38 when I started as CEO, and it was $30 when I left. I understand that. I completely understand that, and I don’t run from that.
What I try to point out is that we generated almost $300 billion of cash and earnings over those 16 years. We had great businesses. We generated good leaders. In other words, the team really worked hard through different crises and did their best. That’s the best I can offer – a more complete story of what happened.
In the book, you have a section in which you list several of the thorniest mistakes you believe you made during your time at GE. Can you share the one mistake you regret the most?
We had good leaders, many of which are CEOs of companies today, but we ran the company for efficiency. We had eight big P&Ls. Having lived in Silicon Valley for a period of time, what I would’ve done differently is run the company with 100 P&Ls to give leaders more focus, accountability, and to make them more innovative earlier on.
A question from a Profile reader: “Although Jeff takes public responsibility for the overall volatility during his tenure at GE, if given the chance to do it over, what 3 things would he have done differently?”
I would’ve simplified the company even further, faster. I would’ve shed more businesses and doubled down. I would’ve made the company deeper. I would’ve actually driven the digital initiative even harder. I would’ve been even more determined and more dogmatic in that regard.
In this uncertain world we live in, you advise a lot of young founders in your capacity as a venture partner at NEA. How do you advise them to learn to become masters of chaos?
There’s this notion of holding two truths at the same time. Knowing that the world is unfair, that it’s really tough, and that just when you think things can’t get worse, they can. You also need to keep your head up and know that the best opportunities may come your way during COVID, or after 9/11, or during the financial crisis. What every young leader can do is understand that you can hold two truths at the same time. You must hold two truths at the same time. But only a select few can do that.