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Creative discipline: think creativity and productivity can't cohabitate? Don't stand too close to Robert Herbold.

FROM SOAP TO SOFTWARE. AT first glance, it doesn't sound like your typical story line. But, then again, Robert Herbold isn't your typical executive. You see, the recently retired chief operating officer of Microsoft, who also spent 26 years with Procter & Gamble, isn't a bedfellow of conventional. In fact, his soon-to-be-released book, The Fiefdom Syndrome, rails against it, cautioning leaders not to get too comfortable within their own four walls, lest they lose track of the constantly changing world outside, thereby surrendering the ability to react to it.



Herbold, who currently serves on the boards of several nonprofits and corporations, will be among the featured keynote speakers at DigitalNow: Association Leadership in the Digital Age, April 15-17, at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Convention Center, Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

In an interview with ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT, Herbold lauds open communication, condemns narrow thinkers, and urges association leaders and employees to beware the folly of the fiefdom.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: What lessons can nonprofit organizations endeavor to learn from their corporate counter-parts and vice versa?

Herbold: One of the key lessons that nonprofits can learn from the corporate world is that you can run an operation far leaner than you ever imagined. The basic instinct to hire more and more people will always be there. Your folks will always be asking for more resources, they will always be asking for more information. You simply have to come up with ways to make sure that you're lean and mean in those areas. That means you don't run things by committee or task force; you put certain people in charge and say, "Look, your job is to keep these costs under control while delivering excellent service."

In terms of what corporations can learn from nonprofits, I think there are some associations that do an excellent job delivering on focus. These organizations adopt the mission of a narrow niche, one that they decide to do extremely well, then they go out and do it. One of the biggest mistakes any organization can make is to try to take on more than it should.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: What's the most striking thing you've learned about yourself during your professional and volunteer journey?

Herbold: The common-sense questions that you're afraid to ask when you're in a board or strategy meeting are on the minds of most people in the group. You need to just blurt them out. At times you're going to appear to be blunt or rude, but if you want the place to run better, you'd better call a spade a spade. Too many people view the board as a social club. They're not well prepared for board meetings, no measurable work is done, and there's no real inspection in terms of quality and effort and how people can improve. You need to get in there and [interact] with the group. If you're seeing things wrong, [your colleagues will] educate you. If you're seeing things right, maybe it will generate some improvement. That's absolutely crucial, but oftentimes people try to be too polite with one another.

And don't hold back if you think your question will appear unintelligent. Instead, phrase it as, "Here's one way to interpret the issue. Tell me what's wrong with my thinking. What am I missing?" Overall, the important thing is to create the dialogue. Having robust dialogue on issues, where people aren't evaluating one another but instead are trying to get the truth and trying to get to plans that make sense--those are the right objectives. You just need to jump in there and go at it.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: How do you establish a culture of openness that permits things like that to happen?

Herbold: It's leadership at the top that dictates how communication is going to happen within an organization. If employees see leaders holding back, not being forthright, they are quickly going to assume, "Well, I guess this kind of [open] communication goes on somewhere else in the organization."

Also, people must realize that the problem or issue is on the table--it's not associated with the people around the table--and what we're talking about is an issue or opportunity; it's not personal. When you say something, it shouldn't reflect on someone who owns a piece of that issue.

Too often an employee says, "This is my stake relative to the issue, and if anyone bruises me, I'm going to be very upset." So, the mode of operation is that nobody bruises anyone, and you get nowhere in terms of dealing with the problem or seizing the opportunity in a really creative or unique way, because people are afraid to put their ideas out there.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: If you had to identify three characteristics of successful organizations, what would they be?

Herbold: Number one is a sense that whatever it is we're doing today will probably not be good enough for tomorrow. We'd better start hunting for ways to excite customers or please the people we're dealing with or create new services that delight people. You must constantly be thinking, "Fine, we're doing this today. If we're still doing it tomorrow, we're in deep trouble, because the world is going to evolve."

Second is a sense of urgency to try new things, to notice that improvement is needed or that an opportunity needs to be realized, then to get out there quickly and do it. What that means is delivering the expectation that [employees are] going to jump all over something and get it done.

The third characteristic is open communication and culture that focuses on a constant, frank dialogue in regard to what's going well and what isn't.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: What's the smart organization focusing on during these tough times?

Herbold: The smart organization is taking its business model and refining it, pulling it in, and consolidating it to minimize costs and create efficiencies that it's never achieved. But the smart organization is probably not cutting back in its core areas. It's probably preparing for when things turn around and, in some cases, doing some inventing to cause things to turn around.

You have to constantly be aware of your environment. If revenue in your industry is pulling back, you need to adjust your business model. But keep the focus on innovation, so that you can emerge as an even stronger leader [when things do turn around].

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: Then why, even during tough times, is it so hard to kill a project that is not working?

Herbold: Because people become personally associated with those projects, and telling a group of people that you're going to stop their project is a hard thing to do. Many managers are reluctant to do that. Instead, they'll let [the project] go on, even though it has decreased in importance. By not dealing with it, by not saying, "Let's kill it right now and move on to something that has a better shot," [you are] generating cost, disruption, and distraction.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: How do you hire the most creative problem solvers?

Herbold: In terms of the type of people you're after, recruiting deserves far more attention than it typically gets. My experience at Microsoft taught me that lesson in spades. We were constantly hunting for smart folks who were incredibly enthusiastic. We literally trained people on how to interview someone to get a sense of his [intelligence], to make sure he's got the bubbly excitement that makes it impossible for him to be torn away from his work. You design these characteristics into the recruiting and the evaluation processes. And you make it clear up front exactly how you're going to recruit; a lot of organizations don't do a good enough job with that.

Lots of candidates can be [deceptive] in the way that they look and talk. And if that's what you want, fine, but in most organizations it's enthusiasm, raw smarts, awareness of the industry, and creativity--not a bunch of ritual--that [are] going to drive things ahead. Too often organizations will say, "We've been successful, so let's just hire a bunch of people who look like and feel like the kind of people we have here now." They don't get focused enough or hungry enough to find the best talent.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: Once you have the best talent on board, how do you instill loyalty among those employees?

Herbold: Allow them to be successful. When people are in a culture that allows them to show their stuff, so to speak, they're going to be very excited. The thing that improves morale more than anything within an organization is to have products or services be successful. And that's as true with a nonprofit as it is with a corporation. Generally, people want their organizations to be perceived as successful, and they want to be part of that success. So, the most important thing you can do to improve loyalty and morale is to get your organization on a roll in terms of great ideas.

To make that happen, you've got to create an environment where people understand what's needed and are not looked upon strangely when they come up with bizarre ideas, half of which probably won't fit, but some of which could be potentially quite successful.

Douglas Vaira is a former senior editor of ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT. E-mail:
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Author:Vaira, Douglas
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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