Be Better: How Communication Catalyzes Business Transformation
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Learn more at continuingstudies.stanford.edu. One truism in business in life is that we need to adapt to stay relevant and survive. However, many of us in the companies we found and workforce struggle with this.
Are there key approaches and best practices we can follow to help us adapt and transform? Hello, I'm Matt Abrahams and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk smart, the Podcast. Today I am totally excited to chat with my friend and sometimes therapist Rob Siegel, who's a lecturer of Management at the GSB. In fact, Rob and I started at the GSB on the same day over a decade ago. Rob's teaching and research cover many topics, including the opportunities and challenges that technological change brings to companies. How companies combine digital and physical solutions for their customers, product management and product development, as well as financial management for entrepreneurs.
While some of us at the GSB teach one or two different classes, Rob teaches five or six. Two of the most popular are the industrialist's dilemma and systems leadership. Rob recently published a book inspired by those two courses called The Brains and Brawn Company, How Leading Organizations Blend the Digital and the Physical. Welcome, Rob, thanks for being here and congrats on your new book.
>> Thanks, Matt, it's great to be here. I guess I should say the doctor is in. >> [LAUGH] That's exactly right, yes, start charging me now. Let's go ahead and get started here.
People who know me well know that I love alliteration. So bravo to you and your brains and brawn model. Can you briefly walk us through the framework? >> Well, the two courses really look at what happens in a world when companies have to blend both digital and physical attributes for the products and services they deliver to customers.
Which at this point is almost every product and service that's made and sold. And so what we found in the over 70 companies that have visited us and that we've studied is that we found kind of five digital and five physical attributes. Or five brainy and five brawny attributes that really, the winning company seemed to be focused on most or all of them.
On the digital or brainy side, we had the left hemisphere, the ability to use analytics in your business. But also the right hemisphere of your brain, how you manage creativity. We saw the amygdala, which is great companies had empathy towards employees and towards their customers and towards their ecosystem. We had the prefrontal cortex, how do you manage risk? And then finally, the inner ear, how do you balance what you make and do internally and what you partner with people externally? And on the physical side, we saw companies, often incumbents, but even a lot of the new disruptors, they got really good at using their spine for logistics, for how they manage their entire business. Manufacturing has become increasingly important with additive manufacturing, the hands, how do we actually make things? We saw companies operate with muscles at scale on a global basis, be able to operate in many, many unique markets. We saw companies be able to have what I called hand-eye coordination or drive and shape their ecosystems to get to what they want.
And finally, companies that had great stamina. That was the fifth of the brawny attributes, where they could survive over time through the ups and downs of running their company. >> Well, I didn't know I was going to have to be up on my anatomy to have this conversation with you, but I love the metaphor and it helps. Is there a company or two that stands out as a good example of folks who execute on these brains and brawns model of yours? >> Well, we look in the book about ten different companies in each different area. And within each area, we will look at two or three, but we do a deep dive on one.
Perhaps the most obvious one that we can look at is Amazon. Amazon does an unbelievable job of giving us a great user interface for shopping online, as well as making sure the logistics go well, making sure the distribution goes well. Another one maybe from a disruptor standpoint is the company 23andMe, which uses saliva and software to give us understanding of our DNA and where we might be susceptible diseases.
And now they're using that for drug development and how they partner with GSK, the British pharmaceutical company, for manufacturing and distribution of drugs. So I think those are two companies, one an incumbent and kind of one a disruptor, that are really doing some very interesting things. >> That's awesome. So hey, in your model, you know me, I'm a communication guy. What role does communication play in the brains and brawn framework you've defined? >> I think perhaps the most important thing is we talk about this notion of systems leaders.
And systems leaders are the people who have to understand how systems work in a world that blends digital and physical when everything's connected. You have to see how things are interacting with each other. You have to see how your organization is interacting both internally and externally. And so what we found is that great systems leaders are really good at managing the narrative. One of the phrases that one of your previous guests, Jeff Immelt, likes to use is truth equals facts plus context.
And we found that great leaders were able to manage context for employees, for customers, for other members of their ecosystem so that people could understand how they were trying to shape the narrative. And so I think being a great communicator is critical and your written communication and your verbal communication in a world that's increasingly connected. Because there's so much input for everybody, you want to kind of control and shape the messages that get out there.
>> And in your experience, is it just the leaders who are responsible for shaping that narrative or is it in the ecosystem that these companies exist into or the partnering and the discussions and iterations on that narrative that help? >> That's a great clarification. I define leaders, not just people in the C suite and not just vice presidents, but leaders or anybody in the organization, managers, directors and above who have to be really good at understanding. You might work in finance in an organization, but you really need to understand what's happening outside of the four walls of your company.
What's happening with your suppliers, what's happening with your channel, and being able to communicate well with them and understanding what's happening. Communication is critical for every function inside of an organization. And that's what's different than the past.
In the old days, you might have people who are externally focused and a bunch of people in the company who might be internally focused. Now, no matter what your job is, you really have to understand the holistic picture of what's happening and what's going on. And so therefore, you're going to be communicating.
If every product's connected, you're going to be hearing from your customers on an increasing basis and you might need to communicate back to them. And so it's therefore not just a C level requirement. It's a requirement of every leader in the company, leader broadly defined. >> Great, I'm using you for PR for my classes. That was fantastic.
Of course, I agree that being able to communicate clearly is critical just a function in your role, but also it sounds like to help your company make sure that it's adjusting, adapting, and transforming as it goes. >> Absolutely. >> So I'm going to ask you a two part question next. If you were advising leaders and employees at an established large company confronting the need to adapt and transform, what would be a couple bits of advice that you would give? >> I think the first is understanding that which made the company great in the past. What are those successful things? And are those things that are necessary in the future to be competitive? And if not, are you up to speed on how new technologies and new capabilities are changing what's required to be competitive in the market? So for example, if you come from a manufacturing company, you might not necessarily understand all of the issues around what we sometimes refer to as the four As. Artificial Intelligence, additive manufacturing, analytics and automation.
And I would argue that every leader in established company needs to be on the forefront of understanding how new technologies are going to impact all functions. So, like in my product management class we have a whole discussion about how artificial intelligence is shaping how product management is done. And I'd say the next thing is, for somebody inside of a company, one of the questions Katrina Lake from Stitch Fix taught us was, she asked herself and her team every two years, if you're hiring yourself for your job today, would you pick yourself and your resume? And that's a very scary comment sometimes. You kind of have to sit back and say, my goodness, right, am I the best person for my job? And if not, what are you going to do to upgrade your skills or upgrade your capabilities so that you are the best person for the job. And so, sometimes we're rewarded for how we grow and scale a company and that was what worked in the past.
Now, we've gotta be thinking not only do we have to continue to deliver on those things, but how do we make sure we stay current in what's needed and required going forward for serving customers? >> Wow, I mean, I think all of us could benefit by thinking about, are we relevant? Are we developing the skills that we need to take things forward? That's certainly as a motivation and an excellent way of doing some reflection, a key theme across many of our podcast episodes has been to take time to reflect as to where you've been, where you are and what you need to change and adjust to move forward. So, thank you for echoing that. Now, allow me to ask the same question but this time, what advice would you give for a smaller newer company around what leaders and employees could do to adapt and transform? >> I would say learn from companies that have come before you without condescension. In particular nobody got on the cover of Businessweek or a fortune, excuse me, by dealing with logistics and manufacturing and supply chain. And yet that's what makes a company operate well and often where customers will have the best experience. And so I think kind of in our sterile digital world that you and I come from in Silicon Valley, sometimes we don't appreciate the hard, dirty, grungy work that comes from making companies run well and serving customers well.
And I think that people could really benefit from understanding how do those functions work a factory floor. If you are in an upstart, in a digital upstart, do you understand how things get made and why things work well and don't work on a factory floor? And I think that appreciation for what I'll call the plumbing of an organization, for what makes things happen to kind of actually deliver things not the sexy, just the artificial intelligence. Can you understand well, that last mile to the customer and can you help your team execute on it, approaching that with a respect and an understanding of how hard that is? That's, I think, something that people in Silicon Valley and digital upstarts could really learn from their incumbent brethren.
>> Again another plea for reflection but this time at a very tactical level and I agree. I think in this this valley where we live, a lot of people don't think about those specific parts of an organization and really what helps to make them successful. Now, I want to switch gears a little bit and I don't mean to make you blush, but you are truly a master teacher.
I have watched you teach in awe of your ability, and you are among the first of us at the business school to jump headfirst into virtual teaching. And many of us now find ourselves in the roles of meeting facilitator or teaching via virtual tools and I'm wondering, what advice and guidance can you provide about how to be more effective in our virtual presence, in our engagement and in our communication? >> When the pandemic started, what kept going through my head was I have a face for radio and now I've got to be a television star. >> [LAUGH] >> And that's not a good thing and that's not a good place to be. But one of the lucky things that happened to me early in my career is I was media trained when I worked for Intel. >> And so, I was lucky enough to kind of have that exposure of what does it take to be on television and know how to talk to the media and those case, I was mostly talking to journalists.
But so teaching became the same way. So, I tried to create an environment in my home office that felt a little bit like a television studio and a little bit like what it was like in front of the classroom. So, I made sure that I could be standing up but I can almost be pacing a little bit, I gotta high resolution camera with a little slightly wider angle, I got studio lighting, I decorated my office behind me with Stanford year. Took down pictures of my grandparents and my children and my wife. And put up Stanford banners and a picture of the oval, but try to basically think like it was television.
And when you think like it's television, you don't try to just recreate what you did in the classroom. You're trying to think about how do you call on people? How do you make it interactive? How do you think of them like a studio audience and create that, that back and forth. The other thing is also bring energy.
Like it's really hard because you're staring at the camera all damn day, right? You're not getting any of the softer skills of people laughing. You're not getting things like people looking confused or getting angry. And so, you've got to try to kind of create those ways that you can kind of bring energy and kind of look over.
Sometimes you'll sneak a look at one of your screens and like you crack a joke, are people smiling? >> Right. >> And RP do you get kind of the ha ha, that's a funny dad joke right or it's a really bad dad joke, do they roll their eyes the way your kids are supposed to roll your eyes at you. So, I think that notion of trying to fit into the medium and fit into that context of the medium, but also trying to bring some energy and bring some fun and it is hard to do, right? Like I will often drink a couple of cups of coffee before I start teaching. Just to kind of put myself in that mindset of I've got to bring energy because if I'm not feeling energy, I guarantee you the students aren't feeling energy.
>> All of us have become many TV, producers and directors. And I know for a fact when you walked me through some of the technology that we've had the opportunity to use, one of your mantras was you have to practice. And I think that is what has helped make you a better communicator it has certainly helped make me a better communicator to actually do like a dress rehearsal as you would if you were doing a TV show. To really understand the flow, to understand the timing to make sure you can integrate the technology and that notion of energy and a little caffeine to help doesn't hurt. I like to do some quick exercise before I do a big lecture just to get my energy up.
The problem is unlike drinking caffeine, I always start sweating but the point is, you want to have some energy. >> [LAUGH]. >> So, that's great advice, that's great advice. I want to talk specifically about your industrialists dilemma class because it is super popular among our students. And for those who don't have the opportunity to take the class, I'm wondering if you can share what your goal is for the class, along with one or two key takeaways that can help all of us derive value. And if one of the things you mentioned happens to have communication in it, I'll give you extra credit.
>> [LAUGH] I think I need the extra credit, >> Yes. >> My grades are really bad. Trust me, I was not a good student. So, the industrious dilemma looks specifically in a world that blends physical and digital. How do you change how you develop products and how do you change how you organize the company? And then changing products like a lot of the things that we used to do.
Well, even when I ran my division of GE, how you thought about, how you ran QA ,how you were six sigma inefficiencies. About how you made sure that you were, decisions were made hierarchically and he had to flip that on its head. There were times you need to be agile. There were times that you would want, push decision-making authority down to the people closest to the customer, how instead of using intuition to make.
Decisions you would have to actually use data. And so the class explores how incumbents are changing and adapting and bringing in some of the new capabilities and technologies into their business. And by the same token also how disruptors were not only bringing new ways of doing things. But also learning from some of the best practices from incumbents who had been around a long time.
And we looked at industries, from healthcare, to financial services, to mobility, really, there's not an industry not being disrupted, retail, etc. And I think the key takeaway from the class is that, one of the key takeaways was incumbents are not doomed and disruptors are not ordained. That really leadership has the ability, whether you're in an existing organization that's been around for a long time or you're in one of these upstarts. You have the ability to drive leadership and change into your organization and be successful. And that leaders can have a big impact on it, but you're going to have to adapt to the best of both worlds.
And I would say that, from a communication standpoint, one of the things that we saw great leaders, and these leaders, CEOs on down, was they had what was called a product manager mindset. And a great product manager understands customers, understands how to make a product. And understands how to work with sales to separate customers from their money. And I think a great product manager's mindset is, one of the things you have to do is you have to be a great storyteller.
You have to own your narrative. And I think one of the best people I ever saw and that was Brian Cornell, the CEO of Target. And what Brian did that I thought was always so spectacular, is he talked about Target's message, he talked about what Target was trying to do, and how Target was trying to transform. And then he always asked the students questions about what was their Target experience like, where did it work and where did it not work? And he was genuinely interested in what they had to say. And so, it was not just that he communicated well, but he listened well, and then would kind of say back what he heard from them. And he seemed genuinely interested in caring what their experience was like in Target.
So Brian was one of the best at it. And he really had what I would say was a great product manager's mindset, and he was a great storyteller. >> So again, this notion of being able to craft a narrative and own a narrative comes through loud and clear. And I really appreciate the fact that you highlight that communication we tend to think is what we say but listening is as important, if not in many cases more important in the communication dynamic.
And to remind us of that is a great gift and we all have to remember that we have to listen to better understand what's needed of us and how we can best help and hone our messages. So thank you for that. I'd like to ask you the same three questions l asked everyone who joins me. Are you up for that? >> Absolutely. >> All right, if you were to capture the best communication advice you had ever received, as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would it be? >> Use the pyramid strategy of communication.
>> Okay, you get to teach in a very short amount of time the pyramid principle. >> Give answer first especially when you're dealing with more senior people in your organization, give them the answer, be succinct. And if the person to whom you're talking to wants more information, let them pull you down, and then you can give more and more information. But when someone asks you the time don't tell them how to make a clock. >> There you go, that's one of my favorite sayings.
Excellent, very good. Who is a communicator that you admire and why? >> I'm going to date myself here. I think my favorite communicator was Ronald Reagan. And what I always loved about Reagan is he had the ability to inspire.
He would talk about ideas that he thought were timeless. And he had the ability, not only to use humor and to tell stories, but to almost to get all of us to appeal to our better angels. And as I look at politicians and the like, and so much of it, especially in the discourse today, it seems so harsh and it seems so divisive. And if you go back and look at some of Reagan speeches, even people who didn't agree with his philosophies, he was just an amazing communicator, and you always kind of felt like he was trying to take us to a better place. Even if you disagreed with his point of view, you never doubted his sincerity and his desire to try to have a positive impact.
>> Clearly, somebody who was an excellent communicator in fact the great communicator as he was known, and it was a blending of empathy, authenticity and focus, I think. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe? >> I would say number one a clear takeaway, get your message out concisely. Number two, showing general interest and enthusiasm for your topic. And you can't just be on autopilot. And finally, if you can provide insights that are not obvious, if people can walk away thinking, I learned something, or that made me think, that will actually keep people wanting to come back for more.
Absolutely, and you have provided us with many aha moments. And thank you Rob so much. Certainly you did not disappoint. You provided us with very specific relevant guidance and advice. And I just wish that you could have had a little more energy and passion behind what you're saying. >> [LAUGH].
>> I just wish it were there. And I truly wish you good luck on the launch of your book, The Brains and Brawn Company, how leading organizations blend the digital and the physical. I have read it and know that our listeners will take away many useful actionable insights. Thanks so much Rob for spending time with me. >> Thanks, Matt, it's great to be here, and I really love the podcast.
Thank you for having me. >> Thank you for listening to, Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. To learn more, go to gsb.stanford.edu.
Please download other episodes, wherever you find your podcasts. [MUSIC] >> Hi, Matt Abrahams here. Before we get started, I invite you to explore on demand online courses from Stanford Graduate School of Business. These classes offer same day access to self paced content on a variety of topics relevant to your business challenges in context. Including one offered by today's guest Stephanus Xenos entitled Disrupt your Business. Visit: http//stanfordondemand.com, to register today.