Archive for December, 2013

“What is your leadership style?”

Seoul Summer Orchestra Concert Street Traffic

Recently someone asked me: “Elaine, what is your leadership style?”  My response: “which one of the 100 frameworks out there are you referring to?”

People studying leadership appear to be irresistibly drawn to classifying humanity into categories.  Following are a few leadership style frameworks that I have seen in recent years.

  • Here is a list of 4 leadership styles from Inc back in 2012. The four styles are: directive, participative, laissez-faire, adaptive.
  • Here is a list of 5 leadership styles from USA Today in 2013. The styles include: the sports coach, the driver-director, the mentor, the country clubber, the eclectic.
  • Here is a list of 6 leadership styles from Wall Street Journal, originally put forward by Daniel Goleman in his book “Primal Leadership“.  Also cross referenced by Fast Company. The styles include: pacesetting, authoritative, affiliative, coaching, coercive, democratic.
  • Here is a list of 8 archetypes from Inc., by Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, the author of “The Hedgehog Effect: The Secrets of Building High Performance Teams”.  The archetypes include: The strategist, the change-catalyst, the transactor, the builder, the innovator, the processor, the coach, the communicator.
  • Here is a list of 9 leadership styles from an executive coaching consultancy, based on the enneagram personality typing system.
  • Here is a list of 10 leadership styles from the website. I am not sure what it is based on.

While these frameworks can help people better understand themselves, they can also end up confusing people.  First of all, they oversimplify.  People are complex, and few people fit perfectly into any one style.  Secondly, there are so many frameworks and they don’t all agree with each other. Which one should one read?  Lastly, how many people read one of these articles, see themselves in one of the styles, start justifying their actions, and stop growing as a leader?

To be fair, many of the articles referenced above do mention that good leaders need to adapt to different situations.  But I wonder how many people come away with that insight, after being drawn to an article with a title like this:  “Leadership: 8 Archetypes Explained”.

Leadership is holistic and multifaceted.   No one can stick to any one style and expect to succeed.  Of course we all have our preferred styles of interaction, but different situations will warrant different styles.  For instance, if you find yourself heading up a team with a clearly defined set of objectives and a very aggressive deadline, and you have experience and insight that the team lacks, a directive style would be most effective.  If you have a strong vision about a problem you want to solve, but don’t quite know how to bring it to fruition, you would need to refrain from micromanagement, and learn to give your team the time and space to come up with ways to implement your vision.  If you are implementing a cross functional initiative that needs buy in from many constituencies, then a collaborative and inclusive style would be appropriate.  If you are trying to build bench strength and develop a scalable organization in a time of rapid growth, a coaching style would make sense.

To be an effective leader, you need to be able to do all of these things and more, whether or not you are innately comfortable with adopting these leadership styles.  It’s not easy at all for someone who is a natural at a command-control style to adopt a nurturing or coaching style.  It is equally jarring for a naturally collaborative leader to have to adopt a directive style.  Pushing yourself beyond your boundaries is uncomfortable.  However, challenging yourself to grow and mature will benefit yourself, your team and your organization as a whole.

If you come across one of these frameworks, by all means use it to help gain insights into how you think and work.  At the same time, do consider using the entire list as a learning curriculum.  A leader with a broad range of styles can achieve far more than someone who can only exercise a small range of leadership styles.


Holiday gifts that encourage STEM education


Goldie Blox

The gender imbalance in STEM fields is extreme. According to a 2010 AAUW report, boys and girls take math and science courses in roughly equal numbers in elementary, middle, and high school, however far fewer women than men pursue these fields in college. According to the National Science Foundation, 29% of all male freshmen planned to major in a STEM field in 2006 compared to 15% of all female freshmen.

Further, while 57% of undergraduate degrees are earned by women, only 12% of computer science degrees are earned by women. By college graduation, men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field.

This divide grows worse at the graduate level and is even wider in the workplace. states that women make up half the U.S. workforce, yet hold only 25% of the jobs in the technical or computing fields. To quote from the site: “In a room full of 25 engineers, only three will be women.”

Society is leaving a huge talent pool on the table. Women can bring diversity and a different viewpoint to STEM fields, and this resource is extremely underutilized today. As girls are as equipped as boys to enjoy and excel in STEM careers, how can we turn the tide and help undo some of this early conditioning?

One way is to interest them with toys that fit their frames of reference, while bringing in some element of technology for a soft landing. The Goldie Blox book and toy series is an example where a character is portrayed as a “princess turned engineer.” The toys teach spatial skills and engineering principles.

Roominate presents a dollhouse (a holiday favorite) that can be customized from an architecture standpoint, and includes technical elements such as lights and motor powered ceiling fans that the girls hook up themselves. Roominate was started by two women engineers from MIT, Stanford, and CalTech, who believe that “early exposure through toys will inspire the next generation of female technology innovators.”

For older girls, Romotive offers a mobile toy robot powered by an iPhone that girls can program graphically, without writing a line of code. It takes a little bit of work, but it is possible to find fabulous technical toys that appeal to girls.

Of course, gift-giving is seasonal and episodic, and can only be a tiny part of the solution. To reach girls effectively, advocates of STEM need to work with girls where they spend the most time. At school, teachers should make sure they set high expectations for girls as well as boys, stretching them beyond their comfort zones and inspiring them to excel. After-school activities should pay particular attention to recruiting and retaining girls in STEM-related activities, perhaps creating all-girl STEM experiences to help build a community around female students who are interested in this area. At home, parents should make sure they encourage boys and girls equally in the pursuit of STEM interests.

The use of female role models is a particularly potent tool. The Science Club for Girls is a great example: It connects K-12 girls with female scientists or engineers who serve as role models. It also has a leadership program where teenage girls become role models for younger girls. STEM is cool — girls can and should embrace this at a young age.

Women in STEM careers should also be very open to putting themselves forward as role models. For example, a parent in our elementary school is a tenured professor in geology. Every year she brings her rocks and crystals and shares her work with children at the school. Her child has long graduated, yet she cheerfully returns every year to share her excitement and enthusiasm about her branch of science. This is probably the most fantastic way to expose girls to STEM.

As we encourage more girls to focus on STEM areas, look for communities that can serve as central connectors. MIT serves this function with its K-12 programs, like the Edgerton Center’s intensive summer programs and outreach to local schools. Many other schools around the country offer STEM programs for K-12 students. Once you find them, share the information with other parents and encourage your daughters and their friends to participate together.

We need to sow the seeds of interest in young girls now, and nurture that interest as they grow. There are many ways to do this. It starts with you, and it starts today. Take a look at your gift list. Will you help this cause by changing your gift list for your daughters, granddaughters, nieces, and young female friends?

Read the original post by Elaine at Fortune / CNN Money

What is innovation?

A few months ago, I was interviewed by a group of entrepreneurs from Mexico about my thoughts on innovation.  Here are some key discussion points that came up in our conversation.


What is innovation?

When people use the word “innovation”, most of the time they are thinking about scientific or technological innovation.  To me, however, innovation simply means coming up with new ideas on how to solve problems, and then successfully implementing these ideas into viable solutions, and it applies to every discipline.

Coming up with a non-invasive way to test a diabetic patient’s blood glucose level is innovation. Coming up with novel ways to incentivize a sales channel to double their product sell through rate is innovation.  Coming up with visualization tools for budget-versus-actual analyses to help a cost center manage its expenses is innovation.

Why is innovation key in a startup?

Innovation is critical for any organization that needs to maintain a competitive edge, but for a startup, it is a matter of survival.  Startups are always pressed for time and resources.  They are constantly looking for  new and non-obvious ways to solve problems and meet objectives quickly.  They are constantly solving new problems never solved before.  Being creative and flexible is key.

How do we come up with a process for innovation?

In my mind, the very nature of innovation is non-linear, whereas processes and frameworks tend to be rigid and structured. In my opinion, innovation and set processes don’t go well together. Rather than creating a documented process, we should focus on creating an environment that encourages risk taking and spontaneous, out-of-the-box thinking, which in turn encourages and nurtures innovation.  We should make it ok for team members to try things that aren’t guaranteed to work.  Also consider building in some intentional slack, so people have the space and breathing room to come up with great ideas during their down time.

How can you tell if your organization is innovating successfully?

It’s one of those “you know it when you see it” things.  An innovative organization simply exudes creative problem solving vibes.  There are also objective signs: more patents being applied for; faster turnaround in responding to market needs and customer requests; loyal and happy customers who trust an organization to solve their problems effectively; these all help to show that the organization is innovating where it matters.

Are there best practices for encouraging innovation in a startup?

One thing I advocate is the “tiger team approach”.  I like to pull a cross functional team together from different departments.  This project team gets  together and works on a well defined problem with great focus until it is resolved.  The diversity within the team ensures that the problem is looked at from multiple perspectives.  Effective collaboration results in effective innovation.

Entrepreneurs needed – the younger the better

How young is too young to start a startup?

Young Entrepreneur

The answer is that there’s no such thing as being too young to start a company. Just look at Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, who started his first company, LinkExchange, at 23 and sold it to Microsoft for $265 million less than two years later. Drew Houston, co-founder and CEO of Dropbox, started his first company, Accolade, at 21. Mark Zuckerberg was 19 when he first launched Facebook. And we all know the stories of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

I work with entrepreneurs of all ages, and I see a huge advantage to being a young founder: They don’t know what cannot be done. They are unfazed by problems that other people have not been able to solve. They believe that things will be different for them. They will not be discouraged by seemingly insurmountable obstacles – they will find a way forward. They will not shoot down ideas before they are properly explored, believing that there can be a gem in there somewhere. They also have an unbounded and irrepressible amount of energy, enthusiasm and drive. This is a huge asset when it comes to recruiting top talent, and motivating a team to push the frontiers beyond what seems possible. The healthy stamina that youth brings is very helpful too, considering the long hours they are taking on.

However, that confidence can sometimes be a double-edged sword. A friend of mine who was working on his first startup once said to me: “Elaine, I can read a book on anything, and then do it better than anyone who has done it a million times before.” I was struck speechless by his statement. In the final analysis, he lost a lot of time and energy learning entire new disciplines from scratch and reinventing the wheel, when a short phone call to someone relevant could have saved him some money and reduced his time to market.

There is a lot that one can leverage with youth, but if a young entrepreneur does not temper it with a readiness to listen well and take advice, then he or she might end up on a long and winding road to success. The good news is that it is easy to get help. Entrepreneurial hubs like Boston, the Bay Area, Austin, Boulder and so forth have healthy startup ecosystems full of highly qualified people who are willing and available to help while asking nothing in return. If you are a young entrepreneur doing something for the first time: Don’t be shy – lean on this support system. You will be surprised at how much free consulting you can get if you only asked.

Another easy way to get this support is to develop a team that fills gaps in your experience and perspective. A team comprised entirely of mini-me clones can only lead to group-think, which is the worst thing you can do to your team and business. If you are a young technical founder, find team members who have proven industry experience in business development or marketing, and vise versa. This holds true for all teams, including startups led by older founders. A little diversity goes a long way, especially in a startup.

As for financial concerns, youth can work for or against you. On the one hand, young founders are less likely to have a spouse, kids or mortgage. Working for stock and living on frozen dinners may be OK for a while. It can also be easier for them to relocate to a different city or even another country. On the other hand, younger founders are less likely to have successful startups already under their belt. Raising seed capital could be tough with an inexperienced team, and with little savings and no earnings, bootstrapping – much less paying for groceries — can be challenging.

While youth brings many benefits, I personally believe it is important for aspiring entrepreneurs to finish college, as young adults continue to develop and mature both personally and professionally through their college years. Focusing all of one’s energy on starting a company can make it hard for a young person to develop the skills that will bring one to full potential. Also, entrepreneurship is a learned skill, and college is a great place to gain that knowledge through classes, internships, and labs. The networking and resources available to aspiring entrepreneurs should be fully taken advantage of during those college years.

The bottom line is that there are many more “pros” than “cons” for being a young entrepreneur. If you are 20 and passionate about starting a company, then go for it! Your startup ecosystem stands behind you and we are ready to help you succeed.

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