Grassroots Leadership: U.S. Military Academy

“You can’t lead without making sacrifices.” — Cadet Randy Hopper, U.S. Military Academy
  Keith H. Hammonds .FAST COMPANY. May 31, 2001

Recognized for: Grassroots Leadership

Home base: West Point, New York

Year founded: 1802

“Attention all cadets: There are five minutes to assembly for lunchtime formation. The uniform is battle dress under field jacket.” It’s 11:55 AM. It’s really cold. About 200 feet above a bend in the Hudson River, the wind rushes across the plain at West Point and slams into the six-story granite ramparts of the United States Military Academy.

This is a massive, fortlike place screaming of history. A statue of General George Washington commands the Parade Ground, flanked by Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Thayer. The stone barracks, square and stark, bear the names of Bradley, Lee, and Pershing.

“There are four minutes to assembly for lunchtime formation.” Inside, cadet “plebes,” or freshmen, stand at attention, counting off the minutes until the mandatory premeal convocation. Their cues come from clocks mounted every 50 feet or so along the halls.

Students tumble into the sprawling asphalt courtyards between barracks, as they do at least twice each day, every day, year-round. “Fall in!” The command is like an ionizing charge, driving loose bunches into perfect lines and squares — each square a platoon, four platoons to a company, four companies to a battalion, and two battalions to a regiment. “Attention!” Eyes shoot straight ahead.

Formation is a defining experience at West Point. Officially, it is a simple exercise in accountability: From platoon on up, officers must know and report how many cadets are present. But there’s more to it, of course. Formation is a nod to the past. Cadets have gathered in this way, on this spot, every day for nearly 200 years. More important, it is a reminder of the primacy of selflessness: Here, the individual yields to the greater whole — to the corps.

On dismissal, the cadets begin marching. The movement looks choreographed — a dozen drab soldier streams flowing in right angles out of the courtyard. In minutes, it’s over. A few thousand cadets have removed themselves. The courtyard is silent. And you think, That was one seriously weird exercise. A weird and beautiful thing.

That pretty much describes the whole place.

Leadership Lessons (I)

“The first lesson I learned as a plebe came from an upperclassman yelling in my face. He told me that there were four acceptable answers: ‘Yes, sir’; ‘No, sir’; ‘No excuse, sir’; and ‘Sir, I do not understand.’ He’d ask, ‘Why aren’t your shoes shined?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, it was muddy, and I didn’t have time.’ He’d be all over me. He was trying to teach me something: If you have to take men up a hill and write letters to their moms that night, there’s literally no excuse. If you have to lay off thousands of people from your company, there’s no excuse. You should have seen it coming and done something about it.” –James Kimsey, ’62, founding CEO, America Online

The “West Point of Leadership”

Each spring, West Point graduates 900-odd men and women, granting each of them a bachelor’s degree and a commission as second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. After six-week leaves, they travel to places like Kosovo, Germany, and Guam. Once there, they take on their first jobs as military officers.

This fact alone is stunning: As a nation, we are entrusting to 21-year-olds the safety of our enlisted troops, not to mention the care and deployment of weapons of mass destruction, the keeping of peace, and the occasional waging of war. The corresponding fact is this: By the time they leave West Point, most of these kids are unquestionably up to the job. From the day that they set foot on campus (in early July, before their freshman year), cadets are prepared to take on responsibility, to face challenges, to make decisions under stress, and to pursue the goals set out for them — relentlessly.

The U.S. Military Academy is a factory, and what it manufactures is leaders. Over the years, it has become probably the most effective institution for leadership development in the country. If Harvard Business School is “the West Point of capitalism,” well, when it comes to leadership, West Point is the real thing.

Of course, this leadership factory supplies the military. In return for a free college education, graduates are required to serve the U.S. Army for at least five years. After that, however, many spin out into areas like government, education, and, most often, business — where they thrive. “You see them everywhere,” says Geoff Champion, a 1972 graduate and a partner at Korn/Ferry. They sit atop, America Online, Commerce One, SciQuest, and many other successful companies.

Why? Understand this about West Point: Everything that we have read and heard about it — the rules, the structure, the rigidity, the conformity — is essentially true. This is a school where students learn, in one class, that “the mortar is your best friend.”

But understand this too: There’s more to the story. The academy’s complex and arcane education hangs on an intriguing tension. Think of it, as West Point’s own leaders do, in terms of Athens and Sparta. The structure, the monotonous regime, the rote memorization — that’s Sparta, and it’s important. Yet West Point also nurtures creativity and flexibility — the Athens.

In the chaos of battle, as in business, leaders can’t expect to stick to a fixed plan. They depend on the predictable competence of their subordinates (instilled by all of that training) as well as on their own judgment. Military officers are given orders, but how they get the job done is up to them. “Everything that happens at West Point serves a question,” says Ed Ruggero, a 1980 graduate and the author of Duty First: West Point and the Making of American Leaders (HarperCollins, 2001): “How do you develop an organization that can thrive amid constant change?”

“This is a unique world, where everyone is trying to develop you,” says David Sattelmeyer, a senior, or “firstie,” and a battalion commander, one of the highest-ranking cadet positions. “You’re constantly watching others to see what works. And people are constantly looking at you. The place keeps pushing you.” Everyone is following, and nearly everyone is leading, all the time. Everyone is evaluated — all the time. Every action is taken as an opportunity to learn.

Leadership Lessons (II)

“I had a former roommate who committed an honor-code violation. When he told me what he’d done, I didn’t bat an eye. I reported him. Not because I didn’t care about him; I cared deeply. But I knew that the principle was more important than his being given a second chance. I was 18, and I realized that my first responsibility was to the principle of honor.” –John Grisillo, ’87, president, Compass Group

The Leadership Formula: Knowing, Doing, Being

“People say you can’t change someone,” says Lieutenant Colonel Scott Snook, “but we’re privileged here. We have some of the best and brightest potential in this country, and we have them for 47 months, 24-7. We got ’em at night, on weekends, all summer long.”

He is not boasting, exactly. He is marveling at the opportunity. “We have them when they’re 18, which is a crucial moment,” says Snook, who graduated from West Point in 1980. “They’re ripe for change. Not only do we have them, but we’re also empowered to change them. The country asks us to change who they are!”

Back in rural Pennsylvania, where he grew up, Snook wanted to be a doctor. To his own surprise, he has stuck with the Army for 21 years since his cadet days. He was the executive officer of a company in Grenada, where he was wounded by friendly fire. He earned an MBA and a PhD in organizational behavior at Harvard, where he returns regularly to teach in executive programs.

Snook now heads West Point’s Office of Policy, Planning, and Analysis. His mandate is to confront the academy’s well-worn apparatus for leadership development and to seek a scientific basis for a system that’s rooted in experience and inertia: Why are things done the way they are? What works? How does it work? Could it work better?

The first Army leadership manual, written 25 years ago, coined the expression “Be, know, do.” It was a neat summation of how effective leaders operate, but it also pointed to the central challenge of leadership development. The capacity for “knowing” and “doing” is relatively easy to build up in a student. It’s a function of education and training, which is what most universities are good at.

But knowledge and skills are perishable — both because they’re not applied all the time and because they can become outdated. It’s the “be” piece — your self-concept, your values, your ethical makeup, who you are — that lasts. That’s what consumes Snook: What does it mean to be an officer? And how can West Point shape the “be” piece for each of its 4,000 cadets?

Snook really loves this stuff. West Point has devised a mechanism, perhaps unwittingly, that forces 18-year-olds to grow up. Cadets advance by confronting moral ambiguity, by resolving competing claims on their identity. That’s how you get at the “be” piece. “We don’t know if we have it right,” Snook says. “But it happens through experiences, if you’re passionately involved. And bottom line, the sorts of experiences that change you are those that get you out of your comfort zone.

“Sometimes,” Snook continues, “the biggest window for changing someone’s self-concept opens when he fails. That’s a fundamentally different way of thinking about development. It might be when he fails a course for the first time in his life or when he commits an honor-code violation. When that happens, he’s open to self-reflection.”

Leadership Lessons (III)

“West Point is a uniquely humbling experience. I came from a small town, where I was a good student and captain of my sports teams. I showed up at West Point and found that 60% of my classmates were team captains, and 20% were valedictorians. One day you’re the local star, and the next you’re just one of thousands of bald heads.” –Dave McCormick, ’87, senior vice president, FreeMarkets Inc.

To Build Confidence, Teach Humility

The typical West Point cadet looks something like this: male and white (though 15% of students are women, and 25% are nonwhite). Top decile of his high-school class. Jock. Middle-class, middle-American. He came to the academy because it is free, but he is also patriotic on some level.

The norm isn’t definitive, of course. Any community of 4,000 people is a community of 4,000 distinctive individuals. But in practice, the cadets who reside in the standard-issue cinder-block rooms of Bradley Barracks look pretty much the same. They say pretty much the same things. Hell, that’s part of the deal here: Everyone is part of a team, no individual more important than the mission of the whole.

“Why do we make these kids endure such a spartan four years?” Snook asks. “You stay in stone barracks. You can’t put garbage in the garbage cans before 9:30 AM, and the sinks must be clean and dry at all times. So many rules and regulations. Why?

“Because when you graduate,” Snook continues, “you’re going to be asked to be selfless. For a lot of hours while in the Army, you’re going to suffer. You’ll be away from home for Christmas; you’ll sleep in the mud. There are a lot of things about this job that make you subordinate your self-interest — so get used to it.”

This is the essence of what cadets learn. They hear it in the classroom, but they also witness it around them, every day. The great leaders they see inspire and motivate because they care for their soldiers and because they’re willing to do themselves whatever they ask of others. “Look at any leader who’s made a big change,” says firstie Randy Hopper. “The key is servanthood. You can’t lead without making sacrifices.”

Hopper, a 22-year-old cadet from Baytown, Texas, is commander of Company C-2, based in Bradley. There are 32 such companies, each comprised of about 128 students, each with its own nickname (C-2 is the “Flying Circus”), cheer (“Go Circus!”), and culture. The company is the core organizational unit at West Point. It is also the crucible for experiential leadership development. Here’s how it works.

Plebes are, as ever, at the bottom. They learn how to follow, absorbing and acting on the orders of their superiors. Second-year students, or “yearlings,” are assigned teams of one or two plebes. In this first, modest experience as military leaders, yearlings learn to develop intimate relationships with their subordinates, rooted in mutual trust. They are held directly accountable for their plebes’ performance.

Yearlings report, in turn, to third-year students, or “cows” (a long story), each cow responsible for squads of two or three yearlings and four to six of their plebe charges. Cast in the roles of noncommissioned officers of the cadet brigade, cows must exercise indirect leadership. They are accountable for the plebes as well, but they must direct behavior through the yearlings. They must learn to motivate by example.

Firsties run the show. The summer before classes begin, they direct the eight weeks of military training for incoming plebes and yearlings. Come August, they take the roles of commissioned officers in the cadet hierarchy. Platoon leaders report to company commanders and their staffs, who answer to battalion commands, regiments, and the brigade.

Everyone leads, and everyone follows. Everyone models, and everyone assesses. Cadets’ formal evaluations of their subordinates’ performance count toward final grades. “Everyone’s a teacher,” says firstie Chris Kane, a platoon leader under Hopper in C-2. “That’s what I love about this place. We’re all teachers.”

In this 24-hour leadership laboratory, students acquire humility. As leaders, they are nothing without followers. “You learn from the beginning that you’re not in a position of leadership because you’re smarter or better,” says firstie and C-2 executive officer Joe Bagaglio. “As soon as you think you know it all, you get burned.”

And they must perform under stress. Cadets face a daunting crush of academics, sports, and military activities. The academy’s administrators know that there is enough time, in theory, to get it all done; they have studied this. In practice, though, cadets learn to prioritize — what must come first and what can be left undone. More than that, they come to accept that, amid chaos, the only thing that they can control is themselves. Under fire, “you don’t ask how to get it done,” says Kane. “You just do it.”

Major Tony Burgess follows all of this with reactions that range from concern to bemusement to pride. As the tactical officer attached on a full-time basis to C-2, Burgess, ’90, is likely the single most influential person in the development of the company’s 128 young cadets. He is, as he likes to put it, their “teacher-coach-mentor-disciplinarian-den mother.”

Burgess himself is a leadership junkie. The son of missionary parents, he spent his childhood in Mexico and entered West Point with grand visions. “I was going to get out of the Army after five years, and by age 30, I was going to be a millionaire in business,” he says. “I didn’t know how, but I was going to do it. Then, somewhere along the way, I fell in love with leading.”

Burgess has spent 10 years in the infantry, and he will tell you that there is no better job in the world than commanding an Army company. He grew passionate enough about it to start up a Web site, — an unauthorized (but unofficially welcome) resource for company commanders that has attracted many users. With his classmate and best friend, Nate Allen, Burgess has written a book on the same topic, Taking the Guidon: Exceptional Leadership at the Company Level, which is available on his Web site.

Among his cadet charges, Burgess radiates intensity and enthusiasm. He is at once approachable and reserved, a buddy and a boss. His success depends on maintaining a fine balance — guiding students’ decisions without actually making them, giving students enough rope but knowing when to haul it in. He is the one who must look out for developmental opportunities and failures. He must be ready to influence.

If Burgess succeeds — if West Point succeeds — his cadets will emerge, he thinks, as the “go-to” people. “They’ll be the ones who you know will make it happen,” he says, “the guys who will do better than we ever imagined possible.”

Leadership Lessons (IV)

“I led a team of incoming plebes during basic training. I thought I had to lead the way that I saw others doing it — with stress and shouting, like a traditional drill sergeant. Well, my unit performed very badly. And they hated me. That experience shook me up. I realized that leadership isn’t rule-based. It isn’t about stress. It’s about inspiration, about setting and communicating a vision. It’s about gaining trust. Once you have someone’s trust, once you get them on the same sheet of music, they don’t want to disappoint you. Then leading becomes very easy.” –Christina “CJ” Juhasz, ’90, director in online ventures, Merrill Lynch

West Point’s Leadership Curriculum

Until after World War II, there was no explicit leadership instruction at West Point. Back then, the academy was known primarily as an engineering school. How could leadership possibly be taught? How do you teach judgment or inspiration in a classroom?

Hike to the top floor of Thayer Hall, and you will find Lieutenant Colonel Greg Dardis engaging small groups of firsties in discussions of classical-leadership theory, dissecting such leading-edge thinkers as Morgan McCall and Peter Senge. Cadets today can actually major in leadership. And even if they don’t, such instruction is deeply ingrained in the curriculum.

In their third year, cadets must take a course called Military Leadership. The timing is significant. At that point, cadets have returned from a summer spent interning with Army units around the world, often temporarily replacing platoon leaders in the field. They have served as team leaders in their cadet company. “They have experience under their belts,” says Dardis, who graduated from West Point in 1979 and now heads the leadership and management studies program. “They’ve observed both good and bad leadership.”

The object is to reflect on that experience, to assess it in terms of theory. Early in the course, cadets are asked to write about their leadership philosophy — a graded exercise that forces them to reflect on their talents and weaknesses. They write reflection papers that explain theoretical constructs in terms of their own experiences.

Cadets also take on a raft of case studies penned by West Point faculty, most of them rooted in combat situations. The students also engage in action-learning projects — some of which are distinctly non-military. When Snook taught the class, he would take his students to the elementary school that serves West Point families: “I’d say, ‘You all think you’re leaders? Well, you’re going to lead a recess.’ ” The assignment: Develop a plan for overseeing seven minutes of playground activity.

Most often, cadets responded by thinking in terms of command and control: First we’ll play dodgeball. Then we’ll move to the swings. I’ll direct every movement of every kid out there.

Then they watched the teacher lead an actual recess. As kids poured out onto the playground, there was chaos. And then order emerged, as the children basically organized themselves into teams. The exact order that resulted was unpredictable — but it was entirely predictable that some form of order would emerge.

“I asked them to rate recess,” Snook recalls. “Well, they said that everyone had fun, and no one got hurt. So I asked them to tell me about the leader. ‘Well, the teacher just stood there,’ they said. So, is leading that easy? Is it totally hands-off? No. The way you influence complex, chaotic systems is by setting the starting conditions. You set the starting conditions, the left and right boundaries, and the minimum specifications. The teacher had a fence around the playground, and she established four or five rules. After that, her job was managing by exception.”

Meanwhile, the leadership of West Point is thinking about the institution’s exceptional past — and challenging future. The academy exists on a razor’s edge. To stay effective, it must retain much of what makes it different — yet it also must continuously accommodate changing external demands. “We can’t be so different that the notion of being the Army of a democracy fails,” says Lieutenant General Daniel W. Christman, the academy’s well-regarded superintendent. “We have to reflect what society demands of us.”

The 1965 graduate believes that in order to fortify its relevance in the post-Cold War era, the academy must adjust its mission. It must reflect the new ambivalence with which America regards its armed services. That means equipping its graduates less for combat leadership than for “officership” — a vague notion that encompasses any number of the roles that the Army may fill. “We need to educate cadets in a way that doesn’t constitute a military straitjacket,” Christman says.

That may be so. West Point produces young officers who have been encouraged to act as entrepreneurs, to act quickly and decisively, to operate effectively amid chaos. These are traits that clash with the reality of military service in peacetime. So here’s the irony: If the academy’s education has become less applicable in the Army, it has grown more relevant in business. “Running a company, especially a startup, is not unlike a battle,” says Mark Hoffman, a 1969 graduate and now chairman and CEO of online-exchange giant Commerce One. “Bombs are going off all around you. The market and the competition are changing constantly. Your stock price is falling. You have to stay calm in the face of strife.”

West Point dedicates itself to producing graduates who will, as its mission statement avers, “dedicate a lifetime of selfless service to the nation.” The vague wording concerns those who believe that such service should be strictly military. But as a nation, we are short of great leadership in every sector. We may lament West Pointers’ abandonment of the military. But guess what? Business has become the new national defense. Service to economy, selfless or not, constitutes service to the nation.

Sidebar: The Grassroots-Leadership Agenda

Who: West Point alumni

Who: Leadership lessons for business

Why: In an era of great change, business feels a lot like war

What are the leadership qualities that give West Point grads an edge in business? Academy graduates reflect on what they learned.

Responsibility: “This is the underlying theory,” says Mark Stabile, ’90, a senior partner at Greencastle Associates Consulting. “If you give people responsibility early, give them the opportunity to go out and do things, they’ll go out and do them.”

Trust: “Your ability to get people to follow you up the hill into gunfire or into the next Net meltdown is based on your ability to convince them that you have their interests at heart,” says Dave McCormick, ’87, a senior VP at FreeMarkets Inc.

Flexibility: Structure is important, and predictability of behavior is critical. But in chaotic situations, leaders must be able to decide on the fly. “When you go into battle, order quickly disintegrates, and you have to take action with limited information,” says Mark Hoffman, ’69, chairman and CEO of Commerce One. “You have to make decisions about what to do. You need individuals who can decide in the heat of battle.”

Failure: “At some point, everyone fails,” says entrepreneur Donald A. Hicks, ’90. “West Point makes you deal with the fact that you’re capable of doing far more than you think – and that at some point, you can’t do any more.”

Planning: Cadets plan everything – all the time. They imagine the consequences, and they devise contingency solutions. “It’s an internalization that forces you to start thinking ahead,” says AOL founding CEO James Kimsey, ’62. “It causes some degree of paranoia, because you try to think of every outcome so that you will achieve success.”


The Single Best Way To Develop Leadership Skills


Alice Korngold. FAST COMPANY.   March 26, 2012



You might learn a great deal in school, but it’s doubtful that you’ll actually develop as a leader by reading a book or taking a course. The military is right about experiential development: People grow and become leaders by making a commitment to a cause, and having personal responsibility and accountability.

For those of us in civilian life, there are also ways for us to develop as leaders through experience: through volunteer service. There are myriad nonprofit missions from which to choose, roles and positions in which to engage that are meaningful and productive, and paths for personal and professional advancement.

Nonprofit board service is particularly compelling for business people and professionals seeking to develop as leaders. While the CEOs and staffs of nonprofits build and run programs and services, boards of  directors provide strategic and financial leadership to ensure each organization’s vitality, integrity, and fulfillment of its mission. Business people who bring valuable skills and experience as well as diverse backgrounds and perspectives are uniquely equipped to help regional, national, and global organizations to achieve success in addressing poverty, education, health care, conservation of natural resources, and other key issues.

Through nonprofit board experience, business people participate with the CEO in envisioning an organization’s greater potential, creating the revenue model, and achieving success. In fact, nonprofit board service is the ultimate experience in ethics,  accountability, leadership, group dynamics, and crisis management and  communications.

Here’s the secret to making the most of a service experience:

  1. Choose a cause that’s meaningful to you, and where you like the people. Determine how you can be useful–whether helping with strategic planning, inviting friends to a fundraiser, serving on the advisory council, or serving on the board. If you’ll be serving on the board, be clear about what will be expected of you so that you can fully commit yourself.
  2. Be open to opportunities to raise your hand and say, “I’ll help.” Before you know it, you could be chairing a committee, and eventually perhaps serving as a board officer. (And women, take note: When it comes to nonprofit boards, there’s rarely a glass ceiling.)
  3. Be alert to potential mentors–on the board where you serve and among your friends and colleagues. Talk with other people who serve on boards to share experiences, lessons, and advice.
  4. Always remember the mission. It must be at the forefront of your mind as you participate in discussions and make decisions.
  5. Be generous with your time and your contributions.
  6. Help to recruit and mentor the next wave of volunteers to assist in developing them as leaders.

Once you get involved, you’ll be surprised at how aware you will become of who’s a thoughtful leader who gets things done, and who’s not. Whom you want to emulate, and whom you don’t. And then books and various readings on leadership development and board governance will become more meaningful in light of your personal experience.
Having volunteered since I was 10 years old, built and run a nonprofit enterprise that engaged tens of thousands of corporate and community volunteers in service to hundreds of nonprofits, and consulted to global corporations on corporate social responsibility (CSR), I’ve seen firsthand the power of service in fostering leadership development. Most of the hundreds of business people I’ve trained and placed on boards have ascended to board leadership positions; the key has been that the match was right, and the board candidate was committed and ready to say, “I’ll help.”
Through service, you have tremendous opportunities to develop as a leader, become a more valuable professional where you work, and make a meaningful contribution in improving your community and the world.

25 Rules for Leaders

Linda Tischler. FAST COMPANY.  April 30, 2002


Leadership. Innovation. Work. Brand. Technology.

Fast Company’s flagship event centered around those themes for three days of real learning and just-in-time inspiration last week in San Diego. The roster of RealTime speakers included an Irish grocer, a socially responsible potter, and a pediatric physician, among others — distinct characters who all shared one common message: This is your time to lead!

In calling Fast Company readers to lead change at work and at home, RealTime speakers shared their ideas about the state of business, the power of people, and the future of innovation. Here are 25 of the smartest insights that we took away from the event.

1. Audit Your Company Cultures “Companies don’t have one culture. They have as many as they have supervisors or managers. You want to build a strong culture? Hold every manager accountable for the culture that he or she builds.” –Marcus Buckingham, coauthor of First, Break All the Rules and Now, Discover Your Strengths

2. Informed People Don’t Fear Change “People are not afraid of change. They fear the unknown.” –Dick Brown, chairman and CEO of EDS

3. Beware “Aspirational Accounting” “Enron has changed things significantly. You used to be able to buy a company, account for it in bizarre ways, and make money on the sale. That world is over.” –Nolan Bushnell, founder, chairman, and CEO of uWink Inc.

4. Empower Your People — Turn Them Loose “Freedom is the greatest when the ground rules are clear. Chalk out the playing field and say, Within those lines, make any decisions you need.” –Dick Brown, chairman and CEO of EDS

5. Prevent Erosion of Human Assets “We are systematically depreciating our human capital. For most people, the first year with the company is the best. It’s downhill from there.” –Marcus Buckingham, coauthor of First, Break All the Rules and Now, Discover Your Strengths

6. Be Generous With What You Know “Knowledge sharing is the basis of everything. Share knowledge with reckless abandon.” –Tim Sanders, chief solutions officer at Yahoo

7. Expand Your Roster “Think of your team as not just the people you pay, but as the people who pay you as well.” –Feargal Quinn, executive chairman of Superquinn

8. Don’t Judge a Man by the Size of His Wallet “The only thing wrong with poor people is that they don’t have any money. That’s a curable condition.” –Bill Strickland, president and CEO of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and the Bidwell Training Center

9. Harness Your Skills for Good “Technology has enormous potential to facilitate public-health problem solving. Marcus Welby needs you guys.” –Dr. Irwin Redlener, president and cofounder of the Children’s Health Fund and president of the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore

10. Groom Your People for Success “Weakness fixing might prevent failure, but strength building leads to excellence. Focus on strength, and manage around weaknesses.” –Marcus Buckingham, coauthor of First, Break All the Rules and Now, Discover Your Strengths

11. Promote Brand Awareness Throughout Your Enterprise “Everybody throughout the enterprise should know what the brand can and cannot do. There’s an imperative for education.” –Jim Goodwin, vice president of marketing at the Absolut Spirits Co.

12. Embrace Imperfection — Fast! “Beware of perfect people. They will never propel your enterprise to greatness. They’re too cautious. You’ve got to be fast to be good.” –Dick Brown, chairman and CEO of EDS

13. Don’t Let the Venture Capitalists Get You Down “Revolutionary change is where real value is created. Don’t assume the capital markets know what the hell they’re doing. The VC market is currently in more disarray than most companies.” –Nolan Bushnell, founder, chairman, and CEO of uWink Inc.

14. Allow Yourself to Dream “Dreams are maps. The ability to think about the future is what drives us all to attain.” –Dr. Irwin Redlener, president and cofounder of the Children’s Health Fund and president of the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore

15. Increase Your Net Worth “Networking is sharing your contacts with others to create value without the expectation of compensation. Your network is your net worth.” –Tim Sanders, chief solutions officer at Yahoo

16. Use Every Teachable Moment “Every time you give somebody compensation, it’s a great time to give feedback.” –Dick Brown, chairman and CEO of EDS

17. Shine Some Hope “If you want to work with people who have no hope, you have to look like the solution and not the problem.” –Bill Strickland, president and CEO of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and the Bidwell Training Center

18. Set a New Standard of Performance “We need to get beyond the single bottom line and measure a company’s performance by a triple bottom line. Financial profits alone aren’t enough. The results also need to be good for people and for the environment.” –Scott Bedbury, CEO of Brandstream

19. Laugh at Yourself “Just when you think the sun shines out of your butt, all you have is an illuminated landing area.” –Nolan Bushnell, founder, chairman, and CEO of uWink Inc.

20. Get Up, Stand Up “YCDBSOYA: You can’t do business sitting on your armchair.” –Feargal Quinn, executive chairman of Superquinn

21. Stop Whining — Start Seeking “In these times, it’s important to find the opportunities in the disruptions rather than just to lament the change.” –Rob Glaser, chairman and CEO of RealNetworks Inc.

22. Leaders: Move It or Lose It “Managers consistently delude themselves about how much good they’re doing. The oath for managers should be the same as physicians: First do no harm. ” –Robert Sutton, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University

23. Be Honest “The same thing you want from management is what customers want from you: honest communication. Be honest with your customers; tell them everything you know.” –Bonnie Reitz, vice president of sales and distribution at Continental Airlines

24. Don’t Stretch This Rule “When you start thinking about growing your brand, be sure not to ignore the Spandex rule: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” –Scott Bedbury, CEO of Brandstream

25. What’s Your Bottom Line? “People over 65 were asked, ‘If you could live your life over, what would you do differently?’ They said three things: ‘I’d take time to stop and ask the big questions. I’d be more courageous and take more risks in work and love. I’d try to live with purpose — to make a difference.’ You don’t have to be an elder to ask, What’s my own bottom line?”

The Number One Killer Of Corporate Innovation

Ken Blanchard and Scott Blanchard .FAST COMPANY. July 23, 2012

Selling an idea to top leadership before it has generated tangible results can be difficult; very few innovative ideas can stand up to the scrutiny of a core business model. But understanding the four most common ways people interpret change will help you get there.



Innovation is essential to keeping an organization alive–everyone knows that. Then why do so few companies innovate?

Part of the answer is that it’s very hard for people who are invested in the current business to truly embrace disruptive new ideas. Tom Peters talks about this when he says that innovation never happens vertically in a company. One of the fastest ways to kill a good idea is to take an exciting innovation discovered at the front line and move it up the chain by asking your boss, having them ask their boss, and so on. When you run an idea up the chain of command, you almost never get the permission or the resources to innovate well.

People at the top of the organizational pyramid are usually running the business using lagging indicators. In general, their focus is on defending present revenue streams. More often than not they are nervous about anything that might cannibalize, compete with, or distract from the company’s core business.

It’s understandable. In many ways, this is exactly what top executives should be concerned about. But that’s also why true innovation usually happens in the corners of the business and works its way up. Building horizontally gives the idea a chance to develop and gain momentum. It also gives the innovation a chance to generate tangible results that can be used later in making the business case to senior leaders.

In our experience, you are usually better off moving forward after receiving just enough permission to experiment with and develop the innovation. Trying to sell an idea to top leadership before it has generated tangible results can be a very difficult hill to climb. Very few innovative ideas can stand up to the scrutiny of a core business model. Things that are new and disruptive are rarely as good as the present product or service, even though they have the potential to be game changers.

Don’t overlook assumptions and mindsets

People have different levels of readiness and capacity to understand change. Robert Marshak, senior scholar in residence at American University and author of Covert Processes at Work: Managing the Five Hidden Dimensions of Organizational Change, wrote a wonderful article that we’ve referred to several times when we’ve come up against change in our company. It’s called “Managing the Metaphors of Change.”

In the article, Marshak points out that when most people think about change, they assume that others will respond to it the same way they do. Marshak describes four different mindsets, represented by different metaphors, which affect how people view innovation.

1. Fix and maintain. The theme here is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It’s a minimalist approach to innovation that only kicks in when something is broken. One of our consultants ran into this attitude with a prospective banking client. In speaking to a group of senior leaders, our consultant was having trouble getting the group to grasp the concept of a future vision. Slightly exasperated, our consultant asked, “What do you want this bank to look like in five years?” The general consensus was that since the bank had recently been redecorated and since they expected to get seven or eight years out of a typical facelift, they expected the bank to look pretty much the same as it did today. Needless to say, radical innovation was going to be a challenge for this group.

2. Build and develop. People with this attitude are more open to innovation than Fix and Maintainers. These people are about incrementally improving and building something better than they have today. This can be seen in the way they focus on improving processes—for example, taking a paper process and turning it into a more paperless process.

3. Transitional. Those with a Transitional mindset are willing to examine current market forces and are looking to stay current. In our company, for example, a Transitional mindset allowed us to continually evolve as training moved from classroom-based delivery to a virtual approach.

4. Transformative. Those with a Transformative mindset are open to ideas that look completely different from what currently exists. Today’s smart phones are a good example of the product of a Transformative mindset. A complete departure from original cell phones, smart phones allow us to make and receive calls from anywhere, surf the web, read e-mail, access a wide variety of apps and product reviews, map locations, watch videos, and stay in constant touch with friends and family. Central to everything we do, the smartphone has transformed our lives.

Understand yourself and others

The different mindsets aren’t necessarily good or bad. What’s important is to understand both your own mindset and the mindset of your audience.

What is your relationship to innovation? What are the key assumptions and beliefs currently limiting your possibilities for change? What about your peers and colleagues? How can you address different mindsets to encourage them to see new possibilities? Finally, as an organization, how do you develop leaders with the ability to challenge their own assumptions and beliefs?

Your organization is only as innovative as the people who work within it. As a leader, it’s important that you look in the corners of your organization and your industry for the next innovative idea. Especially seek out and encourage the people developing ideas on the fringes. Consider what you can do to make it easier for yourself and others to see, understand, and leverage new ideas. These are the beginning steps to building a company whose innovations will keep it relevant and competitive now and in the future.

How To Find Champions Of Innovation Among Your Ranks

 Andy Zynga .FAST COMPANY. September 17, 2012

Companies today invest more than ever in innovation and OI (open innovation) to be first to market and advance their goals. When they start to build OI programs the challenge remains how to select the right leaders to spearhead them. The search for an innovation champion often begins internally, with a search for someone who is a confident leader comfortable working in an unstructured environment, capable of thinking creatively and a genuinely good listener. A tall order indeed!

This person often has the vision to operate outside the company’s traditional business structure, to partner in unstructured environments, and the urgency to drive outcomes–whatever it takes. Often freewheeling and individualistic, these are the right people to launch one-off successes, but not necessarily the right people to fuel and manage an ongoing, repeatable innovation program.

For example, we worked on a program with a medical device company and it became clear that they would not be able to scale their innovation successes by relying on the successful individual performers in their R&D teams. While these individuals were visionary in the context of their subject matter expertise, they were not very effective at engaging and motivating other innovation teams or in obtaining the broad company support required to take their initiatives to broader successful outcomes.

Creating an innovation program and having it flourish beyond one well-suited champion with one set of skills typically necessitates a team to kick it off and make it soar. These teams need the energy and can-do approach of the earlier initiators, but cloning themselves does not embed the organization with the attributes and skills that build long-term, sustainable, collaborative innovation.

As more companies over the years have taken a real interest in investing in innovation, we worked to develop a methodology that would be effective and repeatable for building successful innovation teams.

We practiced what we preached, so to speak–as I often say “going beyond our four walls” to find the missing piece we needed to build a model that would help companies select leaders to drive and develop innovation cultures from the inside out. We decided to partner with a great company with expertise that complemented our own, CALIPER, a human capital management company that, for the past 50 years, has helped more than 28,000 companies in 13 countries select and develop top performers.

Together, we co-developed a customized and scientifically sound model to build out teams that would be well positioned to grow OI programs and innovation-driven business cultures. The specialized strengths required for managing innovation teams range from being comfortable reaching into the outside world for new solutions, to being able to help groups of intelligent, independent, and strong-minded individuals to work more collaboratively.

We found there are actually two key roles needed in an OI team–the visionary and the implementer. Knowing this, we developed two Collaborative Innovation Profiles for Innovation Leaders and Project Managers.

The profiles surface key differences between these two roles. For instance, Innovation Leaders are visionary, strong communicators, and comfortable with risks. Project Managers are skilled in keeping innovation teams on task, with a sensitivity to organizational needs and goals, and strong attention to detail. Their teams are enhanced by individuals with diverse backgrounds and qualities, from dreamers who push everyone’s thinking “to the edge,” to experts who know what it takes to accomplish specific outcomes. The combined traits build sustainable innovation because the leaders bring fresh blue-sky thinking and the project managers create accountability to ensure a stream of outcomes.

Here is a quick, high-level snapshot of traits that each of the leadership profiles have, to be referenced in building effective innovation leadership teams:

Innovation Leaders:

•Create & Communicate Collaborative Innovation Vision

•Innovation & Creativity

•Analytical Thinking

•Leading Change

•Organizational Awareness

•Strategic Partnering

Project Managers:

•Planning & Organizing

•Quality Orientation

•Innovation & Creativity

•Analytical Thinking

•Business Acumen


•Team Leadership
Innovation is forward-looking by nature. On the surface, selecting the right team to lead innovation in your organization may seem to require a simple leap of faith in selecting inspirational leaders to make it happen. But this isn’t true.

Personality profiling, and knowing what management practices and organizational structures spark innovative thinking and action, is the not-so magic combination that delivers results and value.

Be cautious, though–a great match for the role of the “visionary” is not a great match for that of the “implementer.” And be aware of the traits that can become the demise of either role:

Innovation Leaders:



Project Managers:



Organizations that succeed do so because these “skunkworks” teams are embedded throughout the organization; they include cross-functional contributions from the organization broadly and are empowered with the freedom, budgets, and tools to operate in parallel structures. Still, finding the key integration points is important to unload projects from the innovation team, and make way for new initiatives.

Innovation is a way of life, a daily challenge, and indeed a thrill for those who are incentivized to think and act fearlessly, knowing the risks (and embracing the rewards) of being the first and the only to cross the boundaries that trailblazers do. With a proven methodology for selecting leaders with qualities that will drive innovation teams forward–rather than in circles–you have a recipe for success on the road to realizing an innovation culture.

How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby?


Jean Twenge. THE ATLANTIC. Jun 19 2013

        Deep anxiety about the ability to have children later in life plagues many women. But the decline in fertility over the course of a woman’s 30s has been oversold. Here’s what the statistics really tell us—and what they don’t.   

In the tentative, post-9/11 spring of 2002, I was, at 30, in the midst of extricating myself from my first marriage. My husband and I had met in graduate school but couldn’t find two academic jobs in the same place, so we spent the three years of our marriage living in different states. After I accepted a tenure-track position in California and he turned down a postdoctoral research position nearby—the job wasn’t good enough, he said—it seemed clear that our living situation was not going to change.

I put off telling my parents about the split for weeks, hesitant to disappoint them. When I finally broke the news, they were, to my relief, supportive and understanding. Then my mother said, “Have you read Time magazine this week? I know you want to have kids.”

Time’s cover that week had a baby on it. “Listen to a successful woman discuss her failure to bear a child, and the grief comes in layers of bitterness and regret,” the story inside began. A generation of women who had waited to start a family was beginning to grapple with that decision, and one media outlet after another was wringing its hands about the steep decline in women’s fertility with age: “When It’s Too Late to Have a Baby,” lamented the U.K.’s Observer; “Baby Panic,” New York magazine announced on its cover.

The panic stemmed from the April 2002 publication of Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s headline-grabbing book, Creating a Life, which counseled that women should have their children while they’re young or risk having none at all. Within corporate America, 42 percent of the professional women interviewed by Hewlett had no children at age 40, and most said they deeply regretted it. Just as you plan for a corner office, Hewlett advised her readers, you should plan for grandchildren.

The previous fall, an ad campaign sponsored by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) had warned, “Advancing age decreases your ability to have children.” One ad was illustrated with a baby bottle shaped like an hourglass that was—just to make the point glaringly obvious—running out of milk. Female fertility, the group announced, begins to decline at 27. “Should you have your baby now?” asked Newsweek in response.

For me, that was no longer a viable option.

I had always wanted children. Even when I was busy with my postdoctoral research, I volunteered to babysit a friend’s preschooler. I frequently passed the time in airports by chatting up frazzled mothers and babbling toddlers—a 2-year-old, quite to my surprise, once crawled into my lap. At a wedding I attended in my late 20s, I played with the groom’s preschool-age nephews, often on the floor, during the entire rehearsal and most of the reception. (“Do you fart?” one of them asked me in an overly loud voice during the rehearsal. “Everyone does,” I replied solemnly, as his grandfather laughed quietly in the next pew.)

But, suddenly single at 30, I seemed destined to remain childless until at least my mid-30s, and perhaps always. Flying to a friend’s wedding in May 2002, I finally forced myself to read the Time article. It upset me so much that I began doubting my divorce for the first time. “And God, what if I want to have two?,” I wrote in my journal as the cold plane sped over the Rockies. “First at 35, and if you wait until the kid is 2 to try, more than likely you have the second at 38 or 39. If at all.” To reassure myself about the divorce, I wrote, “Nothing I did would have changed the situation.” I underlined that.

I was lucky: within a few years, I married again, and this time the match was much better. But my new husband and I seemed to face frightening odds against having children. Most books and Web sites I read said that one in three women ages 35 to 39 would not get pregnant within a year of starting to try. The first page of the ASRM’s 2003 guide for patients noted that women in their late 30s had a 30 percent chance of remaining childless altogether. The guide also included statistics that I’d seen repeated in many other places: a woman’s chance of pregnancy was 20 percent each month at age 30, dwindling to 5 percent by age 40.

Every time I read these statistics, my stomach dropped like a stone, heavy and foreboding. Had I already missed my chance to be a mother?

As a psychology researcher who’d published articles in scientific journals, some covered in the popular press, I knew that many scientific findings differ significantly from what the public hears about them. Soon after my second wedding, I decided to go to the source: I scoured medical-research databases, and quickly learned that the statistics on women’s age and fertility—used by many to make decisions about relationships, careers, and when to have children—were one of the more spectacular examples of the mainstream media’s failure to correctly report on and interpret scientific research.

The widely cited statistic that one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying, for instance, is based on an article published in 2004 in the journal Human Reproduction. Rarely mentioned is the source of the data: French birth records from 1670 to 1830. The chance of remaining childless—30 percent—was also calculated based on historical populations.

In other words, millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment. Most people assume these numbers are based on large, well-conducted studies of modern women, but they are not. When I mention this to friends and associates, by far the most common reaction is: “No … No way. Really?

Surprisingly few well-designed studies of female age and natural fertility include women born in the 20th century—but those that do tend to paint a more optimistic picture. One study, published in Obstetrics & Gynecology in 2004 and headed by David Dunson (now of Duke University), examined the chances of pregnancy among 770 European women. It found that with sex at least twice a week, 82 percent of 35-to-39-year-old women conceive within a year, compared with 86 percent of 27-to-34-year-olds. (The fertility of women in their late 20s and early 30s was almost identical—news in and of itself.) Another study, released this March in Fertility and Sterility and led by Kenneth Rothman of Boston University, followed 2,820 Danish women as they tried to get pregnant. Among women having sex during their fertile times, 78 percent of 35-to-40-year-olds got pregnant within a year, compared with 84 percent of 20-to-34-year-olds. A study headed by Anne Steiner, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, the results of which were presented in June, found that among 38- and 39-year-olds who had been pregnant before, 80 percent of white women of normal weight got pregnant naturally within six months (although that percentage was lower among other races and among the overweight). “In our data, we’re not seeing huge drops until age 40,” she told me.

Even some studies based on historical birth records are more optimistic than what the press normally reports: One found that, in the days before birth control, 89 percent of 38-year-old women were still fertile. Another concluded that the typical woman was able to get pregnant until somewhere between ages 40 and 45. Yet these more encouraging numbers are rarely mentioned—none of these figures appear in the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s 2008 committee opinion on female age and fertility, which instead relies on the most-ominous historical data.

In short, the “baby panic”—which has by no means abated since it hit me personally—is based largely on questionable data. We’ve rearranged our lives, worried endlessly, and forgone countless career opportunities based on a few statistics about women who resided in thatched-roof huts and never saw a lightbulb. In Dunson’s study of modern women, the difference in pregnancy rates at age 28 versus 37 is only about 4 percentage points. Fertility does decrease with age, but the decline is not steep enough to keep the vast majority of women in their late 30s from having a child. And that, after all, is the whole point.

I am now the mother of three children, all born after I turned 35. My oldest started kindergarten on my 40th birthday; my youngest was born five months later. All were conceived naturally within a few months. The toddler in my lap at the airport is now mine.

Instead of worrying about my fertility, I now worry about paying for child care and getting three children to bed on time. These are good problems to have.

Yet the memory of my abject terror about age-related infertility still lingers. Every time I tried to get pregnant, I was consumed by anxiety that my age meant doom. I was not alone. Women on Internet message boards write of scaling back their careers or having fewer children than they’d like to, because they can’t bear the thought of trying to get pregnant after 35. Those who have already passed the dreaded birthday ask for tips on how to stay calm when trying to get pregnant, constantly worrying—just as I did—that they will never have a child. “I’m scared because I am 35 and everyone keeps reminding me that my ‘clock is ticking.’ My grandmother even reminded me of this at my wedding reception,” one newly married woman wrote to me after reading my 2012 advice book, The Impatient Woman’s Guide to Getting Pregnant, based in part on my own experience. It’s not just grandmothers sounding this note. “What science tells us about the aging parental body should alarm us more than it does,” wrote the journalist Judith Shulevitz in a New Republic cover story late last year that focused, laser-like, on the downsides of delayed parenthood.

How did the baby panic happen in the first place? And why hasn’t there been more public pushback from fertility experts?

One possibility is the “availability heuristic”: when making judgments, people rely on what’s right in front of them. Fertility doctors see the effects of age on the success rate of fertility treatment every day. That’s particularly true for in vitro fertilization, which relies on the extraction of a large number of eggs from the ovaries, because some eggs are lost at every stage of the difficult process. Younger women’s ovaries respond better to the drugs used to extract the eggs, and younger women’s eggs are more likely to be chromosomally normal. As a result, younger women’s IVF success rates are indeed much higher—about 42 percent of those younger than 35 will give birth to a live baby after one IVF cycle, versus 27 percent for those ages 35 to 40, and just 12 percent for those ages 41 to 42. Many studies have examined how IVF success declines with age, and these statistics are cited in many research articles and online forums.

Yet only about 1 percent of babies born each year in the U.S. are a result of IVF, and most of their mothers used the technique not because of their age, but to overcome blocked fallopian tubes, male infertility, or other issues: about 80 percent of IVF patients are 40 or younger. And the IVF statistics tell us very little about natural conception, which requires just one egg rather than a dozen or more, among other differences.

Studies of natural conception are surprisingly difficult to conduct—that’s one reason both IVF statistics and historical records play an outsize role in fertility reporting. Modern birth records are uninformative, because most women have their children in their 20s and then use birth control or sterilization surgery to prevent pregnancy during their 30s and 40s. Studies asking couples how long it took them to conceive or how long they have been trying to get pregnant are as unreliable as human memory. And finding and studying women who are trying to get pregnant is challenging, as there’s such a narrow window between when they start trying and when some will succeed.

Millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment.

Another problem looms even larger: women who are actively trying to get pregnant at age 35 or later might be less fertile than the average over-35 woman. Some highly fertile women will get pregnant accidentally when they are younger, and others will get pregnant quickly whenever they try, completing their families at a younger age. Those who are left are, disproportionately, the less fertile. Thus, “the observed lower fertility rates among older women presumably overestimate the effect of biological aging,” says Dr. Allen Wilcox, who leads the Reproductive Epidemiology Group at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “If we’re overestimating the biological decline of fertility with age, this will only be good news to women who have been most fastidious in their birth-control use, and may be more fertile at older ages, on average, than our data would lead them to expect.”

These modern-day research problems help explain why historical data from an age before birth control are so tempting. However, the downsides of a historical approach are numerous. Advanced medical care, antibiotics, and even a reliable food supply were unavailable hundreds of years ago. And the decline in fertility in the historical data may also stem from older couples’ having sex less often than younger ones. Less-frequent sex might have been especially likely if couples had been married for a long time, or had many children, or both. (Having more children of course makes it more difficult to fit in sex, and some couples surely realized—eureka!—that they could avoid having another mouth to feed by scaling back their nocturnal activities.) Some historical studies try to control for these problems in various ways—such as looking only at just-married couples—but many of the same issues remain.

The best way to assess fertility might be to measure “cycle viability,” or the chance of getting pregnant if a couple has sex on the most fertile day of the woman’s cycle. Studies based on cycle viability use a prospective rather than retrospective design—monitoring couples as they attempt to get pregnant instead of asking couples to recall how long it took them to get pregnant or how long they tried. Cycle-viability studies also eliminate the need to account for older couples’ less active sex lives. David Dunson’s analysis revealed that intercourse two days before ovulation resulted in pregnancy 29 percent of the time for 35-to-39-year-old women, compared with about 42 percent for 27-to-29-year-olds. So, by this measure, fertility falls by about a third from a woman’s late 20s to her late 30s. However, a 35-to-39-year-old’s fertility two days before ovulation was the same as a 19-to-26-year-old’s fertility three days before ovulation: according to Dunson’s data, older couples who time sex just one day better than younger ones will effectively eliminate the age difference.

Don’t these numbers contradict the statistics you sometimes see in the popular press that only 20 percent of 30-year-old women and 5 percent of 40-year-old women get pregnant per cycle? They do, but no journal article I could locate contained these numbers, and none of the experts I contacted could tell me what data set they were based on. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s guide provides no citation for these statistics; when I contacted the association’s press office asking where they came from, a representative said they were simplified for a popular audience, and did not provide a specific citation.

Dunson, a biostatistics professor, thought the lower numbers might be averages across many cycles rather than the chances of getting pregnant during the first cycle of trying. More women will get pregnant during the first cycle than in each subsequent one because the most fertile will conceive quickly, and those left will have lower fertility on average.

Most fertility problems are not the result of female age. Blocked tubes and endometriosis (a condition in which the cells lining the uterus also grow outside it) strike both younger and older women. Almost half of infertility problems trace back to the man, and these seem to be more common among older men, although research suggests that men’s fertility declines only gradually with age.

Fertility problems unrelated to female age may also explain why, in many studies, fertility at older ages is considerably higher among women who have been pregnant before. Among couples who haven’t had an accidental pregnancy—who, as Dr. Steiner put it, “have never had an ‘oops’ ”—sperm issues and blocked tubes may be more likely. Thus, the data from women who already have a child may give a more accurate picture of the fertility decline due to “ovarian aging.” In Kenneth Rothman’s study of the Danish women, among those who’d given birth at least once previously, the chance of getting pregnant at age 40 was similar to that at age 20.

Older women’s fears, of course, extend beyond the ability to get pregnant. The rates of miscarriages and birth defects rise with age, and worries over both have been well ventilated in the popular press. But how much do these risks actually rise? Many miscarriage statistics come from—you guessed it—women who undergo IVF or other fertility treatment, who may have a higher miscarriage risk regardless of age. Nonetheless, the National Vital Statistics Reports, which draw data from the general population, find that 15 percent of women ages 20 to 34, 27 percent of women 35 to 39, and 26 percent of women 40 to 44 report having had a miscarriage. These increases are hardly insignificant, and the true rate of miscarriages is higher, since many miscarriages occur extremely early in a pregnancy—before a missed period or pregnancy test. Yet it should be noted that even for older women, the likelihood of a pregnancy’s continuing is nearly three times that of having a known miscarriage.

What about birth defects? The risk of chromosomal abnormalities such as Down syndrome does rise with a woman’s age—such abnormalities are the source of many of those very early, undetected miscarriages. However, the probability of having a child with a chromosomal abnormality remains extremely low. Even at early fetal testing (known as chorionic villus sampling), 99 percent of fetuses are chromosomally normal among 35-year-old pregnant women, and 97 percent among 40-year-olds. At 45, when most women can no longer get pregnant, 87 percent of fetuses are still normal. (Many of those that are not will later be miscarried.) In the near future, fetal genetic testing will be done with a simple blood test, making it even easier than it is today for women to get early information about possible genetic issues.

What does all this mean for a woman trying to decide when to have children? More specifically, how long can she safely wait?

This question can’t be answered with absolutely certainty, for two big reasons. First, while the data on natural fertility among modern women are proliferating, they are still sparse. Collectively, the three modern studies by Dunson, Rothman, and Steiner included only about 400 women 35 or older, and they might not be representative of all such women trying to conceive.

Second, statistics, of course, can tell us only about probabilities and averages—they offer no guarantees to any particular person. “Even if we had good estimates for the average biological decline in fertility with age, that is still of relatively limited use to individuals, given the large range of fertility found in healthy women,” says Allen Wilcox of the NIH.

So what is a woman—and her partner—to do?

The data, imperfect as they are, suggest two conclusions. No. 1: fertility declines with age. No. 2, and much more relevant: the vast majority of women in their late 30s will be able to get pregnant on their own. The bottom line for women, in my view, is: plan to have your last child by the time you turn 40. Beyond that, you’re rolling the dice, though they may still come up in your favor. “Fertility is relatively stable until the late 30s, with the inflection point somewhere around 38 or 39,” Steiner told me. “Women in their early 30s can think about years, but in their late 30s, they need to be thinking about months.” That’s also why many experts advise that women older than 35 should see a fertility specialist if they haven’t conceived after six months—particularly if it’s been six months of sex during fertile times.

There is no single best time to have a child. Some women and couples will find that starting—and finishing—their families in their 20s is what’s best for them, all things considered. They just shouldn’t let alarmist rhetoric push them to become parents before they’re ready. Having children at a young age slightly lowers the risks of infertility and chromosomal abnormalities, and moderately lowers the risk of miscarriage. But it also carries costs for relationships and careers. Literally: an analysis by one economist found that, on average, every year a woman postpones having children leads to a 10 percent increase in career earnings.

For women who aren’t ready for children in their early 30s but are still worried about waiting, new technologies—albeit imperfect ones—offer a third option. Some women choose to freeze their eggs, having a fertility doctor extract eggs when they are still young (say, early 30s) and cryogenically preserve them. Then, if they haven’t had children by their self-imposed deadline, they can thaw the eggs, fertilize them, and implant the embryos using IVF. Because the eggs will be younger, success rates are theoretically higher. The downsides are the expense—perhaps $10,000 for the egg freezing and an average of more than $12,000 per cycle for IVF—and having to use IVF to get pregnant. Women who already have a partner can, alternatively, freeze embryos, a more common procedure that also uses IVF technology.

At home, couples should recognize that having sex at the most fertile time of the cycle matters enormously, potentially making the difference between an easy conception in the bedroom and expensive fertility treatment in a clinic. Rothman’s study found that timing sex around ovulation narrowed the fertility gap between younger and older women. Women older than 35 who want to get pregnant should consider recapturing the glory of their 20‑something sex lives, or learning to predict ovulation by charting their cycles or using a fertility monitor.

I wish I had known all this back in the spring of 2002, when the media coverage of age and infertility was deafening. I did, though, find some relief from the smart women of Saturday Night Live.

“According to author Sylvia Hewlett, career women shouldn’t wait to have babies, because our fertility takes a steep drop-off after age 27,” Tina Fey said during a “Weekend Update” sketch. “And Sylvia’s right; I definitely should have had a baby when I was 27, living in Chicago over a biker bar, pulling down a cool $12,000 a year. That would have worked out great.” Rachel Dratch said, “Yeah. Sylvia, um, thanks for reminding me that I have to hurry up and have a baby. Uh, me and my four cats will get right on that.”

“My neighbor has this adorable, cute little Chinese baby that speaks Italian,” noted Amy Poehler. “So, you know, I’ll just buy one of those.” Maya Rudolph rounded out the rant: “Yeah, Sylvia, maybe your next book should tell men our age to stop playing Grand Theft Auto III and holding out for the chick from Alias.” (“You’re not gonna get the chick from Alias,” Fey advised.)

Eleven years later, these four women have eight children among them, all but one born when they were older than 35. It’s good to be right.

How to Avoid the Seven Sins of Customer Experience

Sharon Daniels . CEO . April 18 2013


Today’s business environment is one of heightened competition, and customer experiences are part of a complex matrix that determines customer loyalty.  Customer experience can ultimately be an organization’s primary competitive advantage, if it is managed correctly.  Exceptional customer service produces loyal customers who buy more, refer friends, resist special offers from competitors and forgive the occasional mistake.  Our newest research report on customer experience sheds new light on the “seven sins” of customer experience – key missteps that make organizations stumble when it comes to customer interaction.

The study surveyed 5,500 consumers and conducted in-depth interviews with outstanding customer service employees in seven countries. Among its significant findings:

– Customers are sharing their rants and raves about their service experiences around the clock and around the globe. Almost 40% reported they posted complaints about a company or brand after a bad service experience.

– Negative experiences have a bottom-line impact. Half of those surveyed said they would defect to a competitor after only one bad service experience.

– Consumers give low ratings to customer service. Only 25% of survey respondents said that service employees “make me feel they are on my side.”

– Service employees’ interpersonal skills are what makes or breaks the customer experience. One third of survey respondents believe it’s more important to be “listened to and shown respect” than to have their issue resolved.

– Reinforcing the need for human contact, most survey respondents prefer communicating with service employees by telephone (43 percent) or personally (37 percent), compared with email (18 percent) or text (2 percent.) Though they’re quick to make complaints online, they want real-person interaction.

As the survey data indicates, the customer experience counts mightily in organizational performance. Recognizing this imperative, CEO Kevin Peters of Office Depot invites customers to a prototype store near company headquarters so they can help design a superior customer experience. Their input affects factors like the shelves on which products appear and even where employees stand as they stock the shelves.

These are the seven sins of customer experience:

1. Not Minding Your Metrics

Company leaders are failing to take full advantage of new tools that make it easier than ever to monitor customers’ experiences. The tools include a wide variety of CRM systems, voice-of-the-customer software, customer-interface technology and predictive analytics. Data on customer retention and the results of cross-selling by service reps can be especially valuable.

Obtain a comprehensive review of your customer’s opinions and actions through quantifiable metrics. Regularly survey them on key pints – whether they would recommend your company, what specifically is influencing their buying behavior, and what ideas they have for improving the customer experience.

Among the businesses that use highly sophisticated measurement frameworks is EMC, the IT storage cloud computing company. It identifies the aspects of the customer experience that have the biggest impact on loyalty. It then determines which ones require immediate changes, which to improve over time and which to promote as its strengths.

2. Underestimating the Power of Emotion

Even when the service provider can’t immediately fix the problem, customers can be satisfied if the employee connects with them on a human level. The service employee has to walk in the customers’ shoes.

Employees must listen actively so they can communicate sincere understanding, using a voice tone and/or body language that shows empathy with the customers’ emotions — even when the customer caused the problem. An angry customer may expect urgent concern, while a confused one may be satisfied simply with kindness. When it’s appropriate, an apology can work wonders and service employees shouldn’t hesitate to provide one.

3 Fumbling Defining Moments

Every customer interaction has defining moments that must be handled carefully. One of the first defining moments occurs when the customer is greeted, and it sets the tone for the entire interaction. A drive-through customer at a fast food outlet wants speedy service, as does the chain itself. KFC drive-through employees are required to greet the customer no more than five seconds after the customer reaches the intercom.

Another defining moment presents itself when the customer has a complaint. The Ritz-Carlton hotel chain, which prides itself on maintaining an excellent customer experience, allows every staff member, regardless of position, to spend as much as $2,000 to resolve a guest’s problem without seeking approval.

A customer who must return a product faces another defining moment. Customers often complain about return policies. Zappos, which has a 100% satisfaction guaranteed return policy, actually encourages customers to order several sizes of a clothing line and return what’s not wanted.

Another defining moment crops up when an employee answers a customer’s questions. The employee has to answer directly, without evasiveness or circumlocutions. Another is when asking questions. The employee has to clarify the customer’s concern without putting the customer on the defensive. Finally, the customer shouldn’t be put on hold for a prolonged period.

3. Employees on Autopilot

Service people must stay engaged. They should do it by asking a blend of open questions, which keep customers explaining, and closed questions, which help confirm facts and isolate the customer’s needs.

Employees should explain what happened in terms the customer understands. They should be clear about what they know and don’t know about the situation. They must avoid blaming anyone for the problem — the organization, another employee, and certainly not the customer.

Most importantly, they should provide the particular kind of service each customer needs. Geek Squad, which provides support for technology product users, trains its employees to understand that customers have radically different levels of knowledge about the products and to serve them accordingly.

4. Focusing on Features

Some well-meaning service providers, hoping to give their customers insights about the product, talk too much about its features rather than the customers’ problems. This can make the customers feel their concerns aren’t being addressed. This is no time to try to up-sell or cross- sell.

More than 40% of survey respondents worldwide said they get annoyed when an employee “talks to me about things other than the problem I am trying to resolve.” Customers dislike complex processes and generally want to be spared the details of internal activities and issues.

5. Getting Negative

It’s not what the employees say but how they say it that leaves a lasting impression on the customer. The interaction must be positive throughout its duration. Words like “can’t” or “won’t” can quickly send the conversation spiraling downward. It would be wise to give service employees lists of words to use and words to avoid as they communicate with customers. Verint Systems, a consulting and research firm, identifies some of the words and phrases that can antagonize customers. They include “you people,” “let me speak,” and “you promised.”

6. Escalating Anger

Angry customers sometimes express their feelings by verbally assaulting service providers. Employees must avoid responding with anger. Help them understand that customers aren’t attacking them personally. Teach them how to ease tension and clear a path to address the customer’s problems.

Customer loyalty is built one successful interaction at a time. Customer-facing associates are likely the most critical link between the customer and your brand. Indifferent or unhappy buyers among your customer base can be converted into brand promoters by taking a holistic view of the customer’s experience and determining how employee skills and behaviors fit into it.