Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, Tamara J Erickson on Managing Troubled Times

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Executive Interviews: Interview with Tamara J Erickson on Managing Troubled Times
March 2009 - By Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary


Tamara J Erickson
Tamara J Erickson, President nGenera Innovation Network


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    Another option, favored by many countries, is to encourage immigration. While this approach has not been used in the US, there are signs that Japan, long resistant to immigration, is beginning to be more open to this possibility. Although officially closed to immigration, Japan has admitted foreign workers through various loopholes, including employing growing numbers of foreign students as part-timers and temporary workers, as so-called foreign trainees. The use of foreign workers is growing in the farming sector within Japan, as well as in fishing villages, factories, restaurants and nursing homes, and on construction sites,with workers coming from China and, most recently, from the Philippines.

    National policy can also be used to draw attention to key sectors of the economy. Concern that the worker shortage could chip away at its craftsmanship tradition, prompted Japan to initiate a national campaign around the word ‘monozukuri,’ which means ‘making things.’ The campaign aims to attract young people not only to industrial production but also to arts and crafts and other activities that involve working with one’s hands. The government campaign has earmarked funds to several robotics, nanotechnology, genome and other technology projects.

  • In one of your recently written advisory pieces ("GiveMe the Ball!" Is the Wrong Call, HBR, December 2008), you have observed that “Give me the ball” is the wrong call.Why is it wrong for a CEO to call the shots during troubled times? From your elaborate research and consulting experience, can you describe the typical “collective psychology” during troubled times? Who should break that jinx?
    Almost everyone I know who has taken on the responsibility of managing within an enterprise feels the weight of obligation deep in their bones – obligations to the owners of the enterprise, of course, and to customers, but for most, perhaps even more viscerally, obligations to the employees and families that depend on the company for their livelihood and to the heritage of the organization that they’ve been given the privileged to steward.

    As a result, there’s no big surprise that times of trouble prompt many leaders to feel that they have to call the shots, personally make the key play. It’s probably human nature – or at least human nature for those who take on these roles.

    In many companies today, executives are shouting “give me the ball.” Authority is being centralized, extra levels of sign-off added; small teams of executives are closeting away in secret retreats to review options, while meetings that would bring the troops together are being canceled. Executive instinct drives tighter control – review your costs, tighten your approval criteria, pull key decisions and sign offs up to higher levels, make sure everyone in the organization is as fully busy as possible, narrow the business scope. These actions are understandable, but dangerously wrong.

    Significant research has shown that groups make better decisions than individuals, that there is wisdom in crowds. Rather than personally grabbing the ball during a downturn, leaders need to tap into the wisdom – perhaps even more importantly, energy – of the entire organization. In a downturn, rather than trying to tighten control and hunker down, leaders must find ways to help organizations become more spontaneous, innovative and reflexive.

  • In one of your highly popular books, Retire Retirement: Career Strategies for the Boomer Generation, you have very optimistically predicted that there is no need to retire. The growing talent shortage will allow you to re-negotiate your relationship with ‘work’. Do you think the recent US financial crisis has undone that optimism? Do you think the very same talent has become a burden for the companies?
    Without doubt, the recession has reset the game board for Boomers. Options that appeared viable twelve months ago are now off the table for many. Ironically, the current economic crisis has made it both more necessary and more difficult for boomers to continue working past traditional retirement age than itwas a year ago.

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