Thursday, April 18, 2013

Getting Pushed Backed, While "Leaning In"

Applicable to all under-represented groups?
So the topic that has made a torrent splash in the early weeks of 2013 is a new catch-phrase:  "Lean In," taken, of course, from Facebook COO's Sheryl Sandberg's new book of the same name. The book raced to the top of best-seller lists. The subject--how women can push (or propel?) themselves into the top echelons of business--is relevant. The advice and guidance are useful, although Sandberg acknowledges there are no quick fixes, no one special way to progress along the path, and certainly no assurances that every woman who "leans in" will one day find herself chair of the board.

Nonetheless, Sandberg determined it was time to put the issue back on the table and force companies and business leaders to assess where we are.  She advises women to seize control of their destinies, bang on the door and avoid waiting for it to open.

So next question. Are her advice and guidance relevant to other under-represented segments (URM) in business--Asians, Latinos and blacks? Does her message, including her instructions and urgings, apply to minority professionals? What happens when members of those groups dare to "lean in," ask for what they want, aspire to become senior business leaders and push for opportunity, promotions and adequate compensation? What happens when they "lean in," assert themselves, but then get pushed back, get pummeled or--even worse--outright ignored?  What happens if they are pushed back for not being patient or for being too vocal, too ironclad specific about what they seek in the next 10 years?

Let's now narrow this to minority professionals in financial services.  What happens if those from  URM, who thrive in, say, corporate finance, banking, trading, funds management, or equity research lean in and get pushed back? Get punched and knocked down in their efforts to seize a seat at the leadership table?

Career paths in finance are often rough, brutal--marked by periods of overwhelming workloads, evolving deadlines, demanding clients, mountainous risks, complex deals, blockbuster trades, tough decisions, and severe competition from other firms and from the colleague down the corridor. Many associates or vice presidents are aware it takes more than superior technical skills to get promoted, be rated highly, and win hard-fought pieces of the bonus pie. It takes stamina, perseverance, contacts, mentors, a thick skin, and bits of chance (lucky markets, lucky opportunities, and being in the right group or on the right team in good times).

So how do under-represented minorities in finance put themselves in settings where they can--more often than not--be in the right place in pivotal career moments?  How do they "lean in" to make sure they contribute to important client meetings, deals and projects--the deals and projects that get people noticed and put them on go-to lists of those who get to do bigger deals, manage bigger projects and oversee larger clients? 

Many minority professionals in finance and consulting already know the game; they have already seized half of it by enduring grueling recruiting processes and have earned treasured spots at firms like Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, Morgan Stanley or any of the notable private-equity firms, investment managers or hedge funds. Like many women in the same roles, they understand what it takes "lean in." They plotted ways to gain entrance into top schools.  They managed rigorous course loads in business schools and successfully navigated through numbing rounds of interviews.  They know what it takes to be aggressive, stand out, and grab opportunity when the doors open ever so slightly and briefly. 

Those who survive the pressures of doing deals, booking big trades, making investment decisions and meeting budget "lean in" in their roles of banker, trader, analyst, or researcher. They raise their hands to ask for plumb assignments, request to be put on innovative deals, and volunteer for special overseas roles. Always accessible and committed, they give up weekends, holidays and weekday evenings.

After a few years, they know it is critical to be on the inside of strategy sessions, senior management presentations, and any gathering to discuss ways to boost revenues or introduce new products and services.They find ways to nudge inside the doors where the biggest decisions are made.

But as they "lean in" and make exhausting commitments to the firm, the client, the deal, the portfolio and the business, many have not adroitly figured out what to do when they get "pushed back." Getting pushed back occurs more frequently than they expected. Often the push-back occurs for subjective, unfair reasons. Sometimes the push-back is blind-sided gesture on the part of a manager, colleague or management team.

Getting pushed back too frequently for inexplicable reasons leads to discouragement. It triggers floods of emotions and self-reflection:  What did I do wrong? What can I do to alter their perceptions of me? What more can I do to earn visible assignments or prove myself in a bigger role with significant responsibility? Why do they not recognize me when I raise my hand, make noise, stomp my feet and share my ideas for new products, clients and revenue growth?

Sometimes after such self-reflection, they find ways to rebound. Some learn the art of bouncing back and conjure the strength to rebound not once, but time and again. They take a different angle or approach, when they "lean in."  They respond to feedback. They return with an even better project idea, finance model, or client tactic. They re-commit to the team, deal, or firm. They find other mentors to toot their horns or help with a career strategy.

Unfortunately, getting pushed back too often leads to bewilderment and loss of energy and enthusiasm. Eventually it leads talented under-represented minorities (and women) to withdraw or recede while still on the job and ultimately to resign from the job itself. Bouncing back after leaning in and getting pushed back over and over becomes too draining, too stressful. 

How to bounce back from the push-back is usually the kind of guidance many mid-level finance professionals from under-represented groups (including women) crave:

When senior managers compose the deal team that will work on the billion-dollar underwriting for, yes, Sandberg's Facebook, how should they barge their way onto the team? When the team is being composed to advise Google, Eli Lily or John Deere on its next major acquisition, how do they ensure they are selected?

When a sector leader selects someone to lead a business group in London, Brazil or Tokyo, how do they win such a coveted assignment? When the institution rolls out a new product to a new client group in a different part of the country, how do they make sure they have a fair shot at the opportunity to lead the product campaign?

When they do extensive research, exquisite financial modeling or insightful analysis and come up with novel ways to assist a client or structure a financing, how do they ensure their voices are not silenced and their ideas not stolen?

As year-end approaches, when they review their accomplishments and contributions, how do they ensure in evaluation season their rankings or ratings won't slip, because they don't have champions or advocates on their behalf or because others diminish their contributions?

There is no formulaic solution to handle the "push-back."  Much depends on the environment, the firm culture, the immediate surroundings, management hierarchy and the financial state of the institution. Much also depends on personal goals and priorities (something Sandberg's book examines from cover to cover).  In all cases, it helps to reassess a situation, review those personal priorities, maintain confidence, and recommit to what is important. In some cases, it even helps to "lean on" others more experienced (not necessarily "lean in") who have traversed the same corporate routes and endured similar push-backs and setbacks.

Motivated and talented minorities and women lean in continually--every day, throughout the year, in every transaction, trade, client session, or discussion of risks, revenues, investments and new products.  They want to understand the best ways to thwart the "push-back." And they want encouragement and energy to rebound one more time with confidence that all the effort has a chance to pay off.

Tracy Williams

See also:

CFN:  Making Demands on Diversity, 2013
CFN:  Venture Capital Diversity Update, 2011
CFN:  MBA Diversity: A Constant Effort to Catch Up, 2012
CFN:  How Mentors Can Help, 2009
CFN:  Mentors:  Still Critical and Necessary, 2010
CFN:  Affinity Groups, 2011

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

What Happened at JCPenney?

Waiting for the invitable b-school case
Eventually this will become an intriguing business-school case, particularly for those concentrating in marketing and general management.  Activist investors push hard to re-engineer, restructure and revitalize JCPenney, the old retailing outfit--languishing in modern times, struggling to expand, and suffering with losses and a tanking stock price in the post-recession recovery.

The old CEO resigns, and the company figures it has found the solution in a dynamic new CEO, who would swoop in and radically change JCP by casting upon it magical dust from Steve Jobs and Apple.  JCP, amidst fanfare, hires Ronald Johnson after he helped spawn and lead Apple's broadly successful and wildly popular store expansion.  Apple, Jobs and Johnson had transformed the branch-store and electronic-purchasing experience into in-store theater.

JCP succumbs to the nudges from shareholder activist and prominent investor William Ackman. They reason that Johnson would similarly transform the low-retail customer experience into something resembling an Apple store in over 1,000 JCP stores across the country.

Johnson was supposed to bring the secret code to the magic of Apple. He brought revolutionary transformation to JCP, eliminated traditional discounting pricing, and altered the buying experience by setting up stores within stores. He instituted change in Apple-like ways.  Just as Jobs would do, he avoided detailed, quantitative marketing research and analysis.  Just like Jobs, based on experience and hunch, he decided that he could determine what customers want and decide how stores should be designed and structured. Jobs used to say customers aren't sure what they want, so he should determine that. Johnson approached JCP's customer base similarly.  

Two years later, JCP seems to be in a financial quagmire, a retailing mess.  The stock price fell from about $37/share to less than $14/share in the past year.  Sales last quarter fell over 20%, and the company has announced losses and management change. The bleeding had to stop immediately. It even decided to invite back former CEO William Ullman, as if it will contemplate a reversion back to the old JCP.

Marketing gurus and analysts will ponder this in the time to come and try to figure out what happened, why Johnson's strategy crashed, and why consumers who flock to whatever is new at Apple were turned off by Johnson's store changes and redesign. Business-school professors will decide this is a timely, significant case to study retail strategy, marketing management, and consumer behavior.

But there is a finance element to what happened.  The change was triggered by a large equity shareholder, activist Ackman.  He thought complete, rapid transformation was the best way to boost sluggish shareholder value. The company had--at that time--manageable debt loads, substantial amounts of liquidity and cash, and sufficient amounts of cash flow from the 1,000-plus stores to plow back into the business. Sales growth seemed to have stalled, mostly a result of consumers' reluctance to spend during and immediately after the recession.

The best way to get sudden boosts in stock price, he likely figured, was to make substantial changes in management and business strategy, while keeping the balance sheet stable.   The best and most popular choice would be someone who had that Apple magic.

Now with recurring losses and dwindling levels of cash, corporate-finance advisers may need to step in to determine clever ways to manage what could turn out to be a bothersome debt burden.

(Some will argue the company was distracted by current litigation related to Macy's and Martha Stewart. This might have been a thorn in management's efforts in the short term, but would not likely have proven to be the difference between soaring growth and sorrowful losses.)

JCP, Ackman, and Johnson all combined to take a significant business risk. Perhaps they should be and will be applauded for that. But somehow it didn't work. Or for the first two years, it didn't work.  Given time, it might have taken off later, or it might have eventually "clicked" with customers, or the company might have discovered a new, different customer segment to enjoy the different, more flamboyant in-store experience. 

Perhaps it pushed too hard, too fast. For now, marketing MBA students will have a chance to scrutinize what went wrong and why.  Finance MBAs may get a chance to study whether the strong voices from large activist shareholders can steer an old company that needs a swift kick, but does so in the wrong way.

Tracy Williams

See also:

CFN: Apple's Stash of Cash, 2012
CFN: Dell Going Private? 2013