Thursday, October 29, 2009

Black Swans and Sea Turtles

Conferences and networking are a rich source of new ideas for me. On a recent trip to San Francisco, I obtained the following food for thought:

In The Black Swan The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author describes how naturalists believed all swans were white, until black swans were discovered in Australia. Such discontinuities can cause revolutionary changes, for better or for worse. In order to find exceptional returns, we need to seek out and put up to 20% of our resources (money, time, talent) into long bets - black swans - while keeping the other 80% in safer, more predictable areas.

While in San Francisco, I attended the PharmAsia Summit, to learn about the new trends in pharmaceutical R&D innovation in China. Current drivers are the annual 40,000 Sea Turtles - educated scientist / entrepreneur returnees to China, and a flood of patent filings by domestic Chinese scientists, encouraged by a new 3rd amendment to Chinese patent law that has changed the system from first to file to first to invent and increased penalties for infringement. Other factors include up to 50% tax credits for R&D investment, reforms and capacity building in the Chinese S-FDA, and the new Chinese healthcare system reforms aimed at making healthcare accessible and affordable to all. Continuing challenges include the high cost and 30-40% import duties on foreign reagents and scientific equipment, and supply chain and quality issues ranging from counterfeiting and adulteration to weak clinical data integrity and alteration of records.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

All the World's a Stage

Yesterday I attended a class on Acting for Executives led by Rebecca Johanssen, founder of Stone Soup Theatre Company. The purpose of the class - to show how techniques used by actors can elevate speechmaking and other verbal and non-verbal communication in the workplace from good to great.

Johanssen compared YouTube clips of speeches by Bill Clinton and George W Bush to show the impact that a confident attitude and body language, and strong awareness of audience reaction, and great timing can have. A comparison of clips of speeches by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, founders of Apple revealed the importance of narrative and storytelling to compelling communication.

To develop our skill in reading and reacting to our audiences, Rebecca led the class through several improvisation exercises - throwing and catching an imaginary ball of variable size and speed around the circle of participants, playing an imaginary game of tug-o'-war, and having a volunteer mime a sporting activity and inviting others to join in the game as soon as we guessed the sport.

Vocal inflection is an important factor in verbal communication. In pairs we held conversations using only two simple phrases (e.g. "I have a secret" "I don't want to know"), varying only the vocal inflection. In general mirroring your partner's inflection can work. If you are saying "no" it can also be effective to keep your voice firm and low, likewise to persuade someone, also try leaning in, smiling and lowering your voice.

Often speakers must respond to questions off the cuff and provide convincing arguments. To practise this skill, small groups were given an unusual object and challenged to come up with an application for the object and then devise and act a commercial to sell the object to the rest of the group.

Lastly everyone was asked to tell a personal story to the group, with a beginning, middle and end. Our own self is a subject we are each an expert in, so this exercise builds confidence in storytelling, that can be applied to presenting business information. Practice makes perfect.

In addition, Rebecca shared some physical exercises that actors use to prepare voice, body and mind for performing. To warm up, inhale and exhale deeply, say "Brrrrrrrrr" to loosen lips and repeat "Red leather, Yellow leather" with maximum enunciation to loosen tongues. Swing your arms and shoulders and hang loosely down from the waist to the floor to stretch muscles.

It is helpful to be relaxed when performing on stage. Rebecca led us through a visualization exercise involving deep breathing, muscle tightening and relaxing and imagining our bodies bathed in white light starting from a small ball of light on our heads. To focus, we visualized the ball of light in the middle of our foreheads and then in our minds eye, took it forward and back in front of us.

All these tools and exercises provide substantial food for thought. I look forward to applying them to my next business presentation.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Starting Ingredients

I attended an excellent panel discussion last week organized by the American Chemical Society in which three CEOs of biotech start-ups shared their experiences of establishing new companies.

The three key ingredients to a successful start-up are: great science / intellectual property, experienced people and of course, financial backing. Each company had started out with a different one of these three ingredients, and then sought out the the other two.

Food for thought - in today's world, new companies build a core team as soon as funding is first received, almost always with former coworkers whose experience and capabilities are a known quantity. As product development progresses, these companies plan on using expert consultants and outsourcing to handle specialized, but non-core activities, rather than hiring and building these capabilities in-house.

Main take-away: if you are interested in joining a start-up company the best place to start is re-establishing contact with former coworkers and those who know what you can do. The evening finished on a very upbeat note, encouraging entrepreneurs to take courage and take the plunge now, at a time where start up costs, rents and used equipment are low, and dream teams are ready, willing and available.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Facebook Faux Pas

Do you use Facebook? If you do, the following article may resonate with you:

Here are some additional categories of annoying facebook updaters:

1. The Spammer
How could you avoid noticing a spammer? These people fill your wall with one post after another, in fact Facebook kindly hides the proliferation of posts with a link inviting you to peruse "4 related posts." I often wonder how spammers hold down a job since they are posting on Facebook all day long.

2. The Soul-Barer
These honest folk's first reaction is to bare their innermost feelings via their Facebook page. Do they realize or care that the whole world could be watching? Typical revelations include "I hate my job / my boss / my neighbors" or "I am going for a job interview / a pregnancy test / I will be out of the country on vacation from Saturday for a month". Hello! Did you stop to think whether your past, current or future employer or the local burglar might be among your readers?

3. The Proud Parent
Cute photos of your offspring are nice to share, but please spare us the details of what Junior just said, or is watching on TV. You don't need to tell us how adorable they are. Why not set up a separate page so that you can share Junior's every waking moment only with his doting Grandma?

4. The Vote Chaser
An extreme example of the Self-Promoter, the Vote Chaser spams Facebook Friends daily, or more than daily to cast votes in an online ballot for their pet cause, often themself. Vote for me!

What responses can we make to these irritating individuals? It's probably a good idea to refrain from public criticism or comment on the offender's Wall - it can be amusing to watch in mild cases and in extreme cases there are always the options of sending a private message to gently explain that you find the posts inappropriate, or if you don't care to preserve the friendship, just quietly unfriend the person - chances are they will never notice...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Moderator Tips

I never appreciated the importance of good moderation of a speaker panel until attending a poorly moderated panel discussion recently. The meeting promised very well - great panelist line-up, interesting topic, strong attendance, combined with a venue that provided excellent logistics, refreshments and audiovisual set up. But despite all these advantages, the event was marred by poor moderation and both speakers and audience were left disappointed by the experience.

What can we learn from this about good moderation?
1) Preparation is key.

a) Selecting panelists. Three to four panelists is an ideal number - fewer and it can be difficult to present diverse points of view, more than four and there won't be enough time for each panelist to contribute meaningfully. Consider the diversity of your panel too - not just by type of company, consider women panelists as well as men and panelists with international experience.

b) Briefing panelists. Contact each panelist beforehand to get their bio and check how they wish to be introduced (and the pronunciation of their name and company). Explain the topic for discussion and your expectations for their participation - e.g. will they be expected to give a short presentation? With powerpoint or without? How long? Ideally, get your panelists together beforehand either by teleconference or prior to the panel discussion, for breakfast or lunch, so that they can get acquainted and start to identify issuues of interest for the panel discussion.

2. Facilitating the discussion.

a) It is your job as moderator to get the discussion going and guide the pace and direction. But remember the audience has come to hear the panelists speak, not you, so avoid making over-long introductory comments. Invite each panelist to introduce him or herself (no more than 5 minutes) and then start by posing a few questions that you have prepared beforehand with the panel. One good approach can be to pose a general question and invite each panelist in turn to express his or her view.

b) Usually there will be questions from the audience. If the question is not audible, repeat it so that everyone can hear - it can be helpful to have a microphone available for audience questions so that you do not need to repeat them. Sometimes audience members may use the opportunity as a platform or make long rambling comments prior to their question. The moderator is responsible for bringing these questions back to focus, and if necessary for moving the discussion on to the next question. Do not allow any one individual to monopolize the airtime but firmly interrupt if necessary and direct the question to another panelist, or invite another person to ask a new question

3. Time management. The moderator is responsible for keeping the discussion on track. Carefully plan your time beforehand - for introductions, the main topics to be covered and allow time for audience questions at the end.

I hope these moderator tips are helpful in eliciting lively and dynamic panel discussions from your invited experts. What other tips can you share?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Women's Side Businesses

Maybe the reason is Girl Scout Cookies, or perhaps it's bake sales or lemonade stands. But the fact is many women have side businesses in addition to a full time job (or being a stay-at-home Mom). Many of these are sales positions with franchises like Mary Kay, Tupperware, Pampered Chef or Usana, to name a few. Others are novel ideas for customized personal services, for example creating memories, preparing taxes or organizing. A key success factor for many of these businesses is leveraging the networks that women have - at work, at school, in the neighborhood.

What is it that makes us devote our precious spare time to a side business? Is it that we still need to earn extra pin money to cover the cost of child care? Is it a hobby that generates personal gain as well as satisfaction? How long do side businesses typically last before they give way to other more pressing occupations?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Paths to Entrepreneurship

"Yoraba taiju no kage" - "Select the big tree for your shelter". I heard this Japanese proverb yesterday at a panel discussion organized by the Japan Society of San Diego and Tijuana, from Dr. Hiroyoshi Horikoshi, for many years head of Sankyo Research Labs in San Diego. It can also be translated as "if you are to serve, serve the powerful for your own good".

Dr. Horikoshi was seeking to explain why Japanese culture discourages entrepreneurship - to get on in life people are advised to go work for big companies or the government rather than take a risk and work for a small company or start-up.

How many entrepreneurs got started out of necessity, after a lay-off? Are there others who have tasted life in a major corporation and decided it is not for them - opting out for their own reasons? Is there a trend for students fresh from universities to reject the corporate path and head out on their own?

Opting Out - Review Part 2

In her book "Opting Out", Pamela Stone asks the women who quit work to stay home with their families about their plans to return to their careers. Although most say them want to return at some point in the future, a majority express a tremendous loss of confidence about their ability to cope and compete in their former careers. A number consider changing careers to enter one of the more caring "traditional" women's jobs such as teaching.

In Stone's sample, several women took on transitional work in the form of consulting projects to bridge the break from a full time position. A common experience was for these projects to "fall into their lap" from a previous employer. This was certainly my experience after being laid off last year. I wonder whether independent consulting is limited to periods of transition, or whether it is possible to create a new career long term as a consultant, keeping to one's original profession but becoming your own boss with the flexibility to set your own work schedule. Can women survive and thrive as independent consultants or do the pressures of entrepreneurship entail ever longer working hours?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Opting Out - Review Part 1

Pamela Stone's book "Opting Out - Why women really quit careers and head home" makes fascinating reading. Stone interviewed 54 women in their 30's and 40's who quit successful careers as lawyers, accountants, doctors, researchers, etc to become stay-at-home Moms to uncover the reasons why. About one in ten white, college educated women aged 30-54 stays home, and the proportion of these stay-at home Moms has remained fairly constant over the last 20 years.

One key insight was that expectations have risen both for what it means to be an ideal parent, with today's intensive parenting style, and also what it means to be an ideal employee, working long hours, extensive business travel and being available 24/7. These twin societal pressures can make it very difficult to feel successful both at work and home.

While these expectations impact both working men and working women, it is women who end up working the "second shift" when they get home, picking up the lion's share of responsibility for housekeeping and childcare, because "someone has to do it". Interestingly a vast majority of the women in the study viewed their husband's career as more important than their own, even though these women themselves had been very successful. The husbands also got a free pass on their share of housekeeping and childcare.

Watch this space for part 2 of the review.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

2020 Vision for Corporate Women

Where will executive women be in 2020?
What are the drivers for future change?
In the next few posts I'm going to explore some of the Social, Technology, Economic, Environmental, Political and Personal Values trends we see today as potential predictors of our future path

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Women as Negotiators

I just attended a class in Negotiations in the Learning Consortium executive education series at UCSD Rady School. A major part of the class was a negotiation exercise in teams of two. My team of two women successfully negotiated the highest value deal versus our opponents, an all-male team. The secrets of our success? In this case, better preparation, first in reading the question, second in identifying the key value drivers and third, in agreeing a strategy beforehand. Our team presented a united front, taking our discussions privately, outside the negotiating room, while the opposing team was divided at times.

Do you think there is a difference in style and success rate between men and women negotiators? In what situations can women get the better deal?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Women's Networks

As a member of several women's organizations including the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) and Athena San Diego, the association for executive women in technology, I find networking in a predominantly female setting has been very productive in finding leads. However I am no wallflower either when it comes to business networking in mixed company, or the more usual settings where the majority is male.
Are there differences in the ways men and women network? What has your experience been with networking in mixed, and mainly women groups?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Women on Corporate Boards

Catalyst is well known for its research on women in business. Catalyst's 2008 census of Women Board Directors and Corporate Officers and Top Earners of Fortune 500 companies was published on Jan 12, 2009 at

According to the latest report, among Fortune 500 companies, on average 1.7 out of 11.2, or 15.1% of board directors are women. For FP500 companies in the healthcare and social services industry sector 2.1 out of 10.5, or 20% of directors are women. The percentages are almost the same in each case for women among corporate officers and top earners.

These figures represent a very small increase over 2007. An increase was also seen in the number of boards with 3 or more women, which is reported to be the magic number to achieve critical mass and keep those women on board. There has however, been an increase in the number of boards without a single woman director.

What has your experience been? Is it difficult to be the only senior woman in a corporation? Two's not enough company? Three's a comfortable crowd?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Independent Consulting

Have you been laid off recently? Looking for a job but hesitant to accept something if you are not sure it's a perfect match for your career goals? Why not consider a short term consulting assignment? This can be a great, low-risk way to get to know a potential future employer, broaden your experience, while earning some much needed income and keeping your options open as you continue your job search.
I fell into consulting almost by accident after being laid off last spring. My project leads all came via personal contacts from previous jobs, who knew my experience and skill set well. While consulting, I enjoyed being able to keep a flexible schedule that allowed me to juggle several assignments, job interviews and still make time for leisure activities during the day. One of my consulting assignments resulted in an offer of a permanent position, which I was happy to take having had the benefit of several months' experience with the company, its people and culture.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Been Laid Off?

Today's Union Tribune published the latest unemployment statistics - 8.8% in San Diego in February 2009, expected to reach double digits before the economy improves. Our household has certainly contributed to that statistic, since both my husband and I have been laid off in the last 12 months. Happily, I am now employed again but my husband is still seeking employment.

Losing a job can be as traumatic as losing a loved one and after a lay-off many people go through the normal stages of grieving: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. Have you been laid off? What stage are you at?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Portfolio Careers

The first time I came across the concept of a portfolio career was in Charles Handy's book "The Age of Unreason", first published back in 1989. Handy defines a work portfolio as "a way of describing how the different bits of our life fit together to form a balanced whole."He includes five categories of work in a portfolio: Wage work, Fee work, Home work, Gift work and Study work. This concept has certainly played out in my life. So far I have had careers as a scientist, a strategy consultant, a strategic plannner and currently in business development. But I also have a passion for playing the cello and serve on several nonprofit boards of directors.

What do you think of portfolio careers? Is this a trend likely to increase in the future? Is there such a thing as a job for life any more?