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February 2016

HBR on What Makes a Great Leader

BR1511_500Back in November, Harvard Business Review unveiled its list of the world's best-performing CEOs using a new methodology that no longer relies solely on financial metrics but also takes into account the company's engagement with social and environmental issues, leading to the "triple bottom line" (you can read more about TBL in this Economist article from 2009). For the first time, HBR also included CEOs who began their tenure prior to 1995 - they had previously been removed due to the unavailability of a key metric used in the ranking. I was surprised to learn that "about one-quarter of this year's top 100 started the job before then". I suppose we hear more about those who burn out and are forced out, which gives the impression that most CEOs have a short tenure, but the average tenure now is 9.7 years. I do believe that staying in the top job for two decades requires unusual energy and health management, and I hope that HBR will write an article some day about the systems and processes they have in place to operate at their best. 

Back to the list: the use of social and environmental considerations kicked Jeff Bezos of out of the first spot, and anointed in his place Lars Rebien Sorensen, CEO of pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk. Sorensen was also the focus of an extended interview with HBR, in which his take on his job came across as particularly refreshing. Sorensen himself recognizes the importance of his Nordic background in guiding his actions, and the role that six years in the US when he was younger have played in shaping his leadership. 

I enjoyed his perspective on diversification, especially the example he gave of his company, which manufactures drugs to treat diabetes, when it was pushed to diversify into the adjacent market of glucose monitoring: it seemed like a good idea on paper, but everything was different, from the technology to the regulatory environment. He also discussed the company's geography-dependent pricing (with a strategy based on both generic and differentiated products) and the way his modest, down-to-earth attitude helps him lead his employees. 

Another interview I liked was that of Analysis Group's CEO Martha Samuelson (married to the son of Nobel-Prize winner Paul Samuelson), who describes her approach on managing with soft metrics. She argues that "saying 'you can't manage what you don't measure' ignores how much you end up changing people's behavior when you measure it too closely" ("formula-based, data-driven pay systems also fail to incentivize people to engage in softer activities, such as mentoring and recruiting") and advocates instead for a "black-box system that depends on extensive discussion of soft metrics and what seems fair." 

Finally, that issue's "Life's work" featured the great choreographer Bill T. Jones. I love his work and I enjoyed hearing him speak with Theaster Gates at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston a few months ago. In the interview, I was most impressed by how aware he is of his personality flaws, with comments such as "Considering how volatile and confrontational I can be, it's a wonder there's this crops of talented people around me." I liked this quote because leadership books often give the feeling that tough conversations won't have to happen if you're a good leader (you may have difficult ones but you'll change everyone's mind eventually), and Bill T. Jones reminds us that leaders can be flawed too. Behind the bravado, Jones also lets us see a man who owns up to his doubts and insecurities, for instance when he first states in the interview that he's depressive. And here is his answer to the question of how he finds talent: "Which one [applicant at a casting call] can you not stop looking at? Not because she's the best but because she has a hunger for the material and shows you something in it."

HBR on Collaborative Overload

BR1601_500The January-February issue of Harvard Business Review has an article on collaborative overload ("Your most helpful employees are burning out. Here's what to do about it.") that was deemed important enough to be picked up by The Economist in its January 23 Schumpeter column

What puzzled me most about the article and the Schumpeter column is that it seems to assume that all collaborations happen through meetings. But the idea behind putting teams of people with disparate backgrounds at work on a problem rather than a single individual is that each can best tackle a different part of the problem. In academia, biological sciences are famous for the teams of researchers that gather to work on a problem, as evidenced by the long list of authors on every paper (although it is not always clear what certain authors have contributed and the inflation in the number of authors has been a concern). Those researchers didn't make their contribution through meetings. Instead, they each focused on the part of the problem where they had most expertise and shared their results with other members of the team - and with some more often than others - as needed to gather feedback, highlight a result that another team member might investigate in more depth or pay particular attention to, and more.

The National Science Foundation (the main research funding agency in the U.S.) seems to favor grant proposals by teams of researchers because they can tackle more complex problems than a single individual would, precisely because of the range of the principal investigators' expertise. The word "Meetings" has such a negative connotation these days, bringing to mind ideas of twenty people seated around a conference table sneaking glances at their smartphones while the boss is droning on, that it is easy to forget - or not to realize, for people in a different line of work - that small-group meetings about a research project you have chosen and are making a primary contribution to are actually a lot of fun, thanks to the intellectual stimulation of working on a cutting-edge topic with exceptional peers.

The challenges for that sort of collaboration are that: (i) most people make a contribution through their own in-depth expertise (although some do by making connections across domains, or breadth contributions) and collaboration doesn't favor the updating of deep skills, (ii) collaboration increases the risk that the project will be swayed by a dominant member nudging the others into the direction he advocates, whether that direction is the right one for the company or not, and (iii) collaboration requires different skills than the ones people were trained for. This is particularly true at the doctoral level in engineering, where students receive their PhD based on a dissertation that bears their sole name, but are more and more often expected to collaborate with their colleagues once they are on the faculty, after five years or more with a primary relationship of dependence to their research advisor. There is no formal training on how to work effectively with others. Undergraduate education in the U.S. is now emphasizing group projects more but I don't think there is any formal training on how to work well in a team either. While group capstone projects with industry sponsors allows more meaningful and far-reaching work in the time allotted, in other courses group projects may mean fewer reports to grade for the faculty. This is not a recipe for groundbreaking contributions in the workforce. 

Since meetings were on the HBR authors' mind, I wish the article had made more of a difference between categories I will call "status update" meetings, "politically correct" meetings and brainstorming sessions. The big time sink, I feel, is the "politically correct" meeting: the meeting that was called because someone is pushing a trendy-sounding initiative and needs to say that he gathered (and hopefully actually gather) the input of a broad segment of the constituents in order to push the initiative forward. That person therefore picked a representative from this unit and that division and everybody finds themselves in a room discussing ideas they don't have a buy into. There is no burning imperative, no vision, sometimes little mandate, and the meeting only exists because someone wants to check a box in a to-do list: "yes we solicited input when we designed this initiative." This is the sort of meetings where free food is served generously to compensate for the waste of time. While the description above fits "ad hoc" meetings more than regular-scheduled ones, standing committees are often notorious for the way they consume time in mindless fashion. That is not, however, a result of collaborative overload. It is a result of meetings being poorly run, the meeting leader's inability to rein in the few people who are happy to listen to themselves talk and the need to develop better tools to engage employees in meaningful participation.  

The Schumpeter column also touches upon the fashion of open-plan offices and the paradox of their near-ubiquity in knowledge-intensive companies, where uninterrupted concentration is particularly important. At least people with offices can close their door when they want to work undisturbed. (Forward-thinking companies with traditional office layout now have glass windows to encourage interactions and collaboration by making it easy to see if someone is in or not. Nowadays you can't succeed by locking yourself in your office.) Environments that facilitate collaboration also make it difficult to shut it out if you don't want it and lack modularity: you can't just draw a screen around your cubicle if you need to focus, perhaps first because you don't have a cubicle anymore but sit at a long table with the rest of your team. Yet, this can be solved. Just like students like to go to the library when they need to focus and sit in common areas when they welcome more social interaction, employees could have multiple spaces where they can go and do their work, maybe from a desktop at their main desk and a laptop otherwise. The "quiet" spaces can be shared, like the library, as long as everybody refrains from conversation, and the employee's primary space would be the desk on the open-floor plan. If the Acela train - not exactly an innovation pioneer - can have "quiet" cars, surely offices at knowledge-intensive companies too. This would allow employees to be energized by the enthusiasm and contributions of their colleagues (a key purpose of open-floor plans), while giving them the opportunity to tune out when needed. 

ECC research at INFORMS Annual Meeting

Today's post is about the presentations two participants to the Richard E. Rosenthal Early Career Connection program - Shokoufeh Mirzaei and Ehsan Salari - did of their work at the 2015 INFORMS Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, PA. (Nominations for the 2016 ECC program are now open and due March 4! More information is available here.) 

IMG_3213Dr. Mirzaei (Shokoufeh thereafter), who is a tenure-track Assistant Professor at Cal State Pomona, gave a talk regarding open problems on computational structural biology and protein quality assessment. She explained why researchers care about the structure of the protein (shape affects function). Many diseases happen as a result of misfolding proteins (for instance Alzheimer's and Parkinson's) and it is important in the drug discovery process to understand a protein's interaction with other proteins. The goal of this line of work is to design new proteins with desired functions not currently found in nature, with the hope that computational work will be able to replace at least in part experimental work, i.e., drug trials on individuals. A challenge is that there is no clearly defined energy function so there is no clear objective to minimize. Criteria that can be used in the optimization framework include: hydrogen bonds, Van der Waals interactions, backbone and angle preferences, electrostatic interactions, and more. Those criteria lead to very nonlinear and non convex expressions, making the problem even more challenging. 

Shokoufeh then discussed the Protein Data Bank (which offers opportunities for template-based, homology-based and free modeling) and the WeFold Coopetition, the purpose of which is to encourage "coopetition" (competition+cooperation) among labs to improve the state of knowledge regarding protein structure prediction. Certain classes of prediction targets have only seen modest gains over the past few years and such an event therefore had the potential of speeding up the rate of discovery. Open problems in the field include best scoring function and best metrics to compare two protein structures. Then Shokoufeh commented on the problem of creating a benchmark data set for testing different proteins and discussed computational approaches such as MESHI (using the clustering nature of proteins) and Support Vector Machine.  

This is a field I know nothing about and I was struck by the clarity of Dr. Mirzaei's presentation as well as the effectiveness of her communication skills in making very complex problems understandable to a lay audience. She proved a very articulate and effective speaker who convincingly made the case for her research. In today's world, analytics professionals must not only have the quantitative tools to make a difference but also communicate their work effectively and there is no doubt Dr. Mirzaei will soon be a star in her domain. 

IMG_3218Dr. Salari (Ehsan thereafter), Assistant Professor at Wichita State, gave a talk entitled: "Biologically-guided radiotherapy planning: fractionation decision in the presence of chemoradiotherapeutic drugs." His talk was based on his recent paper published in IIE Transactions in Healthcare Systems Engineering. You can find a technical paper version of the work here. Radiotherapy (RT) uses high-energy radiation beams to kill cancer cells by damaging DNA. The survival rate of cells when exposed to different rates of radiation follows a linear-quadratic model. RT treatments are delivered through daily fractions. A regimen is thus determined by the number of fractions and the radiation dose. Effects of fractionation are accounted for by using a concept called the biologically effective dose. (BED)

Chemotherapy can be done sequentially or concurrently with RT but increases the risks of complication. It is therefore important to determine the impact of chemotherapeutic agents on optimal RT fractionation regimens. Additivity and radio-sensitization both affect the linear-quadratic curve depicting the survival rate of cells. Ehsan proposed an approach to extend the BED model to quantify the radiation damage and studied the optimal radiation fractionation regimen and the drug administration scheme under 4 schemes: RT only, CRT with additive effects only, CRT with radio-sensitization effects only, CRT with combined effects. His presentation contained many insightful graphs on the structure of the optimal regimen, which you can also find in his paper

Like Shokoufeh, Ehsan proved to be an exceptional researcher delivering a compelling, insightful presentation of quality far above the average presentation at the annual meeting. I am looking forward to reading other papers by him.

#Analytics 2016: Richard E. Rosenthal Early Career Connection nominations now open!

The Richard E. Rosenthal Early Career Connection (ECC) program, to be held during the INFORMS Analytics 2016 conference in Orlando, FL April 10-12, 2016, is now accepting nominations. Nominations are due March 4, 2016.

Last year we redesigned the program to allow more interactions between participants and also between participants and conference attendees. Innovations that we plan to continue this year include inviting INFORMS leadership to the ECC reception for mingling with participants on Sunday, reserved tables for ECC participants and select conference attendees (invited based on ECC participants' research and work specialties) for Monday's lunch and Tuesday gathering during the coffee hour. 

From the website: 

The Early Career Connection (ECC) is a program of special events designed for professionals who are new to their academic or industry careers. The program facilitates networking and introduces participants to well-established researchers and practitioners for more effective communication. Participants benefit from a discount on registration to the conference, as well as the networking events exclusive to ECC participants. The discounted registration rate is $615.


The mission of ECC is to provide early-career professionals with new perspectives into some of the most critical problems facing industry today, enabling them to broaden their research agendas. The goal is for these analytics and OR leaders of the future to have an opportunity, early in their careers, to apply their outstanding analytical talents to important business problems.

Those nominated and selected for this honor will receive a reduction of the conference registration fee. Awardees are expected to participate fully in the ECC events, as well as the conference sessions and social programs. We also strongly encourage all ECC nominees to submit a paper or poster to the Select Presentations or Poster Presentations (however, this is not a requirement for acceptance to the ECC).

To Nominate an ECC Participant

Please send an email to by March 4, 2016, containing the following information. The nominator must be from the same organization as the nominee. 

blue-checkmark Nominee’s name, email and telephone number

blue-checkmark Nominator’s name, email and telephone number

blue-checkmark Type of degree, year of nominee’s degree, and institute that awarded the degree

blue-checkmark If nominee has a master’s degree, starting date at company

blue-checkmark Organization and department

blue-checkmark Nominee’s position at the organization

blue-checkmark A brief paragraph from the nominator explaining why this person is being nominated (50-150 words)

blue-checkmark A brief paragraph from the nominee describing their relevant research or analytics/OR project (50-150 words)

Economist: How students judge their profs depends on gender

I found the graph below in the January 23rd 2016 issue of The Economist. (Source: This webpage.)


This graph counts the number of times professors have been described as "horrible" or "brilliant" in reviews on the website, according to the professor's gender. Strikingly, female professors are described as "horrible" more often than men in every single discipline considered, and male professors are described as "brilliant" more often than women in every single discipline considered. An earlier study by a professor at Northeastern University found that "men were more likely than women to be described as "intelligent" or "funny" but less likely to be described as "nice" or "mean"." 

The three disciplines where men are most often described as brilliant are philosophy, english and history. (English also has the biggest gender gap in terms of the difference between the number of times a male vs female professor is called brilliant. The smallest gender gap is in biology, followed by business. Interestingly, biology and business are also fields where you have a lot of women students.) The three disciplines where women are most often described as horrible are mathematics, economics and computer science. The gender gap is smallest in mathematics (! male and female math professors are equally horrible, apparently) and largest in computer science. I really wonder what makes the students say of (some) female professors they're horrible and (some) male professors they're brilliant... Thoughts?  

First Quarter: Book Review of New Leader's 100-Day Action Plan

51F3dWKdgyL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Today's post is a review of another well-known book about "onboarding", i.e., transitioning into a new job: "The New Leader's 100-Day Action Plan: A Comprehensive Onboarding Strategy for Leaders at Every Level" by George B. Bradt, Jayme A. Check and Jorge E. Pedraza. What I like most about the book is the specificity of the questions the authors ask and action steps they recommend - because so many business books are puffed-up magazine pieces that drum up revenue for the authors' consulting practices, I tend to prefer books with concrete, tangible advice that demonstrates clear knowledge of the subject matter on the authors' part. The New Leader's 100-Day Action Plan delivers. Not only is it full of valuable content for the leader "at every level", the print version of the book has many fillable forms that are also downloadable for free on the Internet. 

Of course, not every single piece of advice the authors give will be applicable to the new graduate or entry-level hire. This is because the entry-level hire won't have any subordinate, or "follower", so how to deal with direct reports and related topics such as how to craft a burning imperative for one's unit and communicate the vision to one's team don't apply. Yet, many of the tasks the authors recommend for the new leader would be of benefit to the new graduate, in particular (I've put my comments in italics, the rest is from the book):

  • Define your new role (map and avoid the most common land mines, do your due diligence with a risk assessment checklist before accepting the job)
  • Choose the right approach for the business context and culture you face (while the entry-level grad won't define the strategy or the mission, understanding culture and context can only help her do her job and position her for advancement.)
  • Craft your message. (Obviously, the message an entry-level hire wants to communicate won't affect the direction of the company the way the CEO's message would, and it will be inner-focused rather than oriented toward the company as a whole. Yet, it is always good to articulate this message clearly so that you can then run everything you do against it and check if your actions are aligned with the impression you want to give of yourself. If you're at a loss for what your message would be: I am a team player who remains calm under stress and gets the job done by the deadline and within specs while maintaining and fostering good relations with my colleagues.)
  • Deploy an information gathering and learning plan. 
  • Make a powerful first impression on your first day. (Think carefully about how you are going to spend Day One. Pay attention to signs and symbols.)
  • Embed a Burning Imperative by Day 30. (For an entry-level hire, this burning imperative will most likely be a goal she alone has to achieve, rather than something a team must execute, but it is possible the new hire would enter a company with a whole cohort of new entry-level colleagues and would take the lead among that group.)
  • Exploit key milestones to drive team performance by Day 45. (Most likely a team of one for a new hire, but on some occasions, new hires have shown enough leadership potential to be given someone to supervise, such as a co-op or intern.)
  • Overinvest in early wins to build team confidence by Day 60. (I can't praise early wins enough, especially for entry-level hires, i.e., people with no track record in the workforce. Early wins show your boss, who often has very little information about you unless you interned for him the previous summer, that he was right in hiring you. Once you have shown he made the correct decision, you will have established yourself as someone who belong in the company. You will be more easily considered for the next step up or forgiven for your mistakes. First impressions matter, and that means first achievements matter too.)

The book's appendices alone more than make up for its price (at $14.28 on, the book is already a steal).  I particularly recommend the six basic elements of leadership, the situational assessment using the 5Cs framework: customers, collaborators, capabilities, competitors and conditions and the toolbox on how to be a great communicator.

Just go and buy the book already!