How HBR changed the way I work

How HBR changed the way I work

Bain & Company's Chris Zook reflects on articles that shaped or reinforced his views on strategy.

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How HBR changed the way I work

Throughout my professional life, I have kept a file in my computer containing articles that have either shaped my worldview or provided a powerful argument and data for a point of view I already held. Today, I realize that at least two-thirds of the gems in my "Great Articles" file emanate from HBR. Here are just a few of the highlights.

In November 1996, Michael Porter published What Is Strategy?, which argued that operational excellence alone is not strategy, and that the truly enduring companies create a unique customer experience.

His examples showed so well that you do not make money sustainably in business by just doing good things well, but by being strongly differentiated. My experiences as head of the Global Strategy Practice at Bain & Company for the past 15 years have confirmed this belief. A company's unique "core" capabilities are its crown jewels, although they are all too often taken for granted with the result that execution issues are frequently confused with competitive positioning and strategy. Nearly two decades later, this article is as fresh as when it was first written and maybe even more relevant in a world where only one in 10 companies achieves decade-long sustained and profitable growth.

We live in a world that seems short on leadership and long on complex problems and organizations. The question comes up more and more: What is it that makes a great leader today? Daniel Goleman's article What Makes a Leader? applies his research on emotional intelligence to this question. He concludes that the higher the rank of an executive, the less important are cognitive skills and the more dominant are the components of emotional intelligence such as self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy.

These factors are especially important in large, complex organizations where CEOs are further and further removed from the people at the front line who actually deliver on the strategy and capture the daily customer feedback. Some work I did for my recent book, Repeatability, showed that only about two in five employees feel they have any idea what the strategy or priorities of their business are.

Managers that cultivate Goleman's (learnable) attributes have a much easier time transferring the essence of the strategy and the passion of their mission to their organizations, something increasingly important in a world where over 70% of employees say they feel disengaged from their firms and where the speed of change makes it critical to push more key decisions down to the front line. I refer to this work all the time.

Some of the most wonderful pieces that inhabit my "Great Articles" file are of a different nature, not offering lofty perspectives but rather insight into and a solution to a common and annoying problem. One of my favorites is the timeless 1974 classic Who's Got the Monkey? William Oncken and Donald Wass demonstrate how responsibility to take action often migrates to supervisors, who are all too willing to allow subordinates to transfer their problems upward to them. The authors describe the subtle ways in which such managers discover at the end of the week that their "to-do" lists have mysteriously exploded, while their subordinates are sitting and waiting for answers from the Oracle. The result: weak teams, exhausted managers, and ever slower decision-making—lethal in a world that rewards fast decisions.

Thank you, HBR, for the unique way you have allowed the essence of the most powerful business ideas to be collected and packaged into one of the most useful business tools in the world.

Chris Zook is co-head of the Global Strategy Practice at Bain & Company. He is co-author, with James Allen, of the book:Repeatability: Build Enduring Businesses for a World of Constant Change(HBR Press, March 2012). He is the author of Profit from the Core and an author and co-author of numerous other books and HBR articles, including The Great Repeatable Business Model, published in HBR in November 2011.


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