7 Engagement Ideas Including Thank-you Notes and the Best Icebreaker

1. Break—no, smash—that ice. At a leadership dinner at the recent IIS 2014 Conference in New York, I saw one of the best icebreakers: People were asked to talk about their first job, one that isn’t on their resume. Many of these folks are CEOs and VPs. But what we heard were stories of clam-digging, newspaper-delivering, shop-keeping, furniture-moving and other tales of wow, really? It loosened everyone up, neatly evened the playing field, and led to good conversation the rest of the evening. I approached someone from The Economist who worked on the boardwalk in Seaside, N.J., near where I grew up. [Read more...]

IIS Recap: Grey Areas. Silver Linings

Written by Peter Bowley

As the keynote IIS 2014 speaker, Jack Griffin (CEO of Empirical Media) had a lot of insights to share on managing disruption and the unknown. Jack emphasized the importance of a continuous process (not a static solution) to understanding “what is out in the open, but still hiding.” Like how women entering the workforce was predictable, but unexpectedly changed the magazine industry. Like how the Sony Walkman’s impact on the mobility of music was predictable, but unexpectedly the single song would become the organizing principle as opposed to the album. Jack believes TV is at the same place music was 10 years ago. There are too many cable channels and viewers only watch a handful. Younger demographics never bought cable and never will. To manage disruption, Jack cited the both need to consider cannibalizing your own business before someone else does, as well as the courage required to do so. If something can be done, it will – by you or to you.

Jack concluded with a powerful thought. The best managers figure out great outcomes by setting the appropriate context, rather than trying to control their people. The right people with a culture of freedom and responsibility wins out over a culture of process.


Peter Bowley is currently an MBA student at Columbia Business School. Prior to business school, he started NEBSA, an educational company to help international students prepare to study in the U.S. Previously he worked in a Latin American farmland investment fund.

IIS Recap: Optimize your Pricing and Maximize your Value Capture

Written by Peter Bowley

A sub-optimal pricing strategy is like leaving money on the table, so I was very interested to hear what advice Christine Durman, a Partner at Abbey Road Associates, would share at IIS 2014 on how to unlock the power of pricing.

Christine emphasized understanding contextual variables about the customer’s willingness to pay. What is the purchase preference – bundled or a la carte? Do they need the item now or later? How brand conscious is the buyer? By knowing the answers to these questions, you can segment the customer and define price framing and tactics. Christine cited “big data” – demographics, purchasing history, CRM data and usage stats – as a key resource firms can leverage to identify and optimize behavior and price drivers. Christine discussed an example of Abbey Road Associates helping a client put pricing strategy into practice, using an algorithm to process customer data inputs about needs, to generate a client history, suggested purchase combinations and recommended price.

With so much emphasis on new product development and innovation, it is interesting that simply pricing smarter on existing products is often overlooked, despite being a great opportunity to improve profits and customer relationships.


Peter Bowley is currently an MBA student at Columbia Business School. Prior to business school, he started NEBSA, an educational company to help international students prepare to study in the U.S. Previously he worked in a Latin American farmland investment fund.

IIS Recap: Challenges of Recruiting, Building and Retaining a High Performance Team

Written by Peter Bowley

How do media and business information companies build teams that can not only execute, but build a Christen Clayton-like innovative organization? Will the Chief Digital Officer role exist in 10 years? What strategies and tools are the pros using to find and attract “A players”? At IIS 2014, Cormac Cullinane (Time Wartner), David Lord (ESIX) and Judy Chin Wong (Gartner) had the answers.

David Lord cited a number of practical tips. Firms that have fewer than 20 HR searches/year would benefit from using a retained search consultant, over an internal search group. However, firms can still become a sophisticated buyer of HR search services. It can take months to years to recover from a wrong hire, which is an important reminder that if no one is really managing the search process they fail.

All speakers discussed the imperative to hire executives to “drive change”. David advised a good search takes at least 3 months, and companies need to understand if you don’t give the process a chance to work, you reduce your chances of getting an “A” player. Cormac, Time Warner’s VP of Worldwide Executive Search discussed that technology has permanently changed the talent acquisition game. While LinkedIn may become “the world’s largest recruiting firm”, Judy also uses texting which candidates often respond to more quickly, especially Millennials. David said referrals have higher success rates, usually outperforming non-referred hires. Cormac and Judy reminded the audience great talent is usually comfortably employed, not looking for a job. To find “A players”, they recommended generating referrals by pooling employee contacts – in brainstorming sessions and utilizing existing employees who attend industry conferences.


Peter Bowley is currently an MBA student at Columbia Business School. Prior to business school, he started NEBSA, an educational company to help international students prepare to study in the U.S. Previously he worked in a Latin American farmland investment fund.

IIS Recap: Navigating Radical Business Transformation

Written by Michael Davis

Interviewed by Allen Schoer, Founder & Chairman, The TAI Group.

Consider your top business priorities: Maintaining profitability, engaging customers, managing talent, building loyalty, innovating for the future, building high performance teams, and many more.

For Michael Hansen, CEO of Cengage, they all resonate. In fact, if you put them together, they sometimes conflict. So what’s most important to the CEO of a $2B organization with 5,500 employees in more than 20 countries that is pushing its way through a restructuring?

Organizational culture. According to Hansen, he can only move Cengage forward – and transform the company – if he creates a culture where people feel empowered to make decisions.

In a wide ranging conversation led by Allen Schoer, Founder & Chairman, The TAI Group, Hansen stressed the importance of shared values, transparency and alignment.

Beginning with the end in mind, Hansen shared his belief that alignment is linked to productivity. When individuals feel connected to each other and the organization’s purpose, they start to feel like they can have impact. With impact comes a willingness to make decisions. People and teams feel empowered and momentum starts to build.

To help achieve alignment, Hansen focuses on exposing connections between people. He asks team members: “Why are you here? What connects you to our organization?” The answers are often multi-layered. By digging deep, Hansen has been able to uncover shared values, which encourages dialogue and understanding, and leads to better functioning teams.

A business school professor of mine once quipped “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” and Hansen agrees. When business is good, it can be hard to change. Cengage’s business realities, while difficult, present a real opportunity to precipitate change.

In sharing his insights about how to innovate when people are uncomfortable and motivate during uncertain times, Hansen came back to culture. Culture produces organic change efforts. With teams working together, their joint efforts led to structural changes and new approaches at Cengage. For example:

● Using a “two in a box” management technique where two individuals are jointly responsible for a project, a product and technology team agreed to be measured by the same criteria.
● As the two teams focused their attention on serving customers, the group realized they needed someone to assemble their collective intelligence. Together, they created and funded a new VP of Research position.

As another example, to help drive cultural change in the trenches, Cengage has strengthened and empowered its district sales managers. They are now able to act as “CEOs” of their territory and have broad authority over product discounts, customer service level agreements and resource allocation.

When asked about what’s working to promote change and key learnings, Hansen shared the following:

● Promote visible examples that reflect the change you are preaching.
● Individuals who say they support change and then behave differently are the hardest to turn around. People who are important and productive, but not on board, may have to be let go.
● Incentives are over-estimated as a motivator. Individuals and teams are far more motivated if they feel listened to and believe they can have an impact.
● Successes and failures both contribute to positive culture change as long as people feel listened to.
● Business leaders can kill culture by behaving differently than the values and changes they espouse. Leaders have to be very careful to not undermine the culture.

At Cengage, revamping the culture is a work in process. Focus is shifting to become more user centric. Product development is happening faster. Hansen estimates he and his team are about 30% of the way through the change they are trying to achieve. As the culture and focus take hold, attrition rates are coming down and a new optimism is emerging.


Mike Davis is a sales and marketing professional in the software and information industry. Most recently he served as Commercial Director at Digital Science, a business unit of Macmillan Science and Education. Follow Mike on Twitter at @mdavisri and connect on LinkedIn.

IIS Recap: Media Techtonics

Written by Kevin Worth

The media panel (aka Media Tectonics) did not disappoint. Stocked with experts, there was a thoughtful exchange of views how to develop business models to pay for quality news/content and make a decent return.

Some argued the next generation of media companies are the native digital models that are just emerging on the scene and have already amassed audiences the size of long standing players. Their advantage is through telling stories in a much more compelling creative digital-centric manner.

Others pointed out that technology has fundamentally changed the landscape with lower barriers to entry and a loss of pricing power leading to thin (or no) margins for everybody in the future, so that once cash cows will be small businesses going forward.

Not covered in the discussion was the core questions of who are best investors/owners that will build the great media companies of the future, but it was clear based on the panel representatives and given the on-going media tectonics, it’s more likely to be wealthy private investors (e.g. Jeff Bezos) with long term vision than public entities with short-term pressure.


Kevin Worth is an innovative leader in the media and information services industry and founding CEO of The Deal, a highly respected media and information company.

IIS Recap: Publisher Impossible: Disruption from Within – Are You Ready?

Written by Michael Davis

Greg Merkle, VP of User Experience at Wolters Kluwer, kicked off the first day of IIS 2104 with a keynote focused on innovation. Specifically, how can you operationalize continued innovation and growth while running your existing business?

Merkle is part of Wolters Kluwer’s Global Platform Organization (GPO), a group responsible for concentrating research and development efforts across the company into a single, global technology platform. Merkle and his team help business units to develop products that are focused on meeting the needs of customers, or as Merkle explains, “our true users are our customers’ customer.”

Inside the GPO, Merkle’s team operates like a centralized agency. They provide information architecture, interaction and visual design, content strategy, user research, and front-end development services to business units across Wolters Kluwer. They strive for simplicity and market fit, to develop user experience as a brand attribute, and to incorporate user insights early in the product development process.

To understand customers, Merkle advocates using your product the same way customers do. In other words, become your customer. To facilitate understanding, Merkle maps customer workflows, and both listens to and observes customers. While conducting surveys and asking questions is useful, watching customers work and conducting contextual inquiry is extremely valuable. Observation can provide insights that straight feedback sometimes misses and, as a result, lead to “little shifts” in innovation.

To jump start innovation, Merkle and his team pair up with a business unit for an intense three-day PreVis, or pre-visualization, session. Sometimes called Business Unit Impossible, Merkle works together with a product team to envision and define the customer journey and translate that understanding into actionable concepts for improvement.

Functionally, PreVis sessions help bridge the gap between a business unit and the technology team that supports them by asking both groups to consider their ultimate customer.

● Who are their users?
● What user problems is the team solving?
● Where will growth come from?
● What is the competitive landscape?
● What product deficiency and customer issues does the team know about?
● Are there known sales challenges, perceptions and barriers? How is the product sold?
● How is the product discovered?
● What are the core metrics?

The goals of these questions are to bring internal teams together, define how value is being provided, generate ideas for improvement, and set the stage for product innovation. The output from a PreVis session typically includes:

● A clear problem definition
● Early user and market validation
● A competitive matrix
● High level product requirements
● Technical scope and a product roadmap
● More accurate product sizing
● A defined minimally viable product (MVP)

After conducting thirteen PreVis sessions globally, Merkle had some insights to share:

● Intuition plays a large role in uncovering unmet customer needs, and that’s ok.
● Observation and intuition combined form the true center of innovation.
● Engaging teams in PreVis sessions creates a proactive curiosity about customers.
● Ask teams to think about connections in data as early as possible.
● Use real content in your wireframes. It helps people understand new ideas and concepts.
● Aspiring to a new normal creates discomfort. Disruption requires empathy. PreVis sessions can help individuals overcome their fear and orient to the future.

In addition to the product improvements and results that come from each session, Merkle sees some themes emerging from PreVis sessions:

● Wolters Kluwer is building capabilities that can be used by any business unit globally.
● The sessions are breaking down perceived differences in customer needs across markets.
● PreVis is creating a platform strategy that responds to best in class capabilities.
● The GPO acts as an open innovation center. Capabilities can be applied as needed.
● Disruption is a constant. It’s disrupt or be disrupted.


Mike Davis is a sales and marketing professional in the software and information industry. Most recently he served as Commercial Director at Digital Science, a business unit of Macmillan Science and Education. Follow Mike on Twitter at @mdavisri and connect on LinkedIn.

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