People struggle when they move up a leadership level – they find all sorts of reasons to do their old job and avoid the new one. It’s a subject that London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra has been studying for some time – and one she expands on usefully in her brilliant book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, which was deeply useful to me personally as a CEO.
This week I had the privilege of being able to meet Professor Ibarra and hear her speak at DLD18 this week in Munich.
One of the problems we struggle with, she says, is wanting to be authentic, but making the mistake of thinking this means acting the same way we have always done.
“People say they have to be true to themselves to be authentic. But which self? Being authentic is about self-determination, having agency, being willing to try new things, new ways of being.”
This reminds me of my favourite definition of the duty of leaders, laid out by the Warren Bennis in the 90s:
”It is the individual, operating at the peak of his or her powers, who will revive our organisations, by reinventing both self and them.”
You have to brave enough to explore who you could be, the selves you might need to draw on in order to be the leader your company needs.
Ibarra also invoked the concept of growth mindsets (I can learn and change) and fixed mindsets (I am good at some things and will never be good at others) as explored by Carol Dweck in Mindset.
She expanded on the importance of this willingness to try out different ways of being for leaders:
“It’s about being playful with your sense of self, a kind of design thinking with the self.”
It’s a kind of seeking mindset then, in which the individual doesn’t just believe that they can change but is actively engaged in exploring different ways of being.
It’s a crucial difference and one that matters deeply to leaders in the digital age. When organisations need to adapt constantly, so do the leaders – so, in fact, do most of its employees, but you have to start somewhere. We need to train our people, prepare them for a world of constant disruption and change – and the skills training organisations often default to is insufficient.
”[Preparing for digital transformation] is somewhat about technical skills, but it is more about emotional skills. Dealing with fear of change, of obsolescence.”
Fear makes people conservative, revert to old versions of themselves, old behaviours that are less likely to work in the face of radical change. So fear doesn’t just bolster inertia in organisations, it corrodes the ability of its people to even consider changing their own behaviours, a necessary prerequisite for adapting.
This connects with our work at Brilliant Noise around leadership in the digital age and our digital mindset model. Actually, it adds questions and ideas that I am keen to explore with our clients.
DLC18 has helpfully posted videos of all of its sessions – so here’s Herminina Ibarra’s if you’d like to hear more.
Maybe we need to stop thinking of change as something that needs to be managed, an awkward event that comes along every few years and upsets everyone who was getting on just nicely as they were.
But how? I wrote some things about this for CMO.com. Part of the answer lies with data that helps people quickly understand, communicate and display the value of their work:
Reframing and offering data that helps our people explain their value and their status within the organisation could act as an antidote to less useful ways of expressing status—presenteeism (“I am here all the time and super busy”) and attachment to a particular job title or role that may not be useful after the next wave of change hits.
In Cal Newport’s Deep Work, he describes how email and other always-on busy-work can act as a replacement for really valuable work in organisations where the value of what someone does is hard to measure or express:
Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner. This mind-set provides another explanation for the popularity of many depth-destroying behaviours. If you send and answer e-mails at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems like Hall within seconds when someone poses a new question, or if you roam your open office bouncing ideas off all whom you encounter—all of these behaviours make you seem busy in a public manner. If you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity, then these behaviours can seem crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well.?
Could it be that the mystery of the productivity gap – the lag between companies investing in technology and workers’ output increasing – can be explained by email and messaging apps allowing appear-to-be-busy-work while simultaneously tempting us with distractions and ludic loops in social media and games that erode our ability to do the work that would really make us happy and our organisations more successful? Whilst it is too simple to think solely in these terms, there would seem to be a case for further investigation.
With productivity seeming to be an economic and management mystery, perhaps using data to measure value to the individual and the value that the individual creates would help change behaviours. Not to spot where shirking – accidental or otherwise – is happening, but to inspire and reward behaviours that are more useful.
I wrote a piece for Huffington Post about the concept of cognitive diversity, and why we should take it seriously in business and wider society. It’s had a good response and I hope to write more on the topic. I was grateful for the chance to pull together my thoughts on the topic and I think there’s more to be said and explored.
Here’s an excerpt:
Leaders need to stop thinking about this as a wellness issue and wrap it in the broader strategic imperative of developing cognitive diversity. A culture that is more accepting of mental health opens up the idea that we need a mix of ways of thinking in our organisations. The same commercial argument that supports diverse gender, ethnicity, age and sexuality stands for accepting people with different kinds of brains and different ways of thinking.
Consider the greater prevalence of people on the Asperger or autism spectrums in technology companies. These companies have embraced difference as a strength and other business would do well to follow suit.
Digital is turning business models on their head, ripping up the play books for whole industries and organisations know they need to innovate. Innovation requires new ways of thinking and a fight against the mediocrity and conformity of groupthink.
For the full post, please visit Huffington Post.
Andrew Hill at the FT challenges companies offering amazing-sounding benefits that are unlikely to ever really be used by employees without the backing of leaders and some serious culture change:
The need to have enough people available for vital work puts a natural limit on the ability of everyone to bunk off at once. But, without guidance, it may also lash them more firmly to their desks.
Sir Richard Branson was rightly lampooned for making unlimited leave at Virgin conditional on staff being “a hundred per cent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project”.
Discussing the Netflix policy of giving parents unlimited time off in the first year after a child, Hill says that unless leaders at the company take up the policy, or there are other nudges to encourage staff, it will be a hollow offer. The policy may be there, but culture will stop people using it…
Creative leaders can struggle with the limiting effects of seniority. They are expected at more meetings. Less of their time is their own. Everything is scheduled and less spontaneous – it seems frivolous to have diary time that is not spoken for by one plan or priority.
I was inspired to read about IDEO’s chief creative officer, Paul Bennett’s radical response to this challenge in a New York Times article. He has a Sunday night ritual of deleting meetings from his diary – as many as he can, and then sets up a desk in the middle of the office where he can be found, interrupted and bumped into serendipitously:
I bucked our internal trend of “hot desking,” where people don’t have a permanent desk. Most of our employees sign up for a desk when they come in for the day — that helps keep everyone flexible and fluid. But I wanted to be an anchor in all that fluidity. So I sat myself permanently and resolutely with our I.T. team at its help desk, which is the most visible and central spot in our San Francisco office.
I think of the help desk as an overlap between a coffee bar and a hacked-together technological lifeguard station. The people there are full of energy and fun. Sitting high up on a stool with them has encouraged people to approach me spontaneously. This lets conversations and interactions happen naturally over the course of the workday. I try to spend about half my day at the help desk and the other half doing what I call “doctor’s rounds,” when I walk through the office and talk to people if they request it or if I feel that they are receptive to it.
I now allow myself to be pulled, to drift in and out, and to be available for five-minute or two-hour interactions depending on what’s needed. Because of that, I feel as if I am part of a living, breathing organism, and responding to its needs rather than simply running from place to place with a calendar in my hand.
Of all of this – and a strange thins about a lamp made of a desiccated cod – it’s the first bit I like most. Making saying “no” part of the planning routine, creating space for unplanned things to happen. I think I will try that out…
“Threshold concepts” is a term from higher education theory, meaning an idea or a piece of knowledge which, once understood, is transformative – it changes how you look at a subject, what you think is possible.
My friend Jim Byford introduced me to the idea of threshold concepts and I’ve been using it ever since (neatly, it is of course, in its own way, a threshold concept).
Taking a look at some information about the idea, I came across a summary of a conference on threshold concepts in New Zealand, which called out the following characteristics:
• transformative but also potentially troublesome,
• irreversible, that is, difficult to unlearn,
• Integrative – revealing previously hidden knowledge,
• Re-constitutive – effecting a change in the learner’s subjectivity,
• Bounded – leading to new conceptual terrain,
• Discursive – changed, and
• possessing liminality – a space to be crossed, a shift in identity, that may be uncomfortable.
Powerful, dangerous things these threshold concepts, aren’t they?
Part of digital transformation is crossing through difficult terrain – personally and as organisations. Transformation’s not something you simply decide to do and flip a switch – it is a period when we realise that you what we do not understand and are struggling to understand. You decide to make yourself confused and uncomfortable for a while, effectively, as it is the only way to get to the breakthroughs you need.
A related concept is “liminality”, which I’ve discussed here before. Liminality is something that needs to be explained before you can start to learn. The same conference paper discusses it like this:
Unsettling the learning takes students, once they have penetrated the boundaries of former thinking and practices, to a new space, the liminal space where new ways of speaking can be manifest. Recognising and re-naming ideas in relation to the new space can be transformative and moves the learning forward, “it makes the theory ‘sticky’”. All the same, as Erik cautioned, there needs to be an awareness of the range of participants “being squeezed into the liminal space” and what this can mean.
I find this description reassuring. Talking about some threshold concepts – for instance exponential growth – evokes really strange responses from people sometimes – defensive, aggressive and essentially grief-like at times.
On a lighter note, it’s not all journeys through the valley of darkness and confusion – playfulness has a role too…
It was suggested that playfulness can allow a retreat from the perceived constraints of the given discipline and that “playing on the thresholds of the discipline can be a way of escaping the discipline” or as a way of navigating a changing world.
But working with these concepts is not easy, they say, and possibly not for everyone:
Unsettling ideas can result in a form of disequilibrium. While there was some advocacy for “being comfortable in one’s own skin” it was also clear that adopting TCs was not for the faint-hearted.
The area I’ve been working with threshold concepts on is a kind of digital literacy for leaders – the skills, knowledge, models and threshold concepts that leaders need to gain in order to be successful, by leading organisations in a digital age (acknowledging that some schools of thought say that organisations will need to be leaderless or full of leaders). Call it digital leadership. I’ll write more about that soon, here and on the Brilliant Noise blog – for now I just wanted to think out loud about threshold concepts.
Threshold concepts offer advanced ideas and tools for those with resilience and leadership potential. There is also a requirement for us to understand what digital literacy will look like for people with other needs and capabilities in organisations, but leaders are a good place to start.
When Microsoft’s new CEO was announced last week, there was a great deal of commentary about his – doubtless very carefully crafted – introductory email to the company.
Part of Satya Nadella‘s description of himself made me immediately empathetic:
Many who know me say I am also defined by my curiosity and thirst for learning. I buy more books than I can finish. I sign up for more online courses than I can complete. I fundamentally believe that if you are not learning new things, you stop doing great and useful things. So family, curiosity and hunger for knowledge all define me.
There are two things that make me like Mr Nadella a bit from reading that quote. First: I do that too. Last night I flicked through the books on my Kindle – there are so many interesting ones there that I’ve barely started or not started at all. It’s a teetering, digital monument to curiosity and to having an appetite for learning that is beyond my current means (in terms of time, mainly) to support.
The second thing that warms me to his statement is its echo of what I was talking about in my post last week, Finishedness – realising that you can’t, and often shouldn’t, finish everything that you start. This ability is strength, contrary to the puritan work ethic/completer-finisher fallacy.
Mr Nadella’s email was a positioning exercise – mainly in distancing himself from the style of his predecessor, the bombastic Steve Ballmer. The latter didn’t talk much about his reading habits – and would be more likely to reel off the number of books completed – a PB roll-call of reading velocity.
In the age of digital superabundance of information, leaders must be curious and hungry to learn, but also mindful that they cannot hope to read everything, to learn everything that they would like to. It’s the larger scale version of FOMO (fear of missing out) – applied to thinking and knowledge rather than social network updates, but the same in essence.
Mr Nadella’s statement shows self-awareness, acceptance of his limitations and a desire for continual learning. Whatever he does with Microsoft in the next few years, in this aspect he has the right stuff to be a digital leader.
Image credit: (cc) Official Le Web photos.
A few months ago I heard Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar, give a talk about leading creative organisations.
Apart from his obvious experience and track record of success, what was clear was that he had thought very deeply about some crucial questions about leadership.
These are some notes about what he said and thoughts that he provoked. To be clear – they are not direct quotes – they are my recollections and thoughts based on my notes of his talk (what I learned rather than what I heard).
Be prepared for near death experiences on projects. All Pixar movies “suck” at first. They are radically altered again and again until they work. Every Pixar film except one – Toy Story 3 – has gone through a phase of intense crisis during its development.
Most people want to avoid the “near death” part of the creative experience, but it is very often essential in order to get to something really good. (This reminded me once again of the valley of creative despair that is the liminal state.)
A leader’s job is to maintain a balance of power. In a studio – just like an agency – there are business functions like finance, production, creative, marketing, technology etc. Organisations fail when one of these functions “wins” and dominates the others with its agenda.
For instance, in studios where production wins, films are produced on time and on budget, but creatives become demoralised and produce lower quality work and talent leaves. A CEO or President needs to make sure that no part of the organisation becomes dominant and skews resources with its particular agenda.
Business books are curiously free of content. Very often business books state obvious truths and avoid more difficult questions.
Smart people make stupid decisions. This is a puzzle that more business books could do with taking on – rather than succumbing to narrative bias, or focusing on successes. There should be more books about failure, more conversations about why we do stupid things.
Leaders can’t see the things that are going wrong. When an organisation is bound for failure What are the forces that I can’t see, is the question a leader needs to constantly ask themselves. People will be behaving badly at times – but they will never do it in front of you.
You need to make the information flow separate from the organisational structure. This reminded me of Churchill, who set up the Office for National Statistics so he could hear what was really going on – rather than allowing each department to gather data and report in their own way, influenced by their various agendas.
You need people to be candid, not just honest. Politeness, respect, embarrassment, fear, blinkered-visions/solipsism, and other things can stop people from being candid. His job as CEO is to spot those things and stop them. Often leaders will prevent candour with their presence in a room, unless they build trust and make it clear what behaviours are acceptable.
Protect new ideas. New ideas are vulnerable, delicate things. If they are good ideas they need to be protected, allowed to develop in a safe space. Success at Pixar and other creative companies is about creating safe spaces for creatives and ideas to flourish.
We are always operating in a fuzzy space. We have to be comfortable doing that. Again, invoking the liminal state for me, Dr Catmull talked about the need for creative leaders and creatives to work in and with uncertainty. We cannot deliver genius on schedule, we need to be comfortable with that. We do not know what the final iteration of the story will look like, we have to be comfortable with that. We don’t know what the technology or media landscape will look like more than about six months from now, but we have to make plans for the next six years – and know they may look as different in the final version as Up looked from the first idea for that story (a castle floating in the clouds full of people at war with the people on the ground, apparently)…