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The Best Managers Balance Analytical and Emotional Intelligence

Executive Summary

Being an effective manager requires balancing two networks in your brain: the analyic network (AN) and the empathic network (EN). Managers need to understand their employees and their specific challenges and they need to relate to their feelings and emotional state. They need to form and confirm their thoughts about their perspective and they need to be open to hearing and seeing what their employees hear, see, and feel. The authors point to recent research for insight into how the analytic and emphatic networks work in our brains — and how to become more adept at balancing both.

HBR Staff/Miguel Navarro/David Malan/Getty Images

Have you ever responded to a colleague or direct report in a way that left them feeling unheard or unappreciated, even though that was not your intention? Perhaps you gave them a prescriptive solution when what they needed was an empathetic ear. Or maybe you emphasized deadlines, task-related commitments, and accountability at a time when what they needed from you was compassion and understanding. As a manager, it is likely that you have experienced this at some point. These types of experiences are even more likely to occur during periods of crisis like the one in which we currently find ourselves.

These are extremely challenging times. We are in the midst of a global pandemic with the numbers infected by the coronavirus in the millions and deaths in the hundreds of thousands. Because of the corresponding economic shutdown, many businesses are closing their doors permanently. In the U.S., we are experiencing unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression. On top of all of this, streets are filled with protesters crying out for justice after yet another unarmed black man, George Floyd, was killed at the hands of the police, seen in its entirety in a shocking nine minute video viewed all over the world.

In times like these our employees are struggling. They are stressed. They are afraid. They are worried about their health. They are worried about their ability to provide for themselves and their families. And, on a broader level, they are concerned about the current and future health of the United States and the rest of the world. Truth be told, you are likely feeling some of the same things. Yet, as a manager, you are required to soldier on. Budgets have to be managed, sales targets have to be met, and difficult decisions have to be made to ensure the ongoing viability of your organization.

It is of paramount importance to attend to the needs, fears, and concerns of your employees. It is also vital that you solve pressing problems and make critical decisions necessary to sustain the business. The problem is that these two things require us to activate different parts of our brain. And, we can sometimes get stuck in either the network in our brain that enables that task-focused attention needed to solve problems, or in the other network that facilitates reflection, compassion, and social connection.

To be most effective in leading and truly helping our employees, however, we need both networks. We need to understand them and their specific challenges and we need to relate to their feelings and emotional state. We need to form and confirm our thoughts about their perspective and we need to be open to hearing and seeing what they hear, see, and feel.

Thankfully, we can turn to recent research for insight into how these two networks work in our brains — and how to become more adept at balancing both.

Insight from Recent Neuroimaging Studies

Research by our colleague, professor Anthony Jack at Case Western Reserve University, describes two of the major neural networks functioning in our brains as the analytic network (AN), or technically the task-positive network; and the empathic network (EN), also known as the default-mode network.

The AN helps us make sense of things and events. We use it when we are solving problems and making decisions. It helps us engage in abstract or analytic thinking, like financial analysis and data analytics. The EN enables us to scan the environment and be open to new ideas and other people. What’s really interesting is that these two networks oppose each other. More specifically, they actually suppress each other. When one is activated, the other is deactivated.

Professor Jack calls these two networks opposing poles of reason. Both involve cognitive activity, both involve fast and slow thinking, both involve reason. However, the AN reasoning is more about information and analysis and the EN reasoning is more about people or qualitative observations.

As we also discuss in our book, Helping People Change, we need both networks. We further contend that the most effective leaders do indeed use both and they are able to toggle back and forth between them in a fraction of a second. We also believe that the ease with which a person can toggle or cycle back and forth between these networks depends in part on their self-awareness, deliberate practice, and conscious intent.

How to Achieve the Right Balance

1. Be aware of your own predilection. What is your “go-to” neural network?
Being aware of your dominant neural network, or the one that is most likely to get activated for you across a variety of situations, requires the practice of mindfulness. You need to be fully and consciously aware of momentary experience. Questions you might ask yourself include:

  • How am I processing things at this moment? Am I thinking about concrete facts, details, or solutions? Or, am I reflecting more openly and creatively about possibilities? Am I thinking about what is objectively right or wrong? Or, am I weighing the relative merits of what seems fair or morally just?
  • What types of situations or activities tend to pull me into the analytic network? When am I most likely to be pulled into the empathic network?
  • On the whole, do I spend more time in the analytic network or the empathic network?

2. Exercise the neural network that isn’t your go-to. There are a variety of ways to exercise your empathic and analytic neural network “muscles.” A useful approach is to spend more time exercising the network that you are less likely to use. It is similar to the benefit of a right-handed basketball player working on dribbling and shooting with their left hand to improve their overall game.

To exercise your empathic network:

  • Complete at least one 15-minute conversation each day in which your sole purpose is to understand the other person, not to solve their problem or give advice.
  • When you are listening to someone, stop whatever else you are doing or thinking about and try to give that person your full attention. Attempt to listen beyond what you hear, tuning into to the whole picture of what you hear and see, (i.e. body language, tone of voice, emotional cues, etc.).
  • If you think there is something you know with relative certainty, push yourself to challenge that assumption and consider other possibilities.

To exericse your analytic network:

  • Schedule specific windows of time within which to complete certain tasks. Hold yourself to those committed windows, even if they are not actually firm deadlines.
  • Identify a situation at work that requires a new approach to reach a successful outcome. Maybe it’s a change to an existing vendor contract. Before you seek the perspective of others, do some research. Come up with questions that you need to get addressed. List two to three new resources that you normally wouldn’t think of, including people. Write down the pros and cons of each resource, considering the cost of each and their potential contributions. Connect your notes together into a framework to help you move ahead.
  • Compile a list of household expenses incurred each month such as utilities. Record your actual expenses paid over the last 12 months. What are the trends you see in the numbers? What was the highest or lowest amount paid and in which month? How do the expenses compare to what you anticipated?

3. Practice balancing both. Once you have mastered the ability to be more aware of when you are either operating in the analytic or empathic network at any given time, and you have developed the capacity to activate either network upon demand, you are then ready to practice effectively balancing the two networks. Again, both networks are important. Your objective here is to develop an ability to seamlessly toggle back and forth between the two networks as necessary.

Specific things you can do to work on your ability to toggle between the two networks include:

  • Be clear on your intention. We may sometimes be aware of a need to toggle from one network to the other, but consciously choose not to do so. In other words, sometimes it is not an ability issue, but instead a motivation issue.
  • When making (or communicating) a decision that impacts others, think about potential personal implications of the decision. Spend time attending to these relational aspects in addition to the technical ones.

The analytic and empathic networks are waging a constant battle in your brain. When one is activated, the other is suppressed. You don’t have to choose sides, however. It is not that one is good and the other is bad. You actually need them both. The key to maximizing your effectiveness as a leader and having more productive relationships is learning to be more aware of which network is activated at any given time and being able to seamlessly toggle back and forth between the two as necessary.

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Lead Your Sales Team Through Uncertain Times

Executive Summary

It’s normal for executives to experience anxiety about revenue and net income results — especially during a downturn and even more so in a crisis like the one we are all experiencing now. Rather than taking a fear-based approach, the author offers three principles to effectively lead your sales organization through troubled times: 1) Resist the urge to increase sales call activity. 2) Eliminate low-value reporting requirements. 3) Focus on the early stages of the pipeline rather than obsessing over late-stage negotiations.

Sean Murphy/Getty Images

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My first tour of duty as a VP of sales coincided with the onset of the 2001 recession. Often referred to as the bursting of the dot-com bubble, the recession worsened after the 9/11 attacks, and while the economy technically recovered in the fourth quarter of that year, unemployment continued to climb. My firm had recently been acquired by a holding company with high expectations for growth — growth that at that time seemed impossible. I was scared. Scared about the future. Scared of failing. Scared about losing my job.

The Covid-19 situation is creating an economic crisis, and many executives feel the same sense of fear and dread I experienced in 2001. Powerful emotions often lead to poor decisions and practices when it comes to leadership of the sales organization. What works in times of economic expansion isn’t what is needed in a challenging economic environment. And since somewhere between one-fourth and one-half of sales professionals in American companies have never had to sell during an economic downturn, few companies can lean on their sales team’s experience to get them through. It’s not about doing more — it’s about doing things differently.

Fortunately, the firm I worked for was founded by sales effectiveness guru Neil Rackham, who was still involved with the business. He shared a few principles from his research on economic downturns in the 1980s that helped our management team lead effectively through the 2001 crisis. Since then, I’ve applied these principles with my clients as they faced the challenge of driving growth in difficult circumstances:

Resist the urge to increase sales call activity.

When leaders are scared, they frequently turn up the volume on sales activity. The logic is that more calls with customers will equal more sales. In some cases, when you have an inexpensive product and sales cycles are quick, this can be true. But if you have a more sophisticated offering that needs to be sold as a solution or using a consultative approach, increasing calls may backfire. During the 2008 recession, I worked with a reseller of IT products and services that had implemented a major push to increase activity. The number of orders placed increased by over 11%, but their total revenue declined by 6%. As their sellers chased any business they could close, the average account potential shrunk, and order size declined.

Further Reading

Instead of pushing increased sales activity, rigorously drive your strategy through the sales organization. Make sure your sales team is going after your optimal target client, in terms of scope, budget, the value of your offerings, and other factors that define a successful client for your company. Chanel all your efforts into a limited number of exceptional opportunities in the pipeline. A bad prospect never makes for a good client, and under pressure, sales professionals can be loath to let go of any opportunity that reflects even a little interest. Rather than chasing low-hanging fruit with minimal prospects, focus your sales team on filtering and actively pursuing only qualified opportunities at a scale that reflects high value solutions. Eliminate activity for the sake of busy-ness.

Eliminate low-value reporting requirements.

Fear also manifests itself in additional and sometimes excessive reporting requirements. When leaders constantly ask for more information about what is happening, what they really want is control often over a situation that feels frighteningly chaotic. When it comes to the sales organization, that control is illusory and often counterproductive. Instituting a new set of metrics to keep tabs on what’s happening or increasing the reporting cadence of the forecasting process often has the unintended side effect of grinding revenue-generating activity to a halt. Between gathering the data, plus multiple levels of review and revision, companies massively increase internally-focused time, leaving less time and energy for the work of selling and effective sales management. The focus shifts from improving sales effectiveness to inspecting sales effectiveness, which has low value for your bottom line.

Instead, maintain a strong dashboard of leading indicators that provide predictive measures of success at each stage of the sales process. A few leading indicators will go a long way, such as: new opportunities at each stage, the value of opportunities at each stage, and the volume of opportunities progressing from each stage to the next. Be honest with yourself about how often you need progress reports and don’t slow the journey down by stopping to check the fluid levels on the car every 20 miles. During my first stint as a sales VP, the new parent company insisted on copious sales reporting. We did grow during that time, but I know that unproductive reporting limited our effectiveness as we focused on moving numbers around on spreadsheets instead of executing on sales efforts that could have increased profits.

Focus on the early stages of the pipeline rather than obsessing over late-stage negotiations.

Leaders who are anxious about revenue naturally focus on late stages of the pipeline, or what many smaller firms call “close to cash.” After all, when you’re struggling to survive, it makes sense to do everything possible to get business in the door. Unfortunately, focusing on the late stages of the sales cycle, where a decision is already imminent, can have a double-whammy effect. First, it rarely has a significant impact on your bottom line since the deliverables, terms, and pricing are already on the table. An exception here or there may help get a deal finalized, but it’s often too late to make changes of real value. Leaders simply will not get a great return on time spent here. Further, your customer’s typically negative responses to extra pressure are heightened during challenging times.

Myopically focusing on late-stage revenue also results in missed opportunities during the early stages of the sales process. It’s here where you have the greatest potential for strengthening the business and minimizing the effects of a recession. During the early stages, additional needs are identified, and the scope of an opportunity can be expanded. Also, building conceptual understanding about your solutions with proper decision makers can accelerate the sales cycle. It’s the front end of the sales process that allows you to create value and ultimately set yourself apart from the competition which, in turn, will make negotiations easier when it’s time to explore varying terms, deliverables, or fees. Leaders must focus on the early-stage opportunities where they can make a difference in everything from account strategy, to resource allocation, and client relationships at the executive level.

It’s normal for executives to experience anxiety about revenue and net income results — especially during a downturn and even more so in a crisis like the one we are all experiencing now. Rather than taking a fear-based approach, apply these principles to effectively lead your sales organization through troubled times. As a company leader during both the ‘01 and ‘08 recessions, I applied the techniques described above to achieve double-digit growth, while most competitors’ profits declined significantly. These principles can help build a powerful sales engine for your business that will sustain your company through even the most difficult times.

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What Good Leadership Looks Like During This Pandemic

Left: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images; Right: Jun Sato/Getty Images

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The speed and scope of the coronavirus crisis poses extraordinary challenges for leaders in today’s vital institutions. It is easy to understand why so many have missed opportunities for decisive action and honest communication. But it is a mistake to think that failures of leadership are all we can expect in these grim times.

Consider Adam Silver, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA), who — way back on March 11 — took the then-surprising step of suspending the professional basketball league for the season. Silver’s decision was one of the earliest high-profile responses to the virus outside China. He delivered it at a time of great uncertainty; coincidentally, March 11 was the day that the World Health Organization formally designated the coronavirus a pandemic.

Further Reading

When the situation is uncertain, human instinct and basic management training can cause leaders — out of fear of  taking the wrong steps and unnecessarily making people anxious — to delay action and to downplay the threat until the situation becomes clearer. But behaving in this manner means failing the coronavirus leadership test, because by the time the dimensions of the threat are clear, you’re badly behind in trying to control the crisis. Passing that test requires leaders to act in an urgent, honest, and iterative fashion, recognizing that mistakes are inevitable and correcting course — not assigning blame — is the way to deal with them when they occur.

In a moment of tremendous ambiguity, Silver’s decisive action — well before state governments began restricting public gatherings in the United States — set off a chain of events that almost certainly altered the course of the virus. Over a million fans would now avoid potential exposure at games. Moreover, the decision had a powerful ripple effect: The suspension of the NCAA’s historic “March Madness” college tournament; the National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Baseball (MLB), and other sports leagues halting their own operations; and the rescheduling of the Boston Marathon.

That this action happened in the sports arena may be material. Here was the NBA, an organization with more than $8 billion in 2019 revenue, known for physical prowess and competitiveness, not excess caution, acting with what appeared at the time to be great caution and reserve.

It got people thinking.

But could a politician ever show similar courage in getting out ahead of the virus before its impact was widely apparent? In fact, that is exactly what happened in New Zealand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s response to the pandemic back on March 21 was bold and engendered public support. That day, Ardern delivered an eight-minute televised statement to the nation in which she announced a four-level Covid-19 alert system. Modeled on fire risk systems already in use in New Zealand, this familiar approach set clear guidelines for how the government would step up its response — and what would be asked of citizens as infection rates grew.

The prime minister’s announcement, when New Zealand had only 52 confirmed cases, set the alert level at two, restricting some travel and urging people to limit contact. But when cases grew to 205 four days later, the alert system was raised to level four, triggering a nationwide lockdown. While her political peers — heads of state around the world — worried about their ability to maintain public support for sweeping restrictions, Ardern’s actions showed that honesty and caring yield support. A national poll put her government at over 80% public approval as of March 27. And, although uncertainty remains high, as of April 7 the number of new cases in New Zealand had fallen for two consecutive days. The country reported only 54 cases on April 6 and only one Covid-19 death since the pandemic started, leading to the Washington Post headline: “New Zealand isn’t just Flattening the Curve. It’s Squashing it.”

Importantly, Ardern’s explicit step system meant that people knew in advance that escalation was coming. They knew what would be required of them — and they accepted the challenge.

How a message is delivered matters. Ardern’s communication was clear, honest, and compassionate: It acknowledged the daily sacrifices to come and inspired people to forge ahead in bearing them together. Ardern closed her March 21 address by thanking New Zealanders for all they were about to do. And her powerful parting words were soon picked up around the globe as people looked for direction in the fog: “Please be strong, be kind, and unite against Covid-19.”

What Ardern and Silver got right in March, before the situation was clear to much of the public, reveals a great deal about what good leadership looks like during this pandemic. Understanding what’s required of leaders in this moment starts with appreciation for the type of problem this pandemic presented in its initial phases. When warning signs are fuzzy and potential harm could be large, leaders confront what management scholars call an ambiguous threat. Given the human desire to hope a threat is small, we are drawn to act as if that is factually the case. Fiascos ranging from NASA’s Columbia Shuttle disaster in 2003 to the 2008 financial system collapse have brought into sharp relief the unique challenge that ambiguous threats pose to leaders: cognitive biases, dysfunctional group dynamics, and organizational pressures push them toward discounting the risk and delaying action, often to catastrophic ends.

It takes a unique kind of leadership to push against the natural human tendency to downplay and delay. Far too many leaders instead try to send upbeat messages assuring all is well — which, in the current tragedy, has unfortunately led to unnecessary lost life at a scale that may never be accurately counted. But this is by no means the only path for leaders to take. Building on the cases of Silver and Ardern, we distill four lessons for leaders in a novel crisis.

1. Act with urgency.

A well-documented and pernicious problem with any ambiguous threat is the (understandable) tendency to wait for more information and clarity. The risks of delaying decision-making are often invisible. But in a crisis, wasting vital time in the vain hope that greater clarity will prove no action is needed is dangerous — particularly in the face of a pandemic with an exponential growth rate, when each additional day of delay contributes even greater devastation than the last. Against the natural tendency toward delay, acting with urgency means leaders jump into the fray without all the information they would dearly like. Both Ardern and Silver acted early, well before others in similar circumstances and well before the future was clear. It was what Ardern publicly described as an explicit choice to “go hard and go early.”

2. Communicate with transparency.

Communicating bad news is a thankless task. Leaders who get out ahead risk demoralizing employees, customers, or citizens, threatening their popularity. It takes wisdom and some courage to understand that communicating with transparency is a vital antidote to this risk. As Ardern stated in her early national address:

I understand that all of this rapid change creates anxiety and uncertainty. Especially when it means changing how we live. That’s why today I am going to set out for you as clearly as possible, what you can expect as we continue to fight the virus together.

Since that announcement, Ardern has delivered regular public addresses, including some in a sweatshirt recorded obviously from home. Silver similarly sent a barrage of memos throughout the NBA organization as his decision-making process unfolded. As reported on ESPN, 16 (yes, 16!) “Hiatus Memos” were delivered to the teams as of March 19.

Communicating with transparency means providing honest and accurate descriptions of reality — being as clear as humanly possible about what you know, what you anticipate, and what it means for people. It is crucial to convey your message in a way that people can understand, as Ardern did by echoing the familiar four-level alert system. But communication cannot be utterly devoid of hope or people will simply give in to despair. Somewhere in that communication must be a hopeful vision of the future toward which people can direct their energy, because without hope, resolve is impossible.

3. Respond productively to missteps.

Because of the novelty and complexity of a pandemic — or any other large system failure — problems will arise regardless of how well a leader acts. How leaders respond to the inevitable missteps and unexpected challenges is just as important as how they first address the crisis.

First, they must not revert to defensiveness or blame when mistakes are made.  Instead, they must stay focused on the goal and look ahead to continue solving the next and most pressing problems. For instance, when New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio lambasted the unfairness of NBA players accessing tests that remained out of reach for the rest of America, Silver publicly acknowledged the criticism, accepted it as valid, and emphasized the (real) fundamental problem of the testing shortage — with an eye on the larger picture. He said, “I, of course, understand [de Blasio’s] point, and it is unfortunate that we are at this position in this society where it’s triage where it comes to testing. So, the fundamental issue is obviously that there are insufficient tests.”

In short, it is not our intention to suggest that the NBA’s response to the virus was perfect but rather to point out that Silver took the criticism in and kept focused on the key issue of fighting the pandemic and making tests more widely available. The important response to any misstep is to listen, acknowledge, and orient everyone toward problem-solving.

4. Engage in constant updating.

An all-too-common misconception of good leadership is that a leader must be steady and unrelenting in staying the course. Certainly, steadiness is required in these times. But given the novelty and rapid evolution of the pandemic, it is wrong to think that the work of the leader is to set a course and stick to it. Leaders must constantly update their understanding of prior probabilities, even daily, deliberately using strategies to elicit new information and learn rapidly as events unfold and new information comes to light.

Doing this means relying on expert advisors and energetically seeking diverse opinions. Silver drew on a long and diverse list of advisors as he has made his way through this crisis: from the NBA’s director of sports medicine, John DiFiori, to his colleagues based in China who saw the virus’ early toll, to a former U.S. surgeon general, Vivek Murthy. A leader’s advisory team in the face of an ambiguous threat may change over time, because new information often means new problems have surfaced and the necessary expertise will shift accordingly. Finding and leveraging the right people for evolving problems is part of the updating challenge.

Tapping into Suffering to Build Meaning

Perhaps Silver and Ardern’s proactive responses were accidents of history rather than a special brilliance. When the first reports of the coronavirus reached Silver, he was writing a eulogy for his longtime mentor, former NBA Commissioner David Stern. It was also not long after former star player Kobe Bryant and eight others suddenly died in a helicopter crash. These events, although unrelated to Covid-19, may have put Silver in a reflective mood that helped him to see the emerging threat of the virus through a human lens. Similarly, Jacinda Ardern was feeling somber in March, which brought the one-year anniversary of the Christchurch mosque shootings that killed 51 people, the deadliest mass shooting in her country’s history.

Most people in positions of authority have seen great suffering or experienced loss — or at least their advisors have — and yet far too many failed to decisively take potentially unpopular action in the critical days as the virus gained momentum. They might argue that they were trying to remain professional: to stay rational and dispassionate, to keep their personal emotion at bay, and bide their time. But the cases of Ardern and Silver suggest an opposite approach.

We believe that leadership is strengthened by continually referring to the big picture as an anchor for meaning, resisting the temptation to compartmentalize or to consider human life in statistics alone.

Leadership in an uncertain, fast-moving crisis means making oneself available to feel what it is like to be in another’s shoes — to lead with empathy. Perhaps in the coming weeks the unfortunate scale of this pandemic will make empathy easier for many leaders. But awful scale can also have a numbing effect. It will be incumbent on leaders to put themselves in another’s suffering, to feel with empathy and think with intelligence, and then to use their position of authority to make a path forward for us all. Crises of historical proportion can make for leaders of historical distinction, but that is far from guaranteed.

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To Build an Agile Team, Commit to Organizational Stability

Hardi Saputra/500px/Getty Images

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We’re often told that to cope with sudden and dramatic change, companies need to be agile and resilient. That’s never been more true than today, as we try to respond to the changes brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. But new research that we’ve been involved with suggests, paradoxically, that to achieve genuine agility and resilience, companies first have to commit themselves to stability.
A foundation of organizational stability is what provides people with a sense of confidence, security, and optimism during times of disruptive change in the workplace, which, in turn, allows them to keep calm, act rationally, and adapt effectively as the situation evolves. With that  in mind, we’ve devised seven evidence-based practices that leaders can use to build a stable foundation during the current crisis.
Sharpen Focus
In the throes of significant change, people get distracted. They worry about what’s happening and what might happen next. Extreme, threatening disruptions of the sort we’re experiencing today can prompt counterproductive …

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4 Behaviors That Help Leaders Manage a Crisis

Executive Summary
Employees thrust into leadership during a crisis need to be coached in four behaviors to be most effective in their roles. They must decide with speed over precision, adapt to changing circumstances boldly, reliably deliver despite environmental factors, and engage deeply with their teams. Managers should remember that …

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Coronavirus Is Widening the Corporate Digital Divide

Executive Summary
The dramatic speed of the operating-model transformation prompted by the coronavirus is raising truly existential challenges for traditional firms, and for the many employees that depend on them for income. That’s because an existing digital transformation effort that’s creating competitive advantages for select companies has been …

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A Time to Lead with Purpose and Humanity

Executive Summary
In these unprecedented times, corporate leaders are being put to the test. Many just last summer had signed the Business Roundtable Statement of Purpose that committed their companies to serving all stakeholders. The pandemic is the first test of these principles. The author is a former CEO of …

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Build “Hardiness” Into Your Organizational Culture

Executive Summary
Hardy leaders have a strong sense of life and work commitment, a greater feeling of control, and are more open to change and challenges in life. While not immune to the ill effects of stress, someone who is very hardy is strongly resilient. They tend to interpret stressful …

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Every Leader Needs to Navigate These 7 Tensions

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In recent years, articles have claimed that old-style command-and-control leadership is “out” and a new way of leading is “in.” Instead of telling people what to do, leaders should ask them open-ended questions. Instead of sticking exactly to plans, they should adjust goals as new information emerges. Instead of working from the gut, a leader should rely on data to make decisions. And so forth.

Let’s call this old-fashioned leadership model traditional and the new one emerging. Here’s the challenge: in the current environment, most executives need to be good at both styles to succeed. That is, any leader who relies solely on positional authority will run into trouble; business, technology, and workforce expectations are changing much too quickly for that approach to be sustainable. But at the same time, any leader who fails to strive for perfection, who never tells and only listens, and who shares but never holds power, will also struggle to be effective.

In surveys and interviews with hundreds of leaders worldwide, we uncovered seven core tensions between the traditional and emerging leadership approaches. Those tensions create significant stress for leaders, as they are often unsure of what competencies, skills, and behaviors to exercise in a particular context. In this article, we describe the tensions, outline the dangers in ignoring them, and suggest coping strategies for balancing the two approaches.

Tension 1: The Expert vs. the Learner

Traditionally, leaders built their careers by developing deep expertise of some kind and demonstrating increasing levels of competence as they moved up the corporate ladder. Organizations assumed that they would bring superior insight to the challenge at hand. In the emerging approach, leaders must accept that their specialized expertise is limited (in some cases obsolete) and be open to learning from others. This is especially true when it comes to digital knowledge, as many of the leaders who are tasked with leading digital transformations are not digital natives themselves. If this tension is not managed wisely, leaders run the risk of making bad or inappropriate decisions.

Tim Westergren, co-founder of streaming radio platform Pandora, was able to blend the two. He believed that a key to his success was combining his deep knowledge of the industry with an openness to learning from others about new trends and technologies. Prior to Pandora, Westergren worked as a record producer and composer for two decades, under the name Pandora Media, which was all about music discovery — this fed Pandora’s “music genome” algorithm, one of the keys to Pandora’s success. But then when the company shifted to a freemium business model, he was in new territory and had to rely heavily on insights and knowledgefrom employees and customers.

Tension 2: The Constant vs. the Adaptor

The traditional approach to leadership values decision-making conviction and consistency; good leaders “stick to their guns.”  By contrast, the emerging approach recognizes that in fast-changing environments, decisions often need to be reversed or adapted, and that changing course in response to new information is a strength, not a weakness. If this tension is not managed wisely, leaders run the risk of seeming too rigid, on the one hand, or too wishy-washy on the other.

Early in his career, Jim Whitehurst, CEO of open-source software company Red Hat, decided to release a product that wasn’t completely open source, which was against company policy. Not surprisingly, the product failed. Fortunately, he had developed a reputation for providing a secure, solid base for his team. Consequently, when he openly admitted his error, employees and colleagues were willing to quickly move forward from the mistake.

Tension 3: The Tactician vs. the Visionary

The traditional approach to leadership calls for operational clarity and well-defined plans. The emerging approach suggests that leaders require a clear vision for where they want to go, without necessarily needing a concrete roadmap for how to get there. If this tension isn’t managed wisely, leaders run the risk of providing no “north star” for their team members. On the other hand, if they are not grounded in reality, they may serve up lofty, unrealistic, or intangible goals.

Vas Narasimhan, CEO of Novartis AG, believes that predictive analytics and artificial intelligence will revolutionize the healthcare industry. Therefore, he invested significantly in AI and challenged different parts of the organization to find their own way to deploy the technology. Most teams welcomed the initiative, but Narasimhan noticed that they often struggled to link AI to their daily work. Thus, he paid close attention to the day-to-day processes needed to allow these “bigger, bolder moves” to achieve results for the pharmaceutical giant. He infused predictive analytics and artificial intelligence into the operational heart of the company itself, as a tangible first goal, and launched a tool enabling real-time viewing of all 500 clinical trials around the world, which can be expanded into other areas such as manufacturing and regulatory affairs.

Tension 4: The Teller vs. the Listener

The traditional approach to leadership calls for leaders to tell others what to do and how to do it. The emerging approach values listening carefully to others before deciding. If this tension is not managed wisely, leaders run the risk of missing important information that resides in the team members surrounding them. Conversely, if a leader refrains from providing their viewpoint, they miss the chance to apply their own valuable knowledge.

Angela Ahrendts, former CEO of Burberry, entered her role with a clear point of view: that the fashion brand needed to become relevant to a generation of Millennial shoppers in order to thrive. But when it came to specific operational decisions, she sourced ideas and opinions from a wide range of people, leading to an almost doubling of Burberry’s operating profits during her tenure.

Tension 5: The Power Holder vs. the Power Sharer

The traditional approach suggests that leaders must lead from the top, make decisions, and take actions independently. In contrast, the emerging approach values empowering others to achieve goals. If this tension is not managed wisely, leaders run the risk of alienating and marginalizing promising talent. Alternatively, they may undermine their own authority by sharing power too broadly.

Mario Bizzarri, CEO of Gucci, held the power endowed to his position by managing the financial part of the business while giving Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, the space to focus solely on what he does best — the design. But he also knew when to empower, creating a shadow board of Millennial employees to advise the fashion behemoth’s executive team.

Tension 6: The Intuitionist vs. the Analyst

The traditional approach suggests that leaders build up an “expert gut” to make intuitive decisions. By contrast, the emerging approach says that leaders should base decisions largely on data. If this tension is not managed wisely, leaders run the risk of making decisions based on outdated and biased heuristics. Or, on the other hand, they risk ignoring their inner compass, which might provide valuable insights from past experience.

Barbara Coppola, CDO of IKEA, advocates for the importance of data-driven decision-making and data standardization globally, while giving regions the latitude to innovate to suit their immediate markets. Because data and certain metrics are standardized across regions, these can be benchmarked easily against all other regions, as well as globally. The benchmarking standardization tactic gives an overall picture from which intuitive hunches about which regional innovations could be experimentally expanded or leveraged globally.

Tension 7: The Perfectionist vs. the Accelerator

The traditional approach asserts that leaders should take the time to deliver a perfectly finished product. The emerging approach calls for leaders to acknowledge that doing something quickly, and failing fast, is often more important than doing it perfectly. If not managed wisely, leaders run the risk of delaying the launch of key initiatives or directives due to a fear of imperfection. Conversely, bringing initiatives forward without ample consideration and testing can lead to embarrassing results.

Charlotte Lindsey-Curtet, director of digital transformation and data at the International Red Cross, strives to maintain an impeccable, privacy-by-design approach to protecting the identity of refugees. However, she also explores ways to connect refugee families via new technologies, like biometrics, as speed is a critical factor in family reunification.

What can executives do to navigate these tensions?

Leaders improve their effectiveness not by consistently emphasizing one approach over the other, but by developing the ambidexterity to move between the two as the context requires. The difficulty of achieving this level of cognitive and behavioral ambidexterity should not be underestimated — but it can be achieved, with focused efforts.

Self-awareness. Understanding one’s natural tendencies is an important first step. Where is your comfort zone? What’s your default position? In the digital world, leaders can gain insight about themselves from real-time feedback apps or from online forums where members of their community post comments and provide assessments.

Learn, adapt, practice. Once leaders know their natural tendencies, they can work to develop a portfolio of micro-behaviors to address the tensions that they don’t manage well. This process can be enhanced by formal coaching. That may come in the form of human coaching, or through a coaching bot, like

Contextual awareness. Becoming a more effective leader means not only expanding one’s current leadership approach to incorporate new behaviors but knowing when to focus more on one side of the tension or the other. This requires both contextual awareness and emotional intelligence — sourced directly from the leader or from the surrounding social environment. Through programs like reverse mentoring, leaders can rely on the diversity embedded within their workforces to give them advice on when it is appropriate to favor one approach more than the other.


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Don’t Demonize Employees Who Raise Problems

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Instead of celebrating her fresh take, the marketing director was told she was being difficult, even demanding.

Recently hired at a major financial firm to identify growth strategies, she spent her first 60 days on the job studying the situation. She went to meetings, asked lots of questions, and researched the marketplace responses to different campaigns. Then, using all of this data, she did a classic gap analysis between what the firm said they wanted when they hired her (a customer set that reflects the broader demographics) and how well they reached that audience. She confirmed with her colleagues that her analysis was on-point and put together a 3-part plan, as her boss had requested, for strategies that could bridge that gap.

Yet, she got pushback. Lots of it. Her boss told her that she was bringing up uncomfortable and difficult topics. They hired her to make the firm better, but the firm’s leadership wanted to believe they were already great.

Divergent, dissident voices are the key to growth and innovation. Yet some leaders demonize the people, accusing them of being the problem instead of solving the problem that is being raised. The reason is simple: It’s not comfortable to see your shortcomings. It is this discomfort that causes leaders to deflect and defend. And, of course, when leaders do this, they limit whether the organization advances.

I’ve seen this in countless situations. It happens when a leader is anxious and afraid that once they name a problem, they won’t know how to fix it. The gap between knowing something is wrong and not knowing how to fix it is uncomfortable, and it’s the discomfort that leaders seek to push away.

The tougher the situation is, the more likely a leader is to penalize the person bringing the issue forward. That’s why with values-based or ethical situations like sexual harassment or equal pay, it’s — ahem — easier to demonize and in some cases, fire the leaders agitating for change than take on the issues themselves.

Take for example, the way Google handled a top employee concerned with the company’s direction in China. For nearly a decade, Google tasked Ross LaJeunesse with protecting human rights in China. In this role, he developed the company’s plan to stop censoring search results. Google was celebrated for this support of free expression and data privacy. LaJeunesse, who held a variety of executive roles at Google, was trusted throughout the company and received rave performance reviews, not just for his work with China, but for his work across the board.

That changed in 2019, when LaJeunesse felt the company moving away from the values that he — and they — had championed. So he tried to sway minds. More recently, he joined 1,400 employees who signed an internal letter criticizing Google’s failure to be transparent about its plans in China.

Visibly at odds with the company’s leaders, he got a lot of push back. One day, he was accidentally copied on an email. An HR director said he seemed to “raise concerns a lot,” and instructed staff to “do some digging” on the person instead of the issues.

As with the marketing director, the leader demonized him instead of dealing with the issue. This can happen in any organization — including yours — and affects every part of the business, from marketing to sales, by product and industry moves, and at every level. You probably have in mind right now the tough situation your organization is facing and can fill in the blanks.

So, how to change? Let’s create a rubric for leaders who need to face the tension head-on.

First, notice the problem. In both examples, Google and the financial firm, the leaders understood an issue existed before the person was involved. Yet, when things become uncomfortable, they fuse the problem to the person. I often ask leaders facing uncomfortable problems, What is the word for this kind of work, or what is going on here? And nearly always, they’ll answer: disruption, change, or growth. And, so, when asked, they can clearly name that they are facing difficult problems and that getting through them is how the organization advances. I just remind them, as uncomfortable as it is, when you no longer have the answers, you get to start building what comes next. It’s something leaders intellectually know they need, but emotionally aren’t always ready to face.

As a rubric, ask: Do management/key status reports explicitly name open issues that could significantly affect the future of the business?

Next, define processes to work on gaps to solve tough problems ALL THE TIME. (Yes, ALL THE TIME. Caps required.) Consider the work of Rita McGrath, who has researched how companies once able to hold market advantages for 20-year arcs, are now only able to do so for less than five years. This fast, fluid market dynamic means we must be constant learners, adapting and growing and trying new things. As I wrote in 2012, the new rules for creating value will require us to leap from opportunity to opportunity, gazelle-like, rather than act like a market gorilla, holding its ground while its habitat disappears.

Ask: Is there an ongoing mechanism to address far-reaching issues? Can difficult topics be raised? Is it a regular process? As you develop the capacity to surface difficult topics, you might want to study what percent of your time is spent working on bigger critical issues that seem unsolvable.

Finally, celebrate the agitation instead of demonizing the people bringing issues forward. Leadership, after all, is about solving problems. If people aren’t bringing you problems, consider why not. Maybe it’s because they stop believing that you care or don’t believe that you want their best ideas; either of which is a problem. As Colin Powell said, the day your people stop bringing you their problems, you have stopped leading them. So, instead of celebrating the top five most popular or most productive things that happened at your firm, celebrate the hard-fought, newly learned things. When you do this your employees will understand that you value more than looking good, that you want to get better.

Ask: Do I recognize and reward those who bring issues forward that need addressing?

Not complainers, but champions. Problem spotters don’t especially enjoy bearing bad news, but they do it to advance the organization. To help you, the leader. Maybe it’s because they have a different perspective, or a fresh take based on that spot in the world where only they stand. Maybe it’s that they are better at expressing the issue, where others struggle. Stop making it so hard on them to help you. Don’t say “I hear you have a problem with us.” Say, “I appreciate you helping us to get better.”

Between knowing there’s a problem, and not knowing the answer to that problem is discomfort. Discomfort is not the same thing as unsafe. It’s just a temporary feeling we live with while we work on things. If we get irritated by the rub, as Rumi would say, we never get the polished work. And this is the point. We want to get better. We want to grow. We want to disrupt. However uncomfortable it is, it’s necessary to work through it.

Maybe this is where we can all help one another? The next time you see your colleague turn a conversation about a problem into the *person* raising the problem, you can gently nudge with a question, is it their problem or ours to solve? Let’s be brave enough to suck when something is new. A leader who can course correct when people bring them issues is a leader who is helping the company succeed. So let’s do that.