The skills we aren’t taught

by Rita Gunther Mcgrath: Associate professor at Columbia Business School.
Our leadership models are changing – from command and control to questioning and discovery. You can learn to develop these skills and improve your capability as a leader.

How do you sustain your competitive advantage as an individual or organisational leader? How can you grow, succeed, and stay ahead?

All competitive advantages have a life cycle. There’s the period during which a new advantage is created – through innovation, acquisition, mergers or whatever. Then there is the period when we get to exploit an existing advantage – in other words, a profitable business is in place and our job is to operate it. Then, when an advantage is exhausted, there is the task of transforming the business to operate on the next advantage or risk it becoming irrelevant.

Here’s the dilemma. The period of time when an advantage is in the “exploit” stage is getting shorter and shorter in much of our economy. Consider the fate of so many of the much-heralded “direct to consumer” companies that began sprouting up everywhere in the 2010’s. Take Casper, the heavily promoted mattress-in-a-box company. While it was one of the first to offer that product and market it in a catchy way, by the time it went public, the mattress market was saturated, hundreds of other companies were in the space and CNN officially called the IPO a “disaster.”

Couple this with the way we train and develop leaders. We don’t generally train them in the skills of either innovation or transformation. It is also an experience that many have never encountered personally. They are thus left poorly equipped to lead efforts involving major uncertainties and change. This is why being discovery driven as a leader is so critical. As I quote Satya Nadella of Microsoft, the journey is one of going from “know it alls” to “learn it alls”.

Creating rich information architectures

For rich learning to take place, as a leader, you have to architect the information flows that you can tap into. Way too many leaders spend more time on email and carefully crafted PowerPoints than personally getting essential information that might lead them to make smarter decisions. 

Don’t be afraid of longform text. Popular though PowerPoint slide decks are, they are a perfect vehicle for hiding the details of a given proposal. Moreover, meetings to review ideas using PowerPoint often get derailed after slide #3, when some executive interrupts the presenter to ask a question (that was often answered later in the presentation) and the whole thing goes off the rails. What a waste of time!

Instead, try to think of vehicles for forcing people to think their ideas through clearly, and to communicate them in all their richness. At Amazon, for instance, they ditched PowerPoint ages ago in favour of typed, 6-page long documents in which the person pitching an idea describes it. The first 20 minutes or so of a meeting are taken up with reading the document, and typically questions get answered therein, so when you do start your discussion, it can be fruitful.

Find your helpful Cassandras. Andy Grove, formerly of Intel, talked about the critical importance of “helpful Cassandras” in bringing you bad news. Even if it’s not so pleasant to hear it, sooner is better than later, and knowing is a lot better than not knowing! Here’s the thing, though. You may have to do a bit of work to find them. Who are the helpful Cassandras in your organisation, workplace, or community? There are several places to look. I’d start with your technical organisation. Often, your scientists and engineers are very well wired into emerging technological roadmaps and changes in what is possible. Front-line customer service people will almost always have insights into where the customer experience could be improved. And of course, younger people will come at decisions with a different frame of reference and different experience bases than older ones.

The key point is to find those people who don’t usually come to executive meetings. They may be geographically distant. They may be junior and afraid to raise uncomfortable topics. It’s your job to find them and hear what they have to say – for everyone’s sake.

Diversity is not just a nice to have. Diversity is all the rage these days, in conversation at least, if not so much in reality. But if you are confronting a changing and volatile environment surrounded by people who all think like you, have the same experiences as you and share a common background with you, you are definitely creating a blind spot. And it isn’t just about diversity, of course, because diversity without inclusion accomplishes little. So, bring those people who are different together. Listen to them. Make them feel they have as much right to be in the room as anyone else. The quality of the conversation and of your decisions will most certainly increate.

Useful resources:
Rita Gunther McGrath
Rita McGrath works extensively with leadership teams in Global 1000 companies who wish to develop their capability to drive growth.
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