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Do You Lead With Only The Proven Parts Of Yourself?

Written by Stephen Parker, Chief Learning Officer and Global Head of Talent Management, consulting firm – A.T. Kearney

The senior partners of A.T. Kearney, the consulting firm where I work, are currently progressing through a learning experience we call Expanding Horizons. Much that we ask participants to do in the program strikes them as odd.

We may, for example, ask our highly respected partners to deliver a bit of improv comedy. Tell a deeply revealing story. Or work in a small group to compose and then perform an original song. Their first reaction is often: “Seriously?” It’s fascinating to watch what happens next.

In one activity we ask for a volunteer to conduct a live string quartet, whose members have just explained that it took years of practice for them to master playing together. Typically, the first volunteer steps forward only after some coaxing, then conducts the quartet rather timidly, which elicits a few self-conscious giggles from the observing co-participants. But one time, when we asked for that first volunteer, a partner immediately sprang to her feet and commenced conducting with remarkable vigor, her arms waving and long hair flying about. Her fellow participants seemed a bit startled at first (as was I), but soon the whole group became more emotive and expressive, and before long most were also moving with the music. The conductors who followed that bold first volunteer were far less inhibited than we had come to expect, and put noticeably more of themselves into conducting.

This was a subtle but brilliant example of the phenomenon described by Derek Sivers in his fascinating video, First Follower: Leadership Lessons From The Dancing Guy, which vividly illustrates that to be seen doing a behavior is the most powerful way for leaders to earn followers – particularly when followers must summon some courage to do what the leader wants. Further, the first few followers who emulate a bold behavior are themselves leaders, every bit as vital to initiating a collective movement. Of course, one learns such truths even more powerfully through experience than observation. Hence, the array of unfamiliar activities that comprise Expanding Horizons.

It is human nature to want to master something before you dare to be observed doing it and thus risk being judged a failure. Visibly stepping out of one’s comfort zone can be particularly challenging for accomplished experts, such as our senior partners, who are respected and even revered in their field. As their effectiveness is built on their credibility, they may avoid trying something new while anyone is watching. But at what cost?

At A.T. Kearney, the value our partners can deliver extends well beyond the secure environs of their demonstrable expertise. When they think of bold alternatives, will they risk voicing them? Will they challenge clients with the important but dangerously provocative question, or keep it to themselves? And when they see someone else try something bold and possibly powerful in plain view of the world, will they dare to be the first to follow? These are among the more fundamental questions Expanding Horizons asks our partners to explore in their roles as trusted advisors and firm leaders.

If you are a professional or executive who leads only with the proven parts of yourself, then you are probably delivering far less value than you could actually offer. Worse still, you are depriving yourself of fully understanding who your “best self” truly is. So ask yourself:

  • When did I last try something I wasn’t confident I could do, in view of people whose opinion matters to me?
  • When did I last show the courage to follow someone who took bold initiative, before I felt confident their initiative would succeed?
  • What are my best opportunities to risk stepping out of my comfort zone?

 

Stephen Parker is the first Chief Learning Officer and Global Head of Talent Management with the consulting firm A.T. Kearney where he applies his deep experience as a leadership consultant and executive coach to help his colleagues worldwide discover and apply the very best of themselves. Stephen, recently profiled in Chief Learning Officer, has advised CEOs across many industries including pharmaceuticals, technology, and consumer goods, and has designed and led multi-year leadership and culture projects for global corporations. He previously served as President of a boutique leadership consulting firm in Washington, DC and founded the Global Consulting Group for BlessingWhite, an international leadership development firm. Stephen is based in New York City and lives in Princeton, NJ.

The Right Speech of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a reminder to honor the life of a man who fought for civil rights. His vision of a world where black Americans would have the same rights as whites was a vision he paid the highest price for. In a speech he gave at New York University in 1961 he said:

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable . . . Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

Do You Know Your Best Self?

Written by Stephen Parker, Chief Learning Officer and Global Head of Talent Management, consulting firm – A.T. Kearney

Dan Cable, Professor of Organizational Behaviour, London Business School says we are our best selves when we are doing “what we love, what people value, and what we’re great at.” Yet our busy lives rarely bring us to this soul-sustaining juncture. Even the most successful professionals can feel trapped by what they are doing. They may be highly respected and richly rewarded, but something is missing. Deep down they sense that their work does not fully invite them to be their best self.

Some organizations get along fine operating this way, but when an organization is highly aspirational, helping people to be their best selves is imperative. I work in a highly aspirational organization. In 2013, we committed to a vision of A.T. Kearney being the most admired global full-service management consulting firm by the year 2020, while doubling in size. With those goals in mind, we build our learning efforts around this core tenet: For us to be the most admired firm, each one of us must be the most admired version of ourselves – our best self. This confluence of organizational and individual aspirations compels us to offer learning experiences that benefit the whole person, encompassing the emotional, intellectual, relational and physical domains.

Accordingly, our Expanding Horizons learning initiative (designed and delivered in collaboration with London Business School) takes a straightforward approach to helping our firm partners connect with their best self. We ask each participating partner to identify up to 20 people who know them well, be they colleagues, clients, friends, relatives, former teachers, etc. We then invite these individuals to share stories of when they saw the partner at his or her best. These recollections are submitted via a confidential web-based portal and collected into small booklets, to be shared solely with the partner being described.

Before we hand the booklets to the partners, we ask them: “What do you expect to see, in terms of themes and trends, in the stories about you?” This is a prompt to contemplate the best in themselves, which for most may be a refreshing respite from a lifetime of “constructive” self-critique. We then send the partners off to a read about their best selves in a setting of quiet solitude, such as the gardens at London Business School. As you might imagine, reading these deeply personal recollections of siblings, former athletic coaches, teachers, past and current colleagues, clients and friends can be quite emotional. Partners often remark: “I had no clue they saw this in me.” Those who invited only a few people to share recollections of them often wish they had asked for more.

The insights can be powerfully enlightening. For example, partners who believed that their best self is brilliantly analytical and results driven – based on the praise they have long received for achievements like being the fastest to earn an MBA or the first among their peers to be named a partner – may find that such strengths are not mentioned at all in their best-self stories. Instead, people who know them well recall instances when the partner was unusually caring and compassionate, startlingly generous, or steadfast in the face of crisis. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the partner’s previous sense of self is false, but rather, that it may be woefully incomplete. Such realizations create space for further growth by inviting our firm partners to bring more of their best selves to all they do, and to help the people they lead be their best selves.

“It is easy for busy people to default to brief and transactional interactions,” notes David Hanfland, an A.T. Kearney Partner. “Expanding Horizons helped me to recognize that when I have I really made a difference in people’s lives is when I have slowed down to better understand what is happening with them, and what I can do to help. I have a long way to go, but I am working on this every day. I can already see the impact it is having with my clients, colleagues, and family.”

In an organization as aspirational as ours, the significance of being our best selves cannot be overstated. There is simply no greater source of sustained commitment and zeal for achievement. The author Joseph Campbell once urged readers to “follow your bliss,” but later suggested they would do better to “follow your blisters.” For when we are doing what we love, what people value, and what we’re great at, we give it our all. We then find great joy in our blisters.  Ask yourself:

  • Is your work life too often soul-depleting, rather than soul-sustaining?
  • How well do you know your “best self”?
  • Are you willing to learn about your best self from those who know you well?

 

Stephen Parker is the first Chief Learning Officer and Global Head of Talent Management with the consulting firm A.T. Kearney where he applies his deep experience as a leadership consultant and executive coach to help his colleagues worldwide discover and apply the very best of themselves. Stephen, recently profiled in Chief Learning Officer, has advised CEOs across many industries including pharmaceuticals, technology, and consumer goods, and has designed and led multi-year leadership and culture projects for global corporations. He previously served as President of a boutique leadership consulting firm in Washington, DC and founded the Global Consulting Group for BlessingWhite, an international leadership development firm. Stephen is based in New York City and lives in Princeton, NJ.

Happy New Year

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