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.