People-focused business: New leadership rules for success

INSEADs Professor Herminia Ibarra’s endnote speech at the CIPD annual conference was an inspiring invitation for HR professionals to put people back into business, transition into leadership roles, and build business for the better.

Professor Herminia Ibarra
With CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese's message of going back to basics, putting people first, and framing business and HR priorities "through principles and values that drive good, ethical and sustainable business" striking the keynote at the organisation's 2015 conference, Professor Herminia Ibarra's endnote focused on how HR could step up and help others to take the lead in this new era.Titled Act Like A Leader, Think Like A Leader, and based on insights published in Professor Ibarra's top-selling book of the same name, the closing speech drew on her personal experience and academic research. Herminia Ibarra is professor of organisational behaviour and CORA chaired professor of leadership and learning at INSEAD, a member of the World Economic Forum, and number eight in the Thinkers50 global ranking of the most influential management thinkers.At the heart of the presentation was the idea that HR professionals could act, inspire and move people in the business to step outside their comfort zone, develop "outsight" – the opposite of internal reflection – and deliver.Referring to the adage 'what gets you here won't get you there', Professor Ibarra explained that her interest lay in studying how people moved from leading, inspiring and influencing to leading, influencing and inspiring change on the basis of a broader strategic sense and acumen."For the past ten to 12 years, I've been studying how people grow into bigger leadership roles," she said. "That could be at any level, and that doesn't necessarily happen when you get a promotion. There is a tendency for our jobs to get a little bigger, then a little bigger, and with those expectations. So, a lot of the time, we are challenged to step up even without the benefit of a title change."For those of us in HR and in the organisational development space, it is how we can facilitate this and help people through it."

Turning obstacles into levers for success

For Professor Ibarra, people – particularly those transitioning into leadership – came up against three obstacles when trying to take their roles to the next level. The managers she studied already had the right answers: that they needed to be more strategic and delegate more. However, their behaviour was not following their conclusion because they felt it wasn't 'who they were.'In what offers an interesting take on the prevailing standard of authentic leadership, the approach Professor Ibarra describes to moving closer to delivering the right answers means reassessing three areas: how you do your job and how you spend your time; what kind of network you operate in; and how you see yourself. These three areas could also resonate for HR and global mobility in the context described by Peter Cheese.

Redefining your role

Underpinning the 'act like a leader' approach is the redefinition of roles. In her research, Professor Ibarra polls managers on how they spend their time, giving four options: doing things yourself; persuading others to do things; strategising and figuring out what are the right things to do; and investing in people."I see tons of executives every year and have been polling them on how they spend their time," said Professor Ibarra. "Doing comes out top, even at C-level. But what produces most regret? Strategising – not having enough time to think about the future.""In study after study, a key success factor is the extent to which you, as a leader, go beyond the present day – you, as a human group, an organisation, go in the direction of the opportunities and away from the threats. I hate it that we spend so little time on that."Explaining the mismatch between doing and strategising, Professor Ibarra said the opportunity cost of doing something we were less good at was too high."At the root of it, I think, is the competency trap we set first. This is when you do something so well that you get to love it." Ultimately, we find ourselves doing more of these activities, and this is where managers find themselves micromanaging because they can do it better and quicker."Countering the competency trap and moving towards what we feel we should be doing means taking on a bridge as opposed to a hub role, Professor Ibarra suggested. Instead of being at the centre of action, setting goals, managing performance, setting up the culture, and making people more motivated, people in bridge roles can develop more valuable strategic perspectives."You are a connector, a linchpin, a broker, feeding in what is needed: support, alliance, network or sources. You are exporting good reputation, buzz about what your company is doing."There has been a lot of research on this – not mine – in terms of outcomes; financial, quality and time. Bridge leaders had better outcomes. When you play a bridge role, magical things start to happen. One is all of a sudden you start to see how different stakeholders see your company and how they may see it a little differently."All of a sudden, you start to get better at that vision thing, which we associate with leadership. It has no magic other than being able to see beyond the job because you are out there, not just sitting in your room trying to be visionary and strategic."

Networks, playfulness and authenticity

The second and third levers – networks and self-perception – develop the current leadership thinking around authenticity. They also speak to the need identified by Peter Cheese for HR to understand the context and the priorities of their business.Again citing research in this field, Professor Ibarra differentiated between broad and contained networks. Networks that allow us to develop outsight, and therefore to be more innovative, exercise good judgment and add value in the long term, have reach and depth."To grow your leadership, you have to help them get networks that are more connected, broader and more dynamic. There's lots of ways of doing that, but they generally involve activities outside your main beat and can be inside your organisation, outside or both. Do it as actively as possible, be organised and interested in anything that gets you where you're aiming, and do it in every direction."Your network is brighter and you access different information from the full diversity of perspectives. When people start to do this, the value of networking absolutely becomes clear very, very quickly, and mindsets change."Yet with networking, Professor Ibarra recognises the reality that people shy away from it, feeling it is somehow inauthentic. Introducing the idea of playfulness into her model, she suggests that giving people the space to try new approaches and experiment in their jobs will help them deliver the all important external view.Also acknowledging how this idea might, at first sight, go against the grain of authenticity, Professor Ibarra asked why it wasn't possible to have more than one authentic self, drawing on the idea of a situational leadership poised between rigid leaders on one side and "chameleons" on the other."I have nothing against authenticity; being yourself is a fantastic thing. But the process isn't valid. We actually studied people making transitions outside their comfort zone to do bigger roles. Oftentimes, it makes them feel very inauthentic. But is the definition of authenticity being as I have always been? Why can't they definition be what I might become, being true to a possible self?

Acting your way to leadership

"When it comes to changing behaviour about who you are, act your way to a new way of thinking. When you start, that acting doesn't feel natural, it doesn't feel authentic. You aren't even sure you want to be that person. The new experiences and interactions you are having give you a new perspective on what you are trying to change and ultimately change the way we think – what we think is valuable, important – and change what we think we are capable of."

Stepping up to change

Described by Joe Kaeser, CEO of Siemens AG, as "an inspirational read for everyone who has a passion for leading and developing people", Professor Herminia Ibarra's latest book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, provides practical guidance on how to change when you also need to lead.The pace of change today has a huge impact on leaders – and, as a result, on their organisations. They must learn to pivot even when there are no obvious signposts to guide them.Defying standard leadership development guidance, which encourages a focus on personal strengths and weaknesses, the book shows that the most effective way of changing is through action, not analysis, and by learning from experience, not introspection. In short, it teaches readers to change from the outside in by first acting like a leader and then thinking like one.Based on Professor Ibarra's flagship executive education programme at INSEAD, the book is aimed at both budding and seasoned leaders who need to understand the new rules for success in their own organisation and in the wider global business environment.For more Re:locate news and features on leadership and management, click here and for more about business and enterprise, click hereFor more coverage of the CIPD conference and HR issues, click here