Leadership, light and darkness, and the inner journey

let-your-life-speakAmong the many books I read this summer, Let Your Life Speak by American writer and teacher Parker J. Palmer is the one that lingered in my mind perhaps for the longest time. Be it the author’s quiet and understated writing style (so far from so much of the self-help literature we usually find on bookstore shelves), his unusual sincerity about such facts of life as the debilitating depression he went through, or his life experience of over ten years in a tiny Quaker community, Palmer reminded me of other mystics, such as Alan Watts or Thomas Merton, but without a trace of their New Age glamour, even if thrust upon them rather than sought.

Chapter V, “Leading from Within”, is about how lights and shadows coexist in leadership, and why leaders need to have visited their inner shadows. Here goes his argument (emphasis mine):

A leader is someone with the power to project either shadows or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there. […] A good leader has high awareness of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good. […]

We have a long tradition of approaching leadership via “the power of positive thinking.” I want to counterbalance that approach by paying special attention to the tendency we have as leaders to project more shadow than light. Leadership is hard work for which one is regularly criticized and rarely rewarded, so it is understandable that we need to bolster ourselves with positive thoughts. But by failing to look at our shadows, we feed a dangerous delusion that leaders too often indulge: that our efforts are always well-intended, our power always benign, and the problem is always in those difficult people whom we are trying to lead!

Those of us who readily embrace leadership, especially public leadership, tend toward extroversion, which often means ignoring what is happening inside ourselves. If we have any sort of inner life, we “compartmentalize” it, walling it off from our public work. […] Leaders need not only the technical skills to manage the external world—they need the spiritual skills to journey inward toward the source of both shadow and light. […] The spiritual journey runs counter to the power of positive thinking. […] If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone “out there” into the enemy […].

Good leadership comes from people who have penetrated their own inner darkness and arrived at the place where we are at one with one another, people who can lead the rest of us to a place of “hidden wholeness” because they have been there and know the way. […] But why would anybody want to take a journey of that sort, with its multiple difficulties and dangers? Everything in us cries out against it—which is why we externalize everything. It is so much easier to deal with the external world, to spend our lives manipulating material and institutions and other people instead of dealing with our own souls. […] If we, as leaders, are to cast less shadow and more light, we need to ride certain monsters all the way down, understand the shadows they create, and experience the transformation that can come as we “get into” our own spiritual lives.

Palmer goes on to illustrate the “bestiary” of the five monsters he claims we need to get acquainted with. “The five are not theoretical for me; I became personally acquainted with each of them during my descent into depression. They are also the monsters I work with when I lead retreats where leaders of many sorts—CEOs, clergy, parents, teachers, citizens, and seekers—take an inward journey toward common ground.” I’ll list them here without a lot of detail because you, readers, are probably familiar with them; but please do read what Palmer has to say about them if you recognize them from your own experience. They are:

  1. Insecurity about identity and worth;
  2. The belief that the universe is a battleground, hostile to human interests;
  3. “Functional atheism”, the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. (“This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen—a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.”)
  4. Fear, especially the fear of the natural chaos of life;
  5. “The denial of death itself”.

And here are the corresponding gifts we receive on the inner journey:

  1. The knowledge that identity does not depend on the role we play or the power it gives us over others;
  2. The insight that the universe is working together for good. “The structure of reality is not the structure of a battle. Reality is not out to get anybody”;
  3. The knowledge that ours is not the only act in town. “Not only are there other acts out there, but some of them are even better than ours, at least occasionally! We learn that we need not carry the whole load but can share it with others, liberating us and empowering them. We learn that sometimes we are free to lay the load down altogether. The great community asks us to do only what we are able, and trust the rest to other hands.”
  4. The insight that chaos is the precondition to creativity. “As every creation myth has it, life itself emerged from the void. Even that which has been created needs to be returned to chaos from time to time so it can be regenerated in more vital form. When a leader fears chaos so deeply that he or she tries to eliminate it, the shadow of death will fall across everything that leader approaches—for the ultimate answer to all of life’s messiness is death.”
  5. The knowledge that death finally comes to everything “—and yet death does not have the final word. By allowing something to die when its time is due, we create the conditions under which new life can emerge.”

Can we help each other deal with the inner issues inherent in leadership? Palmer’s answer is not only that we can, but that we must. What might that help look like?

First, we could lift up the value of “inner work.” That phrase should become commonplace in families, schools, and religious institutions, at least, helping us to understand that inner work is as real as outer work and involves skills one can develop, skills like journaling, reflective reading, spiritual friendship, meditation, and prayer.

Second, we could spread the word that inner work, though it is a deeply personal matter, is not necessarily a private matter: inner work can be helped along in community. Indeed, doing inner work together is a vital counterpoint to doing it alone. […] The key to this form of community involves holding a paradox—the paradox of having relationships in which we protect each other’s aloneness. We must come together in ways that respect the solitude of the soul, that avoid the unconscious violence we do when we try to save each other, that evoke our capacity to hold another life in ways that honor its mystery, never trying to coerce the other into meeting our own needs.

Third, we can remind each other of the dominant role that fear plays in our lives […] “Be not afraid” does not mean we cannot have fear. Everyone has fear, and people who embrace the call to leadership often find fear abounding. Instead, the words say we do not need to be the fear we have. We do not have to lead from a place of fear, thus engendering a world in which fear is multiplied.

We have places of fear inside of us, but we have other places as well—places with names like trust, and hope, and faith. We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety. As we stand in one of those places, fear may remain close at hand and our spirits may still tremble. But now we stand on ground that will support us, ground from which we can lead others toward a more trustworthy, more hopeful, more faithful way of being in the world.

Business Reading: Exponential Organizations and The Hard Thing About Hard Things

What’s true in literary fiction is also true for business books, I believe: if readers still say good things about something about a year after it came out, then it’s probably good, and not just the flavor of the month. This summer I read two 2014 titles I had had on my wish list for a while, and figured were ripe enough for picking.

2_d51b386d7c928e25_1280boxExponential Organizations, by Salim Ismail, Yuri van Geest and Michael S. Malone, is a well-researched outline of the key characteristics of a new generation of companies – the Ubers, the AirBnBs, the GitHubs of this world -, and of how they have come to disrupt markets, invent them them, or challenge longstanding business models in the space of just a few short years, by virtue of their exponential growth. These companies, which others often call Unicorns, have been extensively chronicled elsewhere, so the framework that the book lays out to identify them is useful, but not transformative; and the proposed scoring approach to rank Exponential Organizations (to be an Exponential Organization, you have to have a Massive Transformative Purpose plus at least 4 out of a list of 10 attributes that these tend to have in common) may appear a bit formulaic.

ExO AttributesIf one were to nitpick, such concepts as Holacracy – one of the more untraditional organizational philosophies adopted by some of the companies in the sample, covered in the book under the Autonomy attribute – seem to have had a bit of a rough time since the book was written. The authors, to be fair, don’t claim that any of these practices or characteristics would necessarily be needed for you to have an Exponential Organization; and it is perhaps inevitable that the riskiest management innovations are also the ones most at risk of being misunderstood, falling out of fashion, or simply failing. After all, in the words of my favorite business authors Pfeffer and Sutton, you should always “treat your organization as a prototype”.

The more valuable content in Exponential Organizations – at least for the vast majority of potential readers – comes in the second half, where the authors address what to do if you work in a traditional organization, one that thinks of itself as a well-fed turkey and may not realize that Thanksgiving is drawing near. A highlight of the work is in Chapter 8, which describes a few potential avenues to choose from, possibly in combination:

  1. Transform leadership; this includes training your Board of Directors to be aware of exponential technologies and the resulting disruption;
  2. Partner with, invest in, or acquire Exponential Organizations;
  3. Disrupt[X]: create an “edge Exponential Organization” at your boundaries, hire a “black ops” team to hack your business model for you, copy the Google[X] Lab, partner with accelerators, incubators and hackerspaces;
  4. Try “ExO Lite”, applying some of the ten attributes, even if in a diluted form, to your core business processes.

Chapter 10 is also worthwhile, as it tells you what’s in store for you if you are a CEO, CMO, CTO, CIO, CFO, Chief Legal Officer, Chief HR Officer and so on: you want your company to start pursuing this path, but you also need your colleagues to share your vision, and not think that you’ve lost your marbles.

Overall, this book pays homage to the classics in the field (Christensen, Collins), builds on non-traditional thinkers about human affairs (Taleb), adds to the mix a number of recent business concepts (Ries, Hoffman, Thiel) and earns its place on the shelf as a strong contender for a short list of must-read business books today. As a personal note, I am generally a fan of the Singularity University thinking that the book is grounded in, even if some of its more extreme fringes are somewhat crackpot (immortality? please), and technology isn’t yet keeping all of its promises.

After Exponential Organizations, I dove into my second business book for the summer: and I felt I had crashed down from the ethereal halls of academia into the brutal trenches of corporate warfare.

The Hard Thing about Hard ThingsThe book is The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz fame. It is less a manual about how to build companies (that material is largely adapted from the author’s blog), and more a CEO memoir from Horowitz’s life before becoming a venture capitalist. As business books go, it is gutwrenching. It reminds you that business will be sometimes about things like letting people go when you should not have hired them (or even when you should have); demoting your friend, even if he is your cofounder; or moving ahead when you feel like hiding, throwing up and quitting. In fact, the ability to “focus and make the best move when there are no good moves” is, according to the author, the core skill of a successful CEO. Especially a wartime CEO – and there is no guarantee that a successful peacetime CEO will be able to turn into a wartime CEO when the company goes to war.

One particularly harrowing war story is, believe it or not, about the interpretation of accounting principles: revenue recognition is always a big deal for software companies, and a difference in interpretation arose – as Horowitz tells the story – while he was going through the due diligence process to sell Opsware to either BMC or HP in 2007. It turns out that his auditors Ernst & Young had adhered to one interpretation of a contractual clause about software upgrades, while BMC’s auditors – also Ernst & Young – stood for the opposite interpretation, and required either restating revenues (which would have killed the deal) or amending three contracts with large banks in the space of 24 hours. Both bidders were informed of the situation; amazingly, in less than 24 hours, Horowitz and his team pulled off the contract amendments with the clients. Still, BMC pulled back, and the deal was done with HP, where Horowitz then spent the following year as VP and General Manager of Business Technology Optimization for Software.

Even scarier, the following happened to Horowitz as he was leading Loudcloud towards is IPO (in March 2001 – a stressful time if there ever was one for tech startups). Three days into the roadshow, he got a call about his wife from his father-in-law, saying that she had had an allergic reaction to some medicine: “Felicia stopped breathing, but she is not going to die.” When he was able to speak with her on the phone, she told him to continue focusing on the IPO and not come home from the roadshow. The IPO was finally done, Felicia got better, and life went on: but the Loudcloud business was not yet out of the woods, and indeed – in the meantime, Sept. 11 had happened – it was sold to EDS a little over a year after IPOing.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things has a lot of strong and useful nuggets about hiring, training, and building a corporate culture. Even the most uplifting chapters, though, are tinged by some existential bleakness from the trenches that Horowitz has fought in. I recommend this book to everybody whose business is not doing well, and to everybody whose business is doing well, too, because, in the author’s words:

  • Being a good company doesn’t matter when things go well, but it can be the difference between life and death when things go wrong.
  • Things always go wrong.
  • Being a good company is itself an end.

Next Generation Women Leaders: Paris, May 22-24, 2014

SandrineIs your sister, cousin, daughter, niece or friend a university student or young graduate with up to six years’ work experience? Then suggest that she apply to Next Generation Women Leaders, a McKinsey workshop in Paris, May 22-24. The deadline for applications is March 23.

I haven’t seen the full program and speakers’ list yet, but I know from the NGWL Facebook page that participants will be able to meet the super-accomplished Sandrine Devillard (pictured; bio here) as well as other leaders within and outside the Firm. You can refer more participants here (and earn the chance to win an iPad Mini); on top of the event itself, there will also be a series of online follow-ups for applicants who did not get to go to Paris.

Workshops like this are a great way for women to develop their leadership profile. Remmber, the earlier you start thinking of yourself as a leader, the earlier you actually become one!

What to look for in your next Chief Digital Officer

I am often asked to help people define what CEOs should look for in a candidate for the Chief Digital Officer position. My past eight years of digital experience have taught me that most companies tend to clearly see one or two sides of the job description and corresponding skill set, but cannot articulate in their entirety what should really be a multifaceted role – nor their expectations for impact or even outcome metrics.

Chief Digital Officer

This is my cocktail-napkin framework for the skills you should expect a Chief Digital Officer to bring to your company. A 2012 Russell Reynolds article listed part of them, but I believe this framework completes the scope of the role in important ways that were not originally covered; for more literature, see this McKinsey survey and this Forrester report (Forrester clients only). So, what does the CDO need to know how to do?

  • Online marketing, social media and digital PR. Most marketing and communication-focused companies, such as those in fast-moving consumer goods, are quite aware that the ways to drive brand awareness and engagement have shifted dramatically in the digital era; and that they need to move from traditional metrics, such as GRPs, to much more granular digital measurements. Market research, a cornerstone of many organizations’ plans, is largely shifting to online platforms, too; and digital listeners who can find the signal in the noise are in high demand. Yet, listening and communicating well in the digital domain are far from the only required capability; and what looks like the cutting edge today quickly becomes table stakes tomorrow.
  • E-commerce, digital distribution, multichannel. Retailers and manufacturers in many sectors are aggressively pursuing online sales: consumers are looking for your products online anyway, so hiding your head under the sand does not work, and in high-margin sectors such as premium and luxury goods a digital sales strategy is – at last – no longer shunned as damaging to the brand. Metrics here are about conversion, revenues and margins. The Chief Digital Officer will be the cross-channel integration champion in the organization, knowing when to push and where to stop: users will prize a seamless experience across a few channels much more than a complicated and fault-prone experience across many channels.
  • Online service and CRM. Customer expect you to be online, 24/7, to answer their questions, and no longer just at the other end of a toll-free number. What often starts as a marketing-focused corporate social media presence almost always needs to be complemented by strong online customer support capabilities; forward-looking banks, insurance companies and utilities are increasingly proving their worth in this arena. Here, the relevant metrics are customer service metrics; a digital customer operations mindset and expertise are needed, enabling in turn the generation of additional upselling and cross-selling opportunities.
  • Digital product and technology. The previous three quadrants extend what you are doing in the analog domain and can give you a competitive advantage: yet, it is only if you are able to reinvent your product into a profitable digital experience that you leave your competition in the dust. Media publishers, music and movies have struggled with the “profitable” part of the equation. Among successful examples, on the other hand, witness how Nike has positioned the Nike+ FuelBand at the center of a whole new Nike+ ecosysytem – remember, they used to make running shoes. A lesser-known but fine example of product redesign for the digital era is the new Getty Images watermark. From thermostats to cars, over the next few years all sorts of products and services will become very different from what we know today. If you’re not sure, go back and re-read Marc Andreessen on why software is eating the world. A good and easy-to-read guide to some of the disruptions is the recently published Age of Context by Scoble and Israel.

(Note that you can use this framework to get immediate clarity whenever a fuzzy digital project comes your way. Suppose, for example, that your team tells you “we ought to make a mobile app.” Is this a communication (or, worse, a vanity) app? a sales app? a service/CRM app? or an app that supplements, enhances, reinvents or revolutionizes your product or service? This way you can quickly define the right metrics and set your ambition levels.)

Underlying these four capabilities, your Chief Digital Officer should be able to foster a digital culture and nurture digital talents. Collaboration and knowledge sharing within the company must mean more than having an intranet, a digital suggestion box or even a prediction market: digital tools should foster your employees’ sense of community and belonging. Millennials thirst for transparency, openness and meritocracy; they will expect your company to be much more like an open-source-based software project and much less like the bureaucracy you grew up in. See this Gary Hamel talk if you’re not sure of what you should aim for.

In summary, a Chief Digital Officer is not just – as he or she is often portrayed to be – a good general management talent who has learned a few sexy digital marketers’ tricks. In my experience she will be much more impactful if she has a 360° vision of the future around her, not just of her product or industry; if she knows the front line well and has got her hands dirty with operations; and if she is unafraid to lead the evolution of the company’s culture.

FT Innovative Lawyers 2013: Claudia Parzani

Claudia ParzaniOne of the ten winners in this year’s FT Innovative Lawyers survey, among over 600 participants, is Claudia Parzani of Linklaters, chair of corporate association Valore D and co-creator of In the Boardroom, an initiative she developed with GE Capital and Egon Zehnder to provide training and skills to prepare women for boardroom positions. Claudia also created the Breakfast@Linklaters network, featured in this year’s Client Service category.

Kudos to Claudia! I am proud to be participating in her boardroom program and honored to be in her circle.

Update & Correction (Oct. 17, 2013): post corrected to clarify that In The Boardroom was developed through collaboration among Linklaters, GE Capital and Egon Zehnder. The supporting member companies of Valore D can be found on this page.

Major Arcana. Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden, Capalbio

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be in a place I had long wished to visit, the Tarot Garden (Giardino dei Tarocchi) built by artist Niki de Saint Phalle in Garavicchio, Capalbio, southern Tuscany. Go there, by all means.

Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) is easy to misunderstand; her feminism in a pop dress made her somewhat of a niche artist, known for her Nanas and her 1971 marriage to fellow artist Jean Tinguely, but without the gravitas of, say, a Louise Bourgeois. Yet, the Garden is such a masterwork that, after visiting it, it is hard to deny her greatness.

First conceived in 1979, the Garden was completed in 1996 and opened to the public in 1997. The concept for the Garden is a sculptural representation of each of the Major Arcana of the Tarot. Most of the Arcana are cement figures covered in mosaic; some are structures you can walk into, some are mosaics inside another figure, some are simpler free-standing fiberglass sculptures. The choice of the Tarot, of course, carries with it the full weight of their spiritual and esoteric content; walking through the Garden gives you a glimpse of the artists’s struggle throughout the project, her loneliness as she lived inside the Empress for long stretches, and her nightmares as she worked on the Devil.

It also shows you Niki de Saint Phalle’s leadership: for it is not enough to have a vision, it is necessary for the artist to execute it. The project needed fundraising, getting help from friends, dealing with Italian bureaucrats (!), creating a team of artisans, technicians and crewmen ready to commit to the project for years at a time. And the Garden needs maintenance and preservation work every year, carried out by the Fondazione Giardino dei Tarocchi in the months when it is closed to the public, because it is a fragile work and without the necessary care it would be run over by the wilderness in the space of a few years. It is, I think, a triumph: you come out of it a bigger person than you walked in.

Don’t hesitate to bring kids. They will love it and, I hope, they will be able to go back as grown-ups, as they’re playing out the cards they have been dealt.

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Mundane organizations that work. More from Prof. March

It would be wrong to demystify heroic leaders without simultaneously celebrating mundane organizations. More from Appendix 2, “Mundane Organizations and Heroic Leaders”, in On Leadership:

Let me mention four components of elementary efficiency in organizations. They are neither novel nor mysterious; but they are, I believe, fundamental. The first of these, and I suspect the most important, is simple competence. Organizations work well if people in them know what they are doing. How is competence encouraged? In some very traditional ways. It requires appointment and promotion on the basis of merit rather than personal ties or irrelevant characteristics. It requires a division of labor, specialization, routinization, and training. […]

A secondo component of elementary efficiency is initiative. Organizations work well if problems are attended to most of the time locally, promptly, and autonomously. This is accomplished by delegation accompanied by instincts or rules of tolerance. If you are going to encourage initiative, you need to be tolerant of small deviations from what you would to yourself in the same situations. […]

A third component of elementary efficiency is identification. Organizations work well if persons in them take pride in their work and the organization. They have a sense of shared destiny, mutual trust, and collective identity. […]

A fourth component of elementary efficiency is unobtrusive coordination. Organizations work well if the autonomous actions of individuals are coordinated effectively, quickly, and inexpensively. […]

In fact, competence, initiative, identification, and unobtrusive coordination, and decisions about them, are at the heart of effective leadership. They are not grand; they are not heroic; they are not – for the most part – even interesting. […]

The contrast between the elementary things that make an organization work and heroic conceptions of leadership is striking. It is also potentially unsettling for leaders. Acknowledgement of the relative unimportance of leadership heroics is inconsistent with their interpretations of their own experiences. They do not want it to be true, and they do not believe it to be true. As a result, they overlook some things that seem to me quite fundamental to understanding how organizations work.

First, organizations work because of a density of ordinary competence throughout the organization. […] Organizations that work are those in which if someone sees a toilet not working, he or she fixes it. […]

Second, organizations work because subunits and individuals are interdependently autonomous. That is, they are left alone to do their jobs. There is mutual delegation and mutual confidence. Work is coordinated in a relatively unobtrusive manner, less by explicit interventions than by mutual anticipations. […] In short, organizations work better when organizational management is more like sailing than power boating.

Third, organizations work well because they have redundancy. Almost everyone is important but no one is indispensable, either over time or at a given point. If a task need to be done, there are several individuals, technologies, and routines available to do it. […] Without redundancy organizations are vulnerable to failure if any individual part fails; and that likelihood increases rapidly with increasing scale and complexity of organizational operations.

Fourth, organizations work because they have mutual trust without personal favoritism. Classic forms of trust, in families for example, are associated with favoritism. An organization requires a different form of trust, not confidence in mutual personal support but confidence that a job will be done well and with understanding of the job requirements of others. […]

Because of the ways in which we write and think about organizational leadership, and because of the personal success experience by which we prepare individuals for leadership, these mundane truisms about organizations are likely to be forgotten by leaders as they look for dramatic ways to make their marks upon an organizations.