My Year of Thinking Dangerously: A Professional Breakthrough

About 18 months ago I was feeling pretty good. My team at work was doing well and creating massive impact. We enjoyed the respect of both the business leaders and our peers in HR. Business schools and professional groups were seeking our input for lectures, case studies and guidance. I had more opportunities to co-author books, lecture and research than I had time for…and the headhunters kept calling. Not only were they calling me…but everyone on our team. Like sirens of the lake, each call promised the riches of fame and fortune.

It couldn’t get any better. As they say down in Dixie, we were in ‘high cotton.’

We were standing on the peak of a very high mountain. Proudly planting the flag and taking selfies from the summit. Surveying the world around us like Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

Then I realized…I was on the wrong mountain!

Yes, I had reached the summit, admired by associates, friends and professional colleagues. But, 15 years into the 21st Century I was standing on the top of the mountain for the 20th Century!

I will write about that moment of realization in another blog post. For now, please imagine the moment when one realizes that a couple of decades of knowledge and experience, as well as an enormous investment of time and money into an education, were quickly becoming obsolete.

Don’t get me wrong…we were focused on all of the so-called ‘right’ things. I wasn’t creating leadership and organization effectiveness systems from handwriting analysis, Tarot cards or phrenology.

We were, collectively…creating better definitions for succession depth charts, improving competency models by tailoring them to business strategy, creating improved ‘9-block’ frameworks with better criteria, eliminating performance reviews and replacing them with more frequent conversations, making action-learning development programs even more business-centric, leveraging technology for online 360 assessments and looking at how to do this on mobile devices, creating development plans based on assessments of weaknesses and de-railers and then benchmarking against the market, modeling job rotations to stretch people to the brink of failure to really test them, creating virtual learning platforms, using all of the standard personality assessments, etc. And, the cherry on top…not only were we using all the standard corporate jargon – we were creating new jargon.

I was doing, what I call now, classics with a twist. Taking ideas and programs that were new and cutting edge in the 1990s (or, maybe noughties) adding our own unique spice blend or modification and then convincing ourselves, and others, that we had created a new cuisine.

To be honest, I could have probably gotten away with it for a few more years. However, I work in a technology company with innovation at its core. Resting on one’s laurels and continuing those practices would be like using a dial-up modem in the age of wireless IoT.

What am I doing now?

Well, for starters, I went down to the market and started to look for new ingredients. I found others there looking for new ingredients and sharing recipes as well. These fellow cooks and I started comparing ideas, throwing out the old cookbooks and are now trying new dishes from new Chefs (strange analogy I know but my father owned restaurants as I was growing up…)

Here are some of the things I have been thinking about and ideas we are playing with:

  1. Teams. Probably the natural order of things in a corporation. For too many years, research and practice has focused an inordinate amount of attention on the individual leader. This does make sense, as teams are more complex and, therefore, more challenging to study. We definitely need new models, high quality research and new standards of practice here.
  2. Leaders. Of course we need to think about leaders. But, leaders in context. Teams need leaders and leaders need teams. Have you ever wondered if we really advanced from the leadership studies of the 1940s and 1950s?
  3. Organisation. In reality a ‘team of teams.’ Have you read General Stanley McChrystal’s book? It’s fascinating.
  4. Data. Big Data, Small Data. All kinds of data. But, only valid data that we can measure reliably and that has strong utility. We are also conducting a lot of ‘mini-experiments’ to figure out, in an agile way, what we should and shouldn’t continue. Speaking of data, it’s time to make sure that corporate-based research is more stringent and academic-based research is more applicable to practitioners.
  5. Strengths, Positive Psychology & Neuropsychology. For too many years research and practice has focused on what was wrong with someone and trying to fix that instead of figuring out what was great about someone and trying to amplify that. I have spent hours with Marcus Buckingham and his team discussing strengths and the links to employee engagement. We have shifted our assessment and coaching approaches to be strengths-based.
  6. Conscious Capitalism. Linking CSR to the development of leadership and organization effectiveness.
  7. Simulations & Gamification. Not just old ideas on a new platform but games you really want to play. At one of my team’s planning meetings Jane McGonigal had us playing Pokémon Go and brainstorming how a work simulation could be equally addictive.
  8. Engagement & Listening Surveys. We are putting more muscle behind creating a compelling employee value proposition and approaching engagement with more than just lip service. We are working our survey methods much harder and raising our game in terms of validity, reliability and more logical sampling procedures.
  9. Mindfulness and work-life integration for leaders. We bring our whole selves to work each day and, you can’t really close down ‘personal’ when you come to ‘work’ and vice-versa. Kelly McGonigal has done fascinating research on stress.
  10. Technology & Computing. ‘Video-coaching’ is pretty much standard these days. Imagine using virtual reality and augmented reality in your coaching or teambuilding sessions? Blockchain is offering a plethora of tantalizing opportunities. Advances in computing are offering access to a much wider range of statistical analyses than ever before (stuff that in graduate school I would have to do by hand.) IBM Watson & Artificial Intelligence? Yep. We’re looking at this as well. One also can’t forget Organization Network Analysis. We are spending a lot of time with Rob Cross.

Oh, remember when I mentioned we were really into corporate jargon? Well, that is on the chopping block as well. Solutions that are simple for the client to understand and explained using natural language are the new standard.

While the past year has been exhilarating, it hasn’t always been easy nor felt safe. But, having made our way down ‘Mount 20th Century’ and having started the ascent of ‘Mount 21st Century’ my team and I are all energized and looking forward to the future.

These are just some of the ideas and approaches I am experimenting with as we make our way up the new mountain. I am interested to hear what new Chefs you are inspired by and what new ingredients you have found at the market.


Robert Kovach is the Director of Leader Success for Cisco’s Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area. He has been an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100 and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership effectiveness and organizational agility. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own and not those of Cisco. Contact him for speaking enquiries.

Illustration courtesy of Flickr CC and Cristian Bortes

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