How do we overcome the fear of taking risks? Herminia Ibarra, the author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like A Leader, explains how managers can step up to bigger leadership positions, without relying on introspection. Discover how “act, then listen” applies here, the benefits of a professional association, and whether or not you’re defaulting to checking off your to-do list.
Tweets“Act, then listen” – how that applies to #leadership @HerminiaIbarra Thinking is safe, acting is risky – @HerminiaIbarra and I discuss #leadership and taking risks
This transcript has not been edited.
Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.
With us today is Herminia Ebara. She has written a fantastic book, maybe you’ve read it, if you haven’t you should. Act Like A Leader, Think Like A Leader. She is the Charles Handy Professor of Organizational Behavior at the London Business School and a generally smart and interesting person.
We have her with us today. Thank you so much, Herminia for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Herminia: Thank you for having me. I’m looking forward.
Peter: So let’s jump into … I kind of want to start with what you start with, which is The Outsight Principle. It’s a word I think you’ve made up, but it represents a mirror of insight, I think, and if you could just share with us The Outsight Principle.
Herminia: Right. So the idea behind Outsight and it’s true, I made it up, is that.
Peter: That’s good because it means you own it now. It’s your word.
Herminia: Yes. We spend way too much time chasing that insight through reflection through introspection through looking inwards and when we’re at these kind of transition points, where it’s so clear that what got you here won’t get you there, to cite our favorite Marshall, is that there is nothing that you can introspect that’s gonna help you solve the problem. The only thing you can do is get out there and try some new things and get involved in some new activities, meet some new people. And in the course of getting those new experiences, you will shape your own thought process and it will come to change.
Peter: You know, it actually reminds me of this, there’s this principle in Judaism when as legend has it, as the Hebrew Bible puts it, God was saying to the Jews, you want this Torah thing, the torah which is the holy book in Judaism and they were saying, well I don’t know, et cetera. The words are, in Hebrew [Hebrew 00:02:22], which says act and then listen. Don’t understand everything before you act, just follow it and then you’ll understand. We could talk about this forever, but instead, just follow the principles and then you’ll understand them and you can short cut this whole process of perseveration.
Herminia: Yeah. I’ve been told this story before. I’ve been told that Judaism is very Act Like A Leader, Think Like A Leader.
Peter: It actually is. I hadn’t written this in my notes, but as you started talking, I was like, it’s very much a sort of a principle in Judaism.
Herminia: You know, and it’s so much, even more so true when it comes to changes you want to make in your self, because you have no real idea what it’s gonna, be, what the new and improved version of you, the more leaderly you, the more able to listen and engage with people you is until you’ve actually tried it and followed that path and come to it. That’s when you know what it is. But if you wait till you have it all figured out, then you won’t.
Peter: So let’s jump right into the crux of the challenge of all of this because everything that I think about and that I do has to do with implementation. The challenge of course is there’s a reason we try to think things through before acting, it’s just that we’re afraid to act. That ultimately thinking is incredibly safe and acting is incredibly risky. There’s zero consequences to anything that I think, but there can be tremendous consequences to things that I do. So the challenge of acting is that it puts us out there with the potential for embarrassment or the potential for failure. Thinking doesn’t expose us. So how do we overcome that fear of acting, especially with what you’re suggesting, which is without thinking too much?
Herminia: Right. The best way of doing that, it’s kind of like the ultimate nudge, is to get yourself into a situation that forces your hand because otherwise it’s really hard to go back into your workplace the next day and to your team and to your project and be acting very, very different. That’s why the first thing that I recommend, I call it Redefine Your Job, but what it really means is make your job a portfolio of things that include other things. That include projects, that include something on the side, that include maybe things you do in a different part of the organization or with different people and let that be a context in which you’ll naturally act different because it’s a different setting. If you’re always doing the same old with the same people in the same team in the same department, it gets very, very hard to move to action.
Peter: So, give us an example. Maybe it’s also, one of the challenges I think in what you’re saying to overcome is to a lot of people, that’s how a lot of people end up with experiences of failure, which is and you said it beautifully our friend Marshall, what got you here won’t get you there. That if I’m used to doing things a certain way with a group of people, now if I’m gonna change the context and I’m gonna change the group of people, I may really try to use what I know because that’s all that I know and apply it to this new set of people and it doesn’t work, because it’s a new set of people and I set myself up for failure. What advice do you have for people to succeed or have a chance, or how should they be thinking about approaching a new context?
Herminia: Obviously if you wait until you have a whole new context, a whole new job, it’s hard because, especially if it’s a promotion it’s got a lot of visibility to it and everything is gonna make you focus on what you do really well, which may not be as appropriate. At least, at a very minimum that new setting has a big neon sign saying it’s a new situation, what got you here won’t get you there, you might need to do something different. So, people do look around and in fact some are just relieved to be a bit more of a blank slate and be able to do things they have been learning, but haven’t been able to put in place.
I think the crux of the matter is what happens before those new assignments and are there ways to be developing some of these skills and some of these styles in smaller ways. That’s why I think it’s so critical to have a professional association you play a role in. Some groups, some people sign up for some kind of recruitment committee associated with their organization or they sign up for some cross cultural thing, now you with all of these different artificial intelligence things, some companies are experimenting with how to help people use their spare time to devote it to a project somewhere else that needs help. There’s many things you can do if you’re looking for a place to develop yourself, to explore and not just exploit what you already know how to do and if you can manage some of that before the big promotion, or before the big shift, you’ll be just better prepared for it because you’ve had time to practice it.
Peter: One of the things that you suggest in the book that’s related to what you’re saying, is to focus less on achievement and more on learning, right. I think that’s right, meaning if you change your whole mindset, this isn’t actually about, it’s like the Carol Dwack, growth versus a fixed mindset. If you say, I’m actually here to learn. That’s what I’m most interested in and learning demands failure and so I actually will be embarrassed and I will make some mistakes and I will, that’s fine because as long as I reflect on it after the fact, you’re not saying don’t reflect at all, you’re not saying don’t think, you’re just saying act first so that you have something to think about. The design thinking people are in agreement with you.
Herminia: Same thing.
Peter: It’s the same thing.
Herminia: It’s like first prototyping with yourself.
Peter: I love that. But here’s where it’s a little complicated because we’re learning for the sake of achievement. Ultimately the goal is achievement, not just learning. An organization puts us in a position, promotes us to a role and if we spend all of our time learning and not succeeding at all, then we’re gonna fail in that role and we’ll be removed from the role, hopefully. Otherwise, we have that terribly named Peter Principle, which is that people rise to their level of mediocrity.
Herminia: An awful name.
Peter: An awful name, it’s an awful name. So, I guess my question is how do you help people when they really do care, we all care about achievement, how do you help us move away from that as our main focus and towards learning as our main focus, which feels very important?
Herminia: So, as a starting point, I think it’s important that you don’t just compare yourself in this comfortable spot achieving versus in this uncertain spot learning and perhaps not achieving because you never stay in one place for a very long time. Your organization will ultimately come to have more and bigger expectations of you because things change. It’s really hard to be successful with the same skillset for a long stretch of time today. There are also risks to staying put.
We’re also not talking about leaps from being a marketing manager to be an astrophysicist. We’re talking about really by and large either learning about things that are adjacent to your field, kind of in the near proximity, or we’re talking about more connecting the dots, being able to operate more cross functionally and understand how the different pieces fit so that you can think a bit more strategically, or we’re talking about a situation where you have to rely more on your people skills than on your technical skills, but these are all manageable things and obviously if we have mentors and people who help us and a network that informs us because the sister piece to the Redefine Your Job, I call Extend Your Network. That is extend the resources that are gonna help you learn and inform you and be sounding boards and give you perspective and the information you need. It’s impossible to stretch and be successful without that.
Peter: We’re speaking with Herminia Ebara about her book Act Like A Leader, Think Like A Leader. Herminia is the Charles Handy professor of Organizational Behavior for the London Business School. Herminia it’s interesting this question of networking, which you’ve just brought up, which is about future focus ultimately and you talk about this in the book that we’re building a network for some future payoff and especially if you’re growing up in an organization and you’ve been an individual contributor, maybe manger and you’re working to leader, that there’s an immediate payoff of putting your face into your computer and knocking out a bunch of stuff versus sitting around and talking to a bunch of people.
The new book that I have coming out in July is called Leading with Emotional Courage and the underlying concept of emotional courage is that the thing that stops us from doing things, have to do with feelings. If you think about a hard conversation that you need to have, and you’re not having, it’s not that you’re not having it because you don’t know what you want to say or how you want to say it or you haven’t had opportunity, it’s ’cause you don’t want to feel something, you don’t want to feel the rejection, you don’t want to feel your embarrassment. You don’t want to feel the disconnection.
I think networking is very much an emotional courage issue, which is a lot of people don’t want to walk into a room, don’t want to start conversations with people, don’t want to connect with people when they’re not entirely sure and they’re worried about all of this work they have to do. I’m curious to get your view, and be honest, you’re always honest, but you don’t have to promote anything I’m doing, I’m curious about your view around the role of mastering and connecting with the emotions that might get in the way of our, how much emotional courage you think is necessary for this kind of stuff and whether in your work it kind of plays into a factor or there’s another way around it?
Herminia: I think that’s a really good way of putting it because in a way it’s like that fear of public speaking that trumps death.
Peter: I was just thinking that.
Herminia: What could happen? You talk to somebody and they look bored or they don’t call you back.
Peter: But the idea that most people would rather die than do what you and I do is sort of interesting.
Herminia: Exactly, whereas what could really hurt you is being ignorant and being blind-sided in a meeting. That could really hurt. I did my PhD research on networks and so I’ve been teaching about it close to 30 years and I’ve never met a group of students who don’t have these emotional issues about it. It’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable, they don’t know how to do it, they don’t like to talk to strangers, they hate that cocktail. It’s in part based on a very limiting view of who they are. I’m an introvert, I don’t talk to people. Also a very limiting view of what it means to network.
I have to say, something you started out with is another one of those huge misconceptions ’cause it’s not like, “Oh, I’m investing in my relationship with you Peter, so that maybe one year when you’re at the top of whatever, I can harvest that investment”. Absolutely not. It is much more immediate and agile. That is, I’m talking to people on a daily basis because as I bump into them, I can find out the things that are quite relevant. I can also emphasize messages that I want to emphasize and kind of see those conversations with those tidbits and I learn a lot. That’s how we work and that’s how we get things done, so it is true that perhaps you went to school with somebody who ends up being the person who will finance your company or President of this or that, that may happen, but the kind of networking that I’m talking about is much more immediate, it is a way of getting your daily work done.
Peter: So, but it’s a little tricky because, I know for myself, I’ll just use myself as an example, which is I know that these kind of connections and network is really important and it is related to may immediate work, I’m not thinking about someone’s gonna help me in my career ten years from now, on the other hand, the challenge I think as I’m listening to you is there is the certainty of my to do list, which is longer than I can accomplish.
Peter: And I know that if I take two hours to sit and work through, there’s the certainty that I will make a reasonable dent in it, that I’ll achieve some things that I need to achieve. There is the uncertainty that if I pick up the phone and I call someone or I connect with someone or I go to a dinner, et cetera, that it may or may not give me the information I need or increase my learning or et cetera. So I’m going from the certainty of knocking out a bunch of things on my to do list, versus the uncertainty of learning and creating connections that may or may not help me immediately.
Peter: I think it’s very easy to default to checking things off our to do list.
Herminia: Especially if that’s more habitual and more comfortable one, and two what you’ve just described is also what people describe, so I ask them, I ask my executives, how they spend their time and how they kind of chunk up their time into things they do themselves, kind of the doing, the getting by and influencing people, strategizing, developing people, how they chunk up their time and of course everybody always says that they don’t devote nearly enough time to strategic things, that they get eaten up by the routine operational because of what you’ve just described, this immediate hit, but we all know that we can be very easily victim of that near term immediate hit, that’s what happens to organizations that become obsolete. That is precisely the innovators dilemma and the same thing happens to us because after a while you learn nothing new. You’re tackling a to do list that has become less and less relevant.
It is all about how we as people balance our explore, exploit equation. We’ve got to add value, we’ve got to perform, we’ve got to achieve, we’ve got to bring home the bacon, all those things, but at the same time, we have to manage our own development, we have to learn new things and we have to figure out what are the next things that we might love to do because even if we’re great at things, they might come to bore us after a while. We’re always managing that trade off.
How we do our work is one way we do it, but also how we invest in our networks is another way and it’s very hard to grow without investing time in the network around you and it’s not just for the instrumental bits, it’s also, and I know this from the work I’ve done on people making big career change, it’s the people around you are kind of a mirror to who you are. They see you in many ways as you have been and not how you might project yourself into the future. They pigeon hole you and that leads you to pigeon hole yourself because nobody around you expects you to be capable of doing some of the things you might be dreaming about. It’s really self-limiting.
Peter: I was actually just remembering this the other day for some reason because someone asked me what I was doing and I was describing it. I was remembering the first time, and this is the fourth book that I’m coming out with, but I remember the first time I was on a vacation with a friend of mine and we were, it was a ski vacation, we were in a hot tub and we were meeting some new people and they said, “So what do you do?” And this was before I had written any books, and I said, “I’m a writer”.
We kind of talked and then my friend how has known me since I was a kid, we used to ski race together when we were 12 and 15, after that conversation he turned to me and he goes, “You’re a writer?” And I said, “I’m trying it on. I think I’m gonna be a writer, but I kind of wanted to see what it felt like to say I’m a writer and now I guess I need to write.” Four books later I think actually it was a pretty successful process. There is something around shifting self concept and then trusting that you move towards those things that you know you want to do, even if you don’t see yourself as having done them.
Herminia, thank you so much. There’s a lot of wisdom in this book and it’s very, very much worth the read. This conversation we’re having it feels like there’s a tremendous amount of trust that you need to just put into saying, “I know this is right, even if it doesn’t feel right in the moment and I’m gonna do it.”. you give a really nice structure for building that kind of trust. The book, for me builds the trust too. So thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership podcast.
Herminia: Thank you very much, it takes emotional courage as well.
Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of The Bregman Leadership podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busy-ness. A lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow process. For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com
Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode. Thank you for listening.