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How can you become a better leader?

(soft music) – There’s no shortage of material claiming to be able to help
you become a better leader. Yet while some people
seem to be born leaders, many struggle with authority,
and some ultimately fail. So how can leaders work on
their leadership skills? Do you need formal training, or is it best to learn from experience? Welcome to “The Big Question,” the monthly video series
from “Chicago Booth Review.” I’m Hal Weitzman and with
me to discuss the issue is an expert panel. Harry Davis is Roger and Rachel Goetz Distinguished Service Professor
of Creative Management at Chicago Booth. He’s a pioneer of leadership education and creator of Booth’s Management Lab. George Wu is John and Lillian Gould Professor of Behavioral Science and the faculty director of the Harry Davis Center for
Leadership at Chicago Booth. He is an expert on decision
making and negotiation. And Nancy Tennant teaches
and works with companies on innovation. She’s the former corporate
vice president for leadership and strategic competencies
at Whirlpool Corporation and the author of several books, including “Unleashing Innovation:
How Whirlpool Transformed an Industry.” Panel, welcome to “The Big Question.” Harry Davis, let me start with you. Can you learn to be a leader, or is it best to learn from experience? – I think it’s both. I think we learn from experience, but I think there are some
preparations, possibilities, knowledge, perspectives, self-awareness. But a lot of leadership is
learned through experience and day-to-day engagements
in the workplace. – How do you separate the theory, then, from the practice part? – Well, the theory has to be translated into action, with and through other people, something I call “action skills,” but it’s really important
that one has the foundation of knowledge to apply
in various situations. – Nancy Tennant, from your perspective, what about learning on the job as opposed to learning in the classroom? – I think they’re both important. I mean, learning on the
job is how most of us learn in the workplace, but learning in the classroom
is really important as well because it gives you the theory and allows you to reflect on some things, and learning on the job
allows you to practice and do things day to day. – OK. George Wu, in practical terms, what are the things you
can learn as a leader in the classroom? – Yeah, well, first of all, in my mind, or the way I think that we’re
all talking about leadership is in terms of the interpersonal skills that are necessary to effectively mobilize people in an organization, so
there’s clearly lots of parts of leadership—strategic
vision and decision making and all those kinds of things— that are very very different
than interpersonal skills. But I think that oftentimes – – So you mean those things can
be learned in the classroom and the interpersonal skills – – I think all those kinds
of things both require classroom kinds of
experiences and theories and frameworks and things of that sort, as well as practice through action. – So Harry Davis, when you’re on the job, how can you actually learn
from that experience? Tell us some techniques. How do you help people use
their experience to learn? – Well, actually, I think
interestingly here at Chicago, we’re trying to bring a
more scientific approach to learning on the job, and, for example, we talk about learning to pay
attention, observing. A lot of us don’t pay as much attention to what’s going on as we might. Secondly, I think it’s important
to experiment, try things, be more assertive, listen
with greater capabilities, collect data from these
interactions, reflect on the data as we do in research, and then
share what you’ve learned with other people to get feedback. So we’re trying to embed
an ongoing learning process using, in a sense, what is very much in
the tradition of science to help people to develop better skills. – And when you say collect
data, you’re not referring there to numerical data. – It could be, but generally
it’s really just impressions. It could be more qualitative data. We’ve actually begun
to develop a mobile app where people basically
report on a sliding scale how successful an
interaction might have been on a scale from 1 to 7
or whatever it might be. But it tends to be much
more impressionistic than it would be in the laboratory. – Nancy Tennant, how hard is it, though, to conduct those experiments,
to try out different things when you’re actually in
a working environment. You presumably have got to a certain point because what you’re doing works. How hard is it to change
what you’re doing, to try different ways of doing things? – Well, I think it is hard to change, but listening to Harry talk
about using science to change, I mean, thinking about one or two things, one of the things I coach leaders about is, don’t think about 10
things you want to change, pick one or two. Think about, as Harry
said, the experiment, what you’re trying to
do, what’s the hypothesis. And then I think it’s really important in the feedback loop to
get people to help you. For example, I’m going in a
meeting, I’m really trying to involve everyone in the meeting. So George, at the end of the meeting, would you mind staying
over for five minutes and just give me some
feedback on how I did. – That’s right, and I love the idea of breaking complex tasks,
like mobilizing people or influencing an organization,
into smaller tasks that they can take on at any given time. I spend a lot of
time teaching negotiation and I teach an advanced negotiation class. And one of the things I
ask them on the last day is, how are you gonna continue
to learn once this classroom experience is done? And oftentimes they aren’t
terribly imaginative in terms of what they can do, and one of the things they
say is, well, you know, I’m gonna go into an organization. I’m not gonna have a chance
to negotiate very often, or not for a while, and my skills will get stale. And I ask, well, are you
going to talk to people? Are you going to listen? Are you gonna go home
and talk to your wife? And they say, yes. Well, you’re practicing negotiation, and you’re not practicing
negotiation on the whole but you’re practicing listening, and that’s a pretty important
part of negotiation. So I think part of it is decomposing the big difficult hairy thing of doing all of those things at once into a bunch of smaller tasks that you can do all the time. – I think one of the things
that makes it more complicated in the real world is that
we’re doing these things in very different contexts. So it’s not like a repeated
experiment over and over again, because I may be in a meeting in the morning to increase top-line revenue and in the afternoon I’m trying
to reduce costs by 35 percent. So the same skill may
come out quite differently in different contexts. And that’s why I think it’s
so important to collect data working on one thing, because one thing across context may give one insight that
you wouldn’t typically get. – What do you think
specifically about learning— I was just gonna ask Harry, is it one problem that
we think of learning as a discreet activity, and
doing as something different, and we don’t think about
learning from doing? – I think a lot about
learning from doing. I mean, I think sometimes we spend
too much time thinking about doing something and not enough time just doing it and saying, OK, what did I learn from it? And I think this iterative process of doing and collecting data and
then reflecting on it and, I think as Nancy said,
getting some feedback from others. Or, my saying to George, when I did this I basically concluded X, and he said, well you could conclude Y, and I would say, gee, I
never thought about that. So on we go. I go back and
I may try something again. So I think it is this iterative process that’s very very valuable. – I think the last part
of that is really hard in an organization, which
is after you do something to sit back and reflect
on what did I learn. Either at the organization
level or the individual. And I think companies are
always trying to figure out how to do that, how to add that last loop, because it’s so important
to share best practices. It’s so important for the next
team that’s coming after you. But in the day-to-day it’s hard. You kind of do it and move on. And so I think companies are
really trying to get people to sit down and think
about, what did I learn and what would the next step be as a result of the learning. – Is it harder there to
get people to analyze their success rather than their failures? – It depends on the company, I think, but a lot of companies
like to beat themselves up. I know at Whirlpool we like to think a lot about what went wrong with the failures, but it’s important to do both. It’s important to learn from both, and to make sure that you
generalize those understandings and share them across the organization. – Now this is an
important point, I mean, sometimes people say to me, well, what if the experiment doesn’t work out? And then I say, well then
you’re not experimenting, because of a lot of
experiments don’t work out, and that’s how you learn. – Yeah, I think one idea
and I think one thing that we’re trying to teach people to do is to think about small-scale, low-cost experiments that they can do. And I think if they think
about trying a new skill in a really important situation
with a billion-dollar deal, that’s not exactly the right place to try something new. But in a conversation that you have some— I have that conversation
with Nancy all the time, and why not try something new there? Or maybe even telegraph to her that I’m trying to do something. – I’m sorry, George, I also like to compress the time. I like for people when
they’re experimenting with behaviors or innovation to think about 30-day, 60-day, 90-day, because when it gets beyond that it’s so far out. So what can you really
accomplish in 90 days? And so pick one or two things,
as each of you have said, and then just compress the time and just see what changes you can make. – George, you talked earlier about sort of technical skills
and interpersonal skills as being distinct things. What are the, which are kind of the ones that people have more problems with, and what are the basic skills
that you’re talking about? – The technical skills, in some sense, those are ones where we
think of the classroom as being the place in which
we learn those kinds of things, so doing the models and learning
economics and operations and those kinds of things,
and of course that’s true, but I also think we learn
the interpersonal skills also in the classroom in a different way. And one of the things that we do in our
behavioral-science classes is we teach people
theories about psychology and the idea is that when you try to learn, maybe one of the things
that’s inhibiting your ability to learn is that there are all
these kinds of biases out there. So I mean Nancy talked
earlier about getting feedback, and I think that’s very very important, and one of the reasons it’s important is that you simply cannot
see things that others can see very easily. And by asking others
for that kind of data— you can try to collect data on yourself, but sometimes you’re
just gonna miss things that are very glaring to other people. And those are the kinds
of things that I think we try to make an impression about to our students in the classroom. – [Hal] So is it just that people are unaware of how their
actions are coming across? – I think they’re unaware
of them but they’re also, I think there’s an extent to
which a lot of things are just simply hard. So my colleague Nick
Epley, among other things, has done studies about people’s ability to tell whether people lie. And many many years of studies say that people are very very bad at that. And it’s one of these things
that’s extremely hard to learn whether you’re good at doing this, and so really what I have to do is I have to tell you and
ask you in a situation, well, what did you really, I got this, what did you really mean? And that’s not something
that you’re typically gonna learn in the real world. And in the laboratory you can
learn those kinds of things, but not in the real world. So I think that one of the things is that, given the fact that there
are all these biases and reasons why we channel
and take the information that we see and distort it, I think people have to
know about those things. They have to collect the data but they also have to
be very wary about how they interpret it and look
for other ways of getting data that are kind of outside
of their own vision. – And I’ll just add to that. I think it’s particularly
important when you’re working with very diverse people and environments and different cultures, because you really don’t always know how you’re coming across, so that feedback loop is really important. And I think to your question, Hal, that one of the things
people really struggle with is getting feedback is hard, you know. Sometimes you don’t want to hear it. Sometimes, especially
if you’re in something that’s a spiral down, you kinda
want to go in your bunker and not think about it. And I always ask people
to think about themselves maybe as an avatar, kind
of remove themselves from that persona and
think about that feedback and how that might improve
that avatar, if you will, because getting feedback is really hard. It’s tough. It’s tough, especially when it’s negative, and you’re trying as hard as you can, and it’s just not coming across. – And I think to some
extent a lot of the feedback that is given is too aggregate, too removed from the context, too general. I think we learn a lot from actually from the performance areas of the arts and I watch theater
directors working with actors and they give very specific feedback in very small parts of the script that’s being brought to life. They don’t at the end of a scene say, OK, now sit down, let me give
you 30 minutes of feedback. So I think to some extent our feedback mechanisms in organizations are not very helpful to get me to improve my performance. I think that it raises
some interesting issues about feedback as a way of really improving day-to-day
performance and learning rather than some sort of
more bureaucratic evaluation. – And I’ll just add onto that the anonymous feedback you get. I mean, there’s certainly a reason why organizations request anonymity, but I kind of grew up in a world where, when you were gonna
give someone feedback, you owned it. And even on a 360 feedback,
even if it doesn’t ask me, I put my name on it so that
person can come and talk to me. But this whole notion of anonymity, I think it makes getting feedback really hard. It’s general. It’s sometimes more biting than it maybe needs to be. – I think sometimes, for
example, people get feedback in these sort of aggregate notions. Like, you’re too impatient. Well, it may be that I
should have been impatient because we’ve been talking
about some strategy for a month and just
ready to make a decision. And it could have more to
do with the person giving me the feedback than it had to do with what was actually taking place. – Can I ask Nancy a question which is, I think one additional
challenge to getting feedback is that when you ask me for what I thought about the meeting, it’s not
exactly clear what you want. And we know that in a lot of situations people are looking for
accolades and reinforcement and not the truth, so to speak. So I’m curious how you deal with that, and to the extent that
you want honest feedback, how do you telegraph
that you’re in this world rather than this world? – Sometimes I stay at the behavioral level. Like in the example earlier. In this example I’m having
trouble bringing everyone into the meeting. So George,
what I’m gonna try to do is, I’m gonna call on everybody and I’m gonna try to have
eye contact with them. Those are the two things
I’m trying to work on, so could you give me some feedback? So at the behavioral level
it tends to be a lot easier, but it’s not all about behavioral. Sometimes it’s just the general nature of how you come across.
Do you seem honest. Do you seem transparent. Those things are harder to
get feedback on, I agree. – I was gonna ask on feedback, isn’t one of the problems
that people who are asked often don’t have any
incentive to be honest and rigorous about the feedback. It’s easier just to
say, you’re doing great. – I think the old adage is, you give feedback to the
people you care about. So I think it’s really important to find someone that you
have a relationship with and that you know will be honest with you. And how you ask for it
is really important. If you’re already defensive: I’m trying to work on this.
I’ve gotta get this done for my performance appraisal. If I don’t I’m gonna get fired, could you give me some . . . Well, you know. But if you’re really
open about it and honest and you find someone that
you have a relationship with and you feel really
wants to help you. – And I would add to that, is the person giving feedback
close enough to the behavior that they were actually seeing it? And it wasn’t too long ago, so there wasn’t sort of
some kind of forgetting bias, and so forth. And that’s another issue
that’s often difficult. – Harry Davis, both you and George have spoken about experimentation. What advice do you give people? What kind of these low-level,
non–high stake experiments should executives start with? – Good question. I think, as some of you know, I spend a lot of time looking at a lot of areas that seem removed from business leadership, because I think many of
us here view leadership as a performance, and I would even say a performance art. I was just reading a book about a very-well-known opera singer who said that you can tell
what’s necessary to know about singing in about 10 minutes. It takes about 10 years to accomplish it. So how does a singer accomplish it? You sing, you audition, you try out, you practice every single day. And so, the first recommendation
I would make is that, like exercise or healthy eating, you have to do something every day. You have to keep working at it. You can’t say, well, I’m gonna give up, in maybe another six
months I’ll go back to it. I think it has to be a daily regimen. – OK, but what would be an example of something you would
encourage somebody to look at? – Well, if I tend to talk a lot and maybe I don’t listen all that well, I may go to a meeting and say, Nancy, why don’t you facilitate
the meeting today? Change the roles, switch
things around a bit. Or I may say, hey,
before I give my opinion I’m just gonna sit and listen to what Nancy and George think about this and I may ask some questions. I’ll just try something very different. Now they may way, what are you doing? You’re always telling us what to do. But I think when we’re working together, we may learn to have that agility and be able to be more fluid
in the way we play our roles, which I think is the way of learning. – Nancy Tennant, what are
some examples at Whirlpool of how you experimented? – How I personally or how . . . ? – [Hal] Yeah, well, when you
were doing your innovation gig at Whirlpool, yeah. – It was kind of interesting
for the innovation gig at Whirlpool. The first time we sent people
out to do an experiment they were so excited, they
went out in the marketplace and they came back and we said, OK now, tell us what you learned. And they basically said,
in this first wave, well, we’re not sure, Because they really
didn’t have that rigor, that design of
experimentation to really say, these are the hypotheses, this is how I’m gonna . . . So we did try, to Harry’s point, bring some science into it and
help people really understand how to do experimentation:
quick, low cost, one or two things, but around
a design of experimentation. One example is a group
of innovators went out into the field and decided
they were gonna set up a kiosk in a retail store and allow customers to come in and customize their refrigerator and so they went through
and got all the SKUs that were available and built the website and et cetera et cetera.
And when they finished, they really weren’t sure
what they had learned. Did it mean they would actually pay for this customization? Did it mean that we could
actually fulfill it? So coming back and setting a hypothesis to say, OK, Hypothesis 1 is gonna be about whether or not at the end of it they would be willing
to pay for the change. Hypothesis 2 . . . So, getting
really specific about it and then collecting the data and sitting back and
reflecting and deciding what we had learned. – What was the leadership lesson there? Is it that the people
themselves learned leadership, or did the leaders
learn by letting them go and do their thing? – I think the leadership lesson is to set some kind of a frame. To not go in and actually do
it for them and show them, but say, here’s the frame, in
this case experimentation, here’s some ideas or here’s a place you might go learn about it. Or in this case, there’s a
group of people at Whirlpool that are experts in this.
They’re Six Sigma Black Belt. And then letting them do that and then come back, and then
I think the leadership role is asking questions. What did you learn? How do you know? What’s your next experiment? Et cetera. – George, were you gonna? – Yeah, I agree with
everything that’s been said. I guess I would add a couple of things. In my mind, I think of the scientific method, and I think the scientific method— getting to what Nancy said—is having a hypothesis. And I think one thing that’s difficult about a
lot of interpersonal skills is maybe the hypothesis is
that, I am unable to do that, or, I will feel really uncomfortable
doing that, or whatever. And that’s a hypothesis
about capabilities. Another hypothesis is
one about effectiveness. If I do this, then it will
be effective, ineffective, relative to something else. And I think to be clear minded
about what you’re trying to get out of any kind of
activity that you’re doing. I think the issue about capabilities is very different than the issue about consequence and so on. And then to try something
different, as Harry was saying, and one of the things is that sometimes there are just
things that you can do that are a little different, and I think one of the things that I know that Harry believes in a lot is that you have to behave differently in different situations because a situation in which
you’re in front of the room, people are expecting you to take command, is very different than a situation where we’re in a group of peers or something in which we
have somebody new or whatever. And so you have to
develop the capabilities of being in lots of situations but you also have to
develop the capabilities of figuring out what’s right to do in that particular situation. – One of the things that gets
in the way of experimentation is the sense that people tend
to seek confirming evidence, which means if, for example, I
think George doesn’t like me, in a group situation
I’m not going to do anything that would disconfirm that. I will probably not say very much because my belief is he’s
not gonna listen to me. It’s important that people
seek disconfirming evidence, and that’s the way science evolves. And in the laboratory
courses that I’ve run in the last two or three years, where we were collecting data, I’ve always been really amazed at how many people are surprised when they seek disconfirming evidence that, in fact, the hypothesis and the belief sets they had were wrong. For example, if somebody said, if I express my opinion, people are going to distance
themselves from me, and so they start to
do that and people say, gee, that’s a really smart
thing, Nancy, say more. And so, I think that’s a habit that often needs to be broken. – That’s right, and I think a lot of kinds of things . . . people talk themselves out of
doing certain kinds of things in lots of different ways because they think they’re not gonna work or they think that they’re
not going to be able to do these things and sometimes they’re right, and of course sometimes they’re wrong. And you’re never gonna
learn that you’re wrong, that you can’t do
something, unless you try it, probably in a low-stake situation. But you gotta try it and
see if it works or not. – Harry Davis, what about mentorship? How important is it to have a mentor if you want to become a better leader? – Well, I’m sitting here with two mentors so I have to say it’s
important, and I believe it. I think mentors are, they’re
part of the feedback process. And Nancy said it well, they’re people that typically care and they have time to spend. – Does that mean people
in the same company or the same industry? – I think in some ways sometimes people in the same company are
extraordinarily helpful when it comes to tacit
knowledge and domain knowledge. If somebody says, by the way, let me tell you something
that happened 10 years ago that is still a part of the culture, you better pay attention to
it. That’s very relevant. But sometimes it’s very refreshing to talk to somebody in a
completely different field. So I think opening oneself up to asking for help, and I think sometimes leaders get into
difficulty ’cause they say, well, I’m a leader, I
shouldn’t ask for help because that means I’m weak. And I think that’s really
not the case at all. At the same time, I would just say as sort of underneath that, I think that teachers and
mentors can be helpful to a point, but I think when all is said and done, leadership is a personal
commitment to one’s self and one’s uniqueness and a mentor can sometimes
say, you should do this. You should do that. You should do this, because those are the characteristics of the leaders I know. But sometimes you have to say, well, that may be a
characteristic of those people, but that’s not my leadership style. So I think one has to . . . you’ve probably had a lot of
experience with that, Nancy. – Well I was just thinking,
that’s very well said, because I think mentors and teachers can take you to a point and then as you said, you have to, it’s a performance art,
you have to perform, you have to try things. And so I think both are really important, but I think it was really well said. – OK, Nancy Tennant, what about leading in a
period of great disruption and uncertainty? Are there specific kinds of skills that work well in those situations? – Well, it’s an interesting question because in some sense I’m not sure when we’re not leading
in that environment, you know what I mean? I just can’t remember a time when everything was calm and peaceful. But I think there are important skills, and I think one of the
things leaders need to do is think about patterns
to get up on the balcony and to kind of understand that
there is a pattern to things. There is kind of, there are
cycles and seasons to things. And being able to have
that confidence—not ego— but that confidence to help
other people understand we’re gonna get through
this. There is light at the end of the tunnel. So I think having that
leading-from-the-balcony view in times when things are really difficult, when it’s really hard, is
really an important trait. – How do you balance that
with the sort of getting down into the details that Harry talked about? – I actually think you have to do both. I think, you have to be able to get down on the playing field but not do the work. You have to understand it enough and then you have to lead from the balcony. And I think where a lot of
leaders fail is the balcony because a lot of us are promoted because of the way we
are on the playing field, if you will, and so getting up above and understanding that there’s a system behind things and there are connections
that you need to understand, I think that’s where
leaders really struggle. – OK. George Wu, you talked about—again, to come back to this idea of technical
skills and interpersonal skills: we all can think of examples of companies that were not meritocracies,
that were not lead necessarily by the
smartest, most able people, but there was something about
the leaders of those companies that got them to that position. Does that mean that interpersonal skills are more highly regarded
at a certain point? – I don’t know, I mean, I think business is always going
to be a combination of these—. I mean, if you don’t
understand your business and strategy and all
those kinds of things, you’re unlikely to be successful. On the other hand, if you can’t
get people in an organization mobilized behind what you’re trying to do, whether or not it makes sense, that’s not going to be effective either. So I think, of course, the hard part is those things are oftentimes
seen as two different ways of thinking, two different kinds of skills, and you gotta do both of those things. And you have to . . . I think
what makes it even harder is that good leaders have
to make the assessment, is this mostly a vision thing, where what I have to do is understand what’s going on? Or is it mostly a people thing? Or is it something where
it’s people at the beginning and then vision or vice versa. And being able to perform on both of those kinds of
dimensions is what’s necessary. – In some ways things get done, not just because of the leader but because the leader
has created a culture and a sense of empowerment and a sense of responsibility that lots of people in the
organization take responsibility, and that’s so critical. The leader may get all the
attention and the credit, but it’s to some extent the result of having inspired people, and often not just
intellectually but emotionally. – OK, well it seems like a leader should basically be able to
do everything extremely well. It sounds like the summary of
the conversation we’ve had, but we’ll talk more about this. For the moment, our time,
unfortunately, is up. My thanks to our panel:
Harry Davis, George Wu, and Nancy Tennant. For more research,
analysis, and commentary, visit us online at and join us again next time
for another “The Big Question.” Goodbye. (soft piano music)

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