Top Learnings from Columbia Business School’s Pan-European Forum

I am delighted to have recently attended Columbia Business School’s Pan European Forum in Paris. Aside from connecting with old friends and a fantastic community of over 700 attendees (!), the pure richness of learning experiences and stimulating keynote and panel speakers, including Carlos Ghosn, Dil Sidhu and Joseph Stiglitz, pushed my thinking and re-energized me on so many levels.

There were so many take-aways from the conference, but for right now, here are my top three:

1) Leadership and Culture change are still major drivers of organizational transformation….and some of the toughest nuts to crack. Almost all the speakers, regardless of the specific industry or topic they were addressing, focused on how vital it is for leaders to renew their own capabilities and styles and to create cultures where people, at all levels of the organization, are truly connecting with each other and with new ideas. Given the chance, people will bend over backwards to contribute their best to organizations who make them winners, so the job of leaders is to engage as many people as possible.

There were also lots of discussions on the importance of developing a leader’s ability to re-invent him/herself – to take the time to reflect, develop self-awareness and be ready and nimble in adapting and updating based on changing needs.

2) Get comfortable with holding opposing ideas at the same time. Instability and rapid change means complexity and constant evolution of what is required from leaders. Smart leaders learn to handle ideas that appear to be paradoxes: concentrating on short term and long term results at the same time or focusing on set targets and developing deep competencies while being ready to change quickly. Ambiguity is now one of the defining features of the workplace, therefore being able to stand strong in the midst of this uncertainty is crucial to success.

3) AI is growing…and it will augment, not substitute, human capabilities. A fascinating panel discussion with Tim Campos, Marc Bousquet and Jean-Philippe Desbiolles challenged the audience to view AI as Augmented Intelligence, not ArtificialIntelligence. As machines get better at even “soft skills” through progress in visual recognition, language, empathy, and experience, it can be nerve wrecking to think what they will be capable of. However, humans are unique, and have an innate ability to make complex decisions on far less data than machines. So the question is how do we challenge ourselves to interact with machines? How can they help us perform more better? The obvious answers are in tasks that require repetitive, routine work and detailed data analysis. However, machines can also help in other ways. For example, since machines have no biases, they can provide options human decision makers might not even have thought of (out of our comfort zone, prevailing corporate culture etc.). Machines are evidence based – they can provide alternative best options, then allowing humans to use their skills to make a decision. This type of AI is already starting to be used in areas such as recruiting and even interviewing, where by identifying key words and micro expressions, machines are already helping humans make better decisions.

In the end, I am deeply grateful to be part of such a vibrant community of business leaders and for the generosity of the many experts and leaders who shared their key learnings and insights on steering and growing organizations through difficult times. And of course, Kudos and huge Thank you to the fantastic team who worked very hard to put this together!


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Do you work as hard on yourself as you do others?

My fellow Forbes Coaches Council member Divya Parekh recently posted a story which has been on my mind quite a bit:

A little boy went into a drug store, reached for a soda carton and pulled it over to the telephone. He climbed onto the carton so that he could reach the buttons on the phone and proceeded to punch in the phone numbers. The store-owner listened to the conversation.

Boy: ‘Lady, Can you give me the job of cutting your lawn?
Woman: (at the other end of the phone line): ‘I already have someone to cut my lawn.’
Boy: ‘Lady, I will cut your lawn for half the price of the person who cuts your lawn now.’
Woman: I’m very satisfied with the person who is presently cutting my lawn.
Boy: (with more perseverance): ‘Lady, I’ll even sweep your curb and your sidewalk.
Woman: No, thank you.
With a smile on his face, the little boy replaced the receiver. The store-owner, who was listening to all this, walked over to the boy.
Store Owner: ‘Son… I like your attitude; I like that positive spirit and would like to offer you a job.’
Boy: ‘No thanks.’
Store Owner: But you were really pleading for one.
Boy: No Sir, I was just checking my performance at the Job I already have. I am the one who is working for that lady I was talking to!’

What I love about this story is not how smart or resourceful or clever the kid is, but the genuine and persistent way with which he actively pursued getting “real-time” feedback on his work.
Of course I know some will immediately point out the flaws in the methodology and/or format of the feedback, so let me acknowledge right away, of course it’s not perfect or complete. But that’s not the point I was trying to make.
What really attracted me was the natural instinct he had to get external validation for his performance, instead of doing what I’ve seen many of us do – rely just on our own idea of how we feel we’re doing. I also loved the unflinching and determined way he pursued getting the feedback.
What would happen if more senior leaders, who are investing heavily in changing and improving organizational capabilities, also intentionally took the time and effort to work on our own capabilities — to improve, update or just check we’re getting it right? Isn’t this the very heart of design thinking as it relates to Leadership? Are we all growing and changing as fast as the world around us is? Are we staying ahead of the curve on a personal level? How do we know? What are we doing about it?
Hope the rest of your summer is relaxing – and I hope I’ve given you something to dream/ think about!

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Addicted to Work? Getting Past Clichés to Recognize Your Tipping Point

We all know someone who cannot put their phone down. Ever. At dinner parties, at concerts, on vacations, the phone is always on and they cannot help but look at and answer the super-important emails.

And even though it’s hard to recognize, and even harder to admit – aren’t we often that person?

It makes sense – the super-turbo speed of our days, the jam-packed schedules and the non-stop digital stimulation has made most so many of us addicted to our work.

What’s worse, since we don’t really have time to stop and think, we aren’t often aware of or acknowledge our behavior, we continue to rush our way around the crazy treadmill of life and thus jeopardize our productivity and creativity and increase stress and frustration.

We recognize what this does to others, we don’t always recognize it in ourselves. This is not good for us, our work, our families, or for our society. And it’s expensive: one well cited study showed that job stress costs the US economy $300 billion dollars a year!!!

In this economy, we are our biggest assets – our futures and peace of mind rely on our ability to reinvent ourselves, to create, to execute with laser sharp focus. And true creation and insight comes from having “white space” in our lives to recharge, to idly let our brains make random connections and to be grounded enough to fly high mentally. So keeping balance is a key skill.

Culture Consultant and Millennial Engagement Expert MaryBeth Hyland has a great set of questions she uses to help clients understand their relationship with work that she has kindly allowed me to share with you.

As MaryBeth says, “One thing should be clear in life: We’re not meant to just pay our bills and die”. What are you meant to be doing?

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So let’s just lift our heads up from the tedium for just one second and start to understand how we relate to work. Only then can we start to do anything about it. As always, I am always interested in your thoughts and comments.

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Imposter Syndrome and Uncertain Times

Recently, we all saw the stock markets drop.  Some investors panicked.  Others set about looking at the fundamentals in companies in order to start investing in those that they knew would come back up.

It’s the same with people.

Today, with seismic changes in almost all aspects of our society occurring regularly, the sense of instability and shakiness are heightened in us all.  Most of us have heard about the famous “imposter syndrome” and yet  no matter what we’ve heard, we all still feel it sometimes and find ourselves worrying about when the world will find out the truth about our insecurities and worries.

As many wise investors find, in a falling and uncertain market there are significant opportunities to invest.   I believe that, in these uncertain times, you need to invest in yourselves and, in doing so, you lessen your instability by building a stronger core.      What are you doing to grow?  To stay updated?  To take time to reflect and understand the seismic changes going on in the world around you?

For me, developing a mindfulness practice – something so against my dynamic and action-oriented personality – had been a game changer.  I’m not a meditator – but by taking 30 seconds – a couple of minutes before each client session, meeting or even before sitting down and researching/writing articles, gives me a sense of focus, and stills the sensation of “being all over the place”.

Being centered, feeling purposeful, helps you become more accurate and succinct in your work….which reduces stress.

And what combats imposter syndrome?  Grounding.  Achieving more, and doing even “greater” things, will not quell imposter syndrome.  Only shifting your focus from external validation to internal grounding will.

Even the great Maya Angelou suffered from Imposter Syndrome: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’ “

So what did she do?  When she started to panic, she worked on her core strengths and got better at them – by writing more.  So take a page out of her book: “write more” – invest in yourself.

5 Ways to Master Difficult Conversations

Many of us will go a long way to avoid conflict.  But it is a natural part of work life; my clients estimate that up to 30% of their time is spent dealing with conflicts.  In fact, if managed well, conflict can be a source of innovation, creativity, and connection.  Sure, disagreements and arguments can take up a lot of time and energy, but conflicting ideas can be a source of creative ideas that bring about positive change.

So the key is how you manage those tricky situations.  Mastering difficult situations can be the difference between a good leader and a great one.  Ignoring the problem can leave people feeling stifled or excluded; going after it too aggressively can heighten tension to such a degree that no one cannot move forward. So what can you do?

Here are my 5 Bs to mastering difficult conversations:

  1. Begin with the other person’s concerns. Listen twice as much (if not more) than you speak; try to understand what is at the heart of the problem by clarifying meaning, asking questions.  Like a wine-opener, delve deeper into the matter with questions such as “tell me more” “help me understand that better”.
  2. Become an expert people reader. Pay attention to both what they are saying as well as what they are not saying by reading non-verbal behavior as well as listening to the actual words. Listen for the emotional message being sent.   Don’t assume you understand what they are feeling and thinking – check your understanding by asking questions.
  3. Be Super-prepared and careful about how you frame the discussion. Be clear on the outcome you want — how you frame this determines the quality of the conversation.  For example rather than “I would like to ensure my idea gets passed” try “I would like to ensure that the best ideas get passed”.  If it doesn’t come easily, think ahead of what kinds of questions you can ask to get the heart of what is really going on.
  4. Build the tone of the conversation: Intentionally create a welcoming tone to the conversation that will foster genuine sharing and trust. Make an effort to be open, curious. Visualize yourself doing so
  5. Be of Service to others – first help them get what they need from the conversation and then, offer your point of view.

No one loves conflict situations, but managed properly they can be vital in changing culture and creativity in an organization.

Emotions Are Contagious – Who’s Infecting You?

My family and I spent a wonderful New Year’s Eve at the Blue Note in Milan listening to great music, enjoying a fabulous 7 course meal with specially selected wines.  And of course, since it is Milan, everyone was fashionably and festively attired: men in dark fitted, tailored suits and women in sumptuous outfits.  On the next table sat Marco, beautifully attired like everyone else, but with a little something extra:  he had on the most magnificent sequined dinner jacket, which matched his ebullient personality.  It made me smile.  And, you know me, at first it was almost a knowing smirk – I mean who would wear such an ostentatious jacket.

But here’s the thing, the very exuberance of the jacket – and the person wearing it – seeped out to the next table (ours) and we found ourselves, smiling, clapping and becoming exuberant ourselves.  And then so did the next table, and the one on the other side of him.  His cheerful contagion was infecting us all.  By then end of the evening, we were all very happy.  And although I’m sure the setting, the wines and the music helped, I really attribute much of the spirit and ambience to Marco, the “Patient Zero” of the situation.

Countless years of research have produced a huge body of studies that demonstrate how quickly and deeply humans, usually unconsciously, absorb and then mirror the emotions of those around them and how these emotions impact our state of mind and relationships.

And it’s a two way street.  Just as we are impacted by the emotions of other people, our emotions are impacting those around us.  When we hang out with positive people, research shows that we are more likely to be cooperative, energized and less stressed.  And the opposite is true. When negativity permeates our relationships, our stress levels, anxiety and general outlook in life can profoundly change for the negative.

I’ve seen this countless times with clients — where  “prevalent culture” was defined heavily by the personality and emotions of the person in charge – some created stressful, anxious and draining environments while others created friendly, upbeat and fun environments.

And this should be an easy one to handle, right? Not always.  We are often not very good at recognizing changes in our feelings early enough to do something about it.  So the best thing to do is to start paying very close attention to the emotional climate around you.  For me, when that climate is negative, I feel a tense, sudden malaise, but am not sure why.  That’s my cue to start paying attention to what is going on around me and how I’m reacting to it.  This then allows me to modulate my response.  Learning to listen, understand and react to these weak signals gets easier as you do it more.  The same thing applies for behavior, so start recognizing when your emotions are impacting those around you.  Over the years I have started to recognize when my voice starts heating up, and I get shriller and faster in my response. That, for me, becomes the cue  to slow it down and examine what it is that I am communicating and the impact it’s having on those around me.

So my question is how can we, as leaders, create more a harmonious environment around us?  The key is in being highly aware and attuned to the emotions of those around us so that we can recognize and surround ourselves with relationships and environments that impact us positively and that we, in turn, energize and inspire other with our emotions and behavior.

On New Year’s Eve, I decided that I was going to be more like Marco!