Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School and author of ‘Act like a leader, think like a leader’.
I’m a career academic, I’ve been in academia all my life. I started out as a junior professor at Harvard Business School, spent 13 years there, moved to INSEAD, spent 15 years there and now I’m at the London Business School. I do work on career transitions and how people navigate them, what happens when they get to those, what got you here, won’t get you there, inflection points, and started to look at some of that at the level of organisations as well.
What have you been working on recently?
Well last week we finished a case study on Microsoft and how they transformed their culture using an idea that’s very much come out of psychology in my field of growth mindset that Carol Dweck developed, which they seized on to anchor their cultural transformation. We finished that off and shipped it off to them to have a look and get that approved. We’re delighted, because it’s an idea that has really taken hold in that a lot of organisations are trying to work with, but how do you instil and embed it in an organisation’s processes in a way that makes it stick is what the case is going to be about.
What inspired you to write your book and what does it offer to the reader?
I was constantly teaching people who were at an inflection point in their career – the most typical case, this happens at all different levels, is people moving from a base of technical or functional expertise to a situation where whether due to a promotion or change of circumstance, where they had to supplement that with much more strategic acumen and much more of the soft skills that are involved in getting people to do stuff. I studied professional identity and how that evolves and how it anchors us, but how it also holds us back. It became very clear that what was keeping people from moving forward wasn’t just a matter of picking up new skills, because they’re not necessarily difficult skills to pick up, it was leaving behind a real identity and a way of behaving that had become who they were. So I set out to study how to make that transformation because we know what got you here won’t get you there, we know what the shift is towards the package of skills we need and it was much more about how do you do that reasonably effectively.
What should leaders be doing to stay on top of the current pace of change?
I think the buzz word of the day once again is learning because it’s hard to predict exactly what and plan out ahead so the real agility of the level of the individual has to do with the ability to know what you have to learn and then keep learning. I think that’s pretty clear.
What drew you to speaking at our upcoming Working Futures event in October?
Well I’m not an HR person but the HR community has always been one of my biggest audiences that I talk to and I think it’s such an interesting time for HR. The industry is on the precipice of great change, and everything is being disrupted. Some may perceive this as threatening but I think it’s an exciting time to be part of the conversation.
How well are companies adapting and how should they be preparing for change?
I think we talk a lot about preparing for the future and future work and predicting the future and I think the future’s here and what we need to do is work on now and figure out changes that need to happen now, there are experiments happening in most organisations, there’s a lot of new practices and advanced ways of doing things so I think we should stop worrying about the future and start tackling opportunities in the present.
From a people perspective, what are the biggest changes that companies are trying to deliver?
If you think about what is the biggest change that has taken hold in organisations over the last five years I think it’s the combination of advanced technologies and agile forms of teams – working in teams in much more supple and nimble ways. Once you start doing that in some place in an organisation, it affects everything – it affects what sort of people you want to hire, it affects how you develop and appraise them so it affects all the HR functions. So that’s what I think has been driving it, there are all these new ways of working in place but our systems, the legacy systems in HR are by and large outdated. A lot of the organisations that started playing around, I think the employment appraisal system has been the punching bag, but once you start mucking around it is a complex system so everything is affected. So I think that’s the challenge for HR, there is a lot to revamp and bring into the current century. Today a lot of it is being driven by the businesses rather than HR, which is not necessarily a bad thing but it does put HR into a different role, more of an enabling, supportive role, rather than being the one that cascades out the new system or practice.
Where are the greatest opportunities for HR in terms of driving the agenda?
Well, the talent question, everything today is about talent – how do we get the right talent and make sure it’s happy and developing and learning and contributing, those are the fundamental HR questions, they’re absolutely crucial for today where the war for talent is brewing. It’s also around the management capacity to do well and facilitate and coach in this new environment so I think there’s a lot of opportunity there, so I don’t feel we’ve quite worked out how that’s going to look or work so there are disparate experiments going in different places, so I just think we have to keep figuring it out and learning together.
What is your view of the general capabilities of HR?
There are huge variants on this, you can’t generalise, there have been HR groups that are real thought leaders and pioneers and experimenting with these things and there are others who have stuck their head in the sand and there’s every range in between, but HR is just like any other leaders I’ve worked with and studied, you have to make the shift from being the expert or provider of content expertise to being someone or a group or a team who can facilitate a change and a process and that involves being both part of the strategic conversation and knowing and understanding what’s happening externally, but also having the questioning, coaching softer skills to make sure that it actually does happen and that it’s not just a bunch of talk.
How important is collaboration in modern business and how can it be improved?
Of course, it’s a huge opportunity, of course it can be improved, what the potential is, is better targeting the problem or better understanding the problem or the opportunity and marshalling the right resources without wasting time, these are the same organisations, this is what’s interesting about today, you do have greater collaboration lower down in the organisation, but up above they don’t work together in those ways, I imagine that’s what your session is trying to get at, we have to learn to do that throughout, so that it can actually happen in a way that’s aligned. We’re in a time when there’s a bit of a mismatch between the old and new parts of how things work, so that means there’s room for learning and there are certainly opportunities that are being missed, but I think that any way of truly addressing customer needs or client needs is by definition collaborative, because their problems are very rarely based in one discipline or one area.
What new project do you have in the pipeline?
I’m also starting some new projects looking at, what happens when organisations, big, more traditional organisations start implementing AI-fuelled technologies, some in the HR space but not exclusively and how they learn to use them because it is a learning process, it’s not just here are the new bells and whistles you can put in, it’s a process to learn how to use it, it’s one that disrupts a lot of the old, it requires not just learning but unlearning, so we aim to look at that in an ethnographic, close-up way to see what we can learn that would be useful for other organisations going on that journey, so that’s one of the exciting things coming down the pipe.