Q&A with Annmarie Neal

x This post was originally written for the American Society for Training & Development website by Wei Wang. Read it there.


Dr. Annmarie Neal, former chief talent officer at Cisco Systems and First Data Corporation, is the founder of the Center of Leadership Innovation. Her recent book, Leading from the Edge, co-authored with Karen Conway, takes a look at how globalization now means you can better position your company for innovation and growth. ASTD’s Global HRD CoP asked Annmarie Neal to share her thoughts on global trends affecting businesses today, as well as what she considers the essential leadership traits of effective global leaders.

Why did you write this book and why now?

The timing was ripe—not only for me personally, but also for me professionally.

Our organizations are at a huge inflection point as to what leadership means in this “age of great change.” In my mind, the route to industry, market, and product success begins and ends with leadership. How do our organizations out-think, out-strategize, out-innovate and out-execute our competitors? With leadership capability that creates strategic differentiation, globally. Concurrently, I think the field of leadership development is also at an inflection. If in fact the strategic and economic models of the industrial age are no longer relevant, then the organizational and leadership models must be recreated as well.

So, with all of my great experience developing leadership capability that drives market differentiation, I thought it was time to have a voice on how our community can reimagine leadership—and the development of leadership in our organizations.

What are the major macro factors that you see dramatically changing the leadership landscape today?

I think that there are four macro factors that are changing the landscape—and changing it substantially—for leadership.

  1. The first and probably the most important is the rapid advancements in technology and in particular mobile technologies. What I call “the mobile makeover.” They are creating a world that is increasingly more connected and interconnected and subsequently more transparent
  2. The second are the macro-economic shifts (growth and power) associated with the shift in growth from developed to the emerging markets and the associated shifts in business complexity associated with competitor entrants from new markets who play by different rules
  3. The third is the shifting demographics of the workforce. Aging populations in some parts while rising levels of youth in other parts of the globe are substantially shifting who, how, where and why people come to work.
  4. And lastly, the fact that all of these changes are happening simultaneously—creating that VUCA dynamic that we often talk about.

What are the 10 Essential Leadership Traits?

Leaders must courageously create and recreate faster than the world does around them. Thus, there are two essential traits that align around courageous recreation:

  1. having a strong sense of self
  2. having the courage to recreate your organization, your team and yourself.

No longer is business a game of checkers! Thus, there are three essential traits that discuss how a leader must be a strategy chess-master:

  1. engaging in multi-modal thinking
  2. leading with an experimental mind
  3. balancing control (managing today’s world) and chaos (creating tomorrow’s world).

These essential traits discuss how global leaders think and problem solve, as well as how they manage the inherent ambiguity (or the both and) between creating for tomorrow while delivering performance for today.

Global leaders also must take the power to disrupt. There are three traits that discuss how global leaders are super-change agents within a broader ecosystem of customers, partners and even competitors:

  1. influencing for constructive collaboration
  2. being a super-global change agent
  3. having the freedom to fail, and fail fast

And lastly, global leaders don’t think alike, but they do think like dragons, elephants, and czars. The last two essential traits discuss the power of empathy and being authentic as business imperatives:

  1. empathy as a business imperative
  2. authenticity.

Can you pick the top three traits that you think are really lacking in global leaders today and take us through them in more detail?

The biggest gap that I see is the in essential trait of “balancing control and chaos.” This trait speaks to the ability to deal with the ambiguity inherent in a both/and world—where it is no longer good enough to manage today’s performance only. Organization and leadership systems need to be reinvented in order to encourage cultures of innovation and experimentation and performance and compensation systems need to align accordingly.

I also see a fairly large gap in the trait of having “courage to recreate.” More of the same isn’t good enough to remain competitive; yet, more of the same is often rewarded over new and different.

And lastly, I would say the trait of having an “experimental mind.” Large companies cannot fail at scale; it is too harmful to their brand. So how do they innovate? My point of view is that it is through smart experimentation. There is a huge opportunity to build systems of experimentation (as well as the leadership and organization capabilities to support these systems) in our organizations.

From your point-of-view, are most company leadership development approaches successful at helping to create global leaders?

I think the field of leadership development is at an inflection point—not too dissimilar to that which our businesses are experiencing. We have dialed in how to develop leaders for an industrial economy thanks to great work put forth in companies like GE. But that world is quickly receding, and a new world order is upon us.

We now need to create leaders who are integrative in how they think, who are experimental in how they build and test strategy, who are interconnected and collaborative with partners, customers and sometimes competitors, and we have to create leaders who understand complex market dynamics—all over the globe.

How do you do this? You do this by developing leaders while they are doing the work of leadership. So, those companies that rely on classroom-based offerings are likely falling behind the curve. Those who are developing “in the field” are probably getting closer to what we need.

Take for example, Starwood. They take their top 100 leaders into key markets to develop them. And they take their senior team into markets as well to run the company from China or Dubai, for example, to experience leading from a worldview.

How would you suggest that your 10 leadership traits be integrated into a leadership development strategy?

I think what needs to be integrated into L&D strategy is the idea that we need to a) develop the capability of leadership in our organizations and b) we need to develop leaders who can lead in a global context. Toward the latter, I think it is less important to integrate all 10 traits, but rather to integrate the idea that one’s ability to lead is amplified (or derailed) by one’s psychology.

As one focuses on her sense of self, ability to think and problem solve, comfort with failing (and failing fast), ability to balance ambiguity when faced with what appears to be either or (versus both and) situations, and the ability to build, nurture, and be in collaborative relationships that are constructive, she is working on her ability to lead through changing and evolving business dynamics. This ability translates into being able to identify and empathize with market needs, and thus, be able to innovate with the customer in mind.

What final thought or idea would you like to leave for us?

I think I’d want to leave folks with the idea that as HR/OD/LD/TM professionals, we have an opportunity to change the conversation about how we do the work that we do. We could continue approach the development of leaders by sending them to business school programs—that may or may not actually change the way they lead. Or, we could take a stand and lean into our work with courage, determination, and most importantly with a practitioner (versus administrator) model to “reinvent” how we approach the practice of developing strategic capability for our organization.

For more from Annmarie, listen to her archived webcast, Leading From the Edge.

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