World Business Forum

Ben Zander - World Business Forum 2011

Ben Zander talks to 4,000 people as if they’re children.

Zander serves as the conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and is of renown as a guest conductor with orchestras around the world. He’s a Grammy-winning recording artist with the Boston orchestra and takes as much a part in creating the music as he does in teaching his community—and the world—how music works.

Zander was, by far, the most engaging presenter I have ever seen. When I say that he spoke to us as if we were children, I mean that with no degree of sarcasm. In fact, his first demonstration was to illustrate exactly how children learn music. He used the child’s model of understanding rhythm, structure, and the essential building blocks that lead to this concept he calls flow. Music, he says, and the connection to music, has to be in the body.

As it turns out, taking us back to this more childlike frame was a brilliant way to demonstrate what we need to be doing with our lives and our leadership, and to ask this essential question of ourselves: Are we connected with what we are doing in our lives right now?

Zander then introduced us to John. John was an attendee, just like I was, sitting a little further down toward the front of the hall, and it was John’s birthday. Zander proceeded to stand John on a chair in front of the crowded hall and conduct us in a chorus of “Happy Birthday” to celebrate.

We were terrible. Zander told us so.

He made us take it again. He pushed us, driving us to give our very best to John, saying that this birthday was to be the very best day of John’s year, and that we were to commit to giving John that level of our attention and focus. And John, Zander prodded, was to drink in every ounce, to let it wash over him and be proud of the feeling.

Zander was a lunatic of the highest fashion. And yet, a surprise to many of us, he managed to bring out that commitment and we delivered one of the best damned renditions of “Happy Birthday” I’ve ever heard 4,000 executives muster.

A key lesson of Ben Zander for me is this: Our role as a leader is to demonstrate our commitment to people being as big and as great as they can be. His leadership asks not for following, rather for asking people to be actively engaged and connected in what they are doing. And his own commitment to that same connection inspires what he calls “Shining Eyes”—the physical manifestation of that connection. As a leader, Zander says it’s our job to bring that same shine to all our teams.

Zander’s leadership is not about celebrating his own wisdom and experience as a globally recognized conductor. It’s about what he is able to bring out in others. But developing this sort of relationship comes with great risks, some more manufactured than others. Zander cautions that our modern concepts of performance measurement often come at the expense of true leadership.

Measurement is, at it’s worst, about judgement. It’s about setting a bar above which is success and prosperity, and below which all else is failure. According to Zander, if you want people to succeed, you can’t be kicking off your team relationships from a position of judgement.

If transformational relationships can lead to success, fear of being managed operates in the face of that potential for success. Where Zander succeeds is in eliminating judgement, which in turn eliminates fear, and returns to productivity. Measurement maturity is leading us to be more inclusive about what we’re managing — including more ethereal concepts like happiness—in creating a more well-rounded picture of performance.

Measurement is a collaboration. Zander says he starts off every student-professor meeting by giving his students A’s all around. He presumes success from the outset, and works with his students so that they define why they are going to be successful. If they don’t deliver what they promised up front, they will know exactly why they are going to fail.

This practical, holistic approach to building sound measures hits home for me. It sheds the stigma of the one-size-fits-all methodologies and lets individuals shine as they need to shine, and departments and teams and organizations, too.

Tal Ben-Shahar - World Business Forum 2011

Tal Ben-Shahar is a teacher and writer. He’s a former Harvard lecturer where, according to his Wikipedia biography, “his classes on Positive Psychology and The Psychology of Leadership were among the most popular courses in the University’s history.” Ben-Shahar is intelligent, charismatic, and driven; the mission on his website reads, “I have created this virtual world for the purpose of helping individuals, relationships, and organizations flourish.” His talk on the WBF stage focused on the science underlying positive well being, and he opened his talk with a trick. He informed us that he was about to put an image up on the screen before us. In that image would be a series of shapes. “I want you to tell me how many shapes you see,” he said, and then an image appeared.

On the screen were shapes of all sizes and geometry — triangles embedded inside of triangles, circles in circles, and so on. After thirty seconds, the image disappeared and he asked us, “how many shapes did you see?” One person shouted, “Ten!” A few more, “a hundred!” Still more voices shouted, “a thousand!”

“Good,” he said. “Now, how many children were on the bus?”

I didn’t know there was a bus in the image I had seen, let alone how many children were on it. The rest of the audience was equally confused.

“What time was on the clock?” he asked. The image came back on the screen. Right there, plain as day, a clock, a bus full of kids, a full story of images beyond the shapes Ben-Shahar had initially asked us to count.

That 4,000 of us in the audience were all but clueless to the story that unfolded in the image on the screen. The experience built the foundation for Ben-Shahar’s key point: the questions you ask provide the foundation of your focus, and your focus is what you end up doing. In this example, he’d asked us to focus on the shapes on the screen. We did so, at the exclusion of other key data in the images.

As it turns out, we are naturally gifted at listening to and following instruction. Our intellectual gift puts a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of our leaders in discovering and determining the right questions to ask of our organizations. If we don’t ask the right questions, we’re in danger of answering them with irrelevance.

It is Ben-Shahar’s position that we as leaders spend far too much time focusing on what is not working in our organizations, than on what is working. In that light, he counsels leaders to develop what he calls an “also/and” reference frame. It is this frame that allows us to evaluate and grow what is working without ignoring what needs work, but not at the exclusion of it. After all, he says, with every question we ask we’re excluding a whole range of other potentially critical questions, and relevant sets of data.

For example, in the higher ed context, we might be wary of asking “why is our tenure system broken?” Instead, pose the issue, “our Tenure system fosters academic and research excellence and it puts a financial strain on academic departments; it’s time for a discussion on maintaining strength and relevance of the program in light of financial realities.” In this way, we frame a complex discussion in a way that celebrates what is working and highlights issues we must address and resolve collaboratively.

This is a particularly profound learning for me. The lesson here is about more than just learning to ask the right questions. After all, we’ve been taught since childhood that there are no right or wrong questions. But our job as leaders is to be aware that the question you ask will directly guide the outcome.

“Our experience in the world is completely influenced by where we place our attention,” Ben-Shahar says. Our job as leaders is to ask the right questions which foster and grow awareness, and focus on growing what is working, rather than what is not. Where you put your attention as a leader, the organization will follow.

It could be easy to write off Ben-Shahar’s work as a gimmick. I assure you, based on my experience, it is no gimmick. Nor is this a simple framework to use when you’d rather avoid having a difficult conversation. In fact, this new level of focus and awareness opens the door for much more complex, challenging, difficult, and rewarding conversations than we’ve ever had before.

Malcolm Gladwell - World Business Forum 2011

Malcolm Gladwell is an author and columnist. He has brought us great fodder for consideration in his books The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, and has been an award-winning writer for The New Yorker Magazine since 1996. In his time on stage at the World Business Forum, Gladwell shared his thoughts on risk. His thesis is pretty simple: Leadership is about taking risk.

Simple, indeed. According to Gladwell, there are two types of risk that good leaders will have to cross at some point or another in their leadership careers: operational risk, and social risk.

  • Operational risk asks how willing you are as a leader to bet big. Do you have the guts to risk the company on a path you believe is right?
  • Social risk asks how willing you are to give up popularity in the face of big, potentially unpopular decisions.

Gladwell’s research over the years has led him to some interesting observations. As it turns out, many in positions of leadership take massive operational risks, betting the company on some new product or another, all the while working hard to ensure they remain socially accepted and popular.

But the best leaders, says Gladwell, the leaders that make the biggest and most profound impact, make decisions in precisely the opposite fashion. Instead of being willing to bet the farm on hair-brain ideas that follow the accepted, popular path, the best leaders are even-headed and operationally risk averse. And yet, they are willing to risk their social capital to do what they believe is right. The best leaders inspire through reason, and when push comes to shove, they don’t care what the rest of the world thinks about them.

Gladwell is part of a fascinating caste of journalists at work today. He is a keen observer of the human business condition, and the elements of communication that pique his interest for investigation tend toward those that are only completely obvious in hindsight.

Insight, Gladwell said, might be the greatest difficulty for great leaders. It takes great insight, after all for leaders to find strength and motivation to take risks and accept social rejection. In the end, the calculus is fairly simple: You have to love what you do, Gladwell says. If you truly love what you do, you will be willing to take the right sorts of risk and work that much harder.

Bill George - Word Business Forum 2011

Bill George is a professor of management at Harvard University. He is also former chief executive of Medtronic, where he grew the company from $1.1 billion market capitalization to $60 billion in just 10 years. It’s this experience, being the leader responsible for such a dramatic period of growth in such a volatile market space, that makes George such an interesting subject on paper. But it’s his demeanor that first struck me. I found myself sitting in the audience noting his casual dress, the way his arms swing haphazardly before he crosses them across his chest, his direct yet casual banter; Bill George is an everyman. As much as we love to ascribe an air of pomp and circumstance to those whose work we admire, there is as much a tribute to be shared when those expectations are broken. In the case of Bill George, I find myself admiring him for his leadership lessons, and for his ability to maintain his pragmatic and approachable sensibility while delivering explosive business results.

This sensibility is absolutely apparent in his take on leadership.

George has three operating questions that guide his model for leadership.

  1. What is the purpose of my leadership? In his book True North, George provides an exercise in which the reader is to write an essay to herself describing the long-term purpose of her leadership. The first step in defining great leadership is understanding the near-term purpose of it. However, leadership objectives can’t be fairly assessed without asking the next question. …
  2. How can I stay the course with my values and purpose? George asserts that daily efforts in leadership are likely more connected than we think to the rest of our lives. His follow-up question is appropriately leading: In what ways does the purpose of your leadership relate to the rest of your life? Is it integral to it or separate from it?
  3. How can I develop my leadership? George cites a 2009 Harvard study which revealed that 69% of respondents believe there is a leadership crisis in the U.S., exacerbated by widespread loss of trust in politicians, media, finance, and business leaders. In recovering trust, George says leaders must recover their compassion, contemplation, and sense of purpose.

It’s these three simple questions, combined with George’s profound experience and straight-forward approach to issues so many professionals make too complex, that cement his credibility. He reminds us to align people around mission and values before projects and processes, empower people to stand up and lead, and to do so in a collaborative spirit. I love the simplicity of this message.

So much of George’s presentation clearly comes from a deeply personal place. As he prepared his close, his talk turned particularly sober. “A key part of leadership development,” he said, “is to develop your emotional intelligence.” Practical skills and technical training will give you the tools you need to do a job. But it’s emotional intelligence that allows you to work with others cooperatively, collaboratively, and to create great programs.

Finally, George concluded with a challenge. He said that on our deathbed, we’re going to ask ourselves what we did to make a difference in the world around us by way of our leadership. “If you can work out what that is now,” he challenged the room, “then do it now.”

World Business Forum 2011 - Introduction

Last month, I had the opportunity to join a group of my peers in New York City for the World Business Forum annual session, produced by HSM Global. I attended this conference for my own personal and professional development. Most conferences I attend, I’m interacting with clients and prospective customers in the higher ed and health care space. I thought this might be a good opportunity to see what’s going on in the wider business community.

As it turns out, there was a more important reason for me to attend this particular event: so many of the concepts that came together over these two days are part of a conversation that is largely not occurring in the higher ed and health care space right now. Creative leadership from the top, collaboration and teamwork, understanding our core customer; each of these takes a backseat to political struggles and strategic planning initiatives that risk looking backward far more than looking ahead.

The World Business Forum in so many ways was a port in the storm for me, a sign that while our intentions are good, we have so much more work to do together to ensure that our institutions are are ready to transform, to tackle the most difficult issues successfully, and to serve our most important core customers: the leaders of the future.

In the month that has passed since the event, I’ve had the chance to stop and reflect on key concepts and learnings. As I begin to integrate these lessons into my own work, I’d like to share a few of the stories of these leaders with you. Through this series of posts here on the blog, I will walk through the key lessons of eleven of the keynote presenters from the WBF stage including:

[twocol_one]Bill George Malcolm Gladwell Tal Ben-Shahar Ben Zander Howard Schultz


[twocol_one_last]Patrick Lencioni Tamara Erickson Claudio Fernandez-Araoz Jack Welch Seth Godin


In many cases, I’ve read their books. For some, I’m a regular reader of their writing online. For few, I’ve never had the opportunity to cross paths with the ideas they shared with us over those two days. But for each of them, I can now say they have rightfully earned their position as influential leader, and that they have taken the time to share their ideas on transformational leadership with our forum is a gift to us all.

It is my hope that this series of posts provides a brief framework for discussion, and that the notes I share here will provide you a launchpad for leadership through change in your own organizations.