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Act Like a Leader — Herminia Ibarra

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School. Every Tuesday at 7:00 PM EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community and the private self (mind, body and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Herminia Ibarra the Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning and Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD in France about creating meaningful change by acting your way into the future rather than by analyzing your options

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: Before we talk about creating change by acting vs. analyzing, let’s talk for a moment about what the caller brought up –networking and social capital and the importance of asking for help.

Herminia Ibarra: Herminia IbarraNetworking is about getting to know other people, finding out what’s out there.  You may not even know what kind of help you need yet.  One of the great things about networks is they can give you help that you weren’t even asking for.

SF: What do you mean by networks helping in unanticipated ways?

HI: You maynot have great insight into what you’re facing. For example, with people who change careers.  A lot of times people will know what’s not working, what’s not satisfactory, but part of why they feel stuck is that they don’t know what they’d rather do. So, they don’t know how to search for it.  And sometimes they meet someone who’s doing something that they find fascinating, but they never thought about. So it’s a piece of information that comes their way, but they weren’t looking for it, they didn’t know to ask for it. If they didn’t have a network that reached out broadly they would never have learned about it. This happens constantly, especially with people who are trying to innovate.  They bump into someone who’s doing something that has part of the elements they’re looking for. So, I would back-track to the pre-help asking stage. And in those exchanges you learn how helpful you can be to other people. So then you’re not so shy about it when you actually need it yourself because you’re part of this exchange.

SF: You’ve observed that the more people provide help to others the less likely they are to be inhibited about asking for help themselves?

HI: Yes,because they see that that’s how it works. When you’re inhibited it’s when you feel you have nothing to offer. Why should they help me, I could never reciprocate. I’m being selfish. Back to direct asking for help when you need it. It’s a great principle, but it does need qualification. In my work on helping people build better networks there’s a few classic mistakes.  One is that you ask to a level that is not appropriate to the level of the relationship. If you don’t know someone very well and you ask them for a huge amount of time. It’s important to moderate it and ask for something commensurate with the nature of the relationship. Ask for something bite-sized.  Get your foot in the door.

SF: What’s another classic networking gaffe?

HI: Some think that if they ask for help they’re showing their boss that they’re not competent.  And there to you have to calibrate.  Of course, you need to ask for help when you need it but you need to carefully consider who should ask first and what you should ask. So, sometimes it’s better to go to your network, rather than a senior person in your organization so you don’t have to worry about how you’re being evaluated. A senior person in your organization might think that you’re asking for help shows a lack of initiative so it may be better to come equipped with some ideas. So, it’s ok to ask for help, but it’s also important to do your homework.

SF: So look outside the hierarchical chain to minimize risk.  What else have you learned in your extensive work on networks?

HI: The biggest thing is that most of us have networks that are much narrower than the ones we need. One network is one you need in order to get things done.  That’s the direct reports, boss, suppliers, service providers, customers, clients, etc on whom you need to rely to get things done.  That’s easier than what I call a strategic network which is going to help you advance your career, to change your game in some way. The strategic network needs to be a lot more widespread, diverse, external, and cross-boundary (outside your immediate function, team, or business unit). Because sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking for.  You need a much more helicopter, big picture view of what’s going on in your organization, in your industry, and people’s views.  You need this to develop good ideas and to help you understand the direction of changes.  It’s one thing to have mentors who you can turn to for help.  It’s quite another thing to have a network that’s broad and wide enough to help you to understand possibilities that you don’t even know about.

SF: The narrow network is easy and comfortable, populated by people like you.   You don’t have to do the work of learning new codes of conduct, new languages, new norms. How can people broaden their networks?

HI: Whatyou just described I called the Narcissistic and Lazy Principle of Networks. To broaden your network and make it a strategic network you have to think about things and things to do is because the first step is to have a common experience or context before you can use your network to ask for help.  So, easy examples are projects in your company, cross-functional group, task force, anything that mixes it up so you’re not dealing with the usual suspects. Extracurricular activities; people join clubs, industry associations, professional conferences, LinkedIn groups. Those are all ways to get to know people you have something in common with but aren’t in your everyday path.

SF: Let’s talk about other insights from Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, the title of your most recent book.  You’ve already discussed a few, but what were the other teaching points?

HI: There were three bits. How do you create experiments that allow you to test careers in some smaller, less committed forms, without burning any bridges. The second was how do you expand your network so you are more likely to get new ideas, leads, and inspiration for an alternative career.  And the third was how do you learn to tell a story about why this makes sense and that’s a story that’s going to convince you yourself because you need to convince those who might hire you or fund you.  The big picture message is that when you’re looking to change into something completely different, you can’t go about it in a methodical, analytical way.   You can’t map it out.  You know what you’re moving away from but you don’t have a clear enough view, yet, of where you want to move to.

SF: Change is non-linear. So what happens when people shift careers?

HI: It’s hard to plan and strategize and spreadsheet it because you really don’t know what you don’t know.  So you need to engage in a process that I call experiment and learn as opposed to plan and implement.  It’s a much more discovery-driven process. The bad news is that it’s long, it’s not time efficient and it can be kind of messy and chaotic. But there’s really no other way.  Coaching, and testing, and introspecting doesn’t help you to really learn what’s the next best job for you. The process needs to be trial and error and often involves serendipity and that’s where the importance of your strategic, broad, diverse network comes in.

Herminia Ibarra is the Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning and Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEADand the author of Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career.  She’s an expert on professional careers and leadership development who directsThe Leadership Transition, an executive program for managers moving into broader leadership roles. She is Vice-Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Women’s Empowerment and Chair of the Visiting Committee of the Harvard Business School. Thinkers 50 ranked Ibarra #9 among the most influential business thinkers in the world. She has a new book coming out, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader (February 2015)

Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.


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