In 30 years of studying and teaching leadership, Harvard Business School Professor Linda A. Hill has seen the numerous ways that understanding oneself and the organization well makes for better managers and leaders who can build thriving teams
by Ms. Margaret C. Roth
If it seems to you that managing or leading in government and managing or leading in business have nothing in common, Dr. Linda A. Hill has a story or five to tell you. Hill has made it her life’s work to study, from a global perspective, what makes a good manager a good leader, and vice versa. What she has learned and teaches as the Harvard Business School (HBS) Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration holds lessons for managers and leaders of all stripes.
Hill has the added perspective of having grown up in the Army in the Vietnam War era, one of four children of now-retired Medical Service Corps officer Lt. Col. Clifford Hill Sr. and his wife, Lillian, who, with her sense of adventure and curiosity, made their highly mobile life look easy. Posted to places as different as Germany and Thailand, the Hills took advantage of their space-available travel opportunities to see the world aboard military transport.
So it was natural for Linda Hill to be drawn to ethnography, the study and systematic recording of cultures. She started by earning a B.A., summa cum laude, in psychology from Bryn Mawr College in 1977. Continuing her study of organizational theory and behavioral sciences, Hill received her M.A. in educational psychology, with a concentration in measurement and evaluation, from the University of Chicago, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in behavioral sciences there.
At that point, someone recommended that she pay a visit to the Harvard Business School, which was looking for people from the social sciences as opposed to business. She did, finding it a very attractive environment, and set her sights on joining the HBS faculty, starting by completing a postdoctoral research fellowship there to gain more business expertise. Now she is fully immersed in studying leadership, globalization and innovation.
Hill’s personal and professional experiences—traveling the world, watching her dad establish himself at each new hospital administration job and establishing her own body of work in the world of academia—have helped make her both a masterful storyteller and a world-renowned analyst of leadership practices. Hill is the co-author, with Kent Lineback, of “Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives of Becoming a Great Leader,” and, with Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove and Kent Lineback, “Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation.” She is also the author of “Becoming a Manager: How New Managers Master the Challenges of Leadership.”
Army AL&T interviewed Hill May 9 to hear her views on the personal and professional development of managers into leaders.
Army AL&T: Your dad was [in the] Medical Service Corps. Having grown up around the Army, did you ever consider going into the Army yourself?
Hill: No, I never did. I enjoyed it, but I think I always wanted to be a professor. I pinch myself because I feel like I found exactly the right career, and somewhat by accident. I didn’t know anything particularly about business, because my father was in the military. None of my relatives were in managerial positions in business; some were factory workers or coal miners. But I really loved the fact that Harvard Business School focused on both theory and practice. I wanted to do work that made a difference in people’s lives and livelihoods.
Army AL&T: What is your view on the fundamental difference between leading and managing?
Hill: Well, I am actually a protégé, literally, of John Kotter [an internationally known scholar and author on leadership and change] and Warren Bennis [the late leadership scholar, also a prolific author]. They taught us all about the important distinction between leadership and management: Leadership is about dealing with change, and management is about dealing with complexity. They helped us understand that no matter what your formal authority is, usually you have to deal with both. Sometimes I worry that most people would rather be a leader than a manager, and usually both are necessary to sustain organizational success.
When John and Warren were first writing about this, they were really focused on the fact that most companies, many large companies, were overmanaged and underled. Today, we live in a world that is more complex and dynamic, and I think we have many large companies—and sometimes even small companies—that are undermanaged and underled because we face so much complexity and turbulence in today’s global economy.
Army AL&T: Are leading and managing things that have to be refreshed on a regular basis, or do you mostly learn them by doing?
Hill: There are two things we know for sure. Managers mostly learn by doing and with the assistance of others; we are all social learners. No matter what your position, usually some management and some leadership is required. You may be better at one than the other, but you don’t have to do it all yourself. One of the things that we [at HBS] try to do, that I presume is consistent with the military, is to help individuals in a position of formal authority understand that you need to build a team. You want to have people around you who complement your particular strengths or weaknesses. You have to work with those who come at their work differently than you do.
We all need to be prepared to refresh, update and sometimes even transform ourselves. We talk about the importance of lifelong learning, particularly given how dynamic the world is. You can’t assume that you know all that you need to know and stop. You have got to be prepared to learn from others. For instance, we all have to learn to take advantage of the opportunities and challenges new technology brings. We have to continually update our functional expertise. We are all really struggling to keep up.
Army AL&T: What is making it harder to lead now? Is it the technology? The pace of technological change?
Hill: There are a number of things. It is harder to sustain success in an organization these days. The world, the global economy, is more competitive than it used to be, right? And it is a fairly unforgiving economy. Organizations need for their leaders to be better at what they are doing. This is an obvious example, but if you were a retailer [20 years ago], you didn’t have to worry about disruptors like Amazon or Alibaba [a Chinese e-commerce company] coming in and taking away your market share.
Demographics, technology, growing expectations of diverse constituencies, the global economy: Any number of things make it harder. We did a study in which we asked C-suite executives around the world, what does it take to be a high-potential [employee] in your organization, and what did it take 10 years ago? What they told us was, it is harder to be a high-potential today. They said that 10 years ago, if you were a value creator, you could be considered a high-potential. But now if you want to be considered a high-potential, it is not enough to be a value creator; you also must be a game changer.
A value creator is someone who knows how to identify and close what are referred to as performance gaps, whereas a game changer is someone who knows how to identify and close what are referred to as opportunity gaps. A performance gap is a gap between where you are now and where you should be, whereas an opportunity gap is a gap between where you are now and where you could be.
If organizations don’t have enough people who know how to be game changers, they may be able to execute their current strategy, but they will not be agile, able to adapt. And if you want to grow as an organization and thrive, you need to be able to change and innovate.
Another thing that is happening is that customer expectations are always rising. So customers expect more from companies, but they don’t necessarily want to pay proportionately more for what they expect. When the iPhone was first introduced, Apple found that customers wouldn’t pay a premium price, and Apple had to reduce it. I suspect the military faces similar pressures—more is expected from the military but, given your budgets, you have to figure out how to do more with less.
I haven’t done any work with the military. But I know there is a lot of effort to modernize the Army, to make sure that you have the talent that can actually use the kinds of high-tech equipment, artificial intelligence or data analytics we see these days. And I think that in the military, you have always had demographic diversity—probably more than we see in business—and you probably have even more these days. And for the military, the stakes are as high as they get—national security and people’s lives.
We are living in a relatively slow economy with all kinds of political uncertainties. Budgets are very tight, and you need to have money to invest in new technologies and to attract and retain top talent. I can only imagine that in the military, you truly need great leaders, not just good ones, who can cope with the complexity of issues and constituencies and the dynamism you face.
We talk about those three imperatives of leadership—managing yourself, managing your team, and managing the network of all those people over whom you have no formal authority but you are deeply dependent on to get your job done—both inside and outside the military. Everybody cares about what the military is doing. Managers everywhere have to figure out how to manage up, manage across and manage down. Even the very senior ones—and they also have to deal with Congress and the public.
Army AL&T: In the introduction to “Being the Boss,” you say your dad taught you that integrity and caring are at the heart of great management. What did your Army life tell you about the role of adaptability in an organization that is now 242 years old and is bound to some extent by tradition and yet is trying to invite intellectual diversity?
Hill: One of the things I saw my father have to do is go into many different kinds of settings and figure out what was going on, establish credibility, develop a strategy and start to deliver in whatever context he found himself in. So, like in business, military leaders have to have both contextual intelligence—the ability to diagnose situations—and emotional intelligence, the ability to build relationships with diverse others quickly and in new environments.
As you may or may not know, in the private sector many people do not make these transitions very successfully. Part of the reason is because they don’t have the contextual intelligence. The other part is that they haven’t built up the networks necessary to actually deliver and get work done, because it is usually the informal network that you really have to rely on, particularly if you want to do things like innovate.
Army AL&T: Can you define contextual intelligence and emotional intelligence?
Hill: Emotional intelligence is usually defined as how self-aware and how socially aware you are. Some people are empathic and are good at interpersonal relationships. But that does not guarantee that they are socially aware, able to read organizational and political dynamics and figure out how to impact or transform the system. The more self-aware you are, and the more socially aware you are, the more likely it is that you can manage yourself effectively. Managing yourself is the core imperative of leadership. Leadership is always about trying to use yourself as an instrument to get things done, and that means being able to match your intent with your impact.
Contextual intelligence relates to your capacity to learn what is important about a context or a circumstance, [understanding] what you need to pay attention to and adapting your behavior accordingly. Two people doing the same job in different contexts—say, Afghanistan as compared with Germany—will face different challenges and may even need different skills. Each needs to be able to figure out what matters in their particular context and then to adjust their action plans accordingly.
Army AL&T: On the day-to-day level, are there specific questions that a manager or a leader should ask him or herself to establish emotional and contextual intelligence?
Hill: You might think you are empathic, but that might not be how your colleagues perceive you. This is why a lot of organizations have 360-degree feedback. One of the things we have the executives do, and the MBAs, is get 360-degree feedback on their emotional intelligence. They get peers, bosses and direct reports to assess them on a variety of interpersonal and organizational skills, from managing conflict, to exercising influence, to inspiring others. There is a whole series of questions about how they manage conflict, how they manage influence, how aware they are of their strengths, their weaknesses, their emotions. Most of us think we are doing fine, even on very fundamental things, such as integrity—but it is difficult to figure out whether you are actually matching your intent with your impact without that 360-degree feedback.
In “Being the Boss,” we talked about the importance of trust. There are two dimensions of trust, your character and your competence. People want to know that you are well-intended and that you want to do the right thing. That’s what character is about. Competence is about whether you know the right thing to do. Now you may know what the right thing to do is and you may, in fact, be well-intended. But what matters? The truth matters.
Perception matters, too: Are you behaving in ways that provide evidence for people that you are, in fact, trustworthy? One of the things that we frequently find with our executives and MBAs is that people who have been very successful and are in some ways very ambitious are not particularly self-aware or empathic. And they are rather surprised to learn that. One of the ways we help them learn that is by letting them collect feedback from people who they think know them and should have a sense of them; often they discover that there is a gap.
Army AL&T: What is the hardest thing about developing emotional intelligence? What are the big challenges?
Hill: One is that we can know what our intentions are, but other people don’t, right? They just see our behavior. It is as if we assume that people can read our minds. And I think that’s why it can be rather shocking sometimes to learn that people don’t perceive us as trustworthy. Maybe they just don’t know you very well. Research has suggested that when people don’t know you, they don’t necessarily feel positively about you or your behavior.
This can be especially true if you are a star; if your mind works very quickly, you might tend to jump from the data to conclusions without explaining your reasoning. That’s why teachers made us show our work when we did math problems. If you are really good at something, you might easily become impatient with people. And people are very good at reading nonverbal signals, right? They can see your frustration when they appear not to get something that, frankly, you haven’t even explained, and that doesn’t make them feel very good.
So the two questions that I always tell people to ask themselves are, how do people experience you, and how do people experience themselves when they are with you? Because leadership is always about an emotional connection.
You can be very talented and know you are well-intended; you can do the job and think people are enjoying working with you, that the whole group is successful, etc. But it may be that you are actually not making space for other people’s ideas and they feel pretty left out; that they see it as being all about you and not necessarily what the group wants. Or maybe you are very talented and pushing people along—you are quite a pacesetter, as it is called—but you are burning out people with your pace. Maybe you are not actually providing them with the development they need or delegating enough; you might be micromanaging and making them simply follow your path. These are the kinds of things that get in the way of talented people actually developing empathy and/or being trusted by individuals.
The other thing is, if you don’t inquire a whole lot—if you are a person who always advocates—then not only do you not learn new things, it is also insulting to people. So, for example, if we are peers who are collaborating on a project in the military and you don’t inquire, you don’t ask any questions, that sort of makes me feel like you don’t see me as someone you can learn from.
There is some evidence that the more talented you are, the more difficulty you will have learning to lead and building trust. Because you also can be just plain intimidating. Your talent, your strengths, can become weaknesses. There is research that people who are high-potentials and ambitious and have a high need for achievement tend to be people who see what other people haven’t done. So when someone brings them work, they see what the person hasn’t done as opposed to what they have done.
What we hear about people who are very talented, motivated individuals is that they don’t give much positive feedback. That is a very common complaint. It is partly because when you are really good, you really want to make sure the whole group is going to achieve. Also, you have a lot of pressure on you to deliver. Imagine you have a child who brings home a report card with all As except for one C. You see the C; you don’t see all of those As. We are sort of wired that way. And therefore we inadvertently create experiences for other people that make them feel not so good or not so special, when in fact if someone who brings home all As but for one C—that’s a lot of talent there.
Army AL&T: I would like to talk about dealing with the bureaucracy, because it is such a big part of working anywhere in the government. Are there skills of particular value in building networks across bureaucratic boundaries?
Hill: Businesses today recognize the need to do what is referred to as silo busting, to be able to work horizontally. Usually in highly bureaucratic organizations, those silos and those rules are deeply embedded in the organization. But bureaucracies exist for a reason. They serve a purpose—to give us clarity about people’s roles and responsibilities and formal structures. It matters [especially] when you are at war, for example, that people know what their roles are, the reporting structures, who is supposed to speak to whom and when.
Bureaucracies are not very agile, obviously. One reason is that they are so siloed, both horizontally and vertically. Vertically, communication tends to go in only one direction, from the top down as opposed to the bottom up. Horizontally, we sort of stay within our own worlds and communicate within those worlds. To be able to execute and innovate, communication needs to become more transparent, and it needs to move up and down and across the organization. As a leader, this is why you have to build that informal network, to help you figure out what is happening in the organization and to get things done, because sometimes the formal structures are actually getting in the way.
Most innovation happens between the silos, in their adjacencies. So if you are not communicating across functions or across levels and dealing effectively with that diversity of thought, you are not going to get the kind of healthy conflict that tends to lead to new ideas.
Army AL&T: It is possible to overcome those barriers, though. So the question is, how do you make a concerted effort to forge ties across bureaucratic boundaries and get things done through the informal network you talked about?
Hill: First of all, you need to build a strategic network—which in our language is the network that allows you to scan and sense your environment, to detect what the future may bring and prepare for it. Your strategic network basically helps you figure out the performance gaps and the opportunity gaps: How do you know what your priorities should be, what you should work on? You can only know that from actually understanding what the organization’s priorities are, and understanding the opportunities and challenges in your area of responsibility.
When we talk about networking, many people experience it as a dirty word or evidence that the organization doesn’t work. Well, no. The only way you can know what your team should be working on is if you are talking to the right people and they are talking to you. You don’t just want to have the bosses tell you what those priorities are and what the capability constraints are. You also want to be able to inform your bosses of what you know, what they should be taking into account and understanding. You want those to be two-way conversations.
So when you are building networks, you need to be deliberate and think about who do I need to be connected to, both in the military and outside the military, to understand the opportunities and the challenges that we are facing. I try to help leaders understand that that is a part of your job. The only way you can answer those questions is if you are interacting with the right people and having two-way conversations. Don’t tell them, this is what I am working on and this is how you can help me. Instead, ask, “What are your pain points and how can I help you get the job done?” Then, when you set your priorities for your own team, they are more likely to accept what you are trying to do, right?
Then you also need to build the operational network that allows you to actually get things done—to close those gaps, to work on those priorities. If people don’t trust you, they are certainly not going to help you work on an opportunity gap because they have so many performance gaps of their own to work on.
I always tell people, think about who you are dependent on to get your job done now. Then think about who you are going to be dependent on six months from now, and introduce yourself to those people. Because if they don’t trust you, if they don’t know what they can expect from you or if they can’t influence you, they are not going to help you get your agenda done. Not because they are bad people, but just because we are all human. So try to build relationships with people before you actually need those relationships.
Army AL&T: I would like to talk about your work on leading innovation and “Collective Genius.” Tell me about the approach that you talk about in the book.
Hill: The research on innovation is quite separate from the research on leadership, and we were looking at that connection. Often we sort of have this myth in our head that innovation is about a solo genius having an “aha!” moment. But in fact, the research has been clear for quite some time that most innovations are the result of collaborations among people who have diverse perspectives or talents.
The second thing is, we know that you really can’t plan your way to an innovation; you have to act your way to it. It is a process of discovery-driven learning. There are missteps and wrong turns and, of course, actual failures.
We know that most innovations are actually a combination of ideas, often old and new. Very rarely is an innovation the result of a single idea. And the final thing is that innovation is really hard work, and it is very scary work. You have to help people be both willing and able to do the work, because it involves risk, and it is hard work to do and sustain over time. We studied individual leaders who built teams or organizations or ecosystems that were able to innovate not just once, but time and again. That is the key to this.
Army AL&T: So if you are working in the federal government and you are given a group of people and don’t really have a lot of choice of who’s in the group, how do you maximize the potential for innovation? The government has a vast array of very talented people, but you can’t always move people around.
Hill: Most people have more potential than we realize to help with innovation. We know from our research that the process needs not only experts, but also people with a naïve eye, who are willing to ask, if you will, that “dumb question.”
One of the individuals we studied told us a story about how [Apple founder] Steve Jobs went to visit [Polaroid co-founder Edwin] Land because he was trying to understand how Polaroid was an organization that could innovate. Apparently, when the scientists or technologists got stuck at Polaroid, often they would bring in arts and humanities students from the local colleges, because the students were willing to challenge the basic assumptions of the scientists and technologists. As nonexperts, they didn’t know what the basic assumptions were, or they would ask a so-called stupid question because they didn’t know it was a stupid question. And inevitably that naïve perspective would help the scientists and technologists break out of the box and think of new ways of doing things.
Earlier I talked about being a value creator and a game changer. No matter what your role—you can be a janitor in a hospital—you may have some ideas about what we could be doing and not just what we should be doing. As they say at Pixar, everybody has a slice of genius, so the role of the leader is to figure out how that slice of genius can be utilized to help the organization do great things.
To close an opportunity gap, by definition, you are going to have to either change something about the way you are doing things or come up with a new way of doing things. Leading innovation is about understanding that we might all have a point of view that is worth considering when you are trying to solve a problem or work on an opportunity. That is what we found in our work, a kind of democratization: Everybody can play if they are willing and able to.
Army AL&T: Does that democratization extend to decision-making?
Hill: My co-authors and I talk about three organizational capabilities related to innovative problem-solving: creative abrasion, creative agility and creative resolution. (See Figure 1.) Creative resolution is the capability that relates to how decisions are made. In the organizations we studied, everybody understands how decisions get made and who is responsible for the final decision. However, these leaders use a decision-making process that is more inclusive and more patient. When you do decision-making that way, it is more likely that you will be able to combine the best of the different ideas that have been proposed and come up with a solution that will address whatever opportunity you are trying to address.
Creative resolution is about not letting certain people dominate—usually the bosses or the experts. It’s also not about compromising just because you want to go along to get along. It is an inclusive decision-making process, but still, in the end it is very clear who is going to make the final call.
The other two capabilities I mentioned are equally important. Creative abrasion is how you generate a marketplace of ideas in the first place. The people who are involved in trying to deal with the problem or the issue are expected to advocate for their point of view. But they are also supposed to inquire and actively listen to other people’s points of view. So creative abrasion is not brainstorming, where you can say anything and do anything and people aren’t supposed to judge you. It is quite the opposite. It is a competition of ideas; a heated but hopefully constructive sort of abrasion, in which ideas rub up against other ideas.
The third capability, creative agility, is about a process of discovery-driven learning. It involves experimenting, testing something out, maybe building a prototype, either a real one or a thought experiment prototype. You kind of bump it up against reality, get some feedback on how that idea works, and then make adjustments. Creative agility is about acting your way toward a solution.
So creative abrasion, creative agility, creative resolution—those are the three capabilities. You need to build a culture that allows for those capabilities to be exercised.
Army AL&T: And they have a distinct application in the military.
Hill: Yes. In fact, we just lost one of my colleagues, David Garvin, who actually did a lot of work on the military with regard to creative agility and after-action reviews. He studied organizational learning, and he thought the military would be an excellent place to study them. [Editor’s note: Garvin, Harvard Business School’s C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration, died April 30 at age 64. His fields of expertise included business and management processes, principles of organizational learning and the design and leadership of large, complex organizations.]
Another example that relates to creative abrasion is the idea of psychological safety. I am not going to be willing to engage in creative abrasion with you if I don’t feel the support of the group. What we see is that if the leader doesn’t provide support in an environment of psychological safety, people are too afraid to share their ideas. It is too risky. On the other hand, the leader needs to confront the person who won’t refine his or her ideas, because not every idea is working to solve the problem.
What we also see—and the military really does have an advantage here—is that there has to be a common sense of purpose that matters, if the group is going to be willing and able to innovate together. Innovation leaders don’t focus so much on where we as a team are going together. They focus more on why we are doing it and who we are together, our collective identity. In the military, obviously people have come together around a clear purpose to keep us safe, and they are willing to dedicate their lives to make sure that purpose is achieved. It’s a little harder sometimes in business—let’s say, in a company that manufactures shoes or cars—to help people understand their collective purpose.
To get innovation done in government is certainly a co-creation process among a whole range of parties. You can’t push this stuff down people’s throats. In fact, that’s one of the things that I think leaders forget: People have to volunteer to innovate. They have to find the purpose of the work meaningful, something that they want to work on and do; something they care about enough to do the hard work of collaboration, discovery-driven learning, dealing with the failures and missteps and then working through the decision-making process. (See Figure 2.)
The other thing we also forget about innovation is, breakthrough innovations take a long time. You know, it took 20 years for Pixar to make a full-length computer-generated movie. It took 18 years for Corning to come up with the glass that’s on most of our smartphones. But you can’t build an organization that’s only going to innovate once every two decades. That’s why I think the leaders we studied had this more inclusive definition of innovation: They said, we want to do innovative problem-solving every day, no matter what it is, and we know how to work together in a way that allows us to combine our own individual slices of genius. This is why the book is called “Collective Genius.”
Army AL&T: How important do you think it is, especially in the area of innovation, for midlevel managers to get job experience outside their workplace, such as a Training with Industry program or a detail to another organization in the government?
Hill: I think it’s very important. We know that people learn from experience, so you want midlevel people to have opportunities to lead for change or innovation earlier in their careers, so that they develop the risk appetite required for it and get used to leading.
It can be dangerous, though, when you promote people too fast—when you give someone not a stretch assignment, but a break assignment. I think that sometimes happens to people if they haven’t been given opportunities all along the way to take reasonable stretch assignments that help them to develop the resiliency and other kinds of qualities that are quite critical to being able to lead, particularly to lead change and innovation. It is important that people have those opportunities. Maybe they get to do short tours of duty in private-sector organizations where they can be exposed to certain ideas. Something we are seeing a lot more is that in our societies, in our countries, we need more trisector leaders: people who know how to bridge and work across the private, public and not-for-profit sectors to get done some of the things that we want to resolve.
In your military context, for example, rebuilding a country after a war requires people from all three sectors to get it done properly. Working across the sectors, you get people who have different sensibilities, perspectives and transferable skills. Plus, you get that creative abrasion I was talking about. You are more likely to get innovative solutions if you can actually harness that diversity.
The bottom line is: Leadership has always been hard, but it is definitely getting harder. We do see more and more executives who understand that they cannot afford to stand still. Even if you were an exceptional leader 20 years ago, it’s necessary to keep in mind that you are dealing with a more diverse workforce and a world that is becoming increasingly complex and dynamic. Leading innovation, in particular, requires a different mindset and a new set of skills that can harness diverse talents and unleash creative solutions.
MS. MARGARET C. ROTH is an editor of Army AL&T magazine. She has more than a decade of experience in writing about the Army and more than three decades’ experience in journalism and public relations. Roth is a Maj. Gen. Keith L. Ware Public Affairs Award winner and a co-author of the book “Operation Just Cause: The Storming of Panama.” She holds a B.A. in Russian language and linguistics from the University of Virginia.
This article is published in the July-September 2017 issue of Army AL&T Magazine.
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