Last year we had the pleasure of working with IESE Professors Joan Enric Ricart and Adrián Caldart on the recently published General Management in Latin and Ibero-American Organizations: A Humanistic Perspective. Exploring the role of the general manager, the book features insights from international scholars on topics ranging from the CEO agenda and sustainable business models to the importance of solid corporate governance structures.

Before delving into the specifics on the role of the CEO, the book opens with a historical overview of general management as a profession, from its inception in 1910 to today. In the wake of ongoing corporate scandals, its evolution offers food for thought.

As the authors explain, the field known as “Business Policy” was first introduced by Harvard Business School in 1910. In the early days, the course was taught using case studies in the absence of textbooks and other conceptual foundations. For the first 60 years, the roles and responsibilities of CEOs were clearly defined from a humanistic perspective, with senior leaders modeled as beacons of ethical leadership whose objectives transcended boosting the bottom line.

By the 1970s, some considered “Business Policy” too enmeshed with HBS and its case-method paradigm. In consequence, they proposed splintering off to create a new field – “Strategic Management” – that they felt better reflected the scientific and analytical rigor inherent in the general management role.

With this new approach, the relative weight of humanism and business ethics in the CEO agenda became increasingly diluted, replaced by economics, empirical analysis, mathematics and statistics. Under the rallying cry “If you can’t measure it, you can’t measure it,” the yardstick for CEOs was now measured by their ability to formulate strategies, devise business models and leverage analytical schemes.

Stifled by the short-term pressure to hit their numbers, many business leaders inadvertently overlooked another organizational asset essential to corporate success: their people. In a word, humanism got lost in the shuffle.

Now there are signs that the tide might be turning. Case in point: a joint statement signed by 200 global CEOs a few weeks ago emphasizing the need for responsible leadership, corporate purpose and delivering value to all stakeholders, not just shareholders. If their words actually translate into action, the pendulum might be finally swinging back in the other direction.

People have deliberated the qualities of true leadership for as long as there have been leaders. Among the long list of leadership essentials, one concept currently stands out: humility.

A while back, I had the pleasure of preparing an article for “IESE Business School Insight” based on excerpts from “Humility Is the New Smart” by Edward D. Hess and Katherine Ludwig of University of Virginia’s Darden School the Business.

According to the authors, the only way to stay relevant in the age of AI and automation is to outsmart the smart machines in areas where they don’t excel: critical, creative and innovative thinking. The linchpin to building these competencies? You guessed it, humility.

By humility, Hess and Ludwig aren’t referring to submissiveness or self-effacement. Rather, they mean the capacity to set our egos aside, recognize that we actually don’t have all the answers and remain open to learning from a variety of sources. Ideas and insights can emerge from myriad directions, often outside our professional circles: from the factory floor, subordinates, your children, your parents, neighbors, people from completely different walks of life…

Hess illustrates the importance of humility by generously sharing firsthand accounts from his distinguished career as a top-level executive. Back then, he approached conversations as purely transactional interactions to transmit messages from A to B, and if they could be conveyed faster through interruptions, all the better. Eye contact was optional and perfunctory nods sufficed if there was no time for friendly banter.

He received a wake-up call one day when HR informed him they were about to lose an outstanding up-and-coming analyst – and it was all his fault!

“He doesn’t believe he has a future here because you don’t like him.”

During his short tenure at the company, the young analyst had taken Hess’s lack of engagement personally, interpreting them as brush-offs and personal rebukes.

Luckily, the story ended on a good note: after Hess sincerely and publicly apologized to the analyst, he decided to stay and eventually became one of the firm’s top performers. It also taught Hess the vital importance of leadership based on heartfelt communication and genuine interest in others, a lesson that had a positive ripple effect in both his professional and personal life.

Staying grounded in humility may seem like glaringly obvious advice, but we all fall short of the mark sometimes. Have you ever stopped to think how your behavior impacts others? Those who think they have all the answers might be in for a surprise!

 

Most of us send and receive an on-going stream of emails throughout the day, most of which are back-and-forth workaday communications. But every so often, we’ll have to write one that literally gives us pause.

With no way around it, we’ll have to relay a message – whether to a colleague, a higher-up or a prickly in-law – that sends our shoulders northbound and staggers our breathing. If you’re faced with this situation, here is our advice:

1 – Take a deeeeep breath
And remind yourself to keep on breathing 🙂

2 – Flip the script
If it were the other way around, what would you like to hear? For the sake of argument, let’s say you screwed up – and let’s face it, we all do. Ask yourself: if you were the email recipient, what would you like to hear? Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes before banging out an email.

3 – What’s your ultimate aim?
As the magnificent Mary Poppins taught us, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” Remember Mary’s advice if you’re about to serve a potential bitter dose of medicine.

Do you need to gently remind a colleague that you – not them – have ownership of a project? Do you have a client who changes her mind every other day, two steps forward and three steps back? Or perhaps you’d like your adult children to know that you’re no longer willing to host all of the holiday meals?

Whatever the case, put a positive spin on it! You simply want the optimal outcome, the best possible product and a truly enjoyable holiday meal!

4 – Set the tone
At some point in time, we’ve all been on the receiving end of messages along the lines of, “I run the show and you will do as I say.” Honestly, is this approach really conducive to achieving any objective? We think not.

Nearly always, the how is remembered far more than the what. The late, great Maya Angelou said it best: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” With this in mind, reflect on the right tone to achieve your objective.

And while we’re at it, a word about capital letters. As most – but trust us, not all – people know, THEY MEAN THAT YOU’RE YELLING. Never use them unless you mean it, and try not to mean it!

5 – Write it, read it, revise it. Repeat last two steps. Then wait.
Say what you have to say, re-read it at least twice and if possible, wait a while before sending it. Never be afraid to speak your truth, but remember that emails last forever like Willy Wonka’s everlasting gobstoppers, so don’t be in a rush to hit that “send” button!

 

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash.

 

 

 

Communicating information accurately and responsibly takes effort. Yet in today’s “post-truth” age, it’s increasingly easy to find cherry-picked data that has been quickly gathered.

Author Dennis Heijn expresses this idea in his book, The Fearless Monkey: A Creative Guide to Leadership in a Paradoxical World. Heijn uses the metaphor of a monkey to describe how we need to first reflect before leaping toward future goals.

“We are so eager to create a coherent story from the few facts we have that we reduce our complex world into manageable chunks that we can then greedily devour,” he observes.

Heijn uses the monkey motif to teach a lesson on self-reflection. In Indonesia, monkeys are caught by placing a handful of rice in a coconut shell attached to a chain. The monkey puts his hand into a small hole in the shell to grab the rice, but then can’t remove it because he does not think of opening his hand.

His message: only by being mindful of what we accept as truth, can we understand reality.

You can read an interview with Heijn here.

 

 

Words mean different things to different people. That’s why we need to be so careful with them.

Imagine the boss says, “This social media campaign is going to bring us a gigantic boost in sales.” The boss may be thinking 5 percent, while her employees imagine much higher numbers. If no further context is provided, then everyone is living in distinct realities.

Using concise language and providing context ensures that everyone understands the issue in the same way. It improves the quality of our communication.

 

Photo by Alexandra on Unsplash.

It’s tempting to use jargon in written business communication. And why not? Everybody is doing it: “Let’s think outside the box.” “We don’t have the bandwidth.” “We’re getting radio silence on the launch date.”

It usually happens when speakers are focused on being entertaining, rather than meaningful. It also occurs when they are seeking to impress the audience, rather than help them.

As communicators, we know the value of avoiding jargon to craft clear, straightforward messages. Using jargon sparingly can make your language a bit more interesting, but using it excessively dilutes your ideas and undermines your credibility.

Clear, concise statements lead to effective communication. They are also more accessible to a global audience, reducing the risk of your idea not being heard at all.

 

Silence at work exacts a high price on both companies and society. But when we are able to freely express our opinions, everyone benefits.

Research suggests that people who feel empowered to share information and ideas at work tend to be more engaged and motivated. This positive attitude then flows into other realms of life.

When people think it’s useless to bring up problems they face on the job, they begin to feel powerless outside the office, too. Due to a spillover effect, “learned helplessness” in the workplace presents big risks for communities. It can affect the quality of ties that people have with others, whether they vote in elections and the amount of volunteering they do. It can also impact how they identify with their communities.

What to do, according to researchers: learn to listen, give everyone a chance to speak and reduce hierarchies.