From the Outside In

Herminia Ibarra

9 minute read

How should the leadership team of an organization in permanent beta act? Management expert, Herminia Ibarra, proffers replacing the concept of “insight” with a focus on continuous personal development and prioritizing action as a form of learning.  

Act differently to think differently. Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Leadership at INSEAD and one of the top 10 management gurus in the world according to the Thinkers50 ranking, argues that this is the path to generating effective change. Since the traditional route, which promotes introspection as the method to transform products and processes, may end up just magnifying prior errors.

In her latest book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, she conteds that it is necessary to develop what she calls “outsight”: a fundamental quality for achieving success in a business environment characterized by challenges that change on a daily basis. In her interview with WOBI, she defines the term “outsight” and proposes new leadership strategies based on listening to others and acting accordingly.

Can you explain the concept of “outsight”?

It’s the ability to learn from new experiences by getting involved in different types of activities and interacting with other social circles. It’s the opposite of “insight,” which has more to do with reflection. What “outsight” emphasizes is that the context in which we work every day is more interconnected, and often requires performing tasks that we’ve never done before. This presents new challenges that one has to learn to cope with through action, so as to be able to develop new preferences and habits.

Can “outsight” be thought of as a skill that has always been necessary, but only now is its full importance really understood?

Obviously we all learn from our experiences and relationships with people who help us to grow. That was always the case, but the complexity of today’s world is such that it has now become much more important.

How can you train yourself in this capacity?

I wouldn’t say that train is the right word. The capacity of “outsight” comes from experience, engaging in different activities, and participating in projects that are beyond our immediate control and are not linear, but involve going a step beyond what we normally do. It also comes about by doing extracurricular activities that open us up to new ideas that may be relevant. There are many ways to cultivate this skill, but the most important is by doing new and different things.

It would seem, at first glance, that “outsight” implies a certain risk-taking attitude.

Yes. I’m not talking about avoiding any planning, but encouraging self-development, which always involves risk. Of course it’s much riskier to stay in the same place, especially today when we can watch a job disappear or a company cease to be relevant. There are ways to mitigate that risk, and much of what I talk about in the book is how to develop parallel projects to improve our work and create other skills as we are working with the skills we have. I don’t mean a leap into the unknown; what I argue is that you have to “stretch” yourself constantly and not get stuck in a routine that only produces incremental improvements.

Can you give a concrete example of this parallel development?

It’s someone working in the field of engineering, but who signs up for a project with people from different departments to explore a given company matter, and through that experience she gains a wider perspective on the whole organization. It can also be someone who is involved in an industry association, where he discovers interesting and productive strategies from the competition that can later apply to his own company. Ultimately it’s about developing a different set of skills.

When you prioritize action over thought, are you likely to make more mistakes?

The central point is not to analyze and make a decision, but to act as a form of self-development, as a way to cultivate leadership capacity. It’s to put yourself in situations in which you are not the expert, but by doing so, you build the capacity before using it in your next job. I’m not talking about taking on a job that we’re not prepared for, but finding different ways to increase our skill set while still working at the job we’re at now.

There is much talk of a leader having to be authentic, committed and transparent. To what extent is this true?

I think it’s important that a leader be authentic, but the way we use the term is misleading, because every time we leave our comfort zone we do things that aren’t natural to us and that don’t necessarily fit with our true selves, so to speak. The difference with authenticity is that while we are growing in our careers, in the process we’ll do things that will feel awkward at first and we won’t know if they’re aligned with the direction we want to go. It happens a lot with young people, who lead with what they know, with their expertise, with the likelihood of giving the correct answer, the appropriate analysis. But as they move forward and work with more and more people who are outside their realm of control, they realize that they have to make more of an effort to sustain their arguments, and sometimes they don’t feel very authentic, but manipulative. Because they aren’t used to doing it, they don’t recognize the value in this kind of behavior. But when that leader has gained experience by having interacted with others, she’s able to sustain her arguments in a different way. Maybe she can bring other aspects to the table, and more accurately assess whether she can do it authentically or not.

A new leader

How much has the leadership role changed in recent decades? For Herminia Ibarra, the demands that an organization now carries on its shoulders have grown exponentially, hand in hand with the evolution of the business environment. “Today organizations can no longer work on an island, as an independent unit. The world is much more interconnected,” she explains. “Moreover, leaders now have a particularly important role, which is to unite and amalgamate disparate profiles, whether it be diverse disciplines or roles in a company often coming from different industries or the shareholders coming from different worlds. A leader must understand this playing field to be able to develop strategic issues key to the business.” Ibarra points to technology, innovation and disruption tactics as essential factors contributing to the radical change in business environments. “Globalization and technological progress, the speed at which industries are reconfigured and brought to collaborate, while competing in different shapes and forms, means that there are much higher demands on leaders,” she notes. “At the same time, governments are playing a much more active role, with more regulations, restrictions and social challenges to resolve. All of this changes the landscape of business in general, and not just of a particular company or area.”

With this pattern of change, technology can also be an ally for leaders of any organization. “For example, social networks can be used to get ideas, learn from them and connect with others,” she explains.

Participation in congresses and conferences also works in the same direction. “Events are important because they are more fun than reading a book, and because a lot of people don’t have time to attend tons of meetings. In these events, an open mind lends itself to more creative thinking, engaging in a wide range of activities that it may not be familiar with, but that point it in a new direction,” she concludes.

What advice would you give to a young leader striving towards a more important role?

The key, in my opinion, is to take on a variety of tasks. Not to choose just one, even if their discipline is fairly general. It’s recommendable to have a portfolio of different activities that they are interested in and want to explore, because ultimately that will be the job that will connect all the dots and they’ll be able to see the whole picture. Another very simple tip has to do with feeling comfortable in a job: talking to people coming from the same place, talking about the same things, and finding value in the conversation. That way, young leaders can be enriched, and eventually discover the next thing that they want to do, which might be more interesting that their current job.

What would you recommend to women to achieve greater representation in leadership positions?

One of the most significant barriers for women aspiring to leadership positions is that, in general, they get stuck in projects that are not critical to the mission of the organization. I would tell them to choose the task they take on carefully, thinking about the extent to which they can contribute. They have to seek out growth projects that put them in contact with people in the company that they can learn from.

How to expand your “outsight”

Ibarra puts forth three solutions to promote “outsights”: increase the strategic importance of your daily tasks, reducing the time spent on routine operations and immediate directives; diversify your contact networks as much as possible; and transform your own leadership style by analyzing and learning the styles and attitudes of other leaders.

“When we look beyond our daily routine, it’s hard to know where this process will take us. However, the outsight that is gained from acting in this way generates a slow but steady change in how we think. We start by doing, then reflect on our experiences and rethink who we are. This is how we grow,” she concludes.