Think at London Business School
Tuesday 6 December 2022
Vyla Rollins discusses asking the most effective questions, and the surprising and successful places they can lead you
By Sophie Haydock
Being a business leader has never been an easy gig. But it often feels that today, as we emerge from the disruption of a multi-year pandemic, the stakes are higher, and the rules are more complicated than ever before. Not only must businesses re-orient themselves in the new normal, successful leaders must be prepared for an unpredictable future. Ena Inesi has spent her career advising leading organisations on how to continually grow and deliver – including through her work as Academic Director of our Next-Level Leadership programme. Here, she shares her insights on what good leadership will look like in the future.
You teach strengths-based leadership and positive psychology. How does that approach benefit leadership?
What we need in this age, to get people to be open to change, is close relationships. We need trust and approaches that reduce fear and circumspection in a hierarchical situation. Power hierarchies tend to get in the way of good relationships, although they are actually instinctive for humans. In the modern business age, that’s at odds with the drive for constant innovation, change and openness to agility.
The hierarchical approach tends to focus on fear, conformity and distant relationships. That tends to be the natural response to power. Positive psychology and strengths-based leadership is a way to counteract our natural inclination to fall into these rigid hierarchies. The idea is not to do away with hierarchy; rather it is to approach it as “servant leadership” or “humble leadership”.
It’s not about me micro-managing and saying: “You are all here to do my bidding and ensure my glorious success,” it’s rather about saying to people who are lower in the hierarchy, “You have the tools, you are the ones with answers to these problems, I don’t have them and I need you, so I am going to do everything I can in my power to facilitate your ability to succeed, so ultimately I am going to succeed.”
It’s a very different model. It’s one that reduces that distance and increases trust between higher and lower-power individuals. It’s still hierarchical, but a very different relationship.
What aspects of teaching on the Executive Education programmes do you find particularly rewarding?
On the custom programmes – bespoke courses designed for executives of a company or organisation – I am constantly surprised and delighted by how ideas and content are applicable to very different types of organisations and how they resonate in very different ways. Of course, I have my preconceived notions, but when I open the discussion and ask: “How do these ideas seem to you?” I am always surprised by what participants say.
It’s incredibly productive, because we can then take the ideas, play with them and talk about how participants can apply them and make them work best for themselves. That way I have my hand on the pulse of the company, understand the challenges they’re facing, and customise the ideas to help them find solutions to their challenges.
As a teacher in exec education, you’re really just guiding the conversation, lighting the touchpaper. Participants will start to talk to each other, compare experiences and ask questions. They realise that, though in the same company, they have different experiences and become curious about how to overcome their differences and solve their problems. It’s very exciting to watch.
How do the School’s learning and development solutions enable executives to do their jobs better as well as helping them develop as leaders?
Presenting good ideas, giving examples of implementation, and then allowing them time and space to talk about it, to think about how they would apply it. As a junior professor, I used to think the more ideas I present, the happier students are going to be. Actually, it’s quite the reverse. I need to provide good ideas and present them clearly, but ultimately, it’s for the participants to take something home with them. They need to have time to think, “What does this mean for me?”
In class with their colleagues, pushing them to really think about it, talk about it and come up with plans when they go back to work is a more compelling experience than providing more theories – good ideas applied well is the most compelling teaching.
Increased power affects leadership. What are the lessons for corporate execs?
The more powerful you are, the less likely you are to perspective-take. That becomes problematic when you are working in large organisations. Perspective-taking is such a powerful tool, but we don’t do it very much. In negotiation and bargaining, the paucity of perspective-taking is incredible. People tend to come in, just assume they know what the other side cares about and what they want, and you end up achieving sub-optimal outcomes as a result.
How do you combat that?
People respond well to personal goals, things that are personally rewarding for them. The way I approach it is to say, “Of course, the end game is for you to be successful, or the company to be successful, and for that to happen, you need to have new ideas, change and innovation, and you cannot, as one person, generate all of that – it’s impossible. You need a team of people to help you”.
That tends to be a more compelling rationale than just, “You need to make your workers happier.” In effect, you are co-opting their goal in service of positive outcomes.
Does hierarchy have a place in the era of servant leadership?
It’s important that executives don’t abandon traditional hierarchy. With some tasks in your team, you don’t want creativity – you just want people to fulfil their designated role. You need to add new tools, new ways of acting as a leader, but don’t throw away the old ones. Recognise they have their purpose, but now we have a new purpose and, in order to be able to achieve it, you need to be able to add something new, and that is a different way of enacting leadership, a different way of interacting.
It’s a way of relating, of creating trust, and it’s not going to feel good at first – in fact it’s going to feel uncomfortable for many – but ultimately, it’s for your benefit and the organisation’s benefit.
What advice do you have for leaders thinking about undertaking executive education for the first time?
The best way to gain is to be open to new ideas and to really engage with exercises and discussions – then you become an active participant, rather than a passive observer. Push yourself to really think about how you are going to do things differently when you go back to work – not on a theoretical level, but on a micro level.
Ask yourself, “What are the five specific actions that I can do better?” For example, making your New Year’s resolution, “I’m going to get healthier” won’t have any effect. Saying, “I’m going to leave my running shoes by the bed,” or “I’m going to go to sleep with my running clothes on and I’m at least going to run five minutes a day,” – that micro-behaviour change ultimately leads to larger changes.
Come with an open mind on what you can get out of these ideas, engage in the discussion and exercises, then think of specific behaviours you would do differently when you get back to work.
I also like to remind myself and others that authenticity creates good connections. It sounds like jargon, but when participants are able to be themselves and allow themselves to be vulnerable and ask questions, they are going to get more out of the experience. If you are authentic, you will learn more.
Think at London Business School
Those impressive achievements you’re so proud of? They can come back to bite you
By Ena Inesi