Kate Sweetman is a Founding Principal at the consulting firm SweetmanCragun, and teaches at MIT’s Legatum Institute for Entrepreneurship. She has been a former editor at Harvard Business Review, and has worked in Malaysia as Director of Research and Curriculum at the Iclif Centre for Leadership and Governance. Sweetman’s book credits include The Leadership Code: Five Rules to Lead By (Harvard Business Press, 2009), co-authored with Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood. Her latest book, with Shane Cragun, is titled “Reinvention: Accelerating Results in the Age of Disruption”.
Kate has extensively researched, facilitated, advised, and published on multiple aspects of leadership and organizational development. She has been listed as a Thinkers50 for her body of work throughout her career and has co-authored the best-selling business book The Leadership Code.
What is of utmost importance in the age of disruption, both for leaders and for organizations?
A mind-set of extreme agility with the capability to act on it, and for leaders to keep their energy high and positive is of utmost importance in this age of disruption. In this age, you have to see the possibilities and move faster than the speed of change around you. Since there is no such thing as a steady state anymore, leaders and their organizations need to be in a perpetual flow of learning, shifting and growing – looking out ahead, figuring out what to do and how to do it. The faster that can happen, the better the chances are to stay ahead of others, to be in a position to disrupt rather than be disrupted. Managing this dynamic is the main job of leaders and the organizations that they lead. Our age really and truly is a perfect storm of ideas, approaches and options. We all need to be open to doing things quite differently, and often make that shift with extreme speed and deep commitment — even when outcomes are not clearly known
Our age really and truly is a perfect storm of ideas, approaches and options. We all need to be open to doing things quite differently, and often make that shift with extreme speed and deep commitment — even when outcomes are not clearly known
You stress more on reinvention than innovation? In your book “Reinvention: Accelerating Results in the Age of Disruption”, you propose a simple formula, common principles, and set of tools for individuals and organizations facing disruptive and radical change. Tell us more about this.
We use the word “Reinvention” to distinguish it from innovation for two reasons: 1) Reinvention is more radical and fundamental than innovation; and 2) Reinvention can occur anywhere and in any aspect of the business, where “innovation” is generally associated with products and services. The world is experiencing reinvention of industries, business models, structures and systems, human resource strategy and practice, the digital marketplace — of everything. Our age really and truly is a perfect storm of ideas, approaches and options. We all need to be open to doing things quite differently, and often make that shift with extreme speed and deep commitment — even when outcomes are not clearly known.
Your book mentions that true reinvention comes from “Change quotient” — dissatisfaction, focus, alignment and execution. Can you elucidate on this?
They say that there are really only two human emotions: Fear and Love. And that they motivate everything. Fear is something that you want to move away from. Love is something that you want to move toward: a focal point. So the leader who would be a Reinventor who would help people to tap into their discomfort and dissatisfaction and shift their focus toward a place of higher and better potential — and move from the negative to the positive, from dissatisfaction to renewed focus — from Fear to Love. And once they have become excited about moving to that much better place, they will sustain that energy and resolve only when everything re-organizes in support of that new place: structure, systems, rewards, everything. Why? Because everything that currently exists was created in the past. Everything must now reshape itself to create the future. Lastly, and very importantly, the culture and behaviors must also support the new focus. Maybe we need to be quicker, better communicators, more transparent, more accountable. Whatever it is, it needs to happen for the focus to stay sharp and for the desired future to materialize.
Most businesses focus on the technical aspects of innovation at the expense of the thinking that goes behind that innovation. But is it only about technology? Is there more to innovation than the tech part?
Great observation. We are working with a major technology company in Silicon Valley right now, helping them to go through a complex spin-off of some parts of the organization and a merger with another entity. It is change on steroids — a true Reinvention. They are finding out what everyone who has been through a major, discontinuous change learns — that you need the technical aspects of the change, of course. But without preparing the leaders to lead (and the followers to follow) in this time of great upheaval, you will fail. People need to be supported and led. They need to understand what they are going through, why and where it will take them. They need to learn new approaches, tools, skills and behaviors that will help them to succeed in the new world they are entering. The reason that the majority of mergers, acquisitions, and other major changes fail much more often than they succeed is exactly this.
You also mention that “Leaders must change before they have to, and they must enable their organization to surf the incoming global shockwaves with intelligence, agility, strength, and command.” So, how can they do this?
This question picks up on a powerful metaphor from our book: The Message of Mavericks. Mavericks is a very challenging, world class surfing area in Northern California that can only be ridden by the world’s best athletes. It is only at its peak a couple of weeks of the year, and the surfers come from all over the planet. They are alerted that Mavericks is ready to ride by buoys placed out in the Pacific Ocean that measure wave action. So, in other words, these surfers need ways to get information, sense the right timing, be physically fit and able. Equally important, because these waves are so gigantic and forbidding, they need the courage and confidence to paddle into the wave instead of paddle away from it.
Leaders and their organizations need to be in a perpetual flow of learning, shifting and growing – looking out ahead, figuring out what to do and how to do it.
In the context of the changes that actually lead to disruption, tell us how crucial is it for a leader to also accept failures to be able to reach disruptive innovation?
Nothing new ever happens without mistakes along the way. Leaders need to redefine and re-label what they might formerly have called “mistakes” instead as “learning.” Not only because that is more heartening for others, but because it is more accurate. All you can hope to do when moving forward into unknown terrain is to move as quickly as possible, learn along the way, course correct and keep going. When the leader instills that attitude in others, they will be much more willing to explore, learn, bring that learning back, and ultimately move forward on the right path.
In context of HR, how do you think technology integration, innovation and reinvention can facilitate HR in its functioning?
This is a great question. The best way forward, I think, is to forget for a moment “what is” and imagine “what could be”. Forget current reality. Start with a blank page. What is the company trying to accomplish? Where is it going? Engage the business heads fully around that. What, then, would be the perfect HR function? How could it best enable the organization to have the right people in the right place at the right time with the skills, knowledge, attitudes and beliefs to make the company truly extraordinary? How could that be made to happen? View this as a creative exercise. And then ask — what parts of that can be accomplished with technology? Do we even know? Who else needs to be involved in this discussion to determine that? I love this question, and think it is the right one to be asking.
One of the major criticisms when embracing technology especially in HR relates to losing the personal touch. In this tech-HR world, how can organizations, HR per se or leaders balance this?
Another great question as the debate rages around the wisdom of using AI versus people. The key question here is: What is the effect on the organization of using technology vs. humans in this particular touch-point? Might technology be more efficient – but too impersonal? Or will the speed and efficiency be welcome? I know for myself that I welcome technology that makes an experience more efficient – and that I also welcome having a person available to me when the technology fails or confuses me. The bottom line is the user experience, and so much of that comes from the quality of the design and execution of the system. If you can create a technology solution that is graceful and easy and pain-free (or pain minimizing), by all means do it. If you cannot, then you need to consider whether the human touch is better.