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Dr. Andrew White is an experienced programme director, teacher and researcher at the Said Business School at Oxford. Andrew’s areas of expertise include innovation management and leadership development. Andrew is a Senior Fellow in Management Practice, and was previously the Associate Dean of External Relations (2020-2021) and Associate Dean for Executive Education and Corporate Relations (2010-2020) at Saïd Business School.
This was very enjoyable discussion that covers a lot more than just leadership and modernizing business education. Andrew was an absolute pleasure to chat with and shares lots of insights into the leaders of today and research he and his team are coming out with soon.
Thank you for a great discussion, Andrew!
Transcript powered by Happy Scribe
Welcome everybody to the podcast. My name is Eric Wright and gonna be your host. This is the DiscoPosse Podcast with the one and only Andrew White. Dr. Andrew White is a senior fellow in management practice at the Saïd Business School at Oxford. This was a really enjoyable discussion where we talk about traits of leadership, really the transition from what we often talked about as traditional leadership, the Silicon Valley culture, start up culture in general, and what we can do. We also talk a lot about sustainability, the impact that we can have both personally and organizationally on each other, on the world, literally on the Earth. We cover a lot of very exciting stuff. Super excited because Dr. Andrew and his team are doing a lot of work and research, so we’re going to have him back to talk about what’s going on there. But anyways, I don’t want to pre-podast the podcast because it’s literally just so much fun to listen to. And speaking of making this stuff happen and our impact, I am super happy because I’ve got great supporters who are impacting you and I’m hearing the good news. So I want to give a shout out to the folks over at Veeam who make this podcast happen.
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Hello, my name is Dr. Andrew White. I’m a senior fellow in management practice at Saïd Business School at the university of Oxford. I’m delighted to be here today with Eric Wright, host of the DiscoPosse Podcast. Great to be with you.
Fantastic. Thank you, Dr. White. One of those beautiful occasions where when I see a guest opportunity come up and your practices, your studies and your research are in real alignment with a lot of the work that I’ve been exploring. So I am selfishly going to take a ton of lessons out of our discussion today as well. Luckily, a lot of folks who do listen. So thank you for joining. If folks are brand new to you, Andrew, if you don’t mind, give a quick sort of bio on your background, and we’ll talk about some of the research that you’re working on and really what folks can take away as we think of the future of transformative leadership, which is becoming something we really had to be keenly aware of.
Yes, thank you. And thank you for the opportunity to be here as well. So a little bit about me. I started life as an academic. I did a doctorate in innovation management, really looking at where ideas came from for successful businesses. That was about 20 years ago. I then started my academic career, and very quickly I moved into leadership roles. The biggest of those was I was associate Dean for executive education in the business school I’m currently in at Saïd Business School at the university of Oxford for ten years. And in my capacity there, we worked with thousands of leaders around the world. Every year we launched a big digital platform, but now it’s about 25,000 people training with us or going through leadership programs. And I got to know what was really going on. I didn’t have time to teach. I didn’t have time to research. I sponsored a research project where we interviewed 150 CEOs back in 2015-2016. But then after doing that job for ten years, with all the complexities of running a PNL and the HR stuff and the global business development, I really wanted to get back to teaching and research because I felt there was an agenda I wanted to pursue.
And that agenda, if I put it in simple terms, is what the leaders need to be doing today. What do they need to be addressing? How do they need to be leading? With a particular focus on that, I think the time we’re living in is critical. Between now and 2050, much of the science suggests that we’re either going to be in an existential crisis due to the climate challenge or we’re going to have solved it. And I think when you look back at humanity, we’ve got the creative ability, the entrepreneurial ability to have sold it. So I really wanted to know who are the leaders that are transforming businesses, starting businesses that are really having an impact on what the future looks like for humanity? And what does it mean to be a successful leader today in terms of shareholder returns, in terms of profitable growth? But also, as we both know, more is being asked of leaders. And businesses don’t exist in isolation just with their own competitors. They’re actually part of a group of stakeholders that have or they have a stakeholder base that requires them to think about the impact they have on the world.
So that’s what I’ve done. I’m a host of the Leadership 2050 podcast. I have a Leadership 2050 newsletter on LinkedIn which really focuses on these things. And I’ve begun the research that I wanted to focus on by looking at transformation. And I’m in the midst of a major global study on that at the moment.
Fantastic. Now this is going the interesting thing. I think it was the dichotomy of leadership in that you have both a fiduciary responsibility as well as a very human responsibility in leading people through change. But with the shareholder responsibility to bring growth and returns to the investors and ultimately the responsibility of the business, it is really an interesting challenge where we often see folks that are fantastic on one and struggle on the other, and often why there’s a leadership team. So you have more sort of the COO who will be the driving the functional business growth, and then the CEO is more the vision and leadership. But we’ve always here, or at least because social media brings the noisiest voices forward. We hear about the moment someone is a very strong leader. We immediately try to sort of find something wrong with them in that they’re so disconnected from the average worker within the organization. For me, I look at it with a sadness because we need leaders to be doing something almost like sports years. You never want to meet your sports here because they’re probably not good people to get along with. They have this drive and this different thing that lets them be great at what they do. So when you look at transformational leaders as well, really, what do you see as sort of traits and how we’re viewing those personalities?
I think you’ve got two things going on currently in business. I think on the one hand, you’re right. The world has a challenge in terms of what I would say is the disconnection fixing large companies between the salaries of those people at the top and the salaries at the bottom. And I think that adds to what you were talking about, that sense that they’re not us and they’re different and they live in a different world. And there’s no doubt that that phenomenon is out there. But like many things in the world, I don’t think it’s one or the other, and I don’t think it’s black or white in that sense. What I see is a cadre of leaders who are really, and this is the ones I focus and I study, who are really understanding what it means to put humanity back at the heart of leadership. And I mean that in a number of different ways. Firstly, they understand their role is about fiduciary duty to shareholders and profitable growth and all of these things. But they also know that what they do and the footprint they have and the impact they have is far greater than that.
And I’ll give you a couple of examples. One is a company which I recently profiled called Pave Gen, which is a fantastic company. Full disclosure, I’m an investor in it as well, but they created paving slabs, indoor and outdoor flooring that when you step on it, generates electricity. So in the same way you have solar on the top of a building, and that plugs into the building’s electricity infrastructure. If you’ve got buildings like hospitals or shopping malls where there’s high footfall, they’re even doing it in concerts. I think every time a person takes a step, electricity is generated. Now that has huge potential for shareholder growth, huge potential for profitable growth and all of those things. But actually, if that company does well, it’s harnessing a source of electricity, which is our footsteps, which at the moment is just going to waste. So to me, that’s a great example. And the leaders there have got a real sense of how do you bring people on a journey? There’s something about society and how do you bring people with you on a journey. There’s something about the way they’re leading. The research we’ve done on transformation, that the phrase we’re using is about putting the humans at the center.
And what we’re seeing is these leaders. If I could give you a bit of a picture in your mind, imagine a CEO with one arm, and that arm represents line management, their hierarchy, their It systems, their finance, and all of that stuff. But it’s tied behind their back, and they have to use their other arm and their other arm. The only skills they’ve got is their speech, their ability to listen, their empathy, their concern for people, their ability to draw out of people what their values are. And I think that’s the secret weapon. Most of them know how to do the other stuff, but the ones that can really not just inspire but listen to what people’s concerns are, what their values are in their employee base, but also in their customer base, and weave that into a vision, weave that into a purpose. That’s not some overly simplistic statement, but really, why does this company exist? Who does it exist for? I think these two things of, let’s call it social impact or human impact, and profitable growth and shelter grid, they no longer become two separate things. They’re embodied in a vision. They’re embodied in individuals who are able to do both.
That is interesting. And I’ll say when we hear transformational leadership, there’s an implication that they’re beginning at a place and carrying to a different destination, especially now when we see a startup come up, I almost have to look at it with a grain of salt. This idea that they’ve come from zero to one. So the transformation is in what the platform or the company is achieving. But when you see leaders that especially are in an existing organization, the sort of steering of a cruise ship, there’s a very different challenge I find. And look when we look back on great books that we use today still to study like Built to Last. And then if you look at the story, it’s about most of them actually didn’t last. If you took it outside of the context of the five year research term in which they research the book, most of those businesses actually struggled greatly in the decade that followed have continued, but not with high growth. So when you get to leaders of especially large organizations, Andrew, how does one stay empathetic when there’s such a broad audience to have to listen to?
I think it’s a great question, and I think it’s a question which has been rumbling for decades, if we think of Polaroid and Kodak, of the video rental stores that didn’t make the change, BlackBerry and some of these other companies. So I think what’s changing is that the rate and the impact of disruption is pretty much affecting everybody. So it’s no longer something that comes out of the blue. It’s no longer something that you’re unlucky if you’re experiencing a career, it’s everywhere. But I think you put your finger on the challenge for the incumbents. And I would describe it as this. There is a status quo which is all consuming. If you think about the schedules that most leaders of those businesses have, they’re probably starting at 6-7 AM in the morning. Some of them are going through till very late in the evening, particularly if they’re responsible for global activity and they’re working across multiple time zones. They’re probably back getting on planes with the relentless travel schedule as well. And it’s all consuming. They don’t have the mental space in a sense, they’re addicted to the machine and the machine that demands continual returns, the machine that demands continual effort.
The companies that I have seen that have broken this, they’ve done something that I’m going to describe as a conscious disconnection from the status quo. They’ve had a CEO or another senior leader that has effectively said, we have to take ten days out to think about the future, not two days, not one day, but ten days. And we have to go somewhere. And that is either to look at a set of emerging industries, spending time in nature away from everything to give the human mind and heart and soul chance to refresh and to think differently, building a different group of suppliers around us. But that notion of a conscious disconnection from a status quo I think is such a powerful one for me because it’s like an addiction. There’s an addiction to the returns, there’s an addiction to activity, there’s an addiction to processes where it’s very hard to get space from that. And those that are successful consciously disconnect. And I think in some ways it’s becoming easier because the problem is becoming clearer that if you don’t do that, you’re not fulfilling your responsibilities as a leader and you’re not thinking about the next certainly the next three years, five years, ten years.
So there’s a need to go through some form of conscious process of disconnection and then think about what is the best place for us. And as I say, my recommendation, if I was working with a firm, this is at least five days. And you need to put in place the infrastructure around you that allows you to take that time out and to really spend the time sinking into why we exist separate from our current operation, separate from how we currently work. To think about what the future might look like, to think about what a reinvention might look like and from that place, then go back in and lead in a different way.
This is one of the things that I’ve often promoted, even in my own work and my own teams. This idea of the off site where we have to visually disconnect from your day to day processes because it’s habit forming. Right? We go to the office, we say we’re going to go into the big meeting room. And so what does everyone do? They bring their laptop. They pop their laptop open, you see them looking at their screen and tapping away. So I would say, like, no, here’s what it is. You sit at the table, you’re either in a hotel or somewhere else where it’s quiet or even if it’s in an existing room, you have one person with a laptop. They’re the scribe. They’re on screen so you can’t see them. You make sure they’re not on instant messaging and email. The rest of us, we have pad and paper and really go through that disconnected discussion. And it can’t be a half day. It’s got to be something where you’re taken away because there’s nothing worse than somebody comes up and it’s like, oh, I’m just going to go down and check on something or I’m going to check my email real quickly.
But it’s really a human behavior problem where we feel like we’re missing something. And yet the irony is it’s completely the opposite. You’re right. You are missing something because you’re involved in it every day. You’re missing what you could be doing. And it’s so hard to hammer that into people’s minds that this is how they need to behave.
A couple of points. I think you’re absolutely onto something. I coached an executive once, and they spoke about their iPhone, and they said they had more anxiety putting their iPhone down than they did when they had a baby. And the coaching was about how long can you not go without holding the iPhone? So we started off with a minute. We got to two minutes. We got to ten minutes. We got to walking around the garden without the iPhone and what it felt like because it was an addiction. And I think there’s a whole conversation around social media, which I don’t think is today’s topic. But what I would also say is I’ve run events where we gave people the option of handing over their mobile phone and the mobile phone being locked in a safe for a day. Now you have to put some with executives, you have to put some infrastructure around that. So everyone lets their PA no, there’s somebody outside who has got a phone. They give them the number, and if there’s an emergency, either in the family or in the business, they call that person and we commit, we’ll bring that person out and then they can get access to their device.
What was really interesting, Eric, at the end of the day, we got to like 05:00 A.m.. He said, right, phones back. And a few of them said, no, can you keep them for a few more hours? We just love this time of being able to think and be with ourselves and be with the bigger questions that this company is facing. So could we extend this to 08:00 P.m.? And then we’ll have our phones back. So to me, it was a really interesting it was like taking a toy off a toddler at the beginning. And at the end of it, there was a few people that didn’t want it back because of what it gave back in terms of space and that space to reflect, which I think is so important today.
Yeah. I mean, I often recommend people read Cal Newport has fantastic writing on the idea of the digital minimalism and Deep work is another fantastic book. And it’s funny, when I read Cal Newport, I sort of had this vision of some scholarly 65 year old gentleman. He’s a young guy, he’s probably going to be my cousin. He’s well studied on the idea of this disconnection. But it’s funny that going through that first part of putting it down and you hear people go through like you can see them change when they realize their phone is at their desk and they’re in a meeting room. And I agree with you that when we’re doing it with purpose, we have to know like, hey, I’m going to be offline if you need me. But another thing I do as well with work. I often talk to people at this idea. So if you ask for a week off, the first thing that happens is people say, what’s your project schedule look like? Who else can we get to back you up? We begin to wrap the machine around. Is it possible for you to get away now? It’s a very North American thing, especially as well.
But if you say, I’ve got to go to hospital, I’ve got a family issue immediately. The response from everyone on your team is no problem. Go for it. Let us know anything we can do to help. We’ve got you covered. And I often think about this, why we should be able to have everybody should just have a big red button that they could just say, this is my day, I’m taking the next three days and just, like, hit the button, no one questions it. We had this belief that we need to overly plan escape. And Ironically enough, when you just do it, the machine rolls on. In fact, it gives you freedom of thought. Like when I go for a run, the moment that I can’t look at my phone, especially on a bike, because I have no headphones, I don’t listen to any music. So I’m just out for 5 hours. It’s the most incredibly creative time because you just have nothing to do but be introspective. And when I get back, I’m like typing and scribing and all these fantastic ideas have come because there’s no access to distraction.
Yeah, exactly. And I think you’re making such a good point. So over the lockdown period, the first lockdown period, I got bored. I was literally like an express train that came to a halt at that point. I was probably on a plane two or three times a month, and so I had a lot of pent up energy. I still have the work schedule, but the social life and all the other things that we weren’t able to do at that time. So I trained as a meditation teacher, so I’d meditated on and off for about ten years. And I’d always had a hunch that this has got a real purpose with leaders. And it’s for this exact reason that meditation forces you to just stop, focus on your breathing or any other of the techniques you’re using. And it’s that discipline. And you suddenly realize after a while, when the mind quietens, that you go into a place of stillness. And it’s that stillness that real innovation, I think, can come from real creativity. And it’s another form of that separating from the machine, separating from the busyness, separating from the thinking mind, which I just think there’s so many things in today’s world has just put that on steroids.
Social media being a big one with the like and dislike, which is the same as the Buddhist concept of attraction and being repelled from things. But just bringing awareness to that takes us into a place where we realize that is not me. My thoughts are not me, my work is not me. And that subject object separateness is essentially what I’m talking about when I’m saying a conscious disconnection from the status quo. Our company is not our current way of operating. It’s the current expression, but with something bigger than that. And what are we in service of? To me, these two things started to come into alignment. I’ve not fully finished that journey of exploration of bringing these two worlds together. And there’s others working on this as well. But to me, that’s why I went there during that lockdown period.
When you think of that sort of forced introspection where we had obviously the last two years, even like, people still have trouble at this point remembering when it began. It’s been so long. And I remembered going through an airport in February of ’20. It was the beginning of being concerned that something could be happening, but things weren’t locked down yet. And I remember sitting in this airport looking around, going like, there’s nobody here. I was in Calgary, Alberta, so there’s generally not that many people anyways, but still so vastly different than I’m used to. And like you, I travel a lot as part of my function for work. And I would get I got those creative breaks. I would be – my favorite thing was to be on a plane. I’ve got so many colleagues, and they would say, oh, I really dread airplane WiFi. I said, do you know what’s better than having to worry about your airplane WiFi? Never getting it. You don’t need it. You’re in a bloody plane. Just disconnect. And the moment that I’ve got this white noise around me, I put in noise canceling headphones, and I usually write a blog. I create presentations. I get very creative because, again, there’s zero access to things. It’s that sort of meditative creative state that I get into.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that about planes, by the way, before WiFi on planes, the planes where the planes, the busy executives went to rejuvenate, they had some of their best thinking. They could write. There was just not that interference. Yeah. So I think there was something about that which hopefully we don’t lose with the plane’s WiFi.
But it definitely did change my work patterns and my creative patterns when I had none of that all of a sudden. It took a while. I’d been a remote worker for a long time, and I was used to managing team experience in how I would engage with them. They were all in an office or fairly central, and I was the remote worker. And then all of a sudden, everybody was suddenly remote. And people say like, oh, this must be sort of normal for you because you’re used to being a remote worker. It was normal for me, but it’s not normal for most people because they are now treating remote work and remote leadership like it’s the office. And all of a sudden, I went from 5 hours a week of meetings to 19 hours a week of meetings because there was this culture of presence that was incredible. It’s a very challenging thing. And then the leadership, if they’re used to that culture of presence as part of the leadership, it was very difficult for them to adapt. And this is, again, when I think of the good leaders can be away from the direct experience, but not actually away from it.
Maybe that’s when I think of the large organization leaders that are empathetic, they don’t have to sit beside the worker to understand the challenge of the worker and the needs of the worker and the capabilities of the worker and the pandemic I think highlighted a lot of people who were leaders by time in the company, not by actual capability.
Yeah, there was something about that I’ve seen recently, companies starting to put on LinkedIn. This is a no meeting week. In this week no meetings. Just get on with you. I would love to go in and see a how do they define a meeting? Because in the virtual world, is that anything beyond a one to one or does a one to one include that? But then what work actually fills the gap when you take the meetings out? What happens to the productivity, what happens to the output from people? What happens to the creativity, what happens to the motivation and the energy within people? So the way of tracking that would be super interesting. But I also think I think your point is really interesting that have we just transferred in, going into the lockdown and remote working as it’s now sticking in many places, a culture of meetings into this online world. So people are in just back to back Zoom meetings all day rather than as you’re saying, if you’re working from home, working remotely, you probably need about 5 hours to check in, but the rest of the time you’re working remotely and that’s the job you’ve got to do.
I don’t think we’re at the end of this process of this transformation to come back to our theme in terms of the future of work, we’ve disconnected from the status quo that Toby did that, but we’ve not landed, I think, on what the norms are of when do you go in? When do you not go in? How many meetings a day is optimal, really?
And what people didn’t realize, it’s odd because maybe I just think a little too hard about these things, but they don’t understand that being in a Zoom meeting is cognitively tiring like much more so than being in a room full of people in a meeting. Because I actually studied for a long time the dynamics of physical placement at the table in a meeting room, when you sit up across from somebody, there’s a natural adversarial relationship. When you sit beside somebody, directly beside somebody, there’s a different relationship and how you collaborate versus somebody who’s at the end of the table, but you’re looking down towards them and they need to look. There’s a reason boardroom tables are designed a certain way and that people sit at the head and at the side and at the middle, there’s a very ergonomic pattern to behavior. Well, in Zoom we suddenly are – am I in the middle of the frame? Am I looking at the camera? There are things we never had to think about. I guess I’m technically I’m a broadcaster now, so I’m staring into the lens of a camera because I know I’m supposed to, but often you see me looking down because I want to see nonverbal cues and I enjoy that part of the experience. We don’t get that. Like twisting a pen on the table like little things that you would enjoy. You’d see somebody doing something and you’d say like, oh, that’s neat. Where did you learn to do that? Which would never come in a Zoom meeting. We were missing so much of that non-verbal cue.
I had a couple of funny experiences. One was at the beginning of moving on to Zoom and moving on the lockdown, and I was in conversation with somebody I’d met a few years earlier, and he came on and he said, Are you okay? And I thought he was asking about covid, I said, oh, fine. None of the family is affected. It’s all great. Thank you.
No, no, no. He said, you’ve lost a lot of hair. And I suddenly realized I’m six foot ten tall. Now, I don’t come across a six foot ten. I said, no. I said, I’ve not lost a lot of hair. You just don’t normally see me from this angle. And then I run a leadership program at Oxford, and we’ve had to do the whole front end virtually. So I got to know a group of 43 leaders from around the world all through this medium. And then they turned up in Oxford. And the shock at my height, even though I told them, I said, guys, I told you I was six foot ten coming in. I think because in their mind’s eye, they had this assumption of me as, you know, we’re all normal on this. There’s an equalizing effect. And it took some of them a couple of hours to really just recognize. And it was more than I mean, I often shock people when I stand up, but this was notably more so when they’d got to know me in the Zoom world, and then they’d see me in this other world and then the world of real human interaction.
Yeah. I remember when I first saw one of your Ted talks. And like, even there, there’s no frame of reference because no one knows how tall the stool is. But I could immediately tell them, good golly, this man is a tall gentleman. And it’s funny. That another interesting thing. I’ll say it’s good in a way that we’ve sort of democratized people’s existence in a way that it does take away other things that may detract from it or distract more than detract, I should say. There’s one felt I worked with for months, and it was fantastic gentlemen, we got along great. We did a lot of collaboration together. And then I saw a LinkedIn profile about him, and I talked about him being a military veteran, and I’d known he was a military vet. And then I saw the picture of him standing and he has no legs at mid thigh below. He’d lost both his legs in an explosion and thought like, it’s amazing that I’ve worked with this man for eight months. I had no idea, because even if you stand up on camera, you wouldn’t even get as low to be able to see that.
And it was fascinating to me that there’s no focus on it, and that can be good or bad because there are things that you do want to bring attention to. But it was very interesting that it just sort of we could only focus on what we were working on, and it takes away stuff that may impact your belief in someone’s capabilities.
Yeah, I think there is something in all of this, and I’ve noticed as well that on certainly teaching on Zoom because of the chat function, we get a more diverse set of people asking questions and making points. There’s a bit of a fight with getting hands up, and you need a good person to work through that. But the chat function just broadens out the voices that can come into the conversation. I think particularly for the introverts, in my experience, it’s the extroverts who often dominate when the professor asks, does anyone have any questions? But then you’ve got that space for people who perhaps are not as confident or want to put a more thoughtful question into chat rather than make a more rambling point, if that makes sense.
Yeah. Especially having given a lot of talks myself and doing lecture work at events, it’s always funny when the person that stands out, like the first person that gets up, I’ve got a question for you. What you actually have is a statement, and you’re framing it with a question mark at the end because there’s sort of the overly learned person that wants to make their point. They effectively want to sort of begin this Dodge thrust Parry of like, I could be on stage and I applaud it. I love that people are willing to do that. But then there’s so many people in the room who, as you say, like, they’ve got fantastic insights and questions, but they just don’t want to stand up, they don’t want to look bad, they don’t want to sound bad. But in chat, it’s a beautiful way to democratize access to that intellectual back and forth, which I think is something we’ve really gained and I hope we hold onto.
Yeah. One of the best tools that I found is Mentimeter. And this is within boardrooms. It’s within executive teams. So I’ve got four quite challenging questions that I often use in discussions. One is tell me what you are not talking about, but that you need to talk about. Tell me what you always talk about but never resolve. Tell me what spaces you need to create in this organization to have those conversations and what would be different in, let’s say, one or three years time if those conversations led to the right decisions and the right actions. And what’s interesting is when I ask the first question, tell me what you don’t talk about, that you need to talk about if I’m in an executive team, half of them will look at the floor. They can’t hold my eye contact. The second question, tell me what you always talk about but never resolve. Half of them will laugh because there’s always things that they’re really good questions. So I call them my diagnostic questions. But what I found is they’re even better if you put them on mentee because people can just put stuff up and it’s cathartic, it gets stuff onto the table.
It gets out of the political angst. What are people going to think about me? How this could be Christine as critical of the CEO and all those little questions or points come up on the mentee screen, you can also get people to score stuff. So if I work with an executive team and they come up with a 100 day plan, we meet after 100 days and there were four elements in the plan. I get them to score themselves out of ten on how well they did. And the little bar arrow moves up and the bar moves up and down as the scores come in. And it brings a ruthless and really important honesty which I think is at the heart of some of the transformation we’re talking about. So some of these digital tools which you can now use embedded within a Zoom or alongside a Zoom or Teams meeting can be really powerful. So I think there is something as I say, we’re learning to work in this new digital world.
There’s an interesting that concept is something I’ve embraced and one of the sort of leaders in that very open radical. We talk about radical transparency and such. Ray Dalio, of course, author of the book Principles and Bridgewater Capital and I’ve been lucky to be exposed to their in room experience where they record every meeting. Everything is very open. The downside to radical candor is often people believe it’s a reason to be able to say anything, that maybe some stuff should be not rewarded. I’ll say not unsaid. But I’ve talked to many former Bridgewater employees and they say you find people go from the idea of radical candidate to becoming a radical arsehole because they just freely say things that are negative, not thinking of contextualizing it, which is.
And so therefore it needs the right values around it. It has to be done in a constructive way with the right questions, with the right behaviors for it to work. I think you’re right. All these things can be abused, can’t they?
I love your questions because it is something even when I so one of the environmental impact, right. Sustainability, it drips off the tongues of everybody these days. Right. I sort of joke and say if you want something to be more successful, rub some sustainability on it. Right. Like if it suddenly gets us increased focus as it should because we have an opportunity to continuously change the future with what we do immediately and in the near future. And then we hear people, they say all these organizations have come up with these strategies and promises and 2030 impact statements and all these things they’re doing. And then whenever I talk to an organization or talk to a team, the question that I ask is, what have you done in the past twelve months towards these goals? And it’s amazing to hear, like, everybody’s like, yeah, we’ve got a promise we’re going to be carbon neutral by 2030. We’re changing the way we do business, we’re changing the way we operate infrastructure. Tell me precisely tactical things that you’re doing that are working towards that goal. And as you mentioned before, people are like, there’s a lot of navel gazing and, well, we’re coming up with a plan, but it’s done in a constructive way that they say, okay, what have we done? And they do find good things, and they then start to think more strongly about what can we actually do to affect this vision, this goal, and tactically begin to take action towards it.
Now, I’m struck by how much innovation has actually taken place over the last two decades around things like alternatives to plastic. Now, all of that, if I get magazines delivered, they come in biodegradable plastic bags. So when I see a company not using that, I’m thinking, you’ve got no excuse. The company is making it work cost wise. The technology is there. My house opposite. Where the building I’m in here. We rebuilt it. We put solar on the roof. On a day like today, as it is in the UK, we’ve got bright Sunshine. That house is a net contributor to the grid, to the electricity grid. Such is the case across large parts of the world with wind farms. Now we have the technology. The question is, are we going to sit on old business models with old products, or are we going to accelerate and really lean into the transformation? And I think, to be honest, we’re at a point now where if you don’t, it’s bad business practice. It’s not just bad for the environment, but it’s bad for your shareholders and it’s bad for the future of your organization because you’re just not going to be part of the future and what the future looks like. And I think it’s taken pioneers like Elon Musk to kind of move the needle in the automotive space. But you can see when someone like that does that, then the rest of the industry starts to really get its act together and go on that transition. So I think we are at a pivotal point in history where, in a sense, the commercial world and the environmental world and the human world are coalescing and the leaders are the ones that get all those three things and are able to drive forward with the right products, technology, commercial solutions, which will generate the shareholder returns of tomorrow.
I’m going to put two personalities up. And this is from my own experience, and I’d love to get your thoughts on the sort of the transformational leader. And I’ve met a lot of CEOs and in everything from solar printers to small organizations to startups to massive organizations. I’ve worked in major financial institutions for a long time. And you would meet people who are good CEOs. And it’s as if they were cut from a cloth and sort of printed. And they have perfect answers, which are no answers. Quite often they’re media ready. There is that sort of vision of that type of leader. And they lead a financial institution or a healthcare company, and they’re very good and they have to do there’s a certain amount of that that’s necessary. They can’t just sort of go off the cuff and be natural. But the tough part is I would struggle with believing in them, in their people impact and their human centric impact, because they’re giving beautiful canned answers, almost political in the way of like, how are we going to handle this problem? And then they know how to do it so well. First, let’s look at the four macro trends that are facing… And like, they’ve got the answer, sounds fantastic. And then you see them twelve minutes later on CNBC giving exactly the same answer, right? I saw Elon Musk, sometimes a polarizing figure. But when he was on actually a great podcast with Lex Friedman and Lex Friedman asked Elon, how do you prepare for engineering something that’s so massive that it’s got a high chance for failure? And first of all, among the most fantastic interviewing techniques ever, he stared at him for 25 seconds, I think, no words. And you could see Elon. He’d actually see his eyes darting around. We don’t architect. We don’t engineer for failure. We engineer for mitigation of failure.
We know that failure is not an option. Ultimately, we can’t fail. We have to believe in the outcome. We have to like the ability for him to not be media ready, not be perfect diction. And to let that air out, first of all, as an interviewer is like the most fantastic thing I’ve ever seen, the best 20 seconds of an interview I’ve ever seen where we didn’t just fight to fill dead air. So there’s very dichotomous leadership styles. In the business, I’m curious, how do those two personalities play out?
I would put it this way. If you put both of those people in front of a panel of 1000 members of the general public, which one would they trust more? Which one do they believe more? Which one would they like to hear more from? I suspect it’s Elon Musk. And I think we went through the whole world of the sound bite and the slick press operation saying everything and saying nothing. And I think there’s a craving for leaders to turn around and use phrases like, I don’t know, we’re not there yet. This is our aspiration, but we haven’t yet thought through what the plan looks like to get there. We don’t plan for that. And I’m more honesty about things, and I think COVID was a really good case, certainly at the level of political leaders and perhaps down in corporates as well. We didn’t know so much at the beginning. Has it ever been a thing that hit the entire world where we just didn’t know what the next four weeks were going to look like? The next two weeks? We’d never lock down entire societies like this, and it happened in parts of the world, but never at such a global scale and never with such the industries that got stopped as they did.
And we saw some people thrive in that and some people didn’t. But I think if you tried to almost take the approach you described in the first instance, you just come across as stupid. And it was far better to be honest about the situation and honest about the potential risks and consequences of what was being spoken about.
Do we find this or do we teach it, Andrew.
I suspect we can teach it. I suspect we can create the cultural conditions for it. I think the press has a responsibility here, but ultimately it’s down to individuals who’ve got the courage of their convictions and the courage of their values. I think he’s probably at the heart of this.
Obviously, you’re entrenched in the research side as well as in higher Ed institutions. Do you find that those institutions are catching up to industry and changes in the world? One of the things that I’ve often struggled with, especially in higher Ed, you’d see, like startup leadership courses, and they were so disconnected from a real, true startup leader experience or even in telecom and technology because of the tradition of education, was deep research that led to curricula and syllabus that could be tested and trusted meant that it had to move at a slower pace, but the world moved at a slower pace. So in this day and age, I think it’s getting better, but you’re obviously much closer to it. Do you think that the education is catching up to the pace of the world?
I can only speak for what we do in the business school at Oxford, and I think, yes, we’ve got a whole structure we’ve set up around entrepreneurship. A good proportion of our MBA students go into setting up entrepreneurial businesses. And I think we’ve got a very good curriculum there in terms of the leadership program I run, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum, which is people who are 2030 years into their careers. I think we’re very much on the cutting edge of what’s going on in the world. We have the benefit of having the Oxford Martin School in the University looking at the challenges of the 21st century. We bring that onto our program. We have some brilliant research around scenario planning. We bring that onto our program. We’re doing cutting edge research around transformation, where we’re interviewing leaders who are at the forefront of that. We’ve got an 1800 person survey globally around that as well. So I’m not suggesting we’re perfect, but I certainly don’t think we’re sitting on our laurels with a curriculum that was from about three or four decades ago. That’s definitely not the case.
One thing in the time we got left, I want to explore an area of leadership success and leadership proof is not defined by successful times. But I think adversity. And also one of the challenges we have. Right, is that we don’t introduce adversity into someone’s experiences. We sort of have helicopter parenting, and that translates into easing them through public schooling and then getting them onto higher Ed. And, well, we’re paying for this University. So I want my child to have a good experience. So they yell at the professors, make sure you do a good job, and stop making negative comments. We’re seeing this sort of unfortunate pervasive trend of the normalizing of existence, taking the edges off a bit. But when you take those sharp edges off, then you get out of the school and the world has sharp edges. But for leaders as well, right. Leaders are often defined by getting through difficulty. Just like a marriage, right. Every marriage goes great for five years, and then you have children. You’re like, oh, boy, this is difficult. Now you really see the test of collaboration and partnership.
Yeah. I think you’re on to something. It’s a big topic, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. What I’m minded of is my late grandmother, who was a pharmacist during the Second World War, and this was old school pharmacy where the pharmacy was full of jars of powders and potions, and a bomb went off near to where the pharmacist was. And she described how she was up to her knees suddenly in glass and powder. And I said, well, what did you do, Grandma Darling? We just brushed it all away. And we opened up the next day. And to me that’s my high watermark of resilience. A bomb goes off, you’re up to your knees in glass and whatever chemicals were in the pharmacy, you brush it all up. And then your duty is to have that shop open the next day, not just for the shop sake, but for the community and for the whole war effort and for the country. And I do wonder if we need adversity in life. And I suppose it’s only a question. That generation that came out of the war, there was a resilience about them. And it’s almost every generation it halves.
And maybe what we’re going through at the moment with a much more uncertain world is actually good for us. It’s painful. We don’t like it, but it’s a bit like a muscle. It needs to be stretched in order to grow and resilience, I think, is like a muscle. It needs to be stretched. And I wouldn’t wish Adversity on anybody, but there is something about it which is perhaps necessary. And if you think about the survival of the fittest and the evolutionary processes which we’ve come through, there’s something about that as well. So I think you’re right. And one bit from our research, we’re finding companies that do transformation well then are able to do transformation well, it has a virtuous cycle about it, and the opposite is true. You muck up a transformation, it has a vicious cycle about it.
Yeah, that is the interesting thing. It begets a better response in future. I mean, I think of telev’s research and concepts around anti-fragility. Often difficult to quote him because it’s a bit of polarizing figure as well, but still, that concept of natural exposure in the same way that our immune systems react by creating antigens to these situations. If you experience difficulty and you see the reaction to it and the response to it, then you have preparedness for the next time. And I often find personally, my favorite thing in a weird way is when it all goes sideways. I worked in data center operations, and It operations for years. And the moment that it would get out of control, I would just feel this calm of like, okay, let’s immediately go into sort of triage. What can we do right now? What’s necessary? And you were forced to immediately prioritize things. I don’t like being in a well, let’s develop a steering committee, and then we’ll set up some cadence calls, and then we’ll set up a nine month plan. If the power went off, what do we do right now? I thrive in that experience, and I struggle with the very plan for long term views of things.
There’s definitely going to be personalities that can do both sides, but I often find the people that require the planning when something does go wrong, they really struggle, and ultimately they aren’t able to contribute as well, because I’ve never seen it and they don’t get that exposure to it. It’s an interesting thing. Maybe because I threw myself at adversity a little early. I got used to it.
I think it’s a really interesting concept, and it reminds me of just the human body. If you sit in front of the TV all day and don’t move, you’re atrophy. If you get out on a bike, go for a walk, go for a run, lift weights – that stress that you put the body under, stimulates growth. And you’re also more prepared. If you ever need to really pedal fast to get out of trouble, run fast, walk fast. You’ve done the preparation in that sense.
Yeah, I used to do track cycling. I’m a longtime cyclist, and I started doing track cycling just for fun ’cause I lived in an area where there was a velodrome, and it was exciting. One of my favorite races was this like timing was flying 200 where you basically do like five laps and then you say, okay that’s it, I’m going to go on the next lap and you start at the top and then you immediately go to the bottom eldrum. So you’re going to fall out for a 200 meter lap. And the reason I was particularly good at because when I was a kid, I lived in the middle of nowhere on a farm and the person up the road for me had two German shepherds. So if I wanted to go for a bike ride, I’d have to literally be like preparing for this ride. And then I would hear the barking and I would immediately have to just sprint because I had to outrun them before they could come to the road and catch up.
They’re quite some dogs to outrun as well.
They are fast little fiends, those ones. But like that sort of natural exposure to difficulty and seeing my dad go through difficulty with work through the 80’s when the tech sector fell apart and seeing it go around. That’s why I look to leaders. It’s very easy for someone to be in a leadership role, but not a leadership function. And they’re very different. Like just being the team lead because you’ve been there longer than the rest of the developers does not actually make you a leader. It’s often by title, not by function. And that’s why I try and tell people to differentiate between the two. You deserve this role, you deserve this title. But when it comes down to it, there are different skills required for leadership. And I think that especially in transformation, you can’t just look back and say, well, this is how it’s been done for X number of years. What is to use the playbook? I have to be able to have something suddenly shift and then be able to understand and get through it, not just for me, but for my entire team and my organization.
Yeah, I think we’re seeing that with President Zanelleski in the Ukraine at the moment. This guy was an actor and is now taking on arguably the most difficult leadership role that’s been seen for decades in the most difficult of circumstances. But the way in which he’s working both locally and internationally in getting consensus, getting coalition, is remarkable to see.
Yeah, I think that is, in adversity we have surprising leaders that rise to the top or surprising personalities that you discover through it. And being able to see them as well in an organization, I think it’s part of that empathetic need of to be able to say like as a leader, I can recognize other people that I can bring up, I can rely on and I can empower them to do more. One last thing, decentralized leadership and giving up sort of control of it to a decentralized group. How are you finding that as a transformation in leadership styles.
I will rehearse a conversation I had with one of the executives I coach. This guy is brilliant. He’s top quality performer with his brilliance comes a bit of a shadow in that he demands excellence from his team, and he does that through controlling. And I was coaching him on this, and it come through on a 360 process he’d been through. And we went through the session, and I thought the session was good, but I didn’t feel we fully landed. And we were packing up our stuff about to go. And he said to me, so I guess, Andrew, what you’re saying to me is and what I’m learning is it’s about their energy and not mine. And I just said, you got it. How do you find a way to release their energy and you will get so much more out of it? Yes, you have to put a guiding framework around it because it’s your vision, but it’s how do you engage and get their energy involved in this rather than a passive response? And he went away and did some stuff and came back and said, I just cannot believe the difference in the output I’m getting from people by kind of taking this mentality, I wouldn’t necessarily call it centralized or decentralized. It’s about energy. And as a leader, do you energize people? Do you bring their energy to the table, or do you crush their energy with your energy? So that’s how I would frame it.
It’s fantastic. Yeah. So what are you looking forward to in the coming year as we sort of re-opened the world a bit now? Of course, given the conflicts that are going on, there’s bigger challenges that we probably had to weigh into what we believe the next twelve months will look like. But as you head into the next batch of your work with research, what is your goal to come out at the end of this year?
Yeah, that’s a great question. Thank you. I think a number of things I’m looking forward to getting out and visiting the world again. So I’ve done one international trip already. I’ve got another one in April. I love people, and I love being part of a business that takes me all over the world doing the work I do. So to be able to be back on a plane visiting people is really great. I’m working with 160 leaders this year on the advanced management and leadership program that I’m working on, all of them face to face, all of them in Oxford. That’s going to be great. And we see huge transformation taking place in them and with the plans that they take back to their organizations. And I have a couple of other projects. So I’m going to get to 21 podcasts this year of leaders who I think are making a transformative impact. I’m planning to write a book, 21 Leaders for the 21st Century, so I’m not sure that will be out this year, but it will certainly be written this year. And more of the research around transformation, just taking that into the public domain as well.
That’s a fantastic set of goals. And as you said, getting back out and really engaging and collaborating back the earlier point, we said people went to many meetings and I often get asked said, you love people, so you must like meetings. I said, no, I like collaboration, which is why I hate meetings. Meetings are not collaboration. When done right, they are, but they are seldom done right. And I think we’ve learned to value collaboration over meetings. And I’ve seen now more of people getting like, I’m going to focus on what matters. So that 60 minutes meeting, when we feel like we’re done at 25 minutes, we just cut the call because we’re done and it’s so good instead of before. It’d be like, okay, well, we’ve got some more time here. What else can we talk about? Like, no, perfect. Let’s just get onto something else. And what we needed to get done is done. And then there are those moments where we’re getting back to just chatting and meeting in person and breaking bread and enjoying time together. I look forward to it, for sure.
I hope I bump into you at some point in those travels around the world.
It would be fantastic. I would really take pleasure in it. So, Dr. Andrew White, if people do wish to reach you and get connected, what’s the best way they can do that?
Best way is on LinkedIn. I’m very active. You can find me there. If you just search for my name and Oxford, or you search for the Leadership 2050 newsletter. And it would be great to hear from folks.
Yes, definitely. I’ll have links, of course, to both the newsletter and make sure that people can get access and to your podcast, which is amazing. That’s just such a beautiful opportunity now to bring the world, those stories in that format and explore this. And then, as you said, now, do you think like 20-30 years ago or even a decade ago, the idea of being able to do a podcast and then take that content like, oh, this is a book. Now, people often say, like, well, you’ve been at all in the podcast, but there are many people who will not hear it, nor would they want to do it in that format they like to read. So I love that you can take research, practice, beautiful work with the podcast and the newsletter and then now bring it together in book format. I will be anxiously awaiting the release of the book for sure and look forward to it.
But the book also gives an opportunity to do synthesis. So it’s not just going to be like a transcript to the podcast. It’s going to be learning what are the cross-cutting themes. So maybe you’ll have me back at some point, Eric, and I can talk about what those findings were when you put the whole set of those podcasts together, are there ten themes, the ten lessons that come out of that?
Absolutely like any great special, the end gets you right back to the beginning. It’s that whole thing. The executive summary is written last. People forget that sometimes, you now look over this body of work and said this is what we’ve actually done and then to see that thematically played out so good, like I love the free form. Like the podcast style is great because you can go in many directions and then you’d be like, okay, what did we actually discover? But definitely, it would be an honor to have you on again. Look forward to catching up. Hopefully, in real life and in travel it would be fantastic. Andrew, thank you very much.
Thank you, Eric.