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BIG THINKER
“Professionals over-invest in their strengths. In fact, it’s our success in the past that’s holding us back.”
Herminia Ibarra, professor of leadership and organizational behavior, INSEAD
Overcoming the barriers to great business leadership
Photography: Harry Borden
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Overcoming the barriers to great business leadership

Maxine-Laurie Marshall — April 2016
Herminia Ibarra, business school expert on leadership and organizational behavior, reveals how an operational focus hinders leadership success.

Career successes obtained through a professional’s journey to senior management are potentially holding them back from leadership opportunities. As a result, says Herminia Ibarra, a worldwide authority in leadership development and visiting professor at London Business School, business managers primed for top leadership positions should be encouraged to unlearn the behavior that has got them to that point and get ready to start acting very differently.

Ibarra, professor of leadership and organizational behaviour at France’s INSEAD business school, believes ‘the competency trap’ is one of the biggest hurdles for those seeking to successfully transition into a leadership role. As she explains, professionals approaching top jobs often “over-invest in their strengths under the false assumption that what produced their past successes will lead to future wins.”

It’s difficult to avoid that trap, she says. “We know from research that we invest our time and energy in the things that make us feel competent. When we feel competent we feel good. We feel like we’re adding value, we enjoy what we’re doing, therefore we invest more in it. We’re usually rewarded for it and so that leads us to invest even further. And, after a while, it’s very hard to get out of that because the rewards are so high. In fact, it’s our success in the past that’s holding us back.”
Inventing the future

This way of working, where the aim is to complete day-to-day, operational tasks well, is indicative of management as opposed to leadership. And the distinction between the two is vital. However, Ibarra, author of the highly acclaimed Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, notes: “It’s not a distinction between people in that some people are [natural] managers and some people are leaders. It’s a distinction between different roles you play and different kinds of work that need to be done.”

“Professionals over-invest in their strengths. In fact, it’s our success in the past that’s holding us back.”

A manager’s work is ensuring processes are running as efficiently as possible, whereas a leader’s role is to push boundaries, to look to the future and see what direction the company should be heading in and how to get it there. It's visionary and inspiring, she argues. Encouraging professionals to make up their minds and define which they want to be, she says: “What is the goal? To manage the day-to-day routine or invent the future?”
The visionary leader

The tendency is to opt for the visionary role, but Ibarra cites three skills that are crucial to fulfilling that successfully.

1. The first relates to finding ways of breaking away from the day-to-day tasks that your current professional competency has long been centered on. As she says: “You need the capacity to redefine your job so that you’re focusing your time and energy on those things that are truly important and that add value.” That means developing the capacity to delegate many of the existing activities that are not and structuring your job so you’re really able to contribute strategically, she says.

2. Ibarra highlights the need for leaders to build strong networks: “The second skillset has to do with building relationships, creating alliances, having connections that allow you to get buy-in for your ideas, that allow you to bring people in and offer perspectives of value.”

3. Finally, she advises that any visionary leader has to look internally at themselves: “This skill has to do with how you manage yourself: how you remain adaptive and push yourself out of your comfort zone while still remaining authentic. Getting the balance of the two right is critically important.”

  • Photography: Harry Borden
First published
April 2016
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About: Herminia Ibarra
Herminia Ibarra is professor of organizational behavior, leadership and learning at INSEAD, and currently visiting professor at London Business School. Thinkers 50 named the author of ‘Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader’ among the top 10 most influential business gurus in the world.

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