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“The most effective leaders have plenty of slack in their schedule: lots of unscheduled time”
Herminia Ibarra, professor of leadership and organizational behavior, INSEAD
Why aspiring leaders should turn their job into a ‘platform’
Photography: Harry Borden
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Why aspiring leaders should turn their job into a ‘platform’

Herminia Ibarra — April 2016

Stepping up to a leadership role can be made a lot simpler by using your current position as a base for expanding leadership ambitions, argues INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra.

How do you develop the capacities to bridge different groups, envision a future, engage others, and embody the change? How do you start learning to become a more effective change leader, right now where you are? You start by making your job a platform for doing and learning new things. 

Among leaders who have managed to step up, this learning process is nothing like the simpler skill-building process you might employ, say, to improve your negotiating or listening skills. It's a more complex process that involves changing your perspective on what is important and worth doing. So, the best place to begin is by increasing your ‘outsight’ [a view developed via external experiences] on the world outside your immediate work and unit by broadening the scope of your job and, therefore, your own horizons about what you might be doing instead.

No matter what your current situation is, there are five things you can do to begin to make your job a platform for expanding your leadership:

1. Develop your sensors

Leaders are constantly trying to understand the bigger context in which they operate. How will new technologies reshape their industry? How will changing cultural expectations shift the role of business in society? While a good manager executes flawlessly, leaders develop their outsight into bigger questions such as these. This attention to context requires a well-developed set of sensors that orient you to what is potentially important in a vast sea of information.

The more senior you become or the more widespread your responsibilities, the more your job requires you to sense the world around you. For those of us whose past experience has been limited to one function or business unit, the next order of priority is to find a project that broadens our vision and increases our capacity to connect the dots.
2. Find a project outside your area

In my research about what most helped people step up to leadership, one of the top items was ‘experience in an internal project outside my usual responsibilities.’ All companies have projects that cut across lines of business, hierarchical levels and functional specialties. For example, a global product launch can provide exposure to senior leadership, and a cross-functional project can open doors to new opportunities. Your job is to find out what these projects are, who's involved and how to sign up.

Many people hesitate to take on extra work. But when it comes to stepping up to leadership, getting experience across business lines is a better choice than further deepening your skill base within a functional or business silo.
3. Participate in extracurricular activities

When an internal project is simply not available (or even when it is), professional roles outside your organization can be invaluable for learning and practicing new ways of operating, raising your profile, and, maybe more importantly, revising your own limited view of yourself and improving your career prospects.”

“The most effective leaders have plenty of slack in their schedule: lots of unscheduled time.”

If you are feeling stuck or stale, raise your outsight by participating in industry conferences or other professional gatherings that bring together people from different companies and walks of life. Build from your interests, not just your experience.

Teach, speak or blog on topics that you know something about, or about which you want to learn. And if there isn't something out there that meets your needs, create your own. These extracurricular activities can help you see more possibilities, increase your visibility with people who can later help you land the next role or project, and, in the process, motivate you to shed some of the time-consuming tasks and responsibilities that no longer merit so much of your attention.
4. Communicate ‘why’

The overwhelming success of the TED conferences and videos has produced a cottage industry of books and workshops that teach people how to do a TED-type talk. People are signing up in droves to learn because communication skills are at a premium today, no matter what we do.

TED talks have a recipe that anyone can follow. It often starts with a story from the speaker's personal experience; the story illustrates and motivates the main point the person wants to make. Once the audience is hooked by the story, the main points – the technical or scientific bits – are easier to follow and retain. The talk usually ends with the moral of the personal story, reminding the audience that the message, no matter how arcane, is personal.

You probably already know which stories are your best ones. What you need to learn now is how and when to tell them in the service of your leadership. One way to learn is to pay attention to people who are good at telling stories. What do these storytellers do? It helps even more to practice. One great advantage of the different job-expanding methods outlined above is that they also provide ready-made, live audiences for practicing telling your story.
5. Get some slack

Many years ago, a still-unknown management scholar named John Kotter [professor at Harvard Business School and leading voice in the field of business management] took a handheld camera and followed a bunch of general managers around to see what they actually did. Kotter also filmed the managers' agendas. As you might expect, the contrast between the diaries of the more effective managers and those of the less effective ones is striking. But it's not what you might expect. The most effective managers had plenty of slack in their schedule: lots of unscheduled time. The less effective managers had diaries overflowing with meetings, travel, conference calls, and formal presentations.

The new ways of thinking and acting involved in stepping up to leadership require a precious and scarce resource – time. If you're like most of the managers and professionals I teach, routine and immediate demands crowd out the time you need for the more unstructured work of leadership. When you are stretched to the hilt, it's hard to ask yourself: “Am I focusing on the right things?” We fail to build in the necessary slack, precisely because time is short and there is so much to do.

It's when we are at our busiest that we most need to free up time so that we can use it for the non-routine and the unexpected. In this way, we increase our capacity to lead, as Kotter's effective general managers did.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from ‘Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader.’ Copyright 2015. Herminia Ibarra. All rights reserved.

  • 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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