LeadershipWatch

Skills for the Future: Break Patterns and Surprise Yourself, says Harvard’s Michael Puett

Tidal patterns, change, Michael Puett, Leadershipwatch

What are the key skills for the future? In our special multi-part series, experts share valuable and surprising insights we can use to build tomorrow’s world. In this part Harvard professor Michael Puett explains the skill of breaking patterns and its impact on your life, your leadership, and on the people you interact with.

The best thing about listening to someone who challenges your day-to-day assumptions is that you learn something about yourself. Michael Puett, Harvard’s tall and boyish-looking expert on ancient China, certainly made me think when he explained how we are ruled by patterns, and how we can live better lives if we learn to break those patterns. I felt sorry when his talk at The School of Life (London, February 2017) came to an end after 2 hours. I would like to meet him again.

Here are the best insights Michael Puett shared with us in London (I leave his high-pitched voice and frequent smiles to your imagination):

The true self does not exist

Puett: “There are some old Chinese ideas that challenge common western assumptions. Ideas that I think we should truly be learning from. Let’s begin with visions of the self that arose in classical China. When we are trying to find answers to the big questions we face, we are encouraged to look within, to find ourselves, to embrace and love ourselves ‘just the way we are’ – and do the same for those around us. But this idea of a true self does not exist in the Chinese tradition. According to ancient Chinese thinking, we all complex and chaotic creatures, interacting with the emotions and energies of the people around us. There is no stable self. We are all equal messes of emotions, of dispositions, tendencies and patterns. Someone yells at me, and drags out of me an energy of anger.”

We all fall into patterns, even when we don’t realize it

Puett: “Also from a very young age, we fall into patterns, and ruts and habits of responding to the world around us. These patterns then begin to define how we experience the world. They become so ardent that they can be repeated for decades, they dominate our lives. And the danger is: this is what we become as human beings. We are like automatic machines, repeating the same patterns over and over again. The self that we think exists is really the result of the patterns we have fallen into. And by the way: a lot of companies are very successfully building their entire business models on this, taking our patterns for granted.”


Recommended reading:

How AI and big data feed on and reinforce our patterns, and problems this creates

Big data and algorithms need our moral compass, here’s why


Now: suppose the old Chinese philosophers are right about this. Suppose they are capturing something about what we are like as human beings. What would be the implications?

Puett: “If they are right, what I do when I look within and find myself, is I am in danger of simply finding a bunch of ruts and patters I have fallen into. And the last thing I want to do is embrace myself for who I am, because these are just patterns I have fallen into. Some of them may work out well by accident. Most of them, however, are disruptive because I am not really interacting with the people around me, without my even noticing. And so our mantra of self-acceptance is not only potentially wrong, because it is based on an incorrect and limited view of the self, it is potentially incredibly dangerous.”

“The last thing you want to do is love and embrace your patterns. The goal is to break them.” Michael Puett

Michael Puett, Harvard Business School, speaking at The School of LifeHow to break your patterns

A Confucian approach, Puett explains, would be to notice your patterns and then work actively to shift them. How? By using the power of rituals, or “anything that forces you to become a different person for a brief moment of time, that forces you to physically see the world from the perspectives of others, perspectives you would otherwise never taken on. By physically forcing you to do this, it creates a break. And that break, over time, opens up the possibility to begin breaking these patterns, and begin to really interact with the world around you, instead of interacting by rote.”

Here’s an example:

You have a difficult relationship with the person you share an office with. Her comments drive you nuts. When she voices her opinion on a subject you shake your head in disbelief, you tell her what you think is right, you hope she’ll learn something from you but all you really do is fight – and it’s just been like this for years. Stuck in a pattern, you think?

Puett: “The answer is yes! It’s not that you and her just cannot get along – there is a pattern at work, a pattern you can break. How? When another conversation sets in, and you know exactly how it is going to go: do slightly different things, bring up slightly different subject, slightly change your tone of voice, begin appealing to slightly different sides of her. Asking her advice on something, for instance, can bring out her more nurturing side. You can then be somebody who is really listening to her. Start playing with these different roles a little. Over time, if you keep practicing, the patterns that have been dominating your relationship for years will start to shift. You will start interacting differently. Each of you, as you begin to see different sides of the other, will begin to talk about tons of subjects you previously couldn’t talk about, or talk about the same subjects in different ways. Little changes, even if it’s just in tone of voice, can make unbelievable differences.”

Recommended reading: ‘The only person you can actually change is yourself

Keep training and surprise yourself

Puett, now smiling through his glasses: “Think of this as a life-long training exercise. When you start creating these breaks, you begin interacting with people differently. Over time, and more importantly, you begin really sensing them. You begin sensing the people around you as the complex creatures they really are;

You get better and better at sensing people’s patterns, your own and those around you, and at sensing what you can do to bring different sides of people out and grow genuine relationships;

You begin to act in ways that help your family, your friends and colleagues to flourish;

You begin to realize you are multiple, not a single self, we all are multiple, we are relationships all the way down, and everything is changeable – even the huge and seemingly intractable societal problems of our time. We constructed the world. We can, by training and cultivating ourselves, change it for the better. We are capable of doing this.

Maybe, just maybe, these ideas from a distant Chinese past are powerful and if we take them seriously, we open up possibilities we cannot now even imagine.”

Michael Puett is Professor of Chinese History at Harvard University. His classes have been so successful that they have been moved to the largest lecture hall available at Harvard. I read his book The Path, which he wrote together with Christine Gross-Loh, and highly recommend it.

What do you think? 2 essential questions:

  1. If Puett and China’s old philosophers are right, and the true self does not exist, why do we keep labeling one other? Why do we keep labeling ourselves, sometimes literally with numbers, letters or colours (referring to HR tools that are used in many companies)? Are we not at risk of focusing on just a snapshot of who we are at a particular time and place, instead of on the person we can be?
  1. New technologies like machine learning, big data and robotics are exciting. But is allowing these technologies to play to and reinforce our patterns such a good idea? Shouldn’t we use the same technologies differently, in ways that help us break our patterns instead (search algorithms could point us to music, voices, points of view that we would normally never listen to, for instance)?

Shoot! And many thanks for thinking along.

Photo: David/Flickr (Creative Commons)


Hanneke SiebelinkHanneke Siebelink is Research Partner and Writer at HRS Business Transformation Services, and author of several books. Find out more about Hanneke and HRS services. If you would like to invite us to your organization, contact us here.

Find more Expert Series articles.

Leading Change: How Slowing Down Can Help You to Make Progress

Pegasus, leading change, business transformation, team alignment, collaboration, strategy execution

Leading large and complex change initiatives is an intensive and demanding job for those leading it and for their teams. The need for change, the timelines, the urge to meet targets and deadlines, it can put substantial pressure on teams.

As change leader you obviously support your teams, you motivate them and coach them. You lead by example and stimulate them to learn and grow, to make progress, to aim for top quality, and to become a truly winning team. It is the feeling of moving forward, of climbing our ladder of success together, which truly motivates us as a team! Right? But be careful!

Teams that are ceaselessly expanding their limits and grow their success for a period of time can lose sight of the fact that they are making progress. Despite the fact that they are moving forward and becoming better at what they do, they can show signals of demotivation, even of a decreasing trust in the team’s success.

Teams that ceaselessly expand their limits can start showing signals of demotivation and decreasing trust in the team’s success if they do not take the time to consciously experience and embed the results achieved.

Pay attention to the signals! For instance:

  • Are issues and risks brought forward at the last moment instead of addressing these pro-actively?
  • Do team members only report to you and never ask your advice or coaching?
  • Does the team only discuss operational topics? Never sensitive topics like doubts or uncertainties?
  • Do people point at others when things don’t go as planned instead of taking responsibility themselves?

leading change, team alignment, LeadershipWatch, business transformationAlthough these examples are not by definition telling you something is wrong, it would be wise not to neglect them. If you start noticing signals like these it’s maybe time to change pace. Step into your helicopter! Lift up and observe the landscape from above, from a distance. Give yourself an overview of what is going on down there. On where we came from, and where we are going. Is the road travelled clearly visible? How have we changed during our journey so far? Can you see this? Can you see the road ahead? Good! Now bring your team onboard of your helicopter and invite them to also have a look. Take a step back together and take the time to see from above. Ask your team to reflect on what they see and to share this with each other. How do we see the road ahead? How can we use what we’ve learned so far in the rest of our journey? Take some time to slow down together! Your team needs it to let its success sink in. This will give your people the energy to continue to build results.

How do you notice the signals in your team? When did you last get into your helicopter? What did you see?

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Contact us here.

Photo: © HRS Business Transformation Services


Aad Boot leaning against a door postAad is a global business advisor, change leader/program manager, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with senior executives and their organizations globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad, our services, and keynotes.

3 Tips for Executive Teams to Increase the Success of Corporate Change Programs

How Executives can increase the success of corporate change programs

Many corporate change programs fail to deliver the expected results. Gary Hamel, John Kotter, and others claim the failure rate to be around a staggering 70%. What is the role of executive teams here? How can executive teams increase the success of corporate change programs?

The past 25 years I’ve been having the opportunity to experience and witness firsthand what increases the success of corporate change programs and what doesn’t. On the one hand as board room advisor facilitating executive teams in how to translate the corporate strategy into corporate change initiatives (from strategy to execution). On the other hand as program manager of large corporate change programs managing the actual rollout of these complex change initiatives (making the change happen). It has taught me a lot, especially also about the role of executive teams and its effect on the program’s success.

Of course there are many different elements that define the success of a change program, but the role of the executive team is a crucial element.

How often have you heard one of the following complaints?

  • ‘This program is going nowhere. It will never materialize. There is no sponsorship from the top.’ (Lack of involvement and drive from the top)
  • ‘They can do whatever they like. As long as they do not bother us. We have more important things to do.’ (Two different worlds, the ‘business as usual’ world and the ‘program’ world)
  • ‘When will this program ever deliver!? It is taking way too much time. What has it actually achieved? I have no clue! And in the meantime they are spending a lot of money and taking all our resources.’ (Too slow, no results)
  • ‘What do they expect from us? That we simply implement this into the organization? Why didn’t we know this earlier? I don’t see how we can do this!’ (Big bang, too little time for adaptation)

These are just a few examples. And these are complaints that are directly influenced by the role of the executive team.

How can executive teams prevent complaints like these, and how can they increase the success of corporate change programs?

Here are 3 vital tips:

1) Create a specific connection between the change program and your corporate strategy
  • Do it yourself, do not delegate this to others!
  • Take the organization along on a journey. Explain the corporate strategy and clarify how the change program contributes to achieving the strategic objectives.
  • Look your managers and employees in the eyes and bring your message across with enthusiasm and conviction.
  • Create frequent moments of communication to repeat and reaffirm the strategy and express your confidence in the change program. Be there especially when doubt and confusion emerge, which will happen at moments during corporate change programs.
2) Choose! Set priorities!
  • Avoid ‘analysis paralysis’.Stimulate managers, architects, analysts, engineers, and others to reduce complexity where possible. (read more here about how to avoid ‘analysis paralysis’).
  • Stimulate people to think and communicate in terms of impact. Ask for potential choices and scenarios, and the pros and cons of each scenario. Challenge people to explain how these scenarios contribute to the successful execution of our strategy (read more here about how to stimulate people to think impact).
  • Be there when tough decisions are needed. Stand up to take these decisions yourself if you see others are reluctant or afraid. Show your determination and confidence in the change program. Don’t allow complacency to emerge.
3) Actively steer on results and learning experiences
  • Show your involvement to the organization! Not just at the start of the change program, but throughout the whole program life cycle. Set up a steering and governance structure in which you as executive team play an active role. Make sure the mindset of people is milestone and result oriented, rather than activity oriented. Focus on the results.
  • Listen to the program team. Make the time! They are at the forefront of the change curve and have first-hand information on what decisions are needed and how these potentially impact your business. They are your eyes and ears, and can provide you very insightful information about the state of the organization.
  • Engage the organization. Expect from management and employees to make the change program an integrated part of their daily operations, to be a partner of the program team, and to take ownership of the defined program objectives. Ask them on a frequent basis how this partnership can be improved based on learning experiences.
  • And last, but not least: Do not blindly stick to decisions if results and learning experiences show you otherwise! Leading complex change requires agility and adaptability. People are not always comfortable enough to leave the chosen path. You setting the example will be vital! Not by changing course every other day, but by focusing on what we learn during the change program, and by showing how we can use this to strengthen our strategy and grow our execution skills.

Feedback, Thoughts? Tell us!

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Aad Boot leaning against a door postAad is a global business advisor, change leader/program manager, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with senior executives and their organizations globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad, our services, and his keynotes. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization contact us.

Our Top 5 Leadership Articles of 2016

Christmas Card for Holiday Season Greetings

Find here the Top 5 leadership articles selected by our readers in 2016

In 2016 LeadershipWatch has again welcomed an amazing amount of readers, and we received lots of appreciation and nice reactions. Many thanks to you all! You are a great inspiration to us, and you stimulate us to keep on sharing real life business experiences and to explore more new topics that are important in today’s fast changing business environment.

We wish you a wonderful Holiday Season, and we’re looking forward to welcoming you back in 2017!

Below we listed the top 5 most popular articles over 2016. Enjoy!

 

People pulling a rope, accountability1) 4 Tips to Make Your Team Embrace Accountability

For multinational (and other) enterprises, competitive advantage and successful strategy execution increasingly depend on getting cross-company collaboration right. Accountability is a vital element for creating a collaboration culture that delivers results. How to do this?

Foto Part 92) Leading Change: What Does Change Mean to You?

It is our mental model towards change that defines whether leading change turns out to be a painful burden or a stimulating learning experience. The more leaders support cultures in which change is approached as something continuous, the more their teams will be able to embrace and achieve successful change. It starts with the leaders’ mind set.

Multinational companies3) Leading Multinational Companies: Three Significant Changes in the Role of Senior Leaders

Today’s business environment is changing. It affects people and businesses worldwide, and surely also multinational companies. In working with multinational companies we see three specific changes that affect the role of senior leaders. Three changes that require special attention and sometimes even a fundamental mind shift.

Woman in black dress standing in business office with iPad in her hand watching out of the window over downtown Hong Kong4) Skills of the Future: The Best Expert Advice on Creativity

By 2020, creativity will be one of the top 3 skills anyone who wants to be successful in the economy of the future will need, according to the Future of Jobs report. We looked for the best expert advice on creativity – and found it.

Chinese Gate at the Tiananmen square in Beijing5) When East Meets West: Peter Hessler Shares His 3 Best Tips for 2016

When the American journalist and writer Peter Hessler moved to China to teach and write, he discovered that things were almost diametrically opposed to what he had been used to in the U.S. In this article he shares his 3 best tips about dealing with the confusion (and sometimes frustration) when East meets West.

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Big Data and Algorithms Need Our Moral Compass. Here’s Why.

Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Machine Learning are increasing the Need for our Moral Compass. Article on LeadershipWatch.

Big data and complex algorithms are all around us. Machines are getting smarter by the day. They can help us make better decisions. Make our lives easier. But is machine intelligence always right?

Big data and computer algorithms are all around us

The big data era, where large amounts of data are used to analyze, understand, and predict developments in real time, has clearly begun. Business leaders increasingly turn to computation to get faster and more accurate answers to questions like:

‘Which news item or which movie should we recommend to people?’;

‘What product is this person most likely to buy?’; or even

‘Who should the company hire?’

Big data and algorithms have become the new gold of the information age.

Machines are getting smarter by the day

“Recently”, explains technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci (@Zeynep) in a brilliant TED-talk (you can watch her talk below) “complex algorithms have made great strides. They can recognize human faces. They can decipher handwriting. They can detect credit card fraud and translate between languages. They can detect tumors in medical imaging. They can beat humans in chess and Go.

Much of this progress comes from a method called “machine learning.” Machine learning is different than traditional programming/coding, where you give the computer detailed, exact, painstaking instructions. It’s more like you take the system and you feed it lots of data, including unstructured data, like the kind we generate in our digital lives. And the system learns by churning through this data.”

But is machine intelligence always right?

“Consider a hiring algorithm”, Zeynep Tufekci goes on to explain, “a system used to hire people, using machine-learning systems. Such a system would have been trained on previous employees’ data and instructed to find and hire people like the existing high performers in the company. Sounds good. I once attended a conference that brought together human resources managers and executives, high-level people, using such systems in hiring. They were super excited. They thought that this would make hiring more objective, less biased, and give women and minorities a better shot against biased human managers (..)

Now, I have a friend who developed computational systems to predict the likelihood of clinical or postpartum depression from social media data. The results are impressive. Her system can predict the likelihood of depression months before the onset of any symptoms – months before. No symptoms, there’s prediction. She hopes it will be used for early intervention. Great! But now put this in the context of hiring.

So at this human resources conference, I approached a high-level manager in a very large company, and I said to her: “Look, what if, unbeknownst to you, your system is weeding out people with high future likelihood of depression? They’re not depressed now, just maybe in the future. What if it’s weeding out women more likely to be pregnant in the next year or two but aren’t pregnant now? What if it’s hiring aggressive people because that’s your workplace culture?” You can’t tell this by looking at gender breakdowns. Those may be balanced. And since this is machine learning, not traditional coding, there is no variable there labeled “higher risk of depression,” “higher risk of pregnancy,” “aggressive guy scale.” Not only do you not know what your system is selecting on, you don’t even know where to begin to look. It’s a black box. It has predictive power, but you don’t understand it. “What safeguards,” I asked, “do you have to make sure that your black box isn’t doing something shady?”

She stared at me and said: I don’t want to hear another word about this.” And she turned around and walked away. Mind you – she wasn’t rude. It was clearly: what I don’t know is not my problem, go away, death stare.

Is this the kind of society we want to build, without even knowing we’ve done this, because we turned decision-making to machines we don’t totally understand?”

Big data and machine learning technologies will soon make their presence felt in the financial services, insurance, and healthcare industries (to name just a few),

The effects on all of us will be profound. This piece by Bernard Marr (@BernardMarr) will make you quickly grasp what lies ahead: 3 Industries that will be Transformed by AI, Machine-Learning, and Big Data in the Next Decade

Yes, computation and big data can help us make faster and better decisions.

But can we really afford to step away from difficult questions and dilemmas, which will inevitably arise?

“We cannot outsource our responsibilities to machines. We must hold on ever tighter to human values and human ethics.” – Zeynep Tufekci

Or should we rather do the opposite and step in?

By educating ourselves on how these technologies work, and what they can and cannot offer.

By demanding and giving meaningful transparency (read more here: Leading Change – We Need More Transparency).

By cultivating and using our moral compass.

Aad and I agree with Zeynep Tufekci: “Machine intelligence make human morals more important.” How about you?

 

Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) is an expert on the social impacts of technology. She is an assistant professor in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, and a former fellow at the Center for Internet Technology Policy at Princeton. Her research revolves around politics, civics, movements, privacy and surveillance, as well as data and algorithms.

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Photo: Tao Tsai/Flickr (Creative Commons)


Leadership Expert Series Logo in green with worldmap and compassThis article is part of our ‘Skills for the future’ Expert Series in which we share valuable insights, pointers and lessons from a list of business leaders, experts and role models selected by Hanneke Siebelink. Find Expert Series articles here.


Hanneke SiebelinkHanneke Siebelink is Research Partner and Writer at HRS Business Transformation Services, and author of several books. Find out more about Hanneke and HRS services. If you would like to invite us to your organization, contact us here.

7 Top Insights for Leading East-West Business Teams

Singapore skyline, Asian Business Teams

As business leader you are increasingly dealing with global business teams. For instance East-West business teams in which people from cultures you know rather well need to collaborate with people from cultures you are less familiar with. This is a new reality in today’s business world that has a great impact on the success of companies. And you don’t need to be in Asia to recognize this. Globalization, technology and growing FDI of Asian companies in the West increase the need for cross-cultural skills on both sides.

“To be successful in the current and future business world, cross-cultural skills are increasingly important.”

And mind you: just learning the unfamiliar Asian business etiquette is not enough.

Effectively assessing cross-cultural context and its impact on team performance is not always easy. Even after 25 years I still can find myself in situations where I think I recognize and understand the cultural differences, but nevertheless am surprised by the unexpected behavior of team members.

For instance, just a few weeks back I had a meeting with Indian team leads. It was about setting up a good planning for the coming 6 months. Not the first time in my life I had this type of discussion with Indians, and yet I tricked myself by not paying enough attention to the Indian appreciation of hierarchy versus my Dutch interpretation. By letting them decide on their own as a team they felt confused because they expected me to set a clear direction, and therefore they didn’t know how to meet my expectations. I needed to remind myself that empowering people works differently in the Indian culture versus the Anglo-Saxon cultures.

Over the years I have lead and facilitated many East-West business teams in complex transformations, learned a lot and repeatedly wrote about it.

Here are our top 7 articles, most popular with LeadershipWatch readers determined to improve their multicultural leadership skills.

We hope you find them useful too (you will find lots of practical tips!)

How to increase your understanding of the cultural differences in your team

1. Leading cross-cultural teams: do you understand the cultural differences in your team?

How to improve team communication

2. How to avoid making people lose face

.

3. How to create openness despite cultural differences

.

4. How to stimulate Asian team members to speak up

How to interpret and deal with authority across cultures

5. East and West perceive authority differently and it affects your team

How to plan and schedule better

6. Leading Indian – Dutch business teams: 3 insights that help create results

How to build mutual trust across cultures

7. Cross-cultural leadership: How to build mutual trust

Thoughts?

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Photo: © HRS Business Transformation Services


Aad Boot leaning against a door postAad is a global business advisor, change leader/program manager, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with senior executives and their organizations globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad, our services, and his keynotes. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization contact us.

Why Curiosity is a Key Business Attitude for the Future

Leadership Quote by HRS Business Transformation Services

Curiosity is more than just a nice to have in today’s business context. It is essential to successfully navigate the rapid technological changes coming our way.

For instance for my current client, a large retail company, which is facing significant changes that require an important digital transformation with significant impact on the organization and employees. As program manager supporting this strategic corporate transformation process I witness daily how stimulating people to adopt a curious attitude makes a big difference and has a positive impact. Highly complex transformations like this one often bring people and teams in situations where there are no clear predefined answers and solutions; where people need to explore, need to get outside the ordinary routine, and learn new ways of looking at things to find new ways of working.

It comes down to this: How do we fundamentally react to change?

1) We close off? Try to restore the as-is? See the unknown as a potential threat?

Or,

2) We open up? We feel intrigued by it because it’s new and we don’t know it? We open up to it, we want investigate it, understand it, even if it puts us outside our comfort zone?

Reaction 2 has serious advantages! Why?

a) You train yourself in finding patterns, connections, dependencies, mutual impact, which you didn’t see at first. It will help you to find new solutions in a changing business environment, rather than to sticking to traditional ‘right or wrong’ reasoning. It will lead to better decisions.

b) It will make you see the opportunities first and quite possibly give you the skills and relationships to take advantage of these opportunities.

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing things because we’re curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” – Walt Disney

That’s why curiosity is a key trait for anyone aspiring to compete and succeed in tomorrow’s economy.

Curiosity is a key attitude for the future

Don’t just take my word for it:

World Economic Forum: Why you should never lose your curiosity


Additional reading suggestions:

Keep an open mind: Why the open mind always outperforms the closed one

Listen to learn, not to react. Ask questions, not only when you do not understand something, but certainly also in global business teams working with people born and raised in different cultures (India, Japan, China, ..): How to create openness

Learn about new technological evolutions, things you don’t know, learn a new language – the possibilities are endless (I love MIT’s open courseware).

Deliberately sideline fear in decision-making. No mercy.

Stimulate members of your business team to do the same.

Feedback, Thoughts? Tell us!

Liked this article? Use the subscription button (PC: right-hand sidebar; Mobile: button below this article) to stay up to date with LeadershipWatch articles and news. Your personal information will be kept strictly confidential.

Photo: © HRS Business Transformation Services


Aad Boot leaning against a door postAad is a global business advisor, change leader/program manager, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with senior executives and their organizations globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad, our services, and his keynotes. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization contact us.

6 Memorable Things I Learned in China

One Belt One Road (OBOR)

This summer I traveled to Beijing and Ningxia, thanks to the China Unlimited contest organized by the China EU Mission. I had hoped to learn more about China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative reviving the old silk roads (because it will have global implications) and about the Chinese language (because I am studying Mandarin). I sure did, and pass some highlights on to you:

1) The best Chinese language teacher I know is called Leo Fu. He teaches at Beijing International Chinese College北京 汉语学院

Chinese character lessonsLeo Fu (Chinese name Fu Qiang) made me see that the key to learning and remembering Chinese characters is understanding their pictographic origins, often dating back more than 4000 years. He will soon publish a Chinese etymology book, a kind of Chinese Mendeljev’s Table (I can’t wait!). Beijing International Chinese College also has a wonderful open library, I discovered. One day I will return to China and study Mandarin for real. Leo Fu will be the first person I’ll call.

2) Oracle Bones offer unique insights into China’s distant past

Oracle Bones

They also gave Leo Fu, who copied many oracle bones inscriptions as a child (straight from the bones onto his notebook – that was still possible back then), his love for Chinese characters. Oracle bones, usually made from shoulder blades of oxen, were used in ancient (Shang dynasty) China as tools to find out about the future. Pits were bored into the bones. A diviner would ask a question to the ancestors, apply hot pokers to the pits, and interpret the cracks that appeared as a result. The answers of the ancestors were written on the bone, together with the date.

Standing in front of ancient oracle bones in Beijing and recognizing many of the characters, I suddenly understood. The Chinese – who still honor and respect their ancestors more than most of us do in the West – are uniquely connected to their distant past. And it is thanks to their script, first recorded on Oracle Bones.

3) Ningxia was an economic hub on the Silk Road when the Han (206 BC-220 AD) and the Tang (618-907 AD) ruled China

Ningxia museum Tang Dynasty horse

There is ample evidence for that in Yinchuan’s Ningxia museum, where I stood face to face with delightfully expressive animals – like this horse unearthed from a Tang Dynasty tomb. The museum also houses beautiful Hui Muslim relics, including the smallest Koran in the world. Not bigger than a thumbnail, remarkable!

4) … And is gearing up to be a major hub again as the ‘One Belt One Road’ project unfolds

China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) initiative reviving the old silk roads is starting to get much attention in Europe and the US: how will it affect global trade patterns, what will it mean for business, what are smart ways to collaborate? Ningxia, with its large Muslim population, is clearly determined to play its part. The roads are better than they are in Brussels. A high-speed line linking Yinchuan with Xi’An is in the making. And Yinchuan’s state-of- the-art iBi Business Incubation Park (see header image) looks certain to attract many innovative startups and investors (hello digital silk road).


How will OBOR, probably the most significant global economic initiative in the world today, affect your business? Here are some good and recent studies:

HKTDC Research – China Trade: One Belt One Road, Navigating the New Silk Road

McKinsey: China’s One Belt One Road will it Reshape Global Trade?


5) The Chinese know a thing or two about perseverance

They managed to plant and cultivate countless vines and goji berry plants, despite repeated setbacks, harsh winters and an initial lack of water. Ningxia’s wines are now winning international prizes. Ningxia’s goji berries are sweet and tasty, and the leaves make for an excellent cup of tea (I am having one right now). When the Chinese get into things, it is always for the long haul. OBOR will become a fact of life, and probably sooner than we think.

6) Chinese university students are bright and keen to get to know us better

China's Ningxia university students

I much enjoyed getting to know the students of Ningxia University 宁夏大学. They asked us many detailed questions, mostly in excellent English (this never fails to amaze me, my Mandarin is nowhere near as good). I was intrigued by how much they knew about my home country, pleasantly surprised by the interest they showed in our company HRS, touched by their hunger to learn more. They certainly proved the point I have been making for a while: the Chinese learn from us more quickly than we learn from them.

Thoughts, Feedback, Questions? Get In Touch:

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Hanneke with Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong, European Commissioner Navracsics, and other China Unlimited Contest winners

Hanneke Siebelink is Research Partner and Writer at HRS Business Transformation Services, and author of several books. Her current research focuses on how leaders build successful organizations by increasing the quality and effectiveness of collaboration across companies, functions, and cultures. She is particularly interested in China and East-West relations and is learning Mandarin Chinese. Find out more about Hanneke and HRS services. If you would like to invite us to your organization, contact us here.


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Photo’s: Copyright HRS Business Transformation Services

Why the Open Mind Always Outperforms the Closed One

Blosseming tree in Tuscany landscape with bright red, green, and yellow colors

People confronted with the fast changes in our sometimes chaotic and uncertain world can have the reflex to close themselves off to the unknown. Consciously or subconsciously they adopt a closed mind. When we do it collectively this closeness can become part of our culture. People, teams, organizations, and whole societies can seriously suffer from ‘closed-mindedness’. Those who manage to cultivate and maintain an open mind are far more successful on the long run. Why? Let me explain in short.

The open mind is driven by curiosity and wonder

The open mind does not take life for granted. It wants to explore life. The open mind is genuinely interested in new experiences. It is not afraid of the unexpected. It is fascinated by it and wants to understand it, learn from it. The open mind is comfortable with differences and with using a variety of lenses to view the world around.

The open mind is a free thinker. It is willing to step outside fixed patterns. It is attentive not to fall into the trap of prejudices and self-fulfilling prophecies. It deliberately looks for different opinions as a source for new insights.

The closed mind on the other hand experiences change as destabilizing. It is directed by a fear of the unknown. It does not feel comfortable with differences and divergent views. It appreciates the status quo, with prefixed views and likeminded believes and opinions.

The open mind learns faster

The open mind has a natural tendency to move out of its comfort zone to find new experiences. It is motivated by new experiences because they offer opportunities for learning and personal growth. It is often a good listener and develops empathic ability. This helps to learn faster.

The closed mind seeks comfort in what is known/familiar. Therefore it has a natural tendency to stay inside its comfort zone, which limits its learning opportunities.

The open mind understands the closed mind better than vice versa

The open mind, that learns faster, has an advantage over those who don’t. When confronted with changes, or with different opinions, the open mind more easily makes sense out of it. It does not always have the same opinion or beliefs about things, but it understands the differences better. The open mind is intrinsically more focused on building bridges, rather than on building fortresses.

The closed mind’s thinking is based on preconceptions, which can be wrong or outdated and can trigger wrong conclusions. It has more difficulty with letting go of its own views, and with understanding different opinions and changes. The closed mind has a hard time with building bridges.

The open mind develops and grows faster

The open mind challenges itself to understand more things, and sees more easily how things are connected. This gives the open mind a strong edge over others:

  • A stronger ability to adapt to changing circumstances
  • Building up more and broader knowledge that leads to better decision making
  • Higher resilience when things are not going as expected
  • Faster and more effective execution of ideas and decisions that are outside the comfort zone

History is filled with examples of the positive outcomes of open-mindedness. It can transform people, organizations, and whole nations. Like for instance China, that for centuries was a closed society with hardly any outside influence. But it experienced a significant prosperous and war free period in the 16th century when it opened its borders for international relationships, trade, and science, which brought new crafts, crops, literature, and cultures to the empire. Or like for instance the way Nelson Mandela dealt with the differences in his country after years of imprisonment by his fellow countrymen. Or like Abraham Lincoln, who appointed a few of his biggest enemies in his government because he believed they would make the team stronger.

But also for instance the way a company like Lego that was close to bankruptcy in 2004 and reinvented itself by opening up to internet-oriented game technology. It chose to totally revise its strategy and to develop new methods of interacting with its youthful customer base through new Lego-designing competitions and contests, with great success.

In fact, all successful innovation finds its roots in an open mind! (Read Elon Musk’s take on this)

Fostering an open mind is vital, and maybe especially in today’s fast changing world. This applies to every one of us in our daily lives, and also for organizations that want to create sustainable success.

How do you keep an open mind? How is this affecting the way you live and work together with others? Or as a leader, how do you stimulate a culture of open-mindedness? Feel free to comment!

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Photo: Mark Stroble/Flickr (Creative Commons)


Aad Boot leaning against a door postAad is a global business advisor, change leader/program manager, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with senior executives and their organizations globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad, our services, and his keynotes. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization contact us.

Leadership: Do You Choose to Play in the Winners Zone or Not?

Our success, our feeling of accomplishment and our happiness, in our personal lives, as leaders, in our teams and in our businesses, it very much comes down to whether we ‘play to win’ or ‘play not to lose’. Are we truly aware of this? I strongly believe that this seemingly simple and superficial statement has a profound significance, which defines our success and that of the teams we lead.

People, teams, organizations, even whole nations can suffer from what I call a ‘playing in the not-winners zone’. I could call it the ‘losers zone’, but I don’t believe in a world of winners versus losers. We all win and lose sometimes; it’s part of life. However, we can influence the balance between winning and losing by building and nurturing a specific mindset in how we approach situations and circumstances. There is a clear distinction between a ‘playing in the winners zone’ – mindset versus ‘playing in the not-winners zone’ – mindset.

Playing to Win versus Playing Not to Lose

People who play in the ‘winners zone’ are busy maximizing the chance of winning and minimizing the chance of not winning.

People who play in the ‘not-winners zone’ are busy maximizing the chance of not losing and minimizing the chance of not winning.

Let this sink in! It seems obvious, but is in fact a crucial difference! It is a difference in mindset and behavior that is sometimes very subtle and not easy to recognize, but if you pay close attention you witness it all around you every day, maybe also in your own behavior. And it has a huge impact on the outcomes and success we create!

Playing in the ‘winners zone’ gives you a bigger chance of having a positive impact on your own and other people’s lives. It increases the chance to learn and grow, to innovate, to create positive change.

We are all human beings, and we are complex creatures. It is not always easy to adopt a ‘winners zone’ mindset, and we can find ourselves slipping into a ‘not winners’ mindset once in a while. It takes conscious choice, positive energy, courage, and endurance to pull ourselves into the winners zone.

“True and sustainable success arrives when we choose to play in the winners zone.”

A close friend challenged me the other day. She said: ‘I am not sure if I really believe in this focus on winning, in the end you can still lose without being able to prevent it. For example, what if you are a tree among a group of trees, and you have grown yourself into a nice strong, big, tall standing tree? You are the best tree in the group. So you get picked out and cut down, because you are the most successful tree of them all!’

I liked the example. It shows that the difference between playing to win versus playing not to lose is not a simple black and white / right or wrong comparison. It takes conscious consideration to figure out what success actually means to us. In this example it actually comes down to the following question: do you prefer to be that strong, beautiful tree that everybody looks up to and admires for its top quality wood, even if you might be cut down for it? Or would you choose not to grow big, but to stay a small weak tree with a few skimpy branches and brown leaves; a tree that is unnoticed, not used, and left behind?

Ask yourself:

  • Do I really aim for the best? Or do I have multiple goals in the back of my mind: best and second best?
  • Am I willing to put all my effort into reaching the best? Or do I keep a part of my energy aside?
  • Do I act pro-actively; do I choose to play offensively? Or do I act re-actively, and play defensively?
  • Do I perceive ‘not-winning’ as a learning experience, as getting one step closer to success? Or do I calculate the chance of ‘not-winning’, and accept it as a possible end state?
  • Do I always keep the desired end result as my standard? Or do I accept to ‘poor water into my wine’ and to lower the bar?
  • Do I want to inspire others and have a positive and lasting impact on people? Or do I want to maximize my personal gain and try to keep it?

Choose! In which zone do you want to play? And what about the people you’re leading?

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Photo: frankieleon/Flickr (Creative Commons)


Aad Boot leaning against a door postAad is a global business advisor, change leader/program manager, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with senior executives and their organizations globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad, our services, and his keynotes. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization contact us.

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