Leadership lessons from King Arthur
In King Arthur's Round Table, Harvard professor David Perkins uses the metaphor of the Round Table to discuss how collaborative conversations create smarter organizations. The Round Table is one of the most familiar stories of Arthurian legend since it’s meant to shift power from the King who normally sat at the head of a long table and made long pronouncements while everyone else listened. By reducing hierarchy and making collaboration easier, Arthur discovered an important source of power - organizational intelligence - that allowed him to unite medieval England. According to Perkins, Organizational Intelligence is simply “how well people put their heads together in a group, team, organization or community.”
Perkins’ book is full of colorful metaphors, such as the lawnmower paradox that he uses to describe the fact that, while pooling physical effort is easy, pooling mental effort is hard. “It’s a lot easier for 10 people to collaborate on mowing a large lawn than for 10 people to collaborate on designing a lawnmower.” A round table, Perkins notes, makes a group a little more intelligent since it makes it a little easier to pool mental efforts.
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How people give feedback to each other is also a big component of organizational intelligence. Feedback is essential for individual, community and organizational growth and reflection but the bad news is that feedback often flops, which drives people apart.
Perkins identifies three types of feedback: negative, conciliatory and communicative. Direct, negative feedback is many times well-intended (since it’s “honest”) but it often leads to defensive reactions since receivers of negative feedback often feel misunderstood, personally attacked or don’t trust the intentions of the person giving the feedback. Conciliatory feedback is positive but vague and communicates little information. The most effective type of feedback is communicative. Balanced, respectful and honest, it communicates concerns and suggestions toward improvement.
In his book, Perkins offers a simple but effective communication model that can be used to strengthen the effectiveness of communications in a variety of situations. Here are the essential elements of Perkins’ Ladder of Feedback:
STEP ONE: Clarify
First, make sure that you’re clear about what the other person is trying to say. Be careful not to ask questions that are thinly-disguised criticisms.
STEP TWO: Value
Second, tell the other person what you like about their idea. Be as specific as possible to demonstrate that you understand what it is that they’re proposing. Don’t offer perfunctory praise that merely sets up your negatives.
STEP THREE: Concerns and suggestions
State the concerns you have about the idea that has been expressed. Don’t resort to sweeping judgments (“what’s wrong with your idea is…”) or personal attacks (“that’s a stupid idea”). Instead, use qualified terms, such as “I wonder if….” or “It seems to me…”
Besides introducing a practical methodology for effective group communication, Perkins stresses the importance of understanding your organization’s “contact architecture,” the “web of roles and communications between peer and peer, boss and subordinate, newbie and old-hand, in style formal and informal, in venues from boardrooms to mail rooms to bars after hours, by means from emails to meetings to conversations.”
Understanding your company’s contact architecture allows you to recognize and promote "developmental leaders” (in contrast to "authoritarian leaders") who are a transformative force within an organization. By ‘developmental leaders,’ Perkins means leaders, often not the most senior in the organization, "who show through their conduct what it is to think and work well with others, and who guide and coach others informally in patterns of collaboration."
Core take-away / summary
King Arthur, who broke with tradition by seating his knights at a round table, is a good metaphor for the type of collaborative leadership and culture that promotes organizational intelligence.
Communication - face-to-face and electronic, from the mailroom to the boardroom - is key to organizational success since the quality of your communications ultimately determines how smart your organization is. Like Arthur, business leaders today are increasingly seeing the value of understanding their organization’s communication and collaboration patterns in order to successfully mine the insight and wisdom of those around them.
About the author
Roger Smith, Technology Marketing Specialist at Hypersoft Information Systems, a 20-year-old software consulting firm specializing in Organizational and Operational Intelligence.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.