Leadership during times of change is not first and foremost about what you say, but about how you show up. I served as IBM’s Chief Communications Officer during a period of intense disruption of the business. IBM’s strategy was to accelerate its transformation towards cloud computing.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Edwards.
Ben is a consultant, coach, and founder of Full Sequence, an advisory firm focused on helping companies build businesses that can learn, adapt and create. He is also managing director of organizational performance at Gather, where he consults with large financial services, healthcare and insurance organizations. Ben has led product, design, marketing and engineering teams — as publisher of The Economist online, as head of corporate and digital marketing at IBM, as IBM’s chief communications officer, and as a vice president of product management at PayPal. As a leadership coach, Ben helps executives tap into their mighty internal resources to lead with authenticity, strength and service.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Let’s see. From foreign correspondent, to speechwriter, to publisher, to head of marketing, to chief communications officer, to VP of product management, to consultant, to business owner, to leadership coach. It all makes perfect sense to me!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I have a lot of those from my 15 years as a journalist and foreign correspondent. There was that time I nearly got killed by a drug lord at a nightclub in Yangon, Myanmar. (It was my birthday, and I was drunk) Or the moment outside the White House in Moscow when I got caught in the crossfire between an oligarch’s private army and unmarked security forces belonging to President Boris Yeltsin.
I think my favorite was a trip I made to Bratsk in Siberia in the early 1990s to interview a British guy who had taken a job as Chief Financial Officer of a Russian paper and pulp company. It was a godforsaken, Stalin-era eco-disaster of a town. The men stayed at home in crumbling tenement buildings getting drunk on cheap vodka. The women worked in the paper, pulp mill and the other local employer, an aluminum smelter. I interviewed the Brit just weeks after his boss, the CEO, had been assassinated by the Russian mafia, who were a minority shareholder and in disagreement with the company’s direction. That put a lot of corporate crises I had to deal with later in my career into a healthy perspective.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I love this quote from Julia Child, who brought her love of French cooking to Americans: “You’ll never know everything about anything, especially something you love.” It reminds me to focus my work, on what I love to do, and to approach mastery of it with humility, curiosity, and wonder.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
My leadership philosophies are heavily influenced by what I have learned about agile software development and lean manufacturing. As a foreign correspondent in Japan, I was able to see firsthand how Toyota puts its own philosophies into practice. One principle is that the line worker has as much authority to change how the line operates as the chairman of the company: those closest to the work and to the customer are in the best position to understand how the work should get done. It is one reason why Toyota is arguably the world’s pre-eminent learning organization. Sadly, it is also a practice that is foreign to much of American business, whose management (and enabling management consultants) remains far too top down to be able to build organizations that can learn in this way. If you’re interested, you can read about “The Toyota Way” in Jeffrey Liker’s excellent book of that name.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There’s my company. But there’s also the work I do as managing director of organizational performance with Gather. Gather has an interesting and unique model. It has no employees, as such. Instead, it’s a collective of individual creators, consultants and coaches who share a common philosophy of work and way of living. As a collective, we value independence, creativity, innovation, self organization, and an “opt in” culture that emphasizes choice in who we want to work with. It’s from the future and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of! What we sell and who we sell it to depends on the energies in the network, and when people feel motivated to come together to make something. As an example: I’m working with my colleague Stephanie Redlener to put together a coaching offering around employee burnout. We both feel highly motivated to do something about this topic because, as coaches, we have experienced firsthand over the past year how the pandemic has made a bad situation so much worse.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
What is success to you? So many of us (me included in earlier parts of my career) chase recognition and acknowledgement from others — through titles, salaries, and lifestyles. It is a fool’s game. There is always going to be someone richer, more successful, and higher up than you. Even Jeff Bezos has Elon Musk to torture him! True, sustainable success comes from understanding what work fulfills you and dedicating your life to mastering it. What interests you? How do you want to engage with the world? How do you belong in the world through your work? The answers to these questions may not be clear to you. But you will not go far wrong if you commit your life to looking for them.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
There was a C-suite officer at an organization I worked for who once shared his management style with the entire company during a town hall meeting by saying: “I like to get all the liars in the room and let them fight it out to see who is telling the truth.” What struck me as I listened to him was: what on earth are we doing employing this man at all, let alone in the leadership position he is in? Sadly, toxic (and mostly male) leadership remains too common. We can do so much better!
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
You can choose to lead by inspiring fear, or greatness. People who lead from the creative, growth-oriented part of themselves will always choose greatness. To inspire greatness as a leader, you must be a great listener. Greatness comes from within, and every one of us is unique. So spend time having the people you lead teach you about themselves. As you understand the greatness inside them, put yourself as a leader in service of it. It is the servant leader’s belief in the greatness of others that inspires higher performance. Finally, trust the strength of your team. Understand your weaknesses and blind spots and surround yourself with people who can complement your strengths. Learn how to activate the power of your team through trust, safety, open communications and productive conflict.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
The higher you rise in an organization, the more the job boils down to just two things: strategy and people. Create and communicate a simple, clear and consistent strategy. And build a team you can delegate to effectively. That’s it! Any leader who goes beyond this into the realm of action inevitably ends up doing more harm than good. It’s a tough lesson to learn and hard to live by. But as leaders we must remove ourselves from the fray. As one leader shared with me: “The higher up you go, the bigger the stone in your hand. Be careful before you throw it into the pond.”
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
CEOs and executives are humans too. They can be noble, inspiring and full of greatness. They can also be petty, mean, and spiteful. They can make great decisions. They can make awful mistakes. They can exercise enormous self-control. And they can lose their shit. Do not expect anything more, or less.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
So many of the biggest leadership questions resolve to culture. How do we create a culture that supports more (take your pick) innovation, collaboration, engagement, learning, or growth? The mistake leaders tend to make is to think that their own leadership team should somehow be held separate from the rest of the company. “We lead the company. We get paid a lot of money. We’re different and should hold ourselves to different standards,” is the way the thinking goes. But the number one way employees figure out a company’s culture is to look at how their leaders behave with each other. Want to stop bullying? Stop bullying each other. Want to encourage learning and innovation? Engage with each other in creative and generative ways. Want to reduce burnout and employee turnover? Look after your own mental health and wellbeing.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Far too few leaders pay attention to what happens between strategy and execution. Usually it is nothing good. Good execution is hard. It is orders of magnitude harder than good strategy. Great leadership understands this and pays attention — by observing how the work is going, by asking questions, by encouraging teams to surface impediments to their success, and by helping to remove the ones that teams cannot resolve themselves.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Leadership during times of change is not first and foremost about what you say, but about how you show up. I served as IBM’s Chief Communications Officer during a period of intense disruption of the business. IBM’s strategy was to accelerate its transformation towards cloud computing. To truly convince a very large number of people that you are sincere about changing an organization, and committed to making it happen, requires you to show them what that means — in how you show up as a leader, and how you behave as a leadership team. This means paying focused attention not just to strategy and words, but to how you interact with each other as a leadership team, and your own way of “being” as a leader. These signals are immensely powerful in setting and cascading culture down the organization. And culture is the only real lever you have to drive change.
- Put yourself in service of the people and the organization you lead. As Dr Rachel Naomi Remen puts it in a wonderful essay called “Helping, Fixing or Serving”: “When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.”
- Look after yourself! Working at the top of an organization is incredibly demanding. Make sure you put your own health and wellbeing at the very top of your priorities. That means taking care of your mind, body and spirit. We can only look after others well when we have properly looked after ourselves first. As PayPal’s CEO Dan Schulman tells his leadership team: put your own oxygen mask on first before you try to help the person sitting next to you.
- Be kinder and more compassionate towards yourself. You will be a much better leader for it.
- The C-suite relies so much on thinking. But as human beings, we are so much more than our thoughts. It is just not true that “I think, therefore I am.” I am also my feelings. And I have access to the extraordinary wisdom of my body, which cannot lie. To deny this is to be divided from ourselves. True, authentic leadership — the kind of leadership that we as human beings trust instinctively — means leading not just with the mind, but by accessing and being in a healthy relationship to our feelings and our bodies too. As humans, we trust what is human. And that is what being human means.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Start with how you spend your time with each other as a leadership team. What are you honoring when you prioritize these activities? What are you telling the rest of the company about what you value, and what you consider important — as well as what you do not? Take a hard look at yourselves through clear eyes. Hire a coach to tell you what they see, hear and feel. Remove what is not needed. Add what is needed. The rest will follow.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I am struck by our obsession as leaders with AI. How about we start with I? The human brain is by far the most complex known structure in the universe. AI has not begun to get close to the power, flexibility and adaptability of human intelligence. As a leader, you may have hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of these human brains in your organization. Be honest now. How well do you harness their collective potential?
How can our readers further follow you online?
My company: www.fullsequence.com
Thought leadership: www.patternsofwork.com
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!