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Herminia Ibarra: 'Act Like a Leader Think Like a Leader'

The best way to break out of negative management mindsets is to create new projects, challenges and tasks. This practical, hands-on approach will break the cycle of micromanagement, says author Herminia Ibarra.

Just in case anyone out there has ever wondered how many leadership and management titles there are circulating the globe, I will deliver the figure. There are 70,000 - yes, seventy thousand - books on how to be better at bossing people about currently on Amazon.

If you were to read one of these per hour it would take you a decade to read them all. Even if you did that, the chances are you'd know hardly anything more than when you started. Such is the contradictory, inconsistent and modish nature of management advice that it's'often difficult to pick out anything practical that can apply to real world leadership.

Herminia Ibarra's latest offering - 'Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader' - is a breath of fresh air, standing out from the crowd because it actually addresses a common failing in management, while offering an actionable solution.

A business and leadership academic at the respected business school INSEAD, Ibarra herself describes her book as introducing a way of allowing professionals to "grow into bigger leadership roles. It shows that the best way to step into them is to act your way into a new way of thinking, rather than the other way around."

The idea is not to get bogged down in introspection and analysis of who you are as a leader, but to branch out into diversifying the activities you perform, creating new relationships that she defines as 'outsight' - her neologism for external perspective. "That's what you need when you are moving into something completely different from your past experience."

Ibarra is keen to hitch this train of thought specifically to the engineering and technology management space, where she explains that there is a high proportion of 'accidental managers.' We all know who they are: accidental managers are the bright, energetic design engineers or software authors who have been promoted out of their technological comfort zone, because their bosses mistakenly think that if they're good at computing orbital mechanics on the back of a gas bill, it follows that they will make great leaders. Of course, it rarely works that way, so what you're left with are previously fulfilled technical professionals who are now dealing with holiday request forms and disputes over car parking spaces.

"It's not just that engineers have a technical skillset, it is also that their identity is technical. They don't naturally identify as leaders and they don't necessarily want to be one." What happens is that engineers find themselves in these new roles and "try to continue as producers and they get stuck in a competency trap, where the individual concentrates on what they are good at. But the problem here is that you don't learn anything new and you don't grow new management muscles." Focusing on what you know creates the further problem for the accidental manager, which is that their network becomes limited at a time when it should be rapidly expanding.

Networking is the business equivalent of polishing your shoes before going to work: you know you really should do it, but it's a pain and it doesn't really make any material difference to anything, does it? According to Ibarra it certainly does, because one of the biggest mistakes you can make as a leader is to "hang around with people who see the world as you do. All that does is reinforce your current identity and mindset. That makes it very hard to be a leader because you are not giving yourself access to people who can help open your eyes to the big picture and help you to understand how to position your work, or your team. Your work is no longer about having the right technological solution or conceptual design. It's about selling these ideas to the people who are going to be responsible for making it happen."

The underlying point is that when you make the transition from the vertical world of engineering to the horizontal one of management "you have to start looking at yourself differently. And this isn't going to happen by being introspective about the 'true you', because the true you has a technical mindset. The way you will get to see yourself differently is by doing things that are really outside your comfort zone."

Our biggest fear is that we will become a caricature of the sort of manager we used to criticise.. It feels like the final insult to find ourselves suckered into making the same mistakes that professional managers routinely make. So how do we avoid that particular pitfall? For Ibarra this is the key question to be address, because "to be effective as a leader we need to do things which come to us least naturally. It's a counter-intuitive proposition."

Learn how to network

Ibarra thinks that one of the most important parts of her book for the engineer is her chapter on networking: how to make it valuable, enjoyable and interesting "and how it could take you in directions you have never imagined." For her, the cardinal sin of contemporary management is that of micro-management, where people become control freaks. "There are people who don't like to manage and don't do it well. In these cases they don't give enough direction, are hands-off and expect people to read their minds. When people fail to grasp what it is they want, they become stressed and intervene in a micro-management way." This applies to people in the technical space especially because they are already expert in one field and yet find themselves floundering in another that they had expected to find easy, regarding it as a so-called 'soft skill'.

"What happens in cases like this is that those being managed then delegate upwards to the manager. This creates a trap because you are never able to create the freedom to do higher-value things." Ibarra's research has shown that this trap cannot be avoided simply by getting people to think about it. "You have to move them into a space where they start doing other things: add projects that will grab interest and become more challenging. Once people are figuring out stuff like that, they don't micromanage any more."'*

'Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader' by Herminia Ibarra is now out in hardback from Harvard Business Review Press, £19.99

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