Features

Centered Leadership

An Interview with Joanna Barsh, Sr. Partner, McKinsey & Co

SP: Can you tell us how the passion for the Centered Leadership idea came about and how the journey has been so far?

It was a creative process, when I decided to stop becoming ‘invisible’ to the world. In 2007, serendipity struck and I was asked to help reinvent the Women’s task force at McKinsey. The McKinsey Leadership Project was an initiative designed to help professional women at McKinsey and elsewhere to ‘learn what drives and sustains successful female leaders. We wanted to help younger women navigate the paths to leadership and, at the same time, to learn how organizations could get the best out of this talented group.’

We did a quick scan across various academic articles, researched in leadership, organization behavior, evolutionary psychology and other fields, but nothing presented itself as an answer. It was then that I felt that we were on the cusp of something new… it was then that the concept of centered leadership began to take form. It became quickly apparent that this topic was very close to women, many of whom had been struggling with the same questions of self confidence, managing work life balance and reenergizing self.

In 2008, I decided that I needed to be more vested in this idea and really take it to the next level. I reduced my consulting focus to 20% and chose to focus on this 80% of my time. We talked to amazing men and women, diverse people and researched books, articles and other academic journals. In 2009, we published our book and we received amazing feedback. Almost immediately we had hundreds of organizations calling us because this concept had struck a chord with them. The momentum has been building steadily till now. I have gone back to client work (65%), and I currently spend some of my time now building the idea into a workshop form.

SP: Could you tell us more about the model?

We interviewed many women around the world (and a few good men) who are successful in diverse fields. From the interviews and other research, we have distilled a leadership model comprising five broad and interrelated dimensions:

–Meaning: finding your strengths and putting them to work in the service of an inspiring purpose.

–Managing energy: knowing where your energy comes from, where it goes, and what you can do to manage it.

–Positive framing: adopting a more constructive way to view your world, expand your horizons and gain the resilience to move ahead even when bad things happen.

–Connecting: identifying who can help you grow, building stronger relationships, and increasing your sense of belonging.

–Engaging: finding your voice, becoming self-reliant and confident by accepting opportunities and the inherent risks they bring, and collaborating with others.

SP: Thank you for sharing, that sounds amazing! I have a question about stereotyping for women. Your theory seems to suggest that we should take charge of ourselves and push ourselves to take advantage of opportunities that would come up. However, research suggests that working women who promote their own interests vigorously are seen as aggressive, uncooperative, and selfish. So how do you find the right balance between the two?

Being a leader in turbulent and challenging times is very hard, and to be more effective leaders today need to build a set of skills so that they can handle such complex times. The Centered leadership framework will not tell you what’s the right way to be, but can equip you with tools you might need to manage yourself in such situations. The framework is really helping you to be the best person you can be!

SP: What has this journey meant for you?

Personally, this has been a journey that has been possible because of my family’s support. I have shifted my behavior as a woman, as a Senior Partner and as a mother – in terms of how I find meaning in what I do, how though I am pessimistic I have learnt to be more optimistic and how to cope with my fears. I have so much more energy now and I feel more connected with myself and with my environment.

SP: Can you talk about your time at HBS? Which aspects did you like least?

I remember my first 4 months at HBS – they were among the most frightening times ever. I think I cried every night! I felt I was part of an experiment at HBS since I had no math and science background. I spent late hours every night and I was constantly stressed out. But I graduated from HBS in 1981 (Section A) as a Baker Scholar! In large part, because I formed a study group that was amazing! There were 3 other people in my group – one a Canadian, who was great at accounting and finance; second, an American, with amazing knowledge computer systems and a strong quantitative background; and a third guy, also American, who was pretty much good at everything. I often questioned what I brought to them, but I then realized that I brought to the group my ability to form a community. After that, I began to have a great time here.

What I didn’t like: I didn’t like the very aggressiveness of the approach here – it’s a very similar world to that of consulting, where one is 100% focused on the task. I remember a time when my LEAD professor set the stage for a discussion, and a student rose to the question the professor posed. I was furious with the answer and I knew that I had to speak up. My professor looked at me and he probably saw the fury in my eyes and let me speak, and when I spoke, my comments brought the house down. At the end, he actually threw a chalk piece at me! I realized then that I had to learn to speak up and take a stand in class. It was as much about leading the conversation forward and helping to contribute to the class environment as about how the conversation was led! Of course, my LEAD Prof and I became best friends after this episode!

SP: What advice would you have about using time at HBS?

I have two pieces of advice for you:

First, speak up! If you are not speaking up, whether at work or in the class, it is because your own fear is constraining you. Don’t let your fear hold you back from your growth!

Secondly, really take the time to get to know people! I remember a time with another classmate, Anand, with whom I worked with on a filming a play. I barely knew him, all I remember was that he was from India and his wife was sweet. The other day, I saw in Time magazine a feature on Anand! Turns out he was Anand Mahindra!

So, look around you – there are remarkable people present at HBS with you. Look at people through the lens of Centered Leadership and you’ll know how amazing they really are! My biggest regret has been not getting to know enough people at HBS – make it your business to connect with your classmates and really get to know them.

SP: Thank you Joanna! It has been a pleasure to speak with you! The workshop has gotten fantastic reviews and we look forward to having you on campus again!

December 6, 2010
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