Herminia Ibarra: An interview by Bob Morris


Herminia Ibarra is the Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning and Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD. Prior to joining INSEAD she served on the Harvard Business School faculty for thirteen years. She is a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Councils, a judge for the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, and Chairs the Visiting Committee of the Harvard Business School. Thinkers 50 ranked Ibarra #9 among the most influential business gurus in the world.

Ibarra is an expert on professional and leadership development. One of her books, Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), documents how people reinvent themselves at work. Her numerous articles are published in leading journals including the Harvard Business Review, Administrative Science Quarterly, Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Journal, and Organization Science. Her research has been profiled in a wide range of media including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and The Economist. She teaches in a variety of INSEAD programs and consults internationally on talent management, leadership development, and women’s careers. A native of Cuba, Ibarra received her M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University where she was a National Science Fellow.

Her latest book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, was published by Harvard Business Review Press (2015).

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Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Ibarra: I started my research career studying informal networks of relationships in organizations. I saw their power to shape people’s ability to get things done and advance in their careers. So I started to study what shapes people’s networks, what makes some people build networks more proactively than others and what kinds of networks they need to make important career transitions. I discovered that identity, our sense of who we are and who we want to become, is a powerful force in shaping the social circles that in turn affect us so significantly. I haven’t stopped studying how our identities evolve ever since.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Ibarra: I’ve always been an academic but I have always taught in business schools. When you teach people who do not want to grow up to be like you no matter how successful you are (because they want to be business people)
you learn fast that it’s not “what you know” but your capacity to make it relevant for others that matters.

Morris: From which non– business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Ibarra: It’s hard to pick just one! One book that has made an enduring impression on me is developmental psychologist Donald Winnicott’s book, Playing and Reality. Winnicott described how children imagine various possibilities for themselves in the future, and they play out these possibilities via games, daydreams and make-believe explorations. The play world they create is in many ways a rehearsal for the “real” world.

This book was a source of some of the ideas I have developed about the importance of being more playful with one’s sense of self as an adult and how one actually does that.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Ibarra: Anyone who is successful is vulnerable to what I call “competency traps.” A competency traps occurs when you enjoy most what you do best, so you do more of it and you get even better at it, so that it becomes hard to justify the time and investment required to get someone else to your “expert level.” It’s just faster and better done when you do it yourself. Over time, you come to define yourself by that competency, making it even harder to delegate that work to someone else. People will wittingly or unwittingly help you out, by refusing ownership and by passing the buck on to you. That’s how you get stuck. And of course, there is an opportunity cost: the time you are spending on routine work you might delegate is time you are not spending on more strategic activities.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Ibarra: That’s an easy one. Loads of research shows that our brain are wired for stories. We pay more attention to stories than to other sorts of information, we store them differently and we retain them better. Since leaders must be great communicators they are by definition great storytellers. It also helps a lot to have to repeat yourself all the time (and to speak in public all the time). Stories get infinitely better with practice and repetition.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Ibarra: Today we have companies, jobs and kinds of careers we didn’t have five years ago. The world of work is changing too fast. Without a strong external perspective on your industry, your company job and your self, you cannot even survive.

Morris: Here’s a question I have wanted to ask you since I first read your brilliant book. Is it possible to “act like a leader” even if there are no followers?

Ibarra: A very young journalist who interviewed me told me how she applied the lessons of my book. She had a part time, temporary job on a beat that was not the one she wanted. She noticed that her full time colleagues had more work than they could get done. So she asked them to pass on some of the stories they were working on to her. She was a good writer and she did a great job. When an opening came up for a full time job in the areas she wanted came up, guess who got it? Acting like a leader simply means looking for opportunities to add value and contribute beyond your formal job definition.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question. Do people who “act like a leader” then have significantly better skills such as situation analysis, setting goals, and decision-making? Please explain.

Ibarra: So, I haven’t studied this directly but the answer would have to be “yes” because acting like leader is defined as working across organizational boundaries and social circles. And, there is much evidence that shows that leaders who inform themselves with broader, less insular inputs make better decisions.

Morris: Here is a two-part question. First, what is outsight? How specifically can outsight help leaders be more effective in a global marketplace in which there are significant cultural differences and substantial economic inequalities?

Ibarra: Outsight is the fresh, external perspective you can get when you do new and different things — plunge ourselves into new projects and activities, interact with very different kinds of people, and experiment with new ways of getting things done — and then observe the results of your actions. It’s the opposite of learning by self-reflection, in which we seek insight on our past behaviors.

You can’t have outsight if you have what I call “narcissistic & lazy” networks,” which are networks composed of people who are just like you and who hang out in the same places you do. Outsight changes the way you think about what kind of relationships matter in informing and supporting your leadership.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Where to begin?

Ibarra: People become leaders by doing leadership work. The thing that stifles personal growth and personal development most in organizations is a lack of access to stretch jobs and assignments in which people can develop their leadership skills. This usually happens because bosses find people too useful where they and just keep them there way past the top of their learning curve or because bosses are too risk averse in making new appointments. CEOs should not offload these crucial people development processes to HR but rather should play an active role in shaping them.

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Herminia cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

INSEAD faculty link

Her website link

Amazon Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader link

HBR link

Thinkers50 link

Twitter link

“Facing Career Crosroads” video link

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