Lina Echeverría: An interview by Bob Morris

EcheverriaLina Echeverría spent twenty-five years inspiring creativity and accelerating innovation at Corning Incorporated, one of America’s leading technology companies, that provided the world with everything from the optical fiber that enabled the Internet to the tough glass used for iPhones. Echeverría led teams of scientists and researchers that developed everything from ceramic filters for car exhausts, glasses for TV screens, optical glasses, and dinnerware.

At Corning, Echeverría created an environment where scientists were creative and productive; and teams balanced the ability to explore the edges of possibility, while delivering critical new technology on time and on budget. Echeverría was known not just for her ability to effectively lead and manage (and keep happy) creative scientists, but also for her ability to teach those skills to others. During her career, she led teams and organizations in the US and in France.

A native of Colombia, Echeverría was the first woman to seek admission and graduate in engineering geology from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia at Medellín, inspiring a generation of women who followed. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in geology at Stanford.

Echeverría stepped aside from the corporate world to help create cultures of innovation inside companies and organizations. The mother of two children, she is fluent in English, Spanish and French, and lives in upstate New York with her husband, a research scientist. Her last book, Idea Agent: Leadership that Liberates Creativity and Accelerates Innovation, was published by AMACOM (November 2012).

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Morris: Before discussing Idea Agent, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Echeverría: With a start point of learning about providing constructive feedback, the guidance and dialogues with Dasarath Davidson opened the door for me to rich concepts on the spirit of leadership, empowerment and, mostly self-awareness. He understood my approach to leading groups and growing people and gave me the tools so the experience would be fulfilling, not frustrating, enriching, not draining. He was deep, demanding, and relentless and taught me much about commitment and courage and, importantly, the practice of balancing passion and detachment, the only way to face tough situations.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Echeverría: My advisor at Stanford, Bob Coleman, had a great impact in giving me wings, while raising the bar for every thing I did. He would put me on center stage of interesting challenges and opportunities, new to me and significant to him, and never failed to trust in me. He gave me a sense of empowerment that is still priceless—and terrific approaches, like his demand for “three options” for every challenge one faces.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Echeverría: I believe the greatest value of a formal education is that it surrounds you with people who are sharper than yourself, forcing you to bring out the best in you; it opens doors to fields and people and ways of doing things that enlarge your own. One has no idea if the field that you train for is going to be applicable to future activities. For many that is indeed the case: they keep on going deeper and deeper to become the world’s experts in one field. But not for all. I went into geology because I fell in love with rocks, in the field and under the microscope, and with the puzzle of mountain building. I had no idea that it would lead me to glass chemistry and on the corporate world.

Morris: Here are a few of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Echeverría: Funny you should start with one of my very favorite quotations, from the sixth century BC Lao Tzu—though I have known it in a different form:

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists,
not so good when people obey and acclaim him,
worst when they despise him.

“Fail to honor people,
they fail to honor you.”
But of a good leader, who talks little,
when his work is done, his aim fulfilled
the people will say, ‘We did this ourselves’ “

It is a timeless and compelling description of authentic leadership. It talks about things that are essential to authentic leadership such as empowerment and leadership as service (as opposed to self-aggrandizement).

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Echeverría: This one takes us back to the previous one, as often those who “have found the truth” believe themselves to be superior, hence the fallacy of their own position.

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Echeverría: The genius of Oscar Wilde is hard to match. So is his sarcastic humor. And in this one, he pairs them both.

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Echeverría: An earlier version of the need for “out of the box” thinking. Or “paradigm shift”. Too bad the concepts have become clichés, rather than understood and truly used, as Einstein extols us. Perhaps this is simply proof of how hard it is to break old habits.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Echeverría: Efficiency is often the great enemy of significance. But it has a lot of clout, and often takes first place in initiatives.

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Echeverría: I read this as a call for empowerment, a concept that I resonate with, that I have relied on, and that I have seen produce amazing results. Empowerment is about distributing authority in a group, it is about encouraging accountability to release the full power of its members, and about delivering BIG. Rather than weakening and debilitating the influence of a leader, as may be feared, in reality this commitment between organization and leader has compelling sway in unleashing and driving high performance.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Echeverría: I would have a hard time predicting which mistakes one should aim for. It is just as hard as predicting which ideas will succeed and which will fail. They are both exercises in futility. What I would advocate is that space for mistakes be made, that safety nets below the tall branches where the daring need to climb be in place. If one needs to test the organization’s and leader’s deeply held assumptions, just give space to the members of the organization to define best practices; to think the un-thought of, to come up with ideas and push them through. As they do so, give them space to question. Their questioning will uncover those deeply-held beliefs and assumptions that, as your Peter Drucker quotation suggests, often point in directions better left untouched.

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

Echeverría: Delegation is an important component of empowering others. The empowering stand of leading to bring out the best in others is about believing in people and being committed to their success and well-being. It is about seeing their potential—even before they do—and developing it, creating opportunities for them to walk into and grow, raising the bar and challenging people to stretch and expand. But it is also about raising the performance of an organization to achieve unprecedented results. Unfortunately, empowering is often interpreted as lack of authority and inability to control.

As to their reasons for not delegating, leaders are often beleaguered by desires identified with leadership—success, acclaim, influence, authority, control, fame, fortune, relationships, status—and their leadership experience becomes one of repeating actions that result in the pleasing reaction. Furthermore, at other side of the coin of desire appears the fear of not having what we desire. The mirror image of what we desire is what we often fear. If we desire authority and control, we dread delegation and empowerment. Leaders who desire control and authority are seldom those who are willing to delegate and empower.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Echeverría: When you say “change initiative,” I hear “transformational change,” as in culture transformation. I would say that most of these initiatives fail more because of the approach, rather than being the victims of resistance. In the last decades these culture transformation initiatives were large scale efforts, dictated by the CEO, and driven by a large consultancy. The vision, communicated through memos and bullet points and fancy posters, was far removed from the heart of the organization. Culture transformation is best done starting at the heart of smaller groups, by leaders who are passionate about their vision, who can articulate it powerfully, can liberate the spirit of their teams, and understand that their participation is essential, but their control is not. If these smaller transformations are happening in several places inside a larger organization, with the support and auspices of upper leadership, they will ripple through the mother organization and transform it. And the timeline will be an order of magnitude shorter than in the “dictated from above” approach.

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

Echeverría: The greatest challenge for CEOs does not change much with time: it is authentic leadership. For sure, there is currently unprecedented pressure to deliver shareholder value through corporate growth, to innovate for survival, to understand how to be creative AND to execute. But the real challenge is leadership.

Integrity, acting consistently with who we are, what we stand for, and what we are here to do, is the defining value of authentic leadership. Being true to one’s self necessitates a clear awareness of who we are and of our values, principles, and beliefs, and how we live them, from where it becomes the core of our personal strength.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Idea Agent. When and why did you decide to write it?

Echeverría: In my last few years at Corning I had been invited to lecture about my management practices, which had forced me to gain an overview of what I was doing and how I was doing it. But with the intense pace of a corporate leadership position competing for time with other aspects of my life, it would have probably stayed there. It was cancer who knocked on my door and forced my hand. I battled an aggressive form of breast cancer that, though diagnosed early, had already metastasized to my lymph nodes. There was an 18% chance of long-term survival. I retired after two draining years of chemo, mastectomy, radiation. And I understood that life was showing me the way—as it always does—and my activities were to change. Radically. There was now the space for that creative force to come through, to put my experience in writing and share it with the world.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Echeverría: Frankly, I did not have a preconceived notion. I had the framework that I had used when lecturing and making presentations. I knew that I wanted to tell the story of all those who had worked with me. It was really their story that was worth telling.

Early on in my writing process Robert Burgelman, of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, in reacting to a short summary of my Seven Passions, suggested that I include my personal story. “There are many books on innovation,” he said, adding “Your story is what makes yours unique.” This is something that I had not envisioned doing. I wanted the “creatives” (and I use this term as a noun, as they do in the world of advertising) to be the central players, but he made a strong case for it.

With the notion of just sitting down, following my seven passions framework, and letting the intuitive flow tell the story, I went to the mountains of Colombia, to a lovely place in the coffee growing region of the country, for a ‘writer’s retreat’ (the first of several for the book), stopping along the way in Medellín, where I grew up. My older sister, Dora Lutz, an architect who had witnessed and participated in the writing process of her deceased husband — Manuel Mejía Vallejo, one of Colombia’s foremost writers—gave me a wonderful piece of advice: “Do not hold back,” she said, “write everything that comes to you, for it is easier to edit out later than to insert.” And so I did. I let it flow, including some chronicles of how my life had shaped the perspective that I would develop on each of the Seven Passion. Chris Bergonzi, a former editor of the MIT Sloan Management Review and a dear friend, upon reading earlier versions of the manuscript, was a big supporter of the richness of this chronicle of life approach. And so the “Personal Journeys” of the book were born.

Morris: What is the most important point to be made about each of the Seven Passions of Innovation? First, “Looking creative conflict in the eyes and flexing for resolution”

Echeverría: Conflict is not something to be shunned away, but to be understood, faced and managed and, by so doing, to be enriched by it. I lead with this passion because its relevance is so seldom understood, and the courage and serenity needed to face it often goes missing. Avoid conflict at your own risk is perhaps the key point. Where was the voice of the dissenter in the project that failed? Even worse, on the project that failed publicly—The Space Challenger, the Dreamliner? Probably left on the sidelines, without reaching the discussion at the table.

Morris: Also, “Bringing together teams of diverse, highly intelligent people freely in a way that engages their deepest personal motivations”

Echeverría: To get everybody’s best performance, a leader needs to give them wings. Or, better, encourage them to find and use their own wings. Bringing the best and the brightest around a table while wearing strait jackets does not take you very far. The three golden rules here (as in conflict management) are: Know your people. Know your people. Know your people. And have the guts to set them free.

Morris: Then, “Living values that set creativity free”

Echeverría: It is not a new concept that values are the grounding force of a culture. They define it. And they can be rigid or they can be liberating. I encourage leaders to define values that are liberating. And I believe that it is up to each leader to define which are those values, because the values chosen need to be values that are deeply embraced by the leader, lived every moment of the day, illustrated by every single action.

Morris: Next, “Insisting on excellence and results”

Echeverría: This is the other side of an act of balancing forces that is the very essence of liberating creativity AND executing. Setting creativity free and defining liberating values is not about creating a culture of freewheeling mayhem. An insistence on excellence and results, an expectation that the participation of all is expected, to the best of their abilities, as part of a larger system, is the only way to deliver.

Morris: And now the fifth, “Cultivating a culture that honors time for intuitive flow”

Echeverría: The intuitive flow is where ideas come from, where solutions to puzzling issues “magically” appear. Every creative person has experienced it, though few may be able to explain it, and none can “schedule” it. It is a flow that is hard to tune to when the mind is in a frenzy of busy activity. So an essential part of creating a culture where new ideas will thrive is to protect the time of the creatives so that they may tune into this flow. Not on “Friday afternoons” as is practiced by some, but whenever the inspiration strikes. Create space by decluttering their agendas of unnecessary meetings and reports and time management activities. Create space by making them responsible for results, not for hours of work. Create space by trusting them, not hovering over them.

Morris: And the sixth, “Defining an organizational structure that guides, but allows solutions to come from many permutations of talent and function”

Echeverría: Going back to the act of balancing forces that I mentioned above, defining a clear structure falls on the side of demanding excellence: these two are forces of rigor that provide a necessary balance to the expansive forces of setting creativity free, providing space, liberating spirits, celebrating accomplishments. A clear definition of the role of every player, their specific responsibilities and their links to other players prevents unproductive conflict, allows for information sharing and flow and streamlines delivery.

Morris: Finally, “Providing authentic leadership with the will to manage, the guts to decide, the wisdom to guide, and the passion to make innovation happen”

Echeverría: This is it. Leadership is it. Yes, the group starts with the creatives. But it is leadership, authentic leadership, than brings it to sing in harmony. Leadership who is happy to take the pain and who understands the reason for it all: to serve those in the group.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of an idea agent?

Echeverría: To name a few: A driving passion for the endeavor. A deep concern and care for people. Profound respect for people. The energy and attitude to make things happen. An understanding of the subject matter, though not necessarily to be the subject matter expert. Rather, a willingness to learn from the experts, rather than compete with them.

Morris: When hiring, for example, how best to identify a [begin italics] high potential] idea agent?

Echeverría: In much the same way as the traits of a creative person may not be clearly defined at an early age, it may be difficult to spot a potential “idea agent.” When hiring what really matters is to be able to spot the best in the field, the ones that show a spark for life, those who have interests beyond their work, reflected in their hobbies, activities and interactions with others and the community. And to give them the space to develop, the support to flourish. If you know them closely you will be able to spot the specialists who want to be left alone in developing the state of the art in the field, and assign them differently from the potential functional leaders who can develop others and look after competencies, and from the potential project leaders who can define project timelines and whip participants without destroying them and deliver results on time.

Morris: Most project teams either fail or fall far short of original expectations. In your opinion, why?

Echeverría: I beg to differ. I have experienced many a project team that has delivered, even in cases of chasing moving targets.

Morris: How best to create an innovation team “that really works”?

Echeverría: Read the book!

Morris: I wholly agree with you about the importance of asking the right questions. Which do you suggest when a supervisor meets a new direct report for the first time?

Echeverría: There is no set rule, other than to have a strong interest in human beings, to let the energy of the interaction be your guide. I like to know the person behind the specialist: to find out that there is a chocolate baker stored inside the engineer, a musician hidden behind the surgeon, a painter backing an architect. I may ask about their lives, their upbringing, the latest book they have read. And I prefer open questions that do not carry assumptions. I will not ask about their wife or husband, but I may ask whether their house-hunting has been fruitful. It may open up an interesting conversation. And that may give me a view into their drive to make their dreams come true.

Morris: In your opinion, which questions should be asked when attempting to get an accurate measurement of progress thus far?

Echeverría: Are you referring to project progress? If so, there should be clear milestones for the project, and those will give you an accurate measurement of progress. Project reviews will give you and overview. A frank discussion with the project leader will go deeper. These, however, may not reflect the “why’s” of the progress or lack of it. As Tom MacAvoy of the Darden School of Business has said, innovation is the most socially complex of all business processes. To understand the why’s there is no better measurement than direct dialogue with project manager and project team members. “How do they see it?” “What are they missing?” “What is on their way? “And, a most important one, “How are you feeling?”, and “Why?”

Morris: Why do creatives “clamor for structure”? What is the significance of that?

Echeverría: The creative spirits want to do what they loves to do: to follow the vision, or the answer that comes intuitively, to use the mastery of their skills and pursue a path that makes it into a reality. The complexity of today’s issues—in health, high tech, biodiversity or engineering—requires the bringing of many disciplines together to take individual creativity into materialized innovation. If you know your creatives you will also know that most — though not all — couldn’t care less about project timelines or product differential advantages. They understand these are key concepts, but what they want, and what the organization needs them to do, is freedom to do their stuff. So an organizational structure is needed around them. One that allows for the free flow of work and progress, that eliminates second guessing (Who needs to know what and by when? Who is calling the shots?): a clear organization, with clear roles and responsibilities for all and links between all. For the creatives, this translates into freedom: somebody else is managing the flow, the politics, the resource allocation. They need, and demand, to know who has responsibility for what. They can then go about their things and when something is needed, a resource, a resolution, a choice, it is clear to them whom to go to. Their energy is unencumbered by issues uninteresting to them, and work proceeds. You are then on your way to delivery.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of “authentic” leadership?

Echeverría: Authentic leadership emphasizes integrity and understates status and title. It focuses on serving others and shies away from aggrandizing the self. At the core of genuine leadership is a clear sense of self-acceptance by the leader, which comes from strong and unrelenting work leading to self-awareness. These two qualities, self-acceptance and self-awareness, are the foundation of leadership as service that is expressed through courage, integrity, and empathy toward others, allowing a culture of empowerment to emerge.

Morris: On Page 228, you observe, “My cultural learning was underway when I came to understand two theses central to my new surroundings: the insistence on maintaining a clear delineation between work and personal life, and the importance of subordinates as a marker of professional advancement.”

Here’s my question: In your opinion, what seems to be the [begin italics] more difficult [end italics] to manage. Why?

Echeverría: I am not sure I understand your question. The observation of page 228 refers to cultural differences that I found as I immersed myself in leading a European organization based in France, differences that contrasted to my experience in the US. I understand your question on the “more difficult” to manage as personality-driven, which may have a low cultural correlation. Some people demand constant attention; others have conflictive personalities and seem to create ruckus every step of their way; others are insecure in their path and need to be supported to learn to stand firm on their own. You may find them regardless of cultural context. I have seen them in people from the US, China, Europe and Latin America. Yes, these personality types may take more time, great ingenuity, savvy, wisdom, patience, you name it. But if you have interest in people growth and empathy towards all of them, they are not “difficult” to manage. Understanding them, coaching, challenging, giving them support and resources are par for the course in leading human beings. And doing so is well worth the effort: it pays back in results. And in a wonderful feeling for the leader, to boot!

Morris: Of all that you have learned during your years at Corning, which single lesson did you learn from your experiences in these areas. First, leadership

Echeverría: The greatest my responsibilities, the largest my groups, the most visible my assignment, the more I realized that leadership is not about serving your thirst for ambition or power, or control, but about serving others. Leadership takes guts and brings on pain, and pairs these two with the illusion of superiority and power. But leadership is service, pure and simple.

Morris: Corporate politics

Echeverría: Corporate politics is just a reality in any organization. Coming from a Latino background, where networking was second nature, I found that corporate politics was just about that: getting to understand human beings, what motivates them, what power they wield, of course, how important it is for them to wield it, what I needed from them, and, most importantly, what I could bring to them. And to feel at ease playing the game of “I scratch your back, you scratch my back” while remaining in integrity. The essence of networking—unless you are consumed by an ambition to rise and see corporate politics as your only way up. But then you have fallen into your own trap that probably lies outside integrity.

Morris: Obtaining buy-in

Echeverría: This is part of corporate politics. One with “what can I do for you, how will this benefit you?” at the core.

Morris: “Growing” direct reports

Echeverría: Early on in my career I witnessed how Corning provided cross-functional experiences as a way of growing people. And I became aware that what really made a difference in people was the mentorship of younger people by senior leadership. It was this close attention to the human being, the accessibility and ongoing dialogue, the identification and championing of specific opportunities for specific people, providing the “how-to” of the culture, that made a difference in their careers. So why not offer that to all the members of your group, rather than to a select few? Growing direct reports is one of the richest things an organization can do to ensure present viability and future success.

Morris: Since reading your book for the first time, I have wanted to ask you, should all large companies (e.g. Fortune 1000) have an idea agency within the enterprise such as Lockheed’s Skunk Works and Xerox PARC? Please explain.

Echeverría: The jury is still out on the success of the skunk works model. Perhaps if Xerox PARC had been embedded within the larger organization instead of on its own, the mouse might have been taken by some passionate researcher and developed into the computer interface de rigueur internally ahead of Steve Jobs taking it to Apple. I believe in the model of energizing small groups by individual leaders, creating self-sustaining dynamic cultures. If the development of these cultures is taking place in several groups throughout a larger organization, and, under the auspices and support of CEO and upper management, the cultures are aligned—rather than at odds with each other—the results will resonate in a powerful way. And the impact will be felt sooner that with larger top-down approaches to culture transformation.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Idea Agent and is now determined to establish and then sustain a workplace environment within which idea agency thrives at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Echeverría: I guess I started to give you an answer to this question with my response to the previous one. I would like to see this (enlightened!) CEO identify the key group, or groups, to serve as the nucleus of a transformational change. To have and Idea Agent leading each group, to offer support, to define the structure and organization in a clear way, to make the vision clear to the larger organization, and to step out of their way.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Idea Agent, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Echeverría: The concept that every leader is creating culture for her or his group—whether they are aware of it or not. You could continue creating culture unconsciously, or you could do so with awareness and intention, and get to where you want to be.

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Lina cordially invites you to check out the resources at her homepage.

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  1. Dilip Chatterjee on March 8, 2013 at 11:20 pm

    I personally know Lina (she was my Research Director at Corning Incorporated). It was always a please to work for her – she inspired me (and others)a lot.
    I learned a lot from this interview!

  2. […] To read my interview of Lina, please click here. […]

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