Saj-nicole Joni: An interview by Bob Morris

Saj-nicole Joni

Saj-nicole Joni is president and CEO of the Cambridge International Group, Ltd. As well as an internationally known business strategist and Third Opinion adviser to senior executives and high-potential leaders, providing insight into high-stakes issues at the intersection of strategy, action and complexity. She is a leading pioneer of Third Opinion counsel and has championed its place in the halls of corporate power. The impact of her work is to enable her clients to successfully lead their organizations and tackle risk, identify and capitalize more effectively on important revenue and market opportunities, and make better decisions around complexities that yield sustained financial performance. Joni’s clients include a cadre of C-level executives at the Global 200 firms, including category leaders in such sectors as finance, technology, software, information, professional services, telecommunications, oil and gas, pharmaceutical and media companies. She also works with CEOs of smaller, more entrepreneurial companies. Joni is a former Microsoft and CSC Index executive with several prestigious board memberships.

She is the author of The Third Opinion: How Successful Leaders Use Outside Insight to Create Superior Results and, more recently, of The Right Fight: How Great Leaders Use Healthy Conflict to Drive Performance, Innovation, and Value. She has also authored articles for a variety of publications and has served on the faculties of MIT, Carnegie Mellon University and Wellesley College for more than ten years. Joni earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at San Diego.

Morris: Before focusing on two of your books, a few general questions. First, when and why did you found Cambridge International Group, in 1997?

Joni: I founded the firm so that I could serve as a confidential adviser to CEOs who need a sparring partner when they are confronting their thorniest questions and toughest problems. To me, this is a way of giving back, helping them to raise their game.  The kind of work that I do is very different than services provided to CEOs by other experts, such as professional coaches, communications specialists, or experts in M&A or supply chains. In most cases, a CEO can avail him or herself of many different kinds of experts, but it’s hard to find a business executive and strategist who will help them wrestle with the most difficult issues of leading a company. Another person who does this kind of specialized work is Ram Charan, who has worked with people like Larry Bossidy and Jack Welch.

Morris: To what extent (if any) has your  mission since changed?

Joni: Oh, the mission has not changed at all! I have done this for so many years now, and my commitment to the work just continues to grow. There is such a huge need out there. It’s quite lonely at the top!

Morris: In The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin discusses what he characterizes as “integrative thinking,” perhaps best exemplified by Abraham Lincoln as portrayed by Doris Kearns Goodwin in Team of Rivals. That is, Lincoln possessed “the predisposition and the capacity to hold two [or more] diametrically opposed ideas” in his head and then “without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other,” was able to “produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.” Throughout his presidency, Lincoln frequently demonstrated integrative thinking, a “discipline of consideration and synthesis [that] is the hallmark of exceptional businesses [as well as of democratic governments] and those who lead them.”  Here’s my question: Isn’t this the mindset that one must have to appreciate the value of what you characterize as “the third opinion”?

Joni: Yes, of course. It’s the mindset any good leader must cultivate if he or she wants to lead their company to greatness. And it’s a particularly important mindset to have in these increasingly complex times.

The challenge for most leaders is in learning to think integratively. Most top businesspeople aren’t born with this skill, so it helps them to be well partnered with a great team of rivals, or people like Professors Charan, Martin or, me who can introduce them to alternative ways of thinking. When a leader is able to make good use of a third opinion by a qualified outsider, he or she develops “muscles” that can be used to apply this kind of skill in a practical way. And beyond that, the leader can push integrative thinking down into the organization, so that the next generation of leaders also raises its game.

Morris: In fact, in The Third Opinion, as I re-read it recently, it seemed to me that you were urging decision-makers to obtain as many authoritative and independent opinions as possible, whatever the total number of sources proves to be. Many times a fourth, fifth, or even a sixth opinion may be necessary. Is that a fair assessment?

Joni: What I am saying is that if you want to become a really effective leader, you need to build the right kind of brain trust. You want to develop a comprehensive inner circle of people who will ask the right questions. You don’t need to seek an endless number of opinions; that in itself is not helpful. Instead, you need your inner circle to help you get out of your own bubble, break you free from your patterns of thinking and your cognitive biases, and supplement your strengths. You need people around you who help you keep your mind fresh, supple and open, and who will help you deal with discordant data.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read the book, please explain what the Habit of the Mind, the Habit of Relationship, and the Habit of Focus are and why developing each is so beneficial.

Joni: These three habits are like interlocking rings. They work together. A leader who cultivates all three of them will be better able to anticipate problems, understand what is happening and choose the right course of action. The leader will not only be able to help his or her firm avoid disaster, but create a new kind of intellectual and social capital for the firm, so that it’s better positioned to face the uncertain future.

To cultivate Habit of Mind, you need to master three types of thinking. The first is “application,” by which I mean the ability to identify the characteristics of a problem and find a solution so that you get replicable results. (This kind of thinking is the one that demands the most mental energy from managers.) The second is “expert thinking,” which means that you need to develop a deep understanding about a specific subject; this expertise allows you to diagnose a problem.  The third is what I call “exponential thinking,” through which you develop your curiosity about the unknown. An exponential thinker is able to break away from mental models and hidden assumptions. He or she is able to discern patterns, and develop different scenarios of the future. An exponential thinker is able to see all sides of a problem, and to deal with complexities. This kind of thinking is the most difficult kind of thinking to master.

Part of being a good exponential thinker is the ability to listen and learn. That’s where the Habit of Relationship comes in. This has to do with how you work with team members and thinking partners. When you develop this habit, you are willing to be wrong and to ask for help when you need it. You create a safe environment where people feel that they can express candid opinions, and you share the spotlight with others. You think about yourself as part of a larger whole.

Finally, Habit of Focus is really about zeroing in on what is essential, as opposed to what is just urgent. This means that you must to see past the mountain of distractions coming at you. When you have a habit of focus, you are able to move forward with important but non-urgent issues. What will give your firm a strategic advantage? What market should you enter, or not? What competitive threats are on the horizon? How productive are your employees? When you really focus, you can make truly unique contributions to your company and create value.

Morris: In my opinion, the most effective decision-makers are results-driven. These three habits may be separate but are interdependent and essential to avoiding “paralysis by analysis.” Do you agree?

Joni: I would agree that results – as defined by accomplished financial and achievable strategic goals – are important. But focusing too much on narrow “results” per se can lead to tunnel vision. Too many people focus on the end without paying close enough attention to what the end should be in service of, or what the company is really about. BP, for example, was full of results-driven people who lost track of the big picture, and who ended up producing catastrophically bad results. In fact, I would argue that if your organization has too many narrow-minded, results-driven people in it, they can drive your firm right into disaster.

I believe good leaders focus on much more than expedient results. They care about big questions, and about developing a flexible perspective. If you, as a leader, frame an important question correctly and are able to help people to produce a good result, that’s terrific. But you had better make sure that the results your organization produces are greater than the sum of all the parts.

Morris: Here is a brief excerpt that caught my eye: “While some leaders find a way to build trusted leadership circles that integrate outside insight and have a few confidants, many are on the other end of the spectrum and only experience greater isolation with each move up the leadership ladder.” What are the primary reasons why so many (most?) business leaders remain in the “isolation” to which you refer?

Joni: The problem for leaders is that once they are at the top, they find themselves basically alone. Some leaders respond to this by acting like lone wolves; they don’t trust anyone to help them. Others surround themselves with a clan of trusted advisers who tend to insulate them; the group forms its own echo chamber. Either way, top leaders can wind up in a bubble. When this happens and something goes wrong, the impact on the company can be huge.  On the other hand, leaders who develop a sophisticated understanding of trust can liberate themselves from the bubble.

To my mind, there are three fundamental types of trust. One is personal trust, which is based on your faith in someone else’s integrity. That’s the way most people understand trust.  Another kind of trust – what I call expertise trust – has to do with your trust in someone else’s deep knowledge of their job. That’s the kind of trust you have in your doctor or the pilot of your airplane. In organizations, leaders rely on the expertise of experts in law, media relations, operations, technology and so on to run the business.

The third kind of trust, structural trust, is what you incur when you form a relationship with an adviser who is basically your peer, but who doesn’t work for your company. (Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have this kind of mutual, structurally trusting relationship; Clark Clifford, the confidante to presidents Kennedy and Johnson, was another such partner.) These kinds of advisers are partners in the truest sense of the word, and this is what you need to look for in your most trusted Third Opinions.  That’s why people reach out to advisers like Ram Charan and myself.

Morris: Now please shift your focus to The Right Fight, co-authored with Damon Beyer. For those who have not as yet read the book, how do you characterize a “right fight”?

Joni: Right Fights happen in the context of shared commitment – but I have seen too many times where alignment becomes a way of stifling important debate and dissent.  The purpose of alignment is twofold: first, to stop fighting about all the things that don’t matter, and second, to create an environment of shared purpose and trust where you can fight about the things that really matter in a high-minded, fair, and noble manner. Many well-intentioned leaders spend too much time trying to get everyone to sing from the same song-sheet. But in the process they end up hurting the organization, particularly when the firm is facing confusing times, complex markets, or uncharted waters.

A right fight happens when for the most important issues, key ideas are hammered out in a healthy debate. A good fight, done well, brings out the best in us. Wrong fights–or right fights fought wrong–can be very destructive. But right fights create extraordinary value through encouraging innovation, and lowering risk. And they also serve to teach the next generation of leaders critical skills. Great leaders use healthy conflict to drive, performance, innovation, and value.

Morris: How do you know a right fight from a wrong one? And how to you make sure that the right fights are in fact, fought right?

Joni: There are three basic principles for conducting right fights. The first principle is to make the fight material. You need to look for opportunities to create lasting value, identify new ways of doing business, and wrestle with complex challenges where there are no easy answers. The second principle is to focus on the future. You want to center the debate on undiscovered possibility–not blame for the past. You want to explore uncertainty, and cast a future vision so compelling people are willing to break old habits to achieve it. Finally, you want the fight to be about a noble purpose. You want to connect issues to values that matter, such as improving the lives of customers or changing the world for the better. You want to connect people up and down the hierarchy to a sense of purpose, stimulate imagination, and foster respect.

Morris: How specifically can “great leaders use healthy conflict to drive, performance, innovation, and value”?

Joni: in contrast to management theories that teach people to be constantly “in alignment”, I firmly believe that a certain amount of healthy struggle is good for organizations and individuals. But if you want a healthy struggle, you have to set it up and manage it the right way.

Research shows that a certain amount of stress gets people engaged, and helps their creativity get flowing. But while improves individual performance, it only does so up to a point. If you introduce too much stress, then performance falls off a cliff. But if you strike the sweet spot – an acceptable range of competition and tension – then you tap into all kinds of energy and creativity in people.

Morris: Why is workers’ happiness “the single greatest predictor of poor performance”?

Joni: There is a firm called eePulse that studied thousands of leaders, managers and workers for two decades. The study found that the single greatest predictor of poor performance in a business group is when employees are happy.

But what does “happy” mean? To me, the word “happy” is too muddy. There is a difference between the happiness that comes from contentment and the happiness that comes from creative engagement. So on the downside, it turns out that contented workers tend to get too complacent, and when people are complacent they stop performing. To perform well, they need their creativity and intelligence engaged. That’s why right fights can be so useful.

Morris: Which fights are not worth fighting? Why?

Joni: There are three kinds of fights to avoid. One is the “wrong fights fought wrong.” These are battles that don’t focus on core issues, or that arise as a result of dysfunctional leadership. For example, GM insisted in building gas-guzzling SUVs after the market had shifted to more economical cars. That was the wrong fight. And they fought it wrong when they stuck to a rigid hierarchical structure that didn’t allow the company to shift.

Another kind of fight might be the right one, but it’s fought the wrong way. An example of this is Larry Summers, who – before he worked in the Obama Administration — was president of Harvard. Summers wanted to make worthwhile changes, but he ran into walls with his tone-deafness toward women and minorities and his need to act as if her was the smartest person in the room.

Finally, there’s the wrong fight fought right. Think about what happened at Dell when it tried to enter the market for consumer electronics. They worked long and hard, with healthy debate and innovation, on executing a strategy that focused on getting value out of their supply chain. But without service and attention to the user experience –  this failed because it didn’t work for consumers.

Morris: How do you establish and then sustain a workplace in which tension is positive and constructive?

Joni: I’ve found that three principles apply when you want to set the rules of engagement. The first is to make the fight not a war, but a sport. War is grim, but sport is fun and refreshing. To make the fight a sport, you need to set clear rules of the game so that everyone knows how to play and how to win. And the fight also needs a referee, so that you can be sure the opposing sides are evenly matched.  The second principle is to structure formally, but work informally. By that I mean creating clear advocacy positions in your organization, but mobilize your informal organization–networks, lynchpin players, and influencers–to ensure hierarchy doesn’t win over the best ideas. The third principle is to turn pain into gain. It’s important that leaders communicate outcomes in a way that respects difference, risk taking, and hard effort on the part of those on the “losing” side. It’s important that the losers grow from the debate.

Morris: What is the “Prioritization Matrix” and how can it help teams to assess whether or not a fight is the right one to fight?

Joni: The prioritization matrix is an exercise my co-author, Damon Beyer, and I use when we are working with top leadership teams to help them identify right fights. First, have your team brainstorm the top 10 to 12 initiatives or strategic priorities that the group needs to address over the course of the next 12 to18 months. Then, draw a simple 2 by 2 matrix where the vertical dimension stands for the future value to the organization (such as higher productivity or cost savings). The horizontal dimension reflects how likely the outcome will be. If one organizational unit can achieve the outcome, that’s low; but if it requires many people or groups, that’s high. You can put all 10 or 12 initiatives up on this grid. Once you see which high value, multiple-player challenges, those are the most likely right fights.

Morris: Why do you think it’s important for people to hear what you have to say now – in these economic times?

Joni: Frankly, the stakes have never been higher. When once-great companies like Toyota, BP, Genzyme and so many others stumble and fall, it takes a terrible toll on employees, customers, and the world at large. As a society, we simply can’t afford this. We need top leaders to succeed in this world, and for their companies to keep people not only employed, but producing excellent goods and services.  Leadership is a journey that takes stamina, courage and willingness to look in the mirror and think uncomfortable things. This requires knowing how to fight right fights, and to work with people who can help you gain a broader perspective.

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  1. Saj-nicole Joni: An interview by Bob Morris on May 28, 2014 at 12:54 pm

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