An interview with Marcus Buckingham, founder of TMBC and author of StandOut. For more, visit the HBR article Leadership Development in the Age of the Algorithm.
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JULIA KIRBY: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Julia Kirby. Today I’m joined by Marcus Buckingham, bestselling author of First. Break All the Rules, Now, Discover Your Strengths, and most recently StandOut: the Groundbreaking New Strengths Assessment. Marcus, it’s great to have you here today. Welcome.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Thank you for having me, Julia.
JULIA KIRBY: So the name of your article, in the June edition of Harvard Business Review, is “Leadership Development in the Age of the Algorithm.” Why don’t we first just tease out the meaning of that. What do you mean by the age of the algorithm?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, we’re living in a world where most every content provider you can think of, from people providing ads, to people feeding you music content, or book content, or film content, anyone providing content, the first question they’re asking is who are you? So Facebook knows all about who you are and figured out what you like, what you don’t, what you’re into, and then delivers to you ads that fit you. Spotify does the same with music. Netflix, before they do anything, they ask you a whole bunch of questions about what movies you’ve seen and what movies you’ve liked, and as a result of that it builds an algorithm, which then suggests that you’ll probably like these movies.
So, everywhere you look in the consumer world, content providers have realized that they’ve got to figure out who you are before they start shopping content at you. Where we don’t see it is in the corporate world in the area of leadership development.
Most leadership development still says, basically, we studied leaders. We figured out what the best leaders are like. Here’s the formula. First of all, we’ll measure you against the formula. Here are the qualities that you’re supposed to have. And then we’ll feed you content that hopefully helps you measure up to the formula. So the point of the article is to say we need to flip that around. In the age of the algorithm, the first question we should ask, if we want you to grow as a leader, is the first question that Facebook asks when it tries to give you ads, namely, who are you?
So, of course with books and music and even the news that is being delivered to us on this personalized basis, there’s this understanding that we’re all different people, but are leaders really of such different casts? Is it that much variation in leaders that it would really make sense to personalize the development content?
Well, I think from everybody’s own experience, there are two things we know about a leader. One is we know them we see one. But the second understanding I think we get– and we probably get this when we’re six or seven years old– is that no leader is quite the same. There is huge variation between a leader like Barack Obama and a leader like Ronald Reagan, or a leader in the business world like a Warren Buffett and a leader like Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, or Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook.
Any one of those people have had great success in building a following and achieving some of their objectives through that following of people. But they’re all very different, highly idiosyncratic in terms of their thoughts, their feelings, their behaviors, where they get their power from.
But they are all, if you think about those people I mentioned, when they are really in their zone as leaders, they all come across as authentic. You– even if you don’t agree with their positions on things, you look at a leader like Reagan, and you go, well, yeah. I mean, he believes his own position, and he was authentic as a leader. He wasn’t putting it on. But he’s a very different leader than Barack Obama is– different positions on things and yet also very different styles.
We know that leadership, when you study it just anecdotally, is idiosyncratic. As it happens, when you give leaders personality profiles and you start measuring effective leaders against personality profiles, what you do get back from that research is that, quantitatively, leadership is idiosyncratic, not just anecdotally, but quantitatively. You start measuring personality and you find that there is more difference within leadership effectiveness then between leaders and other positions. So, yes, leadership is idiosyncratic
JULIA KIRBY: OK, so leaders are all different. And it makes sense that it would be great to serve up content to them based on those differences, but how do you make that feasible? How does this really work within the leadership development function of a particular company?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: So, just to give you an example, if you take a company like Kohl’s, which is a large retailer here in the US, what you have to do with a company like Kohl’s, is you have to– first of all you have to figure out what your algorithm is. We happen to use the algorithm in this strengths assessment called StandOut. So you start off by giving the best leaders in the company the StandOut strengths assessment or whatever algorithm you’re using. You might use Myers Briggs. You might use DiSC. There are other algorithms one could use.
You start, therefore, by giving them the algorithm, the assessment. You see what different kinds of leaders you have. You pick individuals who represent each of the different kinds of leadership that exist within the company. You interview those people to find out what are their distinct practices? What are their techniques? What are their innovations? And although you’ll find some commonality across the different types or categories of leaders, what you mostly find is huge differences, differences of technique, differences of approach.
So you harvest these ideas. You do interviews. We call them Best Practice Discovery Interviews. You do Best Practice Discovery Interviews to figure out what are they doing differently. And then those best practices or innovations then kind of live up there in the cloud. Then, for future leaders, developing leaders within the company, they then take the algorithm. You work out with each leader, what particular– in terms of StandOut anyway, what their results are. And then you match up the individual leader with techniques and tactics that are derived from leaders who share their same strength roles. So you harvest, filter, and deliver.
JULIA KIRBY: So it is very much like when Amazon says to me, because you liked this, you might also like that. Or because people who have bought things you’ve bought in the past have also bought this, you might like it. This would also say OK, because maybe Ted over there is the same kind of leader that you are, and then maybe this thing that worked for him, would work for you. Have I got it?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yes, exactly. So I suppose this came to life for me in working with Best Buy a few years ago where we interviewed one leader– and I mentioned this in the article, actually. We interviewed a leader who turned the store around from bottom to top, and one of the practices that he used was the whistle. He gave everyone a whistle and basically said, look if you see anybody doing anything good, blow the whistle, because we want to capture excellence in the store and reflect it back. And he had a very particular kind of personality, a very ebullient personality, vibrant, dynamic. And so the whistle kind of worked for him.
And yet, there are many other effective leaders within Best Buy who have a very different style than this leader. And the whistle wouldn’t have worked for them at all. In fact, they’d look rather silly trying to get people to blow the whistle. Like they’re stealing someone else’s technique, or something, and therefore coming across as inauthentic.
So the point is if you know that there’s a certain kind of leader has a technique like, hey look, he gave a whistle to everyone and said blow it. Then perhaps we can figure out whether or not you have the same kind of personality as the leader with the whistle, in which case we say, hey, maybe you should try this whistle. Or maybe you could put your own spin on it.
Bottom line is you are probably, if you try it, going to come across as authentic and in your zone, as opposed to inauthentic, or what we call in the article, Frankenleader, someone who’s trying on techniques and tactics that don’t fit your style.
JULIA KIRBY: So, now take me down to the level of the individual leader. What does this look like? If I’m one of these developing leaders and this is being– how am I receiving these tips or techniques?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yeah, well, in the past, I think, you would have probably receive them in some sort of training program. Or maybe, I don’t know, maybe you’d have gotten an email or something. But today, with the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, and I don’t mean at the highest levels. I mean I’m seeing, across all levels of leadership and management within huge companies, everyone’s got a smartphone or tablet.
Well, what that means, is that it’s really a communication channel. It’s a device where I can get customized video content, audio content, text content, that’s lively and vibrant and engaging. Whereas, even two years ago, I couldn’t get that.
So, what we’re seeing , I think, as the future is, if I’ve got a smartphone or a tablet, I’m getting a videotape of a real leader who’s like me. He’s got the same sort of strengths as me, telling me here’s what I do. And then, next week, I’m getting an audio clip of someone telling me, here’s what I do. And I’m getting it right into my smartphone. And then I can interact with it. I can ditch it or bank it.
So there’s some ongoing interactivity as I received this. And I, as an individual, therefore, feel much more invested in it. I’m ditching some stuff I still feel like, I wouldn’t use the whistle technique. I would– but this one over here, oh, OK. This one, I can bank it. And we can create a user interface that is really friendly, that allows a person to build– gradually– build an idea vault of– It’s almost like the stuff that you underline in the business book that you read. You don’t catch all 260 pages. You just captured the few bits that you’ve underlined.
Well, in our smartphones and tablets, if we just drip feed, just short, staccato bursts of video and text, we can drip those to you on your smartphone or tablet. You can bank them and then, in this bank, you’ve got your ongoing sort of coach in your pocket, if you like, on how you can keep sharpening your edge and being more productive at work. Beforehand, we didn’t have the technology for that, at least the leaders that we’ve got coming up through the organization didn’t. But now we do. And I think it affords us a tremendous opportunity to reach more people in a more individualized and more friendly way much faster.
JULIA KIRBY: So, I want to get into an interesting concept that you talk about at the end of the article, which is just this notion that, once you’ve set up a system that would serve up customized or personalized recommendations to certain types of leaders, maybe you’ve set up a system that can go beyond the boundaries of a single firm. Can you talk about that? And what’s the future, maybe, of leadership development?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, I think the future of leadership development in the age of the algorithm, as we’re calling it, is one that does go beyond the boundaries of a firm. It’s one where– and we can just go with this on this journey here. You would build, let’s say, a leadership academy. And you’d reach out to 200, 300, 400 leaders around the world. And you’d say, let’s just pick your brains. You’re all very different in terms of your style, but we want to know what tactics you use, what techniques you use. Let’s do those discovery interviews and let’s capture them. And then, let’s put them up there in the cloud somewhere so they are a reservoir of leadership– highly diverse leadership wisdom.
If that existed, then who wouldn’t want to know, well, what up there fits me? I want to grow as a leader, but I don’t want a whole bunch of stuff thrown at me that doesn’t fit me. I want some access to wisdom and ideas and techniques that fit leaders like me. So I think where this should go is beyond the boundaries of a firm into a world where we harvest the wisdom– the diverse, heterogeneous wisdom and tactics of great leaders, and then provide budding leaders access to that. So they can get tips and techniques that fit them.
That’s the vision, I think, for the future of leadership development. And it, to me, feels, not only more efficient, because you’re not trying to shove techniques at people that don’t really take them up. But it also feel so much more authentic, which is, in the end, what we want from our leaders. We don’t need them to be perfect, but we need to be authentic.
JULIA KIRBY: So this also sounds revolutionary. Because it’s not me going off-site to some kind of week-long or three-day-long off-site to try to soak up a lot of leadership knowledge, but it’s, as you say, sort of this drip, drip, drip.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yeah, that’s what we are like today, isn’t it? We want the tweets, we want the alerts. We’re pre-wired as human beings to like short, staccato bursts of information that grabs our attention, as opposed to more sustained input that we get used to and we’ve become– it loses our attention. So I think we have an opportunity here to give people information just for me. Just for me and just now. Just now, just to me. And it’s in my pocket.
And even 18 months ago, or two years ago, we didn’t have technology that enabled us to do that, rather than just a boring email. But now we do. And so it certainly puts a lot of distribution power in the hands of people who’ve got really good leadership content. Because if we chunk it right, and personalize it right, then it will feel to the individual leader like, right now, I’m just getting great leadership content broadcast on the channel of me. And that’s cool. I think that’s cool.
JULIA KIRBY: This is all we have time for. We could go on. It’s a fascinating topic. Marcus, thank you for your time today.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Thank you, Julia.
JULIA KIRBY: That was Marcus Buckingham. His article, “Leadership Development in the Age of the Algorithm,” is in the Harvard Business Review’s June 2012 issue. For more, please visit hbr.org.