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Leadership is an inside out job

by Polly LaBarre on December 19, 2011


polly-labarre's picture

Leadership is an inside out job

For all of the time spent chasing after what looks like success, too many of us have only a dim sense of what it feels like. That's clearly a wide-spread cultural malady, but it acquires special force in the world of work.

Organizations invest billions annually on a success curriculum known as "leadership development," which ends up leaving so much on the table. Training and development programs almost universally focus factory-like on inputs and outputs—absorb curriculum, check a box; learn a skill, advance a rung; submit to assessment, fix a problem. Likewise, they leave too many people behind with an elite selection process that fast-tracks "hi-pots" and essentially discard the rest. And they leave most people cold with flavor of the month remedies, off sites, immersions, and excursions—which produce little more than a grim legacy of fat binders gathering dust on shelves.

What if, instead of stuffing people with curriculum, models, and competencies, we focused on deepening their sense of purpose, expanding their capability to navigate difficulty and complexity, and enriching their emotional resilience? What if, instead of trying to fix people, we assumed that they were already full of potential and created an environment that promoted their long-term well-being?

In other words, what if cultivating a successful inner life was front and center on the leadership agenda?

That was the question Todd Pierce asked himself in 2006 after years of experimenting with the full menu of trainings, meetings, and competency models in his capacity as CIO of biotechnology giant Genentech. He had just scoured the development reports of some 700 individuals in the IT department and found that "not one of them had an ounce of inspiration. I remember sitting there and saying, 'There's got to be a another way.'"

At the time, Pierce was benefiting personally from work with a personal coach and had recently woken up to the power of the practice of mindfulness. He called in a kindred soul, Pamela Weiss, a long-time executive coach and meditation teacher, to help design an experiment that would cast out the traditional approach to leadership development to focus instead on helping people grow.

"If you want to transform an organization it's not about changing systems and processes so much as it's about changing the hearts and minds of people," says Weiss. "Mindfulness is one of the all-time most brilliant technologies for helping to alleviate human suffering and for bringing out our extraordinary potential as human beings."

Pierce and Weiss distilled a set of principles that form the basis of what became the Personal Excellence Program (PEP), now heading into its sixth year inside Genentech (Pierce left the company this fall after 11 years to join Together, they offer up a short course in unleashing human capability, resilience, compassion, and well-being (and they're unpacked in even more detail in Weiss and Pierce's entry in the Beyond Bureaucracy Challenge.

  1. Developing people is a process—not an event. "Development is all too often considered a one-time event," says Weiss. She and Pierce designed PEP as a ten-month-long journey that unfolds in three phases, with big group meetings, regular small group sessions, individual coaching, peer coaching, and structured solo practice.
  2. People don't grow from the neck up. Too much training focuses on the the mind—it's about transferring content. "We talk about the head, the heart, and the body," says Weiss. In fact, they do more than talk about it—they enact it every day at the start of every meeting. The "3-center check in" is the gateway drug to mindfulness. As Weiss describes it: "You close your eyes for a moment and you notice, 'What am I thinking—what's happening in my head center,' then you notice, 'What am I feeling—what's happening in my heart center.' then, 'What am I feeling—what's happening in my body.' It's a way in which people start paying attention and practicing mindfulness without ever practicing meditation."
  3. Put mindfulness at the center (but don't call it that)! Weiss and her team were careful to keep the language of specific belief systems and religions out of PEP. The program revolves around three phases: reflection on and selection of a specific quality or capacity you want to work on (patience, decisiveness, courage); three months of cultivating the capacity for self-observation; and the hard work of turning insight into deliberate, dedicated, daily practice.
  4. It's hard to grow alone. "People grow best in community," says Weiss. "People don't grow as well just reading a book, getting an online training, or just taking in information. There's an exponential impact in having people grow and learn together." That's why the PEP "pod" (small 6-8 person group) is the main vehicle throughout the year.
  5. Everybody deserves to grow. Pierce felt strongly that PEP should be available to people across the board—not just the usual "hi-pots"—and that it should be voluntary. "The program is by application and not declaration," he says.

As PEP heads into it's sixth year at Genentech, some 800 people have participated in the program (Weiss added a graduate curriculum and a student training program to create "PEPtators" as few people want the journey to end). The impact has been nothing short of transformative for individuals and organization alike. When Pierce took over the IT department in 2002, it's employee satisfaction scores were at rock bottom—four years into the program, the department ranked second in the company and is now consistently ranked among the best places to work in IT In the world (even in the wake of Genentech's 2009 merger with Roche Group—always a turbulent and dispiriting experience). Pierce attributes that to "the emotional intelligence of people and the capacity to change" developed in PEP. But don't take his word for it. Data obsessed, Pierce commissioned a third path impact report on PEP. It came in glowing: 10-20% increase in employee satisfaction, 50% increase in employee collaboration, conflict management, and communication; 12% increase in customer satisfaction; and nearly three times the normal business impact.

"Through PEP we have created a smarter, more agile, and more responsive organization," says Pierce. "The reduction of suffering, the capacity to deal with difficulties, the level of engagement—these things are very very powerful and you can't call a meeting to get them or give people stock options and have them. These are skills and qualities you have to cultivate and practice."

So how's this for a new year's resolution for hard-charging leaders: turn every ringing, pinging, tweeting, and blinking thing off—especially your mind—and just breathe.

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akshay-agarwal's picture

Such a great article to read. Leadership process is well explained. Thanks for sharing vast knowledge on such topic. Looking forward for more informative articles like these.

mitesh-khatri's picture

Leadership is a true virtue which is what an individual like to have and showcase in his field of work with confidence. And that is precisely the reason as to why the industries invest so much money in the leadership development training. Indeed you have submitted a great blog and it is quite informative as well.

dareen-mendoza's picture

Definitely, several organizations are spending a huge amount of money in leadership development; especially, on employees personality developments. So that they can get a perfect manager or leader for their organizations. University and other organizations are also getting benefits from leadership management; here in this article also we can get a better description regarding leadership training and how it is helpful for us. Thanks for such an informative post.

lim-liat's picture
"Leadership is an inside out job" matches the teaching of Ancient Chinese Classics. Lao Zi's Dao School taught 内圣外王 Inside a Saint and outside a King. Confucius' Ru School taught 内修外治 inner development and then ruling externally. In the classic "The Great Learning 大学", it was a 8 steps process. "格物 (observation)、致知(gain understanding)、诚意(integrity)、正心(fair & right hearted, unbaised, without prejudice)、 修身(develop character)、 齐家(run the family)、治国(rule the country)、平天下(bring peace on earth". For those interested in knowing more see ...Understanding The Great Learning DaXue in One Minute.

This is also similar to the Level 5 leadership of Jim Collins.

Leadership is an inside out job

clay-forsberg's picture
I'm assuming that the point of your post Polly, is that through this comprehensive process of self-improvement - one will become a better leader. I believe being a leader involves more than just looking inward though.
In fact a focus on self-improvement is by definition ... self absorbed. Doesn't leadership involve leading? And doesn't leading involve others? Then shouldn't leadership development be focuses outward rather inward? Shouldn't a leader's focus be on those they lead rather than on themselves?
I believe leadership development rests primarly on one thing ... empathy. As a leader, only once you begin to see the lives of others from their perspective - can you truly develop them, and can you truly lead.
polly-labarre's picture
Hi Clay--and everyone, thanks for all the great comments.

Clay, I wouldn't call this "self improvement"--in fact it's something very different. The practice of mindfulness is all about cultivating awareness, compassion, and skillful means when it comes to relationships with others and dealing with even the most difficult moments. It's the opposite of "self absorption" in that sense. What the PEP program and a lot of other "wisdom practices" that many organizations are experimenting with aim to do is to help people develop sustainable and sustaining capabilities: equanimity, compassion, mastery in challenging circumstances, etc. (and you might remember that a core aspect of the PEP program is practicing in a community--developing more profound and productive relationships with people you work with).

I would say that is very much in line with your notion of empathy--being fully present in your relationships with others, being compassionate to their point of view (and suffering), and responding in a way that diffuses problems. I would submit that those kinds of practices, while they do involve some self reflection, have a lot to offer in the context of our organizational relationships.

Thanks for the food for thought, Polly

suzanne-kryder's picture
Enjoying this conversation. Leadership is about relationships with self and others. When a leader looks inside, s/he learns about others. When a leader looks outside and notices judgments and joys about others, s/he learns about self. Empathy is the key. Keeping the heart open to new information---even when it seems painful---helps the brain relax and actually feel safer. Openess doesn't mean being a doormat. Leaders are continuously vascilating among firm, fair, and fun. Clay, I would offer that mindfulness leads to absorption rather self-absorption. When a leader is present, the lines between self and other become less important.


arun-c-satsangi's picture
Unless Leadership leave elitist mindset, adopt right approach, take along the rest, it is not a success for any Leader. The observations are true to fact.
morag-mcgill's picture
Thanks for sharing. The principles are inspiring as is the practice of "mindfulness in incognito" . A very respectful, practical and yet radical way to really furhter people's self development. As they say "awareness is itself curative" and with this particular formula of peer support and coaching I can imagine it giving to much to so many and "quietly" changing things without making change the objective. 
loretta-brown's picture
Thank you Polly.
Mindfulness is a radical practice. I love what becomes possible through deepening self awareness along side of feuling passion for engaging with the world.
Keep writing Polly and know that you have support for taking more risks!
The time is now!