Heather Cairns-Lee

Affiliate Professor of Leadership

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Heather Cairns-Lee is Affiliate Professor of Leadership and Communication. Her award-winning research and teaching focus on sensemaking in leaders and organizations, collaboration, authentic and effective communication and the creation of diverse, caring and inclusive cultures.  She works to develop reflective and responsible leaders at all levels of organizations from early career to top teams.

Cairns-Lee is an expert on Clean Language and its role in creating authentic communication. With her co-editors she has published a ground-breaking book on Clean Language Interviewing to provide insights into how language can be used most effectively to understand people’s lived and unique experience. This respectful form of communication is important in an increasingly diverse world in which leaders need to understand different perspectives to create inclusive environments.

Leadership is a collective quest involving sensemaking of uncertainty, providing direction, and creating the conditions for people to connect, co-create, and commit to a shared vision – which requires clarity of purpose, clean communication, and a collaborative mindset.

Highly skillful in group dynamics and an experienced C-suite and top team coach, Cairns-Lee has contributed to the design and delivery of IMD’s flagship depth leadership programs including the MBA leadership stream, Strategies for Leadership for women leaders and Mobilizing People. She has worked with numerous companies including ABB, Adecco, BASF, Generali, OCP, Swisscom and UEFA on leadership development initiatives. She runs deep dive processes with management teams to enhance collaborative processes for the creation and implementation of strategic issues and the exploration of team dynamics.

Cairns-Lee’s research focuses on learning and leadership including the development of self-awareness, authenticity and sensemaking. She has a particular interest in language, the pivotal role of questions and the importance of metaphor in break-through thinking and creativity. Her research has been published in The Journal for Applied Behavioral Science, Advances in Developing Human Resources and Harvard Business Review.org as well as in a series of books by Edward Elgar on Research Methodologies in Creativity and Intuition.

Believing that leaders learn best from experience – their own and that of others – she engages executives using experiential learning that requires decision-making, exploration of group dynamics and focused reflection before application to their own context. She supports executives to explore diverse and difficult issues through the cases she writes about real business situations. Topics include leadership transitions, entrepreneurial and growth-mindset, the potential, and pitfalls of post-merger integration, driving transparency in sustainability and organizational transformation to create sustainable growth.

An experienced and ICF certified executive coach, she has supported the growth of thousands of leaders and managers across the globe. She selectively coaches top teams and C-Suite executives plus individuals in Non-Governmental Organizations to enhance their leadership capacity.

Cairns-Lee is a keen advocate for gender equality and a member of IMD’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Council. She is committed to empowering gender equality and is past President of Business Professional Women, Lake Geneva. This is part of an influential world-wide network from over 100 countries with consultative status at the United Nations with the mission to develop the leadership potential of women. She also aims to reduce the metaphorical ‘leaky pipeline’ by supporting girls to stay in sport and STEM through her volunteer work.

Cairns-Lee has a played a longstanding role in the development of management education. To encourage peer exchange in a learning community, she was a founding member of the Research and Benchmarking Committees of UNICON – the consortium of leading business schools. Her early-career work with EQUIS established quality standards in executive education through its review and accreditation system. At IMD, she successfully shaped and led the partnership program business and articulated the design principles for the co-creation of effective leadership development. She led the Learning Network of 140 companies through its early stages of digitization.

Academic publications
Book
Clean language interviewing: Principles and applications for researchers and practitioners
Combining academic rigour with real application examples, a global range of contributors analyse the use of Clean Language Interviewing in multiple settings including business, education, and healt...
Published 20 July 2022
Article
Enhancing researcher reflexivity about the influence of leading questions in interviews
Interviewing is the most frequently used qualitative research method for gathering data. Although interviews vary across different epistemological perspectives, questions are central to all intervi...
Published 1 March 2022
Article
Images of leadership development from the inside out
The Problem With the codification of leadership into frameworks, models, and theories that can be taught, leadership, an art that is essentially subjective, symbolic, and context-specific, is “tra...
Published 1 August 2015
Insight for Executives
Article
What’s stopping you from reinventing your career?
A recent Microsoft study of 30,000 people revealed that 46% of workers are considering a major career pivot or transition after the Covid years. For many, this search goes beyond just a change of r...
Published 27 October 2022
A pipeline of women leaders is needed across all career stages
Article
A pipeline of women leaders is needed across all career stages
Society must take action to change gender norms and encourage more girls to study STEM subjects if we are to improve the pipeline of women tech talent and leaders said Heather Cairns-Lee, Adjunct P...
Published 26 April 2022
Dismantling the maternal wall brick by brick
Article
Dismantling the maternal wall brick by brick
The pervasive stereotype of women as caregivers creates a “maternal wall” in the workplace – a bias based on the belief that women with children and caregiving responsibilities are less committed t...
Published 8 March 2022
How can we better include people with disability in the workplace? Five questions to ask yourself 
Article
How can we better include people with disability in the workplace? Five questions to ask yourself 
One of the biases that is deeply ingrained in society is that of ableism – the assumption that people with disabilities are somehow inferior to the non-disabled. Ableism encompasses individual ster...
Published 16 February 2022
Article
Escape shackles of a fixed mindset to fuel growth
The way leaders frame their challenges influences the way they think, feel, take action and interact with others. Those with fixed mindsets tend to believe that intelligence and ability are fixed a...
Published 7 July 2021
Escape the shackles of a fixed mindset to unleash growth
Article
Escape the shackles of a fixed mindset to unleash growth
Fixed mindsets stop leaders and teams from innovating, taking risks and learning – all crucial factors of success in today’s rapidly changing world. Jennifer Jordan and Heather Cairns-Lee explain h...
Published 30 June 2021
In the field with Roche Diagnostics Belgium
Article
In the field with Roche Diagnostics Belgium
Roche Diagnostics is the market leader in the in-vitro diagnostics business and the largest provider of test results.
Published 26 March 2021
50 years on from women gaining the right to vote in Switzerland, it’s time to make all voices count
Article
50 years on from women gaining the right to vote in Switzerland, it’s time to make all voices count
“Foster gender parity with a triple A approach – awareness, advocacy and action,” says IMD Adjunct Professor of Leadership, Heather Cairns Lee.
Published 7 February 2021
Article
The inner world of leaders: Why leadership metaphors matter
Much leadership development is delivered using strategic frameworks and competency models that specify the knowledge and skills desired of an effective leader. These all take an external perspectiv...
Published 1 October 2013