A good leader champions people from the center of the vortex - IMD Business School
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A good leader champions people from the center of the vortex

June 2020

Ahead of her keynote address 25th June 2020 at IMD’s OWP liVe – an innovative virtual learning experience – business leader Harriet Green shares her insights and intentions for next-level leadership.

“Leaders today need to be focused on three things: resilience, innovation and growth. We must look more carefully at the theory of disruption and innovation-driven growth to be at the center of the vortex of technology and change,” says businesswoman Harriet Green OBE, who was last year named on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women International list.

Green’s approach to leadership was forged in global teams and across sectors. Her work has spanned diverse industries, such as travel and leisure, and logistics and technology. Most recently, as CEO of IBM Asia Pacific, she positioned the company as a leading partner in Cloud for businesses looking to unlock value from their data using artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and security solutions.

Resilience has been a crucial competence over the course of her career and Green places much importance on the value – in both personal and organizational terms. Her view is that resilience will be an invaluable commodity as people and businesses continue to be challenged by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

“The number of times I have had to pick myself up and dust myself down with real grace demonstrates my grit to all. It is an important topic for discussion, particularly regarding the challenge of COVID-19,” she says.

Having held non-executive board positions with BAE Systems and engineering company Emerson, in February 2019 Green was appointed to the board of directors of the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB). She credits her international career as having enabled her to develop keen insights into region-specific approaches to business and how collaboration can enhance and accelerate the innovation and growth across a multi-stakeholder ecosystem.

“What prevents [innovation and growth] in companies of size? I believe it is often institutional inertia reinforced by existing systems and structures. Plus the lack of real inclusion and diversity at all levels,” says Green.

Green refers to Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) and Singapore’s EDB as good examples of how the collaborative approach can accelerate innovation and forge a new economic growth pathway. In Taiwan, where ITRI came into being in 1974, for example, the institute is credited with driving the shift from labor-intensive to innovation-based industry.

“One thing is clear to me, and that is that sustainability relies on strong relationships between academia, science, government and business. What is the relationship between these groups in our society? Right now, I do not see such strong relationships in some European countries and the UK, whereas in Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, it is a very tight relationship,” she says. “The Watson Industry and IoT Center we started in Munich was a collaboration between IBM, the government via the digital fund, and all the universities and startups. Communal, non-hierarchical decision making needs to be encouraged and amplified.”

Certainly, the future of technology – specifically the revolutionary potential of super and Quantum computing in economies and labor markets – requires preparation, agility, and skills training, which leads to Green’s second point on the importance of diversity and inclusion that she says is “central to harnessing 100% of our great human capital”.

As a long-standing champion of diversity and inclusion in business, under her leadership of IBM Asia Pacific, female representation at the executive level across all 15 countries rose to 55 per cent, and Green was instrumental in launching new educational initiatives in STEM subjects across seven regional markets. Her commitment to deep inclusion remains unshakeable.

Green has often spoken about the significant cost that ‘covering’ inflicts on both wellbeing and productivity and has argued that were employees able to feel comfortable in bringing “150 per cent” of themselves to work, the rewards for the organization would be tremendous.

Academic research has found that when a staff member ‘covers’ in the workplace, they effectively veil those parts of themselves that they do not believe would be accepted in the organization.

“People cover who they really are so that they can exist in the workplace. Organizations need to be clear on this to their staff and say this in an inclusive way: we do not need to cover. Because of who we are, we can succeed,” she asserts.

To foster diverse and inclusive environments of real empowerment in their workforces, Green believes leaders must realign their organizations’ psychology, physiology, and its anatomy and structure.

Changing the psychology of the business first, involves committing to a clear business and diversity plan, which outlines measures, owners and actions that will be leveraged to encourage diversity and inclusion in its talent acquisition process.

“Our businesses are strengthened by the diversity of our staff,” explains Green. “The organization must see inclusive, diverse role models as managers and leaders in key roles throughout the company who coach, counsel and mentor others proactively and meaningfully. And the CEO has to take a clear position on this and give monthly updates to all employees on its rollout, just as they would for any other major business strategy.”

The physiology of the business being aligned to diversity and inclusion comprises a clear mandate on how talent is acquired and fostered by the organization. Citing her time at IBM as an example of how this best practice works, Green outlines how every role is first opened to internal candidates with a mandated diverse slate – a shortlist that must include minority candidates and women. At IBM, she recalls, it was a sackable offense to not strive for and deploy diverse slates.

Finally, the organization’s anatomy and structure must reflect its agility to diversity.

“A really quick way to answer this question is to ask if your Head of Inclusion and Diversity was selected because of her age, sex, colour, creed, sexuality, and physical ability or are they another white male?” advises Green. “If it’s the latter, consider an organizational realignment.”

Green anticipates IMD’s virtual OWP liVe 23th-25th June 2020 with enthusiasm and expects that discussions will allow a reflection and analysis on the business successes and failures precipitated by the preceding time period.

“It will be one of the first public courses to apply the lenses of CEOs, industry leaders and alumni to pressing questions, following the COVID-19 crisis,” she says. “The opportunity it presents for people to shift their leadership to meet today’s challenges is immense.”

Her goal is to spark thought, discussion and new directions among delegates, while also placing herself very much in the center of that vortex of in order to benefit herself from the rich variety of perspectives and insights available.