Willie's Way: Key Learning Habits For Leaders

It's 6.07pm and I am online, shopping for shoes on the recommendation of Columbia Business School Professor of Practice Management Willie Pietersen. Unfortunately, Willie didn't direct me to Jimmy Choo; he told me to visit Zappos.com.

South Africa-born Pietersen is the best-selling author of 'Strategic Learning: How To Be Smarter Than Your Competition And Turn Key Insights Into Competitive Advantage', a business philosophy and methodology that has been adopted - and lauded - by some of the world's top organizations: Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, CNA, Ericsson, Exxon Mobil Corporation, Girl Scouts of the USA and Johnson & Johnson.

Pietersen was inspired to develop the model, a continuous learning cycle combining situation analysis, strategic choices, alignment and implementation, after the realisation that the 1990s catch phrase 'sustainable competitive advantage' was not a product or a service.

"Those things get overtaken by events. Sustainable competitive advantage is an organizational capability to learn and adapt as the environment changes. It's very Darwinian - with a twist. The whole process of adaptation in nature is a random process, a ceaseless set of experiments about what works or doesn't work," says Willie.

"In organizations, generating favourable adaptations must come from effective learning. Traditional methods of strategy didn't really work as they were static methods in a dynamic environment. I needed to find an effective method based on organizational learning, and that's how the strategic learning cycle was born.

"Strategic learning is not a magic bullet - a process never is. Leadership is the silver bullet. But the heroic notion of a leader coming in on a white charger only exists in myths and legends. Leadership is three-dimensional - up, across and down- and is a team effort. Effective leaders are able to lead without formal authority. Emmy-winning TV news host Charlie Rose was interviewing a footballer who used to play for the San Francisco 49ers. At a certain point Rose said to this player, 'If you played during those years, you must have played on the same team as Joe Montana [one of the most famous NFL players of all time]'. The player nodded and said, 'That's right'. Rose asked him: 'What did it feel like to play on the same team as Joe Montana? ' and the player replied, 'When Joe was on the team, I played better'. That's what true leadership is; when you are on their team, everyone plays better. It's not about power, it's about service. "

Leadership and learning
The key to successfully integrating Strategic Learning into your organization is understanding that learning is a habit, says Willie, with a fundamental discipline attached to it.

"New York surgeon Dr Ash Tewari [of Weill Cornell Medical College at Cornell University] pioneers robotic surgery for prostate cancer for better outcomes. He is a real learner in life. I take groups of executives to spend a half a day with him and his team - he has a fantastic team around him. There is a clamour to join his team as it is such a wonderful learning opportunity for surgeons and researchers. If you want to join his team, you have got to write in a learning journal - he does the same. You have to capture, in writing, what you have learnt, every day. Ash meets with his team every morning prior to surgery and he will pick someone at random to share from their learning journal. Ash Tewari's learning journal a wonderful thing, leather bound and he writes in it with a fountain pen - it's very Zen like - it's his treasure."

Willie says a learning journal is a simple, but highly effective habit. "It gets people in the mode of not just learning, but reflecting on what they are learning. You get better and better at crystallizing learning the more you do this."

From inside out, to outside in
A concept integral to the strategic learning cycle is outside-in thinking. It begins with asking questions such as who are our customers? What do they value most? How well do we deliver it? What are our competitors doing? What are the key industry trends that might affect how we make money?

"A survey was done by social scientists a few years ago of the content of informal conversations. They found that 80% of these discussions were pure gossip and inwardly focussed," says Willie. In the workplace, this would translate to questions such as 'Who is a good boss?' 'Who do you think will be fired?' Not,' What do our customers truly value?' There is a reason for this. It is evolutionary and hard-wired. In order to enhance our survival we need to understand who our enemies and allies are within our group. So thinking outside-in is not natural. We need to change our thinking as best we can from inside- out to outside- in. If we are able to do this as individuals then those habits and disciplines find their way into the way we lead and our organization then becomes a successful sense and respond system. "

The winning proposition
"Asking the customer this question is a good place to start, 'If I could wave a magic wand what would you most like us to do for you?' Then listen well - learning organizations are listening organisations. The great art of listening is hearing what is not being said. Words are inefficient and are often used to disguise what we really think or feel. Then ask, 'What problem are we trying to solve?' Try to understand the outcomes your customers are seeking. The central output of a strategy in any organization is your winning proposition. That is step two in the cycle - the learn step comes first. You can't determine how you will win if you haven't first understood the competitive landscape - hence the importance of doing a situation analysis before all else.

"Why do I call it the winning proposition? Some organizations call it a 'value proposition' but the reality is that value is a relative concept. Our customers look at us in a comparative way - they have choices - and we have to respond in a comparative way. We have to create greater value than the competing alternatives and define the compelling reason why our clients should choose to do business with us rather than our competitors.

"The second thing we need to do to create the winning proposition is to translate this compelling reason into superior financial returns for our enterprise.

"If you were to pin me down and ask me the three things we really need to do outstandingly well it's ask the right questions, learn the art of simplification and keep a learning journal."

"Take Zappos.com. They sell shoes. Dealing with them is a complete pleasure - sometimes I want to call them just for the hell of it. They offer free shipping both ways. I have a narrow fit. Sometimes I wear 11 1/2, sometimes a 12. A few weeks ago, I saw some shoes on their website but I didn't know what size I'd be. So I called them at 5pm. The friendly person on the telephone said: "I will send you both sizes - no charge - then you can try them on and return the pair you don't want to keep, at no cost.' Then he said, 'I notice you've bought from us before, so I'll put you on our VIP list.' The shoes were delivered at midday the next day. Zappos sells the same shoes as other stores and websites - but the service is outstanding. That's their differentiator and that's what they focus on.

"And you know, most of the breakthrough ideas are a recombination of things we already know. And when we look back they don't seem bizarre, they seem intuitive and make sense.

"Take wheels on suitcases. There was a time when if someone walked into a shop and said 'I'd like to buy a suitcase with wheels', people would have thought, 'This person is nuts.' Now, if someone walked to a shop and said: 'I want a suitcase without wheels', people would think, 'This person is nuts'. In hindsight, it makes sense. Like Galileo's wild (at the time) theory that the earth was not the centre of the universe, or like cup holders in cars."

It is the service element that more often than not constitutes the key differentiator, the clincher, the margin of difference in value created , says Willie.

"Service excellence is a brand and a brand is the consistent performance of a promise. In the service industry you' re not making baked beans - human beings are the brand in action."

Willie suggests organizations develop a service credo that explicitly lays out the service parameters and standards to reach.

"Then you train people for it, you reward for it, you hire for it and you measure it. It will produce unity of action and others will want to emulate you. And when it becomes exponential, it's very hard for others to catch up.

"If you Google the 10 greatest orchestras in the world, the list is pretty consistent from year to year. If you listen to when they are playing Beethoven's 5th - all play from the same sheet of music. How come some perform better over and over again? They just got better at concentrating on the right things - deliberate practice with the right focus. That's why 'symphony' is such a lovely word; the opposite, of course, is cacophony - everyone playing to their own sheet of music."

Innovation and strategy
"Certain people are naturally more creative than others. We have to have a mix in our team of different styles of thinking to ensure we stimulate diversity of thought. However, researchers have discovered a link between the number of stimuli that you exposure yourself to and your level of creativity.

Willie says we can all raise our game and become more creative by exposing ourselves to a wide range of stimuli, from reading widely to trying new activities or new ways of doing things. Within our organizations, we can mindfully and systematically apply the learning cycle.

"Really great innovations fall into two categories. One is innovations in our business models that lead to greater efficiencies, such as global supply chains. The other is always about customers. We sometimes use sports metaphors 'We're going to beat our competition' but that's not the way innovation happens - you need to score more points for your customers than your competition does. You beat your competitors by offering your customers more value, better product performance, better service performance. Seek out best practices from outside your industry. Who you do most admire for client relations? It's opening the lens and being obsessive about learning by probing and asking the great questions.

Individual applications of strategic learning
How can individual c-levels, directors and those aspiring to reach further in their careers translate the strategic learning cycle into their own day-to-day behaviours?

"Two things. Like Dr Ash Tewari I keep a learning journal. It's a little black book - though my wife says a little black book is something else. It's been a lifelong habit and I regularly go back and read my journals. Without habits like that you can't really be systematic about learning. 19th century German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who pioneered the experimental study of memory and the forgetting curve, said there are two sins; one is the failure to capture or store learning and second is to retrieve and rehearse.

"The second big thing is to be a teacher. What I say to people on my course is to retrieve and rehearse and then teach your team what you have learnt. Teaching is one of the greatest ways on earth to learn. And it's an act of sharing and generosity. There should be no intellectual subordination - ideas don't have a hierarchy."

"A critical role of leaders is to create increasing simplicity from a world of increasing complexity. Simplicity is not a short cut. It is hard work. Remember Blaise Pascale’s comment: 'I am sorry to write you this long letter, but I didn’t have time to write you a short one'."

Leadership and morality
In Strategic Learning, Willie writes that true leaders are sine cera - without wax - no false pretences. But how realistic is this in today's bottom-line driven world? How does doing things because they are morally right align with the often ruthless engine of a commercial organization?

"Leadership is challenging. I like Howard Gardner's definition of leadership. He says leaders are those who are able to change the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of others by their words and the example they set. I think that is crucial. Leaders are able to influence the way people think about customers and their roles in the organization, to engender feelings of trust, commitment and strong motivation and then on the basis of that to stir people to action. That approach produces the essential difference between commitment and mere compliance.

"A moral foundation engenders trust. Deciding what you are going to do means deciding what you are not going to do. Choice making is an act of sacrifice - it takes courage. You will never have enough information. And you will never know in advance whether your strategy will work. This has to be accompanied by compassion in the way you deal with human beings. "

What Willie learnt about leadership from Maisie
During our two-hour-long telephone discussion, Willie tells me a black Labrador has been sitting at his feet. One of three dogs in his household, Maisie goes to work with Willie every day. Now a middle aged lady, she was adopted as a youngster after she failed to pass the final test for a career as a guiding eyes dog for the blind - she was just too spirited.

"I've been thinking about writing a book entitled 'What I learnt from my dog', because I have learnt a few things," says Willie. "When you have a dog you learn how to communicate at an intuitive level. You can't have a relationship with a dog unless you achieve this, but dogs can do it far, far better than us. They know when we are about to go out, they know our moods. They have an incredible ability to tune in to our needs. As true leaders can do.

"And if you want to know what transparency looks like - look at your dog. There is no hidden agenda - it's just now. They live in the moment. Maisie has a job description. Her role is to remind us that with the right attitude, anything is possible."


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