Briefings Magazine

Perform and Transform

Rarely does innovation simply flow top-down—it spreads horizontally.

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By: Gary Burnison, Chief Executive Officer

It was in a small village, and I was strolling along the cobblestones, deep in conversation with a former world leader who led his country for several years.

Suddenly, he shifted his gaze across the street to a woman with a cane—walking slowly and looking around as if confused. Immediately, he went over to her, leaned down, and listened intently. Putting his hand gently on her shoulder, he led her in a different direction.

There was no pretense or performance by someone who for years had been in the spotlight of the global stage. He had transformed into a kind stranger, showing up with empathy for another.

And that’s especially true in today’s world as organizations toggle between perform and transform. As leaders, it’s what we must do. The question, though, is how.

The answer? Vertical is out, horizontal is in.

For individuals and organizations, vertical—driving results and relationships up and down the ladder—is the past. Today, it’s all about a horizontal, enterprise-focused approach—cascading connections, collaboration, and communication across the lattice.

Rarely does innovation simply flow top-down—it spreads horizontally. And we can’t transform our organizations—or ourselves—in a silo.

Easy to say, though—not so easy to do.

As Stu Crandell, global leader of our firm’s CEO and Executive Assessment practice, observed in a conversation we had the other day, “It’s not just as simple as leading across a matrix. It’s how you really engage, innovate, and cocreate with others.”

Not surprisingly, the biggest struggle is among those who have been successful with more of a vertical or siloed mindset—and can’t quite break out.

This mindset can show up in unexpected places. It was as clear as day the minute I walked into the coffee shop. A customer dressed in a suit—his leg pumping up and down anxiously. Notes strewn across a table. A stack of résumés next to his laptop. You could just feel the tension in the air.

I took a seat at the table next to his. “Job interview, huh?”

“Yeah,” he nodded. “And I really need this one.”

I didn’t tell him who I was. I merely listened as he started talking—a litany of objectives and deliverables. I heard “I,” “me,” and “my” more times than I could count, and without a mention of the “we,” “us,” and “our” of being part of a team.

My next question, no doubt, came out of the blue. “Do you have a picture on your phone that’s special to you?”

“My family,” he said, showing me the screen.

“That’s what matters most—that’s why you’re doing this,” I reminded him.

In that moment, he shifted from one to many—in other words, from me to we.

Even his countenance changed—his posture relaxed as he described aspirations, passions, and motivations that weren’t just about himself, but all about others.

It’s something we all have to remember: We’re not auditioning for the next Netflix pilot—or performing solo on a stage. Instead, we work with and through others across the organization in roles and with perspectives that may be very different from our own.

Here we find the power of affiliation—and, as our firm’s research shows, that’s a major motivator. It’s the emotional side of leadership that puts more value on the relational, not just the transactional. Then we can use and infuse influence—another big motivator—to help spread transformation across our organization.

It’s a fact of life and leadership—what got us here, won’t get us there. It’s not enough to perform unless we simultaneously transform.

Read the new book from Gary Burnison: Love, Hope & Leadership: A Special Edition. Available where books are sold.


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