June 30, 2021
Redefining Leadership with Thrive Global's Arianna Huffington and Harvard Experts Juan Enríquez and Francesca Gino
Day 3: WOBI Management Week Recap
Jacqueline DiChiara, Director of Content, Acertitude
Over four days this week, a diverse range of business leaders and transformational thinkers are convening online for WOBI Management Week 2021. Acertitude is excited to be in attendance to summarize for our readers what trends, topics, and predictions are top of mind for global business leaders right now. On that note, here are three key takeaways from Day 3 of the event, where conversations on the evolution of ethics, rebellion as a business strategy, and why mindfulness can change the world were top of mind. (Missed our other recaps? Check out Day 1 – 3 Trends Global Business Leaders are Talking About – and Day 2 – Reframing the Purpose of Work.)
1. Don’t believe everything you believe.
First to take the main stage was Juan Enríquez, a leading authority on life sciences and future technology, once serving as founding director of the Harvard Business School Life Sciences Project. Juan discussed technology’s profound societal impact on ethics.
In the future, Juan predicts that people will be much more accepting of ideas currently thought of as “wrong” – like genome editing. For instance, Juan surmised that it will soon become mainstream to tweak genes early on to avoid health problems like cancer down the road. So mainstream, he predicts, that if you don’t do this, you may be considered backward or out of touch with society. This is perhaps a foreign concept to most currently, with perhaps the opposite arguably true, for now. But, just as the earth being flat was widely debated as fact for close to a century, Juan envisions a future where society’s “truths” will dramatically shift.
Another example of the ethical implications of emerging technologies that Juan pointed to is the future of childbirth – which may soon look different than how we know it today. “It is not inconceivable that children will be carried in synthetic wombs outside the body in the next decade,” he stated, exploring the foreseeable future of how a premature baby may be delivered in time – outside of the mother’s body in a controlled environment. This advancement is likely to bring about a much greater chance of survival, he said.
It’s ideas like these that may soon become commonplace, despite the moral dilemmas they currently pose. Indeed, the controversy behind examples such as these – tweaking your genes just so or growing a baby by artificial means – comes down to ethics – hardly a black and white concept, Juan said.
There’s a radical shift in the pressure businesses face in executing on what’s “right” and “wrong.”
Ethics have always been foundational for businesses, and their leaders. And today, ethics are certainly in the spotlight as something executives must carefully consider and, increasingly, take a stance on. Juan made the connection for attendees: “There’s a radical shift on the pressure businesses face to execute on what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’” he stated.
Consider human sacrifices, for instance. At one time in history, he shared, it was believed that not performing a sacrifice meant the sun wouldn’t rise in the morning. This is something that most people no longer believe as true and consider outdated, even though this was once a commonplace belief. In this same way, society’s mainstream opinions are fluid and ever-changing.
At the core of shifting beliefs is technology, playing a key role in shaping what people tend to view as “correct” versus “incorrect”. “The notion of what’s right and what’s wrong evolves over time. And as it evolves, technology changes ethics – often for the better,” he said.
Over time, human power has been replaced more often with machine power. “A single barrel of water, in essence, contains five to ten years of human labor,” he stated. “One GE9X jet engine now performs the equivalent of nearly 160,000 people pulling on oars.”
Technology is exponential, he emphasized. “Technology adoption is ramping steeper and steeper. This implies changes that used to take centuries and decades now take years and may someday take months,” he said. When you have alternatives to how things have been done for millenniums, suddenly, what’s accepted today ends up being considered fundamentally wrong to future generations, said Juan, pointing to examples like how many businesses once refused to support LGBTQ agendas.
Someone may be acting according to the letter of the law today, but in the future, this person’s same actions may be considered unethical, he added. “When you’re in a world where ethics can fundamentally change, even innocent pictures can end up looking really controversial one or two decades out,” he noted.
For example, consider a photo of a barbeque where people are cooking hot dogs – this may seem innocent – a fun summer day, perhaps. But one day, this same photo may be considered disturbingly out of touch and primitive, Juan said. The associated animal abuse tied to meat consumption, for example, might soon be something that’s considered unbelievable as something people once supported, he said. Juan – pointing to a growing interest in plant-based meat alternatives – predicts the majority of the world will become vegetarian in time.
Actions can unmake brands in a day.
In the meantime, ethical perspectives, he said, are shaping business practices – and business leaders must take note.
“When you take the position, ‘I know right from wrong,’ then there is no tolerance for any viewpoint other than the one today. When there’s no evolution of thought, you create a ‘no man's land’ where you can’t bring people along,” he explained. “If you don’t bring people along, actions can unmake brands in a day. They can create figures of resistance for things that should have been addressed decades and centuries ago.”
Juan emphasized people need not battle against each other when their views differ but must treat each other with humility and forgiveness.
2. The future is about rebel talent.
Next up to take the main stage was Francesca Gino, a behavioral scientist and award-winning Harvard Business School professor, who presented insights from her latest research on the dangers of conformity.
Francesca began by talking about why conformity comes with a heavy price for business leaders. “We tend to think of rebels as people who always break rules for the sake of breaking them,” she said. “Sometimes we refer to rebels as jerks,” she said, referring to what she called “destructive rebels”.
But being a rebel can be incredibly constructive – pushing boundaries can create a positive outcome for individual business leaders and for the greater organizations they serve. “Rebels are fundamentally people who create positive change,” she explained. “Rebels push against human nature.”
Being a vulnerable leader means when a tough question comes up, say, “I don’t know the answer. Let’s figure it out together.”
Encouraging rebel talent, she said, can improve feelings of commitment, satisfaction, engagement, and authenticity in employees. “We’re much more likely to influence people when we embrace vulnerability,” she noted. “Being a vulnerable leader means when a tough question comes up, say, ‘I don’t know the answer. Let’s figure it out together.’”
“When we look at effective rebels who are constructive, adapt quickly to difficult situations, transform themselves, and think of new ways of working, these people are fundamentally embracing vulnerability,” Francesca explained. “They are unafraid of showing people they’re not perfect.”
Constructive non-conformity, she said, is a critical business strategy and ensures a company remains innovative. For example, when entrepreneurs are more authentic in their pitches, they’re three times as likely to generate funding for their business, she said. Leaders must bring their rebel talent forward, Francesa urged attendees.
Constructive non-conformity is a critical business strategy and ensures a company remains innovative.
Stay curious, she told leaders. “Curiosity and judgment can’t co-exist,” she explained. “Expertise needs to come with humility.”
“Discomfort is the key to improvement, change, and innovation,” she said. “By being vulnerable and authentic, you become more comfortable with the uncomfortable.”
3. Embrace compassionate directness.
Last to take the main stage was Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, and founder and CEO of Thrive Global. Arianna, once named as one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People by Time Magazine, spoke about redefining success in a fast-moving world.
By changing certain habits around sleep, movement, health, gratitude, and so forth, people can greatly improve the quality of their lives, began Arianna.
Employee health is something CEOs must be paying close attention to, she stressed. “The bottom line is about two-thirds of people around the world are describing burnout, depression, anxiety, and high levels of stress,” she said. That’s why health – and mental health, specifically – has risen from benefit/human resources up the C-suite’s agenda; health directly impacts people’s performance, she stated.
“We are seeing well-being go from a ‘nice-to-have’ or an employee perk to a business strategy,” she explained.
Health directly impacts people’s performance.
The pandemic is an opportunity to redefine how we work and lead, she added. “We are now navigating the new hybrid world,” she said. “How are we communicating with each other?” she asked attendees.
Thrive Global, she said, has strategies to help employees connect deeper. Consider a key value practiced at Thrive Global – “compassionate directness” – where employees explain, (with kindness) what is not working and why. In practice, compassionate directness is done in a way that’s not adversarial, said Arianna. Here, feedback becomes a learning tool. “We don’t want to be know-it-alls. We want to be learn-it-alls,” Arianna said.
“We can not go back to the world we left behind pre-pandemic,” she emphasized. This is an opportunity to build a new world and use the pandemic as a catalyst.”
Look at athletes, said Arianna. Without proper sleep and good health, they cannot perform well. The same is true for “corporate athletes,” who must also focus on refueling their minds and bodies to perform well.
“A lot of micro-steps may sound ‘warm and fuzzy,’” she says. But when they’re steeped in science, more corporations will be more likely to adopt them, she said. “[Breathwork] may sound hokey – but it’s not,” she said. Even naval seals do breathwork, she noted.
“Taking 60 seconds breaks between Zoom meetings, or when you get stressful news, allows you to course-correct from stress and for the cortisol hormone to leave our bodies,” she said. “That’s amazing!”
Another key element of mindfulness at work is getting to know those you interact with at a more personal, human level. At Thrive Global, for example, one of the first questions they ask employees during onboarded is: “What is important to you outside of work?” This promotes rapport between managers and colleagues, she said.
One woman, when asked this question during Thrive Global’s onboarding, responded, “What’s important to me is to take my daughter to school at 7 in the morning.”
“That’s good to know,” Arianna responded, “because then both this employee and her manager can better take care of something that matters to her.”
Indeed, most employees have put well-being programs into place at their corporations during the pandemic to help workers manage their personal lives more fully. These programs are generally a good start, but they perhaps fall short, Arianna said. “Well-being practices need to be embedded in workflows. Giving the company one day of mental health time-off is a great symbolic statement, but the problem is, what happens the other 364 days? How do you manage your stress every day?” she asked. Thrive Global, she explained, tries a different approach – a focus on continuous programs, that remind and nudge you daily.
“You can never avoid stress, but what you can avoid is stress becoming cumulative,” she said. Added Arianna, 75 to 90 percent of healthcare problems and healthcare costs could likely be prevented, because they’re all connected to how we live, how we sleep, what our thoughts are like, how sedentary we are, and so forth.
“Combine micro-steps with story-telling,” she added. It’s not just, “Eat your broccoli – it’s good for you.” Use technology to motivate people, she said.
Phrases like “You snooze, you lose!” or “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” are embedded in corporate culture, supporting an unhealthy “hustle and bustle” mentality. But COVID-19 has transformed mantras like these into old news. “We have an opportunity [with the pandemic] to rethink and reimagine everything,” she said.
The pandemic has caused many people to redefine their concept of success, she explained, referring to our current time as “The Great Resignation” era – a time when many people are switching careers and questioning their greater life directions.
Productivity is about focus.
When asked if she gets eight hours of sleep a day, Arianna said she chooses to prioritize good habits – such as getting her eight hours in. Look at someone like Jeff Bezos, for instance, who also prioritizes getting enough sleep to be able to perform well at work, she noted. “Once you see the impact on your happiness, you prioritize,” she said.
Arianna also suggested leaders turn off their phone notifications to maintain focus. She’s specifically turned off her phone’s news notifications. “We have to be ruthless about how we manage our tech environment,” she said. Productivity is about focus, she added. “The most precious thing we have is not our time – it’s our attention,” she stated.
“I don’t use the phrase ‘work-life balance,' because I think it’s impossible. I use the phrase ‘work-life integration,' she said. It’s critical to take time off when you’ve been working hard, without recharging, she added. Not doing so increases someone's chance of getting sick and burning out. “It requires being connected to yourself and your own state of being,” she said.
Arianna said she starts her day by noting three things she wants to achieve. Start your day by creating your intentions, not by responding to emails, she urged attendees.
What are Arianna’s top three micro steps?
- First, have breaks between Zoom meetings. At Thrive Global, for example, there are always 60-second breaks between each meeting to give people a chance to regroup and recharge.
- Second, don’t make every meeting a Zoom meeting. “All my one-on-ones at Thrive are phone calls,” she said.
- Third, find ways to connect at a personal level. Find out what people love – dogs, music, etc. – as this creates a sense of intimacy in a Zoom-driven world.
In the end, it’s about being the best versions of ourselves.
When it comes to attracting talent in a hybrid world, developing hybrid skills across a workforce is key. “In the past, it was thought the ‘hard skills’ essential for our job were the only skills that mattered,” she said. The key to innovation, she said, is fostering empathy, creativity, and resilience – both in ourselves and others.
Qualities like empathy are the first to go when someone is depleted, she added. “There’s a connection between our own state of burnout and burning up the planet,” she told attendees. “When you’re suffering from burnout, you’re not focused on the future. You’re focused on getting through the day and operating on ‘fight or flight’ mode.”
When leaders think about the day beyond their problems, they can look outward – to the community, their family, and others, she said.
“Our own state of being is going to affect every major problem we are trying to solve collectively,” she concluded. “In the end, it’s about being the best versions of ourselves.”
Today’s engaging presentations and conversations were bold and provocative. The key reoccurring theme was to consider maxims as fluid and ever-changing. And to reflect continuously on how our values serve our greater purpose — and those around us.
Let reflection and silence be as important as actions and agendas.
Leaders, make decisions that stem from a place of brazen curiosity and unapologetic rebellion. Let reflection and silence be as important as actions and agendas. The workplace demands leaders of good character. Let’s ensure we all take time to reflect on our moral compasses, how our decisions shape the future, and how we can bring our best selves to work and beyond, every day.