In this fascinating post of our C-Suite predictions for 2015, I speak with Dr. Mindy Hall as we focus on Leading with Intention and what that really means. Are you leading with intention? Let’s dig in to find out!

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Dr. Mindy Hall

MacLean: You have a fascinating background – both your experience and your education! Your latest book, Leading with Intention: Every Moment Is a Choice, is very unlike a lot of the C-Suite books available. Tell me about how this book came about?

Dr. Hall:  The seed for the book was planted nearly 25 years ago. I was a young professional learning the ropes in a new company when I was invited to a meeting hosted by one of our most senior vice presidents. The presentation was about an acquisition we were making; certainly, an important topic. We settled in and assumed “reception mode”(we all know what that looks like—passive listening and sometimes not even listening) and prepared to hear an hour’s worth of content. Before the senior vice president got started, however, he went to the front of the room, flipped over the front page of a flip chart and revealed two words: “Be here.”He didn’t comment on them, but left it there for his entire presentation and it got me thinking: how many people were “there”? Who was “present”? Who was not? What choices were people making and what was the impact of those choices? Those questions are what lie at the heart of Leading with Intention.

The book is quite deliberately unlike the majority of business books on the market. My emphasis was on writing a concise, practical guide that a busy executive could read in one or two sittings and immediately be able to implement one of its tips, tools, or concepts and see results. In fact, I field tested it when I finished the final draft. I asked three line executives to read the book on their next cross-country flight and then give me feedback on three questions: 1) Did it hold their attention? 2) Were they able to finish it in one or two sittings? and 3) Were they able to immediately apply one tip, tool, or concept and see results? Pleasantly, they all responded favorably to those three questions. So while it is informed by research and my 25 years of experience in working with senior executives, it is heavily weighted toward real-life examples and straightforward tools. Because I think in order for information to be useful, it first has to be memorable.

MacLean: Your philosophy: “I want it to matter that we met,”is also unique. You clearly put a lot of emphasis on relationships. Do you think that this is in part because of your education and experience and/or because you are a woman?

Dr. Hall: I appreciate your comment about its uniqueness, but honestly I wish it were less so! That’s been part of my goal in writing the book: to make people more aware of the impact they can have if they pay more conscious, deliberate attention to their interactions. Over the course of my years coaching leaders and shaping organizations, I would say nearly 80 percent of those I have worked with did not lead intentionally. They were bright, capable leaders that operated out of intuition, pattern, and reaction. Mind you, some did so with very strong results, but those who made the decision to be more self-aware and intentional have achieved higher-level results in terms of both the positions they’ve held and the impact they’ve had than those who continued to operate primarily from intuition.

So, I’d say the majority of my focus comes from experience, and from seeing first-hand the impact people can have when they choose to operate with intention.

It’s interesting, I was just talking with my team this week about whether there’s a gender divide when it comes to leading with intention: whether the skills come more naturally to women or men. My position is that there’s no difference in aptitude or ability; that the skills are equally available to both genders, and that the differentiators are really choice and consistency—making the choice to lead with intention and then doing so consistently over time. However, I think that historically women in business have had to be much more aware of how others perceive them, and of the need to shape perception and challenge mind sets. So while the skills may be equally available, our environments may be pushing women to develop them more, out of necessity.

MacLean: The Conference Board surveyed global leaders and found that the top four challenges for CEOs include:  access to human capital, customer relationships, innovation and operational excellence.  This is very broad.  Your experience not only crosses various sectors, but it also includes companies in various stages of the business ecosystem, what are your thoughts on this?

Dr. Hall: It does seem broad, on the surface, but I think the commonality among the four is people, and more specifically, a leader’s ability to engage others and create an environment in which people want to contribute. It is people that forge relationships, innovate, and that execute on the organization’s strategy. If you’re successful in creating an environment that inspires people to be their best, you’ll be better able to attract top-notch talent, deliver for customers, and thrive as a company. I believe that to be true regardless of a company’s size, age, or industry. And, it doesn’t need to entail a large corporate training program. The number one way culture is created is by what leaders model. Ratcheting up one’s ability to be more aware of the environment they create and more intentional about what they are modelling makes a world of difference in the business outcomes achieved. And the stakes are high in an age of talent that wants to feel inspired, of organizations that must continue to stay relevant to today’s consumers, and of business models that can change overnight. You are the completely controllable variable in all of that noise. 

 MacLean: A number of studies indicate that the C-Suite is changing in terms of the average age – it is becoming younger. Do you think that this is helping move the needle as younger people want to lead with intention?

Dr. Hall: I want to be careful here because, again, I believe that the tools needed to lead with intention are available to anyone, regardless of age. And I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to say that younger generations inherently want to lead with intention more than the members of older generations do. What I think is fair to say, however, is that the younger generations’ relationship to work is changing, and that this is requiring a shift in how we think about leadership and structuring our organizations. Those starting in the workforce today are less likely to stay with a single employer for their entire career than older generations were. They’re thinking about their careers differently: they’re seeking work that has more meaning to them and that furthers their development. So when you think about how to engage people in younger generations and about the kind of work environments that will be attractive to them, it looks much different than what’s existed in the past, and requires leaders—of all generations—to think and act differently then they may have previously.

MacLean: What do you believe will be the biggest challenges for the C-Suite in 2015?  What are the biggest opportunities?

Dr. Hall: I believe the biggest challenges and opportunities are the same and three instantly come to mind: focus, customers, and culture. In this age of the 24-hour news cycle and the explosion of noise in the system, it is not surprising that focus can be compromised. However, it is exactly in this kind of moment when clarity and focus are needed. Clarity drives confidence and confidence drives commitment. When your organization has a clear picture of what they are trying to achieve, you create tremendous momentum. The challenge and opportunity of customers speaks for itself; never before has so much of what customers want been so quickly and efficiently available to them (think Amazon, Zappos, etc.) However, it’s not just about buying things. What Amazon and Zappos also do is create a relationship with their customers; a trust that they will do what they say. As the C-Suite considers their goals for 2015, it will be important to consider what kind of relationship they have with their customer base and what they could do to strengthen it.

And finally, culture. Mark Fields, President and CEO of Ford, made an old Peter Drucker quote famous when he was quoted as saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”Culture will develop by design or default; an organization’s ability to shape its culture is determined primarily by its level of intention. Culture is not a program that gets implemented; it is built through everyday actions and messaging and C-suite executives touch their organizations every day in so many ways and have an impact often beyond what they are aware of. Choose to intentionally shape the culture of your organization because once you witness the power of culture, it becomes one of the most important levers of success you will ever experience. 

MacLean: What are your thoughts on members of the C-Suite mentoring? Do you think that mentoring should be a standard part of the offering by C-Suite members?

Dr. Hall: I think it’s incumbent on every leader to develop the leaders who follow them. That’s the real legacy of a leader: to leave the organization better than they found it with a pipeline of capable leaders who can step up when the need arises. But again, it doesn’t necessarily need to be a formal program; in fact, I haven’t seen a lot of formal mentoring programs that create strong results. The main reason for this is that most successful mentoring relationships develop organically and as a result of a natural connection; and natural connection is not something that can be orchestrated. What can be orchestrated, however, is the expectation that all leaders, and certainly C-Suite leaders, are responsible for developing those behind them. 

INB: When leaders are hired from outside the company, there can be cultural challenges that may impede success. What role does, or should, the C-Suite play in ensuring the success of C-Suite members when hired externally?

Dr. Hall: I don’t think it’s necessarily about internal versus external, but I do think every member on an executive team has a responsibility to the organization’s culture. Anytime a new member is appointed to the executive team—regardless of whether they’re recruited internally or externally—attention must be given to assimilating that new member into the team. Assimilation here is not being used as a synonym for conformity, because it’s healthy and in fact, productive to have diversity of thought, approach, etc. on any team. It’s about alignment. Senior executives, by the sheer virtue of their visibility within the organization, are the example of what is acceptable; they set the tone/the culture for the organization. So, helping a new member be successful is, in part, ensuring that there is alignment in the C-Suite team about the type of culture the organization wants to encourage. As I’ve talked about on my podcast, far too many companies focus too much on the functional skills of an executive and not enough on the culture they create. 

MacLean: Drawing on your human behaviour and HR experience, we know that as baby boomers near and enter retirement, there will be a significant loss of experience and labour available – what can the C-Suite do to prepare and overcome this?

Dr. Hall: There may well be a smaller labour market, but I think the loss of experience shouldn’t be taken as a given. There certainly will be a loss of experience if companies and individuals fail to take steps to transfer knowledge. We’ve talked about mentorship, and I think that’s certainly one way that knowledge and experience can be passed on within an organization. But there are other ways to ensure that knowledge is retained, and I think many companies don’t make a concerted effort to do so. To put it plainly, many companies simply don’t ask their employees to share their knowledge, despite evidence that it furthers engagement: people feel more valued when others recognize that their knowledge and their contributions are important.

I believe that too many organizations are leaving potential on the table. An organization’s success rests on people: on leaders’ ability to create an environment where people are inspired to create extraordinary results. But study after study has shown that, in most organizations, the majority of employees don’t consider themselves actively engaged in their work. If more people felt inspired by the environments in which they work, the compounding effects of that would have significant impact on the bottom line, customer relationships, product quality, recruitment and retention, and more. The possibilities are extraordinary. If you could improve engagement simply by being more aware of your impact and more deliberate in your actions, why wouldn’t you make that investment?

MacLean: If you could offer just one piece of advice for the C-Suite for 2015, what would that be?

Dr. Hall: Four simple words: notice yourself and choose. Choose to have a great impact. Choose to create environments where people feel heard, valued, seen. Choose to lead with intention. It’s all within your hands.

NOTE: a version of this post previously appeared on the Invest NB blog.

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