Interview with Terence Mauri, Founder of Hack Future Lab and Visiting Professor, IE Business School
If leaders consider ‘the one thing they could do differently today to help their organization be future prepared,’ where would you start? With economic headwinds and tech disruption an everyday reality, the best solution is to activate bold leadership that empowers talent to solve the biggest problems in the organization, calling out blind spots that leaders are blind to and making trust leaps into the future.
One of the clearest signs of bold leadership is reframing and rethinking your assumptions about what stays, what changes and what goes.
To lead from the future (not the past), leaders should reject ‘present forward’ ways of thinking that simply extend existing assumptions, mental maps and talent frameworks to the future. A failure to reimagine is a failure of leadership. Instead, leaders should avoid empty slogans and go big on laser focus, empowerment and the strategic courage to turn volatility into value. Companies such as Moderna, DBS, Hermés, Ocado and Estée Lauder champion this principle by sharpening their bold agenda for culture, people and talent, and building profitable growth engines despite their complex legacy businesses.
While employees all over the world are rethinking their purpose at work, the rules and styles of modern leadership have dramatically evolved. In your opinion, what are the imperatives for practising ‘bold leadership’? How will it help our future-fit leaders stay ahead of the accelerating change curve in the coming years?
The big story for this year is reframing and reimagining. One of the clearest signs of bold leadership is rethinking your assumptions and updating your opinions. Operating at the edge of uncertainty, context becomes key. Leaders should strengthen their context-setting, culture-setting, talent-setting, and pace-setting capabilities to ensure talent creation and talent enablement. This means:
- context over control;
- autonomy over rules;
- speak up over silence;
- career agility over career ladders;
- iterative growth mindsets over bureaucratic fixed ones;
- and simplicity over complexity
Decisive leaders will be those who take bold action in the face of adversity and scale-challenging cultures that are human-led, intentionally diverse, psychologically safe, and built for speed. Metrics matter too. New World DNA leaders care about return on intelligence and return on integrity not just return on investment, and are redesigning workflows that are growth-led and match talent to value. I call it human maximisation.
When the future arrives faster than ever before, I believe the future favours the bold. Bold is always less risky than a weak strategy or weak leadership. Bold leaders should have the curiosity to learn and the courage to unlearn.
Learning helps you evolve and unlearning helps you keep up as the world evolves.
- The curiosity to learn: the gap between what you know and what you want to know.
- The courage to unlearn: as the rate of change accelerates you must unlearn the always-done ways
- The clarity to focus: pay attention to attention and focus on deep leadership (high impact) more than shallow leadership (low impact)
- The conviction to decide: high-velocity decisions that shape the future and say goodbye to the status quo
- The care to co-create: high safety and high diversity teams that belong, contribute, challenge and show high-risk tolerance for experimenting
We always overestimate the risk of trying something new and underestimate the risk of standing still. When you’re operating at the edge of uncertainty, not taking a risk is a risk. What better time for leaders to step back and reflect on their leadership? What parts are enduring, emerging, and eroding, and how does this translate into leading from the future, not the past?
What according to you is the most challenging part of being a leader in a dynamic business environment? What are employees most reluctant to do?
The relentless twin demands of performing for today and transforming for tomorrow, mean that leaders are grappling with an accelerated phase of workforce and industry change and disruption, but is enough being done to elevate leadership attention?
If there’s one challenge for leaders this year it would be to remember that data isn’t the new oil. Attention is the new oil. Attention to winning the war for talent. Attention to the risk of burnout. Attention to adopting new agile ways of working. Attention to redesigning work that prioritises Belonging (connection), Becoming (Growth and Opportunity), and Believing (Radiate purpose and trust).
Research at Hack Future Lab shows that attention—and leadership attention in particular—has been blown up into millions of fragmented pixels and the accelerants have been COVID-19 and the changing nature of work, the workplace, and the workforce.
- 93% believe that their leadership attention is key to growth but only 27% believe it’s a strength.
- 68% report either themselves or their teams are at risk of overload and overwhelm.
- 65% of the business decisions made today are more complex than they were 2 years ago.
- 63% highlight a productivity paradox where performance increased but well-being dropped.
- 56% believe they spend more time on shallow work than deep work.
- 41% can link decision-making to enterprise value and strategy.
- 20% have mentally quit the job but haven’t resigned.
The #1 takeaway is that people are tired. Zoom fatigue. Meeting fatigue. Collaboration fatigue. Solution fatigue. Brain fog. With over 41 trillion dollars of enterprise value at risk and 93% of leaders expecting significant industry disruption over the next five years, leadership attention has become a leader’s call-to-action challenge this year.
We all know that employee experience and wellness is one of the key priorities for organisations today, but the leaders themselves are also reporting record levels of burnout and mental exhaustion, which makes their wellness an equally concerning element. According to you, what is the secret to the leaders’ wellness?
It’s impossible to talk about learning, growth or transformation without talking about well-being. Research at Hack Future Lab shows that 78% of leaders report record levels of anticipatory anxiety about the future and are at risk of burnout. This is the Great Overload.
Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon said: ‘Too much information leads to a poverty of attention.’
We pay a leadership tax every time our well-being is hijacked by a pointless meeting or we schedule back-to-back Zoom calls with no ‘cognitive bandwidth in the day for reflecting and refuelling. This means shallow impact rather than deep impact and busy work rather than our boldest work.
Work intensity has increased by 3.8X in the last 3 years. More meetings. More Zoom calls. More emails. More interruptions and demands on your time. We’re worried about our health, climate change, our job security, our well-being, and automation. Anticipatory anxiety and performance are like oil and water. It’s an innovation and growth killer.
The secret to a leader’s wellness is deep self-awareness and adopting a listening mindset. I hear that success breeds success, but I think success can also corrupt. Without meta-awareness and committed attention to your inner world (health and well-being) and outer world (noise, demands, and pressures), it’s difficult to stay ahead of change. Worse, we get trapped in our optimism bubbles. To paraphrase psychologist Daniel Kahneman ‘we become blind to our blindness’ and in particular, well-being blindness. My call to action is don’t focus on time management. Focus on energy management.
What is the key to a bold and resilient future? What are the three things that leaders can do differently to prepare their teams for any crisis in the future, regardless of where and how they work?
I recently got invited to speak about the future of leadership and how many leaders are currently stuck between the certainties of the past and the unknowns of the future. I believe that a change in perspective is worth at least 80 IQ points because your current perceptions are grounded in your past assumptions. It starts with reframing and reimagining what unlearning means for you and your people. Re-perception — the ability to see, hear or become aware of something new in existing information and notice the blind spots that we are blind to — is key to a bold and resilient future and is crucial for sustaining leadership vitality for the long term.
A useful approach is to ask three catalytic questions.
- Who we are? (Identity): Sharpen the culture and trust agenda, e.g., treat culture like a product (embrace perpetual beta) and go big on radiating purpose, values as an accelerant and trust safety (safety to speak up, safety to challenge, and safety to be vulnerable).
- How do we work? (Agility): Rethink the work, workforce and workplace of the future and bring a spirit of start-up nimbleness, e.g., remove fake empowerment and emphasize context over control and directly responsible individuals (DRI).
- How do we grow? (Scalability): Design for inclusive and sustainable work and rethink work capability stacks around talent to value creation and work that people love, e.g., leverage AI-powered talent marketplaces that break down silos and increase internal growth/mobility opportunities.
Pfizer is known for its nine-month race to make the impossible possible by creating the first COVID-19 vaccine in the world. What you may not know is that CEO Dr Albert Bourla is on a mission to harness uncertainty as a tailwind for bold action by activating Lightspeed Behaviours across the 79,000-person enterprise (Act at the speed of science, crush bureaucracy, radiate purpose, and trust one another) and bring values to life every day (courage, equity, excellence and joy at work). Bourla, a provocateur of bold action, knows that to change the game you must make game-changing moves. The result is learning and unlearning at the human scale in the form of:
- Reskilling, cross-skilling, and upskilling all employees with future-fit skills by 2025.
- Scaling cultures of curiosity based on high-risk tolerance for experimentation.
- Reframe failure as a platform that welcomes ideas that improve the status quo.
- Role-model and share stories of unlearning the ‘always done ways’ through reflection and feedforward and recognition and celebration.
A key reflection for me is that cultures of curiosity embrace ideas that challenge the status quo. Cultures of conformity reject ideas that challenge the status quo. Now is the time for the courage of heart and boldness of ideas.
How has our leadership contributed to cultivating a progressive digital culture at the workplace?
I believe truly transformative leaders go beyond digital and harness reimagination as the new execution for a world that The Economist describes as ‘predictably unpredictable’. Research by Hack Future Lab shows that by 2025, global digital transformation spending is forecast to reach 2.8 trillion U.S. dollars and an estimated $700 billion in digital transformation spending annually, which falls short of delivering the desired results. As organisations pivot from doing digital to being digital, there is a huge aspiration-to-action gap with 67% of leaders confirming they don’t have the right mindsets, culture sets, and toolsets to activate reimagination as the new execution. Our research shows that most organisations miss their transformation targets achieving less than one-third of the impact they expected from recent digital investments. Digital transformations don’t fail because of technology. They fail because of sociology. And psychology. A mandate for reimagination as the new execution has never been more urgent.
Every organisation starts as an act of imagination but to sustain vitality for the long-term requires reimagination, which I define as the human force that pushes you to persist in the face of inertia and difficulty and see your transformation through to a successful conclusion. Reimagination — adapting a core business to disruptive change while also creating new growth around new products, business models, platforms, or ecosystems — may be the leadership imperative of the 21st century. It’s the curiosity to learn and the courage to unlearn. Learning helps you transform and unlearning helps you stay ahead of disruption as witnessed by digital pioneers such as Tata, Microsoft, DBS, Hermés, Ocado and Estée Lauder for building meaningful new digital business models despite their complex legacy businesses. Reimagination starts with digital obsession, high learning orientation, an aligned view of the future and an enterprise-wide set of bold imperatives (e.g., strengthen identity, agility and scalability) that reframe the world around you in radically new ways, turning uncertainty into a tailwind for light speed transformation and accelerated growth.
In your opinion, what is the key to leading the future of hybrid?
As leaders pivot to remote and hybrid work models, humans and machines, workforce ecosystems, and talent marketplaces, there is fear and excitement. Now is the time for leaders to reframe their leadership narratives for a restless and accelerating future and as the world evolves faster, we should not waste one of the biggest reframing moments of our lifetimes.
Culture is key to leading the future of hybrid. Our recent research confirms that:
- Flexibility is here to stay
- People want more freedom and responsibility
- The number one reason people leave their jobs is lack of internal growth and mobility (after money)
As leaders prepare their workforce for a future that is flat, flexible, and hybrid — a ‘bring your own environment’ world rather than a ‘bring your own device’ – they must ask the question: “How do we cultivate a healthy, productive, and energised workforce willing to own the transformation journey — and resilient enough to handle the challenges brought by a global pandemic?” Companies such as games developer Ubisoft and microblogging platform Twitter report that energised employees are twice as likely to say their organisation is transparent about which jobs will change, and rank uncertainty last in reasons for feeling burnt out.
I’ve created a culture map DNA tool that can help leaders map out the collective strengths and blinds of their organisational cultures.
Culture-first pioneers such as HubSpot, Lululemon and Adobe listen and use data and insights to understand their employees, colleagues, and customers’ pain points. And they take decisive action to improve individuals’ futures while enhancing their present-day experience. Our research shows organisations that lead with culture are 2.8x more energising to work for and 3.5x more resilient in the face of adversity. An anti-fragile culture that enables organisations to absorb shockwaves and return even stronger will be a key way of winning the new logic of competition alongside reimagining relevancy across growth strategies, operating models and the rate of learning. Now it’s the people delivering the experience who are driving the advantage — and culture is also the differentiator for them in a hybrid world.
If there’s a final call to action that I offer every leader: make this the year that you do something radical, because leadership is never finished. Culture is never finished. Learning is never finished. Make it the year that you turn uncertainty into action, fight complexity with simplicity, adopt new agile ways of leading and working, and say goodbye to the status quo.