Faculty & Research
The School


Herminia Ibarra: How to act your way into leadership

In an entertaining presentation featuring plenty of audience votes, some very straight talking, and even the outrageous theft of a banana, Herminia Ibarra, Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning and Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, gave her MBA audience a range of stories, ideas, and practical tips to get them to increase their leadership potential by increasing their ‘outsight’.

When making a personal change, such as moving into a leadership role, the classic recommendation is to think first, then act, she said. You might look at role models or think about your strategy, and then try to copy them or put your strategy into practice. However, it doesn’t necessarily work. The way to do it, she says, is to increase your outsight by marshalling external knowledge, new experiences and action, rather than relying entirely on past experience and internal knowledge (‘insight’).

This is even more important now, as changes in organisations and the workplace over the past twenty or so years have largely done away with the corporate ladder. There is no longer a linear route to the top, signposted by straightforward promotions with ever increasing levels of responsibility.  Now people clamber sideways and upwards over trellises and matrices, embracing new opportunities in addition to existing roles. There are no signals telling you when the time has come to make a transition.

So, Ibarra said, you have to Do It Yourself: step up to lead even before you get a leadership title. You do this by making three changes:

·         Redefine your job to make a more strategic contribution

·         Network across and out, connecting to a larger range of stakeholders

·         Be more playful with yourself so that you grow beyond familiar leadership styles

Redefine your job

It sounds obvious: if we always do the same job in the same way, we are not changing. The problem is, we think, that our jobs are so full, we don’t have time to do anything differently.

In this, we are not alone. Ibarra pointed to recent research on what members of the C-suite spend their time doing. As members of the audience guessed, even organisational leaders spend most of their time doing things and mobilising others, when they would rather be thinking about strategy and enabling and coaching other people.

True, you have to keep the doing going somehow. It’s psychologically satisfying because it reinforces our competences. ‘We enjoy being good at things so we keep doing what we enjoy. And the more we do it, the better we get,’ said Ibarra. ‘However, the more we do it and the better we get, the higher the opportunity cost of doing something else. This is what is known as a competency trap.’

Once you’re in the competency trap, the returns from ‘exploitation’ – that is, keeping on doing what you’re good at – are more certain and more immediate than the returns from exploration. And this is reinforced by your network, who often can’t envisage you doing something else and make it difficult for you to move out of an area you’re good at.

So what do you do? Ibarra recommends:

·         Redefining your job as a portfolio

·         Staying attuned to the environment

·         Getting involved in projects outside your speciality and organisation

·         Shifting from a ‘hub’ to a ‘bridge’ role, in which you are making connections and acting as a ‘bridge’ between your area and the rest of the organisation

·         Delegating routine work to free up time for more strategic work


Manage your network to help you make transitions

As Ibarra stressed earlier, your network can play an important role in either supporting, or holding you back from, making leadership transitions.

The people you surround yourself with give you access to ideas, feedback, gossip, and information ‒ all very useful in organisational life. But, she said, the kinds of networks that we need are not usually those we build naturally. Typically, the people we have in our networks are like us (whatever reminds us of ourselves is attractive), stuck in the past and with past versions of ourselves, and mostly internal. With this sort of ‘inbred’ network, she said, you become redundant. No new information is coming in, everyone knows what everyone else knows, and therefore any member of the network can leave and won’t be missed.

She urged the audience to make sure that their networks were dynamic – always growing and evolving. They should look outside their immediate department and outside the organisation to get involved with different projects and activities.


Be more playful with yourself

The problem with our current attachment to the concept of ‘authenticity’ is that it makes people feel uncomfortable during those vital transition periods, Ibarra said. Especially if you are ‘acting’ a role before feeling it, you are inclined to feel inauthentic, and even an imposter. So people believe that they should always remain ‘true to themselves’ and, as a result, become rather rigid.

Instead, she said, we should try to be more ‘playful’ with ourselves. By this she meant that we should ‘suspend commitment, give some things a try, think you might decide to be a person like that … or not’.

Trying out different ways if interacting with people does not make you an amoral chameleon, ‘You can have a moral integrity while still being a situational leader,’ she said. ‘Be yourself but also experiment with yourself’.



Herminia Ibarra View profile

Herminia Ibarra is the Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning and Professor of Organisational Behavior at INSEAD. An expert on professional careers and leadership development, Ibarra's articles on these topics are published in leading journals.