Exponential: growing your leadership at the same rate as your business

The premise of Azeem Azhar’s new book Exponential: How Accelerating Technology Is Leaving Us Behind and What to Do About It is that whilst technology is developing at an increasing, exponential rate, human society can only ever adapt at a slower, linear pace. In the Exponential Age there’s an ‘exponential gap’ between the power of new technology and humans’ ability to keep up. What does this mean for leaders building modern technology businesses? Could your business grow at a faster pace than you can? Can this ‘exponential leadership gap’ be filled?

I believe it can. It’s hard for humans to fathom exponential change, but it’s not impossible. We live in a complex universe, but our adaptive nature means we’re still surviving and thriving millions of years after we first appeared here on planet earth. Closer to home, my work brings me into daily contact with the leaders of the future: individuals and teams on a mission to bring new models of business, work and leadership to a more diverse world. I’ve noticed big shifts in some leaders as they embark on this journey of business and personal growth. Through Vertical Development they increase their capacity to make sense of the ever-increasing amount of complexity they experience as they scale, helping them navigate the exponential leadership gap effectively.

What gradually happens is not just a linear accretion of more and more that one can look at or think about, but a qualitative shift in the very shape of the window or lens through which one looks at the world.

Robert Kegan, Harvard developmental psychologist

We’ll explore how you can drive the rapid growth of your business, whilst at the same time keeping pace with it. We’ll consider:

  • What exponential growth is and how it impacts the rapid growth of modern technology businesses, including people and teams.
  • Leadership and the linear accretion of knowledge – how traditional horizontal approaches to leadership, which focus on understanding the job to be done and the capabilities required to do it, fall short.
  • Leadership and the exponential accumulation of capacity – how Vertical Development – sensemaking, perspective taking, self-relating and opposable thinking – can help you make sense of the complexity that surrounds you and construct meaning within that complexity.

I hope these new perspectives on leading high-growth technology businesses open up a new way for you to think about your own development. One of the main things you’ll discover is that your growth as a leader has the potential to be as exponential as the growth of your business.

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The Future Of Leadership 2021 Survey Results

The Future Of Leadership newsletter explores the intersection of leadership, business building and psychology. Keen to get to a better understanding of the circa 1,000 individuals who read it each month, in April 2021 I sent out a short survey. Forty six people very kindly responded. Here’s what I discovered about my readers and the future of leadership!

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Want to be a better tech leader? It’s complex

There’s no shortage of “how to” advice, playbooks, formulas and even secrets and guarantees for success (at least that’s what the gurus will have you believe). This stuff can work well in complicated situations. But high growth technology businesses are not complicated, they’re complex, and that requires a different type of leadership.

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Stop telling entrepreneurs what to do. Start helping them think

Everyone has an opinion, advice is everywhere. It’s what to do with it that’s hard. If we really want to help entrepreneurs grow into the best CEOs, then we should stop telling them what to do and start helping them think. Because, in a VUCA world, it won’t necessarily be the entrepreneurs who have more information who will be leading the most successful businesses of the future, it will be those who develop their ability to think and act in more complex ways.

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The Five Dysfunctions of a technology leadership team

Your startup exploded out the blocks. Your metrics rose impressively. You bootstrapped your way to growth, or super-charged it with external funding. You’ve reached 30, 50, maybe even 150 people. The opportunity is still enormous, but your growth rate is slowing and your early agility is showing signs of strain. Scaling laws are taking hold. The team is stressed. True leadership is now needed, but it’s at this point that it so often fails.

Startup growth is never linear, it’s a rollercoaster, but similar challenges are observable on the ride. Written for CEOs and other leaders in high growth technology leadership teams, this article identifies the factors that commonly cause team dysfunction, conflict and other tensions. I offer up some advice about how to avoid them based on my experience helping senior management and executive teams navigate this critical stage of growth. I borrow from Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, which quickly become a best seller after it was published in 2002. Although it wasn’t based on robust scientific research, and its recommendations lacked empirical support, it provided a helpful framework for thinking about how to improve leadership team dynamics and performance.

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Three fundamental truths about uncertainty

We like to think that our lives are ordered, predictable and subject to a great deal of control. The past is finite; we see only one outcome. We attach causality and narrative to it so that it makes sense. We roll our ability to make sense of the past over into the future, which is infinite; there are many outcomes, as yet unknown and unknowable. Randomness, chance, and luck influence us far more than we realize. Uncertainty is everywhere.

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How can leadership team coaching help your tech business?

In his 2017 TED Talk Want to get great at something? Get a coach, surgeon, author and CEO Atul Gawande tells the story of the Harvard and Yale American-rules football teams: “In 1875 Harvard and Yale played their first game. Yale hired a coach Harvard did not. The results, over the next three decades Harvard won just four times. Harvard hired a coach”. Every high performing sports team has a coach, why doesn’t every leadership team?

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How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back – Summary

In How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back (Amazon UKUS) authors Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith identify 12 habits that commonly hold women leaders back as they endeavour to advance to the next stage in their careers. This article provides a summary of those 12 habits, plus a list of powerful questions posed to you by myself and Lynn White, Principal Partner at WDI Consulting. We hope this summary, and our questions, will help you to explore your own habits and unleash your full leadership potential, and the potential of your team and organisation.

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A leader’s guide to decision making under uncertainty

Uncertainty is normal for leaders of any business, but the Coronavirus pandemic has taken this to another level. Asked by clients for advice on how to navigate this crisis, I’ve pulled together thoughts and key resources into this decision making guide. It draws upon evidence from behavioural and decision making psychology, the latest leadership thinking, and my own experience working at Her Majesty’s Treasury during the Great Financial Crisis and navigating the uncertainty of cancer.

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Why entrepreneurs need a coach, mentor & therapist

Like any high-performing individual, leaders need to wrap a professional support team around them if they are to give themselves the best chance of success. That team must be trustworthy, objective, and acting always in the leader’s best interests. This post unpacks the difference between a coach, mentor and therapist and explains why, together, they can make up a such a cohesive support team.

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How Vertical Development helps new leaders transform

Executives need good education and advice“guidance or recommendations offered with regard to prudent future action” – if they are to stand any chance of building a successful business. There are many core skills that must be acquired, and there is much to be learned from those who have done it before. But to develop truly effective leaders we need to move beyond providing them with more information – telling them what to do and how to do it – to helping them improve how they think, make decisions, and make sense of the world. This is the distinction between horizontal development, which focuses on what you know, and Vertical Development, which concerns how you think.

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How to develop a leadership culture in your startup

The internet is awash with articles about the importance of developing a positive company culture. What’s less commonly discussed is the importance of developing a positive leadership culture. In this post I explore what leadership culture is and how you can develop it in your business by: having focused executive leadership team conversations, engaging the whole business in leadership conversations, owning leadership culture from the top, and investing in leadership development.

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Leading on the job: advice for new leaders

Not long ago you were part of a small team of people with a big idea that you thought could change the world. Now you are responsible for a rapidly growing team who are looking at you for direction. Your burden of responsibility has increased dramatically and you need to learn to lead quickly. Having coached a lot of new leaders in this situation, I’ve turned that experience into five pieces of advice for new leaders.

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8 books all new leaders should read

Why is it that when I ask for a pair of hands, a brain comes attached?” Henry Ford once asked. The capitalist economy of the last few centuries was built upon the work of men and machines. Men (and it was almost exclusively men) were paid to do, not to think. Command and control approaches to leadership prevailed, but these traditional approaches are outdated and ineffective. The way that businesses are built and led, and the future of work is changing: the world is more complex than it used to be and the best leaders are learning to adapt. To survive and grow in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment, leaders need skills and organisational capabilities that are different from those that helped businesses succeed in the past.

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Improve your leadership self-awareness with these 4 questions

Self-awareness is the “capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals. Self-awareness is how an individual consciously knows and understands their own character, feelings, motives, and desires”. Back in 2003, psychologists acknowledged that self-awareness was “arguably the most fundamental issue in psychology, from both a developmental and an evolutionary perspective.” More recently, the critical importance of self-awareness as a key trait of effective leaders has become recognised.

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Trillion Dollar Coach – Summary

Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Handbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell (Amazon UK, US) is a book about a man who helped build some of America’s greatest companies, including Apple and Google. A former college football player and coach, Bill didn’t enter the business world until he was thirty nine. Moving quickly though through executive roles, he went on to coach the likes of Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, Ben Horowitz and Bill Gurley, to name just a few. He passed away in 2016, leaving a legacy of growing companies, successful people and an enormous amount of respect. The book is essential reading for any manager or leader operating in a fast-moving, high growth business.

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How to avoid being duped by survivorship bias

It’s easy to see, and pay attention to, only successful individuals and businesses, not the failures that fall by the wayside. This phenomenon is called survivorship bias: “the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility.” (Wikipedia). This article explains, with examples, what survivorship bias is and how to avoid being duped by it.

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A collection of the best articles for new leaders

Many of my executive coaching clients are new leaders in startup and high growth technology businesses. They often find themselves thrust into a new leadership role without much previous experience or training to prepare them. The spotlight and responsibility of first-time leadership can be daunting but it is an incredible place to learn. As part of my executive and startup specific founder services, I curate a reading list of the most insightful leadership articles that I have discovered for clients to read and reflect on. From the thought provoking to the practical, here is a continually updated collection of the best articles which will help you grow and succeed in a new leadership role.

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Do these 2 things to get better at coaching your employees

The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever (Amazon UK, US) is one of the best books I’ve read for managers and leaders who want to use a coach approach with their employees but don’t have the time or inclination for formal training. It’s short on theory but long on practical tools and techniques that are a shot to the heart of great coaching.

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Can technology save the American Dream? Lessons from Janesville

Successful businesses today must be technology-enabled and able to compete in a global marketplace. Older businesses must adapt or die. Janesville: An American Story (Amazon UK, US) by Amy Goldstein explores what happens to businesses that don’t adapt and the impact upon the places and individuals that get left behind. An insightful case study of a medical technology company that is incentivised to move to the town, raises the question of whether or not technology can save the American Dream: “the opportunity for prosperity and success, as well as an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers” (Wikipedia).

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What is the impact of technology on babies & young children?

The evidence is irrefutable: the best way to help a baby learn to talk or develop any other cognitive skill is through live interaction with a human being. But what is the impact of technology on young children that are exposed to it? Can an app, an avatar or a 3D cartoon recreate or override human nature? If a child spends too much time being cyber-simulated than connecting with the real world, could it impair other important pre-academic skills such as empathy, social abilities and problem solving? What about a child who spends the bulk of their playtime with an interactive app, in which objects explode, appear, reappear, and don’t play by the rules of the physical world? How does looking at a tablet screen impact an infant’s eyesight?

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Ray Dalio identifies the 11 characteristics of visionary leaders

Ray Dalio’s book Principles: Life & Work (Amazon UK, US) identifies the author’s organically grown set of principles for building a successful life and business. According to Dalio, principles are fundamental truths that serve as the foundations for behaviour that get you what you want. Dalio also details the personal research he conducted into visionary leadership. Through interviews with the likes of Bill Gates, Reed Hastings, Jack Dorsey and Elon Musk, he identified the characteristics of visionary leaders. This post summarises his findings, with a particular focus on ‘shapers’, as Dalio refers to them.

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15 books that will make you wiser

My experience with cancer changed my relationship with reading and books. Needing to understand my illness better, I consumed every medical paper I could get my hands on. This knowledge helped me deal with my illness and make wiser decisions as part of my treatment process. If it could help me navigate my illness, could it help me navigate life in general? I transitioned to books about psychology, and then to books about the world around me. Two years of radiotherapy, chemotherapy and several operations means you have a lot of time on your hands. This is a list of the books that made me wiser.

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Victor Frankl on finding meaning & happiness

Man’s Search for Meaning (Amazon UKUS) by Victor Frankl is essential reading for anybody interested in happiness, personal growth, the psychology of suffering and mental health. It chronicles the author’s time as an inmate in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. The early chapters do not make for easy reading but the book opens up into one of the deepest and most eloquent explorations of finding meaning and man’s search for meaning and happiness.

Striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man… This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can only be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.

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What is the difference between coaching & mentoring?

The words coaching and mentoring are often used interchangeably, though there are in fact important differences. In his book Coaching for Performance (Amazon UK, US), the late Sir John Whitmore, explains what the difference between coaching and mentoring is. Whitmore is the founder of the coaching movement in the UK. The book is widely considered to be the industry gold standard for performance based coaching.

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Superforecasting: The Art & Science of Prediction – Summary

In a landmark study undertaken between 1984 and 2004, Wharton Professor Philip Tetlock showed that the average expert’s ability to make accurate predictions about the future was only slightly better than a layperson using random guesswork. His latest project, which began in 2011, has since shown that there are some people with real, demonstrable predicting foresight. These are often ordinary people who have an extraordinary ability to make predictions with a degree of accuracy significantly greater than the average. In his book Superforecasting: The Art & Science of Prediction (Amazon UK, US), co-authored with Dan Gardner, Tetlock identifies how you can improve your ability to predict the future and become a superforecaster.

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