Thrivable Leadership : Interview with Kevin A. Clark

Each Wednesday, we post an interview with someone who is living, exploring, or championing aspects of thrivability – people at the forefront of cultural, organizational, or individual change.

Kevin A. Clark is an award-winning brand strategist, experience designer, author, and transformational catalyst.  He is President and Founder of Content Evolution LLC formed in 2002 to provide leadership in brand behavior and experience strategy.  In early 2009 Kevin retired from IBM with 30 years of service.  He is Program Director emeritus, Brand and Values Experience, IBM Corporate Marketing and Communications – responsible for discovering and creating new ways for people to experience IBM.  As a business metaphysicist, Kevin also is a member of the North American Thrivable Network.

Todd Hoskins:  In your experience how are the impacts, methods, or requirements of leadership changing?

Kevin A. Clark:   Yes, there’s definitely a shift.  John Perry Barlow says the role of the manager is changing from telling people what to do, to helping them make sense of things (so they can act on their own).  Leaders need to move from directing to enabling.  Governance at the board level needs to move to enablement too, and environmental scanning.  This is part of the resilience and adaptive function leaders need to embrace.

Business schools are creating technically capable professionals, yet they are not delivering two things you get promoted for:  leadership and judgment.  Leadership gets some air time mostly by case study, yet more focused on outcomes than the journey.  Judgment hardly at all.  We need to find better ways to provide learning environments to hone good judgment – both inside the enterprise (the federation in my case) and the classroom.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter at Harvard Business School said two decades ago the new deal with employers and employees is:  We can’t guarantee your employment, but we can guarantee your employ-ability.  I like that deal.  It means you take full advantage of being the best you can be as a lifelong learner and professional, and it places the burden on the organization to find ways to hold on to you.

Todd:  There is a collapse of disciplines/silos that we see happening, which also seems to point towards the more thrivable whole.  Business leaders are no longer just reading business books.  You are influenced by Don Beck, Ken Wilber, Dave Snowden, Carl Jung, Dan Ariely, among others.  What is happening here?

Kevin:  Business leaders are beginning to act as authentic selves in all contexts as opposed to acting situationally.  Situational management techniques lead to multiple personality disorder; and organizational schizophrenia.  If you treat all the people in your life with respect and don’t become another person when you go to work, you start to understand how to play non-zero – or more ways to play in an increasingly win-win world.

I believe we’re also inheriting a new generation of people who are broadly networked and think in bursts (texting-minds), combined with short attention spans and a width of broad knowledge.  I see imprinting and collective consciousness moving toward bite-size interaction with implications for short-burst projects and direction.

I work with companies in other parts of the world that have 100 year plans and accompanying scenarios – we have a shorter time horizon in our Western left-brain linear processor world.  We need to embrace the non-time-dependent, holistic side of our thinking to be fully ready for economic forces emerging that have a much longer term and more comprehensive outlook.  There is also a perceptual and cognitive readiness emerging that makes it possible to both collaborate and compete simultaneously.  It is the “I” and the “we” held in dynamic tension – not canceling out each other, but amplifying the strengths of both.

Todd:  Is business planning changing?

Kevin:  Business planning is changing from simply doing “well,” to doing well and doing “good” for a number of stakeholders.  We encourage an understanding of the full spectrum of resource acquisition and resource allocation, making provision for alternative futures and preparing for them.  We look at monitoring emergence, and understanding both the permissions to operate freely and unconstrained along with the behaviors that will trigger regulation and customer defection.  These are all needed by the contemporary business planner.  Spreadsheets will no longer be the primary planning tool.

Visual models accompanied with explanatory narrative and a financial business case will be needed to deliver competitive resilience in the future.  The planning cycle will also have to move from annual or quarterly cycles to continuous modes with selected deep dives.  This will provide new insights and help eliminate the unjustified assumptions which can deplete the energy of companies through unnecessary activities and operations.

Todd:  Content Evolution is a global “non-holding” company.  I know you’ve called it a “federation.”  How do the companies relate to one another?

Kevin:  Content Evolution functions as a global ecosystem of member companies – we work together to organize intention around marketplace behavior.  Much of this is done by exposing members to each others’ capabilities, participating in joint business development activities, and global teleconferences.

We have a business development commons that brings together the sales and development executives from the member companies and provides a safe environment for them to collaborate and quietly do horse-trading.  We also have an annual conference for our 40 companies worldwide – last year at Interbrand headquarters in Manhattan – and this coming year in the spring at Jack Morton Worldwide in Boston.

Todd:  How does this model represent a shift from the old “if you can’t beat them, join them” model of compete or acquire?

Kevin:  We collaborate.  I’m reinvesting the 30 years I spent in the corporate world and taking my professional relationships and federating them into something integral that hasn’t existed before.  It’s also better being a global mentor than being a traditional manager – just like it’s better to be a grandparent than being a parent!

Content Evolution as a member federation has no debt, since no one acquired anyone.  We have more capabilities than the largest of the marketing holding companies, spanning customer and market research, product and service ergonomics, business and thrivability strategy, brand strategy and management, and customer and constituency experience design and strategy.

Todd:  What have you learned in pioneering this federation?  What mistakes have you made?

Kevin:  I have made no mistakes (says the ego).  “Ha!” says the rest of my consciousness.  I like to move in several different directions at once.  Some of my experiments failed, such as working on a collaborative book (too much effort for too little collective reward).  We refocused our group energy around driving revenue rather than driving early visibility.  The recognition we’re here is growing – commensurate to our practical contributions to solving client problems and adding breakthrough value.

Our strategic selling method: listening, just like I’ve needed to direct less and listen more to the members.  Today we’re working together better than ever and thriving as a group.

Todd:  Anything else, Kevin, that can help us thrive in the New Year?

Kevin: Be intentional!

Todd:  Thanks, Kevin.

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