What makes Herminia Ibarra a great communicator?

I’m an early adopter. Having loved Herminia Ibarra’s first book, Working Identity, I’m unsurprised by the hoopla surrounding her second,Act Like Leader, Think Like a Leader. And as an executive coach with a focus on helping clients build presence and confidence, it was great for me to see Ibarra communicate her thinking (and her self) in a recent Meyler Campbell lecture.
Ibarra is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD. In essence, her message is simple. Rather than sit down in a darkened room and think what kind of leader you want to be, do things differently to be seen as a leader. As in Richard Pascale’s phrase; people are more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking, than think their way into a new way of acting.

One of Ibarra’s key concepts is ‘Outsight’, As opposed to insight which is based on self reflection about what you’ve done in the past. Outsight is the perspective you get when you try different things — take on a new project; work with different people, experiment with new ways of getting things done — and then observe the results of your actions (and the impact they have on how your organisation sees you). Ibarra suggests there are three ways you can generate outsight:

- Redefine your job to make time for more strategic work
- Diversify your network to learn from a wider pool of stakeholders; and
- Be more playful with your sense of who you are

As you try these things, you learn, and change how you think about the problem the next time around. You show up differently; people respond differently, and you can then adjust until you find your own leadership style. Put like that, it sounds straightforward. But what marks Ibarra out is that her ideas have come from working with nearly 500 managers from over 30 countries on The Leadership Transition programme at INSEAD.

And what makes Ibarra a great communicator is that she walks her talk; she’s learned to lead – and you can too. She showcased one of the best stories from her book, describing how she was a dismal failure as a young lecturer at Harvard – until a colleague told her: it’s not about the content – you need to be a dog. Stalking around the auditorium, she expanded: mark your territory in each corner of the room; get up close and personal. Once your students know it’s your room and not theirs, her mentor asserted, you can start to think about your content.

It was a brave performance – particularly in stilettos – and she deserved the round of applause. You can see that Ibarra is a pure academic who revels in the research – which means the rubber chicken circuit doesn’t come easily to her – and that she has tried out different things until she’s found what works for her. Like all of us, she still finds it hard to do the thing that the best communicators do which …pause. (By coincidence the day after Ibarra, I heard Konstantin Sherbacken play the Eroica at the Wigmore Hall on a Steinway as large as my spare room. For all Beethoven’s crescendoes, it is the quiet passages that make you lean in – and make sense of the whole. It’s the lesson we all need to learn).

Ibarra deserves an audience closer to the two million people who bought Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink than the thousands who will buy Act like a Leader. She admitted to title envy over Marshall Goldsmith’s, What got you here won’t get you there. And I agree. The right title just turns things around. (Esther Perel’s fairly academic study of desire in long term relationships could have sunk like a stone without the inspired title: Mating in Captivity). Ibarra is the real deal and a great communicator. Finding her next title could find her the audience she deserves.