Innovation When We Need it More Than Ever

A Former Pfizer And Rhone Poulenc Rorer Exec, and Advisor to Numerous Industry Luminaries, on the Qualities of Leadership When it Counts MostByJeffrey CohenForbes Coaches Council

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Because Jeff has coached people in the upper reaches of the C-suites for many years, earning him a position on the invitation-only Forbes Coaches Council, we asked him to offer his perspective on how leadership has to face major challenges like the one we’re in the midst of now. This article is partly drawn from material previously published in, with additional commentary by Jeff for HS&M.

Leaders are being tested by COVID-19 and the rapidly evolving responses that are dramatically disrupting how we work in our organizations, serve as members of a leadership team (LT), and lead our teams. We have many leadership habits that help us deal with all that comes at us in normal times, but those habits are being disrupted by this global pandemic.

At this frenetic pace, it’s easy for leaders to get caught up in the energy and lose perspective, making short-term decisions that create longer-term unintended consequences. From my 20-plus years as an executive coach, I know those who are most successful stay engaged with their advisors and take the time to think before acting despite the pressures and extreme demands on their time.

Leadership is often seen as a set of tradeoffs. If I’m strategic, I can’t be good at execution. If I am team oriented, I can’t advance my career. That framing is binary and limiting. The most effective leaders subscribe to a series of “and” statements, recognizing the need for both and seeing the optimal time to lead with each. This article explores two leadership roles: being a leadership team member and player and leadership in a crisis.


While there is a lot of material to guide you through your first managerial assignment or even for serving on a board of directors, there is a dearth of resources on becoming a member of a leadership team, which is a much more common leadership challenge. I’ve been privileged to lead teams early in my career and work with many great leaders over my career. Becoming a strong LT member is about navigating a series of five “and” statements, and in the process, increasing the sophistication of your thinking and action.

1. Get aligned with the leader’s priorities and bring your point of view on key opportunities and challenges. When tapped to join an LT, the leader has often been in place and has priorities. Part of the challenge is to fully understand those priorities and the leadership context, so you can ensure your group’s work is fully aligned. And the more quickly you can develop and articulate your own point of view as to what else might be possible and how the LT might get the organization there, the more quickly you will be earning your seat at the table. Learn fast and then actively help set the LT’s agenda from a perspective broader than just your portfolio. The faster you can see the world from your leader’s perspective, the more quickly you can perceive needs and deliver proactively. You can and need to be both a follower and a leader when serving on a leadership team.

A classic challenge is when you are a subject matter expert joining a leadership team where the leader, especially if new, is not expert in your area. It is easy to fall into critique as the leader creates demands for information and/or reveals gaps in expertise or experience. Yet this is your opportunity to support the leader’s learning, and make the arguments that help the leader decide where to focus.

2. Be an individual star and a star team player. You will have to jump into a radically time-constrained life, balancing the demands of your group and its stakeholders with the time it takes to be a good LT player. Rather than twinkling brightly but diminishing other teammates, it means identifying important ways of supporting the LT and other team members, becoming an enterprise leader and taking on select LT projects that are important to the LT and its leader, even if the objectives are less important to your group and your portfolio. You can and need to be a star and star team player.

When observing a leadership team in action, I will often see team members multi-tasking across a variety of topics until something hits close to home, and then become much more engaged. That sends the message that you aren’t there to help others on the team deliver what only the LT can deliver. We need to wear two hats as a leadership team member – the hat of my group and the hat of the LT – and move agilely between those perspectives.

3. Fit into the team and drive needed change. Joining an LT means fitting into the rhythm and patterns of behavior already present on the team. How does the team think about problems? More rationally or emotionally? With an eye to the big picture or more about the details of execution? You earn your seat at the LT table by showing you can work within the existing patterns and by seeking to improve the team’s and the organization’s culture. As the Herrmann Whole Brain model (see Figure 1) illustrates, it is about being aware of the impact of your leadership and thinking styles (see HBDI model) on the team and working to understand others, their drivers and how to connect, especially with those that appear different. All too often, we attain an LT role and fall into the pattern of seeing driving change as the leader’s role. Being a catalyst of change on the LT may have risks, and managing those risks well is how you show you are deserving of leading your own top team. You can and need to fit in and recognize and seize your opportunities to catalyze change.

A wonderful leader I have worked with shared a powerful insight when her boss’ LT used the Herrmann Brain tool. When she saw how team member preferences showed up, she realized that her go to people for advice were those of the team with a more similar set of preferences to her own. Of course she valued their advice. She quickly realized the value in seeking others out, and doing so in a way that tapped into their preferences.

Fig. 1: The Herrmann Whole Brain Model

a chart [Herrmann Whole Brain Model]

4. Honor commitments that build trust and take risks that can make a real difference. Being a trusted team member earns other’s trust. To be seen as a real trusted LT contributor you have to deliver on your commitments and do so in a vulnerable way, being willing to disclose challenges, seek guidance and value the advice of others on the team. The obvious commitments are the key things your group can deliver, as these help you build a track record of delivering and of being reliable. The less obvious and often riskier way of building trust is to identify or volunteer for LT projects that are significant stretches, where success is not a given, where collaboration is critical but not easy. You need to deliver great results from your group and be willing to risk failure in the effort to deliver breakthroughs that push the organization towards its vision.

Patrick Lencioni’s framework, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team tells the story about why trust is so critical to a team. Put simply, if you have trust, it enables confidence the team can use real conflict productively and gain strong commitment to action, hold each other accountable for their part and contributing to the whole and actually achieving the results of the LT. (Figure 2)

5. Shape strategy and master execution. LTs have a pattern to them, and your challenge is to understand if this is an LT focused on strategy or execution, or both. If it is about execution, you have to become a master at executing reliably and carve out thinking space for strategy, in what can feel like a counter-cultural and unrewarded effort. If the LT is more strategy focused, leaving execution planning and follow-up to others, the trap here is getting lost in big ideas and not being able to deliver the day-to-day, thereby diminishing trust. You can and need to be both a strategic thinker and great at execution and know when to lead with one or the other.

It is easy to get caught up in the habits and culture of the team you have joined. In a start-up organization, a leader I was coaching saw top leaders very involved in tactics and unconsciously interpreted this as encouraging him to participate in team meetings and governance forums in a tactical way, despite his strength at thinking strategically.

He was seen as a great tactician but wanting for strategic thinking needed at the next level. A small change that went a long way was positioning presentations and contributions strategically first, then addressing tactical solutions. The big aha was seeing a new choice of how to act in LT meetings that fit the demands of the business, matched the culture and worked to career advantage.

There is a classic example of how a change in role creates a new perspective as to an LT member’s role. In a 1999 interview with the Harvard Business Review, the then-CEO of Ford Motor Company, Jacques Nasser, described the “fiefdom” that existed at Ford and his effort to change that way of thinking and acting. He shared a revealing aspect of his development: “When I ran Ford Europe from 1992 to 1994, it was a fiefdom. Every three months or so, we’d get visitors from headquarters who would suggest new ways of thinking about and doing things. And we would wine and dine them and nod at everything they said. Finally, we’d get them on the plane home, and we wouldn’t think about a word that they’d said until they came back again. We figured nobody knew more about how to run Ford Europe than we did. We were the experts. We can’t do that anymore.”

a chart [Five Dysfunctions of a Team]

The Role of the Leader

Focus on Collective Outcomes

Confront Difficult Issues

Force Clarity and Closure

Mine for Conflict

Go First!

#1: Absence of Trust

The fear of being vulnerable with team members prevents the building of trust within the team.

#2: Fear of Conflict

The desire to preserve artificial harmony stifies the ocurrence of productive, ideological conflict.

#3: Lack of Commitment

The lack of clarity or buy-in prevents team members from making decisions they will stick to.

#4: Avoidance of Accountability

The need to avoid interpersonal discomfort prevents team members from holding one another accountable for their behaviors and performance

#5: Inattention to Results

The pursuit of individual goals and personal status erodes the focus on collective success.

Nasser was describing a typical — and yet limiting — approach to being on the LT. Keep others at bay and minimize interference, succeeding by delivering your group’s results as you know your business the best. Nasser was right in challenging new LT members to think beyond their shop, taking the broader organizational perspective and promoting the kinds of collaborations the customer needs. Earning your seat at the LT table today means thinking and acting in terms of “and,” not “or,” and setting an intentional path of how you want to be as an LT member-player, both strong follower and opportunistic leader. group leader and LT member.


Crisis leadership demands even more of us as leaders, primarily that we don’t become insular or insulated, unavailable and uncommunicative, or brash and uncooperative. A true crisis like what we are experience with COVID-19 requires leaders to hold 5 ‘and’ statements at the same time.

1. Be reactive and intentional.

This is perhaps the most important “and” to hold on to. Your people and teams need you to be available in the moment, and there will be decisions to be made where time is truly of the essence. Many of us are prompted to act by the needs put in front of us. The adrenaline flows. We want to fight the fire. We feed off the activation energy. Yet often, with some thoughtful yet quick consideration, urgent decisions may not be as urgent.

Carve out space for a few deep breaths to calm yourself and take a minute or two to ask: Is this truly urgent? What is the downside to letting a little time go by before committing to a decision? What would this decision/commitment crowd out down the line, and can we manage that consequence?

For example, crises often impact the bottom line, and financial pressures will be strong to cut all the costs you can. And while business continuity is critical, taking care of long-term relationships needed for a business restart are equally important. Ask yourself, “What would the cost be to us if we lost this business-critical vendor? Would we be able to care for our returning customers without this capability? How can we control costs in this space and help our vendor to survive and be with us when we need her?”

Mindy Hall’s book Leading with Intention emphasizes how self-awareness is the driver of good decision-making especially in times of crisis. Breathing gets you in touch with what you are feeling and slows you down enough to be thoughtful, see the important choices, and act intentionally.

2. Create clarity and appreciate ambiguity. In Daniel Goleman’s article “Leadership That Gets Results,” he shares data that shows how an authoritative (not authoritarian or coercive) leadership style has the strongest impact on climate overall, and the most powerful aspect of climate is clarity, a key driver of engagement. As Goleman notes, the authoritative leadership style mobilizes people to a vision and is driven by self-confidence. Yet it is hard to be truly confident in the face of ambiguity if you are acting solely on your own. BalFigance authoritative leadership with a democratic style that encourages your people to speak up, so that you can fully understand their concerns and the opportunities they see. This helps your people feel heard and gives them a voice when it comes to creating action plans they will have to execute.

In a crisis, when you as the leader are the subject matter expert, it can feel comfortable and efficient to provide lots of answers. The real trap is doing so before drawing out the perspective of others with powerful questions that help others question their assumptions. Even if your direction is right, you are developing a team of order takers and when things change, they might not challenge. And if you are wrong, you might be the last to know.

3. Show courage and do it collaboratively. Crisis situations are marked by a lack of complete information, both of where we stand and what the near future will look like. When decisions have to be made, show courage to make the decision that is most consistent with your core values about working with people. Care and concern are keys to maintaining trust. Yet the leaders who show courage on their own can create more turbulence, missing opportunities to align with others, creating incoherence when congruence is most needed. Collaborate with other leaders, pushing them to be courageous and helping them to find the common ground that creates alignment and positive movement.

We are in the early days of an incredible large-scale experiment on working remotely, creating new challenges for most leaders and followers.

4. Create social distance while staying personally and visually engaged. We are in the early days of an incredible large-scale experiment on working remotely, creating new challenges for most leaders and followers. Leaders who rely on being in close contact and walking around to take the temperature will find themselves more isolated and lacking normal indicators that help in decision-making. If we are to flatten the COVID-19 curve, we must support working at home, and we can use technology to stay personally engaged and in touch. As complements to the phone, use the tools that enable remote meetings — FaceTime, Web-X, Skype and Zoom — and turn on that camera.

Again referring to the Herrmann Whole Brain model, we need people’s best thinking as to the “why?,” “what?,” “how?” and “who?” of the situation in order to create a plan of action, and visual cues are critical. We communicate more meaning through body language and tone of voice than through our words, and in a crisis, we must ensure we are communicating as best we can by turning our camera on and gently insisting that others do the same. Engage with your folks one-on-one or in groups, ask the powerful questions that draw out what people are really thinking and feeling and show your concern as you rally the team to create a direction forward.

Zoom, Skype, FaceTime and Webex have their drawbacks, and a day full of Zoom calls can be fatiguing, but these tools can help us show we care about the needs of our people. Here are a few simple things you can do that send the message you value doing your part for good communications:

  • Pay attention to how you look – not perfect but at least semi-professional.
  • Make the setting work for you. Have a good background to your video and get the lighting in front of you.
  • Insure you are using headphones and a microphone separate from your phone, tablet or computer so you are easy to hear clearly.

Another interesting practice I’ve seen used that creates accessibility and connection for the leader is to have times when you are available to your reports via Zoom or WebEx, in an open session without agenda. Basically you let your people know you will be working and have Zoom open, and anyone is welcome to join in, to share an update, talk through an issue or opportunity, get input or otherwise connect. Keep at it and your people will begin to tap into the opportunity.

5. Be agile and value your people’s needs for structure and process. Developments are coming at a rapid pace, with pressures from the bottom line, from customers and even politicians seeking political advantage. In a crisis, the leader needs to be able to turn on dime quickly, recognizing significantly changed assumptions underlying strategy and enabling a critical pivot. At the same time, a great deal of the work of the business needs predictability. The leader has to create sufficient process and clarity for their people to be able to have good answers to a few key questions: Where are we going? What is my/our role in getting there? How do I know how I / we are doing? Make time for the conversations and reinforce the process that enable good answers to these questions, and you are much more likely to have the room to be agile.

The maelstrom of news, fake news, science and conjecture may not yet be at its peak. We have the choice as leaders as to how we respond. Being re-active and intentional, creating clarity and living with ambiguity, showing courage and doing it collaboratively and creating social distance and staying connected personally are four ways to lead during these times of crisis. Crises create new opportunities to be a strong team member-player on your boss’s leadership team. Keep these in front of you as you navigate your day, use them to make decisions, and you will be more likely to be the leader your people and business need.

Jeffrey Cohen

Jeffrey Cohen is founder of Performance Leaders, LLC, offering business-focused coaching for leaders and their business leadership teams. Formerly Director/Team Leader at Pfizer’s Organizational Effectiveness team, and a Director of Organizational Development at Rhone Poulenc Rorer, Jeff has established a track record of helping leaders at all levels bring even more value to their organizations and to themselves through nearly all aspects of leadership, including strategy development and deployment, change management, organizational design and talent planning/development.


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