Reflections on the Coach K Leadership Conference

dukefuqua This week I had the pleasure of attending the Coach K Leadership Conference at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

The theme of the conference was leading in times of uncertainty. I won’t try to summarize points from all of the presenters–mostly because that’s already been done, and done well: Just go to the Twitter stream to follow the discussion as it happened.

Instead I’ll share what I took away from the experience. Speaker James McCaffrey, EVP and Chief Strategy Officer of Turner Broadcasting, said leaders need to take the time to reflect–on the changes happening in the world and what it means to your business, and on your own experiences so you can learn from them. I agree.

And so did Warren Bennis as he wrote in one my favorite books on leadership, On Becoming a Leader, “There are lessons in everything, and if you are fully deployed, you will learn most of them. Experiences aren’t truly yours until you think about them, reflect on them, and finally understand them. Be the designer not the design.”

So what does it take to lead in times of uncertainty? Here are four observations based on what I heard:

1. Community

Our CEO Jim Whitehurst give the opening talk on Wednesday on competing as a 21st century company among 20th century giants. He spoke about how important it was to build an architecture of participation–and build a business model around it. Also, to work as a catalyst in communities, not just trying to talk a community into doing work for you. And within your company, to create an environment where the best ideas win.

The value of what you’re creating often depends on the quality of the community you’re cultivating. Whether that community is internal and is made up of your own management team and employees, or is external and made up of your customers–or both combined.

Internal or external, communities are critical. So are the new leadership skills that they require. It’s about humility and getting things done through influence and not control.

2. Conversation

Communities need communication. But it has to be authentic.

On Tuesday we were able to sit in on a Duke basketball practice. In the spirit of transparency: When it comes to basketball, I’m the other blue from a few miles down Tobacco Road… That said, I thought this was a great opportunity to learn Coach K’s leadership lessons and see him working directly with his team. He said he leads by principle and standards. Two that he always follows: 1. We look each other in the eye. 2. We tell the truth. “If I tell a player he isn’t hustling enough, that’s the truth. But it also means, if I say that was a really good play, that’s also the truth.” I believe him.

Legendary technologist John Seely Brown, the former head of PARC, talked about how important it was to create spontaneous opportunities for collaboration. At PARC they realized good things happen when a fresh pot of coffee is brewing–so they put their coffeemaker online. They also designed their cafeteria to maximize collaboration–using long tables to force people sit with people they might not otherwise.

Today that conversation is also happening in the virtual world. Fuqua School of Business professor Tony O’Driscoll led a fascinating panel on social media and its value to the enterprise. Without question social networking is no longer an experiment or simply a way for kids to chat with friends. It is creating real value now.

When you combine community and conversation, some very powerful things can come out of that. You can inspire, divide work, and exchange ideas in an open environment. We’re only just getting started–a point made eloquently through the video McCaffery showed in his presentation.

3. Credibility

Credibility is earned.

One common theme that ran through O’Driscoll’s social media panel is the importance of transparency. The conversations companies have online must be authentic. They must sound like people having conversations with other people, not one-way conversations with a corporation.

When you’re transparent, and the conversation is authentic, you build credibility and trust. Even if the conversation isn’t always positive.

Credibility is also important in your own career. EPIC Games president Michael Capps talked about serving on university admissions boards and what they look for. And how common it is for students wanting to pursue computer science degrees to get into gaming. The question he asks isn’t about grades, it’s “Did you make a game?” In other words, prove it. Create something. Learn from it. You’ll show that passion in what you do.

4. Confidence

The world is changing, that’s not new. What’s unique to our time is the pace of change. The pace is intense and increasing. Information, market changes, our business–change is happening. It takes courage to be able to not only respond to change, but to be a catalyst for that change.

Believing there’s a better tomorrow is only the beginning.

Howard Lerman, Chairman and CEO of Yext, drove home the importance of confidence. Confidence is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Having confidence in yourself, in the team you create–this will help you get through the times of uncertainty.

In fact, as he learned from his own experience starting a company in severe economic conditions, it’s in those times of uncertainty that you may find the greatest opportunity.


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