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leadersmithing Archives - Eve Poole

Learning Loss and Losing Leaders

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Seemingly, thrusting professionals are seeing AI as a fast track to partner, reckoning that all those tedious years of working your way up the hard way will now be taken care of by generative AI tools like ChatGPT. Hurray! We’ll all get rich quicker!

But privately these firms are rather worried. It takes ages for the academic curriculum to sync up with modernity, so what will happen to these shiny graduates with their googleable degrees, deposed as trainees by AI, but still expected to re-emerge as experienced hires just below partner level?

In school they’re already talking about the learning loss that occurs when kids outsource their knowledge acquisition to AI. This phenomenon isn’t new: we forgot how to remember the Odyssey when we learned how to write it down; we forgot how to hear music in all its fullness when we invented notation and tethered the scale to the equal temperament of a keyboard; and the introduction of calculators drastically reduced our ability to do mental arithmetic. But this might be the first time we have encountered a technology that can have that effect across so many categories of learning simultaneously. And if kids have experienced learning loss at school, then continue with their reliance on AI into university, will they come out knowing anything useful at all? If all they will have learned is how to use an AI brilliantly, well, AIs are already learning to be better at that too… Industry is rediscovering apprenticeships to make up for an already disappointing graduate cadre: but what do they need to start doing now, if even these apprentices will be usurped by AI?

Way back in 2003 at Ashridge, we initiated a research programme based on asking existing board-level leaders ‘what do you know now about yourself as a leader that you wish you’d known 10 years ago?’ The findings were used to devise a leadership accelerator and written up as the book Leadersmithing. Our research programme included collaborating with a neuroscientist to show how this kind of learning is acquired. From that, we showed the role of the emotions in learning, and found that reliable templates are most efficiently acquired through learning under pressure. And both this method and these research findings suggest an answer to the conundrum of workplace learning loss.

First, we need to get forensic about what, precisely, partners do, and how they learned it. It’s highly likely that much of their value-add is not AI-able, so this exercise should immediately reveal a workplace curriculum for those hoping to succeed them. The Leadersmithing list of critical incidents suggests it will be a fairly standard set of challenges, which will differ between workplaces and cultures only by degree and nuance rather than by type. For example, all partners will have had their mettle tested by making key decisions, fronting multi-million dollar pitches, and mopping up after things have gone wrong. And we know these things are teachable, if you can be precise enough about the muscle memory you’re trying to acquire, like practising difficult conversations or handling hostile media.

Second, we need to learn from the neuroscience. I remember answering the phone in my first ever London office, to hear my sibling, hiding in a cupboard at another London office, asking in a stage whisper: when you’re photocopying, do you take the staples out?! We all remember those ghastly days of learning the ropes largely by making mistakes and incurring the wrath of our seniors over everything from making the coffee wrong to sending out blank faxes. Life would indeed be tranquil if we could make AI take this pain for us. Our recall of such events is heightened by the fact that our errors were often observed. And indeed we learned vicariously, wincing at witnessing the mistakes of others, which is another argument in favour of a back-to-the-office policy. This is because our Ashridge findings showed that whenever you feel observed and under pressure, your heart-rate increases and your learning is enhanced, as the memories you form in those moments are stored deeply in your amygdala.

And we all learned far more than just office-craft in those clumsy days. Through the tedium of note-taking and bag-carrying we saw how leaders really behave: we learned about power, decision-making, values and standards. We witnessed the quite brilliant rescuing of an impossible situation, or a tension diffused with a beautifully timed witticism. We also learned how not to do it, too often I imagine. And it is this implicit learning that we now need to surface and teach back, so that we do not lose a whole generation to AI. Let’s use the gift of AI to remove the ritual humiliations of traineeship, but winnow out of it all the Leadersmithing we can find.

Leadersmithing TEDx

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Here is my script for the TEDx I gave about Leadersmithing on 11 March 2017. You can also watch it here.

Hello. You’re probably wondering what’s with the pearls. Well, pearls have a dirty secret, and I’m here to tell you about it. It’s all about the pearls. So if you only remember 1 thing about this talk, remember the pearls.

Pearls are associated with such glamour, aren’t they? I inherited my first set, from a great grandmother who had been brought up at Hampton Court Palace. My second set were from Hatton Garden, given to me by my boyfriend when we worked next door at Deloitte Consulting. I bought my third set in Beijing when I took our Ashridge MBA students out there on a study trip.

But their glamour is hard-won. They have grit in their hearts. Their beauty and lustre is the result of a defence mechanism, designed to protect the oyster against a threatening irritant. I’m from Scotland, and in Scotland they don’t say ‘pearls’: they say ‘perils.’ And perils is exactly what the beauty of a pearl is bearing witness to – it owes its very existence to the oyster being in peril. Read More

Is it worth being a nasty boss?

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This week I was struck by a piece in the FT arguing that “nasty leaders can be successful – if they don’t cross the line.’ The piece described some bullies who had seemingly produced excellent results, and who were not as unpopular as their behaviour might suggest. The article was careful not to suggest bullying as a strategy, of course, but the subtext is clear. If you get results, you can usually ‘get away’ with bad behaviour.

And we know this to be true, because we see it every day in our organisations, both public and private, and in politics as much as in the professions. But before you nod sadly and move swiftly on, please stop for a moment. You are being had. This is classic ‘end justifies the means’ morality, and we are so used to it as the prevailing ethical narrative that it seems irrefutable and unremarkable. Read More

Leadersmithing – TEDx Durham University

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Speech at TEDx, Durham, 11th March 2017 (watch here)

Hello. You’re probably wondering what’s with the pearls. Well, pearls have a dirty secret, and I’m here to tell you about it. It’s all about the pearls. So if you only remember one thing about this talk, remember the pearls.

Pearls are associated with such glamour, aren’t they? I inherited my first set, from a great grandmother who had been brought up at Hampton Court Palace. My second set were from Hatton Garden, given to me by my boyfriend when we worked next door at Deloitte Consulting. I bought my third set in Beijing when I took our Ashridge MBA students out there on a study trip.

But their glamour is hard-won. They have grit in their hearts. Their beauty and lustre is the result of a defence mechanism, designed to protect the oyster against a threatening irritant. I’m from Scotland, and in Scotland they don’t say ‘pearls’: they say ‘perils.’ And perils is exactly what the beauty of a pearl is bearing witness to – it owes its very existence to the oyster being in peril. Read More

The Leadersmith – International Women’s Day

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Gosh it’s depressing googling ‘leadership guru.’ At least if you google ‘best leaders’ the odd one is female. But role-model thinkers for women in leadership? Even the ones that do come up are usually fairly niche. So I am going to be rather un-female and announce myself as the UK’s First Female Leadership Guru. By all means, do leave me comments about all the other ones there are out there if you like – I’d love to meet them and talk shop. Meanwhile, here’s the thing. We are trying very hard to get more women into the boardroom, but when we send them off on courses or assign them mentors, too often the books they are given are written by men for men. Well, mine isn’t written exclusively for women, by any manner of means. But it is written by a woman, who gets what you are up against. And it is published this week, by Bloomsbury. So if you are a woman in a hurry who wants some practical help from someone who feels your pain, this is the book for you. I hope it helps.

Sermon on vocation

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Sermon preached at St Michael and All Saints, Edinburgh, 22 January 2017

I wonder if you know that I went to Finishing School? Lucie Clayton College, to be precise. Joanna Lumley went there in the 60s. When I attended in the 90s, they still had their model of a car, so one could practice getting in and out of it without showing one’s knickers. Just the passenger seat, mind: ladies don’t drive. I learned how to sit for a ‘girls in pearls’ photo, how to glide down a staircase, and how to say No to men: “I’d really rather not.” Read More