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Sarah Green Carmichael on the Best New Ideas

sarah-green-headshot-mediumSarah Green Carmichael is an editor at Harvard Business Review. She is also the host of the HBR podcast called “The HBR IdeaCast” and has worked at HBR now for ten years. So Sarah has seen ideas come and go, trends rise and fall, and I thought it would be just fascinating to sit down with her and ask her about management trends over the last decade.

We discuss:

  • How leaders or managers get the most out of their teams
  • The interesting developments in the way people think about, manage, consider the impact of teams
  • How disagreement and misunderstanding is the norm, not the exception
  • The odd connection between my flip phone and Chip and Dan Heath’s book on change called Switch
  • And much much more… so please tune in below.
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Full Transcript

Michael: So look, I know because you’re listening to this podcast with me now, that you are a person who’s interested in ideas. And in between your busy day where you’ve got work to do and stuff to accomplish, you find time to listen to podcasts like this to get ideas about how to be more effective, how to have more impact, how to do more great work, what are some of the trends in terms of organizational growth or team management or self-management, so that’s fantastic. But imagine this. Imagine if you were a person who spent their whole day swimming in these ideas, because that’s what my current guest does, my guest of this podcast.

Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor at Harvard Business Review. She is the host of the HBR podcast called “The HBR Ideacast” and she has worked at HBR now for ten years. So this is a woman for whom in a decade she’s seen ideas come and go, trends rise and fall, and I thought it would be just fascinating to sit down with Sarah and ask her, you know, what ideas are she seeing emerging at the moment which seem to be interesting around self-management, around team management, and about organizational growth, and which of these ideas have been most influential on her. How has she changed her style of working and managing over the last decade or so as she has edited and read and talked to and listened to all these ideas that have come across her desk and floated through her brain?

So I think you’ll find this a really interesting conversation. One thing I’d note, though. Sarah is, we found out, wearing quite jangly earrings, so if you’re hearing a jingle-jangle as we go through the podcast, that’s Sarah shaking her head emphatically to make a point or nodding or whatever it might be, so that would explain the jingle-jangleness. So here we go, Sarah Green Carmichael, editor of the Harvard Business Review.

So, Sarah, I am imagining you at the intersection of global ideas, so you’re not only seeing all of the stuff that appears through the Harvard Business Review world, the podcast that you host, the articles in the magazine, the online plethora of content, but I’m sure you’re also seeing the stuff that doesn’t make it as well because you have desperate people like me pitching you articles and ideas and thoughts.

You’ve got this great insight as to kind of what’s current and what’s trending and what’s becoming kind of old hat or doesn’t feel as fresh or as useful. So I’m excited to get into this conversation with you around what you’re seeing as some of the big ideas or the interesting ideas that are emerging. But before we go there, tell me, how did you actually end up in this position of … I’m not sure what you call it. It’s not really control, but this position of being in the midst of this stream at Harvard Business Review. What’s your journey to get you here?

Sarah: Well, I was very lucky, is the short answer. The sort of longer answer is that I had originally—I’ve been here now almost ten years at HBR, but before that I was in a totally different topic area. So I started out as being a researcher for an op-ed columnist who really wrote about a lot of political issues, and coming out of college that’s what I thought I wanted to do. And I quickly realized that although she was amazing, I was not really cut out for the fisticuffs of the political commentary scene.

It just seemed like, you know, you write these things and people sort of listen to them or not, but you mostly reach people who already agree with you and then you get a lot of hate mail from people who don’t agree with you.

So I knew I wanted to do something else, but I wasn’t sure what. So for a little while, I then moved to sports journalism and actually wrote a lot about sports. And what I realized gradually is that I was much more interested in kind of how the teams got put together, how the coach really got the best performance out of the team, and how the managers of the team managed their finite resources. You know, sometimes small teams really winning against teams with much bigger budgets. And I realized that actually these were all management problems. So from there, I sort of migrated to more and more writing about the management of the team, and from there I ended up, you know, on sort of the bottom rung of the HBR editorial ladder and have been very, very happy here ever since.

Michael:That’s fantastic. And I love just the insight that that thing that we think we want to do is almost never the thing that we actually end up wanting to do or end up hopefully doing because, you know, it’s our first, theoretical guess. You know, “I’m now done at college. Now this is my path forward.” And how quickly you go, “Wow, this is not at all what I thought it would be and it’s not at all what I actually want to end up doing.”

Sarah:  Well, and it’s interesting because in a way I am doing the thing I wanted to do, I’m just doing it much differently than I ever anticipated. So the thing I really liked about the idea of political journalism was that you could somehow have an impact on the world. You know, a life of the mind, a life of ideas, and I feel like we do that at HBR, but it’s just all very practical and there’s no shouting.

Michael: That’s nice.

Sarah: Yeah.

Michael: Although I quite like the idea of this idea I’ve got now in my head of, you know, the offices of HBR and there’s people screaming at each other and yelling at each other, but I imagine it’s quite different from that.

Sarah: We’re very collegial. We try to take our own advice about how to run a good workplace.

Michael: So that’s kind of what we’re getting into, which is not only the ideas that you’re seeing but also just, you know, how much do you—to use a not very savoury phrase—eat your own dog food at HBR in terms of taking on some of the ideas? And maybe we could pick up with from the story you’re telling about your time in sports journalism and getting kind of interested in what makes an effective team.

How do leaders or managers of teams get the most out of them? And I’m curious to know, you know, the team is such a central unit in the business world. In some ways, you know, it’s like the bowl of porridge in Goldilocks: it’s not too hot, it’s not too cold, it’s right in the middle to do interesting things. What are you seeing as sort of interesting developments in the way people think about, manage, consider the impact of teams and how to run them?

Sarah: Yeah. Well, I think one of the most useful ideas I’ve come across recently is the work of Erin Meyer on managing cross-cultural teams and communicating across cultures because I think this is something where, you know, now more and more of us are working with people outside our countries of origin. But also even within a national culture there can be huge diversity, and sort of how you respond to things like conflict or emotional expressiveness, which are two of sort of the main determiners of how we communicate. And so, her work really I think has been very useful in kind of saying, “Okay, I am from a culture that’s very confrontational, but somehow not very emotionally expressive,” because those are sort of two different things.

Michael: Oh, interesting.

Sarah: “And that’s what, you know, this is what I need to think about if I am then talking with someone from a different culture.” So I think any kind of cross-cultural communication stuff I get really interested in.

Michael: So her two kind of axes are confrontation or not confrontation and expressive and not expressive, is that right?

Sarah: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right.

Michael: And so, I mean, I can imagine what an expressive confrontational person looks like. It reminds me of the parents of my first-ever girlfriend, one of whom was Italian and one of whom was Irish, and there was a whole lot of anxiety provoked for me sitting around the dinner table with them because that’s not my cultural background at all. But what does, let’s say, confrontational but non-expressive look like?

Sarah: Confrontational but non-expressive. That would be, according to Erin’s research—she’s at INSEAD, so she’s done a lot on sort of specific countries. That would look a little bit more like Denmark or Germany or the Netherlands, really sort of Northern Europe.

Michael: Right. Yeah, that’s right, and as soon as you say that, I think of the various Dutch people I know and how they in a very calm way are just extraordinarily blunt about everything.

Sarah: Yeah! Yeah, it’s sort of like, you know, you sort of see the classic thing that goes around the Internet every few years on sort of what British people say and what Dutch people hear. You know, a British person will say, like, “Oh, this is quite good.” And a Dutch person will think, “Oh, they like it.” But really they’re saying, “It’s terrible!”

Michael: That’s right.

Sarah: So it’s that kind of thing.

Michael: So that’s already a useful distinction because I’m sure people listening are ready to go, “Okay, I can see where I fit on that kind of classic two-by-two matrix.” Does Erin offer any strategies in general around how to manage that? I mean, once you figure out where you fit and perhaps where the other person fits, now what do you do?

Sarah: I think it’s interesting because it’s a lot about sort of knowing where you fit and just knowing sort of on average, right? Because individuals are different, but on average where your counterparts are coming from and just being sensitive to those things. So for instance, if you are from a culture that’s very expressive, then you know, and you’re dealing with a culture that’s not, you know, just know that they might be a little uncomfortable with how emotionally out there you are.

And you know, so it sort of comes back to—it’s sort of old-fashioned, but it’s almost like manners, you know? It’s just sort of thinking about, “Okay, how am I coming across to the other person and how are they likely to be perceiving me, and how can we sort of bridge this gap?” And in fact, you know, a lot of my favourite stuff that we publish is all about bridging those interpersonal gaps. Because at the end of the day, business is all about just people in a room sort of trying to muddle through.

Michael: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I like that. I mean, in some ways, what this reminds me of is just how I think of what emotional intelligence is. You know, and emotional intelligence as I think about it is you have an awareness of yourself and your impact on the world and you make choices about how to modify it or not depending on what you want to do, as opposed to just kind of being blind about it and just kind of charging around like a bull in a china shop. So it feels like there’s a connection back there to the, you know, Daniel Goleman stuff on emotional intelligence as well.

Sarah: Definitely. Definitely. And one of the other names that comes up for me in that same realm is Heidi Grant Halvorson, who we’ve published a couple of articles by, a couple of books from her, many, many online articles. But she really—her most recent book is called No One Understands You and What to Do About It, and she really walks through a lot of research showing that, actually, you know, disagreement, misunderstanding is kind of the norm, not the exception. We’re all just so rushed and rushing around all the time and sort of going off of first impressions of people that are often mistaken, that it really takes time and effort to slow down and really make an effort to understand each other a little bit more deeply.

Michael: You know, there are times where I go, “It is a miracle that business works at all when, you know, there’s just this inherent level of kind of dysfunction and underperformance.” That’s just the norm, is what you’re saying, and in some ways, if we really sorted all this stuff out, just imagine what would happen then. It’s extraordinary. I love your insight that business is, in effect, people just in a room, literal or virtual, just trying to hash stuff out. So perhaps we could go now to any ideas that are kind of capturing your fancy, capturing your imagination about self-management and self-awareness. Is there anything showing up that you get excited by in that realm?

Sarah:  Yes. Well, I would say, you know, recently a lot of the most interesting stuff I have seen has all been about the dangerous allure of working too hard. So I think probably a lot of us and people listening can relate to this, but work can easily become addictive. And you know, there are sort of good and bad aspects to that. I mean, if you have work that really draws you in that’s great. You’re highly engaged in what you do. You probably take a lot of meaning from it. But at the same time, you know, you can always have too much of a good thing, and I think so a lot of the ideas I’m seeing now are kind of about how to pull back when your work is really sucking you in.

Michael: So what strategies do you use to manage your own work? I’m assuming that you’ve probably got enough work to keep you busy for the rest of your life if you wanted to go down that path. How do you keep your own life not being seduced by the allure of meaningful work?

Sarah: Well, so it’s a little bit old-fashioned and not exactly a new idea, but I really try to set time limits. I know now today everyone is all about flex time and sort of, you know, “Okay, I leave the office at five but then I check email at home.” And you know, there are some people who have to do that, but I find that for me it really helps to be in the office, or you know, in my home office, but in a location where I am for a set period of time where I am focusing on the work and I’m not getting distracted by text messages from home or, you know, other things, and I’m just ploughing through as much as possible. And then when I go home, I just try to be at home. And you know, it’s a little bit sort of odd in today’s world of smart phones and flex time, as I say, but that seems to be a strategy that just works for me. I know it wouldn’t work for everybody.

Michael: Right. You know, I’ve just—so I’m experimenting with this myself, and one of the things—and this is a strategy that definitely won’t work for almost everybody, but recently my smart phone died, and you know, there’s a period of mourning around that, but what I’ve bought to replace it is actually an old school flip phone.

Sarah: Ha ha!

Michael: And I am, at times whilst being frustrated by it, I’m actually loving the freedom it gives me because I realize I am a weak man with no self-control at all, it appears. So if I have a gadget, in the spaces I will kind of go, “Well, why don’t I check my gadget?” Because there’s always something to check if I wanted to. With a flip phone, there’s nothing to check and even texting, you know, I have to press that button three times to get the letter “c” happening, so it takes forever to text anybody.

Sarah: Oh my goodness.

Michael: So it’s been a … You know, it reminds me a little bit of the Chip and Dan Heath book on change called Switch and their insight that change has this kind of three levels to it. There’s the rational case for change, the emotional case for change, and then kind of the environment that drives change and how actually the environment is really the most significant influence on behavioural change. So if you want to shift your behaviour, think about how you need to arrange your environment to influence your behaviour to be the way you’d like it to be.

Sarah: That is definitely good advice. You know, it’s funny as you were talking about your flip phone, I could never do that. Despite what I said, I love my smart phone to a ridiculous degree and I have no sense of direction so I absolutely need it to get from A to B. But we have been publishing a lot recently on mindfulness. It’s sort of a business trend.

Michael: Sure.

Sarah: You know, it’s been sweeping the business world. As I’ve realized, I guess as we’ve been publishing this I’ve become slightly more mindful and I realize how often I do pick up my phone just to look at it and how often I click that little Facebook chiclet and open Facebook, and I realize that I don’t care. A lot of the times, I just don’t care what’s on there, so I sort of open it and then close it immediately. But it is interesting how just, you know, six seconds of deep breathing or whatever can make you realize some of these natural impulses you have that just sort of seem to happen without even thinking.

Michael: You know, I have a friend who goes, “Every choice you make has prizes and punishments. You just need to get clear on what the choices you’re making and what the prizes are and make sure they kind of outweigh the punishments.” And so, with my old school flip phone, you know, obviously the punishments are, A, it makes me look like a 98-year old man, B, there are times where I would love, you know, Google Maps to pop up to show me whether I should be walking that way or the other way. But at the moment, anyway, the prizes of becoming a tool for self-management are seeming to outweigh the punishments. So you know, that’s my experiment right now.

Sarah: That’s really interesting.

Michael: When we scale up from the individual to the organization,and in some ways, I would guess this is what HBR have been best-known for for the longest time, which is kind of the organizational perspective about how do you make organizations that are more successful, more scalable, or have more impact. So I’m curious to know what you’re seeing in terms of interesting ideas that are bubbling up about the organization these days.

Sarah: So the organization is a tricky one because I think a lot of the ideas that are sort of the most useful don’t strike people as new, except that it is still so hard to put them into practice.

Michael: Right.

Sarah: So a lot of my favourite stuff is really about—it’s this sort of very clear, practical stuff about, you know, how as a strategist or a leader do you make choices about what to do and what not to do? Because, you know, strategy is as much about deciding what you’re not going to focus on as it is about deciding, you know, where you’re going to play and how you’re going to win in that arena, which is a line that I stole from Roger Martin and A.G. Lafley. But you know, it’s all about where to play and how to win.

Michael: Yeah, and that’s a fantastic book by them.

Sarah: Yeah.

Michael: Their book, Playing to Win with the five strategic questions there.

Sarah: Playing to Win, yeah.

Michael: You know, it’s just a really fantastic selection. And particularly what I like about you mentioning that is, of course, Roger Martin is also based here in Toronto, as am I, so it’s a nice little bit of Canadian content shout out there, so it’s perfect.

Sarah: Yes! Definitely, definitely. Yeah, and so, but I do think there is a lot happening right now in flattening of organizational hierarchies that has its benefits but it also has its down-sides. So we’re all collaborating a lot more and there are costs to over-collaboration. One of the most popular articles in our current issue is “Collaborative Overload.” It is clear that that’s a topic that’s resonating with people. I think we’re all feeling pulled in more directions. There’s also not as much of a promotion path for people in the organization when you have fewer levels of hierarchy, so that can be a challenge, to keep people feeling like they’re growing in their jobs when you just don’t have as many layers for them to move through.

Michael: Yeah, interesting.

Sarah: So I think there are real changes that are happening in our organizations, but at the same time I think some of the problems, you know, are challenges we’ve been talking about. How does the organization decide what its advantage is? How does it decide how to make money? You know, some of that stuff hasn’t changed quite as much as it maybe sometimes feels like our world has changed.

Michael: Right. Yeah, I mean, I think I agree with you there. You know, when it comes to strategy, strategy is really simple but difficult. You know, it’s like what are we going to say “Yes” to and what are we going to say “No” to, and where and with what? You know, those are easy questions to ask. They’re really hard questions to wrestle with and align. Just like one of the things I like about the Roger Martin book is, you know, the five questions that they offer, they kind of work in alignment with each other, like in a perfect world you get all of the answers to line up. And that’s when you have a rigorous strategy, when you’ve got that alignment from top to bottom.

Sarah: Well, and the other thing I think is useful about that book is that there’s really not a huge distinction between strategy and execution. And in fact, Roger will be the first to tell you that he doesn’t see any difference between those two things at all.

Michael: He has an article, doesn’t he, on hbr.org, around there is no difference between the two of them? And he’s pretty—you know, I would say in terms of going back to an earlier conversation we were having, he’s confrontational and expressive. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

Sarah: And he feels strongly about this topic.

Michael: He does.

Sarah: But I think, you know, it’s interesting because I think his point is really that everyone in the organization at some point has to make choices about how they’re spending their time. So if you have an execution problem, well, then maybe you also really have a strategy problem because you haven’t made it clear to people how they ought to be spending their time. And in today’s organizations, there’s really no one that’s just taking orders.

Michael: Right.

Sarah: It’s like we’re all making choices, so we all have a lot of control over how we’re spending our time, to some degree, you know? So I think it’s important for senior leaders to know that in order to get stuff done, they have to really make the choices clear to the people who are going to be carrying them out.

Michael: Let me ask you a related question, and I’m putting you on the spot a little bit here, but you know, often the stories we read about kind of the new generation, the new form of an organization, tends to have that kind of Silicon Valley feel to it. You know, it’s young, it’s upstart, it hasn’t been around that long. It’s somehow making a whole lot of money without having to produce tangible products. Do you think kind of more traditional organizations are able to transform or do you think it’s just a question of the old way of working dying off and the new way of working continuing to grow and spread?

Sarah: That’s a really good question. It is one that we definitely think about here a lot when we’re editing things. And one of the things, when we get proposals for those pieces that are very much about the new way of working and, you know, the tech landscape and everything is disrupt-y, you know?

Michael: I like that phrase, disrupt-y.

Sarah: Yeah!

Michael: It’s like truthiness; it’s great.

Sarah: Right. It’s not actually disruptive innovation, but it’s sort of disrupt-y. We often ask ourselves what kind of organization would this idea work in, because there are some ideas that work great in some organizations and some that just wouldn’t translate to a more traditional organization. So I think it is unlikely that we will see in this new way of working that’s very sort of grown up in the tech companies, especially in the sort of California, West Coast scene, I don’t think we’re going to see that completely take over and change the way all companies work and sort of have these old dinosaur companies die off.

I think those, quote unquote, “dinosaur” companies still have a lot of value and they make things that people really need, and I do think that there is a certain amount of control in an organization that has to happen in order to get the widgets out the door. And I do think that as some of these big tech companies have gotten really big and really successful, they are finding that they need to organize a little bit more like GE or P&G or some of these really old, established companies. I mean, the reason those companies have stuck around for so long is that they are pretty good at managing people and coming up with strategy. So they’re doing something right even if they’re not the cool kid on the block right now.

Michael: Yeah. I mean, it always feels like a bit of a pendulum. You know, it’s like, “Let’s decentralize!” “No, let’s centralize!” “No, let’s decentralize!” “No, let’s centralize!” And it’s just everybody’s kind of trying to figure out what the optimum way of working is, and it always feels like it’s just a little bit over the horizon rather than resting on their laurels.

Sarah:  Yeah, and I think it’s true. I do think if you look at organizations today versus 30 years ago or 50 years ago, they have gotten a lot better.

Michael: Sure.

Sarah: So I think in our moment, we can all feel like, “Ugh, another useless meeting,” you know? And I think to some degree that’s because everyone who’s working is on their personal learning journey and maybe this person who’s running your meeting is a brand new manager and they don’t know yet that you have to have an agenda for every meeting, you know? But at the same time, I think there are improvements that have happened over time. I mean, you only have to look at the story of, for instance, women in the workplace, to know that workplaces have really improved since even the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Michael: Right. So, Sarah, our time is almost done. I’m curious to ask you this, if you don’t mind. You know, knowing that you’ve worked at Harvard Business Review for ten years now, so you’ve had a decade of being exposed to all of these ideas, how would you say—you know, what are maybe one or two ways that you work differently now because of the influence of the ideas that you swim in on a daily basis? What are the kind of fundamental changes you’ve made, would you guess?

Sarah: I can think of two right off the bat. One is we have published so much on managing your time that I have become sort of a ruthless prioritizer and ruthless time manager. It’s not that I never waste time, but you know, we published one article several years ago that had a huge influence on me called “Make time for the work that matters.” It’s by Jordan Cohen and Julian Birkinshaw, and it really has this sort of framework of things to stop doing, things to start doing, how to sort of curtail your work on useless projects. So I think I’ve become sort of way more focused on what’s the ROI of this than I would have once been. But I think the second thing that’s really changed for me is just that I realize how difficult management is.

Michael: Right.

Sarah: I think in other parts of the mediasphere, people sort of poke fun at managers or, you know, they sort of make Dilbert jokes or jokes about The Office or Office Space or whatever sort of cult classic movie. But I think what I have just learned from working here is that management is really hard. It’s really hard to motivate people and lead people and be clear with what you’re saying and get everyone pulling in the same direction, so it’s just really given me much more respect for the work that managers do and much more of an appreciation for how tough it can be.

Michael:  love that you said that. You know, it’s like you’re trying to manage people and people are these kind of messy, complex, infinitely confusing bags of meat. Like, it’s so hard to figure them out. And you know, I think you’re right. I think we need to celebrate those successes rather than assume that management is just an easy thing that anybody can do because it’s clearly not running a machine or just giving orders. That’s a nice way of looking at it, but it doesn’t actually work. That’s not what people are, so it is hard. And so, on that note, this is a perfect way to finish because thank you to you and to HBR for the work you all do to help make the ideas that make management a little easier and a little more effective come to life for us all. So thank you for that and thanks for this conversation today, Sarah.

Sarah: Oh, thank you so much for letting me ramble on. I appreciate it.

Michael:  And, Sarah, just in case anybody doesn’t know where to find out about HBR, where can they find this hub of ideas on the web?

Sarah: Yeah, thank you for asking. So our web address is hbr.org and pretty much everything is there except our podcasts, which you can find wherever you get podcasts. It’s the HBR Ideacast. That’s really the only thing that you can’t really find on the website.

Michael: Perfect. Thanks very much, Sarah.

Sarah: Thank you.

2 Responses to Sarah Green Carmichael on the Best New Ideas

  • Mathew Heggem

    Michael & Sarah, this was a great podcast. Thank you! For starters, I’d like to share that I work in a dinosaur industry and I’m dealing with the challenges of changing a culture where some of the non-holistic, unhealthy, and hierarchical methodologies are so deeply embedded in the workforce that it’s often an up-hill battle to be a future-forward manager and leader. It’s been a journey and it takes passion and dedication to say the least. That journey continues and your insights are now a part of my narrative. I also love the bit about diversity and will check out the Erin Meyer’s resources on cross-cultural teams and communicating across cultures. FYI: I’d love more content on that, if you have it, for future podcasts! To share a few things that have influenced me along the way, I love the whole practice of Conscious Capitalism and have tried to bring that into my business. But, I also think you should check out the Feldenkrais Method. I wanted to bring this up, because I don’t see a lot of business leaders engaging with this body of work. I think it’d be cool to shed some light on that practice (on HBR and in this podcast) as it has helped me to push through my own leadership challenges in the past few years… So much so that I recently achieved my certification in Awareness Through Movement, which is a part of this body of work. The Feldenkrais Method is an incredibly method that can help many people access this concept of self awareness and improve their ability to learn. Here’s my article on the topic: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/269489

    • Michael

      Matthew – thanks for the note here. I’ll take a look at the Feldenkrais Method: it sounds intriguing.

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