At HBRat100: The Future of Business, Daggerwing Group Managing Partner, Michelle Mahony joined a panel with Ranjay Gulati, Harvard Business School Professor, and author, to discuss “Purposeful Leadership in an Age of Uncertainty.” Watch as they explore what leadership truly means, how leaders can help their employees during times of transformative change, how purpose is a critical driver of high performance, and more:
This transcript was automatically generated with artificial intelligence. It’s in the queue to go through a review with human eyes!
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While we’re waiting for everybody to join, we’d love to hear where you’re all calling in from and watching us today. Also, if you are on any interesting talks or panels, if you’re listening in, anything that inspired you as we think about the future of business, I know for me, listening to Ginni Rometty talk about skills first hiring was really inspirational.
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So let us know in the chat. So I think we will get started. Hopefully people will start making their way in. But everyone, welcome to today’s panel discussion. Purposeful Leadership in an age of uncertainty. I’m Julie Duval, editor of Special Projects and Webinars. And I want to thank all of you for joining us today. And I want to thank Dagger Wing Group for making this discussion possible.
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And a final note of housekeeping. This webinar is being recorded. Business leaders today are facing extraordinary challenges from inflation, the great resignation, economic uncertainty, disruption, just to name a few. So how can executives move their business forward amid this constant change and ambiguity? Well, that’s what we’re here to discuss today. And joining us is Michelle Mahoney from Daggerwing Group and Ranjit Gulati of Harvard Business School.
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Ron J. Gulati is the Paul Ah Lawrence MBA class of 1942, professor of business administration and the former unit, head of the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard Business School. He is an expert on leadership strategy and organizational issues in firms, and his recent work explores leadership and strategic challenges for building high growth organizations in turbulent markets. Michelle Mahoney is managing partner of Daggewing Group, a global change consultancy.
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As a member of the executive Leadership team, Michelle leads all global client relationships and delivery of dagger into consulting services to ensure change is done right the first time. Michelle’s breadth of expertise in the people side of change includes facilitating executive alignment on every type of organizational transformation. Orchestrating enterprise level culture shifts to deliver on a CEO strategy and helping clients custom create and bring to life their change strategies.
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Michelle and Roger, thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you. Thanks for having us, Julie. Work. So before we dig in, I thought we could start by talking about what leadership actually is here, leadership advice on a daily basis. But a lot of us just don’t really have a common understanding about what the leadership needs. So I know you did some recent research and interviews with CEOs and other leaders.
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Let’s start with you. How would you answer the question? What is leadership? So, you know, the conventional answer I had got locked into what leadership is about followership. Right. We’ve heard this forever that, you know, leaders have followers. You need to have people work with you rather than because you’re the boss. But I’ve come to realize there’s more to this point.
00:03:34:08 – 00:04:00:19
I think what I’ve I’ve been talking to a number of sports coaches in the last few years. I come to realize leaders unlock human does bring people along with them, but help them perform in ways that even they didn’t think. That’s what they do it in a number of ways that challenge the people they support the people that bring confidence to the people.
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But more than anything else, they bring energy for the Gulf. Michelle, I know you work with lots of your thoughts here as well. I mean, I don’t know that I have a lot to add to the vast thousands of articles and books that have been written on the topic. But as I think about great leaders that I have had, the privilege of working with through the years, I think, you know, kind of almost building on what Ron James just said, it’s the ability to inspire a reason to believe in a future that doesn’t yet exist, but is something that people feel is worth working towards and then giving people a meaningful heart to play and
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that that helps them unlock their potential. All right. So I want to jump into the economy because, you know, uncertainty and change are always constants in business, but it seems even more prominent today. Talks of recession, companies being more cautious. And there’s also pressures for leaders to transform their business in today’s digital age. So I would love to discuss leadership in this context.
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So, Michelle, what are what are some of the advice you give to executives on how to lead through uncertainty? Yeah, I mean, I don’t know if it’s any worse than it’s been over the last few years, Julie. I mean, with the onset of COVID, I think that was a pretty unprecedented and a time of uncertainty and other utter shock that leaders had to deal with in real time.
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So I think, you know, what’s really changed now is just the context has evolved. Now we’re looking at economic uncertainty. As we’ve talked about, the whole structure of work has changed and what that looks like and people’s expectations of organizations have changed. But uncertainty has always been around. So I, I think I’d like to just talk about a few principles for how leaders can think about this.
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And some of that I think builds on what Jenny was saying earlier today. So the first one is really helping leaders connect the dots between the why, what and the how. So the why being, you know, why do you exist as an organization? The purpose which I’m going to let Ron talk more about, that’s what we just wrote a book on it the what being like what what are you focusing on?
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What are the decisions that you’re making as you go forward? And then the how is what are the ways of of of thinking and acting that we all agree on to get this done? And a lot of people talk about this as culture. We find that if you if any one of those pieces are missing, that just creates its weirdness and confusion on the part of employees and frankly, in the marketplace.
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So work on connecting that kind of creating an ecosystem. The second thing is really looking forward to what’s next around the corner, even when we don’t know what it is and having the courage to act without all of the information. And I think that’s so hard for leaders to do, but to get to help their people navigate, it’s something that they just have to start building confidence.
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And the third thing I think is fostering this idea of learning mindset. I know we’ve been talking about that a lot, but moving always moving forward again in uncertainty. Learning from, you know, experiment Station, learning lessons and then and then moving forward again. Even when everything doesn’t turn out the way you want it to. Making those bets and taking actions important.
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And then finally, I think meeting people where they are really having listening, listen to your employees, listen to all your external internal partners and stakeholders and meet them where they are during this time because people are going through a lot right now. So we need to at least acknowledge, listen, acknowledge that we’ve heard them. Ranjit, what are your thoughts on on guiding through uncertainty?
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So I’ll start with a story, and it’s an apocryphal story because they haven’t been able to source the exact source of its valid story or not. But the story’s about in the 1930s, the Hungarian soldiers who went on an expedition in the Alps. They didn’t have a map or a compass and they got lost and disoriented and got caught in a massive storm.
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And they were stuck there for days. No food, no shelter, desperate, not knowing what to do and not having a map. And they couldn’t even go out into the storm and find their way back. So they’re sitting under this little drop out and they empty their backpacks. And at the bottom of one of their backpacks, one of them has a map.
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And this is a game changer because they use the map, they go out into the snow, they get lost, they find their way and they stumble their way back to base camp. And when they get to the base, the commander says, where were you? And they pull out the map to show him where they were. And he looks at the map and says, You dummies, this is a map of the Pyrenees Mountains.
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Well, yeah, I know a story. Even a long map is better than no back. And I think so the first lesson I have is that in times of uncertainty, people need a map, even if it’s the wrong map. So a corollary of that is you have to pivot away from the map if it’s the wrong map, but you need a map.
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The second piece, I’ll say very quickly is uncertainty activates an emotional response, and that’s just fear. Now, when we talk about what do we do? The word we like to use this courage and courage is taking action in the face of not the absence. So I think courage is going to be a huge cause as we think about operating in times of uncertainty.
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Before I move on to my next question, I did want to chime in, Michelle, because Amy really resonated with what you said, that meeting people where they are being a listener is critical beyond anything else that she’s seen lately. So definitely some good advice there. The question I had next is really about transformative change. So there’s so much pressure for us to become digital and change fast.
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I mean, even look at the pandemic. We all changed quickly. We didn’t even really know. But how do you lead through that? Yeah. I’m sorry. You’re asking me first. Yes. Well, I’m going to start again. And thanks, Amy, for the comment. I’m going to start there with listening and again, that idea of meeting people where they are finding ways to you know, people are in such completely different places.
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And I know there’s that that saying that’s really been going around lately like which is that you know watch how you treat people because you don’t know what they’re going through. And I think that’s true in the world right now coming out of the pandemic. There is so much going on. There are mental health issues people feel are still feeling overwhelmed.
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And, you know, a lot of the research also shows that a lot of times senior leaders really believe they know what’s going on in the minds of their employees and where they are. This there’s a lot of interesting stuff done during COVID and burnout, where the perception of the leaders was. But I think our people are doing fine.
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The people, meanwhile, are drowning. So really understand where people are and then to help them prioritize ties. There is so much I’m finding people are again so overwhelmed. There’s so much on their plate. During these times of uncertainty, priorities are shifting and changing and instead of letting go of things as priorities change, employees and people are just taking on more.
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So leaders, please help people let go of stuff and not just keep adding to their plates. And that’s going to help you refocus the organization and be more able to follow that map that that Ramji just mentioned. And finally, I would say, you know, Leader, get your leadership team together and lean on them as one and act as one team going forward.
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There’s nothing worse than an organization when people are on different pages And again, people get pulled in different directions and that’s really exhausting. So prioritize your other leaders in the organization to work as one team. Ron J would love your thoughts before. I just wanted to chime in, Erick, really resonated with the map analogy. People need to know what they’re doing next and when they’re uncertain they could do this, I think is I think Michelle echoed that as well.
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I want to build off of what Michelle just said. You know, we have a huge need for compassion, empathy, understanding. I would put that on a larger bucket, would be like the call is people want to feel supported and support means giving me the tools, giving me the skills, giving me the understanding and giving me the flex. Giving me the space to learn.
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Meet me where I am. That’s support. There’s another dimension which is job, right? How are you giving me the confidence and helping me expand my horizons? Think beyond my comfort zone. But you can only challenge me if you support me too. You can’t just challenge me enough support. So the more I can support you, the more I feel.
00:12:49:23 – 00:13:15:17
I can also challenge you to accomplish more. And I’ll tell you why this is important. Because if I first markets open this transformative change, sometimes there’s a tendency to go into what you would call a defensive posture. Right. Playing not to lose the support systems and sometimes the best time to get ahead of markets and competition is uncertain times because everybody’s playing defense.
00:13:15:19 – 00:13:34:28
So how do you build an offense mindset when everybody’s playing defense? And I think this is not so straight forward. And as Michelle said, when people are under a lot of stress and strain, how do you tell them now go play offense and you’re asking them to do more with less? So and I think this is not so straightforward.
00:13:34:28 – 00:13:58:09
But the idea, again, is to say, how can we provide lots of support? I just saw a case on TV as Ben and the CEO was told when he was going through this digital transformation that you can’t go sheeps into woods. So you’ve got to fire people and he got back and said, I’m going to show you can.
00:13:58:12 – 00:14:21:16
So I want to ask this question from Kevin because you’re sort of touching both of your touching on these things. What about self leadership in terms of, you know, people being continue to focus on their own self, self growth and development? I’ll start with you, Michelle. Yeah, I think that, you know, we didn’t really talk about that in terms of leadership in activating that.
00:14:21:16 – 00:14:46:25
But the idea of self, I guess I think of that, I interpret your question really is building self awareness, learning what your what, you know, self awareness to me means, you know, thinking about, you know, what are the what are my blind spots that I don’t even realize exist. So it’s sort of that gap between my intent and what I’m trying to do as a leader and how it comes across.
00:14:46:27 – 00:15:15:17
I’ve learned a few really hard lessons in that and leadership very recently. It’s almost on a weekly basis. Julie, where, boy, what I’m trying to do really doesn’t come across. And so the more that I can speak to people, ask for different kinds of feedback, engaging coaching and do that kind of soul searching that is necessary, the better leader I think we that I will be and I think all of us, all of us will be.
00:15:15:19 – 00:15:38:19
Ron Jay, anything to add? I love Michelle’s answer. I think she’s so spot on, but I’ll just add a little bit on me to echo what she just really said already. You know, we’ve all heard about authentic leadership, and George, my colleague, was great book about it. And I think she’s absolutely right. And so is Bill. That I used to think leadership was about managing other people, leading people, leading others.
00:15:38:26 – 00:15:56:27
But you can only lead others. You lead the self and understand the emergence of a leader is even more important, I think, than the others. You know, what is the inner journey? The inner journey starts with what am I skills? What am I that’s kind of above the ground level? What am I good at? What should I be doing?
00:15:56:28 – 00:16:17:15
We do that as kids. What color is my parachute? You then go beneath the surface and I can look at a most of what makes me happy, what makes me sad, what am I? Emotional triggers typical beneath that and stuff like that. What drives like what really is it? The need for achievement, need power, need for whatever it is affiliation.
00:16:17:17 – 00:16:43:24
Go beneath that. We start to ask questions that are our values. What are like that? And I think when you’re really good, you start to ask yourself what looks like looks why? And I think you look at leaders, they’ve done that. You’ve started with their goals, they started with their skills, they worked their way down. What they were down to finally asking the question, Why am I here?
00:16:43:26 – 00:17:05:15
So that’s actually a really good transition. I was going to ask you some questions about purpose, but Peter has actually chimed in. What tips do you have about how to make purpose clear and compelling? So, Randy, I’ll start with you. And your book is Deep Purpose, which we’ll talk about in a second, too. So this is, I presume, for individuals or organizations, individuals.
00:17:05:17 – 00:17:40:27
So look at the people of contemporary purpose for thousands of years. I like the definition by William Damon, Stanford, psychologist was its purpose is an enduring commitment to do something that is meaningful to the self and consequential for the world and the most important word in there and meaningful to the self and consequential for the world. Most of us, most of us want to do something that is meaningful beyond whatever that might be.
00:17:41:00 – 00:18:02:29
And the question is, how do I connect? How do I find things to do that I find meaningful? But I also can find that I consequential. Not some people compartmentalize. I do work and then I go and do things outside of work and those are disconnected, you know? And I think what people look now, I think people just have a lot of stuff, valuable people.
00:18:03:02 – 00:18:34:00
I think a lot of them want to feel like what work also matters anyway. If it matters, I show up different. So is that your work is deep purpose? Is that what the purpose is? Or explain a little bit more about that? So it’s called deep purpose for a reason because I could call it purpose. I was trying to call it one word, but I couldn’t get it there because I think a lot of organizations that have what I call superficial things, it’s just like a mission to.
00:18:34:03 – 00:19:08:05
And the book takes the idea of like, how can organizations take this idea of purpose from being just a slogan, from being just like a wallpaper slogan, really taking a deep into the organization in a way where your employees are deeply connected by it with your customers, you’ve connected with a lot more loyalty because of it, right? Your communities are also important to you and trust you more for it and your ecosystem partners too, And it becomes an orienting framework for how you use.
00:19:08:07 – 00:19:35:05
And that’s why I ended up having to call it only a I wish it was a mainstream idea. I think it’s still fringe becoming more mainstream, but I wanted to say purpose unlocks economic and social and it also allows you to connect with individuals. But it’s really it’s a simple idea. But we had politicized, complicated, all allies, the world like crazy.
00:19:35:06 – 00:19:59:00
I don’t understand why. So, Michel, how do you see the idea of purpose being a critical driver of high performance in today’s companies? Well, we have the we have the data. We have lots of research and good studies that do show that companies with deep purpose, as I talked to, talked about, do outperform companies that don’t have it.
00:19:59:01 – 00:20:21:14
And, you know, there’s a number of studies that show that. So we do have evidence around that. So I guess the question then becomes, well, well, how do you do that and how do they do that? So I think that it’s all comes down to, as I’m sure you said earlier, it’s like making that connection between each individual and what you’re trying to do as an organization.
00:20:21:17 – 00:20:44:02
So that that commitment is really inspired in the individual. So that’s one piece of it. But then there’s other idea of we’re just not quite as like emotional and sexy. I think. And that’s the idea of like really operationalizing your purpose and embedding it in everything that you do in the organization so that it literally becomes the guidepost for every decision you make.
00:20:44:02 – 00:21:04:28
It guides how you do things like boring things like processes and planning. And it’s just it really is sort of the fabric and the DNA of your organization. And, you know, you see it. We use when you’re experiencing that in a company, you see it in how they conduct their meetings, you know, on a day to day basis.
00:21:05:03 – 00:21:29:12
You see it in the conversations. You see how they sort of tough problem. The purpose just becomes front and center for and then the decisions become easy. But doing that is really hard. It takes a lot of discipline and commitment and conversation. So one of the questions we often we actually write about this a lot in VR is how do you measure purpose?
00:21:29:12 – 00:21:48:22
How do you know whether or not your a clear purpose statement and what you’re all rallying behind is actually working? So this is a tough nut. This is a tough nut because how do I measure you? And B, so are you living the purpose? No. Oh, I’m not. I’m not quite sure on a five point scale about living.
00:21:48:22 – 00:22:26:05
The purpose. So I think what people end up doing is some people measure the inputs that are what degree is purpose that’s then used to the culture of the and all that. But I see a lot more organizations measuring the consequences. So I’ll give you one example. Like, you know, if you look at I look at one professional service organization where they measure value, like how are we driving value in the world we operate and they measure financial value, which they always had, but they now measure clients value, right?
00:22:26:12 – 00:22:57:28
They also measure social value and they measure employee that. So they said, look, if we’re living on purpose, a purpose encompasses these four communities that we want to serve, I’ll be driving value to all four of them. And to what extent? And they measure and reward every partner in the firm around those four dimensions of abuse. I think you see people measuring outcomes of purpose or inputs that go into performance, but purpose itself even and company, they’re using all kinds of data.
00:22:58:00 – 00:23:21:09
They’re looking at public publications, media reports. But I think that’s a that’s not so look at consequence as I look at it. So I want to ask this question from Kev. What advice would you give to leaders who are trying to navigate the challenges of uncertainty and change while also remaining true to their purpose and values? Michelle’s are with you on that one.
00:23:21:15 – 00:23:51:00
Okay, I’ll start. That’s a that’s a good one. So I’m I’m just I’m thinking about a company that we’re working with right now. And what we’re helping them do is to operationalize their sustainability environmental sustainability plan. They have a big impact. It’s a food company. They have a huge impact on, you know, carbon emissions are, you know, regenerative agriculture, things like that.
00:23:51:00 – 00:24:33:21
And they have very high goals. And this and it completely goes with their individual purpose and their values. And they have consistent in terms of being really ahead of the game on this issue. So it’s a real privilege to work with them. What’s what’s challenging, though, is you get the issues that are going on, you know, the war in Ukraine, issues with the supply chain, pressures from Wall Street where leaders are feeling like, oh, gosh, I have to make these short term decisions at the expense of sort of our long term commitments that are really in line with our values and our purpose, i.e. the sustainability work that we’re trying to do.
00:24:33:27 – 00:24:58:25
And so they’re feeling like they have to make these tradeoffs and say, you know what, we need to kick the can down the line on on sustainability. We need to deliver to Wall Street, and the pressures are just too great. So what they’re trying to do is change the conversation there from being sort of an either or conversation around short term versus long term and sort of the thinking we’ve all had to adjust and conversation.
00:24:59:01 – 00:25:24:09
So how do you balance both things? And this one involves getting finance people involved and and helping to have those conversations because it’s a completely new way of thinking. So, you know, I’m not trying to sugarcoat this and say that the challenges, these challenges are very, very real and people’s jobs depend to depend on them. But it’s almost like we need a paradigm shift to to order to do this.
00:25:24:09 – 00:25:50:17
And and the guiding light there is the values and the purpose to force these kinds of conversations. You know, during these challenges. Roger, anything to add? I love again, the yes, I am thinking, but here’s what I discovered. I found in my research. It’s very hard to get the win win. Yes. And solutions that most of life involves very hard tradeoffs.
00:25:50:20 – 00:26:15:21
Hopefully yes ends. But you’re still stuck in some of the diagonals where you’re forced to make. So I ended up calling these people practical idealists. You know, the idealists, they want to get to win win. But they also recognize that there are some things that never get the win that are going to be, you know, if I’m a food service company, I’m going to use plastic packaging until there’s a better solution, Right?
00:26:15:26 – 00:26:38:27
I might even use some other plastic content that may not be I may not be able to get to sustainable agriculture 100%. So how do we learn to decide what’s the trade offs in this whole situation? While I’m aiming for the. Yes. And so I love the yes. I am thinking unfortunately hard to be there always all the time.
00:26:39:00 – 00:26:56:26
Well, believe it or not, we have time for one more question. And I love both of your takes on this. When we talk about leadership, we tend to think of the C-suite or the executive committee, but would love to get your thoughts on all of us as leaders, whether we sit at the top, middle or bottom. So, Michelle, we’ll start with you.
00:26:56:29 – 00:27:19:07
How can mid-level managers feel empowered to sort of start these conversations around purpose and driving towards good change? Yeah, I think they can feel empowered if they have an organization that supports them and feeling empowered managers are there. You know, people call them the messy middle. Often we hear them refer to that, which is I think there’s some truth in that.
00:27:19:07 – 00:27:43:16
But it also just is such a reflection of of how stuck they are in the middle with, you know, pressures coming from leadership and pressures coming from their teams. They need help to navigate this stuff. And I see, you know, so many organizations and managers almost become an afterthought where it’s like, oh, we’ll do a cascade and communicate to them and somehow they’ll know how to how to do these things.
00:27:43:18 – 00:28:08:02
No, we need they need investment and we need to think of them as partners in delivering on the purpose and how to have those kinds of conversations. Navigating these challenges, they need focus and attention and investment. And a programmatic approach to doing this is the only thing that that really works in this case, and it’s absolutely a top priority.
00:28:08:02 – 00:28:42:16
And no matter what the economic situation is, that investment will will payoff big time. And I love the messy middle analogy. I think Michelle is again absolutely right on that. I want to just add one little wrinkle into that conversation. I think it’s important to think about the middle is where the frontline gets to interact with and they get to frame the job for that frontline worker and in some ways frame the connection that frontline worker may feel with the organization.
00:28:42:18 – 00:29:09:11
Right. And there are different framings that can be used. Let me use one frame, which is something we in New England use in our football team, which is do your job, do your job, do you do your job, And that creates one kind of a connection to the organization. And I want to contrast that with Pete Carroll, the coach of the Seattle Seahawks, where that team slogan is, I’m in and think about your job or I’m in.
00:29:09:13 – 00:29:35:28
And what Pete says is and I’ll quote him, he says, There’s magic when organizations can inspire people to align their own personal passion, self-understanding and desire for growth with a common organizational ambition, I think is that ability to connect to frontline workers seeing a different relationship with the organization, with middle managers, and then missions like is that operating in a different, larger context?
00:29:35:28 – 00:29:57:08
Very, very hard to do. You can’t override what’s sitting above you, but I think you can do that. I mean, not do your job. Very inspiring, all of it. So Michelle and Ron Jay, this has been a great discussion, but I’m afraid we’re out of time. I want to thank everybody for joining us and I want to thank Dagger Wing group for making this discussion possible.
00:29:57:10 – 00:30:26:13
Now it’s time for our late afternoon session featuring Honeywell CEO daring us impact on future proofing a complex global organization through data and automation, and Ethan Malik of Wharton on the latest developments in artificial intelligence and his experiments with chat, GPT, Bing and more. You should see a pop up button directing you to that session on the bottom left hand corner of your screen, but you can also find the link in the agenda page.
00:30:26:15 – 00:30:33:03
Thank you again everybody for joining and have a great day.