Laura Huang is a professor at Harvard Business School. She has spent her entire academic career studying interpersonal relationships and implicit bias in entrepreneurship and in the workplace. She is the author of “Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage”, perhaps the most topical book possible at the moment. She is also founder of Project Emplify, which is addressing inequality and disadvantage through personal empowerment.
Hello, welcome to the Thinkers50 Radar 2021 series brought to you with LinkedIn Live. I’m Stuart Crainer. CRA
And I’m Des Dearlove. We are the founders of Thinkers50, the world’s most reliable resource for identifying, ranking, and sharing the leading management ideas of our age, ideas that can make a real difference in the world.
We’re excited that 2021, a year in which fresh thinking is more important than ever to help us out of the COVID crisis, is also a Thinkers50 year. It is our nomination season for both the ranking of management thinkers and the Thinkers50 Distinguished Achievement Awards.
So in the summer, we’ll be announcing the short list for our 12 award categories. And on the 15th and 16th of November, dates to definitely put in your diary, we will be unveiling the new Thinkers50 ranking and naming our 2021 award winners.
But we start every year by announcing the Thinkers50 radar class, the 30 up and coming business thinkers to watch. In this series of 30-minute webinars, we want to showcase some of those ideas to bring you the new voices of management thinking.
I guess today is Laura Huang. Laura Is a professor at Harvard Business School. She spent her entire academic career studying interpersonal relationships and implicit bias in entrepreneurship and in the workplace. She’s the author of Edge: Turning Adversity Into Advantage, perhaps the most topical book possible at the moment. She’s also founder of Project Amplify, which is addressing inequality and disadvantage through personal empowerment.
So the format today is that we have 30 minutes. Laura will present her ideas for a while, and then we’ll have time for some questions. We want to use the chat function to make the session as interactive as possible, so please share where you are joining us from today, and please post your questions as we go along. Now, I’ll hand over to you, Laura. The virtual stage is yours.
Great. Thank you so much. It’s such a pleasure to be here with you guys today. Thank you for all of you that are joining. I was so thrilled to be one of the Thinkers50 Radar on this list, especially because, in this day and age, and in the current international situation that we’re in, my book came out in February, right before the pandemic hits, and this book was entitled Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage. And there’s been so many different types of adversity that we’ve faced, everything from some people have faced it physically, some have faced it financially, some have faced it emotionally, some spiritually, some professionally, some a combination of all of these different things. And when I was writing the book, it was about lots of different kinds of adversity, but it certainly applies to what we’ve been grappling with in today’s day and age.
I want to start with a little bit of a story that paints a picture of the research that went into this and the research that talks about adversity and obstacles and constraints and all of different forms that it can encompass. So I tell the story because it was, number one, one of the very first jobs that I ever had. It was the very first job that I actually had out of my MBA program. And when I was finishing up my MBA, there was lots of things that I thought that I wanted to do, but I couldn’t actually do any of them because I had tons of student loans that I had to pay off. So I still had student loans from my undergraduate university days. I had new loans that I had accumulated from the MBA program.
And so I asked everyone “What’s the quickest way to pay off student loans?” And everyone kept telling me to go into investment banking. And, in fact, a number of people said to me, “Go into iBanking.” And I remember turning to a friend and saying to her, “Wow, this internet banking thing is really big these days,” having no idea that the I in iBanking actually stood for investment banking rather than internet banking, which is what I thought. And so you can imagine that when I finally felt like I had lucked my way into a job in investment banking, that I was feeling lots of imposter syndrome, that I was feeling lots of adversity and obstacles and barriers that this was a very male-dominated career, a male-dominated industry that I had no experience in financial services, and yet, I was entering this new role.
And so I told myself that I was just going to put in lots of hard work. I was going to put in the hard work, put in lots of effort, and make this a success for myself. And so the very first project that I was assigned to, the VP of the company came to me, the VP of this investment bank, came to me and said, “We’ve got this mergers and acquisition deal. We have this M&A deal. The client is trying to decide between Company A, Company B, and Company C. They’re trying to decide which of these three companies to acquire. So can you and your team put together a financial model to help us decide whether we should acquire Company A, B, or C.” And so for two months, my team and I, we put together this model. We put in tons of hard work, sometimes pulling all-nighters, with all the different interest rates, different states of the world, lots of assumptions built into this model, and two months later, we presented this model to both the VP, as well as the client. And we said, “You should acquire Company B. And here’s why.” And we outlined all of these different assumptions and interest rates and states of the world.
And I’ll never of forget. The VP and the client turned to me and looked at me and said, “This is an amazing model. It has everything in it that we would ever expect to be in it. This should be an industry standard. Financial institutions all over the world should be using this model to make their M&A deals.” But then they paused and they said, “There’s only one problem. The problem is that we already decided that we’re going to acquire Company A, and your model says to acquire Company B. So can you now redo the model to make it say that we should acquire a Company A instead of B?” And so I tell this story for a number of different reasons.
The first is because I always thought back, and when I later became a researcher and a professor, I remembered this because this is often how we make our decisions. We have an intuition or a gut feel, and then we pose, talk, rationalize to find the data to support what it is that we think we wanted to do anyways. And so, in the early part of my career, I was studying gut feel and intuition. I was studying, how do we actually… Because I was looking at entrepreneurship and early stage entrepreneurs and how investors make their funding decisions, finding that investors often use their gut feel to make these types of investment decisions. And so my dissertation and my earliest research was all around what’s embedded within someone’s gut feel? What’s embedded within someone’s intuition? How do I quantify the unquantifiable so that I can understand what’s in someone’s intuition vis-à-vis all the other hard data that’s out there.
And so that’s some of my earliest work, but this story also paints this perspective around the notion of hard work and how we often are taught, from a young age, that success is about hard work, that if we put in that hard work, we put in that effort… We talk so much about hard work and grit and all of these qualities that if you put that in, that you will achieve the success and the outcomes that you’re looking for. And yet, what we realize is that, at some point, we become very frustrated because we’ve put in the hard work or we’ve put in the effort and yet the outcomes and the success go to others that it’s not just hard work alone that determines success, that it’s often these subtle signals and perceptions and cues and stereotypes that dictate who’s successful and who’s not.
And so, for the last decade or so, I’ve not only been studying intuition and gut feel that goes into these decisions but also the subtle cues and perceptions and signals that impact how we actually make decisions. And so what I found, in my research, is that there are signals around everything from the typical cast of characters, things like someone’s gender, race, ethnicity, class, education, sexual orientation, religion, how technical they are. There’s all sorts of factors that lead to disparities in terms of who succeeds and who doesn’t, but it’s not just these typical cast of characters, that there’s also that I could take situations, and in research, I could take people who maybe are the epitome of privilege, and yet, there are still signals and cues and perceptions that are being bestowed upon them that would lead to disparities.
And so I started presenting this work, and people would come up to me afterwards and they would say, “Well, this is really depressing. It’s depressing that hard work is not enough and that it’s all these signals and perceptions that lead to adversity and obstacles and barriers. What can we do about this? Are there ways that we can level the playing field or protect ourselves against this?” And the thing is, is that all of the solutions, the majority of the solutions, overwhelmingly, the solutions that are out there are all system-level solutions. They’re solutions that are at the systemic or structural level. What I mean by that is these are outside-in solutions, solutions that organizations are trying to put in place, things like, “Well, let’s try and have more equitable hiring practices. Let’s try and have checklists to help us hire, or even algorithms to help us do blind hiring, or let’s try and address the leaky pipeline issues, where we are trying to get more women and people of color to be in positions of power or as mentors or in top management team positions.”
And all of these solutions, these structural or systemic solutions, they’re all a step in the right direction. These are all good things, but yet what I also found in my research was that even though they’re all good things and they’re things that are leading people in the right direction, that it was also amounting to a lot of frustration, frustration from inside organizations, because it was almost like we were saying to individuals “Just wait, we are trying to fix things. We know that there is an imperfect system. We know that there’s this myth of meritocracy, but just wait until we try and address this from the outside in.” And there wasn’t a lot that individuals could do to empower themselves from the inside out, that there were ways for individuals, even within an imperfect system, to be taking any perceptions or attribution or stereotypes and be flipping them in their favor so that they could authentically be finding and creating their own edge.
And so that’s really what my research the last couple of years has been about, around how can we, from the inside out, even within an imperfect system, have tools and strategies and tips and how-tos and ways that we can find and create our own edge? And so just to give a preview of what this looks like. Even though the title of my book is Edge, the E, D, G, and E of Edge actually stand for the components of this framework that I’ve developed over the last couple of years of my research, where even dating back to the last decade of my research, where the E stands for enrich, the D stands for delight, the G stands for guide, and the final E stands for effort.
So the first E, enrich, is around how do we enrich or provide value in any sort of context that we’re going to be in? So it’s about knowing your superpowers and your strengths and your weaknesses and your underestimated strengths, but even more so than just this internal self-awareness piece, it’s also understanding that how we enrich is so dependent on these external perceptions that people have about the ways in which we provide value. So it’s these external perceptions of our strengths and our weaknesses and our underestimated strengths that really dictates how we operate and dictate the opportunities that we have.
The D stands for delight, which is to say that, often, we don’t always have the opportunity to enrich and provide value. So understanding our unique ability to delight our counterpart, whether it’s a customer or a supplier or a counterpart or a team member, when we understand the ways in which we delight our counterparts, that’s the equivalent of being able to crack that door open, just a little bit, so that we have the opportunity to show how we enrich and provide value, because we don’t always belong to the right networks or look the right way or speak the right way. So delight allows us to get those opportunities.
The G stands for guide, which is how do we guide the perceptions of others to who we authentically are. So guiding these perceptions around once we know, once we’ve been able to hone our ability to understand how they see us in terms of enriching and providing value, we’re able to guide these perceptions. We’re able to flip these stereotypes and obstacles in our favor. And so I talk in the third section of my book… Each of these is a section of my book, enrich, delight, guide. And guiding is around understanding these perceptions and flipping them in your favor.
And then the final E stands for effort and hard work, which is where I started from. We often think that hard work comes first, that hard work will speak for itself. But in fact, in this framework, and what I find in my research, is that hard work comes last, because when we know how enrich and delight and guide, that’s when our hard work and effort actually work harder for us. That’s when we hear this advice like, “Just work twice as hard, even if you… Work twice as hard, even if it’s for half the amount of benefits.” But again, that leaves people frustrated and burnt doubt and leaving jobs and not fulfilling their potential. But when it comes last, when we know how we enrich and delight and guide, that’s when our effort works harder. That’s when we get those tailwinds. That’s when you work twice as hard for twice the amount, or even three times the amount of benefits, and that’s the Edge framework.
And I talk about all of these different components. I talk about how do we identify our strengths and our weaknesses and the self-awareness piece, but also understanding how we can hone our ability, developing this intuition for how others see us, how others perceive us, so that we can delight and that we can guide? And what are the tools that we have at our disposal to be able to delight and guide so that we can gain our edge? And so that’s a little bit about my recent research, where I look at everything from hiring decisions and who gets promotions and who gets raises, who gets funding for their ventures, and all of the ways that, again, that we can authentically be guiding and flipping these adversities in our favor.
And so one of the analogies that I give is thinking about how we can do this in a really authentic way, because a lot of times, the advice that’s out there doesn’t really feel authentic. It feels like that we’re being either manipulative or we’re just trying to manage impressions. We’ve all had that experience where we see somebody kissing up to the boss and we’re like, “Ugh, that just feels like… I don’t want to be that person.” But this is actually the opposite of that. So I talk about how everyone… I mean, think of yourself as everyone is a diamond, a single solitary diamond, and with every diamond, there’s going to be flaws and imperfections and different cuts and facets and different ways that it’s going to shine based on the lighting or the room that you’re in or the environmental conditions. And all you’re trying to do… All I talk about throughout this Edge framework is you’re trying to show…
Anytime you interact with another person, all you’re trying to do is show them that angle of your diamond that’s going to shine the brightest. You’re still the same diamond with the same flaws and imperfections and cuts and facets, but when you know how to show that, you know the perspective that they’re looking at you from, and you know the perspective that you’re approaching from, that’s when you can show that side, that angle of your diamond that’s going to shine the brightest. And by doing so, that’s how you’re going to have the deepest, richest, interpersonal connections with other people, with your counterparts. And that’s the first step in addressing any sorts of adversity or constraints or obstacles that are out there, including the ones that we’re facing now when we’re on Zoom and we’re in this increasingly interconnected, virtually, but disconnected physically, type of world, where we’re struggling with all sorts of different, new challenges and new types of adversity. It still comes down to people and the interactions that we have.
So that’s research and my book, Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage. And from here, in addition to doing this research and continuing along this path, I also am recently helping to get a nonprofit off the ground. It’s called Project Amplify, where we are trying to bring these tools and tips and all of these implicit tacit skills that are so necessary, that really bridge the gap between what we might learn in a formal educational environment to what we need in the workplace. We’re bringing this to college students, high school students, people who are early in their career. And these are individuals that wouldn’t necessarily be able to get this type of education or get these sort of things. So Project Amplify really brings… It’s tailored mentoring with free education and workshops, as well as a book-matching program that allows underprivileged and underserved communities to have access to this, so that it’s not just my students at Harvard Business School, that students everywhere that will have an opportunity to, perhaps, feel like, even though they’re maybe hitting the same wall over and over and over again or just trying to push the same levers over and over and over again, that they do have a way to empower themselves to flip things in their favor and create an edge.
So I’ll stop there because I would love to take any questions that you might have, but thanks for this opportunity to share a little bit about my research and my book and the future of what I’m working on. So turning this back to you, Des and Stuart, to help facilitate any questions that might come up.
Thank you very much, Laura. Investment banking’s losses are our gain. Thank you, everybody, for joining us. We have people from Iraq, Cameroon, Poland, Denmark, Canada. Nice to see you, Carl Moore, as well. Adversity, Laura, should we seek it out? I know Warren Bennis, in his work on leadership, talked about crucibles of leadership and really developed, had those crucibles, like really extreme at periods of adversity.
It’s such an interesting question because the very last chapter of my book is all about failure and embracing adversity. And I remember my publisher was coming to me and saying like, “This is really negative. This last chapter is really negative. For a book that’s supposed to be about success and empowerment, it’s a really negative chapter.” And I said, “But I really want to be… I wanted to be realistic because failure is so important. Adversity is so important.” And we all know… We talk about like, “Oh yeah, failure’s good. Failure is a part of success. You need to fail in order to succeed.” But I find is that there’s one key emotion that is associated with failure, and that is embarrassment. And so even though we know that failure is good, whenever we’re in a situation where we feel embarrassed, we say to ourselves, “Oh no, never again. Never again, will I put myself in that situation.” But what I say is that when we feel that embarrassment, that’s when we should double down. That’s what we should put ourselves in those situations more, because that’s how we start to hone our ability to see others and how others see us, these perceptions and attributions that I talk about.
In that, you’re learning things like, “Why did I feel uncomfortable in this situation when other people didn’t, or why did other people feel uncomfortable but I didn’t? What does it say about those perceptions and those attributions and the beliefs and the behaviors?” You start to build this new muscle because the thing is, we are so used to being in this situation of always trying to get to yes. Most of our interactions with people are always around trying to… We want them to like us and agree with us and say yes to us and see our point of view, that we don’t have this opportunity to peel back other layers around understanding perceptions and attribution. But when we’re able to do this, that’s when we’re able to get that extra layer. I always say to my students, one of the best skills you can build for yourself is being comfortable with the uncomfortable. If you can learn how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, there is something so core in there that allows you to really do all of the things there. And I talk about being comfortable with the uncomfortable as part of gaining and creating and cultivating your edge.
Great. We got a good question from Aleksandra, and she’s asked, “Can you tell us a bit more about Project Amplify?” I mean, you mentioned the mentoring program. Can you just say a little bit more about that program, so we have a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve with it?
Yeah. So Project Amplify is really a passion project I have. Just like the book was written because I had people coming up to me and saying like, “You’re presenting your research and what can we do about this?” The book was really “What can we do about this? How do we actually take this research and think about the ways in which we can, in our own positions, in our own contexts, in our own environments, really be able to create that advantage or that edge for ourselves?” And what I realized after the book came out was that there was still this really underserved area that people that I really wanted to get this message to, that I wanted to get this me message to underprivileged, underserved communities, for example, immigrant communities, that may not have access to the type of mentoring or the type of education or the type of workshops that I’m doing, that they are not getting the books and the types of soft skills or what I call power skills or core skills that allow them to thrive. That the message that they’re getting is that “Just keep putting in the hard work. Just keep working twice as hard or three times as hard.” And that they were feeling frustrated because, again, that hard work alone was not enough.
And so they felt very much like they weren’t getting that support and the empowerment, and I wanted to be able to provide that. So it’s a nonprofit. It’s a foundation that allows us to be able to give back and for me to be able to address this with lots of people, because I ultimately wrote the book for people who did feel like they were giving up, that, at some point, someone told them “You’re not good at school, so you’re hopeless or you have to find something else, or you’re not good at math, or you’re not good at X. And because you’re not good at X, we’re sorry, but it eliminates all of these other things for you.” And I wanted to sort of say, “No, there’s actually still a way for you to cultivate your unique edge and still be able to take any sort of adversity and constraints and obstacles and stereotypes and turn them around and redirect them in a way that allows you to still thrive and be successful and reach those aspirations.”
There’s a challenging question from Dina Omar in Iraq. What really makes this framework different from the others? I mean, there’s lots of frameworks of understanding these things. I mean, I think the way you conceptualize is it’s unusually clear and persuasive. What, in your mind, makes it different?
Yeah. I realize that there are lots of frameworks out there. And, in the business world, we’re framework happy. We talk about emotional intelligence and we talk about self-awareness and we talk about all of these things. What really I truly believe makes this unique is that each of these sections is based on a couple of core premises. And these premises are research-backed and they’re based on interviews. They’re based on research. They’re based on all these things. And one of the core premises that I mentioned is that so much of what we have been talking about are these system-level or systemic-level solutions, what I called these outside in solutions, that we are trying to fix discrimination or bias or perceptions or unfairness or this myth of meritocracy.
But yet, we have been talking about these things for a really long time, decades, years and years and years, and either things haven’t changed or they’ve changed far too slowly, or they’ve changed but created unintended consequences. And so my entire premise of this is that we need to flip the script. We need to think about the ways in which we can, from the inside out, be empowering ourself. Leaders need to be thinking not about structural solutions but about how if they’re individuals, if there’s team members from the inside out are feeling like they have an edge, that they are on their own going to be coming up with more creative, more innovative, more impactful ways and solutions to do things.
And so this is a perspective shift that takes all of the frameworks and the ways that we’ve been thinking about things and says, “No, no, no. We know that these things haven’t worked, but if we can actually think about it from the inside out, we can be impacting change from both directions.” And so these are ways in which we no longer have to just sit around and wait, that we can empower ourselves to be turning our own adversity into advantages. And in doing so, in creating that unique advantage, it’s actually so much more powerful because it’s unique to us. It’s a perspective that’s not dependent on anything else, other than us knowing the ways in which we perceive ourselves and the ways in which others perceive us. It’s really understanding our own diamond, but as well as how all of those angles of the diamond and how others are seeing them really understand that entire package.
We’re running very short of time, but I just wanted to ask you about, I love the phrase, the myth of meritocracy. And, in fact, one of the things I love about the book is that you’re creating a language for something that we’re all aware of and we all experienced, but we didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it. So I really like that about your work. But the myth of meritocracy, I mean, do you see things getting better? I appreciate you saying that, as individuals, we have to fight the good fight and learn new techniques, but do you think the myth… Because, in a way, 100 years ago, people didn’t have the expectation that it was a meritocracy, but now we do have a expectation, even though it may not be reality.
Yeah. I mean, Des, it’s such a great question because, quite honestly, we will never get to a pure meritocracy. We will never get to a pure meritocracy, and that’s one of the perspectives that I acknowledge, that of the reasons why some of these solutions have to be inside out is because things are going to shift and change. And they might get better in one dimension, but then it might create unintended consequences in another dimension. And so I spoke earlier about my research around intuition and gut feel, and that is so fully embedded in this. That addresses the question, I think, from Dina as well, because just like this myth of meritocracy, there’s this perspective from some that that intuition is biased. It’s something to be controlled against, that we want to find data to support what our intuition is.
And then there’s another camp that says, “No, your intuition is… There’s so much captured in that you really need to trust your gut, trust your intuition.” But what I find, and what’s so powerful about understanding these perceptions and attributions, is that finding your edge is also really embedded in this is knowing when do we trust our intuition? There are some instances where we should trust our intuition and chuck out all the other data. And there’s some instances where our intuition is flawed, and we should be looking for the data to support that. But how do we know the difference? How do we know the difference? And so a lot of my research looks at that difference, understanding the gut feel vis-à-vis that hard data and how that goes into who we are, our interpersonal interactions, and creating, ultimately, that edge for ourselves.
Laura, thank you very much. We’re out of time. That was brilliant. We’re all diamonds, though, at times, we feel like costume jewelry. We recommend Laura’s book, Edge. I noticed Benjamin in Cameroon has already just bought his copy. Thank you, Benjamin. And check out Project Amplify as well. All information about that and the book is at Laura website. Next week, we’ll be joined by Ben Witter, talking about employee experience. Laura Huang, thank you very much.
Thank you. It’s a pleasure.