Three Box Approach to Innovating Relationships

By Vijay Govindarajan and Hylke Faber

“Every day I have to get up and earn the trust of the people as leader, and that means I do whatever I need to do to make that happen.”

– Robert Tarkoff, CEO of Lithium


Three Box Leaders don’t only innovate ideas, they also innovate relationships. They manage the present, taking care of the people entrusted to them (Box 1), they selectively forget the beliefs and behaviors that stand in the way of fulfilling, productive, high trust relationships (Box 2), and they find new ways to engage purposefully with others (Box 3). One part of Robert Tarkoff’s life’s work seems to be about innovating relationships – both with his employees and with his clients. He is CEO of social software provider Lithium. We sat down recently with Tarkoff to understand how he does it.

Ask for help to make progress – take yourself off any pedestals

Tarkoff knows that in order to build fulfilling, high-trust and productive relationships, you need to first transform what stands in the way of that – putting some relationships myths in Box 2 and ‘selectively forgetting’ beliefs and behaviors that no longer serve.

One relationship myth Tarkoff put in Box 2 was the belief that the CEO should be on a pedestal and ‘need to know all the answers, all of the time’ as the company’s leader. “I think that’s true for a lot of us who progress to a level where they have overall leadership of a company” Tarkoff explains. “These are typically people who have a lot of great answers and insights. They are typically not the people that we see needing a lot of help. When they get to the CEO-job and people say it’s a lonely job being a CEO, you say: ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s a lonely job’” You may believe that “you are supposed to have less issues than normal people.” Tarkoff saw through the myth of the ‘all-knowing CEO’ and discarded it. “Of course that’s not true. We need help like everyone else. The learning is that you need to find a way to ask for help when you need help.”

This mindset enables Tarkoff to have productive relationships with his employees who “are here to help.” He refines: “You are not only asking for help, you are going in a direction, that’s why you are asking for help. This will not only make your company better, it will make you a better leader too.” In taking himself off the ‘CEO’ pedestal, and relating to others directly, Tarkoff enhanced his ability to lead.

Tarkoff draws inspiration from his upbringing. “I had couple of jobs in high school. One was when I worked in a pizza restaurant, starting with cleaning out the bathrooms” recalls Tarkoff on this formative time. “I was just a kid where I was working with people for whom this was a sort of permanent life, while I was going to be there for just a brief period of time because I was in high school. It was eye-opening for me to see how the world is for people who don’t have an opportunity to be educated and get to the next level. That has made me sensitive to the fact, you know, that, ‘you’re either part of a lucky club or you’re not.’…It gave me a sense how important it is to do what you do well at any level and to have respect for people doing their job at any level.”

Still now as CEO, Tarkoff lives these youth-found values. “Every day I have to get up and earn the trust of the people as leader, and that means I do whatever I need to do to make that happen.” Tarkoff puts all pedestals in Box 2, starting with his own, ultimately bringing everyone to an equal footing. “The only mistake you as an incoming CEO really can’t afford to pay, is being close minded to what is possible and thinking you know the answer before you go in. If you think you know where things are going to end up, you are wrong. If that’s your perspective, then don’t do it.”

Seek input, not approval – take others off their pedestal

Another pedestal Tarkoff put in Box 2 was his relationship with the Board. Prior to his role at Lithium, Tarkoff led a large business at a large tech company and reported directly to the CEO there. As with many of us, he had learned to seek approval on decisions from higher ups and was getting it from his CEO at Adobe. Once he became CEO himself, at Lithium, he learned about the limitations of putting someone else on a pedestal – in this case the Board.

Once he realized the limitations of this self-imagined pedestal, he put it in Box 2, reframing his view of the Board. He explains, “The truth is you need to bring the board along and make them feel involved. They are here to help. But you don’t need their approval. They can disapprove of a decision you make, but if it works, they will be fine. You need to bring them along in what your thinking is and if it doesn’t work, you need to tell them why it didn’t work.”

By taking the Board off their pedestal, Tarkoff improved his ability to relate to them effectively and empowered himself to take on more accountability and direction as CEO of a company.

Connecting everyone, everywhere

Remarkably Tarkoff’s quest to improve the quality of relationships goes well beyond the walls of his company. In fact, his company itself is in the business of creating trusting relationships between leading brands and their customers. Where does he draw his inspiration?

“I’m getting to that stage in my life when I’m thinking a lot more about what the world is going to be after I’m gone, than what the world is going to be like for me for the next 40-50 years.” He wants his three children and their generation to live in a world in which “we find a way to bring down the barriers between customers and brands to include them as part of the community of decision makers. That is the transparency we’re after with Lithium.”

Digging deeper, we find that Tarkoff’s view goes beyond connecting brands with customers. It’s a compelling noble purpose. “We have this society in which we risk being separated from the rest of the world through protective gates. More and more people are going to be cut off from each other. It’s a huge phenomenon and we don’t even have our arms around it. It’ actually part of the why I was attracted to Lithium – the idea of crowd sourcing and the power of the crowd, where networks become the higher denominator and you expose more people more deeply to each others’ perspective and expertise.” Lithium brings people together that previously may not have talked with each other, so that they can start learning together and create better solutions for a better world.

Take a moment and consider: what relationship myths can you put in Box 2? How disconnected are you from others because of the roles you may identify with, and the pedestals you put others and yourself on as a result? As CEO? As Customer? As Manager? As Frontline employee? What myths are you holding about your role that keeps you from relating to others in a genuine way; for example ‘I should have it all figured out’ or ‘I should be nice to others’?

What would be possible in your relationships without these myths running them? And what would become possible when you see your relationships for what they truly are: possibilities for limitless connection and creativity?


Vijay Govindarajan is the Coxe Distinguished Professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and a Marvin Bower Fellow at Harvard Business School. He is a WSJ and NYT best-selling author, and author of Three Box Solution: A Strategy for Leading Innovation, HBR Press, April 2016. Watch the book trailer. Twitter: @vgovindarajan.

Hylke Faber is CEO of the Growth Leaders Network, a non-profit supporting a global community of leaders committed to self-growth and selfless service, and is Managing Partner of the culture and leadership consultancy Constancee. Hylke also directs the Leading as Coach programs at the Columbia Business School Executive Education program.


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