Spar, for increased success, but just not with Tyson

A few months ago, I received an unexpected package in the mail. In it was red hardcover book with an eye-catching front cover design accompanied by a stylish red padded jacket. The words Iconic Advantage were emblazoned on the front of both. Curious what it was all about, I scanned the front of the book and a familiar name immediately caught my eye. Soon Yu!

We had both been vice presidents at VF Corporation a few years ago as the company was fueling unprecedented growth and driving significant internal change. Soon was the Global Vice President of Innovation at the same time I was heading the Strategy team of VF Jeanswear. But while Soon had been among my closest colleagues in those days, our paths and professional work had taken us out of regular contact for over three years, so I was warmed that he sent me a copy of his new book. It became even clearer why I received the gift once I opened the cover. Above his autograph was a short inscription: “Christopher – You were the catalyst for this entire book!”

I have always admired and respected Soon and can take no credit for any of Iconic Advantage or Soon’s transition from successful executive to successful author, but I know what made our friendship remarkable and meaningful. It was defined by strong mutual respect and a non-stop, robust exchange of ideas. You see, Soon was my sparring partner. Yes – you heard right, my sparring partner. Both of us were then, and still are today, in the transformation business, and we both know that developing ideas and pushing them through the wide end of the funnel is critical in an innovation process, and that standing your ideas up to rigorous challenge is a necessary process to refine them as they travel towards the funnel’s narrow end. Also, as teammates – we knew that playing devil’s advocate for a colleague is a valuable gift to their success.

British boxer Lennox Lewis recently recounted his experiences sparring with Mike Tyson when both were amateurs several decades ago. Their sessions were tough, perhaps brutal, he recalled, but they made him a much better boxer.

It is hard to imagine succeeding as a world-class boxer without good sparring sessions, but it is remarkable how little of healthy sparring is practiced by business leaders who aspire to transform and innovate world class companies.

Instead, what I see much more often is a high reliance on an all-knowing clique of managers and ordained experts for direction which is hurriedly and feverishly executed and much defensiveness and impatience from them when their plans are critiqued or examined too closely. I have seen numerous efforts fail in execution for lack of robust challenge and strengthening while plans were in development. Hardly a best practice for an innovation culture or meaningful transformation process.

Soon and I were a committed sparring duo. We were always welcome in each other’s offices where we invariably jumped into discussions about whatever project we were working on at the time. We would freely share budding proposals and invite reaction. We covered whiteboards, sheets of paper or napkins with drawings and notes and would completely gut our ideas and rebuild them with each other’s help. That we had different backgrounds in brand and business strategy – he from consulting and consumer packaged goods, I from banking and the sports industry – helped, as much as that we had different roles at VF, his – global – helping to transform a corporate culture, mine – operating unit – helping to transform a profitable but low growth business.

The bigger message in our sparring routine was the model for our teams to embrace not only the necessity of innovation but also the culture of collaboration.

So, what did we do, consciously or unconsciously, to make our ring time more productive? Here are my reflections about our mindset and approach:

  • Purposefully created collaboration time – we both valued the process and rather than let it be buffeted by our busy calendars we scheduled regular time to meet and were flexible with ad hoc meeting needs; we also came prepared to make the time count
  • Left our egos at the door and brought humility to the table – our goal was never to win an argument or debate, but to grow and satisfy ourselves that our ideas had been stress tested by a fresh perspective; therefore honesty, open-mindedness, directness and amicable disagreement were welcome, and never taken personally
  • Sought to truly learn from and educate each other – in each session we shared generously from our past or other experiences about what we had tried, what had worked or failed and why, so always ended the conversation with new knowledge and enlightenment and a sense that we had been battle tested and closed personal gaps
  • Showed all our cards – to get the most out of our discussions we needed to honestly and transparently paint the context and define the dynamics surrounding our work, so that the other could realistically stand and opine in our shoes
  • Never exploited personal vulnerabilities – if we disclosed confidential information about ourselves, projects or teams, it was always handled with sensitivity and used for positive learning just in our sessions
  • Readiness to scrap things and start again – while we sought to improve and build upon existing thoughts, we were not averse to shooting down or discarding proposals altogether if a better alternative idea emerged, and learn from the exchange
  • Built trust with selflessness – when we had a breakthrough we readily appreciated and credited the other for the idea, not just in our private meetings, but publicly as well
  • Enjoyed the experience – our meetings were big energy and confidence boosters for us because we brought in and took away so much from each conversation, playing to our strengths and learning new things, and always felt the time was well spent

As I read the acknowledgements at the end of Iconic Advantage, I noted the diverse group of people Soon thanked for input and advice and I could picture him actively sparring with all of them during the writing process. Best practices die hard!

What about you?

As managers or individuals, do you drive collaborative brainstorming as part of a healthy transformation and innovation culture? Do you plan and set specific times and places to wrestle freely with ideas with your peers or teams? Are you empowering multiple voices to give input or dissent on the important topics, without judgement? Do you have your very own sparring partner? None of this is complex, but it is admittedly hard to consistently act on, given all the unpredictability and firefights in your days.

The great Muhammad Ali said, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion”. I think he was right.



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