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Onyx Pharmaceuticals’ global HR chief on solving problems through a shift in perspective

Gap International’s Leveraging Genius Conference was held two weeks ago in Scottsdale, Ariz. Nearly 200 global executives and their teams from multiple industries and cultures came together in a weeklong journey to discover and leverage the origins of their own great performance (SmartBrief recently interviewed Gap co-Chief Operating Officer Bob Rothman). The following excerpts come from Gap’s recent post-conference interview with Kaye Foster-Cheek, senior vice president of global human resources at Onyx Pharmaceuticals, about the business impact of this work.

What are some of the main challenges you see business leaders currently facing in today’s businesses environment?

I would say there are a few broad categories or buckets. One is making sense of and managing an organization through all its complexities. A second area is global growth. For other companies, it can be the growth of a sector or a particular market, but, for us, it’s how we would grow a global company. And the third challenge is being intentional about the culture that we want to create.

I believe that every company is wrestling with this issue — we have brought together a multigenerational workforce, people from different cultures who have different orientations and mindsets, and they are also transitory. We are also geographically dispersed, so we have to be intentional about the kind of culture we want as an organization to get the best out of all that diversity we now have in our organizations.

Now, in light of the engagement you have had with [the Leveraging] Genius [conference], how might a leader approach these challenges?

When I came to the conference, I was thinking about the issue of growth, and one of the things that I found to be very powerful is creating a new framework for thinking about growing the organization in a fundamentally different way. I now listen to things differently — even listening to myself talk about the problem — and I am talking differently. I can now see the thinking and genius of myself and other individuals and how it creates a way of thinking in the entire organization. So I now have a much more specific way of listening and have started to undo some of the things that actually are placing constraints in the organization. In this last week, I had several instances where I have been able to do that.

For example, I was in a conversation last night about succession, about a particular part of the business where the growth is slower, and how the perception about this opportunity is that it’s going to be hard to find a candidate who is truly interested in this challenge. We were wondering how we were going to be able to ask anybody to step into this position. I literally just wrote down every single thing that was being said — all the thinking about this issue. I think before the conference I probably would not have been able to hear all the thinking and language around the issue. It’s very interesting to be in the dialogue and share thinking, to respect and really hear what other people have to say.

People were saying things like, “It seems difficult to recruit a new leader. We need funding and to raise a lot of capital.” There is no new news here, but I literally wrote it all down, which I wouldn’t have done before studying genius because I wouldn’t have heard all the thinking before. I wrote those things down and I said to the team, “You know, these issues are possible to solve!”

So, what we saw was that we had articulated just one way of thinking about this opportunity and that we were looking at it through a lens of being a very limited opportunity; therefore, we saw that we are the ones placing the constraints on this issue rather than creating new, potential solutions. We turned that around, and I’ve got to tell you, it was magic! We walked away at the end of an hour, with a complete, detailed solution, a work plan with clear accountabilities, and it all happened really, really fast. So, literally, the conference just paid for itself.

How do you think this new approach with genius will help differentiate the organization? What does that do for the organization as a whole?

The power of this approach comes when there is critical mass, because I think I absolutely have the opportunity — in every space that I am in — to create a greater space for thinking and people’s genius to be expressed.

What I am really trying to do, if you look at the layout of my genius thinking I uncovered in the conference, is to create capacity in the organization, and that capacity is a mindset, whether that capacity is innovation or whatever it may be. I am always trying to create new capacity. I can do that in the spaces and the vectors where I work, but to see real transformation and shift, there has to be a critical mass of the organization that’s thinking and believing and acting and leading this same way. That’s big.

So, I was also curious about what strikes you about the notion of the whole topic of genius?

The single biggest a-ha is that “genius” is not a person! People come to the conference with the idea that a genius is just Albert Einstein and what is inherent along with that, of course, is that “I am not a genius.” But it was one of the first things discussed in the beginning of the conference, it got me like when somebody slams you in the chest, that genius is not a person! I thought, “Whoa.”

And then the way we came to articulate genius is more, at least to me, a way of being, a way of thinking, a way of doing — and that it is inherent in everyone. Our role should be to create the context for genius to be expressed, and that’s what my “genius map” is really about — creating a context for people to achieve their genius — and that is what I do for others: that’s me at work, that’s me at home, that’s me in the community I live in.

This is profound to me: Every single person has genius within them. We just have to access that genius, and that creates greater capacity in the world.

After having engaged in the genius work, how would you say that you have changed as a leader?

It starts with listening. I’m generally trying to be more self-aware, to bring a more intentional listening for the kind of thinking in the organization, and listening to myself and to the thinking that I have in my head. And the thing that keeps resonating, and that I try to practice consistently, is how do I create a space to access my genius and the genius of others?

What are the challenges that you believe that you can now tackle and that you were not considering prior to engaging in the conference?

It’s not that there are new challenges. I think what it is for me is that I am able to look at the challenges through a different lens, which creates greater insight about potential solutions.

And will that “different lens” allow you to make a greater impact in the marketplace, when you play it all the way out?

I think absolutely. That’s why I think that the idea of the critical mass is so important, because, I can absolutely as one person, lean forward or lean in and make a difference and cause the organization to be different, and therefore the impact to be different. But I just think about the power of an increased capacity of the entire organization or system that is aligned in working in that way.