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Saj-nicole Joni: An interview by Bob Morris

Saj-nicole Joni is president and CEO of the Cambridge International Group, Ltd. As well as an internationally known business strategist and Third Opinion adviser to senior executives and high-potential leaders, providing insight into high-stakes issues at the intersection of strategy, action and complexity. She is a leading pioneer of Third Opinion counsel and has championed its place in the halls of corporate power. The impact of her work is to enable her clients to successfully lead their organizations and tackle risk, identify and capitalize more effectively on important revenue and market opportunities, and make better decisions around complexities that yield sustained financial performance. Joni’s clients include a cadre of C-level executives at the Global 200 firms, including category leaders in such sectors as finance, technology, software, information, professional services, telecommunications, oil and gas, pharmaceutical and media companies. She also works with CEOs of smaller, more entrepreneurial companies. Joni is a former Microsoft and CSC Index executive with several prestigious board memberships.

She is the author of The Third Opinion: How Successful Leaders Use Outside Insight to Create Superior Results and, more recently, of The Right Fight: How Great Leaders Use Healthy Conflict to Drive Performance, Innovation, and Value. She has also authored articles for a variety of publications and has served on the faculties of MIT, Carnegie Mellon University and Wellesley College for more than ten years. Joni earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at San Diego.

Here is an excerpt from Bob’s interview. To read the complete interview, please click here.

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Morris: Before focusing on two of your books, a few general questions. First, when and why did you found Cambridge International Group, in 1997?

Joni: I founded the firm so that I could serve as a confidential adviser to CEOs who need a sparring partner when they are confronting their thorniest questions and toughest problems. To me, this is a way of giving back, helping them to raise their game.  The kind of work that I do is very different than services provided to CEOs by other experts, such as professional coaches, communications specialists, or experts in M&A or supply chains. In most cases, a CEO can avail him or herself of many different kinds of experts, but it’s hard to find a business executive and strategist who will help them wrestle with the most difficult issues of leading a company. Another person who does this kind of specialized work is Ram Charan, who has worked with people like Larry Bossidy and Jack Welch.

Morris: To what extent (if any) has your  mission since changed?

Joni: Oh, the mission has not changed at all! I have done this for so many years now, and my commitment to the work just continues to grow. There is such a huge need out there. It’s quite lonely at the top!

Morris: In The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin discusses what he characterizes as “integrative thinking,” perhaps best exemplified by Abraham Lincoln as portrayed by Doris Kearns Goodwin in Team of Rivals. That is, Lincoln possessed “the predisposition and the capacity to hold two [or more] diametrically opposed ideas” in his head and then “without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other,” was able to “produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.” Throughout his presidency, Lincoln frequently demonstrated integrative thinking, a “discipline of consideration and synthesis [that] is the hallmark of exceptional businesses [as well as of democratic governments] and those who lead them.”  Here’s my question: Isn’t this the mindset that one must have to appreciate the value of what you characterize as “the third opinion”?

Joni: Yes, of course. It’s the mindset any good leader must cultivate if he or she wants to lead their company to greatness. And it’s a particularly important mindset to have in these increasingly complex times.

The challenge for most leaders is in learning to think integratively. Most top businesspeople aren’t born with this skill, so it helps them to be well partnered with a great team of rivals, or people like Professors Charan, Martin or, me who can introduce them to alternative ways of thinking. When a leader is able to make good use of a third opinion by a qualified outsider, he or she develops “muscles” that can be used to apply this kind of skill in a practical way. And beyond that, the leader can push integrative thinking down into the organization, so that the next generation of leaders also raises its game.

Morris: In fact, in The Third Opinion, as I re-read it recently, it seemed to me that you were urging decision-makers to obtain as many authoritative and independent opinions as possible, whatever the total number of sources proves to be. Many times a fourth, fifth, or even a sixth opinion may be necessary. Is that a fair assessment?

Joni: What I am saying is that if you want to become a really effective leader, you need to build the right kind of brain trust. You want to develop a comprehensive inner circle of people who will ask the right questions. You don’t need to seek an endless number of opinions; that in itself is not helpful. Instead, you need your inner circle to help you get out of your own bubble, break you free from your patterns of thinking and your cognitive biases, and supplement your strengths. You need people around you who help you keep your mind fresh, supple and open, and who will help you deal with discordant data.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read the book, please explain what the Habit of the Mind, the Habit of Relationship, and the Habit of Focus are and why developing each is so beneficial.

Joni: These three habits are like interlocking rings. They work together. A leader who cultivates all three of them will be better able to anticipate problems, understand what is happening and choose the right course of action. The leader will not only be able to help his or her firm avoid disaster, but create a new kind of intellectual and social capital for the firm, so that it’s better positioned to face the uncertain future.

To cultivate Habit of Mind, you need to master three types of thinking. The first is “application,” by which I mean the ability to identify the characteristics of a problem and find a solution so that you get replicable results. (This kind of thinking is the one that demands the most mental energy from managers.) The second is “expert thinking,” which means that you need to develop a deep understanding about a specific subject; this expertise allows you to diagnose a problem.  The third is what I call “exponential thinking,” through which you develop your curiosity about the unknown. An exponential thinker is able to break away from mental models and hidden assumptions. He or she is able to discern patterns, and develop different scenarios of the future. An exponential thinker is able to see all sides of a problem, and to deal with complexities. This kind of thinking is the most difficult kind of thinking to master.

Part of being a good exponential thinker is the ability to listen and learn. That’s where the Habit of Relationship comes in. This has to do with how you work with team members and thinking partners. When you develop this habit, you are willing to be wrong and to ask for help when you need it. You create a safe environment where people feel that they can express candid opinions, and you share the spotlight with others. You think about yourself as part of a larger whole.

Finally, Habit of Focus is really about zeroing in on what is essential, as opposed to what is just urgent. This means that you must to see past the mountain of distractions coming at you. When you have a habit of focus, you are able to move forward with important but non-urgent issues. What will give your firm a strategic advantage? What market should you enter, or not? What competitive threats are on the horizon? How productive are your employees? When you really focus, you can make truly unique contributions to your company and create value.

Morris: In my opinion, the most effective decision-makers are results-driven. These three habits may be separate but are interdependent and essential to avoiding “paralysis by analysis.” Do you agree?

Joni: I would agree that results – as defined by accomplished financial and achievable strategic goals – are important. But focusing too much on narrow “results” per se can lead to tunnel vision. Too many people focus on the end without paying close enough attention to what the end should be in service of, or what the company is really about. BP, for example, was full of results-driven people who lost track of the big picture, and who ended up producing catastrophically bad results. In fact, I would argue that if your organization has too many narrow-minded, results-driven people in it, they can drive your firm right into disaster.

I believe good leaders focus on much more than expedient results. They care about big questions, and about developing a flexible perspective. If you, as a leader, frame an important question correctly and are able to help people to produce a good result, that’s terrific. But you had better make sure that the results your organization produces are greater than the sum of all the parts.

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Bob Morris

Bob Morris is an independent management consultant based in Dallas who specializes in high-impact knowledge management and accelerated executive development. He has also reviewed more than 2,200 business books for Amazon’s US, UK, and Canadian websites. Each week, we will add to the Networlding Business Bookshelf abbreviated versions in which he discusses a few of his personal favorites. To contact him directly: [email protected]

Melissa G Wilson

Melissa has been a leader in the book writing, publishing and marketing arena for the past two decades. To date, she has helped more than 100 thought leaders write, publish and market their books. Her clients include executives such as Dan Weinfurter a seven-time Inc 500 winner and Orlando Ashford, President of Holland Cruise Lines.

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