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‘Lead for Good’—Jean-Philippe Courtois and Doug Conant on the Power of Courageous Leadership

Last month, at ConantLeadership’s 6th biannual BLUEPRINT Leadership Summit—a virtual meeting of the top leadership luminaries in the world—Jean-Philippe Courtois (Executive Vice President and President, National Transformation Partnerships at Microsoft and host of the Positive Leadership podcast) spoke with Doug Conant (Founder of ConantLeadership, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, and bestselling author of The Blueprint and TouchPoints) about the power of courageous leadership in the modern age.

Enjoy the following key tips and takeaways from their conversation in this blog recap. And you can watch the full video of this Summit session here (skip to roughly minute 5 to skip intros and housekeeping.)

The Two Pillars of Courageous Leadership

From the start of his career, Jean-Philippe Courtois was “all in” on innovation. As one of the first thousand employees at Microsoft, he’s always felt deeply aligned with the company’s forward-thinking mission and values. Now, nearly 40 years later, his focus at the organization has landed on transforming national economies through the power of responsible AI.

Jean-Philippe’s migration to AI is largely made possible by the very innovation that excited him when he first joined Microsoft. But there’s another reason he says his teams continue to succeed: Courage. They are not afraid to step into the future.

Like Jean-Philippe, Doug Conant has a firsthand understanding of the power of courage and considers it to be an essential leadership competency in today’s world. Embedded into his own 45-plus year career are stories of courageous leadership that have shaped the way he shows up at work and in life.

To deepen the conversation, Doug asks his co-panelist how he defines courage. Jean-Philippe answers that he holds two pillars of courageous leadership: “Being my authentic self,” and “living up to [my] personal values.” To bring the pillars home, Jean-Philippe invites the audience to call him by his nickname “JP,” as a nod to his approachable comfortability in his own skin.

Jean-Philippe says that authenticity, the first pillar of courageous leadership, is “super critical.” Ultimately, leaders need enough emotional courage to “create real empathy with people when they have to go through challenges in their jobs [and] in their lives.” He says that this kind of open, vulnerable leadership is an act of innovation in its own right.

Jean-Philippe adds that each pillar requires its own kind of courage. If the first pillar of courageous leadership (authenticity) takes emotional courage, then the second pillar (staying true to personal values) takes moral courage. This requires leaders to get crystal clear about what matters most to them—professionally and personally. He says that developing moral courage helps leaders stay true to themselves even in the tough “crucible” moments they will inevitably face. It isn’t easy. He explains that courageous leaders will be tested—and they must “stand up to their values,” and “sometimes say no,” or even leave their company rather than “compromise their integrity.”

Let Your Goal Be Evolution, Not Revolution

Expanding on the idea of moral courage and integrity, Doug says: “It’s hard to showcase the courage of your convictions if you do not know what your convictions are.” To develop greater self-knowledge, he challenges leaders to “pursue a line of introspection” for themselves and to encourage others to do the same. In a chaotic world, Doug says reflection is the only way for leaders to get anchored in the beliefs and values they’ll use to evolve their leadership and their lives. The more volatile the world, the greater the need for a stabilizing foundation: “If uncertainty abounds outside, we need to have more certainty inside,” Doug declares.

Doug asks his co-panelist how courage at the organizational level has helped Microsoft navigate a rapidly changing industry. Jean-Philippe points to a pivotal moment when Satya Nadella rewrote the company’s mission after he took over as CEO in 2014. Microsoft’s original mission was “a computer on every desk and in every home.” The new mission? “To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”

The change, regarded as “strange” by some, required a tremendous amount of courage—not just from the CEO but from the entire company. Jean-Philippe says the new mission was successful because it asked Microsoft’s stakeholders to “embark on a very significant evolution, not a revolution.” The company would build on their existing success while also advancing a culture that Jean-Philippe says had been “too introverted” and had almost “missed the big waves of innovation.” With the new mission came a cloud-first strategy, major project cuts, and a renewed sense of courage that shifted three attributes of company culture:

  1. A growth mindset that requires intellectual courage and an appetite to learn.
  2. Quality time with customers to understand what they need and what’s driving them.
  3. Diversity and inclusion that celebrates diversity of thought, talent, culture, and conviction.

Jean-Philippe was also tasked with transforming the roles of 30,000 salespeople across Microsoft’s more than 120 subsidiaries—an intimidating transition for everyone involved. Buoyed by courageous leadership and a beloved Leo Tolstoy quote (“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself”), Jean-Philippe looked both inward and outward for strength and was able to manage the transition thoughtfully.

Become a ‘Coach-Like’ Leader

Jean-Philippe’s journey of self-reflection led him to embrace what he calls “coach-like” leadership, a methodology he summarizes in three calls-to-action:

  1. Be curious. “Real curiosity means actually speaking much less . . . Listening 80%, talking 20%.”
  2. Be lazy. “You’re here to let the person grow and find solutions,” not tell them what to do at every turn. (Doug backs this up, adding: “Let people own the work, not you.”)
  3. Be in the moment. “If you want to give the best feedback to the people in their brightness and their areas of development . . . do that in real time whenever you can.”

Jean-Philippe flashes back to an inflection point on his quest to become a coach-like leader. At a major sales convention one year, he agreed to let Michael Bungay Stanier (the creator of the coach-like leadership model) conduct a live coaching session with him—completely unscripted—in front of 23,000 of his employees, colleagues, and partners. Jean-Philippe fumbled a bit and felt that his uncertainty and vulnerability were put in the spotlight: “I was struggling with the transformation [and] all the sales authorizations that I was asking the managers to do,” he recalls. Right there on stage, he demonstrated an openness to learning that deeply impacted everyone in the room.

Jean-Philippe’s public display of vulnerability, while difficult, ended up inspiring thousands of sales managers in attendance. After the live coaching session, messages of support and affirmation poured in: The audience, moved by his example, wanted to become “coach-like” leaders too. Jean-Philippe was surprised and heartened by the response: “I was not what I thought was the best of myself, but it proved to be super powerful.” Doug affirms that vulnerability is indeed a palpable act of courage. “People can see it and feel it,” he says.

Both panelists understand how intricately the principles of coach-like leadership are connected.  Doug reiterates in particular the directive to “lead by listening.” He says the more you approach conversations with curiosity, the more people embody that curious spirit themselves—and the better they get at making decisions on their own. The effect is exponential. Doug shares that when he was a Fortune 500 CEO: “The reality was that out of 1,000 decisions made every hour, 999 of them were gonna be made when I wasn’t in the room,” and, “I wanted everybody to build that courage muscle to make those decisions” on behalf of the organization.

This virtuous circle—leading by listening and then inviting people to take ownership of their decisions—helps leaders stay in the moment so they can create “a clear sense of accountability,” says Doug. In his book co-authored with Mette Norgaard, TouchPoints, he diagrams the components of this cycle as “Listen, Frame, Advance.” And Jean-Philippe agrees this is an effective process for building connections: “You don’t buy trust. You build it one person, one organization, one day at a time.” It starts with you.

The panelists connect these concepts to the importance of “psychological safety” at work. Amy Edmondson, a previous Blueprint Leadership Summit guest and the scholar who coined the term, defines “psychological safety” as “felt permission for candor” in the workplace and her research shows it is essential for teams to be able to share ideas, take risks, ask questions, and own up to mistakes.

To create psychological safety, Jean-Philippe points back to the power of vulnerability to building your “coaching muscle.” He says coach-like leadership is courageous leadership. And Doug says courage requires “radical candor.” When employees know that they can speak up in an environment where leaders are open to learning and listening, then purpose, motivation, and high performance are likely to follow.

Jean-Philippe leaves this parting wisdom: “Lead for good.” His deep conviction is that courageous leaders are needed everywhere, not just in the corporate world. Summon the wisdom and bravery to align your personal values to your leadership journey because, as he says, “we need a new generation of positive leaders who can unleash that power.”

Enjoyed these insights?

If you missed last month’s 6th annual BLUEPRINT Leadership Summit, no worries—we’ve linked all available recordings below. And you can also access our library of previous summit sessions here, including conversations with Brené Brown, Susan Cain, Indra Nooyi, Amy Edmondson, and many more.

RECORDINGS (Fast forward to roughly minute 4 to skip intros and housekeeping.)

Vanessa BradfordAbout the Author: Vanessa Bradford is a freelance content writer and copywriter, and C3PR’s Content Marketing Director.

(Photo by Michael Schofield on Unsplash )

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