Margaret Heffernan: Getting the Best From Everyone

The biggest threats and dangers we face are the ones we don’t see—not because they’re secret, hidden or invisible but because we aren’t prepared to face them. CEO and business thinker Margaret Heffernan challenges the most common business practices that make us feel comfortable—and she is coming to the HR Conference + Tradeshow on May 2, 2017 to explore “The One Firm Firm: How to Get the Best From Everyone.”

As a former CEO herself and the author of Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, she knows that crises are rarely provoked by the proverbial bad apple. What’s more likely is that people and structures conspire to hide from leaders what they most need to know—and she explores the processes that can make your organization smart, resilient and successful.

In her latest book, A Bigger Prize: How to Stop Competing and Start Winning through Creative Collaboration, Heffernan explores ways of living and working that foster creativity, spark innovation, reinforce our social fabric, and feel so much better than winning.

With change and competition both constants, is there an underlying characteristic to those companies which continue to thrive?
Companies that prove resilient invest time and resources in developing their people and the social capital of their workforce. They also tend to focus less on efficiency and more on robustness: that is, always having spare financial, human and cognitive capacity to cope with stresses and demands that are bound to come.

What are the primary roadblocks preventing more collaborative workplaces?
Primarily bureaucracy (which traps people into narrow definitions of responsibility and accountability) and hierarchy (which makes people defer rather than contribute.)

What are the defining enablers of creative, collaborative teams?
Freedom is essential: the freedom to think safely, without fear of attack or measurement. High degrees of social capital, the norms of reciprocity, generosity and trust. A very careful and disciplined use of time as the most precious resource.

How can HR professionals build a better business case for the importance of soft-skills in the collaborative future/present?
One of the most interesting pieces of evidence has been Google’s Project Oxygen which identified its top managers thus: my manager cares about me and when I’m struggling, sits down and helps me solve my problem. Out of 8 characteristics defining their top managers, technical expertise came last.

What do you see as the single greatest opportunity/challenge just around the corner for HR?
The biggest challenge will be the misguided belief (fuelled by hype and salesmanship) that people can be replaced by automation, AI and other kinds of technology. What is going to be crucial is for HR fully to understand what these technologies can and cannot do. If HR doesn’t grasp the nettle of the technology, it will be marginalized.

Margaret Heffernan is a keynote speaker at the HR Conference + Tradeshow 2017 in Vancouver. Her session The One Firm Firm: How to Get the Best From Everyone is on Tuesday, May 2, 2017. For more information on this and other sessions, please visit


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Category: Voice & Vision

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