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When Was the Last Time You Asked, “Why Are We Doing It This Way?”

Source | Harvard Business Review : By Hal Gergersen

During a time when many retailers are struggling, business is booming at Target. But it wasn’t too long ago that the discount retailer’s future didn’t glow so bright. When CEO Brian Cornell took the reins two years ago, he inherited a company that had been struggling for years, taking far too few risks, and sticking too close to the core.

Since then the world has fallen in love with a far edgier Target, which has expanded its offerings through collaborations with such power brands as Lilly Pulitzer, Toms, Neiman Marcus, and SoulCycle, and updated product lines that break the status quo, like its latest gender-neutral kids home brand Pillowfort. But Cornell didn’t start right out of the gate making any big changes like these. Instead, he took time to carefully contemplate his approach, listen to his team, and ask questions.

At the MIT Leadership Center, I recently spoke with another leader, Guy Wollaert, chief exploration officer at Loggia Strategy & Design, about similar experiences he encountered at another highly visible brand, Coca-Cola. During his 20-plus year tenure with the global beverage brand, most recently serving as its chief technical and innovation officer, Wollaert made it a point to seek — and surround himself with — new ideas and people who challenged him to reflect and question first, then act later.

When stakes are high, it can be difficult for leaders, especially senior ones new to their roles, to pause before acting. Here’s advice for how to give yourself time to reflect and lead with questions, based on insights from Wollaert’s and Cornell’s leadership journeys:

Create a questioning ecosystem through diverse teams

Successful leadership isn’t just about the leader, it’s about the team. For initiatives to take hold, leaders must purposefully create diverse teams internally while seeking unique perspectives externally, whether from business partners or customers.

When Wollaert was asked to create a new function called the Global Juice Center, he literally followed the oranges from the groves to the consumer, speaking with stakeholders along the way, to understand every step of the juice-making process and to identify where there was opportunity for change. Unlike Coca-Cola’s traditional products that have a formulaic recipe, its juice products are reliant on Mother Nature for ingredients, which can vary sharply in quality from year-to-year. Through Wollaert’s hands-on experience in the field, he learned that to win in the unpredictable beverage business, extreme flexibility throughout the operations and within the team was essential.

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