The Deceivingly Simple Disciplines of Workplace Superstars


Guest post with Deepak Thomas

Remy, a rat, yearns to be a great French chef, guided by Chef Gusteau’s motto “Anyone Can Cook”, and indeed becomes one, transcending every boundary in a rodent-phobic profession. In our own proverbial rat races, even if we haven’t felt autobiographical resonance with Remy’s pursuit of his dream in Pixar’s Ratatouille, you and I dream of impactful achievements and stellar recognition in our own professions, irrespective of whether you are a CEO, sous-chef, doctor or a chauffeur.

But a study says 7 out of 10 employees long for better recognition for their efforts at work. That’s a shocking figure. So statistically, there is a large probability that you and I might not cutting it at this exact point in time.


Instead of getting into definitions, I’ll just loosely correlate a superstar to someone whose impact to the company makes the opportunity cost of employment look minuscule. Superstars are leaders, irrespective of their seniority, roles or responsibilities. The title “leader” is cliché, but the responsibility of leadership is not.

How do we know where we stand? Whom do we benchmark ourselves to? Surely, not blindly to the top-rated performer at work.

“Always be a first-rate version of yourself and not a second-rate version of someone else.” – Judy Garland

Being a first-rate version of yourself requires you to have first-rate traits and be first-rate at certain disciplines. Traits are attributes and qualities, while disciplines are malleable skills. Great leaders have a bedrock of noticeable traits such as integrity, drive, self-confidence, endurance, and many more. What are the disciplines they excelled at in order to become the leaders and superstars they are today?


To look within, I found inspiration in understanding how companies become market leaders through competitive strategies. “The Discipline of Market Leaders” was published in 1995 by Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema. The book may be outdated in that many of the companies cited may not exist or be relevant today, but its underlying concept detailed in this HBR articleis very much applicable for companies to formulate and embrace their competitive strategies. The authors articulate that: market leaders are champions in oneof three disciplines (operational excellence, product leadership and customer intimacy), while meeting industry standards in the other two.


What are parallels between market leading companies, and top performers in our workplaces? In my own observations, superstars and leaders are highly empathetic, consciously thoughtful, pertinent at decision-making, efficient at doing things (and getting things done), and extremely effective at bi-directional communication.

These patterns really boil down three very simple disciplines – THINK | TALK* | DO.

(*TALK is a representation of being able to express effectively, so it involves as much of empathy and listening skills as the act of talking.)

Let me elaborate through the animation below a few actions and activities we employ daily which constitute THINK | TALK | DO (or T | T | D in short).


Superstars use an optimal mix of these disciplines in order to inspire, perform & deliver.My true “light bulb” moment was when I correlated interdependenceof these disciplines with that of disciplines of market leaders as outlined by Treacy & Wiersema.

Workplace superstars pursue three distinct value disciplines – THINK | TALK | DO – and are champions in one discipline and good enough in the other two.


Have you ever faced any of these frustrations?

  • I’m doing all the things I have been asked to do, but I’m still invisible to my boss!
  • My business strategies have helped achieve a 75% CAGR revenue growth, how I wish my organization rightfully recognized me!
  • Why aren’t investors willing to back my pitch when my competitors are getting funded?

None of us are inherently mediocre, ever. But these frustrations are signs of getting stuck in the forbidden box of mediocrity(as shown in the animation below) that I dare say many of us are comfortable residents of.


The secret sauceis in realizing that “good enough” does not equate to “average”.

Let’s look at some of the best personalities in their respective realms to understand this better:

  • Steve Jobs has been generally credited as the ultimate visionary of our lifetime (thus far). In that sense, he was more than a champion THINKER. But also realize that he had first dismissedthe Think Different campaignas “advertising agency s#!t”. Even an astute marketeer like himself was not a champion in the TALK discipline, but he was definitely better than good enough in that aspect.
  • Thomas Alva Edison held an 82-year old record for the highest number of (1093) patents until 2015. Edison’s inventions like the phonograph and incandescent bulb were fruits of consistent trial-and-error based applied research, not disruptive and wildly imaginative like inventions of alternating current or wireless communications from Nikola Tesla (who was once employed by Edison). Edison perhaps knew his own strengths and weaknesses too well, and kept at “sketching and tinkering” as diligently as he could. To me, Edison was a champion DOER, while being a really good (but not a champion) THINKER at creating incremental inventions.
  • Madonna has been the best-selling female recording artist since 1983 according to Guinness World Records. Her success is least credited to her talents as a vocalist and musician. Rather, as Jamie Anderson and Martin Kupp mention in their article “Entrepreneurs on a Dance Floor” she is an outstanding strategist who intentionally positioned and self-promoted herself by understanding her audience and their changing times (remember Like a Virginfrom 1984?). She displayed an amazing combination of empathy and communication – clearly a champion in the TALK discipline.

The only intervention you and me might need would be an objective (and personal) evaluation to understand whether our THINK | TALK | DO disciplines have been “good enough”. The workplace superstar clearly understands the threshold point of his/her role, operates out of the forbidden box of mediocrity and is a champion in one of the T|T|D disciplines.

No one is born with excellence in any of three THINK | TALK | DO disciplines. We evolve day after day, knowingly or unknowingly, chipping off our rough edges one by one. When we have an empirical model at hand for self-actualization, realize what needs to be tuned, and be at it to become a better version of ourselves, that’s the journey to excellence.

Good luck in creating better versions of you!

Please let us know if this resonated with you. we would love to hear and learn from your comments and thoughts.

Deepak Thomas on LinkedIn.

Jamie Anderson on LinkedIn.






Innovation Culture: Bring on Renaissance 2.0

Guest blog with Luca Leonardini

Renaissance Art

Venus & Cupid, Lorenzo Lotto (Italian, Venice ca. 1480–1556 Loreto)


Think about Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance. Think about Tuscany with its magical landscapes. Everywhere you look in a country like Italy, you sense the manner in which a culture of creativity and innovation has changed the world for the better.  The legacy we enjoy today reminds us that the expressive and inventive creativity that leads to innovation originated from culture, and not technology.

Over the centuries, every new church, every new bridge, every new “palazzo” or “campanile” that was built in Italy was not just “another building”: it was something much more meaningful for the whole community. These landmarks were the expression of a unique approach to life, an emerging mentality that changed the world for the better.

Today we are experiencing something very similar with an unmatched explosion of creativity in many companies and organizations – but it could better. This is because the vast majority of people within organizations have come to understand that creativity is important for their job, but few really see themselves as imaginative and curious beings. And only a small fraction believe that their company has a true desire for them to be more creative.

How might it be possible to reverse this situation? Fabiola Gianotti, Director General of CERN, recently stated at the World Economic Forum in Davos: “We need to break the cultural silos. Too often people put science and arts in different silos, whereas they are the highest expression of the curiosity and creativity of humanity.”

We think that Gianotti highlighted one of the core problems with the current approach to creativity, at least for people over 30 years old: things can be hard to change without a new educational paradigm, based upon the principles of “learning to unlearn” and of defying conventional wisdom.

Learning to unlearn from the past, and learning to embrace innovation was a very successful cultural approach in the 14th century: why don’t we embrace it again today as
 a valuable roadmap for creating new prosperity? We could call it “Renaissance 2.0”.

Now think about Amazon, Google, Virgin, Zappos, Facebook and the rest of the innovators group: when innovation is culture, progress and continuous inventiveness are the natural consequences. The continuous evolution and re-invention of these organizations is the result of their cultures of innovation, and their ability to let ideas flourish, to test, fail, to learn as fast as they can, and to iterate the cycle again and again.

The continuing relevance of these organizations is not rooted within their products, but in their ability to continuously redefine their business, in other words their relevance is rooted in a creative and agile mindset.

To get innovation culture right, we believe that organizations need to embrace a number of essential mantras:

  • Innovation does not happen. It must be built.
  • Innovation is not a cost. It’s an investment.
  • Innovation is not rooted in technology, but in ideas.
  • Innovation is not novelty. It’s culture.
  • Innovation is not tactics. It’s strategy.
  • Innovation is not an arrival point. It’s a continuous journey.
  • Innovation is not a trendy debate. It’s team work.
  • Innovation is not a concept; at its heart innovation is about people.
  • Innovation is not for few smart people. It’s for everybody.
  • Innovation is not an add on. It’s an enriching and growing path.
  • Innovation is not to make money. It creates value and legacy.
  • Innovation is not an end to itself. It must be meaningful.

The innovation path is not linear, but exponential; it is about re-imagining new boundaries and achieving continuous relevance.

While humanity might never again reach the rich architectural heights of the Renaissance, we have great opportunities to create value and meaning for ourselves and for future generations.

By truly embracing a culture of creativity and innovation, we could bring forth an age of “Renaissance 2.0”, something for which future generations would be grateful to us. Just as today we are grateful to Dante, Giotto, Michelangelo and Leonardo.


Luca Leonardini is a TEDx organizer, Business Development Advisor, Teacher of Innovative Strategies, and Blogger on Creativity and Innovation. His mission is to build a world where companies will compete to be the best for their customers, not to be the biggest.







Being at the Gym at 6am is not work-life balance.


A few years ago I attended a country-level annual employee event of a top international consultancy firm, and as part of the gathering one of the firm’s senior partners had produced a mini-documentary on achieving work-life balance. The film started with a 6am wake-up, followed by step-trainer work-out and shower before 35 minutes with her husband and two pre-school children who were then taken to day-care and kindergarten by the family’s live-in helper. Then came the commute to work (attending phone conference on the way) and meetings with clients until around 7pm. This was followed by a commute home, one-hour dinner with family (prepared by live-in helper) and a 10-minute bedtime story. A quick glass of wine with her husband followed, before another few hours of email and proposal writing.

I witnessed a lot of decidedly uncomfortable looking Millenials in the audience who realised that the partner on the stage was actually being proposed by the firm as a role-model for others. In the Q&A session that followed she revealed that she had taken just six days of vacation time in the previous twelve months.

The scary think in listening to this consulting partner was recognizing so many of the things that I myself had engaged in just a few years before. Trying to keep the three balls of career, family and self in the air is exhausting, and that is why I am still perplexed by people who think they have a work-life balance because they can fit in a 6am gym session once or twice a week, just like I used to do. How is 90 minutes in a gym a week, often while still half-asleep, some kind of balance?

It was the same story with vacations – although I took the mandated number of weeks each year, I was rarely away from my computer or mobile phone. On several occasions I actually left family vacations mid-way through to deal with ‘important’ work matters. Or the times when I was reading bedtime stories to my kids, but finding myself rushing through so that I could get back to my email or the report I was working on. My littlest boy Charlie always knew when I was skipping a few paragraphs from his favourite bedtime story – and he soon let me know it!

The behaviours demonstrated by the partner of the consultancy firm, and the approaches that I had engaged in myself, are part of a repertoire of tactics adopted by high-achievers who are desperately trying to achieve a “work-life balance” and are based upon deeply held assumptions.  The thinking behind getting to work-life balance is that individuals need to prioritize between work (career and how one makes a living) and life (health, family, leisure and spirituality).

According to this approach, people should be able compartmentalize everything into either work activities (work, meetings, conferences, business trips) or life pursuits (focusing on health and wellbeing, spending time with family and friends, taking time for oneself). This is exactly what I was trying to do throughout my 30s – and it was certainly what I witnessed with the partner of the consulting firm in the Netherlands.

The underlying reason for this mind-set is that the vast majority of organizations still adhere to an industrial age operating model, with accompanying beliefs about technology, organization, processes and culture. This is true whether these organizations be publicly listed firms, family owned companies, start-ups or public sector organizations such as universities and hospitals.

In the industrial age advances in technology drove incredible leaps in human productivity and economic prosperity. But there was a massive gulf between the technological resources of organizations and private individuals, and factories and offices were designed around providing access to technology – whether it was machinery or mainframe computing, or communication tools such as the telephone and facsimile machine.  While access to certain specialized technologies is still important in many industries, the degree to which people need to travel to work to access these technologies has changed dramatically.

Step-fold improvements in information and communication technologies have created low-cost access to technologies that often outperform the legacy technological infrastructure of many established organizations. But in many organizations employees are banned from accessing these productivity tools, or are expected to access them only from the workplace.

While old world practices expect people to come into concrete walls to work, with digital technology people can work anywhere. But organization trust is so fragile that many managers still have a need to see their workers to make sure they are working.  And many employees feel that they have to be seen to be physically present to be valued, often working long hours simply to be seen to be working long hours rather than because there is real work to be done.

The pre-digital age organizational model typically involved entities built around activity systems in which key human resources were ‘contracted’ in a more or less exclusive manner. Loyalty was expected, and it was not unusual to meet ‘lifers’ in many organizations. People who changed jobs frequently were often viewed with suspicion, and the opportunity for people to work as ‘free agents’ was severely limited by the technological constraints that we have mentioned above. But over the past two decades these constraints and attitudes have been undermined.

Rather than relying on dedicated human resources, the boundaries of organizations have became more permeable as firms initially looked towards outsourcing and consultancy. More recently there has been an even more dramatic shift – in some sectors organizations have started to employ interim management at even the most senior levels.

The digital age has seen an explosion in the number of intellectual free agents who desire to collaborate openly with other individuals and institutions. Free agents are knowledge workers who determine their own work portfolio and often integrate their own work/life tradeoffs, without a contractual commitment to a single employer. Some of these people have chosen this path, while others have been forced into free-agent status due to losing their jobs.

Despite the explosion of digital technology, and the increasing permeability of the boundaries of many organizations, underlying organizational processes and cultural norms have been much slower to shift.  In the pre-industrial age different work and social activities were typically dispersed throughout the day, and work and leisure was often seasonal.  Some months of the year people worked from dawn until dusk, while in other periods they had long bouts of leisure time.

Of course this is not to suggest that life was easy, and there were large differences depending upon the basis of productive activity. But life in the pre-industrial age occurred at a much more variable pace than it does today.  Industrial age work processes were designed to bring uniformity and efficiency, and this typically required the regimentation of the workday and separation of work and non-work activities.

Isn’t it time to re-think work-life balance?

Cakes & Creativity


In my previous post I discussed creative thinking, and the fact that creativity is actually unlearned rather than learned. I presented the ‘Cake Exercise’ which I will elaborate upon here, so if you have not read the post then please complete the exercise before reading on.

In a moment you are going to do a drawing exercise, so please take a pen and some paper.

Once you have your pen and paper, get ready to draw a cake which you will cut four times.

You have just four cuts, and your objective is to come up with the maximum number of pieces of cake. 

You have 30 seconds to complete the exercise, and you should start immediately after you have finished reading this sentence.  Go!

(Please do not read on until the exercise is complete)


How did you do? Would you believe that the answer to this exercise is hundreds, if not thousands of pieces of cake? But in practice, most adults come up with somewhere between eight and sixteen pieces – really quite pathetic. You can see the typical responses to this exercise in the Exhibit at the end of the post.

How to cut a truly creative cake

Creative thinking involves six key components. The first is what is termed problem sensibility which involves reflection upon the task or challenge. In this exercise, the challenge is to come up with the maximum number of pieces, and yet most managers tend to forget this when acting and are satisfied simply to draw a cake – even with as few as eight pieces.

The second component of creative thinking involves liquidity – or the process of having a lot of ideas to come to a good idea. But most managers draw just one cake, often in less than ten seconds, and then stop.

Thirdly, creative thinking involves flexibility or the ability to look at the problem from different perspectives. So for example, one can think flexibly about the shape of the cake or the type of knife being used.

This can then lead to re-definition, for example the cake can come in any shape or size, the knife can have hundreds or even thousands of blades, and each cut can be continuous (like a spiral) rather than straight, and each piece can be just a crum.

Managers who use this kind of thinking engage in originality of thought – they are rarely copying what others around them are doing, and have the courage to try something different.

The final component of creative thinking is collaboration – the process of engaging with others to create solutions built upon multiple perspectives.  But in this exercise, the vast majority of participants act alone and do not engage in any way with those around them.

How has life messed us up?

One of the biggest barriers to expressive and inventive creativity is the Western education system that was designed for a much more linear industrial age.  Since the turn of the century the education systems in much of the Western world have worked towards standardization of learning according to a hierarchy of subjects and the functional division of labour.

At the top of the hierarchy are math and science, typically involving the ability to solve problems using the ‘right’ formula, and measured through an ability to complete standardized tests. Next come languages and the humanities, and then at the very bottom comes anything involving vocational skills physical dexterity or creativity. Indeed, in some education systems expressive creativity through art, music and movement has been almost completely marginalized.

So by the age of just 12 or 13, and even earlier in some countries, individuals are put on a track that leads them into increasingly specialized learning paths that rarely nurture expressive or inventive creativity.

The behaviour that I often see in the cake exercise clearly demonstrate the impact of a Western industrial age education – individual problem solving, a lack of liquidity and flexibility due to one right answer thinking, and a tendency towards conformity rather than originality.

The second barrier to creative thinking is experience, not just through education, but in the sense of the wider world. In the cake exercise, the natural tendency for people is to default to their past experience of cakes and cake cutting. So they might remember a childhood birthday party, or other festive celebration involving cake. In most instances, the cake was round and was cut with a single-bladed knife. Everyone received the same sized piece, as that is the way cake should be distributed.

I also tricked you a little bit, by influencing your thinking by putting an image of pre-cut cakes at the start of the post. So when you were presented with the cake exercise, the answer seemed easy and this lead to a form of cognitive complacency.

The same is true for business – in simple situations in which cause and effect are obvious, or when experimentation can actually be dangerous, and then it makes sense to default to experience. For example, we should not encourage technicians at a nuclear power plant to “think outside the box” and be creative when they come to work every day.

There are very good reasons for relying on experience and keeping things in the box at a nuclear power plant! But when we are facing a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, then defaulting to experience can be very risky indeed because we can make assumptions about cause and effect that might be no longer valid.

The third major barrier to creative thinking is the organizational environment and corporate culture. Dealing with VUCA requires time for probing, sensing and analyzing, but in many organizations there is such a pressure on efficiency and short-term results that people naturally default to their education and past experience – just as we witnessed in the cake exercise.

Daniel Kahneman, says in his book “Thinking, fast and slow”, if a situation becomes too complicated our mind has a tendency to switch to the fast and easy mode – the intuitive mindset, based on experience. This mindset, he says, is a bias to cope with complex situations.

But what is important here is perceived time pressure as it does not actually take a lot of time to engage in the six steps of creative thinking – sometimes just fifteen or twenty minutes for an individual or team to reflect upon the problem at hand.

Creative thinking is also helped by a physical environment in which people can come together to brainstorm, with simple tools like post-its and white boards to capture and share ideas.

But perhaps most importantly, boosting creativity starts with individuals who are inspired to be creative, and who are willing to question their education, their experience, and the environment in which they find themselves in.

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If you enjoyed this blogpost, you might also enjoy my Keynote Talk about Creative Thinking.



Social Media Strategy – Let’s Go Gaga

Screen Shot 2017-11-22 at 18.08.40

Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, provide leaders with remarkable new tools to engage with followers, but must be used wisely for maximum impact.

To learn how to develop your own social media strategy look to THE role model for building and sustaining a loyal followership base – Lady Gaga !

Followership & Social Media: It’s all about mass intimacy

In the past if the leader wanted to engage with a mass of followers, whether they be employees in a large multinational company or fans in a music hall, the degree of intimacy which could be achieved was very limited. Social media has blown apart this millennia long tradeoff between intimacy and reaching a mass audience, enabling what I term “mass intimacy”.

Social Media allows the leader to provide rich information about their lives (Just from Me) directly to their followers (Just for You) in an immediate way (Just in Time). But despite the “mass intimacy” that social media platforms enable, the basic principles of followership still apply.

Lady Gaga provides a stunning example of the power of “mass intimacy”.  Not only has she used social media as a key component of establishing herself as a ‘leader’ in the music industry, she has built a followership base of tens of millions of fans, and earned hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. She has implemented a remarkably consistent approach to delivering what I see as the three pillars of a social media followership campaign, each of which will be described below.

The Personal Narrative – Who am I

The best leaders excel in their followers’ eyes by being themselves and by revealing things about what made them who they are: they are able to communicate “Who am I.” Lady Gaga has been extremely skillful at communicating her personal narrative, and she often talks about how she learned to play piano from the age of four, went on to write her first piano ballad at thirteen and began performing at the age of fourteen.

Despite the affluence of the Upper West Side of New York where she grew up, Gaga has stressed that she did not come from a wealthy background, stating that her parents “both came from lower-class families, so we’ve worked for everything.” Lady Gaga speaks often about her childhood and teenage years, describing herself as a freak and a misfit. In her own words:  “I was and I am a freak, a maverick, a lost soul looking for peers.”

Gaga always refers to herself as a contemporary artist rather than a musician, and after high school studied New York University’s Tisch Art School. Even early on, before she achieved international acclaim, Lady Gaga was unabashed about her potential: “Some people are just born stars. You either have it or you haven’t, and I was definitely born one.”

For Gaga, her dress is an embodiment of who she is – a work of art – but she says that “She was born this way” loving to dress-up since she was a little girl.  Her fans will never see her in track pants. “I owe them more than that” she says.  In a recent interview with the US current affairs program 60 Minutes she spoke about her ultimate purpose in life: “I don’t want to make money…I want to make a difference”.

Lady Gaga has helped her followers to understand something of who she is and where she has come from because she understands that followers demand authenticity. She has understood that what is new is the way in which social media platforms allows her to demonstrate this authenticity directly via social media on a daily basis. Gaga is very consistent in communicating her core values; acceptance for all, equality, creativity and honesty.

The Collective Narrative – Who are We?

Beyond demanding the individual narrative of “Who am I” followers will give their hearts and souls to figures who make them feel a part of something and say, “You really matter,” no matter how small the followers’ contributions may be.  Lady Gaga has proven herself immensely capable of building this sense of community and significance among her followers.

Gaga draws upon being the weird girl in class and gives the message that the fans are okay the way they are, a message that resonates strongly with teenagers, but also with gay and lesbian fans.  In almost every interview and performance she thanks her fans for supporting her, and attributes her success as much to them as to her own creativity and hard work.

Gaga’s use of social media is a key enabler of facilitating this community. She communicates via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that her every success and breakthrough is also theirs, and typically announces her new singles and albums directly to her fans – even before the media is informed.

Gaga Monsters

The Future Narrative – Where are we going?

The final pillar of leveraging social media to build and sustain a followership base is what I call the future narrative, or “Where are we going.” Lady Gaga communicates continuously to her fans via social media that together they can make the world a better place.

Gaga is involved in a number of social causes that resonate with her fans, and is passionate about how they can together make a difference. Since the beginning of her career she has been an outspoken activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues, and has also become involved with anti-bullying initiatives. She has spoken about her own battle with bulimia, initiating a wider discussion about eating disorders amongst her followers.

Gaga has founded the “Born This Way Foundation (BTWF)”, a non-profit organization that focuses on the empowerment of young people and issues like self-confidence, well-being, anti-bullying, mentoring, and career development. Her overwhelmingly positive message about how she wants the world to become a better place seems to resonate strongly with her millions of followers.

Lessons for all

Lady Gaga has emerged as a music industry phenomenon and astute adherent to the principles of followership. She has not only understood how to leverage social media to connect with her millions of fans in an intimate way, she has also demonstrated the impact of how this intimacy can deliver commercial results. Perhaps we should not be talking about the new economics of the Internet, but the Gaganomics of online followership.

If you liked this blog post, you might also like my TED Talk about the art of Followership.