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.
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.