Jane Stevenson: An interview by Bob Morris

Jane Edison Stevenson is Vice Chairman, Board & CEO Services at Korn/Ferry International, where she co-leads the firm’s Global CEO Succession Practice.  She is located in Korn/Ferry’s New York and Atlanta offices. Previous to Korn/Ferry, she spent a decade as Global Managing Partner with another global leadership advisory firm and prior to that, helped to build several boutique search firms into competitive brands.

Ms Stevenson is known for her strong global relationships in Fortune 500 C-suites, and among boards of directors.  She has been recognized by BusinessWeek as one of the “100 Most Influential Search Consultants in the World,” and is frequently consulted by Fortune, Forbes, BusinessWeek, and The Wall Street Journal to discuss trends and issues related to governance and innovation.

With her co-author Bilal Kaafarani, Ms. Stevenson wrote business bestseller Breaking Away: How Great Leaders Create Innovation that Drives Sustainable Growth, and Why Others Fail.  Breaking Away was released by McGraw Hill last spring and defines the world’s first innovation framework, linking the importance of innovation, leadership and growth.  In addition to the USA, Canada and the UK, the book was just published in Turkey, and will be coming out in China this fall.

Here is an excerpt from my interview of her. To read the complete interview, please click here.

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Morris: Before discussing Breaking Away, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth?

Stevenson:  Probably my father, John D. Edison.  He is the most selfless person I know, and early on, he taught me two profound lessons:  happiness is a decision, and life is a series of trade-offs – always understand what you are trading for what you are getting.  He also taught me that to keep growing you have to “get comfortable being uncomfortable.” He is 75 years old now, and is still evolving and growing every year.  For example, he just published his first book a few months ago, God:  Grace and Deception.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development

Stevenson:  That is a tough question.  I have been blessed to work with many great people, who have both impacted and inspired me.

•  My first boss in the executive search profession, Gerry Reynolds not only saw my potential, he also helped me to believe in myself.

•  My friend and mentor Gerry Roche, encouraged me to develop high trust relationships that bleed from professional to personal.

•  There are a number of top women whose friendship and counsel has had a profound impact on me as we have shared our journeys.  In particular I would mention Adrienne Fontanella, Angela Ahrendts, Judith Glaser, Cynthia McCague, and Melanie Kusin, but there are numerous others as well.

•  My co-author Bilal Kaafarani has been a key partner in my current journey, challenging my thinking and providing key insights for the future.  He convinced me that we needed to write Breaking Away, to share our experience “in the trenches of innovation leadership” with others.

Partnering to develop and share the Breaking Away innovation framework has forever changed my outlook on the future.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course that you continue to follow?

Stevenson: The epiphany that comes to mind happened shortly after my son was born 14 years ago.  I can still see the room I was in and how the sun fell on the floor around me at the moment I realized I might never get over my insecurities, and that I was going to have to decide whether I would allow them to define my life, or whether I would decide to “play full out” anyway.  I decided to play full out.  That decision has empowered me to take on many new challenges, like writing a book on the importance of innovation leadership and sharing a framework that can open up new possibilities for today’s leaders.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education proven to be invaluable to what you have accomplished in your life thus far?

Stevenson: Your question makes me laugh because, in matter of fact, my undergraduate education was in elementary education.  Apart from my practicum teaching for six months, I never taught a day in my life, as I was immediately drafted into administration and leadership.  That said, perhaps the most valuable gift of formal education is to teach us how to learn and to stay open to new truths and insights.  In that case, my formal education has definitely served me well.

Morris: What are some of the most common misconceptions about executive search that in fact is true?

Stevenson:  The most common misconception is that we are trying to find jobs for people, when, in fact, we are hired by the corporation to ensure that they make the best leadership selection (from either inside or outside the company) for the role at hand.

Morris: When interviewing candidates for C-level positions, which tend to reveal the most valuable information, the questions they ask or the answers they offer in respond to the questions asked of them? Please explain.

Stevenson: Both.  Interviewing C-level executives is as much about learning who they are as people as it is about what they have accomplished.  The questions they ask give us important insights into the way they think about things and what their priorities are.  Their questions can give us a good sense about their motivators as well.  Both in asking questions and in hearing the questions that are asked, our job is to understand whether the fit is one that will have the strongest odds for success.  The more we can get behind a candidates questions and answers, to understand his/her value system, motivators, ambition and ability, the better job we will do of assessing whether there is a good fit.

Morris: Percentages vary somewhat but the results of dozens of major research studies suggest that during face-to-face contact, about 80-85% of the impact is determined by body language and tone of voice. What are your thoughts about that?

Stevenson:  Communication is achieved through a combination of things:  choice of words, affect, body language, tone of voice, choice of dress, and last, but not least, how they shake hands. You can learn a lot about someone based on a handshake. I’m not sure I could put a precise percentage on each factor, but I will say that I am more interested in intuiting “who” the person is than I am about the words alone.

Morris: In your opinion, what is the single greatest challenge that CEOs will face during the next 3-5 years? Any advice?

Stevenson: Actually, I think there are two: the changing “rules of engagement” to capture the hearts and minds of your customers in a digitally-driven world, and the desperate need for innovation and growth.  In some ways, I think the two are intertwined. We live in an age of unprecedented access, interaction and connectivity.  The question is:  How will you use that to your company’s advantage?  How will you be the beneficiary of the digital revolution, instead of having it define you?  This is a big question for companies in all industry sectors.  One of my friends refers to it as learning to “speak social”.  The speed at which things are changing is directly influenced by new levels of access and interactivity.  This creates a natural tendency for us to speed up, moving faster and faster and faster….Not a good move.  The best thing you can do is to stop, look and listen, then assess what will drive the most productive and strategic results and play there.

The ability to step back and understand how to use these new “rules of engagement” to advantage, will require innovation, and will create opportunities for growth.  Advice?  The secret weapon will always be your people.  The CEO’s who understand the power of people, and who are committed to fully utilizing people’s diverse capabilities, will ultimately win the race.

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

Jane cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites


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