Skip to main content

Matt Barney: Helping Leaders Avoid Failure Despite Disruption

By September 24, 2013Article

Editor’s note: In this article in SandHill’s series on leaders in the software industry we focus on insights from Matt Barney, Ph.D., an industrial/organizational psychologist and the founder and CEO of LeaderAmp, Inc. He was vice president and director of the Leadership Institute at Infosys from 2009 to May 2013 and was the senior-most leader responsible for selecting and developing executives at Infosys globally. In 2007 he was named a “Future Leader” by Human Capital Magazine. In this article he discusses requirements for global leadership, operating effectively through chaos and transformation, evidence-based leadership and leader persuasion. 

What was your vision for founding LeaderAmp this year after you left the Infosys Leadership Institute? 

Matt Barney: I founded LeaderAmp to create a “fitbit for leader development.” I want to help leaders fail less often and improve their odds of realizing their aspirations. It’s a logical next step from the work I used to lead at Infosys, like short, computer-adaptive assessments and leader development based on science by leveraging ideas from the Quantified Self movement. It also builds on my next book that looks at a leader’s role in creating value by coming up with creative solutions to wicked problems. 

I’m inspired by leaders who create something out of nothing. Evidence-based entrepreneurial leaders, like N.R. Narayana Murthy with whom I worked at Infosys, and Elon Musk are especially inspirational to me. The world needs more leaders who redefine excellence. I’m convinced that 100+ years of leadership science can make their examples less rare. Social science isn’t perfect. We have error in our models, but so do all sciences. And evidence-based models of leader development are far better than just guessing, which is what the folks that don’t use science are doing. Some forms of leader development actually backfire. 

What are some of the facets of the science you teach at LeaderAmp? 

Matt Barney: Our measurement is engineering-worthy and short because it builds on the latest computer-adaptive technology that adjusts for biases. Similar to what I did at the Infosys Leadership Institute, it helps diagnose potential, performance and promotability with portfolios of developmental investments for which there is evidence that they will improve a leader’s odds. 

For example, I’ve been teaching Dr. Robert Cialdini’s principles of persuasion for many years. He takes 70+ years of science and makes them practical to real leaders to improve even excellent leaders’ persuasion. His work on persuasion isn’t based on my opinion; it includes Nobel Prize-winning work that the persuasion experts agree are human universals. 

I’m also fond of new approaches to instrumental leadership. It involves skills that “rock star” Silicon Valley leaders are famous for — envisioning a future that clears a path through uncertainty, and supporting followers to get to the future. It explains how Elon Musk can be an outstanding leader in automotive, space and solar power simultaneously. I view his sort of leadership as the core to the creation of value, not just in our species. The Cue See model helps leaders cope with the uncertainty of markets, technology, governments and operations by helping them focus on the vital few and ignore the trivial many. Cue See is a mnemonic for the four perspectives to any value chain: quality, cost, quantity and cycle time. (QCQC). 

At the Leadership Institute in Infosys you were involved in developing global leaders. Is there something you observed in India that you think needs to be emphasized for American leaders operating globally? 

Matt Barney: Yes. There are two important principles, which are probably universal but were really amplified in India. The first is to know what you stand for as a leader and know your boundaries. N.R. Narayana Murthy at Infosys is one of my entrepreneurial heroes because he always remained steadfast to his values despite being in a country where bribes are commonplace. 

The second principle is to not waver from your vision of the future in spite of hardships or chaos. Ideas matter and leaders must make sense of chaos and hardships when they occur so they can help their teams bring the future to the present. Great leaders like Mr. Murthy respect evidence — they test market hypotheses just as Steve Blank and Eric Reis recommend.  

India is an unbelievably chaotic place. Step away from the oasis of the Infosys campus, and you’re in “normal” India. It’s chaos with water buffaloes lazing in the streets. Infrastructure is horrendous, the skill gaps are atrocious and police officers attempt to shake you down daily. One of the board members at Infosys, Ravi Venkatesan, used to be the CEO of Microsoft India. His current book is “Conquering the Chaos,” which has very good lessons about India for non-Indian leaders.  

My advice to American leaders working globally is: expect to have many speed bumps and many detours that you didn’t expect. There will be 10 times more hurdles than you expect because you can’t forecast them all and they’re ubiquitous in India. But you still have to steadfastly pursue the future, even if it reflects detours and surprising innovations that may be required. And you have to expect that there will be more non-value-added tasks just to get certain basic things done. But you shouldn’t violate your values in achieving your goals or flex your conviction that you’re there to make a better future. 

I think that picture of pursuing the future and goals amidst chaos and disruption could apply to U.S. industries that are going through massive disruption, such as healthcare reform and the software industry disruption in cloud, SaaS, mobile and Big Data. In an organization or industry facing massive disruption and transformation, what is the primary thing that leaders need to do to combat change resistance? 

Matt Barney: You’re right, there are many parallels. Successful transformation has to do with both individual leaders and the collective leadership team flexing their persuasion muscles in a systematic way. This includes putting a spotlight on the truth of what would happen if individuals don’t change. Leaders that paint the picture with charismatic stories can help the whole organization fast forward like a bad movie to the end. This is critical for leaders to persuade without actually being physically present in global businesses.  

Leaders need to find the most vocal, respected people in the organization and recruit them to co-create the future. The whole leadership team needs to translate the future into what it means for each individual and what will happen if the organization fails. 

So they must be authoritative and push it from the top down. 

Matt Barney: A leader must become a grand master of team persuasion. It’s less about pushing it and more about pulling the whole organization along with the senior leadership team.  Leading transformational change is about relationship building, shared values and giving followers an opportunity to co-create a common fate for the entire business.

Other parts are all about putting a spotlight on the truth and helping each individual in the firm see things in their proper perspective. For example, expertise is important in persuasion. Find credible sources to help others see the truth for what it is. And when there are good measures that contrast the current situation from the future, they can be very persuasive as well.    

What if you can’t find such sources to help persuade people to change? 

Matt Barney: The science suggests there are always some resources naturally available in every situation — but you have to scrutinize the situation fully to leverage them. When I was at Sutter Health part of my job was to help the senior team persuade 82 dual-fiduciary boards (hospitals, clinics and doctor offices) to dissolve themselves. And none of that was good for reducing the cost of healthcare or creating an Electronic Health Record for a patient to have a good experience. So a huge part of what we had to do was persuade boards to just do the right thing for patients. But convincing boards to dissolve themselves is tough. 

However, the truth is extremely compelling. The leader has to put a spotlight on why the changes need to occur, what’s in it for those who change, and be honest if the change isn’t going to be great for a specific employee or department.  Sutter no longer has such a byzantine structure, thanks to the entire leadership team learning Cialdini’s principles, and flexing those muscles in a coordinated, systematic fashion.  

Leaders also must realize that some people are just not going to change. Some will retire early or choose a different employer. Leaders need to be ok with that because they have to be more committed to the future than they are to a specific person who doesn’t like something new. 

Are there other lessons about leadership that you learned while in India? 

Matt Barney: I think there is an unbelievable brilliance about some of the frugality that India encourages. Their values are something like the generation of Americans that lived through the Great Depression; they were extremely frugal. And Indians are the same way. What’s great about this is that there are often radically lower-cost ways of achieving things and in some cases getting better results. 

The Indians have a term for this — jugaad — which is a broad term for frugal innovation that is respected (not duct-tape kinds of innovation). C.K. Prahalad’s book, “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid,” was the spark that continues to blaze many passionate Indian innovations today.   

My favorite example is Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, an ophthalmologist-entrepreneur who in his retirement in India had learned about McDonald’s. He thought that if he could mimic the McDonald’s model to treat eyes, he could radically lower the cost and improve the quality of care, making it more accessible to the poor. He founded the Aravind Eye Care System, a not-for-profit organization where 60 percent of the patients pay about $3.00, 40 percent pay nothing, and his clinical quality is better than the National Health Service in the UK. 

Are you saying that Americans don’t realize how to operate that way? 

Matt Barney: Mostly, yes. They have pieces of it through Lean and Six Sigma. But I’m talking about a paradigm shift in what’s really the bare minimum required to produce a certain result.  It requires extraordinary forms of innovation to think about entirely different value chains that could systematically provide extremely low-cost solutions that might open up new markets or pose a strategic threat to competitors that can’t operate in that way. 

In my next book I suggest a new way for leaders to think about nature-inspired innovations to rethink what is possible in realizing never-before-seen levels of quality, cost and scalability. 

Is it a leader’s job to eliminate needless waste and cost? 

Matt Barney: It’s really about relentless innovation in creating value for customers and clients.  It’s everyone’s responsibility to innovate and appropriately leverage resources to realize goals.  I don’t think it’s any one person’s responsibility per se. Organizationally the CEO is where the buck stops. 

But I’m a fan of the team approach to leadership. Great leaders also have great followers. At Infosys and at every board I’ve worked with, they intentionally have people with different kinds of expertise. We all want to follow others with expertise superior to our own. To navigate the tidal waves of market change, it takes leaders with many different skills and perspectives to navigate a way to the future. 

Matt Barney is founder and CEO of LeaderAmp, Inc. Prior to LeaderAmp, he was VP and director of Infosys Leadership Institute. Previously he launched global corporate universities at AT&T and Lucent Technologies and led Six Sigma at Motorola. He was also founding chief learning officer at Sutter Health. His fourth book, “Leading Value Creation: Bioinspiration, Organizational Science & the QC Model,” will be released in 2013. Learn more about his publications and patents at  

Kathleen Goolsby is managing editor of  


Copy link
Powered by Social Snap