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Lucia Annunzio headshot
Susan Lucia Annunzio

Most people don’t bring their brains to work, according to Susan Lucia Annunzio, a business consultant who teaches in Chicago Booth’s popular Executive Education program High-Performance Leadership.

But it’s not their fault, says Annunzio, who’s also president and CEO of the Center for High Performance, a Chicago-based consulting company. In many workplaces, employees are told “what to do, when to do it, and how to do it,” she says, and they aren’t being encouraged to think critically or innovatively.

“Companies are always looking for return on investment,” Annunzio explains. “I have a secret. The way to increase return on investment is to get return on brain power, but the problem is that most people’s thinking is not valued.”

Annunzio should know. She parlayed her background in behavioral science and group dynamics to the business world, identifying 15 discernible attributes that create a high-performance environment. She’s helped CEOs and other C-suite leaders of major global companies analyze their business cultures and streamline strategic planning. She’s written three books and is a sought-after guest on TV and radio news programs and in the business press.

For 22 years, Annunzio has run the five day High-Performance Leadership program three times a year at Chicago Booth. Here are her five takeaways.

Make People Feel Valued

“The No. 1 driver of high performance around the world, by an unprecedented margin, is that people in the group feel valued,” Annunzio says. “We call that: ‘How do you treat smart people like they’re smart?’”

Annunzio and her team at the Center for High Performance based their conclusions on survey responses from more than 3,000 knowledge workers around the world and roughly 600 follow-up telephone interviews. The respondents who felt valued at work said things like: “My boss cares what I think,” “My boss values my opinion,” and “My boss tells me what to do, not how to do it.”

The opposite, she says, is when leaders “turn off people’s brains” by attacking them, blaming them, or acting like they are the smartest person in the room.

“When people feel they ‘own’ the idea, they try harder to make it work,” Annunzio says.

It’s also important to reward people for a job well done, she adds, but don’t just applaud the results. Tell the story of what specific behaviors led to the results. That story may also involve learning from failure.

“The No. 1 driver of high performance around the world, by an unprecedented margin, is that people in the group feel valued.”  

— Susan Lucia Annunzio

Match the Culture to Your Mission

Gretchen Holloway headshot
Gretchen Holloway

“You optimize thinking by having a congruent environment—where actions and words match, where the values you preach are actually values you live by,” Annunzio says. “There’s no discrepancy between what it says on the website and your day-to-day experience.”

Gretchen Holloway, senior vice president and CFO of ITC Holdings, an electricity transmission company based in Novi, Michigan, took Annunzio’s program as part of Booth’s Advanced Management Program. She says Annunzio led the class in an exercise in which they had to choose five values that are important to them as leaders.

Holloway says she keeps cards on her desk with the five values she selected, including happiness, and refers to them frequently, which allows her to constantly reassess whether she is embodying them. She says this is especially important in times of crisis at work, when it can be easier to lose sight of those values. When a mistake happened recently and her employees were upset, keeping her values in mind helped her to listen to their concerns and put the incident in perspective.

“The course was an important reminder of having vulnerability, being courageous, being resilient, and living to your values,” she says.

Don’t Forget Empathy

“Empathy is not optional,” Annunzio says. “You cannot be a good leader without it. Empathy can be a natural skill or a learned skill.”

Participants in Annunzio’s program practice having difficult conversations with employees and team members, which she records on video. Her formula for those conversations always starts with showing empathy. When people forget the empathy step, the conversation often goes awry, becoming tense or even combative.

“When they redo it with empathy, the other person relaxes,” Annunzio says. “They calm down. They get into their game.”

Tim Moormeier, president of U.S. Engineering, a construction holding company based in Kansas City, Missouri, took Annunzio’s program as part of the Advanced Management Program as well, and then subsequently hired her to consult with his company.

In his role, he mentors four presidents and two executives, and says he has difficult conversations frequently, particularly when an employee’s performance doesn’t meet expectations. He says Annunzio’s guidance has helped him set up a structure to have regular communication with employees with the goal of helping them analyze mistakes and take steps toward success.

“The only way to do that in an effective way is to show that you care,” he says. “When you give feedback to someone, you have to be very careful to only criticize the behavior and not the person.”

“Empathy is not optional,” Annunzio says. “You cannot be a good leader without it. Empathy can be a natural skill or a learned skill.”

— Susan Lucia Annunzio

Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Tim Moormeier headshot
Tim Moormeier

“To be a great leader you have to be consciously aware of what you’re really, really good at and then surround yourself with people who are better at the things you are not good at,” Annunzio says.

Moormeier says he’s learned not to have blind spots around his weaknesses and to look for colleagues with complementary skills. Because US Engineering is made up of five subsidiary organizations with different focal points (construction, service, metalworks, innovations, and real estate), he now encourages leaders of each subsidiary to rely on the expertise and partnership of the others.

“When they are working together and people are truly working to better the whole rather than just their own organization, the results change exponentially,” Moormeier says. “If you want to drive growth and profit, the biggest mover is a collaborative culture.”

Foster Learning Environments

“A learning environment is one where new ideas are tried and where failure is seen as part of the process,” Annunzio says.

She encourages participants in her Executive Education program to conduct “autopsies without blame,” referencing a term popularized by Jim Collins (author of the 2001 book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t). This means that while it’s critical to diagnose what went wrong, the goal isn’t to point fingers, it’s to grow from mistakes.

It can also be instructive to listen to the contrarian voice. Don’t dismiss suggestions you don’t agree with. Even if an idea seems bad, ask yourself what’s smart about it, Annunzio says. Innovation often looks strange, she adds, noting that no one predicted that we would one day be taking photos on our phones.

“When learning environments are created, people learn to either fail fast or move forward, and they’re not punished,” she says. “When that happens, they quickly adapt to change and they drive more innovation.”


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