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X-Factor Leadership

Roz Tsai

“Successful Leaders Have A Multidimensional Approach That Enables Them To Connect Dots”

July 3, 2024

Roz Tsai, Vice President of Talent, Learning, and Organizational Effectiveness at Thrivent, shares smart insights on the characteristics of effective senior leaders, implementing sustainable business practices, and hiring for cognitive agility in leaders.

This interview is part of our X-Factor Leadership series featuring conversations with heads of talent and learning at leading corporations with The ExCo Group CEO David Reimer and Senior Managing Director and Partner Adam Bryant.

Reimer: How do you think about balancing both the art and the science of your work?

Tsai: There is a never-ending journey to figure out the science aspect of talent work. I take a pragmatic approach of grounding everything I do in the actual context of the business and what it is trying to accomplish. The “art” part comes from the wisdom you gain from experience, including the inevitable bad judgment calls, so that you develop better instincts about when to push and when to hold when to double down, and when to work around obstacles.

I have this “three S” approach to our work. The first is sound practice, which should be grounded in science. We are subject to so many shiny objects and fads in this field that my number one criteria is that we owe it to the company to implement things that actually work. My second S is for simple—keep it as simple as possible for the user experience.

The third S is for sustainable practice, so we avoid doing big, flashy things that are then gone. Everything I do is systemically integrated. That’s the art of driving sustainable change—taking a very systematic and contextualized approach to moving an organization forward.

Bryant: What are the three or four X-factors that separate the best leaders?

Tsai: Cognitive agility is one. So many senior leaders are blinded by their own success. They’re hardened by their self-perception of competence, shielding them from reality. If they don’t have the cognitive agility and hunger to learn more, they can live in their echo chamber of success. You see that play out over and over.

When I assess senior leaders, I listen carefully to their language and whether they express a healthy skepticism of their own ideas. That’s counterintuitive to the prevailing corporate culture, which values confidence, charisma, and tenacity. We don’t tend to value a healthy skepticism. Cognitive agility is so important, and I’ve seen that make or break leaders.

The second factor is what I call the multidimensional self. I don’t necessarily endorse the idea of the “authentic self” because sometimes people use that as an excuse to lean into their own weaknesses. However, I do find that highly successful senior leaders have a multidimensional approach that enables them to connect dots from different realms of the business and the world at large. It makes them more relatable and empathetic, so they have an X-factor of magnetism that comes from a deep empathetic connection rather than superficial charisma.

The third quality that differentiates great senior leaders from strong performers is an almost relentless pursuit of service. Many successful leaders are all about “my budget, my numbers, my troops, my territory, my part of the organization.” That shows up in their day-to-day language. They take a great deal of pride in being better than a colleague.

The most differentiated senior leaders are in pursuit of a greater purpose. It’s not that they must be entirely selfless. They just have much more ability to inspire a broad organization to follow them and call upon their passion to serve a greater purpose. That approach ironically could invite difficulty and confusion because people read your actions with their own filters. They look for hidden and personal agendas. But if you stay true to what you’re trying to pursue, eventually, you will win people over and earn that loyal following of energy, creativity, and passion.

I’m a student of John Wooden. He would say, “Winning takes talent. To repeat takes character.” Some shiny-object leaders are tenacious, smart, and savvy about achieving short-term success. But the more enduring, truly great leaders lead with the goodness inside themselves of humility, agility, empathy, and a commitment to serving the greater good. Sadly, if you look at most search criteria for senior roles, it’s often not those things.

Reimer: What were important early influences that shaped who you are today?

Tsai: I grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, when access to libraries or bookstores was very restricted. So there has always been an innate passion and hunger to learn in our family. Our parents were very dedicated to providing us with as much access to learning as possible, even though the educational resources were very limited.

And they were role models for making learning part of how you live. My dad was still studying English in his eighties, even though he had such a hard time because he had a memory decline. He was forced to learn Japanese during the Japanese occupation in World War II, so he used a Japanese dictionary to help him learn English and then translate it back to Chinese. He just kept working at it. At his funeral, my kids talked about how he was studying English late at night, and they would hear him trying to perfect his English.

He also entered poetry competitions and derived so much happiness from studying poetry and trying to come up with a winning entry. This profound sense of learning is just part of my day-to-day life. It’s my number one agenda every day, whether I’m having a good day or a bad day. I’m always reading and reflecting and always capturing a little something that I can do better.

The second big influence was a focus on others. Both my parents were the oldest in their respective families, so they had this natural inclination to watch out for others and take care of their younger siblings. So, we enjoyed a huge extended family and network of friends who were extremely grateful and loyal to my parents.

One reason I am so passionate about developing leaders is the deep satisfaction of witnessing people’s growth. When you’re in the leadership development business, your mission is to help other people be more successful, derive greater success, and have a greater impact on their own teams.