CTDO Magazine

Power of the Pause

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Decision making doesn't always require an immediate reply.

I was sitting in my manager's office reviewing the budget for the upcoming year's development programs. After ensuring the core curriculum for all levels of employees was funded, I suggested that if there were any opportunity for an increase in funds, we should once again focus on building our leadership pipeline. She said, "I agree. What are you thinking?"

I looked at her in shock and said, "I have not yet."

She replied, "Give me your best thoughts."

"I need to get with my team," I told her.

She replied, "You are so close to your team. I am sure you know what they are thinking. Now tell me, what do you think?"

To recover my prefrontal cortex, I said, "I need some time to make sure I am thinking well," to which she said, "Great, how much time?" and I said, "Give me an hour."

Time to think things through

Jean Halloran, the senior vice president of HR at Agilent Technologies, was my manager, and there were many moments when she knew me better than I knew myself. She also was outstanding at calling me up to bring my best self to the situation.

I walked down the hallway, went into a quiet space, and pulled out a blank sheet of paper. It had been two years since my team designed and implemented a next-generation leadership program. Prior to this we had two programs that accelerated development at critical points in our pipeline. Both were well received; however, they were very expensive and required extensive capacity to deliver.

Over the years, we continually innovated on the design but I had not asked myself the difficult questions. For many reasons related to business conditions, we decided to put a hold on these programs. That was not an easy decision and challenging to explain at times. Yet I had learned earlier at Agilent the wisdom of Paul Romer's quote: "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

I cannot deny there was still a part of me that wanted to go back to Jean with an old habit of mine, which was to ask, "What funds are available?" Agilent CEO Bill Sullivan helped me break this pattern when he would tell me, "Do not start there; tell me what you think is needed," and Jean helped me see how providing options at price points was a compelling way to enter into dialogue for decision making.

I sat there looking at the blank sheet of paper and, as I learned from Anne Lamott's exceptional book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, I began writing the highlights from discussions with my team. I was committed to ensuring Agilent had strong leaders ready to continue growing the company. I knew my team counted on me to step up in situations like these. I wrote the following notes:

  • critical business requirements
  • talent analytics
  • one focused program
  • smaller cohort
  • shorter time period
  • engage participants' managers in new ways
  • extend use of technology for learning and collaboration
  • keep the design components we knew accelerated development—self-insight, customized leadership and business simulations, action learning projects, executive engagement, and coaches and mentors.

We had long allocated spaces to each business and function based on headcount. Because we had the chance for a "do over," I looked at the company's strategic initiatives and did a first pass at where the growth projections were and specifically in which location. I also pulled up the talent analytics the team compiled to predict how many leaders would be needed by when, which included insight about the sourcing, promotion, and retention data on our leadership talent pool.
All of this helped me know where to emphasize our attention if we only did one program. And to push the envelope in our world, I outlined a new step in the nomination process requiring the organization to indicate when it would have a requisition for the participant being endorsed. We wanted to set a goal that every participant be in a new position within 24 months of completing the development road map.


I knew beyond a doubt that I had the most talented development staff anyone could hope for. What I did not know was: Could we upend our habits of mind about ensuring complete alignment with the business, which does not always mean responding to their request, but helping them see what was truly needed to cause the result we all wanted?

I placed lifeline calls to three people on my team as I spent time reflecting on what would move the needle so that the company had a healthy pipeline of ready leaders. One was to Leslie Camino-Markowitz, director of next-generation leadership, to establish that I was not completely off in my thinking. The second was to Nadine Rothermel, director of operations, to confirm that my budget calculations were solid. And finally I called Mike Girone, senior director of leadership development, who I could count on to always tell me when I was about to fall off the cliff and no one would follow me.

Now, the good fortune I had at Agilent was an executive commitment to development and a belief that the best leadership hires were internal candidates that had "outside-in" experience. Over the years we had been intentional about how to make sure high-potential leaders were exposed to external thinking and experiences. We did this in myriad ways—engagement with customers, peers within and outside the industry, external programs, and involvement with outside boards and the community.

Within this context, I was able to go back to Jean with options to consider and my top recommendation.

Thoughtful response

Long ago, Jean also had taught me to start my story at the 30,000-foot level and then have all the facts and analysis ready to share as requested. She suggested we meet with Bill that afternoon, who thought the new approach was outstanding.

While everyone was excited we would begin a new program, there was pushback on allocations. We held the line and over time everyone saw why these changes made sense. And because we had a smaller cohort, we were able to spend concentrated time with each of the participants, their managers, and executive sponsors. Having fewer action learning projects that were selected by the CEO and his staff allowed more time for our leaders to really invest in the teams as they were working on top priorities. The best result was that our participants were promoted at four times the rate of other promotions within the company, which indicated our attention and effort were successfully affecting the leadership pipeline.

Breaking the pattern after two years made a huge difference to the development of a strong pipeline of leaders. Agilent Technologies split in 2014 and both Agilent and Keysight Technologies have continued the emerging leaders program to great success.

When I look back on this story, these are the three lessons that have forever influenced me:

Ask for time. When you are not ready to give a good answer, ask for time to circle back. It helps to have a leader who believes in you and knows you will recover quickly—and when you do, something good will happen.

Seize the moment. Development programs might be well received; however, if the opportunity presents itself to question what you are doing deeply and objectively, take it. Better yet, create this type of reflection where you approach the work with a "beginner's mind" constantly and courageously.

The power of the pause begins within. And it is from there one can help the organization pause, even when all is going well. I have learned that one of the greatest acts I can do as a leader is to take a moment to create space inside of myself so that I can respond and not just react.

Not only did my colleagues at Agilent help me learn this last lesson at a profound level; Jean and Bill also supported my multiyear participation in Harvard University's Learning Innovations Laboratory. Embedded in the design of each session is ample opportunity to reflect and iterate on our thinking. We close each meeting with our response to the following: "I used to think … Now I think …"

So in the spirit of confessional reflections: I used to think one needed to have a quick reply all the time to reveal brilliance. Now I think using the power of the pause wisely is so much more compelling.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Teresa Roche is a fellow at Harvard University’s Learning Innovations Laboratory and most recently was the vice president and chief learning officer at Agilent Technologies. At Agilent, Teresa was the co-chair for the Conference Board Council for Learning, Development and Organizational Performance. Previously, Teresa was a member of the executive board of the Best Practice Institute and also served on the dean’s advisory committee for the College of Education at Purdue University. Teresa has more than 20 years of experience as a human resources executive in a variety of high-technology companies. She has a deep passion for collaboration and learning and is interested in how individuals and organizations develop the capability to interpret an evolving and complex environment in order to take effective action.

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