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Kearney’s Alex Liu: The ‘Great Reflection’ and finding your purpose at work

Alex Liu, Managing Partner and Chairman, A.T. Kearney Alex Liu, Managing Partner and Chairman at A.T. Kearney, shares how leaders can help teams tap into their purpose and find joy at work.

Alex Liu, Managing Partner and Chairman, A.T. Kearney Alex Liu, Managing Partner and Chairman at A.T. Kearney, shares how leaders can help teams tap into their purpose and find joy at work. Image: World Economic Forum / Greg Beadle

Linda Lacina
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Meet the Leader is the podcast from the World Economic Forum that features the world’s top changemakers, showcasing the habits and traits effective leaders can’t work without.
  • Alex Liu, Managing Partner and Chairman at A.T. Kearney, shares how leaders can help teams tap into their purpose and find joy at work.

To truly understand the 'Great Resignation', says A.T. Kearney's managing partner Alex Liu, we have to understand the 'Great Reflection'.

Workers, alone during COVID lockdowns during an uncertain time, questioned their purpose and how they used both their talents and their time. They felt unmoored in their roles - and wanted work that aligned with their priorities and values. The result? An unprecedented labour shift.

With more disruption ahead - from the pandemic's continued shifts as well as geopolitical turmoil and a potential global downturn - being proactive in helping teams tap into their purpose will be even more important to navigate uncertainty ahead.

Firms that can tap the purpose in their teams will be better able to tackle bigger challenges. "When you find that, then you can work on the problems that our clients have, and there's a whole range — ESG, climate, accelerating transformation, M&A, performance acceleration, dealing with climate citizenship."

For leaders, says Liu, helping teams tap into purpose requires careful consideration as they drive everything from big projects to small routines. Leaders must be clear on what they're looking to achieve, even with classic workaday events like meetings. “There's a lot of digital zombies and mechanical, transactional, falsely productive sessions.”

To be sure, the right in-person meetings can be highly productive for side-by-side learning, body language and more. As consulting is an apprenticeship profession, Liu understands the value of carefully considered connections well. But while in-person meetings can be important, they shouldn't be a crutch. “We can't eliminate that," he said, "but we don't need to rely on it.”

Rethinking your routines can help you reconnect continually with your values and help leaders spot disconnects in other areas. It can also prompt leaders to consider key questions, such as: “Who decides whether your company’s actions align with its values? Who's in the room. Who's deciding the workplace rules? Who's promoting the right people? Who's leading and deciding the next promotion?”

Considering these questions help support teams and help them feel safe psychologically and physically, says Liu.

Workers "want to be seen for who they are. They want to be supported, but, more importantly, I think they want to be inspired. So, the role of leaders is to actually create followership, to be authentic, to be reflective, to be honest, to share how they think, not impose what they think."

"You need to find those those sources of loving what you do, loving where you are, loving yourself," says Liu. "And I think that is the key to unlocking the energy to solve all these problems."

Alex talks about this and more - including what’s needed to find joy at work - in an interview recorded at the Annual Meeting in Davos Switzerland. Read the podcast transcript below.

TRANSCRIPT: Alex Liu, on finding your purpose at work and tapping into the 'great reflection'

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: What are some of the biggest challenges that you are are prioritizing and think are key right now?

Alex Liu: The problem to me is mapping individual purpose, because we are a people business, with the institutional purpose. I've spoken a bit about finding the balance, which you can see in the ancient tradition of Ikigai. And you're probably familiar with that. What you're passionate about versus what you can get paid for, and what the world needs and what you're good at.

And so, what I try to focus on is getting people to focus, in my company, on finding their purpose. We want to in our firm be the difference — be the difference for our customers, be the difference for our communities and be the difference for our teams. When you find that, then you can work on the problems that our clients have, and there's a whole range — ESG, climate, accelerating transformation, M&A, performance acceleration, dealing with climate citizenship — they had the energy and the purpose and the focus to be able to solve those problems.

Have you read?

Linda Lacina: How do you do that? How do you get people to dig into their purpose?

Alex Liu: Well, first, make it safe for them to be who they are. Each person is different. Every brain is different. Every history is different. Every identity is different. It's okay to just be yourself.

When you can feel and self-identify with doing what you love and loving what you do, then you can be a better teammate. And work in teams where harmony impact, acknowledgement — these are the key ingredients of any championship community — can thrive at full potential.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: And what's an example of a time that you've helped the team with this, or even someone that you've worked with? Is there a way that you've done this so we can kind of get a sense for your approach?

Alex Liu: During the dark days of the uncertainty around the pandemic is obviously a time where everyone was by themselves, but they need to feel connected. What I did was share my own frustrations, concerns, and even daily habits, what movies I was looking at, how did I keep healthy? How did I keep sane? Because of course mental health was an issue even before COVID.

I thought that that liberated folks to believe that first, it's okay to be isolated, but you can still be connected at the same time and feel that the leader of the company was also just like them. But also wanting to communicate, listen, reassure be honest, not be overly optimistic, but also not be overly pessimistic, because you need to have that kind of reservoir every day to keep going.

"Everything is retumbling. The nature of work, the definition of worker, the definition of the workplace, even the definition of the workforce and where they're located."

Alex Liu, Managing Partner and Chairman, Kearney

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: There's been a lot of disruption in workplaces in the past couple of couple of years and there's potentially going to be a recession maybe in the next couple of months. How do you think that's going to impact some of these work patterns that we've seen? Do you think that the labour market will be as tight as it is? What trend do you think is going to continue or halt, given the new disruptions?

Alex Liu: I think you're right in pointing out that everything is retumbling. The nature of work, the definition of worker, the definition of the workplace, even the definition of the workforce and where they're located.

I think what's going to happen is a premium on flexibility, adaptability and resilience. And I don't mean just supply chain resilience. I mean mental resilience. The spirit to be able to change with change. That's something that we've had to learn. And it's a world of unprecedented turmoil and unpredictability.

It's a no-normal world. So, what we need to equip the people that we work with and the customers that we serve and the suppliers that we try to inspire as well, to stick with it. To keep that energy going, as I said earlier.

Joy leads to gratitude. It leads to optimism. It leads to hope, and I think it leads to solutions. This is a can-do world.

Alex Liu, Managing Partner and Chairman, Kearney

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Do you think that a lot of workplaces are coming back a couple of days a week? Do you think that's here to stay?

Alex Liu: I think flexibility is here to stay. I mean, I don't think we can impose a one size fits all. There'll be a period of transition, which we're going through right now. And then structurally, I think the workers and the leaders need to come together on what is our workplace? What is our purpose? Do we need to be together? Connected?

I mean, one thing I would say to reduce stress, to that point, is to just eliminate meetings. I think there's a lot of unnecessary Zoom, being digital zombies, mechanical, transactional, falsely productive sessions. We could liberate our workforce by just saying: “Be where you are, come into the office. Obviously, we'd like to see you. Obviously, you want a person-to-person contact. We're not going to have meetings. We trust you.”

"We could liberate our workforce by just saying: We're not going to have meetings. We trust you."

Alex Liu, Managing Partner and Chairman, Kearney

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: How do you improve on the meeting or innovate on it?

Alex Liu: Well, we're not perfect either. We have too many meetings. I mean, we obviously have our clients and we need to adapt to how they want to work. In the office, onsite, not onsite, travel and no travel, but from our own standpoint, we’d like the in-person contact. This is an apprenticeship profession. We need to learn from people that are only six months, a year ahead of us in how they do things and get the body language right, understand the situations, side-by-side learning, these are things you can only do in person. We're all teams, we're social animals. So, we can't eliminate that, but we don't need to rely on it completely. Digital transformation has allowed us do things remotely and effectively in many ways.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: The role of business is shifting, a lot of people have been talking about that, of course, this week. In your mind, what's been the most compelling change, maybe over the last five to 10 years?

Alex Liu: Well, obviously the digital transformation has continued forward. It's transforming the world. There's still great inequity in terms of who is on this side of the digital divide versus the other.

Obviously, the climate urgency has really accelerated. It's top of the agenda here, and it should be the top of the agenda in all constituencies. It's an existential issue. It's something that is front and centre here in our company and in the work that we do. How do we transition the entire world economy companies, people, teammates, to be better climate citizens? That's something that's quite different than two years ago.

"People are the source of solutions and therefore we need to unleash that untapped energy. "

Alex Liu, Managing Partner and Chairman, Kearney

And the other trend is to focus on people for people. Not just parts of a cog of a machine or an economy or an offshoring exercise. There has been a greater appreciation that people are the source of solutions and therefore we need to unleash that untapped energy. And they are also under unprecedented stress because of the things that we've been talking about, the mental health of individuals is so linked to the mental health of the company and the countries and communities that we're in. That's why I've spoken a lot about joy at work. Why would you settle for anything less?

You're born happy, you go to school happy, your parents made you happy. You go to your first job happy, but we see this huge joy gap. It's okay to be relentless and ambitious and career minded and feed your family. But you also need to find, in the moment, those sources of loving what you do, loving where you are, loving yourself. And I think that is the key to unlocking the energy to solve all these problems — the problems we know, the solutions are there, but the people are the ones that are exhausted.

It's too hard. It's too hard to fix something that you've been working on and working at the same company for many years. It's hard to promote someone who doesn't look like you. It's hard to feel you're part of a cancel culture. So, these are all things that are happening in the workplace.

You can't have joy without a sense of justice. You can't have joy without a sense of your own purpose or being in a company which you believe has institutional purpose, like solving some of the problems here at WEF.

"You can't have joy without a sense of justice. You can't have joy without a sense of your own purpose or being in a company which you believe has institutional purpose."

Alex Liu, Managing Partner and Chairman, Kearney

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Is there one capability or skill that leaders will need to build to navigate this future of work?

Alex Liu: I think that the one skill that leaders need to have is the ability to listen and adapt at the same time. There's not enough time to sort of do analyses and then come up with a solution and socialize it. You've got to get to the point in real time, trust your judgment, trust your values. And I think that cycle of agility is what's needed these days.

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Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What's overlooked with joy at work? You mentioned something that I think people don't think about — that, you need to keep this safe space, you can't have joy without justice, you can't have that equity. But people don't think about joy and how it impacts them and how it impacts stress. Why is that? What's being overlooked?

Alex Liu: Well, part of it is probably situational. I think we've got these companies, if I focus on the workplace, and maybe you could extrapolate to communities where you have all these layers and silos and metrics and routines and meetings that drain the soul. If you combine that with a non-reflective or the 'Great Reflection', yeah. Right. Which is we've had the Great Resignation, I call it the Great Reflection. The last couple of years, given all the stress being alone and with ourselves, we're saying, well, why am I doing this? So, the question of why is coming back. There's probably been unnecessary stress to the workplace, just because of the legacy things that have happened.

The external stuff has created all this added layer of stress, racial justice, the geopolitical situation, actual war, climate uncertainty. So those are the reasons why joy has been kind of pushed aside a bit. I guess the next question is: well, what is the antidote to that? How do you find joy? I think you go to first principles.

I mean, you have to first self-define your own success. Then you can draw boundaries. You will have less mental health issues if you understand the difference between stress and boredom. You want to be challenged, you just don’t want to be stressed. That allows you to find a place to work in which allows you to be yourself.

Obviously, we want leaders to be custodians and stewards of a just workplace. We want our leaders to be authentic and communicate their belief systems so that they believe that they're moving in the right direction. They want the companies that they work in, and are associated with, by the way, to be positive, to be speaking out on issues that matter to them.

If you get multiple levels of people saying it's okay to be authentic and values-based, and true to yourself, those are the preconditions for a great team. You have role clarity. You have harmony, you have acknowledgment, because you’re seen. And you also have praise and impact, because you're obviously working more energetically for something you believe in. You'll probably have a better winning record if you do.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Is there also a sense that people should maybe build for joy? One of the things you were talking about was you can't have joy without justice, can’t have joy without equity, these things. And if a company, maybe there's not fairness in promotions or if people don't feel like they have the flexibility that they need for their particular situation, then they're not going to have that. If companies create their policies with the purpose of joy, do you think that that is maybe a helpful mindset? That you're not trying to solve for a negative, you're trying to solve for a positive. How useful would that be?

Alex Liu: I think it's great. I think what I try to do is say: “Listen, I want championship teams, I want winning teams. They're serving customers better than our competitors are and we're helping each other in ways that no one else can do.” And if you look at any analogy on the team side, they have that, they know what their role is. They don't waste time. They have each other's back.

Now in the workplace, the issue really is sometimes not the leader. They may embrace joy, we want you to work less, have the right boundaries, have a fulfilled agenda. And it's probably not at the bottom level, the next generation, let’s say, of workers who believe that this is what I expect. I'm not going to join you for life unless I feel that you will deliver this every day. It's the folks in the middle, the folks that grew up in the old world, so to speak, and now they have this tidal wave of problems to also have.

So ultimately, it's about power — who's in the room, who's deciding the workplace rules, who's promoting the right people, who's leading and deciding the next promotion, who's resourcing it and who pays. And I think there is unnecessary stress from lack of progress on some of the social agenda and the people agenda and the purpose agenda, because the folks in the middle, that big part of the bell curve, don't get it or don't want to get it.

So, the role of the leader is to unlock that and say: “No, I'm serious. I want us to get rid of the matrices. I'm going to de-layer. I want to simplify organization. I want to eliminate unnecessary meetings. I don't want you to working 18 hours a day on whatever technology we're on remotely. I respect your boundaries. I respect your different path. I respect your identity.”

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What's a trait that you depend on in order to make that possible with the people that you work with?

Alex Liu: Well, I try to be joyful but relentless. I think there's the right balance. You know, listen, I'm still very ambitious. Like many people in the consulting profession, we're all insecure overachievers, but you need to do this with a sense of balance and boundaries, and knowing what you love.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Is there a question that you can ask yourself to kind of right-side yourself and have a gut check?

Alex Liu: There's no one single question. I try to keep to a healthy routine. So, every day, regardless of if I'm landing late at night, or waking up in the morning in the winter or the summer, my first activity is outside. I go outside for 15, 20 minutes, a little jog, a walk, a bike, and I feel like it's a new day. So, whatever happened the day before, no stress. And I'm preparing mentally for the new day. You have to have a constant sense of renewal. Maybe that's why I'm in consulting because you know, every problem is different, every week is different, every client is different. Every team is different for that matter. So, there's a constant state of curiosity. So, the secret from my perspective is to have that constant learning attitude. Every day is going to be a new learning experience. That keeps me fresh, I believe.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Is there a book that you recommend?

Alex Liu: I grew up in a family of coaches and teachers. My father was a professor. My children are teachers in some way and their mother is still a special education teacher. I love college basketball — watching it, I'm not good enough to play it and never was. There is a book called A Coach's Life, by Dean Smith, a former University of North Carolina basketball coach. He's not only a great coach, he coached Michael Jordan and all and had great success, but he had philosophy and principles that I always loved from an early age. For example, play hard, play smart, play together, and I can live with any outcome if I can achieve those three things.

I use that a little bit in my own leadership philosophy, which is I want my teams to work hard, work smart, work together, and I will accept any outcome because I know we've given our best — and I want to do it in a just way.

He integrated the basketball scene in the segregated south, where I grew up in, and he encapsulated a lot of his principles and perspectives in that book, A Coach’s Life.

I think the world is short of inspiration. We have a great deal of problems that we see, and we can get bamboozled by, we can be overwhelmed by. But as I've said before, people energy is the most renewable energy resource and our obligation is to find ways to unleash that, to unlock that.

"People energy is the most renewable energy resource and our obligation is to find ways to unleash that, to unlock that."

Alex Liu, Managing Partner and Chairman, Kearney

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: How do you do that?

As leaders, what we can do is basically role model. We can be authentic. We can share our belief system. We can communicate our lessons learned in solving these problems. We can say it's okay to not be okay with the world and with our own mental health, and be able to make people inspired to be themselves.

I think folks in the workplace want to be safe psychologically and physically, as we've known over the last couple of years. They want to be seen for who they are. They want to be supported, but more importantly, I think they want to be inspired. So, the role of leaders is to actually create followership, to be authentic, to be reflective, to be honest, to share how they think, not impose what they think.

"The role of leaders is to actually create followership."

Alex Liu, Managing Partner and Chairman, Kearney

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: How important will it be for people to also take that sense of joy back to their teams, to their workplaces?

Alex Liu: Well, joy leads to gratitude. It leads to optimism. It leads to hope. And I think it leads to solutions. This is, a can-do world and, without joy, it'll take longer.

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