Teaching savoir-relier™ or ‘relational intelligence’: Leadership approach developed by Sloan’s Valérie Gauthier helps managers forge human and cultural connections

The method helps leaders hone their intuition and sensing abilities

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., December 1, 2011—Good leadership used to mean being a command-and-control type: task-oriented and laser-focused on profit. Not anymore. Today’s leaders must be collaborative, flexible, capable of managing multi-disciplinary departments, steering culturally diverse teams, and juggling multiple priorities.

These skills are not necessarily innate, but can be learned and developed through savoir-relier™, a leadership approach designed by Valérie Gauthier, a visiting associate professor at MIT Sloan School of Management. Savoir-relier, a form of relational intelligence, helps managers hone their intuition and sense, and teaches them how to build deeper bonds between entities, people, and ideas.

Companies are evolving in a world that is quickly becoming more economically, socially and politically complex, says Gauthier, who is an associate professor at HEC Paris. More than a third of the profit of firms listed in the S&P 500 stock index comes from outside the US; women and minorities are participating in the workforce in record numbers; and the pace of technology has increased pressure on companies to create transformational products and services.

“To respond to this faster, ever-changing environment and foster a spirit of innovation, management must develop a new approach that helps them forge human, social and cultural connections,” says Gauthier, whose forthcoming book on the subject is entitled Sense Leadership. “They must have the capacity to encourage differences and build relationships between entities that don’t naturally relate, that are opposite, or are even antagonistic; this could be across functions, across disciplines, or across cultures. Importantly, leaders must make sure those relationships are trustworthy and constructive; this is what Apple founder Steve Jobs called ‘connecting the dots’ to foster innovation”.

Between 2002–10 more than 1,200 HEC students were trained in savoir-relier. Company executives from L’Oréal, Merck, and Alcatel-Lucent have also been exposed to the method through the school’s Visions of Leadership Center initiative.

Teaching savoir-relier to a group of MBA students or managers is a three-step process. It begins with a self-awareness exercise known as “self-portrait.” The method asks participants 40 open-ended questions, such as: When have you been most courageous in your life and when should you have been more courageous? Who are your enemies? Who are your allies? What brings feelings of loneliness in you? What kinds of love have you experienced in your life? How do you deal with diversity or differences?

Participants exchange the portrait with one other person in the group. They then have a two-hour conversation where they go over their answers by sharing personal stories. “The result is a deep linkage between those two people, and also an understanding of new, profound and different things about yourself,” says Gauthier, who has a background in psychology.

The second step in the process aims to make participants more resilient. It asks participants to think about personal moments of discomfort or failure and reflect on how well they bounced back. “We’re trying to expose a moment of resilience by having people narrate their experiences,” she says. “And then we want them to decode the mechanisms through which they moved forward or felt stuck.”

In the final part of the process, participants develop a leadership action plan that involves strategies for how they’ll use their newfound self-knowledge in their day-to-day job. It tackles issues that range from reconciling a need for a sense of purpose with the corporate objective of profits, to how embracing generational differences in the workplace applies to hiring and firing.

“This training in savoir-relier is the starting point to build interpersonal relationships that are meaningful,” says Gauthier. “It’s about concentration, listening, and empathy. It’s about helping leaders—both established ones and aspirants—develop a sense of trust and resilience, value differences as asset for growth and nourish a strong desire for innovation. In their leadership action plan, they understand that they did it with one person, and they can do it with others. That’s when the transformation begins.”

* Growing your leadership with savoir-relier™ (translated and adapted from the chapter « Savoir-relier » in Les 7 clés du Leadership, Editions L’archipel, 2010.)

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