A conversation with Yda Bouvier, MBA ’98, on her new book, "Leading from the Right Brain," gleaned from her studies in applied physics and years of coaching executives seeking to strengthen and transform their leadership style. Yda discusses how many leaders are especially capable in left-brain functioning, which serves them well in building strong strategic, problem solving, and goal-achievement track records. And yet, when left-brain functioning gets stuck, it can only be unlocked through bringing in the strengths of the right side of the brain. Yda posits that the right brain sees the whole, the proverbial forest from the trees; and it sees the new, bringing fresh ideas and perspectives for any problem. The right brain also has access to information about ourselves and others that the left brain doesn’t have.
In the wide-ranging conversation Yda touches on the impact MIT Sloan had on her evolution from the physics cellars doing research, to gaining new found skills and confidence for her work before and after MIT Sloan at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Since 2008, Yda Bouvier has worked with hundreds of individuals and many teams in periods of transition and professional challenges, across the United Kingdom and Continental Europe.
Christopher Reichert: Welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies, a candid conversation with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. So what does it mean to be a Sloanie? Over the course of this podcast, you'll hear from guests who are making a difference in their community, including our own very important one here at Sloan.
Hi, I'm your host Christopher Reichert and welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies. My guest today is Yda Bouvier a 1998 MIT Sloan MBA graduate. Welcome.
Yda Bouvier: Hi.
Christopher Reichert: Yda joins us from London and before we begin our conversation, I just want to give our listeners some background. Ida is an executive coach now for 15 years and an author. She works with both individuals and companies looking to support executives with the greatest potential and she just released her first book, "Leading With the Right Brain." So, congratulations!
Yda Bouvier: Thank You.
Christopher Reichert: Before being an executive coach and an author, she was a senior manager at the Boston Consulting Group, also known as BCG, where her experience included international corporate strategy and post-merger integration projects across industries. In addition to her MBA, she holds a Master of Science in applied physics. So wow, I'd love to know more about that and how you use that today. She's a sailor. Oh yes, and she met her husband at Sloan. So welcome Ida. Tell us about what motivated you to write it and what's the message you want people to get from it?
Yda Bouvier: Recently a couple of people have been, or from different sides, I get that question. What prompted you to write the book? At first I thought, well, I sort of started writing, but I realized there was a little bit more behind it when I started working as a coach. I think a lot of people who come from sort of analytical and consulting and using your left brain a lot in your job and education, I found myself always tempted to solve everybody's problem. Somebody would ask me a question and I would think, oh, do I have the right answer? And when I trained as a coach, I realized that that actually doesn't work so well. And I stumbled more or less by coincidence, sort of a more creative way of working with where I could kind of let go of all that problem solving focus. Now as I started working in different ways, I realized how powerful that was.
I started working it more, it was as a coach, it was sort of the way I distinguished myself professionally. I then started teaching other coaches what this way of working was and by then I had spent some time studying neuroscience and neurobiology and I realized that what I was doing was using the right brain. And so I thought was teaching coaches how to use the right brain and to work with their clients. And as I've now been doing this for a while, I'm realizing I'm sitting on this sort of gigantic secret that it feels a little bit awkward to just keep us, keep it to myself and the small world of coaching. On the cover of my book, I put an Aladdin’s lamp with the idea of smoke and shape of a brain coming out of it. And I did it because the right brain is really this enormous power that we all have, like this your personal genie and you just have to figure out how to get it out of the bottle. And it's such a wonderful thing that I thought I have to make this available to a much wider group of people than I can reach by myself simply by doing my work. So that prompted me to write a book.
Christopher Reichert: One of the professors I studied under years ago was Ron Heifetz who teaches about adaptive leadership. And I kind of took it as soft power versus hard power in some ways guiding people towards their own solutions versus pressing them to the solution that you may have come up with. Is that an element to your executive coaching for people?
Yda Bouvier: I think there are a lot of different words that come close to this context of left and right and hard and soft can be one of them. I think the real important thing is that you see what your left brain always tries to do is it tries to describe the world as concretely as possible and then make it tangible. And by making it tangible, you can actually manipulate and utilize it. Now, that is of course an extremely useful thing and we try with our mutual, with our left brains, we try to making it concrete in relatively similar ways. And then it becomes in a way this notion of, okay, it's concrete, it's hard, and we can exchange between us.
What your right brain does is it actually experiences the world in its entirety. And that also means that the way I experience the world might actually be slightly different from the way you're experienced the world and we even influence each other in how we experience the world. I don't know if soft is the right word for it. I think the left brain tries to categorize left is hard and therefore right is soft. But for me, the right brain's not soft at all. I don't even have one word for it other than it's very powerful.
Christopher Reichert: So when you said hard, in other words, the left brain tries to make the world as concrete as possible to then be able to hold it, I guess is how I'm visualizing it as something that can then be exchanged or changed or observed?
Yda Bouvier: Exactly. Exactly.
Christopher Reichert: Does that also imply that it becomes rigid in the sense that once you make it into an object, then it's hard to change it again?
Yda Bouvier: And it becomes rigid and what you see is that the left brain can get stuck in its own simplification of the world. And where we often need our right brain is to find something new, anything new first materializes in your right hemisphere and then hey, it gets translated and your left brain tries to a little bit later on grasp it and interpret it again. But the left brain really gets, can get stuck just as the word that you use in its own rigidity.
Christopher Reichert: So I read a definition of right brain people and I'll just read it out because in some ways I agree with it in other ways I'm outraged as a left-handed person, alright? Right. Brainers can be disorganized, unpredictable, and more often than not very good with people. So I agree with part of that. They're spontaneous, creative and more emotional than left brainers, which outrages me, but I'm joking. They are also intuitive, good at problem solving, and more comfortable with the unknown, I suppose once you kind of define it. So the mere fact of defining it, I think is a left-brain activity.
Yda Bouvier: Yeah, you totally got that.
Christopher Reichert: So I take these with a grain of salt I guess. But I mean there is also some truth in that. And so when I think about corporate, and this is going to be a gross exaggeration, when I think about corporate expectations for decision-making, for leadership styles for the people that I think succeed in that environment, my observation is that when I look at this image that's in front of me, it shows on the left the logic, the language, the sense of time and science and on the right creative intuition, imagination. I guess this is a long-winded way of asking a question about how do people who I think their career has pushed them to be as left brain as possible because at the end of the day you have to show results and explain them and then show them. How do they bring in the right brain side and not be scoffed at as “squishy and loosey goosey?”
Yda Bouvier: I think it's absolutely true that through our education and when we first land in the workplace and we learn to basically be effective in the existing system, the left brain is a huge asset to us. I find that by the time a leader comes to me for coaching, it's because they're experiencing some of those limitations. And I often right at the start I say, look, what we will do is we will work with all your resources and you're probably pretty good with using your left side resources. So we are going to quite regularly tap into your right side resources and nobody really understands what that means in the beginning. And one of the key things about your right brain is that it doesn't process in words, but it really processes in images. We don't say for nothing a picture says more than a thousand words, because it really does. And so I, often as one of the first things we do, is we work with pictures to describe a situation and somebody always immediately experiences that gives a richness that they weren't before able to articulate. And just by having an image often provides new insights. And that's when people start getting it and they're like, okay, there is this ability that I have that I don't tap in very often that can really lift me as a person and as a leader to a new level.
Christopher Reichert: And that sort of points to the power of metaphors.
Yda Bouvier: Absolutely. And you often have, I'm sure you've experienced that yourself. Maybe an example even pops to mind where somebody is trying to convince you of something in a very articulate, logical way and then they say, well, what I'm really trying to achieve here is this, I just want to create a new garden. And you're like, ah, now, I get it.
Christopher Reichert: Tell me more about that revelation.
Yda Bouvier: I am just using that as an example because I'm looking at my own garden, literally looking at my garden. But what I mean is that when we communicate in metaphors, we also can feel aligned and connected in a way that we by purely exchanging logic sometimes don't arrive at. And so because if we are connected with our right brains as much as with our left brains, then we to convince somebody else to influence and inspire others, that's really important.
Christopher Reichert: And I was thinking about effective speakers, communicators. Do you find in your work with your clients or organizations that there are patterns there that you can see that are successful and unsuccessful?
Yda Bouvier: So I think in the past, people who want to become very good speakers and influencers, what they have often focused on is on the one hand side, have a really good argument and on the other hand side have a lot of charisma. When you're standing in front of a group of people, you exude a lot of confidence and hand and it's often very important that what you show physically is the same. It can be in contrast with the words that you use. Now, I think what we've noticed very vividly the past two years is that when we had to work with each other virtually all of a sudden and we had to start influencing people almost exclusively, virtually, we started realizing that all of a sudden you can't rely on your body anymore because it's only this piece is on the camera. And even though we're on the camera like this, we are not even biologically able to pick up the same signals from each other over the camera that we can do when we were speaking in person.
All of a sudden as a leader, if you are influencing people not only by at a combination of your words in your presence, but only by your words, you are realizing that it's not flying in the same way. And that is because if we're only using structure and logic, it's only a left-brain activation and not the right brain activation. If you activate your right brain, for example, by using metaphors to stimulate your audience right brain, then all of a sudden you can actually be a lot more engaging and inspiring also over zoom and using the virtual platforms, which in today's world I think is absolutely essential. If you look at sustainability, we can't be all be flying around the world to show everybody our physical presence at every odd moment where we need to influence, we need to do it in other ways. And so the ability to provoke a good right brain connection virtually seems to me that that's a leadership skill that's really important for the coming decade. And interestingly, the Dean of MIT [Sloan], David Schmittlein, he said exactly that, what is it, about two years ago. And so I was like, we're on the same wavelength here, visioning,
Christopher Reichert: I know that Sloan has been pushing leadership studies as part of a well-rounded graduate. And I think that those are, in my mind, I think it's positive, but to my mind it's a counterpoint to the accounting class where accounting is a hard skill in the sense that the numbers have to add up or not type of thing. Leadership, in my opinion is more, it builds, I guess on the raw materials of each individual and try to bridge that personality with then the hard skills that you still have to have, right?
Yda Bouvier: Yes. For me, it's absolutely not a question of either or. It's both. And I don't know if this was the same for you, but for me it was by the time I was at Sloan, I was definitely still a little bit in my left-brain development phase first at BCG and then at Sloan I joined. So when I joined BCG, I really knew nothing about business. I just came straight out of the physics cellars doing my research. And so I was like, oh, balance sheet. So I sort of survived for two years, and then thankfully they helped me to do an MBA. And so for me at Sloan, I was soaking up the accounting and the economics and the strategy and all those more hardcore business skills because I still really needed, I needed that solid ground on my feet. And some of the leadership topics or organizational behavior classes as we also had, I was actually in my late 20s, not even that interested in it. That came a couple of years later when I felt I've covered this field now, but there seems to be a lot more other interesting things out there.
Christopher Reichert: So tell us about your applied physics background and I guess how do you use that now and why the transition from, how does that fit in? Let's put it that way.
Yda Bouvier: After school, I remember you go, who knows what they want to do when there are 17, 18 right? So I was definitely of the variety of let's keep as many options open as I possibly can. A good family friend said, oh, if you study physics, that means that's essentially no choice because then you can still do everything you want afterwards. And I thought, that sounds great. It's also the kind of thing that it looks good, it's considered a hard thing to do. And so I was like, you know what? That makes a lot of sense. So off I went studying physics. It was so difficult. I have to say the first two years I really scraped myself over the finish line kind of learning how to work and study. I think it's not uncommon if you've had it relatively easy at school that if you all of a sudden are at a top university and a difficult degree, then you really have to shape up.
Christopher Reichert: It is a muscle, right?
Yda Bouvier: Yeah, it's exactly that. It's a muscle. So I had to very quickly train mine. But then as I was nearing the end of my degree, which at my university was like a two, two and a half year research project, a lot of more hardcore research work, which in my case was the orientation dependency of silicon. So that would then ultimately be interesting for the growth of computer chips.
Christopher Reichert: Interesting.
Yda Bouvier: So I worked in clean rooms and things like that, but it was all very detailed, far away from immediate application. And I thought after doing that for some time, I need to be a little bit more in the real world, and then I thought, okay, how do I transition from that kind of academics into the business world? And BCG, like other consultancies, seems to welcome people who've done technical degrees and then things that they can just teach them about business along the way. And so that was my saving grace, and that kind of brought me to BCG after my studies.
Christopher Reichert: Well, it certainly shows that you can apply yourself.
Yda Bouvier: Yeah, I mean, you are asking me what the value, what's the value of that education now? Some of the value of that education is that you don't need to prove to anybody that you're smart. And that sounds really stupid, but it's relevant,
Christopher Reichert: Right? To me, it's the equivalent of in the business world, wearing a suit and tie, there's a certain assumption about what the person is so that you don't have to fight that battle. That's been, we agree...
Yda Bouvier: That's boxes ticked. The other real value that it has for me is that when I started coaching, which is a totally different field, I was definitely looking for some angle to really satisfy my more intellectual curiosity. The findings from neuroscience and neurobiology were streaming in but it was impossible to keep up with everything that was surfacing in the past 20 years question of how do you take those insights into really practical applications so that a leader in a business can use some of that? That was really kept me interested and so that my scientific appetite was fed and proved out to be also very useful for understanding this dynamic between the left and the right brain.
Christopher Reichert: When I think about the right brain and even the definition that I read before, which was that there's disorganization and unpredictableness and emotional, how do you tap? So even going to your image on the cover of your book, the Aladdin's lamp, with this coming out, how do you sort of control that in a way and allow people or teach executives or organizations to listen to those intuitions or that information coming from the right brain and trust it?
Yda Bouvier: That requires a little bit of trial and error. So you take something like working with an image. Early in the book, I use an example of a client who was describing a really complicated challenge in his relatively new leadership role. And after we were really getting lost in details, I said to him, paint me a picture of what the situation looks like. And he then said, well, it feels like I'm hanging off a rock cliff without a safety cord. And I thought, hmm, like, it feels a little scary. And we sort of talked a bit about the image and he said, well, I really like rock climbing, actually. This is a source of enjoyment for me, but what worries me is that I don't have a safety net. And so we then said, well, what's that safety rope actually at work? What he ended up saying was that the safety rope felt really like a support network of colleagues and peers.
And so we then talked about how we could build that. But by the time we then met a month later for our next coaching session, he had started taking some actions and seeing the results because you then experience something that's valuable, you then get more curious saying, how do I experience more of those insights because they seem to be bringing me something relevant? Now, what's always very important is that you, on the one hand side, you want to benefit from the intuition and the wisdom of your right brain, but you then do need to translate it into something that's really concrete and tangible where you also need your left brain. So it's almost about you want to establish the collaboration. And here is something really interesting, which is that your right hemisphere is really fine to collaborate with the left, but the left doesn't want to collaborate with the right.
Christopher Reichert: And that must be manifested in leadership power struggles or boardroom challenges, strategy sessions?
Yda Bouvier: All those and it is also why it's often so tricky to bring this kind of right brain intuition into the boardroom, for example, because somebody might say in a boardroom, I just don't really like the smell of this. And another person, that's a right brain comment, that's a right brain intuition that says, I'm feeling uncomfortable about something. The left brain responses is often, immediately, I'm not quite sure what you mean. Everything's fine here.
Christopher Reichert: Facts and figures.
Yda Bouvier: Yeah, look, it looks like a fantastic opportunity. Here are the numbers. And so unless you are on the lookout for those kind of intuitions, it's very easy for our very powerful and competent left brains to sort of go.
Christopher Reichert: So you did your applied physics and then, which was very theoretical and education research conceptual, and then you dove into corporate consulting, management consulting. And correct me if I'm wrong, were you at BCG throughout your time at Sloan?
Yda Bouvier: Yeah, so I was at BCG before and then I also went back to BCG afterwards.
Christopher Reichert: So how did Sloan change you? And you better mention your husband here.
Yda Bouvier: Yes. How did Sloan change me? So the first thing it did was that it did really give me this solid ground in terms of business education on all the dimensions that we talked about before. So I went back to BCG, and my confidence was like I felt in a completely different place, and that was very nice. I enjoyed the work also a lot more because of that on all fields. I just felt like I was, what I did was solid and not just grasping at straws.
Christopher Reichert: You had created and sharpened some tools, right?
Yda Bouvier: Yeah, of course. The other thing which I hope many people get from not only Sloan, but attending their business school, is these networks of lifelong friends. That's just phenomenal. Some of them we've been in contact for on a very regular basis having holidays together. But even if you don't see somebody for five, 10 years and they pass through London and you sit down for dinner, you're right back. And I think it's unique in life those times where you build those, kind of that intensity of relationships afterwards, you get busy with work and families. And I think those friendships are, we treasure them a lot. And since Laurent and I are also from different countries, we have those sets of friendships in our respective countries. But from Sloan, they're mutual friends. And so that's also what makes it a double special in our life.
Christopher Reichert: And he's a banker, right?
Yda Bouvier: He's a banker.
Christopher Reichert: So he is very left brained,
Yda Bouvier: You think?
Christopher Reichert: But maybe not
Yda Bouvier: Left and right brain. No. And what else? So the one thing that I really learned at school, which only over time and certainly is also I think underlies what I write about in the book, is that one of the courses that really made a huge impact on me was System Dynamics. And this notion of if something is happening in a system which doesn't produce the outcomes that you expect, there are forces that you're missing or need to be uncovered. And that idea that it has informed, of course, a lot of what I do, not only as a consultant, but as a coach, that is one of these foundation principles that informs a lot of my work because somebody comes to coaching and sometimes, they say they want something, but they don't do the things that would get them there. And then just this idea of there are forces in this system that we're trying to uncover is a very useful way of thinking. And so, system dynamics I think has informed a lot my career in ways that I totally didn't expect when I was sitting in a class.
Christopher Reichert: And that presumes a certain rational-ness to it all. Right?
Yda Bouvier: Yes, I suppose so. Or at least again, something to, it's another way to make things tangible. But I like the idea of, I like the language of force because forces are kind of a kind of energy, and even though yes, you can describe a force, but you can never really fully describe it, it has that sort of energy. It has something magical and ungraspable to it. I suppose even as a physicist,
Christopher Reichert: I mean, when you're coaching someone and they make a tweak, so this is one of those things where you're introducing some dynamism into the system, right? Tweaking the knob, pushing a lever. Is part of your coaching to have people think two or three steps ahead as to what the consequences or the various consequences could be. So thinking in a system dynamics way?
Yda Bouvier: Yes, we very often, and you can do that. You can imagine we have this amazing ability to be able to imagine ourselves in the future. I think one of the unique human capabilities. Sometimes you can use it to uncover forces, but also to check whether you really are taking everything into consideration that you should.
Christopher Reichert: What is your definition of success in the success of writing a book? I can see that would be satisfying, but working with clients or just generally?
Yda Bouvier: My definition of success. So there's a couple of different angles to that. I would say I definitely am somebody who likes to experience lots of different things in life. So I like a life where I am a parent and I have time to do my sailing and I can travel and I can enjoy my work and I can cook. And that richness is, for me, very important. So I would say part of that success is just to be able to experience a lot of richness that life has to offer us, including spending a lot of time in beautiful natural environments.
In terms for myself, what has been my personal definition of success for a really long time is that it's always been very important to me to show our daughters that as a parent, and certainly as a woman, which for whom, that tends to be still more of a question than for men, I'm usually generalizing here, but as a parent, to not have to make the trade-off between being an active and engaged parent and having a really rich and interesting professional life. So that is not either or that you can really have both. And that informed a lot of my choices for the past 20 years and still does because I wanted to show that to my daughters. And so that, yeah, if I'm able to first achieve that myself, but also at least role model it for some people, then that would be a big chunk of my definition of success.
Christopher Reichert: That's excellent. And so as a professional woman who's a parent and a partner, have you seen over the course of, say, your 25 years since Sloan, what sort of evolution have you seen in that challenge of integrating those different sides, even in your own career? And do you find that the challenges for women who are just leaving Sloan or graduating college is easier or harder or different?
Yda Bouvier: So it's funny, I don't have a perfect answer to this question partly because it's just coming up in some of the work that we're doing, and I'm wondering about what's has been really changing. On the one hand side, a lot of challenges do still feel very similar. It is still very complex to figure out how you combine a parent life and a professional life, what kind of parent you want to be, what kind of professional, what, none of those questions are easy. And I still see by and large, again, forgive me for the generalization, is that it is much more often for women a difficult choice to combine those two. No, they're constantly worrying if they're doing the right thing. And I see a lot of my male coachees not asking themselves if they should even combine the two things. Yes, they should combine them, maybe not happy with the combination, but it's not like they were stopped working or do I not have kids?
And that question doesn't appear that for women that it's still a more difficult and more complex question so that you might on the one hand side say, oh, nothing has changed. But that is not true. I do think things are changed and there are things that have changed. I do see a lot of my male coachees much more concerned about making the right choices. I see a lot more women wanting to make the combination work and not stepping out of work fully or not accepting that they have to make a choice, really wanting to combine the two. Whereas I think my generation still, there are still a lot of very talented women that more or less stop working completely. And so I do think there's a shift, but it's slow.
Christopher Reichert: So any parting advice for perspective Sloanies?
Yda Bouvier: I think the idea of spending a couple of years in the workplace and then stepping out again and going back to school, I think that I wish everybody was able to do that. I think that experience of learning when you're a little bit older as opposed to teenagers, I think that is really rich and valuable. And I don't know about you, but I still remember the first time I was putting my backpack on again and walking to class after having worked for several years, I was like, wow, I appreciated that freedom in a way that I didn't do before. I think that so that I wish for as many, I already wished it on everybody to enjoy learning at several, maybe even with several stages in your life.
For Sloanies particularly, I mean, we're diehard. I'm a diehard fan. I'm sure you are too. I think Sloan, I don't know how they do it, but they do manage to put groups of people together that can be so like-minded and so, I would always say soak up all the learning that you can, but also really soak up all those friendships and relationships that will also stay with you your whole life.
Christopher Reichert: Well, thank you to Yda Bouvier, Class of 1998 for joining us on this episode of Sloanies Talking with Sloanies. You can learn more about Yda and connect with her on her website, which is www.bouvierltd.com, if you wanted to reach out and thank you very much for joining us.
Yda Bouvier: Thank you. Christopher
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