Growing up, Kate Liburdi viewed businesses as machines that rewarded smart, capable people who kept their heads down.
“Above all, business is business, not personal. If you do a good job, you win,” said Liburdi, EMBA ’15, COO and co-founder at Conversifi, a company that matches foreign language learners with native speakers.
But a few years into her career, Liburdi said she noticed the way some people would step on others to get ahead.
During a professional workshop, Liburdi took a Myers-Briggs personality test and learned there were more than a dozen “right ways” to be successful. There was no single route for professional advancement and fulfillment, nor did it involve using others as a doormat. The realization helped Liburdi understand that businesses — even huge global ones — aren’t machines, but “collections of individuals,” she said.
We asked Liburdi how she’s applying that understanding to help her employees thrive individually and use constructive conflict to spark ideas.
Who inspires you?
People who take risks, people who stand up for things they believe in, even when they’re not popular. I’ve always been a fan of the outsider. There are so many opportunities for us to build each other up and yet we so often disappoint.
Where do you get ideas?
From other people. I can get really creative about adapting an idea and finding a way to make it work, but the kernel usually starts with someone whose thinking is less linear than mine.
How are new ideas discovered and developed in your organization?
I’m a big fan of the brainstorm, but it only works if you’ve got a really diverse group of people who will spark ideas in each other — diverse in terms of demographics, but also in terms of the way they think and their professional and personal backgrounds. The best ideas come out of the greatest conflict, and I always get a thrill out of it when someone throws out a really crazy impractical idea, but then others build on it and adapt it and turn it into something brilliant.
How do you keep track of new ideas?
When I work with innovation teams, I build a process around idea management: how to capture them, prioritize and track their evolution through a structured development, then identify and retire the discarded ideas. But when I’m working on a personal level, I don’t track ideas at all. I try to pass them off to abler hands or build them out myself right away before I lose them.
Who do you share new ideas with?
I’m lucky to be surrounded by a lot of really innovative people in my work and personal life. I like nothing more than a late-night drink with friends hashing out an interesting idea!
How do you test ideas?
Some people are painstaking planners who create complex designs in a vacuum then implement them slowly behind closed doors. I’m the opposite. I moved my software team to agile two decades ago when that was still a radical move. I just instantly loved the idea that you would design the test before writing a word of code. Good code is code that passes good tests.
The same is true for me in any kind of innovation. I’m a big believer in little tests where we can try out all the assumptions without investing a lot of time or money: Maybe we spend $50 trying out a concept in a Facebook ad, focus-grouping a new service, taking reservations for competing options, or building a quick prototype for a test group. Then we learn fast, adjust, and try again.
When do you know it is time to abandon an idea?
This is going to sound a little crazy but I always picture ideas as fruit. If you pluck them when they’re green, they’re tart and unappealing and it’s hard to get excited about them. You might wind up collecting too many of them. If you pluck them too late, they’re overripe and overworked.
But there’s this optimal point where a go/no-go decision is easy. The thing is, they all develop at different rates, so it’s on you to notice when they’re peaking.
What was your worst idea?
Oh my god, so many! But I don’t have any regrets. As long as you learn from every mistake, they’re all net gains in the end.
How do you know an idea is a good one?
I know from the way other people are reacting. When there’s a community that’s excited about an idea, it’s a good one.
What's the biggest idea you are working on right now?
We’ve become so isolated. Part of this is the pandemic of course, but I think it started earlier than that. Maybe it was our gradual migration to staring at a screen more often than at people. Maybe it’s the divisive politics that seems to suck us all in these days. Maybe it’s realizing how truly dehumanizing some groups of people can be toward others.
I feel like connection is suddenly an imperative, our best hope for change. The big idea I’m working on right now is connecting people globally to practice language and learn about each other's culture through authentic conversation. And how that helps us see each other as individuals.
At MIT Sloan, we talk about ideas made to matter — ideas that are carefully developed and have meaningful impact in the world. In that context — what is your idea made to matter?
Once I was having trouble with an unproductive team of engineers in India and complained to a mentor of mine (John Manzo). I was sure that I had an incompetent team. He reminded me that I’d been a teacher just after college and asked me what I’d have done if I had a class that was universally failing. I told him that was different, I’d be working with them as individuals and looking for the way to motivate and inspire each of them personally, using their interests, strengths and weaknesses. “Then why aren’t you doing that with your engineers?” he asked. And he was right. Within six months, I knew them all personally, their educational backgrounds, what work they liked. We hung out socially when I was in India and I shuffled their responsibilities to put individuals on the type of work they were most suited to and most enjoyed. No surprise, the team thrived.
Turns out, that trick works everywhere. If people aren’t doing work where they can succeed and don’t feel valued, they underperform. Move them to the right task in an encouraging environment and they’re renewed. We all need a little appreciation to blossom.