Where Left And Right Brain Meet

The Top 3 Aspects Of Professional Development Applied To Both Process And People

Theories of what makes us successful professionally fill entire sections at bookstores (the few bookstores that are left, at least). Many stake out a position about left-brain analysis, or right-brain intuitiveness. As we gain experience, we learn that it’s the intersection of the two approaches that allows us to succeed. We learn that earlier on in our careers, if we’ve exposed ourselves to the right ideas.

Mike Ohata, the partner-in-charge of KPMG LLP’s Business School for the firm’s Advisory Practice, is responsible for providing professional growth opportunities for 11,000 professionals across the U.S. His early work life and multiple graduate degrees have provided him the perspective and depth of knowledge to help guide the development of leaders across varied practice groups and with diverse personal backgrounds. He is described by his colleagues as someone who thinks both conceptually and concretely, with the right mix of possibility and pragmatism. I spoke with him recently about what makes a good leader and how he fosters leadership development at KPMG.

Jay Sullivan: Early in your career, you taught and developed the curriculum for schools in both Hawaii and Indonesia. What did you take away from those experiences that helps you in your current role?

Mike Ohata: I discovered that we can all be better teachers if we are better learners. I was new to teaching, so to help my students, I had to ask lots of questions. I am a naturally inquisitive person. I love learning new things, how folks do their jobs, what kinds of technical or specialized knowledge they need. The added benefit of constantly learning is that you start to see connections between seemingly diverse ideas.

Sullivan: In addition to your undergrad degree, you have two Master’s degrees – Applied Linguistics and Education. How does that training help you, and what exactly is Applied Linguistics?

Ohata: Applied Linguistics is the study of how we learn a language, how it shapes our thinking, how we experience communication. Much of our early learning happens not through language but through watching and repeating, and there is still a role for that throughout our lives. However, in a professional context, most learning takes place through language – what we read, what we listen to, what conversations we participate in. Therefore, understanding how we learn to communicate was very helpful not just when I created curriculums for schools, but as I spent 11 years at a tech consultant. “Tech-speak” could be viewed as its own language. Understanding how others might hear my comments and guidance heightened my consciousness around how I needed to translate my content.

Sullivan: You sound like you’re on a constant learning journey.

Ohata: At KPMG, one of our mantras is that we must all be “students of our clients” and “students of the firm.” By that we mean we have to go beyond just listening to the client and each other. We have to adopt a true learning culture, where we dig deeper to understand the issues our clients are facing, and then truly study our own organization to understand trends in our business and opportunities to be of service. That’s why we’re investing so heavily in learning right now—why we’re building a world-class learning, development and innovation facility in Lake Nona, FL called KPMG Lakehouse, and expanding our library of digital learning resources available year-round. We’re continuing to drive a culture of energized, engaged, continuous learning.

Sullivan: All very theoretical, but your colleagues have described you as ultimately very pragmatic. Where does that come into play?

Ohata: In leadership development, we are at the crossroads of processes and people. Consulting can be a heavily process-driven business, which requires structure and attention to detail. Our biggest asset is our talent, which requires nuance and flexibility.

Whenever we look at training, on leadership or anything else, I always start by asking, “What does this mean for our folks?” and “What does it mean for the firm?” The impact isn’t in the knowledge they gain—it’s in how they are able to put that knowledge to work. I look at it from a practical perspective: How many hours will this take them away from their client work? How quickly can they apply the skills on the job? How does it align with their other formal and informal learning? Would the objectives of the training be better met through something other than the proposed approach?

Sullivan: I’m hearing questions, not directives.

Ohata: There’s absolutely a place for direction—people are hungry for guidance. But that guidance is much more effective if it’s grounded in an understanding of what they need and what they want.

Sullivan: In other words, you need to listen.

Ohata: Exactly. You have to create a learning culture, where growing toward the next role is part of the plan. If you’re having honest conversations with your people about their growth paths, and you’re focused on helping them get to the next level of their career, they’re all ears regarding what they can be doing better.

Sullivan: What are the most important factors business leaders should promote to develop strong leaders in their organizations?

Ohata: First, hone your inquisitive instincts. Expose yourself to broader ideas. Set aside time to read, or to watch something on television that challenges you to think differently. I watch science shows and documentaries, sometimes on stuff that’s outside of my typical interests. You never know where the next new idea will hit you, so you have to look in lots of places.

Preparing leaders to deal with change and disruption requires innovative thinking, and you innovate more effectively when you are always exposing yourself to new ideas. Being inquisitive leads to a broad perspective, fosters detailed understanding and creates balance, helping you to prioritize how you integrate ideas and processes.

Second, leaders need to integrate lots of diverse material and issues. Some people think that leadership is about charting a path, but charting a path is the outcome, not the talent. The talent is to be able to pay attention to lots of moving parts at the same time and see possible connections. We help our leaders hone their ability to bring things together and articulate key ideas. This means focusing on their communication skills – both listening and speaking.

Third, leaders need to show their teams consistency with regard to values, principles and integrity. Someone on your team may disagree with you, but they should always have a sense of how you arrived at your conclusion. That sense of consistency gives people comfort and a sense of stability. If you don’t create that sense of security for your team, you’ll undermine all the good stuff that happens with the first two talents.

Sullivan: So, stay inquisitive, look for connections to apply your ideas and act in a consistent manner toward your team. Sounds like great advice. Thanks for your time.

Originally published on Forbes.com.


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