Bob Rothman is co-chief operating officer at Gap International, which offers consulting and other services designed for “transforming organizations transforming the world.” I recently spoke with Rothman about Gap’s “Leveraging Genius” concept and conference — what “genius” means, the reason it matters and what companies and leaders can do to better themselves and their teams. This interview has been edited and condensed.
“Genius” is a fairly malleable word. People use it to describe technical feats or ephemeral qualities; it’s varied. Describe a bit about your idea of “genius” and why this particular definition is so important for today’s leaders.
It’s interesting that you start there because we were having a discussion on Monday with the executive team, because the word “genius,” it’s a common word. And people … they get pictures in their heads of who genius are, and they decide if they are one or if they’re not. And mostly, people think they are not.
But we’ve been in business for over 30 years, and we’ve worked with so many executives and entrepreneurs — corporate and small business, medium-sized business, private sector, public sector. If you ask any of these guys or gals the source of their success, the source of their performance, what’s behind their performance, particularly when they are at their best — they don’t have an answer. They cannot answer that question. Their answer is as superficial as it gets.
It might sound something like, “Well, you know, I just grew up in the organization,” or, “I was in the right place at the right time,” or, “You know, I happen to be good at this.” But they don’t really have any level of depth as to why they’re delivering the level of performance that they are.
And also, in our world, when we talk about “genius,” what we’re specifically talking about is people’s best thinking that gives them their best performance. It’s an incredibly difficult thing for these leaders to access. … When we were developing this whole concept around genius, the way that we did it — what, seven, eight years ago — we would invite CEOs and presidents and senior leaders to our offices here in Philadelphia. And we would spend the day with them, and we would engage them in these conversations. And what it took for them to be able to tap into, decode, distinguish the kind of thinking that is really a part of why they’re as successful as they are — it really took something.
I’ll tell you — once they tapped into it, in just about every case, they were blown away, because they had never really thought about themselves in that context. Now, we capture that context and call that context their “genius.” You have a genius, James, I have a genius, we all have a genius when we are delivering exceptional performance, when we’re at our best — our best thinking giving us our best performance. That’s the space of genius that we’re talking about.
And then, the whole notion of leveraging that genius. So, it’s one thing to tap into it, it’s one thing to kind of take the mystery out of the performance that people are delivering … but then the other thing is to leverage it. And there’s two elements that are really exciting here. One is, the ability to distinguish it, and the second is two leverage it. If you believe, if the person believes that there is a specific kind of thinking that allows you to deliver a certain kind of performance, called “great performance” … if you can take this kind of thinking and apply it to other areas, now you’re leveraging it in areas that you aren’t as good at, and all of a sudden, your performance starts to get better in those areas.
Or, leveraging it could mean sharing that thinking with other people, and in a sense, dropping it into the brain of another and leveraging the performance of someone else by sharing your genius, your best thinking with someone else.
When you do these sort of workshops, or conferences, what are the initial objections or challenges that you see most often, that have to be overcome? Are they purposeful ones — people just resisting — or is it trying to get them to explore in a certain way that leads to the breakthrough?
There are two things that come to mind instantly. The first thing is having people accept that they have a genius. Cause they just don’t want to — you know, it’s kind of uncomfortable. If I started talking to you about this and we got into it, you know, “James, your genius.” For most people, it’s just a very hard thing to embrace because of their own processing of the word “genius” and what that typically means to them and how they have pictures in their mind as to what genius is and who geniuses are — and they don’t fit that criteria.
So, there’s that kind of resistance. But then, what’s really fascinating [at our conferences] … when you get into it with people, to really study their best thinking, oftentimes, it’s hard for people to grasp the concepts because it’s so obvious to them. It’s so obvious that they can’t really see it. So, engaging people in being able to decode or articulate their best thinking, it’s not a problem, it’s not difficult.
It would be like this: Imagine the seat that you’re sitting on right now. I assume you’re sitting on a seat.
That seat that you’re sitting on is so obvious, it’s so in the room, it’s so there you did not think about that seat until I brought it up. Kind of like that, unless it’s a really weird seat or it has something wrong with it, or it’s tilting. This is what’s so powerful about this concept is that it takes something so very very obvious and natural — therefore, invisible to leaders — and it exposes a type of thinking that really blows people away.