Navigating narrow-mindedness, reaping the benefits of dissent, and cultivating curiosity: A conversation about leadership with Maura O'Neill
Leadership Development

Navigating narrow-mindedness, reaping the benefits of dissent, and cultivating curiosity: A conversation about leadership with Maura O'Neill

Maura O’Neill, faculty member at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley and former chief innovation officer at the US Agency for International Development, shares her thoughts on narrow-mindedness.
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In this episode of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Laryssa Topolnytsky speaks to Maura O’Neill, a faculty member at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley and the first chief innovation officer at the US Agency for International Development. O’Neill, who does research on new ventures, innovation, and executive leadership, discusses narrow-mindedness: why humans have it and what we can do to mitigate some of its harms. She also shares her top three tips for leaders: be a voracious learner, question the status quo, and embrace diversity and dissent.

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation. 

Laryssa Topolnytsky: Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Hi, I'm Laryssa Topolnytsky, a partner in Heidrick & Struggles Toronto office and a leader in the firm's CEO & Board Practice, where I work with boards and CEOs to optimize their performance. As an organizational psychologist, I've spent my career studying and working with exceptional leaders, and I'm always keen to learn ways to unlock their potential and enhance their impact. Today, I'm excited to be joined by Maura O'Neill to discuss the topic of narrow-mindedness. 

Maura is an award-winning faculty member with the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley and their executive education program. There, she teaches and does research on new ventures, innovation, and executive leadership. Prior to Berkeley, Maura served as a chief of staff in the United States Senate during the 2008 financial crisis. And she was appointed by President Obama to be the first chief innovation officer at the US Agency for International Development, responsible for driving outcomes globally.

Maura has also founded four companies in the fields of electricity efficiency, smart grid, and customer info systems and billings, ecommerce, and digital education. She has a PhD from the University of Washington and two MBAs, one from Columbia University and the other from the University of California, Berkeley. 

Maura, I'm thrilled to be here with you. Thanks for joining us. 

Maura O'Neill: Thank you. I'm excited to be with you and the audience as well. 

Laryssa Topolnytsky: Maura, to kick off this conversation, given the work you and I do with CEOs, I'm curious about how you see CEOs being vulnerable to narrow-mindedness. 

Maura O'Neill: Well, I think that anybody who gets to the position of CEO has to juggle lots of things. But one of the most important things a CEO of a startup company or a globally important company does is make choices on what to focus on. And there’s a lot of pressure that pushes all of us in the direction of narrow-mindedness. For CEOs, if it's a publicly traded company, it's making sure that they're delivering on the expectations of the analysts and the investors. So, there's a short-term focus that's absolutely essential: they have to meet the numbers at the end of the day. Sales on profits drive everything. And so, they just end up—it's like a centrifugal force that is pulling the CEO, even though they want to rise above it and spend more time looking at the big picture—there's this centrifugal force that's pulling them to be narrow minded on the day-to-day deliverables. And lord knows, in this day and age, the world is changing every moment of every day. And so, it doesn't really give them a lot of time to sort of catch their breath. 

Laryssa Topolnytsky: Thanks. To follow up on this, what are your high-level views on narrow-mindedness and how does it apply to C-suite executives and board members?

Maura O'Neill: So, you know, Laryssa, we always think that narrow-mindedness is somebody else. It's the person at the other company or the person on my board that has a different point of view or the person who watches a different TV news station than I do. And I'm here to tell you that we're actually all narrow-minded, and that we shouldn't think of being narrow-minded primarily as a bad thing. We should think about it as a good thing, but there are ways in which it fails. 

Here's some of the history of it. When we pop out of the womb of our mother, we are hard-wired to be narrow-minded. I have to decide immediately, Laryssa, whether you're going to kill me or whether you're going to be a friend. And so that stays with us all our lives. The good news about it is that it allows fast and frugal decision making. It allows us to be able to really make decisions with bits of information that we pattern recognize. It allows operational excellence. We wouldn't have globally important companies if we didn't have repeatable processes. As I say, I don't want the pilot flying me from Seattle to the Bay Area to innovate on the flight. 

Having said that, the flip side of it is that it causes us to be narrow-minded, that fast and frugal, that operationally excellent—and we can make spectacular errors. We can just miss whole changes in the marketplace. Or we sort of kick the can down the street. We think, “Oh, this dragon isn't going to eat our business today. Maybe on the next CEO's time they will, but otherwise, I have a lot of pressure just to deliver.” So I think Silicon Valley and its equivalents wouldn't exist if CEOs were not vulnerable, as all of us are, to narrow-mindedness.

So, what I like to say is, say thank you to the narrow-mindedness that you use because it allows us to do a lot of things very well again and again, but it can result in spectacular errors. And so we've got to learn to overcome it and we've got to teach our bodies and our brains and our organizations to overcome our natural narrow-mindedness.

Laryssa Topolnytsky: My mind is racing from my academic background around all the social biases and the shortcuts, as you said, and the tricks to actually get around them and how to be effective, knowing all this. So, beyond actually now knowing more, as you did, about the roots of this and the benefits and where the traps are, what counsel would you give to CEO's and boards? How do you actually balance those? So specifically, how do you balance the benefits of these things with not getting trapped in them to keep broad [thinking] and benefit from the breadth of thinking? 

Maura O'Neill: I think the first thing is you should have a program to combat your narrow-mindedness, either as a board member or as a CEO, quite deliberately. It doesn't just sort of happen at 11 o'clock at night, five minutes before you're thinking about going to sleep. So, look at your calendar and say, how much of the time am I spending being a voracious learner? Understanding the geopolitical concerns that my company is operating in? Understanding much more deeply the competitive pressures of my customers? Because my customers are going to ask for things or have opportunities for me to provide many more products and services if I understood what their business is and what they were doing. So, at the global level, understand what's happening. At the more specific level, understand what's happening in your customer base and how that's changing. And do it quite deliberately; put time on the calendar, you know, call it study time. I block out a chunk of my morning. I'm not always successful, but I'm successful enough to say that this is super important. You don't run a marathon and then all of a sudden expect to be brilliant in terms of those out-of-the-box ideas. So, I'd say the first thing is to schedule it. The second thing is be a voracious learner. So, learn geopolitical stuff, learn your customers’ demands, learn other fields.

AI is going to really disrupt, as the internet did, so don't leave that to your technologist if you're the CEO or board member. Invite an expert in to coach you and to help you upskill on AI, [or] whatever the other issues are that are coming forward. 

Laryssa Topolnytsky: Thank you. I love those pragmatic tips. On the same theme of pragmatic tips, I'm thinking about our work with directors and who, by design, for best practice, are picking people with diverse backgrounds and skills and interests. And they're all highly intelligent and accomplished. And so, with the assumption that they've come from data, in breadth, to have a point of view, some, with that point of view, might appear or come across as more narrow minded. So my question to you is, in dealing with people who might come out of the gate feeling or chatting in a more narrow-minded way, saying, “I've done the research, I have experience. You can't persuade me.” What counsel would you give people to try to open that aperture to have the discussion that's broader and even to persuade them?

Maura O'Neill: So, let me unpack that, but let me set the context. So, if you want to break your own narrow-mindedness and be like the innovators in business and in society that we admire and that are so iconic, you need to do three things: the first I just talked about, which is become a voracious learner, and study outside your field. I'm a voracious reader of business biographies of all different fields, because I think they have a lot to teach me. The second thing is, question the status quo. We often think, “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” But, as CEOs and boards, actually, that's the most vulnerable time—when we think everything is going well and we don't need to worry about it. So, question the status quo. We can go back to that in a second. There's a third one, an issue you brought up, which is to embrace diversity and dissent. And in this case, I actually mean the emphasis on dissent.

So, it turns out that that board member who has a different point of view and may be driving you crazy, should, in fact, be your friend. Because what we find is that, if one person in a group has a different point of view—dissents—even if they’re wrong, the group decision is better and more nuanced. And here's the kicker: you can't play devil's advocate. You can't sort of say, “I'll pretend I have that point of view.” That’s why it’s such a powerful best practice of boards to actually have a diverse group. So, if you have somebody like that, whom you're struggling to understand, if you think they're narrow minded, first ask yourself, “In what ways am I narrow minded?”

But the second thing is, ask them to give you a couple books they think you should read. Not the bestseller books but books or articles that they think would help you understand their best experience. Spend time with them. Go to lunch. Go to dinner, one on one, and really understand. Because the fact of the matter is, they have so much to teach us that we don't know. I remember when I went into a presidential administration, I went into the Department of Agriculture. And I said, “I don't know anything about agriculture. Why are you thinking that I should go in at the top level?” And they said, “We have 100,000 people that know about agriculture. There are not many people who know what you know.” And, you know, in four months, I completely redid the biofuel strategy for the country across all the federal government. 

You want people to think differently because they will help you with your blind spot. And we all have blind spots. And also, look at the business and see where there are opportunities. I think it's very interesting to watch how some of the iconic innovators have done it. Everybody looks at Amazon: it wasn't obvious, for a company selling books or mops, to become a cloud business with AWS. And yet what they saw was, “We had this huge need. I'm sure other people have this huge need. And so how do we offer this? How do we make this a profit center rather than just a cost center on our balance sheet?” So that's one way directors and boards can look at the hidden opportunities. Because of their scale, because of how they operate in their supply chain, what other value-added products and services could they provide? 

Somebody who thinks differently than you is going to be the best person to think about how you approach a different product or how you offer a service that you haven't purposely offered. So, I say, rather than roll your eyes when that person opens their mouth or enters the room, do just the opposite. Say, “They have something to teach me, and I'm here to learn.”

Laryssa Topolnytsky: And with that, I like the expression, be curious. Help me understand why you feel that way. Learn a lot and be open, have an open aperture. 

Maura O'Neill: Exactly, exactly. I mean, I was in a meeting last week. Somebody said, “I think that scale and impact are two different ends of the spectrum.” And I thought, “Well, how can you have impact if you don't scale?” But rather than think to myself, “Oh, you're an idiot” or “you're not going to pull this off,” I did that exact same. I said, “Unpack that for me. Why do you think that impact and scaling are two ends of the spectrum?” So I think you're absolutely right. Ask more questions, dig deeper, and you'll find that you'll learn something that is absolutely essential to your decision making. 

We all like to get along with each other. And we often, particularly in boards, it becomes the norm to sort of go along to get along. And we've, of course, seen some spectacular errors in board governance when that's happened. But the issue is, how do you [get along without those errors?] I'll give you an example of one of the President of the United States’ chiefs of staff. He always started the meeting not by asking, “Where do we agree?” He started the meeting by asking, “Where do we disagree?” So that we could really understand that, rather than we talk about the comfortable things. When we talk about what we agree on, in the last five minutes, somebody gets up the courage or finally says, “I disagree.” And then we've wasted all this time just sort of being buddies on this issue. So, I think that's a practical tip: when you have really tough issues, can you open with where the points of disagreement are rather than the points of consensus?

Laryssa Topolnytsky: Maura, I'm doing a mental tally of all of these wonderful practical tips that you've shared and the color around them. As we wrap up this podcast, I would love for you to do the speed round, if you will—whether it's your top three practical tips, or if you even have five? I will keep you to it, just to summarize for us the pragmatic tips you have for our audience. 

Maura O'Neill: The pragmatic tips are, first, be a voracious learner. That is, ask questions, but most importantly seek out information that is beyond your business, beyond the topics that you're dealing with today and most certainly the topics that potentially, like AI at the moment, could have the biggest impact on your business. So, be a voracious learner. 

Question the status quo. Andy Grove, who was an iconic CEO of Intel, once said, “Only the paranoid survive.” And he said, “If you don't cannibalize your margins, somebody else will.” So, rather than celebrate these amazing margins, think about how you can continue to disrupt your own business before somebody else disrupts it. So that's question the status quo. 

And then the third one is, embrace diversity and dissent. Really have that as a norm of your board meetings, of your C-suite, of the corporation. That doesn't have to be nasty. We don't have to tear each other's eyes out. We don't have to be mean. We can be kind in it, but we can create a culture where different points of view and even dissent are valued. And I can assure you, you're going to have a more profitable, happier, and more trusting corporate environment in which to thrive. 

Laryssa Topolnytsky: Thank you, Maura, for your wisdom and your pragmatic tips. I personally could spend all afternoon speaking with you, but I know neither of us have that time and certainly our audience doesn't. So, thank you for making this meaningful and insightful. 

Maura O'Neill: Thank you. And I think the job of the CEOs and board members and people who are aspiring have awesomely challenging jobs. So I hope that I've added a little wisdom and made it a little easier today with some of these tips. Thank you so much.

Thanks for listening to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

About the interviewer

Laryssa Topolnytsky, PhD ( is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Toronto and Montreal offices and a leader in the firm’s CEO & Board Practice.

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