‘Open' unlocks potential

Monday, January 31, 2022

‘Open' unlocks potential

Carrie Carrasco is Director Solution Architects at Red Hat and an advocate of open cultures within organisational and business structures. We spoke with Carrie ahead of her keynote at the RightBrains Spring Event 2022. Given that the theme of the event is Reinventing Leadership, Carrie has very valuable experience to share as she is a dedicated practitioner of open leadership and is committed to inspiring others to do the same. She spoke with us about the positive business impact of inclusivity, the journey towards open leadership, and future-focused structures.

Welcome is not the same as included

“Why do I like the company where I am now? Because I feel safe and included, they accept me as who I am. I can be myself.” But throughout her diverse career history, this has not always been the case. Born in Spain, Carrie has experienced working in environments where she was excluded “as both a woman and as a foreigner”, and this taught her a lot about the impact of inclusivity on business performance. Multiple times, people have been unwilling to collaborate with her or to take her ideas seriously, until they have witnessed her achieve a complex task or succeed on a difficult project. “Suddenly, everyone was interested to know who I was, and everybody wanted to have me in their group. I felt more included, and that is interesting to me, because I was still the same person as before.” She emphasises that feeling welcome is not the same as being included; to achieve inclusivity, unlearning biases and listening properly to your colleagues and peers is a crucial step.

Inclusivity breeds innovation

Inclusivity is not only key to staff wellbeing but also to business performance. “When someone feels put away, isolated, that is not good for high performance. It is counter-productive for the team. We need to keep this in mind when we work in teams, and also to remember that it’s not only about women and men. It’s also about including and respecting different backgrounds and different beliefs. When people feel respected and safe at work, that’s when you get the very best out of them.”

Carrie knows that creating a culture of inclusivity helps to transform the fear of failure into a culture of trying, and therefore into innovative problem-solving and creative solutions. When people feel comfortable speaking up, they are more likely to feel confident and inspired to share new ideas. “In innovation cultures, we need to create an environment in which we don’t feel the threat of failure. We need to try new ideas, we won’t know if they will be great or not, but through trying we learn what works. And this environment needs to be created by leaders.”

Leading by example

So what kind of leader can create this environment? Carrie practices open leadership every day. “I ask my team to tell me what they need. I say ‘I am here as the manager, so I work for you.’ If they are successful, I am successful. I will do what I can to help them be successful with customers, because if the customer is successful, then we are all successful.” She emphasises how important it is to not just identify as an open leader, but to act as one. “The barrier in many organisations is often that sometimes leadership – senior management – are talking about being open, but people don’t feel it. We need to lead by example. This is not only about talking: people want to see action, to feel action. When I say people at all levels are responsible, what I’m saying is we need to start with ourselves.”

Carrie knows that open leadership doesn’t just happen overnight, but that it is a combination of skills that require practice. “There are five key ingredients: Transparency, Inclusivity/Diversity, Collaboration, Community, and Adaptability. So when we say to practice openness as an open leader, it means to practice those five characteristics, in the way that you think and in the way that you work, on a daily basis. And since leaders can be anywhere, this is expected from all levels within the organisation.”

Everyone is a leader!

Carrie believes that “it doesn’t matter if we talk about senior management, middle management, or individual contributors, everyone can be a leader in their domain.” The traditional, hierarchical idea of the leader comes from a top-down structure that is now out of date. Carrie explains its origins in the Industrial Revolution, when decision-making and strategy-planning were confined to the leader at the top in order to achieve operational efficiency. This motivated people to strive for promotion to management. “But everything – the market, the customers – is changing so fast, the structures we have are too rigid to adapt and to respond quickly now. We should be inspired by open organisations, the ones that are designed to be bottom-up, because this is where there is passion and engagement. Ideas and leaders can come from anywhere within a company, wherever you are within the structure.”

New structures for new times

Some people think of open organisations and assume chaos, but this is far from reality. “Structure is important; "becoming more open as an organisation isn't a simple decision or a binary choice (i.e. we're going to be open/not open). It's a continuum, a sliding scale, that every organisation explores and negotiates on its own as it continues to evolve. Not every organisation needs to be open in every single way; each should adopt the principles and practices that help it meet its objectives and serve its customers. The structures we are building are about how we behave, how we act. It’s not easy, because every person is different. But we take micro steps to get there.” Collaboration is given much more space in open structures than in old, hierarchical ones. Carrie believes that nurturing collaborations is key to the future of business, and that it requires real emotional intelligence. “It is important to have the emotional intelligence to bring people along with your ideas, and to put yourself in their shoes. Emotional intelligence is what helps people work together, and collaborations are key to success in business. If everybody is included, responsible for doing their own task, and is accountable, then it creates a shared dynamic where everyone thinks together about how to solve a problem. This makes sense, because in our projects and initiatives we have one common goal.”

Carrie is clear that this is a journey, and suggests that asking each other for feedback can push us to improve our awareness and our openness.

Allowed to dream

Carrie’s goal for open leadership? “If I can transmit this to everyone, that is a dream. But I think I am allowed to dream! And this is what I want to achieve. As for my goal in the field, my question is how can I create and maintain an environment where people can bring their creativity and their passion to work, every single day? In the end, from my studies in physics, I remember the first law of thermodynamics: energy cannot be created or destroyed; energy can only be transformed. So I ask: if we have negative energy, how can we transform it into positive energy? Because that is what we need. We have these energies in companies, too, that need to be transformed into positive ones.”

Join Carrie and more inspiring speakers about reinventing leadership during our live Spring Event on 14 April!

Carrie recommends The Open Organization, a book by Jim Whitehurst.