By: Raymond Cohen  | 

The Executive Series: Dr. Hy Pomerance: “Know Thyself”

About The Executive Series: Through ‘The Executive Series’, The Commentator provides its readership with access to the thoughts and experience of highly accomplished individuals in the business world. The column has a conversational style and expresses the individual journey of each business leader, including their motivations, struggles, successes and failures.The Executive Series also serves as a forum for a broader conversation about leadership in business and in life.


About Dr. Hy Pomerance (Adapted from: High Performance Workforce Summit 2014)

Dr.Hy Pomerance currently serves as Chief Human Resources Officer for QBE North America, an Australia based insurance company that is ranked #734 on Forbes’ Global 2000. Dr. Pomerance has more than 18 years of experience as a human resources executive, holding senior leadership positions at a wide range of public, private, and mutual companies, including Arcadis, Inc, UBS Investment Bank, and New York Life.

Prior to receiving his bachelor’s degree from Yeshiva University, Dr. Pomerance served as a Captain in the Israeli Defense Forces. He also received his Doctorate in Psychology and Masters in Organization Behavior from Yeshiva University’s Einstein College of Medicine.


Raymond Cohen: What was your first leadership role? What did you take with you throughout your career?

Hy Pomerance:  If I'm literal about ‘first leadership role’, I'm the oldest of five children, which meant that there were tacit expectations that I behave differently than my siblings. From an early age I learned to be accountable for others; I also learned a sense of ownership of outcomes, which was key to my own development as a leader. But one of the main skills I picked up as an oldest child - and developed throughout my career - is what is known as  ‘sensemaking’. I grew up observing the outside world before my siblings, I would pay attention to what was going on around us and bring my observations back to my ‘organization’.


Raymond Cohen: Why is sensemaking so important?

Hy Pomerance: ‘Sensemaking’ often involves taking in information that may be contradictory to the way we understand the world at a given point in time. The common mistake of leaders is that they tend to ignore that information -- because its sometimes disruptive. That information could include data which suggests that a pattern is being broken, that the world is changing and that business as usual is not an option. Leaders need to be able to sense even the slightest changes to the business environment in real time, otherwise you have what is known as the ‘boiling frog scenario’: If you take a frog, and throw him into a pot of boiling water, the frog will immediately jump out of the water. But if you take that same frog, put him into lukewarm water and heat it up slowly, the frog won’t jump out - it will die. The reason is because a frog doesnt know how to detect subtle changes in temperature - the frog can detect dramatic change but not subtle change. Detecting subtle change is the first step toward adapting and is one of the most important qualities of a leader.


Raymond Cohen: How did you become interested in human resources and leadership development?

Hy Pomerance: I graduated from Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology with Psy. D. in clinical psychology, and started my own clinical practice in New York City. As I was building my practice, I discovered that many of my patients were very interested in talking about their work lives, not as much what we would think of as their personal lives. I learned about how work life can be very personal and, in many ways, can be more helpful in understanding what's going on with someone and some of their challenges. I became interested in examining clients’ work-lives and their leadership experiences, and  started a practice called Red Oak Consulting, outside of my clinical practice, conducting assessments of executives, and trying to determine what made executives successful, I provided 360 [degree] feedback on executives in their companies.

By interviewing people who worked for them, with them, who they worked for, and sometimes even their spouses, I was able to better understand what they're made of and help them, essentially, be more effective in their jobs. I was able to provide them with insight into, really, what made them tick ... Into their motivations, their values, their derailers, how they behaved under stress.  We ultimately grew Red Oak to a business with an organization of 25 people and literally dozens of multi-national clients.


Raymond Cohen: How were you able to grow the practice to such a large extent?

Hy Pomerance: I'd say I learned a lot about teamwork earlier in my life, mostly through the military, being a member of an Israeli IDF unit at a pretty stressful time in Israel, I got to test the power of a team under real combat situations and learned a lot about how teams work and what it takes to keep a team aligned and focused. In terms of the building the firm, it was like a two-fer. In other words, I used what I learned in the practice to inform the decision making for my business. I learned a tremendous amount about change management, and used that to create a reactive and also a pro-active planning capability that I built into Red Oak, and it was a great experience.


Raymond Cohen: What separates a successful leader from an unsuccessful one?

Hy Pomerance: I think, for me, a leader needs to think big, start small, move fast. You've got to be able to chunk what you're trying to do down to very practical, measurable steps. That's what the business world values, and some people get lost in the big ideas. Other people will like to take baby steps but they don't have the vision, they don't really have a long-range goal. Whether or not a person is comfortable with complexity is what I'd say separates the two. The more comfortable you are with complexity, the more likely you're going to be able to both chunk it but also see the big picture.

If you're anxious, you gravitate to one end of the continuum or the other,  you try too hard to gain control over a situation. There are some for whom control is in the details until they get microscopic. For others, when they're anxious, they can't focus on the details. They actually have sort of big ideas and they're trying to solve the world's problems, they sort of gravitate to grandiosity or big thoughts, or almost philosophical positions. I think that a golden rule for leaders is "know thyself"; self-awareness is, in many ways, the secret sauce to success. The more you know about yourself, the more you know what your triggers are, the more you can be flexible and adapt to change, you have to know what makes you anxious, because if you know it, you can manage it. You can't eliminate it - because that's not possible - but you can manage it.

I can't tell you how many times throughout my career this comes up with some of the most talented CEOs and C-Suite leaders. It boils down to the fact  that they're anxious, and that's what is behind their challenge, or their mistake, or their lack of success in a given moment of time. Self-awareness, to me, is the key to coming back, or preventing yourself from slipping into a ditch.


Raymond Cohen: What, would you say, makes you unique as a leader?

Hy Pomerance: Leadership for me is really about bringing out the best in people. Yeah, it's the traditional ‘you got to set a direction, you've got to have a vision, you have to communicate that very clearly to people’ but that gets old quickly, it doesn't actually get you very far because there are plenty of people who are very good at that. I think of leadership much more in terms of empowerment. That's why I say it's about bringing out the best in people, for instance instead of telling people what to do, teach people what to do. I try to encourage team members to think for themselves. The challenge with that is that it takes a long time. It's a hard approach to take because you have to invest time. It's not a shortcut. It takes a much longer conversation when you say to somebody, "What do you think we should do and why do you think we should do it?". I've always been committed to that approach, so it's second nature now to me. Even today, when I start in a new organization or I have a new person join my team, they're struck by that. It is a little different, it's not as common place, and I usually get a very positive reaction. But I also have to manage the trade-off, which is I might not see the kind of speed-to-action order or result that you might get if I just simply told you how to do it.


Raymond Cohen: Tell me about a time when you failed. What were you able to learn from the experience?

Hy Pomerance: In around 2008, at the onset of the recession, it was clear that my company had a crisis on our hands. My mistake was that I continued to lead with the approach that I normally take. When it come to decision making, I usually make sure to build consensus with my team. But, like I said earlier, that takes time. The mistake was that we moved too slowly and missed some opportunities as a result of the slow move-to-action. I learned a lesson in situational leadership. You have to know how how to adapt your leadership style to the surrounding environment’s demands. In that situation, what would have been right would have been for me to be authoritative-- to tell people what to do. Sometimes telling people what to do is the right thing to do. If the house is on fire - you tell people to get out, you don’t ask them what they think we should do. My mistake was that I didn’t make that adjustment.

There are times when you want to be very authoritative and make quick decisions, other times you want to be on the opposite extreme -- encourage thinking, be open to new ideas and other people’s thinking. And then there are times in the middle - between crisis and a steady state - where you might want to maintain a balance between the two and give your team options but let them work to come to a conclusion.


Raymond Cohen: How do you compare your experience in the Israeli Army to acting as a leader in business?

Hy Pomerance: You have to be prepared in the army. It's about knowing what the game plan is. I compare it to a football game where you have to be prepared to call the play for many different situations. You never know what the other team is going to do. You have a very complex set of plays in your head as a member of a unit for any given situation. There's still a decision-making process, it's never purely one thing or the other. But ultimately, proper execution was about learning to communicate with your team members.

I believe I realized that you should never lose sight of the fact that you're part of a team and that your role is interdependent. I had to understand that my job in the army, not only impacted the person walking next to me, but my job, or our job, also impacted a unit of tanks that were 15 miles away, and a fleet of planes that were 50 miles away, that we were all interdependent. Understanding you're part of a system, that you’re a cog in a wheel. In the military and in organizations alike, That's a success factor for me.


Raymond Cohen: What kind of culture are you trying to cultivate at QBE North America?

Hy Pomerance: I believe strongly in corporate cultures that can walk the talk, and provide sort of an open-minded leadership. At QBE, we’re trying to foster that kind of environment. We call it the "teach, don't tell" culture, where leaders are teaching people to think for themselves at every turn, not just getting through it and moving on, taking time at the end of a staff meeting to ‘debrief lessons learned’ as we say. “What were the lessons learned today? Three things, let's put it up there.” My whiteboard is always filled with the lessons learned from the meeting and I take the three to six minutes to write them up. Everyone's rushing out, we're done, and it's like, "No, we're not done. Now is the most important part of the meeting." They're silly in some ways but when you get into a habit of being consistent that way, it's amazing how impactful it is, how, first of all, people come to expect it and they're almost there before you are. "Okay, lessons learned everybody," and they're doing it before I even ask.


Raymond Cohen: How do you hire, what do you look for, and what do you ask?

Hy Pomerance: First of all, I always hire smart people, I hire authentic people. Meaning people comfortable in their skin. I always hire for the job at hand and the next job. I never just hire for today's job. I always hire for potential. I measure potential by the agility that they have to learn. The extent that I pick up that a candidate is an agile learn, the more interested I am in that candidate.

I ask a lot of question about what they've learned and how they've learned in the past. A lot of my questions test out their evolution as a person, their development. I ask about experiences where they've learned things or where they haven't learned things. I ask for situations where they may have adapted. Tell me about a situation where you made a huge mistake. What happened before, what happened during, what happened after? I'm very curious to hear how they think. I'm testing for learning agility because that is the essence of potential.