28 May 2019

Leading Questions

A startup looks for the keys to professional growth in your personal story
by April White


Photos by Micha Loubaton

Just a decade ago, executive assessment was something CEOs whispered about. There was a real reluctance among business leaders to admit when they didn’t have all the answers.

That’s finally changing, says Shirley Schlatka (MBA 2005), co-CEO of Synthesis, a leadership assessment and development company. She’s seen a new generation of leaders who have grown up in a culture comfortable with personal therapy turn the C-suite stigma into a strength. “Getting help for the things you are less good at is not admitting failure,” she says. “That’s being successful.”

The assessment trend is also driven by companies that are eager for what Schlatka calls “people data.” Businesses that have long relied on customer numbers and financial reports to make important decisions have recognized that they lack actionable insights into one of their most valuable resources: their leaders and employees. Today, the personal coaching industry is a $1 billion business in the United States, up more than 40 percent since 2011.

Schlatka, who has worked part-time as an executive coach at HBS for the last 15 years, and her cofounder, Inbal Arieli, a former lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) where she trained intelligence officers, saw space for a midsized solution in the expanding and unregulated sector. There were the inexpensive multiple-choice tests, which slotted employees into predetermined personality profiles, and there were the expensive teams of consultants who did extensive and time-consuming one-on-one interviews. Synthesis, launched in 2017, aims for a middle ground: a focused but customized evaluation. “We ask ourselves what are the things you need to know right now that would create the most leverage for you,” says Schlatka, “whether it’s for an individual leader, a team, or a company.”

To find these answers, Synthesis asks open-ended essay questions and applies narrative psychology in its assessments. “There are no trick questions, no multiple choice,” Schlatka promises. Participants are asked to write about their life and experiences, among other things. (The actual questions are proprietary.) “In writing,” Schlatka explains, “people don’t feel the need to tailor their story for the interviewer, and they express more than they realize through the themes they choose to focus on, their word choice, and their sentence structure.” Synthesis borrowed the use of narrative psychology from the IDF, which uses it to understand team dynamics and improve unit cohesion. If a company chooses Synthesis’ premium products, the results are analyzed by a team of psychologists, which includes former members of the IDF; its standard products also employ natural language processing for analysis.

Arieli (left) and Schlatka (right) cofounded Synthesis to offer a mid-range solution for the growing executive assessment industry

The key, Schlatka says, is not to stop with the evaluation. Indeed, the company’s name came from a lesson she learned from Professor Boris Groysberg in an HBS classroom: “The most important leadership skills in the future aren’t going to be analytical or diagnostic skills. The thing that will make the most difference is the skill of synthesis.” That is, being able to consider the information at hand and turn it into action.

For instance, the Synthesis process might find that a CEO who is frustrated that her leadership team is not taking charge has been the sole decision maker and naturally continues to fill that role in the company. That insight is interesting, but it’s not useful unless the CEO also has a plan to empower her team. Synthesis uses Agile Action Planning—a trademark of the fast-paced world of software development—to help the CEO create a 90-day plan to achieve a tangible goal, such as having 50 percent of all critical decisions in the company made by the leadership team. It’s a process of experimentation; planning will change with feedback. “It’s not about failing or succeeding. It’s about learning quickly,” Schlatka says.

“The most important leadership skills in the future aren’t going to be analytical or diagnostic skills. The thing that will make the most difference is the skill of synthesis.”

“The most important leadership skills in the future aren’t going to be analytical or diagnostic skills. The thing that will make the most difference is the skill of synthesis.”

In just two years, Tel Aviv and Boston–based Synthesis has grown to more than 20 employees and has worked with dozens of companies, primarily in North America and Europe. Although the team expected their clients would be mainly tech companies, which are typically hungry for data and eager for experimentation, they have drawn interest from a diverse array of businesses, from consumer products companies and health care businesses to nonprofits.

The companies that seek out this type of intensive leadership assessment and development are often going through significant change—rapid growth, a merger, entry into a new market. “It’s not an easy process,” Schlatka says. She uses Israeli slang to describe the company’s approach: tachles. (It sounds a bit like the word “tactless,” and it means “give it to me straight.”) “We tend to be really explicit with the companies we work with. There is going to be some discomfort,” she says. “The leaders and companies willing to embrace that do so because they believe that if they understand their people, they can get the most value out of their people, and that’s the way to get real growth.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2005, Section E

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