Tamika Abaka-Wood shares B+A's vision to evolve a new kind of leader, with a new approach to strategy
Psychologist and anthropologist Tamika Abaka-Wood helps businesses create a bold vision for the future. With clients ranging from Nike and Lego to the FT, she talks to Lysanne Currie about unblocking strategy stagnation and the new secret for leadership success
Tamika Abaka-Wood is talking, via Zoom, from the kitchen of her Brooklyn brownstone. The interview coincides with day one of Davos, where this year’s theme is “Co-operation in a Fragmented World”, an idea Abaka-Wood and the co-founders of her strategic consultancy B+A have pushed since its launch a decade ago.
“The business world has been used to a dictatorial paternalistic leadership style,” says Abaka-Wood. “It’s almost cult-like, but now we need to move away from the singular siloed leader into an ecosystem of leadership. Over the past 50 years a lot of successful businesses have been led by extroverts, but now we’re seeing the emergence of many different types of leadership. The key is to have a collective mindset and a shared goal. To make groundbreaking decisions, it’s important that no leader exists in a silo.”
B+A is all about “groundbreaking decisions”. Since its formation it has worked with some world-leading businesses to help their leaders “imagine and design the future”. Its roster is impressive – clients include Lego, Nike, Spotify, Samsung, Electronic Arts and the Financial Times – and approach bold: “We immerse them in real-life human insights, imagine the limits of possibility and find effective ways to take action,” says Abaka-Wood. B+A believes “strategy has become stagnant. It’s stuck reacting to the everyday and it’s missing an ingredient – imagination. Today, humanity needs to imagine entirely new futures – and urgently. You can’t create better futures unless you really stretch the boundaries of what you believe is possible. You need ‘tension’.”
Tension has been an element of Abaka-Wood’s life since childhood. “I’ve always felt I sit at an intersection, not quite one thing or the other,” she says. Growing up in Dagenham, Abaka-Wood’s home culture was a blend of Ghanaian and British. “My mum is white British, my dad’s black. I grew up in a poor area of London but went to school in an upper-middle-class environment. My life has always been about embracing seemingly contradictory cultures or behaviours, about identifying the tensions and then seeing how they could be understood and used at their most potent.”
Abaka-Wood has a BSc in psychology from Brunel University. Her dissertation on glossolalia (the phenomenon of people speaking in tongues) was published in the Brain Sciences journal. Her research meant deep digging at the British Library and a summer of quantitative data-gathering. “That summer I realised my passion for anthropology – I was fascinated by people: who they are, why they think the way they do, the cultural and sociological factors that have an impact.”
Abaka-Wood began her anthropological career at youth consultancy Ruby Pseudo. While working on a project with the Nike Foundation she met B+A co-founder Ben Gallagher, then Insight and Strategy Director at the Nike Foundation. “I lived between Ethiopia, Rwanda and Nigeria for this project, which was about using the power of youth culture to create meaningful change in the lives of girls who lived on under a dollar a day. We talked to teenage girls about heavy topics – childhood marriage, rape, child mortality, FGM – and normal teenage stuff, such as sex, boys, relationships, sneaking out of their house and changing into mini-skirts.”
One particular story made a big impact on her: “I was working with these 12 girls in a dance workshop. One day, mid-session, they came to me and said: ‘There’s one thing that you can do that is really practical: bring the water holes closer to our villages, because we’re travelling three and a half hours daily to fetch clean water.’ It made so much sense but there was something that didn’t sit right. I couldn’t put my finger on it but there was no tension, no spark.
“I could have gone and said to Nike: ‘Bring the water wells closer.’ The C-suite would have said: ‘Of course, what do we need to make that happen?’ But something niggled at me so I went to fetch water with this girl, Salamat, and her friends. We set off at 4am – I was terrible, very slow, worried I was holding them back. It was pitch black and there were animals all over the shop.
“On the way I watched how she and her friends interacted: their teamwork and connections were beautiful. As the sun rose we made our way back, and as we reached the village Salamat said: ‘Forget everything we said about the water holes.’ I remember thinking, ‘Finally!’
“She continued: ‘This is the only time I get to be a 15-year-old girl, I don’t get any other time to speak to my friends about boys, Facebook, what we’re listening to on the radio and stuff. I don’t get time to be 15 without my parents watching me, without having to look after my brothers and sisters, without community leaders snooping in and running back to tell this person, that person. This is the only time we really get to be teenage girls, and it’s sacred.’ Over 12 years I have carried that story with me in any project.”
It takes time, she says, to dig down to discover real feelings – not just what people think they should feel. “People say things that are one thing – and there’s often a kernel of truth in them,” continues Abaka-Wood. “But then we come in, the outsider asking the simple but potent question. You get an insight that is so powerful, you can’t unsee it, you can’t unhear it, you can’t unthink it. My water collection trip taught me an important lesson – you need to work through a conversation and make sure the heart has equal priority with the head.”
This marriage of heart and head is core to her work. “This is where the magic of B+A’s ethnographic research comes in,” Abaka-Wood explains. “With any strategy work, before you think about the direction that you’re going in, before you put everything in neat boxes, you need to ask one question: ‘What is that overarching insight that is undeniable?’ Often that gets pushed down in priority because we’re caught in cyclical short-term tactical thinking. We behave like that because it’s the way we survive. Leaders are often so caught up thinking about the next quarter or their own career progression, they don’t have the space to do the bigger thinking.”
The short term has, of course, come to the fore in recent crisis-riddled times. Abaka-Wood says it is now essential to cultivate the skill to think long term while moving tactically in the short term. “It’s so crucial to be visionary – leaders have to think beyond the practicalities,” she says. “Otherwise, we’re just going to keep creating and recreating the same stuff over and over again, but in different guises. Our job at B+A is to create the space to be imaginative and visionary, then tie that back to the practicalities and realities of the world day to day.”
Abaka-Wood is passionate about B+A’s vision of helping to evolve a new kind of leader with a new approach to strategy. “The leaders we work with are ambitious. They know a new future is needed – we help them remove any blocks so they can be bold, imaginative, and able to make the groundbreaking decisions needed to create better futures for everyone. One thing we have noticed that leaders who can do groundbreaking work have in common – they know themselves,” says Abaka-Wood. “They know themselves outside of their title, their department and their career. They know what fuels them and what their pitfalls are. So many people skip that stage – they try to perform what they think leadership should look like, but that’s not real.
“The bold leaders we work with are centred and they know their teams inherently. They can have both a bird’s eye view, but can also drill down and, with an enterprise mindset, observe the constellation of leaders they work with and make any small changes needed. We help by proactively creating spaces and moments to be able to get out of the short-term cycle. When we create that sacred space, people get clarity.”
Abaka-Wood says she often discovers internal stagnation in teams, cycles that are hard to break and which hold the business back from forging long-term vision. She recalls one client: “We were working on their vision for 2030 but there was a stagnation which we needed to diagnose and unblock.” Over the first few days she saw everyone was talking about a main competitor. “I don’t even think they realised it was happening,” she says. “I alerted them and asked them to clock how many times they mentioned that competitor in the next couple of hours. It was fascinating.” She then made the following session all about the competitor – why they referenced it, what it meant to their market, what assumptions they made. In concentrating so hard on the competitor the company had lost sight of what they were about and the huge number of other opportunities open to them.
“People forget the big picture when they’re so deeply in it – which is why it’s often important for an outsider to come in to just reset your fire. Once it’s reset, it’s a powerful force. And that’s just amazing to see.”
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