“People always look at me funny when I say my PhD is in philosophy.”
A doctorate in logic and philosophy wasn’t exactly a degree with an instruction manual for Barry Cohen, executive vice president of strategy at PTC (formerly Parametric Technology Corporation), a global Internet of Things (IoT) technology provider that helps businesses create, operate, and service products in a variety of industries. “You knew it was training in how to think, but not necessarily what to do,” Cohen says.
Despite that uncertainty, or even perhaps because of it, Cohen has managed to walk a unique path as a man of many roles within the tech world: leadership expert, author, organizational transformation executive, and perhaps even a bit of a philosopher. In fact, a single conversation with Cohen can yield references and quotes from Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Greek philosopher Heraclitus, and American inventor Eli Whitney.
Cohen’s own works include: The Wellness Sourcebook, Ethical Leadership, The Possibilities Economy: New Capital Development, and Leadership Myths and Realities. His original, people-oriented approach also earned Cohen strong praise in Richard Bellingham’s The Manager’s Pocket Guide to Spiritual Leadership. And while this might serve as reason for Cohen to consider himself an authority on the subject of leadership, the notion of authority-based leadership in the workplace is a concept he challenges as no longer relevant in the modern era.
“Authoritarian leadership is going out of style,” he says, citing the modern tech environment. Cohen has watched a transition in what he sees as the role of the leader over the past few decades and believes that new qualities may outweigh the one-man-command leadership of days past. “The ability to influence people is the key to effective leadership now,” Cohen explains. “Leadership with influence means you partner with your colleagues to arrive at the best answer, not necessarily your answer. But that’s only possible if you understand how other people think and feel.”
This people-centric style of management is Cohen’s calling card. He stresses the principle of reciprocity and direct and honest communication with one’s peers. “People only listen to people who listen to them,” he says, emphasizing that listening must be done for the purposes of promoting a trust-based relationship and not just a means to an end. He boils this idea down simply: “Listen first and talk straight.”
Cohen’s leadership in the technology arena emphasizes growth—both personal and organizational. “A system can be open or closed. It’s just the truth that open systems grow and thrive and closed systems sort of die and wither,” he says. The methodology may change and evolve, but growth must be embraced and not feared. He cites George Land’s Grow or Die: The Unifying Principle of Transformation when mentioning one maxim in which he believes strongly: “It doesn’t matter where you were yesterday; what matters is your directionality.”
When asked to distill his thoughts on leadership, Cohen offers five qualities that he feels are essential for a strong leader. Starting with vision, Cohen says that regardless of one’s role, a leader needs to create a vision for their function that motivates others. He also promotes commitment, which he says is the basis by which a person makes a decision. “Will it be good for me? Will it be good for the team? Will it be good for the company?” he asks. Cohen believes it’s necessary for a leader to have a balanced view of these commitments.
But it’s also about having the right attitude. In this context, attitude essentially can be defined as “the belief that you can make a difference,” Cohen says. Self-empowerment is essential, and one must believe that “you can impact your world, not your world impacting you.” When it comes to skills, Cohen sees this as a continuous cycle of identifying, building, and driving. An effective leader has the ability to “identify potential opportunities and threats to the vision and to proactively address them before others see them,” Cohen says. He cites this quality as specifically important in the modern tech setting, where opportunities are fleeting and new threats are constantly evolving. “Probably the most critical skill required for success in today’s tech companies is the ability to identify talent, build an organization, and drive for results as a team,” he says.
And when it comes to maintaining a strong team, culture becomes tremendously important in leadership. Cultivating and maintaining a healthy work culture is “not just about posters.” Cohen believes a successful leader is mindful. “You want to understand your impact as a leader on the culture,” he explains. This can be a difficult growing process but an essential phase, Cohen asserts, as 360-degree feedback means you learn about your blind spots. “One way of telling whether you have a true leader is if they treat the people who report to them as well as they treat their boss,” he says.
Where does Cohen see his own leadership strengths within this framework? “My attitude,” he replies, calmly. “I believe I can make a difference and that I can have an impact.” He believes he is effective in building interdependent teams with a diversity of capabilities and backgrounds. “An aligned team is so much more powerful than a group of independent leaders,” he says.
This shift from authoritarian-oriented leadership to interdependent team-based work is a venture Cohen sees as necessary in a tech industry incurring constant paradigm shifts. Virtual and augmented reality , 3-D, and IoT are propelling PTC’s current direction, but Cohen is cautious to keep looking ahead. “In the midst of proving any new paradigm, you’re usually not seeing the next innovation,” he says. True leadership, he adds, is the embodiment of PTC as they embrace the new, while continuing to look even further ahead.
As one would expect, Cohen is quick to promote the work of others when speaking of his own successes. “I’m committed to helping the people around me get better,” he says. He would prefer to be known as a man capable of helping others reach their full potential. This, however, goes both ways. “I hope that people understand that by trying to help people, people have helped me grow,” he says. “It keeps me young and keeps me strong.”