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PODCAST: A year like no other

By: Dean Dorton | December 30, 2020

Host Justin Hubbard and special guest Tollie Miller, an organization development consultant, explore what 2020, the year like no other, has meant to leaders around the globe. Tollie uncovers the positive changes the world of corporate leadership has seen in 2020 and how companies can get serious about leadership development.

COVID-19 | COVID-19 Business | Unhinged Podcast

Episode 14

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Transcription

Justin Hubbard:
Welcome back to Unhinged. This is Justin, your host. Today, I’m very excited to have Tollie Miller on the podcast. Tollie is an organization development consultant. We explore what 2020, the year like no other, has meant to leaders around the globe. Tollie talks about what psychological safety looks like, how this year has expedited many positive changes in the world of corporate leadership, and how companies can get serious about leadership development. Tune in to hear Tollie’s message to leadership across America.

Tollie, welcome to the show.

Tollie Miller:
Thanks Justin. It’s great to see you.

Justin:
You are a student of leadership, like none I’ve ever been around. So Tollie, 2020 has been a year like no other. From your perspective, as a student of leadership in the workplace, what are you seeing?

Tollie:
Justin, with the move to so many people working from home, I’m seeing literally the inside of leaders’ homes, because people are—and leaders are—speaking from their homes. And it’s an interesting shift from a formal setting of a corporate office in boardroom. And it seems as if this more informal setting has really provided a unique opportunity to build a more personal connection between leaders and employees. When you see someone’s dog in the background or you hear their children, there’s a connection that you have that just becomes more authentic. And I think it in a good way has really enhanced engagement between leaders and employees.

Justin:
I’ve never made my bed so much in my life as I have in 2020. So what are you seeing? I mean, from a leadership standpoint, specific ways that the more successful leaders are really standing out as this thing progresses.

Tollie:
I have really been inspired by what I’ve seen. This seems to be the year that many leaders have gotten real. They’re talking about their own challenges. They’re describing how they’re feeling their way through the pandemic. And they discuss feelings of being overwhelmed at times. And they’re revealing a real human side and I think this helps build trust and having real conversations, whether it’s about performance and development or the business in general. That realness, that authenticity allows conversations to be more about the good, the bad, the ugly, as they say.

What I’ve seen, Justin, with so many, for example, daycares closing and schools being virtual, there’s been strong support from leaders to provide flexibility, for example, to parents who have children at home, where people have the benefit of working from home. And I realize not everyone has the benefit of working from home. I’ve seen leaders encourage employees to determine the schedules that work from them. So if they need to work from 6:00 to 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 to 8:00 p.m., so be it. And that’s quite a shift and to me really providing support in an unprecedented year.

Justin:
Yeah. That’s very encouraging. I think you started off by saying that you’re inspired by what you’re seeing. I mean, I hate to use something that’s overplayed, but that which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. And that’s a very, very insensitive thing to say, given what we’re dealing with, but it does seem like there’s going to just be a number of bright spots, a number of social organizational improvements that maybe we wouldn’t have gotten there. Maybe we wouldn’t have gotten to the flexible work schedule or the mobile work schedule, if you will, work arrangements, but this is definitely sped that along.

What fascinates me is there’s all these different trends in leadership. You’ve got the GM approach, the big government, the corporate man, the yada yada yada. Now you’ve got like this, okay, leader almost by pod, this agile mindset, this going from the company first, everybody must be the company man, to this more sensitive leadership mantra. Can you comment on maybe just some shifts that were happening pre-COVID and then maybe how those shifts changed or developed or undeveloped because of COVID?

Tollie:
I would start, Justin, first with great leaders always. And for that matter, employees—great employees are always the ones who can assess and adapt their behavior to meet the current situation, looking at employees’ needs, business needs, environmental challenges and opportunities. So they’re never the ones that pick up a trick or two from the latest fad book, as you were referencing and attempt to implement it, whether it fits them or not. What I’ve seen over the years, however shifting is that there’s more of a focus on the needs of employees and the employee experience, especially with the increased battle for talent. I think the tide has really shifted from the days when we said, “Hey, if you want this job, here’s what we’ll offer you,” to, “what is it that you need to flourish here?”

And that’s quite a shift. The ball, if you will, is in the court of the candidate of the employee today, I believe. And I think great leaders and leadership development cultures realize this and have focused on getting to know their people in more individual ways, not assuming that everybody’s the same, wanting to understand what it takes, again, for people to do well in their own career. And I’ve really observed this human connection picking up during the pandemic for sure.

Justin:
That’s so fascinating because it’s been my experience that so much of leadership training is based upon that trainer’s experience. And so it’s basically I’m the model, or here is the model behavior you are to perform. And maybe it’s based upon on good data. Maybe it’s based upon dumb luck. Who’s to say? But that’s definitely a pivot from what are your natural skills, what are your needs, and how can we push you in a team environment to move this organization forward? I think, you can talk about that and you’re like, “Yeah, okay, whatever. That’s clever,” but when you’re really dealing with people and having these conversations, and you realize your experience may not have any relevance into this current situation or what the organization is going to be.

Tollie:
And that’s the critical shift, right? Being able to assess a current situation and adapt to it.

Justin:
And swallow your pride.

Tollie:
And swallow your pride. There’s that too.

Justin:
It’s funny. I don’t know that our culture embraces the humble leader as much as it needs the humble leader. I think we still want some bravado.

Tollie:
Leaders have to be decisive, especially in times of crisis, uncertainty. We look to our leaders for clarity and direction and hope. You need that and you need decisive people that comes with both. I’ve seen it in both very humble people and I’ve seen it with people who are quite confident. I think it’s that clarity of vision and decisiveness that is the connector, that is the common trait that you see in those that we all want to follow.

Justin:
Yeah. So we have a vaccine now, maybe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. We still don’t know how long the tunnel is, but we hope there’s a light out there somewhere. After COVID, when restaurants are back open, schools are back open, what’s your crystal ball tell you about the shifts and the leadership paradigm?

Tollie:
Well, I think the most obvious and likely is on the workforce of having more flexibility. There’s going to be an increase in people working from home. There certainly will be a demand for it. I don’t think it’s going to be an extreme shift where everyone is working from home, like we’ve been doing, because I think there is still a recognition that being in-person and having social connections and building trust in-person, face-to-face, whether you’re onboarding a new hire or you’re having cross-functional planning sessions is critical, but I think there will be more of a hybrid where there is greater flexibility.

I also think, Justin, mental health will be table stakes. I think that we’ve seen over this last nine months how people respond to change, how people are dealing with the pandemic. I think that is something that employers, leaders are taking already, are taking with a much greater seriousness.

Justin:
Can you flush that out a little bit? Can you give me an example of how a leader is taking mental health more seriously?

Tollie:
Leaders are having more informal conversations with employees. They’re checking in with them. They’re seeing how they’re doing. They’re asking about family and children’s schooling. So they’re truly thinking about and concerned about all of the pressures that people are under right now. There are so many of us that have ill family members and some, aside from COVID, there are people that are dealing with children in the home that you’re trying to manage work and oversee their schooling. There is a lot of uncertainty when this is all going to end.

And so how that affects our mental health is really important. And leaders and organizations have taken to that. And so I’m seeing, for example, more focus on mindfulness. You are hearing about meditation and while that’s been out there for a while, and many leaders use that as part of their daily activity, I’ve certainly seen and read about many more organizations this year that have implemented mindfulness apps as part of their benefit programs, put it on schedules. So that’s the type of thing I’m talking about.

Justin:
The big thing I took away there is it’s not a complicated program. It’s really people just being people with other people.

Tollie:
To that, there’s a great book called Teaming that describes that type of environment, that safe environment. It’s written by Amy Edmondson, who’s a Harvard professor. Maybe you’ve heard of her. She has Ted talks and she studied organizations and teams for years. She emphasizes that an organization’s success is really dependent upon a team’s ability to learn and adapt to their environment and to each other. And that sounds pretty straightforward and simple. But she talks about this concept called psychological safety, where people feel safe enough to speak up and ask questions, which really result in people learning from one another.

And the term itself was coined by two MIT professors, two organization development gurus, Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis, and their research found that people must feel secure to be capable of changing. And when you think about our current environment and everything that people, we, as humans are going through in a work environment, it’s essential that there is that psychological safety to truly on top of all of the stress that everyone is under already, if we feel that we’re going to be ignored or we feel like we’re going to be made fun of or put down because we don’t have the answer, we’re not going to speak up. We’re not going to talk about our mistakes. That’s very risky for an organization.

Justin:
Yeah. Talk a little bit, if you would, about just the potential return on investment, if a company really went all in on just making sure that it provided its employees with a psychologically safe workplace.

Tollie:
What you have when you have people that are really comfortable speaking up and asking questions and also raising problems quickly, so saying, “Hey, I made a mistake,” and letting people know quickly, an organization is able to mitigate failure and innovation increases because you’re talking and you’re learning. And there’s a lot of conversation and discussion going on. And so, not only does it increase innovation, it also increases accountability because the truth is there and what your commitment is, is there. And so there’s a huge benefit for creating that type of environment.

Justin:
Yeah. Innovation is the one that I was thinking of because I mean, to be innovative, you probably are throwing 10, 20 ideas on the wall and 99% of them are failures. So you have to be in an environment where you can trust that your 99% failure rate will be tolerated.

Tollie:
Yes, exactly. Leaders that support that, that not only support that, but also talk about their own failures, right, and admit their own mistakes. And that’s hard for any of us to do. I don’t say that lightly at all, because self-preservation kicks in for us as humans, but being able to show your own flaws, if you will, and invite input, and let me note on that when you’re inviting input, letting others speak first. If I’m the leader and I speak first, you’re going to self-censor, right? You’re not going to speak up or you’re going to follow what I’ve said. If I ask a question and wait to listen, that behavior will build psychological safety, which again, connects to the more ideas, more innovation. To clarify, psychological safety isn’t about being overly nice. The word even, psychological safety, it kind of sounds maybe a little squishy.

Justin:
Yeah.

Tollie:
It is literally about direct language and direct accountability. It’s not soft, it’s not vague. It’s about using that straightforward language to communicate clear expectations and consequences. And that clarity really helps people understand what’s expected so they can start to make the move, take action toward the behavior that’s required.

Justin:
I am very curious as to what types of leadership memoirs will be written about this experience, because it has been such a, just an interesting time, not just COVID. You’ve got the election, you’ve got so many social issues going on. Just it’s an interesting snippet of history, too, just to get inside of some of the big thinkers’ brains.

Tollie:
I only wish I had time to truly sit down and start writing about it because I agree. There’s so much that’s gone on this year. You mentioned, I mean, just the social injustice and how many companies are really looking at trying to address systemic racism. I’ve seen leaders talking about race and their own unconscious bias. And just many more discussions around diversity and inclusion and that’s progress. That, I think will continue absolutely, COVID or no COVID, and that’s unrelated, but it’s been a part of this year and it will continue for sure in the future.

Justin:
Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the things that I see organizations get hung up on, or just that they struggle to define is the difference in roles between a manager and a leader. And it’s almost like, is it Peter’s Principle, you promote everyone to the point of failure.

Tollie:
Failure, right. Right.

Justin:
And so you have exalted an employee, you make them a manager, they’re a solid manager, and then you make them a leader and they fail and then they’re out of here. And so what are your thoughts on the difference between a manager versus a leader, and perhaps how can organizations make the most of that, especially when they have a leadership shortage? I apologize, that’s like a 17-point question. So, you just do your thing.

Tollie:
It’s a tough one. Right? You were talking about the Peter Principle and how do you get good leaders? And most leaders are developed through difficult situations and mentors and coaches. Speaking of books, if you’ve read any of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, you understand that many of our perceived great leaders were influenced by the experiences they had, people they met, events of their time. And they also worked really, really hard to hone their craft. Moving from a manager to a leader is difficult. And when you think about what each one of them does, they’re different. A manager is asked to keep things consistent, to comply, and they build over time, kind of those rote systems over and over again. And a leader is expected to change things, to look at new ways of doing things.

And so the personality traits and the behaviors of those two personas are different. And so it is difficult. If I’m managing and maintaining and keeping things clean and accurate, then if I’m going into a role where I literally am expected to look around corners and be able to envision what the future might be, that’s really hard. That transition is very difficult for people and can be a long process. And I think it was maybe your fourth question, Justin, or maybe your fifth question—

Justin:
It’s question three, part B.

Tollie:
Exactly. It’s looking at how quickly can you get managers to start taking more risks and to try new things and getting people out of their comfort zone. And again, starting to truly just do it. If you need to be more of a risk taker, look for ways to take risks. If you’re told you need to be more people oriented, put yourself in situations where you need to interact. You must interact with people, as challenging and painful as that might be for some people. Share a personal story to make a point, make a decision. Things that leaders do, do it, try it, practice that muscle.

Justin:
How does an organization go about building a leadership development plan or does that fall back on the aspiring leader? What’s the balance there?

Tollie:
I’m personally a believer. So this is my editorial. I don’t know that this is based on any books or research, but I do believe that we all have to own our careers. We have to make things happen for ourselves. If we have a goal, we have to figure out what we need to do to achieve it. And you’re hopeful that you work at a place, that you work with people that support that. And many, many, many companies do and many leaders do. With that said, it has been proven that the best leadership development is experience. There’s the 70/20/10 rule: 70% best leadership development is through experience, 20% is through people—so coaches, mentors—and 10% are training classes.

And sometimes as employees and even as leaders, we kind of switch that, right? We think, “I haven’t been to a training program and that’s where I’m developed.” It’s really looking at what new experiences that are often challenging and stressful can I have to really grow and develop and learn new ways of doing things? Because if I can learn it and then next time it happens, I’ll have something to rely on and I’ll do it better next time.

Justin:
This is going to be a bit of a trip down a rabbit hole, possibly, but it sounds like you could almost say that organizations having leadership development programs may hinder the development of the leaders instead of promoting, “Hey, we see this talent in you. We think you can get here, go out on your own and make it happen and we will walk with you, but it’s on you to get there.”

Tollie:
It’s an interesting thought. And I think it’s why a number of organizations have used their leadership programs to be more experiential. So you might not just go to a one-day training program, but you might be in a program that lasts 18 months and you have a cohort with you, you have other people with you, it combines kind of all of those factors. And in between your in-person classes, you’re asked to test things out, try things. And so, to your point, I think, Justin, if you just have training programs, it hinders the experiential side.

Justin:
Even before COVID—COVID gets certainly credit for messing up 2020—but the world has been changing at a frantic pace for years. I mean, we’re generating more data per month, apparently than we did the previous 12 months. It’s just, we have access to more information. We’re more connected than ever. The world was getting smaller, now it’s challenging. But in theory, the infrastructure is still there. So from your observation and your studies, how much more change can humans bear or how can we better cope with all these changes?

Tollie:
That’s a great question. My gut says that someone in 1777 asked that same question and probably someone in 1877 asked that same question. And somehow we’re still here, right, as a human race.

Justin:
Well, they didn’t ask it of anybody over a computer separated between Kentucky and Baltimore.

Tollie:
That is right. Great point. Great point. You’re right. There’s been so much uncertainty. We never could have anticipated this year. It’s tested everyone’s ability to react and cope with change. I was joking, but as humans, we do see change as a threat. It is however what’s kept us in existence because our response to that has allowed us to survive, that fight or flight, right? The saber tooth tiger is gone, but the trigger in our head is still there. When something unknown comes our way, like the pandemic causing anxiety and tension, really building our own resilience and our own agility is so important. And there’s a concept and you’ve likely heard this. It’s called our learning edge. How much change can we bear? And who’s to say what next year will bring? Who’s to say what will be occurring 20 years from now? Within our power, we can build our own agility, right? And at least try to increase it.

And in this learning edge, think about learning as a continuum. You have your comfort zone. So I do things the same way every day. I learn nothing, I’m not building a lot of agility. On the other extreme there’s high stress where we can’t think straight, we can’t make clear decisions. It’s too much stress. And on the edge of that high stress, right before you kind of pop over it, you’re in the learning zone. It’s where you push yourself to learn new things, to think in different ways, to study something that you haven’t studied before, to certainly consider new perspectives. That’s where the greatest learning occurs. And that’s why it’s important to challenge ourselves, to get out of that comfort zone, to continue to make ourselves resilient and agile so that as new things come our way, let’s hope we never see another pandemic, but we’re ready because we are ready for new things and our minds are there.

Justin:
The closing question here, if you could send one sentence via text message to all corporate leaders across the US, the world, whoever you want to send it to, what would it be?

Tollie:
I would say, never forget that you don’t just run companies. You change lives and strengthen communities. So double down on your purpose, listen to your people, and offer hope.

Justin:
That should be on a mural or something that we all see every day.

Tollie:
It’s too long for a bumper sticker.

Justin:
Tollie, thank you so much. It’s been a real treat.

Tollie:
It’s been wonderful, Justin. Thanks so much for inviting me.

Your Host

Justin Hubbard
Justin HubbardAccounting & Financial Outsourcing Director

With Guest

Tollie Miller
Tollie MillerOrganizational Development Consultant
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