Interview with Stephen Shedletzky

In this edition, we feature Stephen Shedletzky who is one of  inspiring Igniters of Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with Why’ team and teach leadership around the world.

He helped us understand major challenges when leading an organisation we may expect in 2019, significance of making a workplace for tomorrow, and key characteristics of a true leader. He also shared his thoughts on impact of emotional intelligence of a leader.

Q1. What is most challenging about leading an organisation in 2019 and coming years?

Stephen: Two challenges are top of mind – metrics and focus. We live in a world where it is easier to focus on what can be measured and maximized rather than what is just and right.

Milton Friedman won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976 with a belief that the responsibility of business is to maximise profit while staying within the bounds of the law. That’s a pretty low standard. What about ethics? We are in a time where the perspective is shifting. Where the belief of the purpose of business is more akin to Admin Smith’s definition of Capitalism – to do well by doing good.

Another challenge is sustained attention and focus in our digital world. According to a University of California Irvine study, it takes our brains roughly 23 minutes to get into deep focused work or flow. Gloria Mark, in partnership with Microsoft, found the average person is distracted or interrupted every 40 seconds when working in front of a computer. You do the math on that. We need to find ways to create more consistent time and space for creativity and focus.

Q2. Why is it necessary to build a workplace for tomorrow?

Stephen: If we don’t have tomorrow, what is the purpose of today? The most powerful human force is hope – a belief that a brighter future exists and that we have the capacity to contribute toward getting us closer toward that vision.

Q3. What are 5 key characteristics of a true leader?

Stephen: I’m not sure if there are necessarily five. It’s not vision or charisma. I know many leaders who lack their own vision. They certainly follow a vision, though to be a leader you don’t need to, yourself, be a Steve Jobs-ian visionary. You also need not be charismatic. Some of the best leaders I know are quite introverted.

One thing I’ve seen all true leaders exhibit is courage. Courage is the ability, on a consistent basis, to put what is in the group’s best interest ahead of what is in their own selfish interests. Leaders serve and put their people first ahead of anything else. And when they do this, their people will work tirelessly to see that their leader’s goals and vision be advanced. Not because they have to, because they want to.

Another quality I see as essential for leadership is empathy.

Imagine two scenarios. In the first, an employee is struggling. Their superior comes to them and says, “Your numbers are down for the third quarter in a row. We’ve had this conversation before. If you don’t pick it up, I’m not sure what’s going to happen to you.”

Or, imagine the second scenario with the same struggling team member: “Your numbers are down for the quarter in a row. We’ve had this conversation before. Are you okay?”

In the second scenario, the leader cares for and extends empathy to their team member. In which scenario will the leader better be able to support their team member to flourish and contribute their best?

Q4. What should a leader do; in order to foster a culture at work that enables people to solve their own problems?

Stephen: As human beings we are social animals. We have never been the fastest or the strongest. We have survived, adapted and thrived as a species because of our ability to form bonds of trust and cooperation.

While I am strong believer that each one of us must take responsibility for our attitude and efforts, I am equally as strong of a believer that together is better.

My life and career changed for the better when I realized I didn’t have to know every answer and I didn’t have to pretend I did. I was better able to solve my own problems when I came clean, I was honest and vulnerable about my strengths and weakness – I asked for help.

I believe leaders should create a culture where people naturally share their gifts and struggles with one another. That way we can help one another achieve and make progress toward our common vision and goals.

Q5. What do you suggest to keep feedback comfortable and open? How does it encourage people to keep doing great work

Stephen: Like Simon Sinek and the rest of the Start With Why team, I am a big believer in a culture full of feedback. Receiving and giving feedback is a vehicle to help us grow, personally and professionally. Without feedback, we often don’t know how we’re doing or how to improve.

There is a great formula for effective confrontation and feedback that I learned in a listening skills course at a wonderful, truly human company called Berry-Wehmiller. The formula is FBI: Feeling, Behaviour & Impact.

If you have feedback for someone, positive or constructive, you can include those three ingredients to make your feedback valuable and effective. The order does not matter, so long as each ingredient is included.

For example, you could say to Person X: When you did this specific thing (Behaviour), it made me feel (Feeling). The impact of that is (Impact). More specifically, When you arrived late to our meeting without an explanation after you had made a commitment to both be more punctual and be a better communicator, it made me feel frustrated and betrayed. The impact is I am less likely to recommend you for the upcoming project with our new client as my trust in you has diminished.

The value of this FBI formula is that it enables the deliverer of the feedback to own their emotions and explain the impact, intended or unintended, that someone had on them. It allows the recipient of the feedback to take ownership, understand someone else’s’ experience of them and work on making improvements. The deliverer of the feedback must not be attached to being right. They must own their emotions and be open to hearing the other person’s experience as well.

Q6. Trust plays a critical role in high performance of an individual, a team or an enterprise. Please elaborate your views on the same.

Stephen: Absolutely. Trust is essential for our ability to make progress together. You can have high performers who erode trust and do more damage than good for the team. Even though they may generate results, they have a toxic impact on the people around them.

I’d rather have a group of low or average performers who I trust than a bunch of high performers who I don’t trust. The latter situation leads to volatility and self-preservation. The former situation of high trust provides us with a foundation to grow sustainably.

Q7. Share your thoughts on impact of emotional intelligence of a leader.

Stephen: I believe emotional intelligence and empathy are highly linked and the good news is both are a muscle. You can work on improving your emotional intelligence and empathy. Asking genuine, open-ended questions and then caring to hear the answer is what true leaders do. We can all work on our emotional intelligence and be more empathetic. It’s about focusing on the well-being of others.

Q8. One question you think, I should have asked you. Please suggest with your answer.

Stephen: What is most exciting and inspiring you ahead?

I’m looking forward to talking with others about Simon’s next work, The Infinite Game, which examines how to be an idealist in a realist’s world. It will be available later this year!

In The Infinite Game, he looks at Game Theory, finite and infinite games, from an organizational and geo-political perspective. And he explores the belief that the ability to adopt an infinite mindset is a prerequisite for any leader who aspires to leave their organization in better shape than they found it.

Stephen Shedletzky engages people in meaningful ways so that we connect with depth and live in a more fulfilled world. With a knack for sharing the right words at the right moment, he delivers evidence-based content in a provocative and humorous way.

Feeling stifled on his corporate track, Stephen was struck by Simon Sinek’s vision of a more inspired and fulfilled world. He joined Sinek’s Start With Why team in 2012. What started as a position answering fan email, Stephen now leads the Brand Voice team to ensure every product and communication authentically reflects the organization’s most deeply-held beliefs.

Interview with Jason Little

Lean Change Management is increasingly popular way of implementing successful change with innovative practices that can dramatically improve the success of change programs. We have been lucky enough to speak to Jason Little, author of Lean Change Management book to understand challenges of change management, his view on Agile leadership, and aspects of business Agility.

Here are some useful insights shared by Jason;

Q1. One of the biggest challenges of change management is bringing people along with your vision. How do you suggest to address this challenge?

Jason: I think it’s common to create a vision at the start of a change, and then assume that’s the only discussion that needs to take place. Typically leaders or appointed change managers are tasked with crafting the vision that they will broadcast out to those affected by the change. I treat a ‘vision’ more like a series of interconnected stories over time.

I always start with a co-created vision with everyone affected by the change. Obviously, if you’re making a change with a 4,000 person department, it’s much harder, but the payoff is worth it when people feel a sense of ownership of the change. Make the offer, include people and respect those who want to opt-out.

Mechanically, something creative usually works better, in my view. For example, I recently finished a change team liftoff where they were creating the vision for their team. The group split into 4 teams and each created a poster that expressed their vision. We reviewed each team’s poster as a group and merged them into a final version and statement that the whole group believed in.

Q2. Is it important to engage people’s logic and appeal to their emotions when undergoing a change at organisational level? Please highlight key reasons for the same.

Jason: GREAT question! Too often we ignore the emotional aspect of change. People respond to change differently. Personally, I go into problem-solving mode, and want to take action sooner based on understanding where we are, what’s affected, and the best way to move forward for now. Some people are the opposite. They may have seen this attempt at change happen before and they need some time to complain, proclaim why it’ll never work, why it’s stupid, or why their ideas are better.

We immediate leap to that reaction as resistance when it’s not. It’s a natural response to change and if we don’t allow time for the emotional reaction, taking a logical approach won’t move the change forward.

As change agents, we need to balance both of these and help people who tend to be more logical by nature understand that others think differently. This can be stressful for logical-thinkers, but from my experience, it’s more stressful for those who are more emotional.

Q3. How can one review the change? Is there any metrics you suggest to measure the success?

Jason: It depends on what the change is. If it’s the implementation of a new IT system that affects business processes, measurements are a bit easier. Most of my work is in on the people-side of change. That is, organizations are looking to transform to something and bring in new mindsets and behaviours. Those are theoretically easy to measure, but in practise, they don’t make sense.  For example, I talked to an experienced OD manager who said, “you baseline the existing behaviours, do the change and then measure the new behaviours against the baseline

That sounds logical enough, but people are not robots and not only is it insulting to people, it makes no sense to create quantitative measurements for something that isn’t quantifiable.

I encourage organizations to use diagnostics and measurements to use as input into a conversation. For example, a diagnostic would be: “given we’ve been doing <this change> for 1 calendar quarter, from 0 to 5, rate how much you believe we’re headed in the right direction and why?” The resulting conversation is what we’re after, not the ‘rating’

As for success measurements, I find very few organizations use these, other than to appease the board, or people at the top because they just want a number to look at.

Q4. What is Jason’s view on ‘Agile Leadership’?

Jason: I understand why it’s becoming popular but it’s unnecessary in my view. Throughout human history, leadership has been necessary and great leaders like Herb Kelleher and Alan Mulally did amazing things at Southwest Airlines and Ford respectively without ‘agile leadership’

Today we live in the Age of the Maker. That is, with knowledge being largely free and easily accessible, anyone can create a model, method, framework or set of tools based on ideas that have existed for a long time. While Agile formalized in 2001 with the Agile Manifesto, the ideas that inspired it has been around for decades or longer.

For example, Servant Leadership is something ‘agile’ has talked about forever, but it’s been around since the 1970’s. I created a timeline of the more popular leadership approaches for a conference I spoke at a number of years ago

MIT’s 4 Capabilities model for leadership and change IS agile leadership, but people don’t like to stop and look around, they like to invent something new. The 4 capabilities are Visioning, Sensemaking, Relating, and Inventing. The basic premise is that great leaders need to know when to use the capabilities and why. A great example from MIT is the US automaker bailout in 2008. Ford Motor Company didn’t take a buyout, but Alan Mulally, the CEO of Ford at the time, lobbied for it anyway because he understood the bigger picture by using his sensemaking capabilty. That is, with the supplier overlap, and the oligopoly that is auto-manufacturing, he knew that what was at stake was bigger than Ford.

Great leaders know how to change the engine of the plane while it’s flying. In my view, Agile Leadership was created with good intentions, but we’ve all seen what watered down Agile certifications have done to the industry so I don’t think this fad will be any different.

Q5. Over time, business agility has taken over being agile. Why business agility is discussed so much these days?

Jason: For me it’s similar to agile leadership. Fundamentally, two things never change: competition and innovation. The more competition we create, the more we create the need for innovation. The more we innovate, the more competition we create. This is how business has always worked and while agile people like to cite Kodak in their failure stories, they don’t realize Kodak is still around. Sure they’re not the giant they were, because their products became a commodity, but they have survived for 131 years.

Business agility is just a new phrase based on the same idea that organizations that survive learn faster than their competitors.

I believe it’s helping people new to agile realize that agile is about more than IT, but it’s been my experience that organizations with strong leadership already get this.

Q6. Please share your thoughts on following – We have tight deadlines, and we don’t want Agile to get in the way of delivering, what’ll you do?

Jason: Ha! I was asked the same question over a decade ago while working as an agile coach! At the time, my answer was, there are only 4 values, which ones shall I break?

Today, my answer is much different. In fact, it’s been replaced with more questions: How would you see ‘agile’ being a barrier to project success? How have you dealt with this problem in the past, and how did it work out?

More often than not, agile is never the problem, it’s the card that the person asking has to play because they’re on the hook for delivery. Sometimes it’s easier on our brains to do things the old way because trying to change how we work, even when we know we need to, creates more of a cognitive load than we can handle.

Q7. Will Agile Coaching get replaced in future with something else?

Jason: I think the term will change over time, but what coaches do won’t. I’ve already seen Business Agility Coaches, Organizational Psychologists, Design Thinking Coaches and other fancy-sounding titles, but that’s just marketing and an attempt to stand out in a sea of noise. There will always be a need for coaching and consulting. I think ‘whitespace functions’ like HR, change management, organizational development, agile coaching and more will blend together more.

Roles and titles will become less important because many people in these disciplines know these roles are service functions. Sure there are change managers who value control and believe standards and process are most important for ensuring successful change and those people would make great project managers, but not change managers.

It’s the same with Agile Coaching. I’ve worked with Agile Coaches that are really process improvement specialists, and there’s nothing wrong with that, just don’t call it coaching.

Agile Coaching won’t be replaced, if anything, it’ll expand by merging and working with other disciplines like Organizational Development and Organizational Change Management because that’s really a huge component of what Agile Coaching is.

I would say Agile Coaches that come from the values, principles and process side would be well-served to develop new skills. That stuff can be learned through Google now, the real value is technical coaching, and organisational level coaching.


Jason is the author of Lean Change Management, international speaker and has been helping organizations implement Agile practices since 2007 as a Scrum Master, Product Owner, Internal and External Coach.

He began his career as a web developer when Cold Fusion roamed the earth. Over the following years, he moved into management, Agile Coaching and consulting. The bumps and bruises collected along the way brought him to the realization that helping organizations adopt Agile practices was less about the practices, and all about change.