William Powell, Executive Director of the Leadership Advisor, tells us how leaders should be leading, and what most leaders get wrong when trying to run a company. Will is passionate about human developing and what he calls “human flourishing”.
Jacob: Hello everyone. I’m Jacob Shriar, growth manager at Officevibe, and today I’m with William Powell, who is the executive director of The Leadership Advisor. William, thanks so much for taking some time to chat with me.
William: Happy to be here. Thanks for the invite.
Jacob: For sure. So we were talking a little bit offline and it sounds like this is going to be an amazing talk. It sounds like this is going to be filled with incredible content, so if anyone’s listening to this, turn your speakers up and pay attention, because William has some incredible advice.
So, first of all, let’s start from the beginning. Maybe, William, if you could, tell us a little bit about your background and how you kind of got into employee engagement, and culture development, and things like that.
William: Well, to be honest, I kind of fell into it by accident, on some level. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Josh Allan Dykstra. He’s a friend of mine, and he and I had a similar path in that we worked at a number of places, and we just realized, “Man, this workplace sucks.” It was just absolute crap, to be perfectly blunt.
And so, the ongoing problems–and I got an early interest in leadership development and things of that nature. So I started studying that and I began recognizing these shortcomings. And then I just started to pay attention to how that was affecting not only the general workplace, but my job and how all that functioned.
And then, over a process of just discovering what I was passionate about, and how I wanted to make a difference, and help change those environments and elements within organizations, because I saw that it wasn’t very profitable. I kind of drifted into this, and the more I dug, the more I refined what I liked to do. And I ended up doing three of them: leadership, culture and engagement.
Jacob: And how long have you been doing this?
William: Well, there was no definite beginning. Like I said, I fell into it over a gradual process. I’d have to say it’s been well over ten years, between doing some individual coaching and leadership development, and creating atmosphere around what you’re doing, and that kind of idea–has been just over ten years.
Jacob: So you’re definitely not a newcomer to this industry.
Jacob: Let’s talk a little bit about why you chose to focus on all three, versus maybe just specializing in just one. What are maybe some of the advantages of working with all three; why you maybe chose to do that instead of focusing on one? Can you talk a little bit about that?
William: Sure. Well, I mean, as the name of the company suggests–“Leadership Advisor.” It obviously started with leadership, and things start with leadership in the real world, and from a practical standpoint. But I quickly realized that leadership can’t exist in a vacuum. It touches other areas of the organization. And I realize that people do MBA’s and they have KPI’s and all these different things, and how everything functions from an operational standpoint. But the more abstract elements, culture and engagement, there’s not really a very good measuring stick for that. Either one of those. You just measure results and hope that you’re right, but it’s not as accurate as we all want it to be.
And so, I realized that I couldn’t study leadership and focus, and develop expertise on that without bringing in culture and engagement, because they’re so inextricably linked. And I think that’s where a lot of companies kind of drop the ball. They don’t recognize those linkages, and that’s what our company helps to do.
Jacob: That’s great. I have so many questions I want to ask you. I guess the first one–yeah, I might as well just jump to this one. The first one that I want to ask you is, when you’re launching a new initiative or a new program–especially when there’s a little bit of resistance–one of the hardest things to do is to get buy-in and–I’m not going to say “convince people that this is the right move,” but–I guess my real question for you is, how do you get buy-in? I mean, when there is resistance. That’s a struggle that I’ve actually seen a lot of people personally go through. I mean, if you can talk a little bit about that, what are some best practices. How do actually go about kind of convincing people or selling the message? How does that work?
William: Well, I spent a couple of years doing some research to understand how these kind of things are affected by leadership, culture and engagement. And I’ve developed a model that we use with our clients. And the connector–what you’re looking at for buy-in–the real question is “How can I get them engaged in doing that? How can their behavior be something that is a result of high engagement?” And so, in order to have that high engagement, emotion plays one of the biggest roles in being engaged. If you try to define engagement, it’s, “Well, it’s when people feel this” or “They feel this way about their job,” or “They feel that,” or “They feel this way about their boss.” It always centers around feelings. So your culture produces emotion, and then that emotion dictates the quality and magnitude of engagement, which then influences their behavior.
So, if you need a group of people, you need to first of all, list all your stakeholders and prioritize them based on who’s the most important stakeholder group that needs to push this initiative forward. Well, okay, based on not just who they are, but collectively as a group, based on function and within the organization and in the change that, in an initiative, we want to implement, what emotion does this group of people need to experience in order for them to become engaged in it? And then you have to reverse engineer that into your culture. How can we use what have as our culture to elicit that emotion?
Because if you strip the human element out of the organization, you strip your talent out of your organization. They’re human beings, and you have to speak to where they are as a human being. That includes emotions. It’s not comfortable for most people. You know, you typically get the “Aw, just leave your emotions at home. This is work. You gotta separate it,” and all that. That never works. Sounds good on paper, looks good in the movies, but it never works in real life.
Jacob: [LAUGHING] That makes sense. You mentioned this before. You talked about a model that you’ve developed, and I guess you’ve used this whenever you go work with a client. Can you talk a little bit more about this model and just maybe go into detail, explaining how it all works?
William: Yeah, sure. I mean, if you’re watching this, obviously you can go to the “Services” page on our website, and near the bottom you’ll see a graphic art presentation of the model. But the basic structure is, in the two years I did research to develop it, I wanted to understand how groups of people function. Whether it’s–of course, it’s beneficial to the organization, but whether it’s–I wanted it to be a standard human issue, more than an organizational issue. And so, whether it’s a family or a group of friends going out for drinks, or a community, or a church, or a government, or a nation–whatever–I wanted to understand.
So I did a fair bit of research in the areas of sociology and anthropology, different humanist philosophies, a bit of neuroscience as well and how that affects leadership in groups. And what I realized was, there was a cyclical relationship between leadership, culture and engagement. So leadership influences culture, culture influences engagement, and engagement actually influences leadership. And so I was quite happy to see that. That became very obvious in my research.
I wanted to also understand, “Okay, they influence it, but how? What are their relational connections? Are there any relational dynamics that are standard?” And so what I discovered was that leadership doesn’t actually create culture. Like I said, it influences it. Leadership creates a context out of which culture will develop, and all the cultural drivers–you know, the espoused values, the underlying beliefs, the rituals, the languages–those kind of things that drive culture.
And so, then, the relational component between culture and engagement, I’ve already mentioned, is an emotional one. Whatever though–whether the emotion is cynicism, hate, indifference, excitement, love, anger–just name it. What do you want it to be? Because sometimes hate works well. Hate works well in NGO’s. You want the culture you have to produce a little bit of hate. Hate for what is wrong in the world, so that they actually become engaged in being the solution, which will then influence their behavior, which is the relational connection between engagement and leadership. Because the behavior of an engaged person are acts of leadership. Whether they’re a leader or not, they’ll take initiative,they’ll go beyond what you ask of them, they’ll step beyond their job description. And it becomes a cyclical process, so that you understand it in a clockwise fashion.
Then when you need to actually implement something, you work it backwards. “What behavior do we want?” “Great.” “What does engagement look like to produce that kind of behavior?” And so then, “What kind of emotion produces that kind of engagement?” “What aspects of our culture will create those emotions?” “What aspects of our culture actually fight against the emotions we need?” And so then, that gives you some insight into, as leaders, what kind of context we need to create to facilitate everything else we want.
So, it’s not treating things in a vacuum, it’s about understanding that they’re all connected, they all have touch points, and understanding how they’re connected and using it to your advantage.
Jacob: Hm! That’s great! Thanks so much for that. On your website, it says, “A change in leadership, culture and engagement doesn’t happen in a week.” Obviously, I agree with you. I mean I think it’s a really long term thing. But I’m just wondering, when you start to engage with a client, how long do you typically spend with them?
William: Well, it depends on the challenges they’re facing and it depends on the goals that they have. What do they want to get out of the relationship? I don’t go in saying, “Okay, well, my budget–I need to meet my budget, so I need to lock this client in for X amount of money, so I make my money.” I go in and say, “Okay, what do you want to accomplish? What’s realistic?” We kind of tease that out and see what time commitment that’s going to be and see what your budget is, and see what works for you as a client.
So there are people that, sometimes, they want to keep me on–they want to pay for three months–or they only want to do it for four months, but they only want to do it once a quarter. So when they have their quarterly meetings, they take advantage of my advisory services, and I act as an extra member of the board, so to speak, and I ask them difficult questions, play devil’s advocate, sounding board, those kind of things.
Sometimes they want me to actually do some consulting where we put together a strategy based on their goals around these areas. And we lay out some milestones, we do some responsibility allocation, we may do a bit of planning to help the people who are responsible for implementing this initiative, this process, and we can manage it that way.
And sometimes they want the advisory bits, which is me basically being onsite and, really, kind of drilling down on things. But that’s usually them addressing a problem, or trying to get ahead of a change they know is coming. I had a client in Portugal that this is exactly what happened. They knew that there was a merger acquisition coming for a client company and they wanted to be prepared for it. So I went there and I spent a significant amount of time with them, going through workshops and training and all of that, so that they were ahead of the curve when this change came down the road they knew was coming. So, really depends on the needs of the client.
Jacob: Okay, yeah. Makes sense. I’m wondering, you know, you’ve obviously consulted with a lot of clients in your career. What do you think is the one thing that clients always get wrong? If you really had to break it down to the one thing you always see getting wrong, what do you think that would be?
William: I think it would be their relationship with engagement and their approach to it. In more recent years, in more recent months even, the understanding of the need for engagement–there’s a been a serious education through companies like Gallup and Kinex and BlessingWhite, and the research they’ve done. Boston Consulting Group–you know, many of the multinational consulting companies. They’ve done great work in doing research to point out the impact engagement has on the bottom line. And so, because that was the big argument, especially from CFO’s, people writing the checks to the consultants, saying, “Well, what’s the business case for investing in engagement?” My answer was always “Well, what’s the business case against it?” which really didn’t go over very well, usually. But the idea that it’s connected to performance and bottom line numbers is not an idea anymore. It’s been teased out through empirical research.
But there’s still a very awkward relationship with engagement. It’s viewed as something as, “Well, it’s something we have to endure in order to get our performance numbers up, because the KPI’s aren’t working as well as we want them to.” So there’s still a sense of reluctance, even if there’s an excitement around doing it, it’s “. This is burdensome, it’s a little expensive and da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da.” As opposed to, “Hey, you know what? We have an opportunity to capitalize on the potential of the talent in our organization.” And so, the quality of engagement is really predicated upon your mindset as you approach it. And that’s something that, as a leader, you just have to choose to do. No one can talk you into it.
Jacob: Yeah, honestly, I think that’s even worth repeating, because that’s so important. I think companies that get it wrong look at this as a problem that they need to fix, versus an opportunity to be the best and maybe beat their competitors, or whatever. But yeah, you’re right, it’s a mindset. I’m sorry for repeating what you just said but, like I said, that’s so incredibly important, I really thought it was worth repeating. So, I really, I want to dive deep with you, because you seem to know quite a bit about what it takes to actually make an engaged workforce and a good company culture. What’s some of the best advice that you can give anyone watching this? What are some of the best practices. If they don’t know where to get started, they’re not really sure what to do, if you can maybe give a few pieces of good advice, what’s something you might share with them?
William: Well, it’s funny. I have a very dysfunctional relationship with the idea of best practices–[LAUGHING]
William: –to be perfectly honest. Because usually, by the time they’re recognized as best practices, they’re kind of lagging. They’re not as current as they need to be. And so my advice to the idea of best practices, I like what they’re meant to represent, I like what they’re meant to accomplish, so I’m not throwing them completely under the bus, just dangerously close to the wheel well. But it’s really about how you view the talent in your organization. If you view them as an asset that you are meant to sweat in order to squeeze as much resource out of that asset as humanly possible, you’re losing the game before you get started. If you view them as individuals, that in developing them as an individual you will ultimately develop the organization, that is probably the best place to start. The idea that–you know, this has become the message of the leadership advisor, Brad, that human flourishing is profitable. Because when humans–as an individual, a human being, is in an environment that facilitates their flourishment, they’re going to be productive, they’re going to be innovative, they’re going to be creative, they’re going to show up to work. If they have outlets to express their creativity and passion in a way that not only benefits them, but benefits the organization, if you learn how to balance those two together, you’re going to win. That’s the best practice. It’s not about this bullet point list of how you go about manipulating the behavior of people. But it’s really about, “How can I make business more human?”
A guy named–I think his name’s Mike Kramer. I’ve only read a couple of his blog posts. I just connected with him. He wrote an amazing blog post that says “Let’s stop the B-to-C and B-to-B, and make it H-to-H.” It’s human-to-human, whether it’s business-to-business, business-to-customer, inside the organization, leadership-to-team, development, training development, learning development, performance, none of it is anything without understanding that it’s interaction between two human beings who are working very diligently to provide value, one for the other, in some capacity. If you start from that and let everything be predicated on that, you’ll make different decisions.
Jacob: Hm. Yeah. No, that’s great. And I also, I saw that H-to-H, human-to-human slide being passed around LinkedIn. It’s gone semi-viral, I guess you can say. I’ve seen it a few times.
I want to ask you about the data behind the Gallup State of the Workplace and some of the recent data that’s come out about employee engagement. It’s so low. I mean it’s terrible. It’s really shocking. I don’t really know what the right word to use is, but it’s scary, more than anything. I’d love to get your thoughts on why you think the numbers are so high or so low, depending on what you look at. What’s wrong? What’s going on, exactly?
William: Well, first of all, I think, engagement is being approached as a functional skill, “learning how to do engagement.” And in reality, it’s a social skill. So I think that’s the premise of the problem on some level. And the idea that you’re approaching it as another learning and development issue, or as a human resource development issue, human resource management issue–and you know, if you go get an MBA, it’s a Masters of Business Administration. You may sit through a couple of leadership classes, maybe, depending on the curriculum at the school. But that’s not the function of the MBA. Yet, engagement is a key component of being a quality leader and so part of it is in the recruitment. If you’re recruiting people because they have an MBA and a bit of experience, to be in a position where engagement is a pivotal part of the role, they’re woefully under-resourced, from a talent perspective, to actually fulfill that role successfully. So you hire people for aptitude, you end up firing them for attitude, which is just grossly unfair. And so we’re taking these functional and operational issues and shoving them in, and assuming that everything is that way, because it it affects operations, it must be operational. But engagement is a social skill. That’s all it is. It’s a soft skill. It’s a social skill. It’s not functional, it’s not operational. The results of doing that social skill well affects your operational issues, but that’s it.
Jacob: I think you touched on something interesting, and this is something I’ve never fully understood, but I’m having–I have a hard time kind of–you know, I’m not explaining it, but I guess understanding it realistically. You know, we say that we should be hiring–you just said this, you know–you should be hiring for attitude. You shouldn’t necessarily care if the guy has an MBA or not. You really should make sure that they’re a good fit for the culture, make sure that they’re going to kind of flourish within the team. I’m wondering, how do you balance that? At the end of the day, you need someone that’s going to be able to perform on the job. If you need someone to handle support for you, you’ve got to hire a support person, right? You don’t necessarily need to hire the happiest guy in the room and maybe hope to train him on support. I mean this is something I don’t fully understand. How do you balance looking for the attitude and making sure they have the right skills? I don’t get that.
William: Well, I think the way you worded your question implies the answer, and it’s the word “balance.” The idea is, I wrote a blog post–I can’t think of it off the top of my head, but if you type in a few of these search terms on my blog, you’ll probably find it–but the idea is, you have to understand that, first of all, humans aren’t linear. So a linear approach to hiring a human to fulfill a role is just crazy, in my opinion. And so, you have to understand that there’s a need to look for character, there’s a need to look for chemistry with the potential teammates; there’s a need to look for competence, which is the functional issue; and there’s a need to look for culture fit. And so, a lot of people, that scares them because they think that opens the door to discrimination. I’m like, look, if you’re the kind of person who’s going to discriminate, you’re going to do it, whether or not you’re looking for culture fit or not. Because, you’re either a dirt bag or you’re not. [LAUGHING] It’s kind of a bottom line, right? So, you have to balance it. It’s like, operationally, you see the balance scorecard, which some people say is dated already. But it’s about understanding all of these components contribute to the overall performance. And so, all of the components of someone’s character, their competence, the chemistry with the team, their culture fit, all of that contributes to the potential success. And are you going to get it wrong? Yeah, occasionally. But, just because you can get it wrong doesn’t mean you should stop trying. That defeatist mentality is not moving your organization forward either. And so there’s this idea that, if we hire for character and all of that, but they’re not competent, it’s kind of a false distinction. You’re creating this sense of opposition that’s not there, for the sake of not having to do the hard work, in my opinion. Not saying you as an individual, Jacob, but “you,” collectively. [LAUGHING]
Jacob: [LAUGHING] Yeah. Thanks for clearing that up. You mentioned something in your answer that was really interesting. You said that hiring isn’t really linear. So you think it’s kind of crazy that it’s done in this way. So I’d love to ask you, how do you think hiring should be done if it’s not done in a linear way. What are some…?
William: Yeah, you’re putting me on the spot, aren’t you, man?
William: Yeah, I’m not an HR generalist so, you know, I do have background in formal education and a specialization in HR management. But it’s going to have to be unique for every organization. I don’t think that you can throw out just one boxed way of doing something so that everyone goes, “Oh look! This is great!” and it makes the world a better place for all the HR practitioners. But I do think that understanding what components need to be a part of the process, what components need to make up the solution, and understanding how those components relate to one another, especially within the context of your culture, within your organizations, based on your operational needs. And the vibe, to use a word for your organization–
William: –the vibe of the place, how do all of those things function together in a way that actually works, and it doesn’t just fall apart the moment you flip the switch on. So it’s really about your approach. It’s about how you look at it. Instead of–you know, get it to work for you in a way that is difficult from a labor perspective, so that human beings learn how to work it. Then pull in IT and say, “Can you automate this? This is what we’re doing. If you need to do a storyboard, you need to pull IT in–project manager from IT so that you can learn how to effectively put together a storyboard or something like that, as means for processes or whatever,” get it to where the humans do it right first and then pull IT in. Don’t go, “We imagine it will be like this,” and then have IT build this two hundred thousand dollar software thing, that when you actually implement it, it doesn’t work and it’s crap, and you’re just out the money. Because, you’re going to spend a lot less money on a little extra labor on the front end, so that IT has something realistic to develop.
William: Then you can go out and source a solution–you know–outsource it through an IT firm if you need to do it that way. “Hey, this is what we’re doing. Here’s a storyboard. Here are the processes. These are the connective relationships and dependent relationships. Can you make this work?” “Oh yeah.” Okay. Most IT people will always say yes, because they want the job, right? Hi, IT people! I love you guys. I’m just making a point.
Jacob: [LAUGHING] Yeah, we love IT people too. And just to address the first thing you said, the only reason I’m putting you on the spot is because I know you’re going to have a rock-solid answer.
We’ll pretty much end it here, but my last question is, for everyone watching this, where can they reach you? Besides your website, LeadershipAdvisor.com, where can people get in touch with you if they want to know more?
William: Well, look, I’m on Twitter; I try to post quite a bit. Just these little tidbits that we’ve been talking about, Jacob, I tweet mostly that. If someone reaches out to me, I try to be as interactive as I can on Twitter in between doing whatever else. There’s the blog. I’m on LinkedIn. My Twitter handle is a very funky spelling “leadership” and then the word “advisor.” So if you go to my website, just click on the Social Media links at the top, because too many characters for what Twitter wants me to have for a handle, so I had to drop some vowels and make it creative and all that. We also have a Facebook page and a Google Plus page as well for the company. We’re looking at expanding into different ways of interacting with people through Pinterest and whatever, but that’s part of the marketing strategy for later this year.
William: Sometimes in that sense, but hey, you’ve got to go somewhere.
Jacob: [LAUGHING] Yeah. No. Totally. I just want to thank you again for taking some time. Just for everyone watching, William’s on a different timezone, so I mean, just, Will, thanks so much for taking some time out of your day to have a chat with me. This was incredible. I think you shared a lot of very smart insight. I hope everyone paid attention to what you were saying, and hopefully we can do this again soon.
William: Yeah. Sounds good, Jacob.