The fifth episode of the “When Everyone Leads” podcast explores how people can lead at work regardless of their job titles. What role does authority play in building leadership capacity for employees?
Sheila O’Connor, a tech industry professional, brought the topic for discussion. O’Connor suggests that a tool for positive cultural change is intentionally introducing a shared language. She experienced this firsthand when she and some colleagues attended Kansas Leadership Center training together.
She believes that not everyone must lead all the time; organizations and companies may need just enough people leading to make progress.
In its first season as the Kansas Leadership Center’s podcast, “When Everyone Leads” asks guests to bring a challenge to the center, which the hosts and guest then discuss and analyze through a leadership framework.
It is hosted by KLC co-workers Brianna Griffin, the show’s lead producer, and Chris Green, executive editor of The Journal. KLC’s Maren Berblinger, Julian Montes and Neha Batawala also produce the show.
The podcast is inspired by the book “When Everyone Leads” by Ed O’Malley, president and CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation, the Kansas Leadership Center’s main funder, and KLC’s immediate past president and CEO; and Julia Fabris McBride, KLC’s chief leadership development officer.
The following is a transcript of the conversation among Green, Griffin and O’Connor, edited for length and clarity, followed by a discussion between Green and Griffin.
O’Connor: Hi. I’m Sheila O’Connor. I’ve been working in the engineering tech field for a long time. It was about 2017 when I encountered the KLC principles for the first time. And that really changed my life in a lot of ways. I was in a number of jobs and positions where it just felt like the same problems were occurring over and over again. I didn’t really know what to do with them. In a sense, I felt like I was playing whack-a-mole and trying to knock one thing down at a time but not making a lot of progress on that.
Green: How did those tools help you feel like you weren’t playing whack-a-mole anymore?
O’Connor: KLC gave me a different set of tools to approach these biggest challenges and see opportunities and make progress on those. Sure, I had my technical skills and that’s what I was used to using, but they weren’t being effective. Then I saw the KLC framework and tool set, and it was in addition to those technical skills, but it was a different solution for these tougher challenges.
Griffin: Tell us how you are connected to this topic and why it’s important to you.
O’Connor: I think about changing a culture. And the way you change a culture is to change the language. One of the ways to do that is through a framework like When Everyone Leads KLC to get everybody on the same page with the same language and the same framework about looking at these gaps and approaching these problems in different ways.
Green: Before you encountered KLC, what’s the leadership language that was a default at places you’ve worked?
O’Connor: I don’t think there was one, and I think that’s why this is so exciting. People go off to all these different leadership development courses all the time. Some of them are very individualized. I’ve been a student of leadership for years. I’ve never encountered anything that was this broad-reaching and applicable to organizations and allowing people to pick it up and share that common language. And when you’re looking at a problem and using multiple interpretations or values conflicts or any of this, that’s shared language within the organization.
Green: When you think about the topic of everyone leading in the workplace, what concerns you the most?
O’Connor: I think it’s that we haven’t taken advantage of the full impact we could get when everybody leads in the workplace, meaning that if we really spread this to entire teams or organizations that are working on these problems together, I think there could be so much more impact from the training people go through. I think people’s hearts are in the right place when they think about the purpose of this leadership training. But I don’t think they always consider the impact and what greater impact they could have if they were training communities and teams and people together, because I think this work is not meant to be done alone; it’s just too difficult.
Griffin: What are your aspirations?
O’Connor: For more and more business owners to make that decision that, yeah, I’m going to invest. I’m going to send this entire team. I’m going to send my entire organization. I’m going to spread this language across my entire company, whether that be five people or 10,000 people. Because then you have so much more capacity for seeing and seizing those opportunities.
Griffin: I want to say that in order to get a company involved, you would need to get at least the funding and the acceptance from the higher-up people, so you would need them on board at first. How difficult would it be to get some of those higher-ups, maybe CEOs, to accept letting their people go and spend a few days in these trainings? They might think that’s money thrown away, not understanding how great an impact it could be in their workplace.
O’Connor: Yeah, and there are several things there, from the people in authority, the decision-makers. I think it could be scary, putting aside the money. If I authorize everybody to lead, then what is this going to look like? Maybe that’s scary for me, and maybe I have some sense of loss of control or everybody looking to me for the answer. The financial equation is there, too, but maybe it’s not so much financial; maybe it’s deeper than that if you dig down into what’s really holding people back or what they’re scared of.
Griffin: What gets people stuck in that gap between the concerns they have and the aspirations you see?
O’Connor: We’ve named some of those. It would be chaos if everyone leads, right? Or I think if you take that to the extreme, the authority person might be thinking, ‘Well, then they’re not going to need me anymore to make all these decisions, so I’m going to be jobless at that point.’ I think all of those things come into play as we look at why we’re stuck. Like the values clash you named. We’re comfortable where we are and with the status quo. I know when I come into work this is what I do. And what is it going to look like? You don’t know.
Green: You think we’re comfortable with the status quo or it’s just harder to imagine things being different? The devil you know versus the devil you don’t.
Griffin: It’s such a wide range of people, but what groups would it involve in this issue?
O’Connor: The CEO or those who hold authority positions for those teams or organizations. Those who make funding decisions. Who and how many get to go to this type of training? If you have people who have come to the training, they can go back and have conversations around the greater impact you can have if you sent multiple people to the training. I don’t want to let anybody off the hook; I think we all have a place in this.
Green: When you think about people in authority, people who make funding decisions, what do they care about when they think about whether they want a workplace where everyone leads? What are the values, gains and losses on their minds?
O’Connor: I just want to get the work done in a lot of cases. I think that’s why you get so much of that whack-a-mole. Just solve the problem and move on to something else. I think some of it is education about looking at the deeper challenges that may be going on in the organizations, swimming beneath the surface. And if you never look at those, they’re not going to go away, and you’re never going to be able to make progress on it.
Green: I’ve spent some time profiling an organization for County Mental Health Center in southeast Kansas, and I learned from those interviews that they’d send their employees through training, and there would factions in terms of reactions to training. There would be people who almost have a religious type of revival, and people who say, ‘Well, if you’re going to send me there, I’ll go and do what you want me to, but I’m not going to put too much into it.’ And then there are people who ask, ‘Why did you waste my time? Did you really think this would change my life? Thanks for wasting three days.’ Do those feel like they capture the factions in your experience? What’s your sense of where employees are coming from when they try to experiment with when everyone leads?
O’Connor: I’m laughing because you named them all. I’m saying, ‘Oh, my life was changed. This was great.’ And other people are saying, ‘I’m never going to use this. You wasted your money.’ It’s just getting enough people to see the ball and the challenges and are willing to do the work. I never talk about getting everyone, even though the book’s called When Everyone Leads. Getting enough people to lead in these teams and organizations I think can change the equation. Everybody has the capability to do it.
Green: And when you think about your experience—it seems like this had a huge impact faction. Have you been able to discern any patterns about who gravitates to this and who just goes along for the ride and who’s resistant?
O’Connor: To me the people who have been most engaged have a real spirit of curiosity and are willing to see things in different ways. People who have been very concrete thinkers have a much harder time grasping onto some of these things. That’s my own way of looking at it. A greater sense of curiosity is one thing that really stands out.
Green: How much do you find the KLC language infiltrating your vocabulary? How does that help you exercise leadership? In what ways is that ever a barrier?
O’Connor: I talk a lot about identifying the losses. Let’s talk about those, because usually people don’t; they just get swept under the rug. Let’s talk about the value conflicts here because there’s something clashing. We’re not making the progress we need to make. So, I use the language a lot, but I only do it around people I know who already have the language. I entered an organization where there were just a couple of us with the language, and it was much more difficult because I was trying to find the right words to explain all these things. It took a lot more time and energy, because when everybody has that same framework, they know what you’re trying to do when you talk about, ‘Let’s diagnose this deeper.’ Or, ‘What are some other interpretations about this?’ They know what you’re trying to do, so they can come in and help rather than just stop the progress.
Green: Are there some other ideas that are harder to translate than others to people who don’t know the framework?
O’Connor: Maybe diagnosing the situations. Especially in the tech engineering world, we think we’re great at that. On the adaptive side, we learn quickly that we’re really not that great at going deeper and really getting the different perspectives on the table.
Griffin: You had mentioned that you went into a company that wasn’t really familiar with our principles. When you have gone back to the company after being introduced, was it as if you had put your glasses on and it was 20-20 vision, or was it more of a slow-burning introduction of our principles into your work life?
O’Connor: My first experience was when 12 of us got trained together. It was really fun to go back to the workplace and you would hear people practicing and trying the language. The first couple of days, I just had to laugh every time I heard, ‘That’s one interpretation. And another interpretation ….’ That’s died off over time. I still do it and they can still practice. It really helps people from getting so defensive. I always say it was kind of like playing the magic card. If somebody is already saying something, you can always say, ‘Well, one other interpretation is,’ and if they’re open and curious, they’ll go, ‘Oh, yeah, I hadn’t thought about that.’
Green: This makes me want to talk about engineers. The story I would tell about engineers, whether it’s true or not, coming from my communications background, English minor, journalist for a long time, is that engineers are very smart, very capable at doing the things that they’ve been trained and know how to do. This is not an English essay. There is a right way to do things, and we need to get it done. And I could imagine these ideas being very challenging for them. And I’m wondering, in your experience, do people who come from that engineering or from that more concrete background respond to this? Or do they feel challenged by it? What sort of patterns do you see?
O’Connor: All of that is true. We as engineers are trained to get the right answer. But I think as engineers are in the workplace longer, they come to realize that not all problems have a technical solution. We’ve got people involved. People are messy, and how am I supposed to deal with all these people? And then I think you can flip it and say these are adaptive challenges when you have all these people involved. And if you’re open to having this different tool set, then that’s going to just complement your already technical skills. So, we’re not saying technical solutions are bad. And they’re tough and they’re challenging and all that stuff is there. We can be very good at technical solutions, but our company is not going to prosper if we also don’t have this adaptive tool set. We’re so used to thinking of ‘or.’ We need to start thinking of ‘and.’ It’s technical and adaptive.
Green: How do you know you’re in a healthy workplace culture for leadership?
O’Connor: For me, the markers are you have to have a high degree of trust. People willing to be vulnerable. People willing to go out on a limb to look at some of these tougher challenges and make progress on it. Organizational health is so extremely important for the culture. We tend to focus in the workplace on all the engineering, accounting, finance, HR, but we don’t pay as much attention typically to all this work health kind of stuff that deals with conflicts and negotiation and all this other stuff that you have to do in order to get work done.
Green: Is some of that because it’s difficult to measure? We don’t have the quarterly leadership report, the quarterly workplace culture report that the shareholders gather and talk about.
O’Connor: I think it is because it’s all that intangible stuff. It’s much, much harder to measure when we’re looking at adaptive challenges. What are we going to see differently? You’re going to see more people engaged in this or that. A lot of people say—that’s not a measurement.
Green: Are you able to point to tangible things that are markers of success?
O’Connor: I think there’s some things you can point to, like more people asking questions in meetings or more people willing to go into deeper diagnosis. There are some things you can look for that are different than how much money the company made or our retention rate.
Griffin: Where do our opportunities lie for leadership in the workplace?
O’Connor: There’s a lot of opportunities there. Educating people on the purpose, framework and impact, and really talking to people about what is the impact you want. Do you want to change a culture? Are you really going in big and bold on this? Or are you just doing more of an incremental—I’ll send one or two people off. I can check the box. They have leadership development. They feel good, I feel good, and that’s the end. But the opportunity really is to look at the impact and what the possibilities are.
Green: Do you have a favorite leadership competency or principle?
O’Connor: I think diagnose situations because there’s so much there. And if you don’t take your time and feel that out, then you’re not going to make a lot of progress. I would just start there.
Green: That’s interesting. I wonder what this tells about us. I’m a ‘raise the heat guy’ myself. What do you hope people listening to this podcast would take away from this?
O’Connor: I would hope they would reconsider what models of training they’re looking at and overall investment and then what they could get out of that. So, I would really encourage them not to just do a rubber stamp, send one or two people, but really think about sending an entire team and see what happens with that. Send an entire organization and see what that looks like.
Green: OK. We’ll make room if they want to send their whole organization. We’ll figure out a way.
Discussion between Green and Griffin after the main conversation:
Green: One of the things I’m thinking about is how to bring leadership training and trying to change a culture in a workplace are in and of themselves acts of leadership. If you send a bunch of people to leadership training, there are going to be factions—people who really resonate with it, people who are like ‘meh’ and people who don’t like it. And then you have to throw those people back in the same place together to figure out how to work together and how to use these ideas. And it sounds like there’s a giving-the-work-back aspect of it that you try to find those champions, those people who are going to try to make it make sense for the people who struggle with it.
Griffin: I’ve talked about this with my mom. Before I started working at KLC, I knew nothing about the leadership center. Reading through our core principles and going through that first class, if I’m being honest, I’m probably one of the people who was like, ‘I’ll take it or I’ll leave it.’ But that’s not because I didn’t agree with what was being said. It was because my family had been living those principles for so long.
Green: We kind of acknowledge that. Even though we think the language is special and these are important ideas, they’re also ideas a lot of people practice. They’re not a complete revelation. Maybe the revelation is in the experience and the number of people going through it, but the ideas in and of themselves for a lot of people are common sense.
Griffin: Yeah. But the big reason to go through the trainings would be to learn how to diagnose a situation. Because you can have experience diagnosing a situation and learn you’ve been doing it all wrong. Or you haven’t been giving multiple interpretations. Or you’re not used to hearing multiple interpretations; you’re just used to giving them. So, I do think our trainings are beneficial.
Green: Yeah. Or you could do it really, really well in certain situations but find you don’t have the skill or knowledge to do it in all the situations you need to do to be effective in your role or have the life or society you want. Most people will have a range of leadership interventions that they’re really successful at, and the challenge is expanding the range and expanding the number of situations they can be effective in and expanding the challenges, because the challenges are always changing into something different. It is the whack-a-mole we talked about. That’s the nature of an adaptive challenge, and it’s usually multiple moles, not just one, that are coming at you. It’s being able to have that skill to step in and start whacking the moles you’re missing.
Griffin: Yeah. You’re a part of the senior team, and I’m not. I want to know how our experiences might be different in applying everyone can lead into our workplace.
Green: To reflect: I wasn’t always on the senior team. When I came into KLC, my title was senior communications associate, which is just a very strange combination of words. I don’t know what it meant back then. I wasn’t on the senior team. I was on the outside looking in. And I think when you get to a senior level in an organization, you realize the stories people tell about your decision-making power may on occasion be more profound than you actually feel in those moments. You feel just as confused, and it always feels like there’s someone who might have more say or more power or more authority in a situation. So, clearly where I’m at in the organization, I impact more people by how I engage and the decisions I make, and I’m still impacted by lots of people, at different levels of the organization. They shape my behavior, and I’m trying to be effective with all of them. And I think having the experience of coming up through an organization, I don’t forget what it was like to be an associate or a manager. Now that I’m an executive, I remember those things. And I also know I don’t clearly remember those things, so I’d better listen to people at those levels, because if I don’t, I’m going to miss something. I can’t just trust that my prior experience is going to tell me what I need to know to be effective right now and to help make this organization what I hope it can be. And it’s a really good place, but it can always be a better place.
Griffin: Was it difficult for you to try to get into that role as a manager?
Green: For a lot of time, I was a manager who didn’t really manage anybody on staff. I managed people who worked on The Journal. I managed a team of contractors. So, I think it’s different now that I manage people in an organization. It’s just more complicated, and there’s lots of different parts of the organization to answer to, and it feels like I have to be better and develop more skills to be able to help give people the right direction. There’s protection, direction and order. And then there’s giving them the chance to define their job and to define what they’re doing and to experiment, and to know that how I see what they can do may not be the limits of what they can actually do, that they need to figure out what that job looks like. Yet everything they do also reflects on me. So, I am judged on the basis of the people I oversee, what they do. But if I want them to prosper, then protection, direction and order can only go so far in making it possible for people to really thrive. You need some of it, but you need freedom and independence and agency to do your work.
Griffin: It seems like you would have to have a lot of trust in whoever you’re managing to be able to be in that sweet spot to give them direction and also be able to say, ‘You can go and do your own thing, but please don’t make me look bad.’
Green: Before we go, I want to get back to when everyone leads. I’ve been thinking about this and about something my parents told me, probably my mom, that you can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all the time. Well, maybe when everyone leads is true, but maybe it’s not that everyone leads at exactly the same moment. Maybe we need workplace cultures where everyone is trying to lead in their moment. And that there are moments in this organization where I’m not leading and I should be leading. But because there’s somebody here with the skill and capacity and agency to lead, that they can pick up the slack and move us forward when I’m not able to do that. And maybe I pick them up. And what matters is that we have enough people doing it that we keep moving. We have enough solar power to keep the car moving. And that’s what the key is.