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Nov 30, 2021
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30. CEO, Kadabra
30. CEO, Kadabra
Jeff interviews Wendy Ryan, CEO of Kadabra who shares about what it looks like to create a surge of positive change as a leader. They discuss how to change the things that hold leaders back, and the impact of mindsets in our work. Wendy shares some problems found with the commonly used model of meritocracy, and what to do about it. Wendy has been the CEO of the consulting firm Kadabra since 2014, and she is the author of the book "Learn Lead Lift." She is an equity & inclusion advocate, a speaker, advisor, and a facilitator. Her team includes an interdisciplinary group of leadership and change experts who are all on a mission to grow exceptional leaders and teams.

Transcript

Intro: Duration: (01:29)

Opening music jingle & sound effects

Jeff Hunt:

Hey everyone. I'm Jeff Hunt, and this is the Human Capital podcast produced by GoalSpan. My goal on this podcast is to uncover the deeply human aspect of work. Today we're going to talk about what it looks like to create a surge of positive change as a leader. We'll discuss how to change the things that are holding us back and how we even know what those things actually are.

My guest is also going to share a new framework to consider, which will help us better understand the difference between leaders and managers. She's going to talk about the impact of mindsets in our work, and some unknown problems that are found with the commonly used model of meritocracy in organizations.

My guest today is Wendy Ryan. Wendy is the CEO of Kadabra, which is a consulting firm. And she's been CEO there since 2014. She is also the author of the book learn, lead, lift, which we will hear about today. Wendy is an equity and inclusion advocate. She's a speaker advisor and a facilitator, and her team includes an interdisciplinary group of leadership and change management experts who are on a mission to grow exceptional leaders and teams.

Welcome, Wendy!

Wendy Ryan:

Hi, Jeff. Happy to be here.

Topic 1 Who or what inspired you to become a leader? (01:30)

Jeff Hunt:

Well, it's great to have you on the show today. I'm so excited to actually talk about this topic, which intersects with a topic that so sorts of cogent in today's business world, which is mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. And so I know we're going to get to touch on that.

But before we do, I would love to hear a little bit about your backstory. Was there one person or event that inspired you to take this path that you have been on early in your career?

Wendy Ryan:

Yeah, I love the question. I had the opportunity when I was in high school to go to a leadership camp and cask was the organization. And I remember going there. It was really the first time that I had any idea that facilitation was a thing or that teams could kind of grow and evolve much like human organisms. And that really lit a fire for me in understanding some of the things I was just inherently interested in were things that I could actually do for a living.

And I remember thinking at that time, how lucky would I be if I got to do this kind of work someday in the future, I also had the sense that it wasn't something that, one could just pursue as a straight direct path, and I think that very much remains true today. A lot of us come to leadership development, facilitation work after having done some other things or some related things.

So I don't know that that that's changed and if that's good or bad, I don't know if we can decide that. But I remember that that was really a catalyzing moment for me in kind of saying this is a possibility.

Jeff Hunt:

So many of us have those internal passions that are hardwired. We just have to let them come out, right? Was there any person as well? So when you think back, did anyone inspire you specifically?

Wendy Ryan:

I think I was lucky to be the daughter of a nurse who was herself, also a leader, although I don't know. Kay would've identified herself that way. My mom and my stepdad were more comfortable, I think, with that definition of a leader, because he was a public company CEO. And so, and I talk about this a little bit in the book, but I really got a lot out of our dinner table conversations of just them comparing stories of all the different things and the dynamics that would go on in there in their respective workplaces and how they navigated that and how they pondered kind of the big questions around identity and around, what was right and what was wrong.

Were they being too harsh or too lenient? And it was just, you know, looking back, I don't think I appreciated at the time as most young people do. In that present moment, we're not necessarily aware of the learning that could be happening there, but I really have realized as I get older how valuable that was and how eye-opening.

Topic 2. Creating a positive change as a leader (05:08)

Jeff Hunt:

Yeah, it seems very lucky to have that exposure from your parents, which really stoked those coals of excitement to bring you to where you are today. So I love that you shared that with us. I want to ask you a little bit about Kadabra and this actually connects to your vision, and you talk about it in your book as well, which I really appreciated reading your book.

I think it's a great resource. We will put a link to the book in our show notes. So those of you that come to our human capital site will find it there, but your vision at Kadabra. Talks about creating a surge of positive change in the organizations we lead. What does that look like?

Wendy Ryan:

I think it certainly depends on the organization and on the people in that organization. I would say that the common assumption that underlies that is our belief that we are really under-utilizing the talent that we have all around us. And there are a lot of reasons for that. And some of them are because there are some structural things that make it hard for people to operate at their areas of highest contribution.

Some of it is more situational or contextual, but I think as leaders and as practitioners of leadership development, team development. We always want to engage with clients from the perspective of what is possible. Right. And how can we dream bigger for not just what the organization can achieve, but what the people in the organization can achieve? So, unlocking that synergy that's possible really starts with having that positive assumption. It's kind of like if you think of the term growth mindset and apply that on an organization-wide scale, we always look at what is the growth that is possible here? And I believe that when you can catalyze that, ultimately it leads you to many more positive outcomes.

Jeff Hunt:

And is that only take place when we sort of pause as leaders and we're intentional about zooming out and looking at the strategic instead of the tactical? Because we just get so buried every day. I mean, and I'm guilty of this too, running my own organization. You're putting out fires, you're dealing with interruptions. Whatever. So would you agree?

Wendy Ryan:

I would, I think generally as humans, we're not particularly good at long-term thinking we really have to learn and teach ourselves and teach each other how to do that better because we're really wired for survival in the present moment. If we really think about it for most of our history, that's been the biological imperative that we've inherited.

So. It's no surprise that then as we become leaders and we're running our own organization, or we're leading a division of an organization that's kind of our default is to think about the here and now most of the time. And certainly, on a lot of days, that's really appropriate and we need to deal with the here and now.

So, I would never want to say, we need to just put all of that aside. And there's some real benefit when we build in the pause that you're talking about to take a step back and say, Hmm, what are some potential outcomes from this decision or action in 12 months, not just in the next week or the next month or the next three months?

We uncover a lot more possibilities that way, and then we can kind of back into, Hey, if there are one or two outcomes, we really prefer. Over another here, what can we start doing right now to make that more likely?

Jeff Hunt:

It seems like there are some good examples in the business, of leaders that are starting to do those very well-known leaders like the CEO or former CEO of Unilever. Who literally told wall street, we are no longer going to report quarterly earnings. I mean, talking about something, putting your money where your mouth is. And of course, there's a lot of pushback and blowback because people want the play by play. But ultimately what you're saying is it seems like in many ways that myopic view can be very destructive for organizations, can’t it?

Wendy Ryan:

Yes. And I think as we are increasingly aware of sort of large-scale looming challenges like climate change or geopolitical instability and the wealth gap and things that are really very, very widespread and significant issues that affect people globally. It becomes, I think, more and more important that we are able to take that longer view and really understand the costs of not taking that longer view.

So it's kind of like that return on investment equation is shifting and it needs to shift. And it does take courage from leaders like the former CEO of Unilever to say, I'm going to lead the way on this because I realized that I have influence over my peers and the system. And if I declare that we're going to start doing something different, that some people are going to follow and that's a good thing.

Topic 3. The merits and flaws of meritocracy in business. (11:06)

Jeff Hunt:

Yeah. And I'm reflecting on how strong that leadership move really was because, he knew he was gonna walk into a conflictual situation and that there was going to be a lot of pushback, but as convictions on the benefit were so high that he chose to go ahead and do that. So really appreciate that.

I mentioned this in the introduction a little bit, the concept of meritocracy. Which seems like still very commonly used form of self-selection in business today. What do you see as some of the fundamental flaws in this model?

Wendy Ryan:

Yeah, I think meritocracy is something that many of us could agree conceptually sounds wonderful. It sounds like it's a way of operating a company or organization or a team where individual effort has a lot to do with the outcomes that we're going to achieve and that's appealing for lots of reasons. The downside is that we've really made an assumption.

I think through most of the 20th century as we sort of thought about leadership, as you know, leaders look like a certain person, they're tall, white cisgender heterosexual men is kind of became our normative ideal. And so when you couple that with the idea of meritocracy, what happens is if you get a bunch of people together that all share that same normative, ideal, and identity, it's they're essentially starting from the same starting line.

And then individual effort can really be a strong determinant of where you end up and what success you have. However, as we become increasingly diverse along with all measures of demographics, age, and ethnicity, and gender, and being able-bodied or not the neuro-typical or not.

That starts to become a problem because essentially we're not all starting from the same starting line. And so someone that holds identities that are very different from that normative ideal, can be putting in two or three times the effort that someone that looks like you or me could be putting in.

They're never going to catch up to where we are. And that's not because they lacked talent or commitment or work ethic. So, meritocracy works great when you have a fairly homogenous group, but when you get much more diverse we see that it becomes really problematic.

Jeff Hunt:

And what are some strategies that organizations can deploy to make sure to not run into that problem? Because what you're really talking about are oftentimes very deeply rooted, systemic cultural issues within organizations. So, what can companies do to affect positive change in this area?

Wendy Ryan:

I think a lot of things that impact biological systems and human systems really behave more like biological systems than mechanistic ones.

By that, I mean that you know, with a mechanical system, which a lot of our leadership and management models are actually based on, a mechanical systems framework. A certain amount of input goes into the machine something happens and then there's a very predictable output. And with humans, it works totally different.

And with a lot of other biological systems, you might give a set of instructions to someone who works for you, and person A hearing those instructions might do what you think they're going to do. And you're going to get that output that you thought you were going to get. But person B might be getting the same exact instructions at the same exact time, but something happens that maybe we are clear or not clear about.

And then the output is somehow different. We don't have the same degree of predictability with biological systems or human systems that we do with mechanical ones. That's one assumption that we really need to disrupt in leadership right away is say that even if I give you a recipe to follow, how do you correct for this?

Realize that the outcomes are not entirely predictable and we have to get a little more comfortable with that idea, to begin with. Also, assuming that we know what people want and need to succeed is another thing that we want to disrupt right away. I was in a call the other day where I really saw this in action.

It was a group of wonderful practitioners. We all happen to hold very similar identities. And there were probably 25 people on this call. And at one point the facilitator said, well, what are we missing? And as I looked on the screen and I looked at all the faces, I thought to myself, wow, we are not the people to be asking ourselves this question, because who's not in the room with us.

So I think the other sort of entry point or starting point to what you're talking about in terms of, what do we do is realizing that. We don't have the answers and we need to invite the people in who are not like us to help us figure out what are the things we need to be doing for this particular organization at this particular time.

So it's being willing to share that leadership and that expertise with other people who traditionally may not have been the people we go to figure out tough problems in our organization.

Jeff Hunt:

And in pragmatic terms for managers, if I'm sort of stuck in this homogenous tech space because our company is valued, homogeny over time.

What are some very pragmatic steps that I can take in my day-to-day actions to begin to be disrupted? If you will and affect change within my own sphere of influence?

Wendy Ryan:

I think, first of all, taking an inventory of your personal and professional network is a really important starting point. Because again, for most of us, if we really do that analysis, and if we're engineers, some people might really enjoy this as, you know, look to your LinkedIn connections and do most of them look like you? Probably yes for most of us.

And so if that's true for you, I think it really starts by having some intentional outreach to people who share a different identity and doing things like attending events or conferences where issues and concerns that affect that community might be talked about. It's important because again, we don't know what we're missing until we put ourselves in a position to learn what are we missing.

But it also, as we intentionally look to connect with people who don't share our identities, then when we go out and we say, okay, now I, now I need to hire a new director of operations. We can go out and ask those people. To refer. We can ask those people, you know, we're really looking to hire to be less homogenous as a group.

Can you give me any ideas for where we could start? So the problem is most of us, just default to our existing network and then we, again end up just reinforcing that homogeneity. So I think that's a really important starting point, honestly.

Topic 4. Cultural competency and cultural humility (19:16)

Jeff Hunt:

Makes sense. Talk about the difference between cultural competency and cultural humility, which is one thing that I was kind of fascinated in reading your book.

Wendy Ryan:

Cultural competence is really a skill set. So in the book, we talk about the learning lead lift framework, being the intersection of three things, mindsets, how you think skill sets, what you know or know how to do, and then behavior, how you show up to others. And so I would put cultural competence as a skill.

We can, we can learn how to navigate our way as we're interacting with people, holding different identities as we're walking into spaces where a particular community is celebrating something meaningful. And maybe that's not something we're very knowledgeable about. All of those things are related to cultural competence.

So it's the ability to navigate your way. With grace in situations where people hold different identities than you. That's kind of the simplest way to talk about it. Cultural humility is something a bit different. It has cultural competence as a component, but it's really more of a mindset in that. It, it says fundamentally I don't walk around assuming that my identity is superior to anyone else's.

And because of that, I'm going to deliberately make sure that I'm not centering my identity ahead of others. And so particularly for leaders, we are naturally kind of put into the center oftentimes and people take their cues from us as to what's good, bad.

What's okay. What's not okay. What's a good hairstyle. What's not, I mean, you can see it in a lot of different ways showing up, but if I'm someone who really has a mindset of cultural humility, Then I'm going to be really aware of that fact. And I'm going to make sure that I take active steps to put other people into the middle, to highlight other people's successes for knowledge.

And it can look like real-time in a meeting me saying things like Joanne, you always have really great perspectives about that issue would you elaborate on this particular point? Or I'd really like to hear from Joe, you know, what his thoughts are. So it's inviting people to be the center of attention in situations where we might just kind of default to taking the ball and rolling with it.

So that would be a practical application of that cultural humility as a mindset.

Jeff Hunt:

It sounds like it really requires a high level of intentionality for leaders. And too, when you are in meetings especially to be very very aware of these different dynamics in a way they might not have been aware historically.

Another example I can think of is why is it that when we're in a meeting, oftentimes the executive will say, Hey, Alison, will you take notes? And Alison happens to be a young woman. And why is the young woman at the default in terms of the note-taker? That's not culturally sensitive.

What are your thoughts on that Wendy?

Wendy Ryan:

I love that example. I think that's, it seems like such a small thing in some ways, but it really that's the kind of small, intentional action that helps disrupt the things we're talking about, which is sort of what are the default normative ideal of who should be doing what? And it's really important.

Topic 5. The intersection of systems theory and accountability. (23:06)

Jeff Hunt:

So you just were talking briefly about systems theory, and its applicability to business and how it can be problematic, but can also help us. And I'm wondering about the intersection of systems theory and the importance of accountability. Is there a way to bring these two? Together in organizations to produce a better result and allow us to work better together.

Wendy Ryan:

I love this question, I think from my vantage point. Holding people accountable is one of the essential skillsets in the learns lead lift framework. And one of the reasons that it was integrated into the framework is based on my own experiences, working with leaders and teams and how time after time, I really observed how the inability or lack of will to hold people accountable.

In a team was just such a killer for productivity. I think I talked about it in the book as the fastest way to kill a high-performing team is to fail, to hold somebody accountable. I just observed this pattern so many times and the amount of work and effort that had been put into becoming a high-performing team.

Could be so large. And then this one action could so easily disrupt or dismantle that it was really clear to me that we need to pay a lot more attention to our ability to hold people accountable. And I think it comes down to it being uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable for us to call someone in for their behavior that is unproductive.

We don't necessarily do a great job training people. How to do that as leaders or helping people tolerate, I think I read was eight seconds of discomfort. Usually, when a conversation can be most awkward, people feel like it's an eternity, but if we quantify it and say, you know, am I willing to be really uncomfortable for eight seconds?

Most leaders might say, yeah. You know, and I think of it that way. And then I think of the potential payoff for the team. It seems like a really good trade.

Jeff Hunt:

A couple of observations too, on the accountability. I bet if you ask most leaders after they've held an employee accountable if they feel better or worse, they're probably going to say I feel better.

After that meeting's over, they're going to reflect that they feel better. The other thing I'm reflecting on Wendy is that, especially from a systems perspective, If we can build this into a cadence as a regular behavior in our organization, speaking is going to become easier and easier.

The analogy is if I want to be better at running. The hardest part is often putting on my running shoes. Right? So when I put on my running shoes, if I go running, then that's great. Once I start doing that regularly, then it becomes much easier. So the next time I go to hold an employee accountable, I bring back those neural pathways that were developed and exercised.

And I find that actually, I'm getting a little more comfortable each time I do this. Wouldn't you agree with that?

Wendy Ryan:

Absolutely it's practice and reinforcement. And I would add to that, that the other benefit is that if people become aware that this is happening, you know, that you're holding people accountable, that you're trying to embrace a new norm in the culture of the organization.

By and large, people will adapt to that over time. So it, so then when you do have those conversations and those incidents of holding someone accountable, it doesn't set off the three-alarm fire reaction that it can when it's so unusual. And your culture to have anybody ever do that. I mean, that's part of discomfort in that initial inertia we have to overcome is all about because it's so out of the pattern.

So if we reset the pattern, then the threat level around that for people is also much lower.

Jeff Hunt:

And by the way, I believe most employees want to be held accountable in part because it demonstrates that their manager is taking an interest in them and their performance.

Wendy Ryan:

Yes. People want attention, whether it's negative or positive. I think that we see that very clearly and young children, but it actually continues into adulthood. So one of the worst things you can do, as a manager or a leader is to come across as disengaged and uncaring. It is better to be telling someone, Hey I am interested in your performance. I'm concerned about these areas. Let's talk about how we can turn this around. That is far more motivating for most people than when we just disconnect and try to ignore something.

Topic 6. Lighting round questions (28:30)

Jeff Hunt:

Exactly. Completely agree. Let's shift into some lightning-round questions. I'm going to throw this out and you give me top-of-mind answers.

Wendy Ryan:

I'll do my best.

Jeff Hunt:

The first one is what are you most grateful for?

Wendy Ryan:

I am most grateful right now for my own health. Yeah, my own good health, right now.

Jeff Hunt:

Yeah. In the midst of the pandemic and waning its waning, but it gives us a new perspective on health. Doesn't it?

Wendy Ryan:

It does. And as someone who's getting a little bit older, there are more interesting things happening in terms of health all the time. So as part of the normal getting more mature process. So I am very grateful today. I am in good health today.

Jeff Hunt:

What's the most difficult leadership lesson you've learned over your career?

Wendy Ryan:

I would say the one that took me the longest to learn was that it wasn't always about me.

Jeff Hunt:

I have a feeling that's a very common one out there.

Wendy Ryan:

Sometimes when I have said something or suggested something or tried to move something forward and the reaction has not been what I hoped it would be. I think I, for a very long time really took that personally. And assumed it was because I wasn't doing something right. Or there was something inherent to me.

And I think I've finally come to the realization later that it isn't sometimes it's me. But not always.

Jeff Hunt:

That's great.

Wendy Ryan:

And that's very freeing.

Jeff Hunt:

Absolutely. Isn't it? It's a lot less burdensome to move through life with that approach and philosophy. Who's one person you would interview if you could live or not?

Wendy Ryan:

I would love to interview Stacy Abrams. She is someone who I'm very intrigued by because she strikes me as such a practical leader and so effective in creating momentum around a change in a relatively short period of time. So I have a sense that I could learn a lot from her.

Jeff Hunt:

What is your top book recommendation? If you have one.

Wendy Ryan:

Yeah, I do read a lot of books, so it's hard for me to narrow down, but I think that there's one that I think is kind of a classic, but it is Marshall Goldsmith's what got you here will get you there. That is a very good entry point for both leaders and coaches to understand what's possible when we're willing to challenge our mindsets and skillsets and behaviors as leaders.

Jeff Hunt:

What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?

Wendy Ryan:

I think one of the best pieces of advice was “you'll never succeed in business you're way too nice". And the reason that was the best for me is that I instantly had a question mark in me about, is that really true? And I think to a large extent that theme has informed my work. Is it possible to be both? Candid and kind. Is it really necessary to show up as tough, gruff, tall, and big to be successful in business? Or are there other ways that we can show up as effective in that domain? So even though it is not the advice I would have liked to get, it's probably been the most useful.

Jeff Hunt:

That is such a great piece of wisdom. I so appreciate your sharing that. So what's the single most important takeaway that you would like to leave with our listeners today?

Wendy Ryan:

I think the question that I hope leaders will be willing to ask themselves is why do I want to be a leader? And then who am I being as a leader, recognizing that it is up to us to define that and up to us, to embody what it is we think is truly most important.

Jeff Hunt:

Amazing wisdom today. Thank you so much, Wendy, for coming to the show today.

Wendy Ryan:

Thanks for having me, Jeff. It was a pleasure.


Outro(32:52)

Closing music jingle/sound effects

Jeff Hunt:

Thanks for listening to the show this week. We release new episodes every other Tuesday. Let me know what you thought of this episode by emailing humancapitalgoalspan.com. Human capital is produced by GoalSpan. Subscribe, wherever you get your podcasts. And please share this podcast with your colleagues, team, or friends. Thanks for being human kind.

Human Capital — 30. CEO, Kadabra
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