The changes brought about and accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic are numerous. Our day-to-day lives have been altered, forcing rapid adaptation. A new report from the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants and EY Seren, explores the patterns of behavior emerging from this uncertain time. The report, Human Signals, also offers actions for accountants to take. This episode, the second of two parts, takes an in-depth look at what the report’s findings mean for leaders and organizations.
In part one, Association CEO and AICPA President and CEO Barry Melancon, CPA, CGMA, shared more about this transformational time. Then Joel Bailey, a director at EY Seren and a report author, delved into the research behind the report. (Click here to listen.)
In this second part, executive coach and consultant Gretchen Pisano offers practical applications from the report and discusses how its findings dovetail with what she’s hearing from leaders. Pisano is the CEO and co-founder of pLink Leadership, a management consultancy that provides leadership development and executive coaching.
What you’ll learn from this episode:
- Why Pisano had a client say: “We’ve moved about a dozen languishing long-term goals ahead at warp speed.”
- The reasons empathetic leadership is seen differently now.
- The ways that the pandemic has changed the importance of organizational culture.
- Practical applications for organizations and leaders moving forward.
- Why an organization’s focus should be on momentum, not achievement.
Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:
To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another podcast, contact Neil Amato, a JofA senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.
Neil Amato: Gretchen Pisano, thank you for being on the podcast.
Gretchen Pisano: Thank you, Neil. It’s nice to be here.
Amato: How does the research in the report correlate with the reality that leaders face?
Pisano: Well, I think it’s a great question, right, because the research is always helpful to look at, but we want to kind of understand what does that look like in terms of lived experience. And I just want to say that the answers that I share with you are going to be speaking from the point of view of leaders who’ve intentionally invested in their own growth and adaptation. Because our insight to this comes from the thousands of hours we spend coaching leaders and, oftentimes, the way in which those leaders are sharing their experiences in their organizations and what they’re doing. So I think it would just be important to know that’s the lens.
So, I would guess, I think there’s about six main ways in which this research is showing up in what we’re hearing from them. And so, the first is this idea of a super focus shifting, and there is a bigger focus now on this combination of individual and collective development, right? So they’re paying attention to both “How am I changing as a team?” and “Am I bringing my organization along with me?” and going back and forth between those two focuses. They are also really adopting this idea of learn-unlearn-relearn, right? When you think about what does it mean to adapt, you have to learn something new that challenges your old belief and models, and then unlearn what you’ve been doing, and then relearn, right?
So, my husband and I joke around this all the time about the difference with backup cameras versus turning around and looking, you know, or using your sideview mirrors. So, for people that happened to be alive when that innovation arrived, we have to make the decision to learn using the backup camera and unlearn the other thing. Whereas, for, like, my kids who aren’t driving yet, they’ll never have to unlearn; they’re going to use the backup cameras. So that shift in focus is number one.
Number two is this whole idea of grappling with emotion, right, that in the past was something that people said, “Don’t get emotional about it,” right, or, “Don’t bring emotion to work.”
But actually, it turns out that that’s the missing leg of the stool, that is what we need, to be able to do the innovating and get to the creativity that we want, because emotion is fuel. And so now, all of a sudden, they’re noticing it doesn’t feel like an option to ignore it anymore. Which, in the past, I think kind of the old-school, command-and-control leaders would say, “I don’t really have much tolerance for feelings. They don’t belong here.” Now we’re realizing we need to acknowledge them. We need to show up with empathy. We need to deal with our own. We need greater emotional literacy.
So, this whole idea around emotion, being present and not ignorable in the workplace, and as like, “Hey, if we get good at this, this is actually part of my competitive advantage.” And embedded in that is the piece around grief that showed up in the research, too. So, of all the emotions out there, the negative emotions, grief is incredibly powerful, and many people have never really been taught how to recognize that and deal with it productively. And we have this definition of it being about loss of a person, right, loss of love, but what the research points out is grief comes with loss of identity, loss of autonomy, loss of independence. It’s a big emotion that we would all do well to have a greater amount of literacy and agility with.
This whole idea around adapting — that is huge, and our client base, they are looking at, “What do we need to let go of? What beliefs do we need to challenge? What do we need to let go of?” And then, as a result of letting go of them, “What are the artifacts we need to make go away?” Because every organization has artifacts that kind of memorialize the things they believe to be true, right, so you kind of get rid of that. But they’re all really seeking to understand this notion of adaptation, and that is a big deal for us as coaches. We talk to our clients all the time.
We are the only creature on the planet who can decide to decide, right? We get to choose that. And so, when we talk about adaptation, it means that we’re becoming better suited to our environment. And to be able to become better suited to our environment, we need to be awake to and aware of how the environment is changing around us, and how we are showing up in that new environment. So that’s a big piece of it. And then I would say two more. One is that, in some cases, I think a lot of people went into it thinking COVID was going to bring everything to a standstill.
But in fact, what we’re seeing is that it’s an accelerant in some places. So we have some clients who’ve said, “Wow, like, we’ve moved” — this is actually a quote — “we’ve moved about a dozen languishing long-term goals ahead at warp speed working remotely. We went from, ‘We don’t work remotely. We don’t support flexible schedules,’ to, ‘We are working remotely.’” Like a definitive statement. So now, how do we do that exceptionally well and across the whole organization? This is what happens when resistance evaporates, and all of a sudden, something can surge forward.
And then, the last piece that I would add to it, also from the research, is this idea that the emphasis has shifted in leadership to be more inclusive of people development. In the past, empathetic leadership was seen or discounted, I could say, as kind of soft leadership, and culture was seen as a way to fill your pipeline and retain your best talent. Now, empathetic leadership is being recognized as emotionally intelligent leadership, leadership that engages, right? And when you engage people, you get all that discretionary effort. And we are able to see that culture is so much more, like, culture is strategy, right?
It’s not secondary to strategy. It is strategy. Because culture tells the people of an organization how to prioritize and approach the problems of the organization. And I think in the past, it was like the emphasis was on the wrong syllable, right? We were just so focused. And now, all of a sudden, it was, like, “Oh, OK, this is it, now we’ve got to” — and it just tipped it. It tipped it over. And the very last point I will make on this, which is embedded in the research although not called out, and I think because it’s newer, is pace, right, this warp speed that one of our clients referred to.
What we are seeing across our client base is that there’s this sort of — all the channels are open, input is coming in for people across, whether that’s the phone, the LinkedIn, the Facebook, the Instagram, the company website, the newsletter. All those channels are open, and there’s lots of opportunity. And there’s this undercurrent of urgency to everything, like, people are turning things [snaps] so quickly. So, this is something that I would just flag, because it’ll be the next thing where people need to say, “I need to figure out how I’m going to put my boundaries in place and manage this.”
Amato: That’s a lot of great insight in that first question. So, the next one is, then, what are some of those truly practical applications for leaders and organizations in this time of profound change?
Pisano: I had an opportunity to think about this question and try to keep things as straightforward as possible, so the expectation would be that people who are listening to this might pick one of these, right? It’s not about doing all of them. And where you want to focus right now is on momentum, not achievement, right? So, in your own personal growth about momentum but also in your firm, you want to be thinking about how you create and build momentum. Because once you get going, it gets easier. And if we’re always focused on achievement and just ticking the box, then we kind of miss the opportunities of momentum.
So that’s what these are about. Start where it’s easy. Don’t start where it’s hard. Start where it’s easy. Start where there’s — I call it the will of the organization, you know, people have interest. So, the first thing I would suggest is invest in the rapid development of emotional intelligence, and self and team and organization. And I’m not just talking about going out and getting a course on emotional intelligence. I’m talking about emphasizing that skill within your organization and really helping people integrate these three legs of the stool that make up the human being. So, our cognitive superpower, our physical bodies, which include both our capacity to do as well as feel, and then our emotions, right?
Like, we need to have all three of those systems running at the same level of operating software. And we have, over the last century, significantly upgraded the cognitive system, and we have all kinds of things in place to develop the physical system, guidelines, places where we can exercise it, whatever else, and we’ve left the emotional system to just develop on its own. And it’s really important that we start paying attention to that and mature it. And so, the way to do that, what I would say is, number one, the Dare to Lead curriculum is one of the most transformational leadership development curriculums I’ve done in my 25-year career.
And we are doing it across all the industries, so it’s a huge step up in leadership. And also noticeable is that, when we go into organizations, the very most senior leadership teams say, “Do this with us first, and then we want to cascade it into the organization.” Which is quite different. Traditional leadership, a lot of times, is senior leaders have you come in and they say, “We’re good. Like, we’re all good. We need to work with all those people out there.” So this is a real step change. So, Dare to Lead has a global network. You can go online and find a practitioner who is local to you, or you can do a self-study. You can go to their hub and do a self-study and allow that to permeate throughout your organization. There are other approaches to this, for sure. I would just say that’s the one that I’ve seen that’s been the most transformational.
Next, build a tolerance for the emotional experience of vulnerability. So, in the research, you saw that word, like, thread through, right? But this whole idea of vulnerability is a learn-unlearn-relearn, because we’re talking about relational vulnerability, this experience of sort of risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure when we’re trying to do something that we’ve never done before.
We’re not talking about physical vulnerability, or even systems vulnerability, right? We want systems vulnerability to not be present. We want our systems to be able to sustain. And physical vulnerability is a threat to our survival. Relational vulnerability is not, but it triggers the same response in our system. So, we have to unlearn our definition of vulnerability and understand this as an emotional experience that is actually telling us we’re about to be brave. Because you can’t be brave without also being vulnerable. And what we see a lot is organizations, people, leaders, the entire organization, who are unwilling to be vulnerable.
They’ve spent decades making sure that they have that perfect façade, right? Never make a mistake, strive for perfection, don’t let people see you sweat, don’t make a mistake. They are unwilling to be vulnerable, so they spend a tremendous amount of time and energy trying to engineer the vulnerability out of a bold move. And what happens then is it takes forever to make the bold move, and then when you actually do something, it’s not bold; it’s incremental. You just did something, but it wasn’t actually the big move. So you’ve got to build this tolerance into the organization for that emotional experience and see it as a calling to be brave, rather than a red flag.
Number three, bust the mindset of returning to normal. So, people say, “When will we get back to work?” You’re already working, right? You’re already working. You’re just not working in the same way or in the same location. So you could say, “When will we get back to working in the office?” But using language that says when we will get back implies that this is one big circular trajectory we’re on. And catalytic change does not create a circle; it’s an iteration, like an upside-down corkscrew, right? It’s like we level up as we go; we don’t return back to go.
So you want to just kind of bust that mindset, and any time you hear somebody talking about, “Well, we’re just going to do this temporarily,” kind of pause the conversation and say, “Let’s make the assumption that this change we’re making is going to be permanent. How would we do it if this was the way we were doing it forever going forward?” You know, not forever, obviously. Nothing lasts forever, but within that reasonable [amount of time]. Number four is another mindset that has to do with the culture, so really bust the mindset that culture is secondary to strategy, and it’s a nice-to-have because we might get on the list of the top 100 places to work.
But that, really, everybody is accountable to creating the culture. And what you want to do there is highlight the importance of culture as a strategic investment, and really invest and value agile thinkers who can ride that curve of surprise-fear-embrace. Because they will be faster to adapt than the others. The next one is really investing in preparing your employees to participate in difficult conversations around racial equality in a more skillful way. One of the mistakes that I’ve seen organizations do is think about — well, I should say two mistakes. One is to think about [diversity and inclusion] as something separate than leadership development.
So, the diversity, equity, and inclusion conversations are a core component of leadership. They’re not separate, and they should be embedded in all the conversations, not a parallel conversation. And I’ve seen organizations create the space for those conversations to happen, but they don’t invest ahead of time in helping people be able to participate in those conversations in a more skillful way. And I think that the people we’re talking about helping to prepare are the people who are representative of the dominant demographic, the dominant culture. So, white people need to have an opportunity to prepare themselves to participate in those conversations more skillfully.
So that could be reading [How to Be An Antiracist] by Ibram Kendi, or it could be reading White Fragility, but whatever it is, you know, we don’t just throw them into these complex conversations and say, “Speak only from your lived experience.” We need to help them broaden the perspective and be ready to have that conversation. And this, Neil, is just part of a bigger thing here that says our environment is getting more complex, so we need to develop the complexity of our mind as well, and not just see things in a binary way or just from our position.
I would suggest making “what if, so that” conversations part of everything you’re doing, right? It’s this idea of always being willing to dream, to brainstorm, “What if we did X-Y-Z, so that we could realize this?”
Nothing is off the table. Anything is possible. And if we can create within our organizations a norm around questioning the status quo, rather than trying to protect it long enough, thinking we’re going to go back to it, then we have a real opportunity to reinvent. And sometimes, our biggest gains happen by reinventing the small things, and we just get all these, like, compounding benefits.
And then, the last thing is emphasizing that adaptation is the key skill. Recognize it and reward it. Support people who are adapting quickly. So, this whole idea about flexible schedules, encouraging real-life virtual experiences, meaning, like, when we’re having a Zoom meeting, you don’t have to have the perfect background. It’s OK for us to see, you know, how you’re living.
And then, redefining what professional means. Like, you don’t have to show up in your suit and tie, right? We’ve been doing some training with some leaders in the military, and it’s such a different experience for them to be able to show up in civilian clothes and have a real conversation. And really building autonomy into the system, so that people can figure out how to meet the expectations, but in a way that works for them, right? So you have core agreements that hold together the most vital communications and the handoffs that need to happen within the organization, but if I’m a person who prefers to work at night, as long as I’m hitting my deliverables, you can count on me to be working at night and getting those deliverables done.
So, really, it’s this idea of recognizing it when people are doing that and also extending lots of generosity and grace in the process as people are figuring it out. And one of the things that I’ve noticed is that, when we all got pushed quickly to work from home, people were trying to figure out how to make that happen no matter where they were, right? And it’s really important that where we’re working is conducive to our well-being. We know that, already, we know it in office space That’s why we went into open space, among other things, collaboration, but also open space, place that had natural light, a place that’s pleasing for your body.
So, if you’re sitting in a cruddy kitchen chair, for eight hours of conference calls a day, even if your brain is telling you, “This is great work. I loved talking with Neil today,” your body is screaming at you that it’s dreading the next day. But it’s not about the work; it’s about sitting in the chair. You can wait it out in the hopes that you’re going to go back to the office, or you could start to think about, “How do I want to create my workspace so that it is conducive to my well-being? My Zoom background is something that I like looking at, because I see it all day long in the process of talking to other people, and my physical body is comfortable, and I’m intentional about moving it during the day.”
So that’s just a really good example of the difference between recognizing that something has changed and you’re going to adapt versus kind of white-knuckling it and not paying attention to changing the way in which you’re showing up in that new environment, to make it better for you. The better it is for you, the more productive you’re going to be.
Amato: Some great points, there on adaptation — that was excellent. What have you observed can get in the way sometimes of leader or company change, and how do they get over those hurdles?
Pisano: Two things. So, one is overcomplicating things, right? Feeling like something has to be really detailed out or complex. So, for example, we used to do visioning exercises that took a day, and this is something I think you can do in 90 minutes with your team, and then that way, it becomes a very agile process instead of something where you’d need to get a whole bunch of time off people’s calendars, and some kind of a grueling long virtual meeting. So, in 90 minutes, you can clarify purpose with your team, by simply bringing them together virtually. You can use Google Docs or a whiteboard and Zoom, to be able to collect people’s thoughts.
And you just ask them a series of questions. The first question is, “What do we want it to feel like to work on this team?” And everybody describes that with three adjectives. Second question: “What do we want people to say about us when we’re not in the room?” Three adjectives, right? Next question: “In 24 words or less, what are we here to do? And what’s at stake if we don’t do it?” And then lastly, “What will the future look like when we do?”
So, that set of questions can be accomplished in a collaborative workspace in 90 minutes. You’ll be able to say, instantly, where the overlap is in the organization, on your team, right, you can do it whatever level you want to do it at. And then, from there, you can create this clarified sense of purpose that lives until it’s time to do it again, right? Very minor investment, and what you get really clear on is kind of the north star that everybody’s heading towards. So, that’s just an example of how to make what could easily turn into a very complex process a very simple one.
And the other thing is simply resistance. So, in the past, we had the luxury to ignore resistance; we ignored it in ourselves and we ignored it in the organization, right? We just worked around resistant people. And I just think that’s a luxury right now that you really don’t want to be affording. So, if you’re noticing resistance in yourself — and what emotional resistance looks like is delaying having a difficult conversation, avoiding taking on a project, avoiding a conversation about stopping something. So if you’re noticing resistance in yourself — or actually a big one is resisting feedback, right, like, “That’s not true,” or just getting defensive about it.
So, if you’re noticing it in yourself and you’re the leader, get yourself a coach. To be a transformational leader, you have to transform. For an organization to innovate, it has to change, so you have to remove the resistance and the drag from the organization. So, individually, if it’s in you, then get a coach, because that’s their job is to be your thought partner and sounding board and help you get to the bottom of that. And if you notice it outside of you, in your larger organization, then attend to it, right? Have the difficult conversation and dissolve it. And just make it part of your way of approaching, that you just remove every bit of friction from the system that you can, because it’s just going to put drag on you and on the organization.
Amato: Gretchen, thank you very much, that’s been an excellent summation.
Pisano: You’re welcome. It’s a lot, so hopefully, they can pick the one that works for them, and just try one thing.