The Done Right Podcast
Episode 11

The Six Principles of Strategic Leadership with Trish Gorman


Welcome to the Done Right podcast. I'm Jordan Staples and over the past decade and a half, I've been studying how people live successful and satisfying lives, both in and outside of work. And here's what I've learned. People in the workforce who are successful and satisfied are the ones that show up, pitch in, and make an impact in their companies. They are the ones who know how to get stuff done but do it right. So our mission for this podcast is to deliver insight and inspiration to fuel the way you show up at work today. 

[Jordan] Welcome to Workfront headquarters. I am here with the one and only Dr. Trish Gorman. She is a friend of ours from the University of Utah. Trish, welcome. 

[Trish] Thank you very much. Very happy to be here. 

[Jordan] Yeah, why don’t you give the audience a little bit of an introduction to you. Tell me about your background, your experience, and then we'll dive into it. 

[Trish] Ok. Well, normally, I would make a pretty brief background, but I think I'm gonna take the opportunity now to say a few extra words because I think it'll tee up what we're going to talk about today, which is strategic leadership. 

I came through mathematics, actually. I started out studying math and I thought that algorithms and numbers could get us all the answers. I'm thinking maybe you guys here at Workfront have some insights there that I didn't have way back in the day. But I started out as an internal consultant trying to solve difficult problems for big companies. And I only did that for a little while before I realized I wanted more education. So I went back and got an MBA out in California. And then I went back to consulting, and I joined a little startup called the LEK Partnership. And we were doing all kinds of really interesting work ranging from branding and marketing. At the time, there was a lot of consolidation in different industries. So it was kind of classic strategy consulting, but very rapidly, one of my clients offered to give me a real-world example of how to actually not just recommend for a project, but actually implement the recommendations. 

So I jumped off and I worked in a real company for a little while, found out it was much more challenging than just making the recommendations, which led me back to school again. So I went into a program where I got a Ph.D. in strategy and economics. But through all this, I had the opportunity to work with some really amazing teams of people, and to realize that it's not just the numbers, it's not just the answer you get, it's how you execute, how you implement. So if you want the name dropping side of my bio, I spent a lot of time with McKinsey and Company as a consultant and later as a strategy expert, and actually boomeranged back in there and served for a little while as their director of global strategy learning. 

I worked with Deloitte for a while as their director of eminence, which is what they call thought leadership on growth, which was also an effort to try to sort out how do we actually help companies succeed in a way that isn't so academic that it can't be brought back to the real world. I had a chance to work with Jack Welch, helped him build a school called the Jack Welch Management Institute, started off just writing one of his courses and one thing led to another, and eventually, I was the dean and the place. I helped him to then sell it successfully. And it's still running today with thousands of students. And I'm very lucky that my path led me to Utah, because I'm very happy right now at the Goff Strategic Leadership Center, at the Eccles School at the University of Utah, where I also teach strategy. And some of these kinds of topics are the kind of thing I get to talk about every day with students. So a bit of a consultant, a bit of an academic, bit of a business person, and a seeker. 

[Jordan] Very cool. We're so excited to have you. You and I have been working together, I guess, for the last couple of years. We were introduced as Workfront and the University of Utah have kind of come together in a partnership. And I am excited to dig into our topic today. Which is really going to be about strategic leadership. When I first heard about the Goff Strategic Leadership Center, I was like, cool, they're adding strategic onto the front end of leadership. It's basically a leadership development, you know, sort of curriculum if you will. Why don't you school me a little bit on strategic leadership? What is it, and what is it not? And let’s just dig in there. 

[Trish] Great. And I'm so glad you're so forthright about this because when we thought about having a center, we really wanted to build people's leadership skills. But that's such a broad thought. That's everything from charismatic leadership, which is how you harnessed your personality to influence people all the way through servant leadership, where you work in service to your team. And there are so many kinds of leadership. But being a business school and really caring about creating value for your company, for your shareholders, for society, really gave us a very clear direction on carving out a piece that we're calling strategic leadership. So that's not to say it's better or worse than any other kind of leadership, it's just different. It's a subset. And strategy is about future-focused, important decisions that help organizations or teams succeed. So we want to look at the kinds of leadership decisions and behaviors and skills that advance those kinds of things. We think that strategic leaders are relentlessly focused on creating value. So they’re always thinking about how can I help my team achieve its goals? How can I help my organization compete more favorably or bring better products to market? So those kinds of decisions tend to be longer-term future-focused. Risky. But if there's no risk, there's no reward. 

[Jordan] Isn't that the same? So my question is, aren't all leaders, like those who walk around with manager, director, or VP as their job title, isn't that their job? When would you not be pursuing the creation of value? Right, as the leader of being goal-oriented, or results-oriented. 

[Trish] On the one hand, I love what you're saying because it does say every single thing you do is focused on value. But in reality, there are a lot of times when you're working tactically, you’re working operationally, you know what to do and you need to execute against a plan as opposed to being actively dynamic in interpreting the world around it. Sometimes your team needs more and different types of support. So I think that it's a very fair question. We'd like to say everybody is a strategic leader, but honestly, there are times when there's a very known path. The next three or four or five steps are clear, or to be honest, every single thing that a company is doing isn't directly connected to the overall strategy. 

There's a lot of people who are keeping the lights on and who are in important leadership roles, making sure their team achieves against goals. We'd like to just emphasize more the risky, uncertain, time-bound piece of it. So even anything that you can do that doesn't have to be done on a certain timetable, not too soon or too late. And you can actually in strategic leadership, you can be ahead of the curve, you know, too soon for the market. So timing, I think we'd take all those leadership and all those leaders you observe, and we'd try to parse out those who are really working under time constraints, high risk and working on kind of living in the future and bringing the firm along with them. 

[Jordan] It's interesting because I always have a bias toward strategic leadership, like by default. And like walking into my job, I just kind of think, like, that's where the value is. But to your point, I wish I could quote him, but Mike Rowe, who hosted Dirty Jobs for 300 episodes or whatever it was, I listened to a podcast of his a while ago and he talked about the value of both the strategic leader and the leader that's keeping the lights on. There's absolute value in both of those. But it's interesting, I think especially in our—this is maybe taking us off on a little bit of a tangent—entrepreneur on a pedestal sort of culture that we have today like everyone wants to be an entrepreneur or a lot of people do. And you see that that's all over LinkedIn or all over the internet. It’s interesting how we laud that as “the thing”. Versus maybe the leader that's going to be bringing a lot of value to the company, but operating in a very different way. 

[Trish] Right. And when you say entrepreneur, I hear value creation. Right? Because, you know, we think about four big categories. We think about the category of true entrepreneurs who are starting up their own thing from scratch. But then there's the second category of people who actually work with and for those entrepreneurs. So in a way, they're taking on a job, you know, even if they're employee number two or employee number seven, but it's a startup environment. And then we have on the other end the traditional companies. But then we have people who are taking on for the fourth one that they're taking on entrepreneurial roles within those companies. So they have to master what we call corporate entrepreneurship; they need to be creating new value in new ways, not just, you know, serving the current customers with the current products. 

So in each of those categories, it's really important to be able to think about creating value and then capturing value as well. So we hit on both of those. But yeah, I think you're an audience that is primed for the kind of thing we're talking about in a very real way, because at that point where you say, should I continue doing what we're doing or should we change? For some people, the answer is always changing. 

[Jordan] I'm raising my hand. By default, that’s where my brain goes, right. My team, it drives them crazy. 

[Trish] Right. But sometimes you're leaving money on the table. Because waiting a little longer, playing the game you're playing for another couple rounds could be both more lucrative in terms of capturing the value you've already created. So you've got products that you might have a longer lifespan even as you're thinking about your next product launch. But also in terms of learning, in terms of saying, you know, should my team just play, you know, if you think in terms of sports, should we do this drill a couple more times? You know, and maybe it's not creating new value like you'd love to switch and start working on a new skill, but should we really drill this into the muscle memory more? So sometimes those are the kinds of leaders that we wouldn't necessarily emphasize in the strategic leadership definition if we're really looking for risky long term, so and so. But they’re incredibly important. 

And you can make the distinction that those are two different kinds of people. So let's just for the sake of argument, say you're a strategic leader and I'm an operational leader. I'm a different kind of leader. It's not mutually exclusive. On any given day—and we do this, we do diary analysis of looking at, you know, your outlook calendar, what have you spent your time on? And when are you activating your strategic leadership? When are you being a follower for someone else? Which is a really important role also. When are you doing more project management? When are you doing more client relationship management? That's more, you know, keeping the lights on. And a lot of people are not very aware of how they're spending their time when they start to chunk it up into those categories, and then some people may decide to pull back, you know, a little less on the change in innovation. But most people, I would say in my experience, do well if they add a little more of that to their to the mix of their time commitments. 

[Jordan] Yeah, so let's bring this to the context of the digital transformation kind of world that we live in. We at Workfront talk about it all the time, you know, because companies are going, you know, from analog to digital. And it's a big change for them. And again, how you define digital transformation, there's a lot of different definitions out there. But what in your mind, is this kind in the lay of the land in this digital transformation—I guess I have bias on my mind—like, hey, we need to really transform our business to be more digital. Is that going to create a greater demand for strategic leaders as we kind of dive into it? 

[Trish] I certainly think it is. I think about digital transformation on three or four levels. So at one point, the ability to use technology to just enhance the job you're already doing. And for that, it may not really be a strategic play. It's more, you know, kind of an upgrade. 

But when you get into the levels of digital transformation, where you're actually doing different work, you're not doing the same work smarter, better, faster, cheaper, you're actually doing different work because now you've opened up new possibilities. That’s often where you need strategic leadership because if you don't mind, I'll get into some of the fundamental things they do so we can get it moving from this high-level thing to what are they doing? 

When I see a person who is communicating the “why”, why are we doing this and how it's going to be different, and also communicating, you know, acknowledging this might be scary, this might be risky, this might really turn your whole department, your whole team, your whole career upside down. That's an aspect of strategic leadership. That's the pursuit of value, but also communicating the path to value in a way that helps other people come along with them. So strategic leaders, what they're not is authoritarian. They're not self-centered. It's not an ego trip. They don't give orders. We will be transformed by August 15th. You know, there is no you know, failure is not an option. That's not the kind of thinking that really is kind of imbued in our model. It's more someone who takes personal ownership. They're in it with you. They're in the boat sailing the boat. They're not back at headquarters saying, OK, regatta, start now or, you know, I guess in a war it’s not a regatta... But, you know, and then they can notice what's changing in the environment and adapt to it. But it's very dynamic. It's agile in a way, not meaning sort of the scrum, lean, agile as much as the ability to make rapid changes that are adaptive to new information or changing environments. So we see people needing to step up and it doesn't have to be a senior person. 

[Jordan] Now, that's a really good point. So, you shared with me some of the content that introduces these principles of what it means to be a strategic leader. You did the voiceover for this video, and I'm actually going to read the script. And it will kind of start to set like, OK, what is the role of a strategic leader? Like what really is the makeup? And this is kind of introducing your guys’ sort of paradigm around this. 

“Some believe leadership emanates from the individual. To them, certain people are leaders and others are not. Another school of thought believes that leadership emanates from the situation rather than the individual. Some roles and settings require leadership and others do not. Rather than take a side in this debate, we respond [as in the University of Utah, and the MBA program where you are the Goff Strategic Leadership program] Yes. And we assert that both of these dimensions are vitally important. Strategic leadership is something that relies both on the characteristics of the individual and on characteristics of the role that individual decides to play when working with others. In addition, we add a third important element: the goal being pursued or the ambition of the person or group. Even the most skilled and well situated individual, will not exhibit strategic leadership principles unless they are focused on creating value and driving impact. The Goff Strategic Leadership Institute is founded on these principles, relies on who the individual is, what they do when they interact with others, and the reasoning that motivates their actions and decisions, which is the goal.”

So why don't you—I just read your thing there—kind of dig into these and maybe introduce these principles of strategic leadership? 

[Trish] Yeah, fantastic, and thank you for pulling that out. We do think that strategic leadership is about a person in a situation aiming high. So let me give you an example of someone who's trying to build their sales force, who's a strategic leader. As a person, they're thinking, you know, is there a risk to me, you know, will I bring in people who might be smarter than me? Will I have to, you know, split my commissions differently? They're going to have personal, and career, and professional issues that they need to take ownership of and be self-aware enough to realize that they may or may not be part of the solution or part of the problem. So they say, “we need to build our sales force, maybe I've been dragging my feet because I kind of like being the one who's the most knowledgeable about the products,” own that, face that, figure out what's better for the company. Think about, you know, yourself in the situation and going after that higher aim: that you want to grow your firm, you want to grow your revenues, you want to serve more clients and customers. 

Then we come to the role. So maybe this person isn't actually in charge of hiring sales force. So, you know, how can they enable others and support others, and make choices or influence the conversation, or try to advance the ball? If you say it that way. And there may be some unknowns here. So perhaps the plan last year was to hire 25 salespeople, this person is on the ground and they see we actually need more like 50; we're giving up business to our competitors. So even if they're not in a formal role, they can step up and they can start changing the dialog and making the case for hiring people. And even as I said, personally, they might have some mixed feelings about it. They can see that it's better for the organization. So this person, we're gonna call them a strategic leader, not because they formerly are, but because they're stepping up and saying, you know what, we need a better sales force. And actually, I even know more. I know what those skills are that the sales force needs. I know where we can find those people. I can help with that. And I also see some changing dynamics in the customer. So there are some unknowns, and I want to help us watch out for those potential landmines out there because I want to create value for the organization. 

And in that goal that they're reaching for, they need to be able to communicate really clearly. Is it a goal that we just want to be able to flog our current product line because we're almost obsolete and we need to hurry up and sell our inventory out because there's a new technology coming? Or is it because we're creating relationships with our customers and our clients and they're moving and we need to move with them so that we can maintain the trust and be able to serve them in the future. So that's an example of, you know, just a sales guy, you know, sitting around saying, “Gosh, I wish I had more people on my team because I feel like competition is coming in, and it's a changing horizon. What can I do?” And some people who we would call not maybe activating their strategic leadership would just go home at the end of the workday and say, “oh, well, I hope somebody hires some more people.” Ok? And so, that, I hope, gives you a little sense of kind of seeing the opportunity, going after the opportunity, trying to enable others, and trying to partner up with others to get something done, even if it's not in your official job title. 

[Jordan] That's great. And there are a million questions I have now. 

[Trish] Go for it. 

[Jordan] Ok, so I think to summarize the strategic leader, from your point of view, strategic leaders are the ones, as you said, that step up, right? They are forward-thinking. They are driving for certain outcomes, but there is this level of unknown that they're navigating, and they’re agile and dynamic like you talked about. But this is something that is not maybe a role that is designated by job title, it is really anybody stepping up to the opportunity, and also strategic leaders are less self-centered? You know, they're self-aware enough to know that “what's in it for them” is actually the collective “what's in it for us.” The payback, the karma there, is going to be much better for them if they actually take that approach.

[Trish] Right. And I don't think we've ever called it karma, but there definitely is an aspect in there of being self-aware—a word we use a lot—personal agility, continual learning and learning about yourself. So a big piece of being a strategic leader is being willing to take feedback from others, going out and seeking it, because most people can find, you know, a fan club, even if it's just their, you know, their mom. And it's harder to go find the people who are not embracing what you're doing, who aren't your biggest fans, and try to sort out a little bit of how much of that is them, how much of that is you, and how much of that is worth making some changes in your behaviors or upping your skills, thinking differently about your role, and those kinds of things. Again, we're not that different from other leadership development programs, but we just can't get enough of this. 

Even if you were really self-aware, you did a 360 six months ago, you worked on some of your weaknesses, you understand your strengths, you've done Strengths Finder. There's still a need to keep on top of your current reality. Conditions change, you change. Where is your comfort zone? Where does it end? How can you keep building it out? How can you keep building your base, have a broader repertoire of what you're able to do and situations where you feel like you can be effective. So it's a lifelong learning process, and the people who embrace that tend to be more humble, less self-centered because they always see how they can grow and change as opposed to feeling like they've made it. They're done. 

[Jordan] Well, I always have a bias toward leadership development because that's my job. I love it, I think it's really interesting. This has been awesome. I want to just highlight, just a call out, because, for all listeners, we're going to do a strategic leadership series with Trish. And what we want to do is basically want to go now and do six episodes on each of these principles. And so what we're going to hit on, let me just kind of go through the six principles and just call them out specifically. So you guys have this broken down as you have done your research to where like you were saying, there's like the core principles which are really about who you are as an individual. There's the role, which like we talked about, is how you interact with others and contribute to the kind of team collective success. And then there's the goal principles, which is the purpose, really, the direction.

[Trish] Yeah, your strategic vision, how you get that path to value that you’re going to find.

[Jordan] Exactly. It’s really about creating that value. So the two that we're going to focus on next, are really those roles, because like you're telling me, the role principles which are enable and support shared success, and navigate the unknown, you said are by far the most popular of the principles. 

[Trish] They’re the most important. I mean, when you're given a new role, whether you're put in charge of a project, or you're asked to solve an important problem or you are elevated to be the CMO or the CEO of a company, one of the most important things you need to do is clear away obstacles for others and enable others to succeed and share in that success. 

And I do remember, I was working in California with a major company and one of the people I'd been working with for a while had received one of these great big promotions, and we were all so happy and pleased that he had attained this great milestone. And he started to tell me how his time was now spent on enabling others and clearing obstacles. And I just remember listening to him talk for a while about what he wasn't doing and thinking, wow, the higher up you go, the less work you do, I guess. But as I came to really reframe that thinking, it wasn't that he was doing less. It was that he was really being selective in what he decided was important, and who needed to be able to have a clear runway to do their work. So if you've heard about, you know, I need air cover from senior people, sometimes that is the power that you can activate as a strategic leader is to make other people's jobs more possible. 

And then because all of our jobs, everything we're doing, even if we think we know what's happening tomorrow, we don't. We're always navigating the unknown, and the folks who can help us do that and make meaning out of the different signals we hear about what a competitor is doing, or technology, or the government, or economics, or environmental sustainability, and, you know, it's really important for the conversation. So sometimes the leader doesn't actually know the answer, they just make the conversation possible, so people aren't afraid to ask the dumb question or raise a new idea. So those role things, enabling and supporting shared success, and navigating the unknown are by far the most important. But as you'll see, since we'll have a chance to do more talking, each of those opens up into a number of other skills and perspectives that are really useful. 

Today’s best next actions:

[Jordan] So let me ask this one question. All of our episodes that we do for the Done Right Podcast, we want to enable action. Right? Like even the UofU has got this, you're MBA programs are “doers wanted”. So we wanted the same thing for this podcast. Talking about strategic leadership, what is the thing that someone can do today, just even a self-awareness exercise to understand if they are, or need to be a strategic leader? Because then I think that's going to provide sort of a gateway into, hey, I want to invest some time into really learning about this side, or this component of leadership like we talked about. 

[Trish] Well, I would say something everyone can do right now is think about something where you're waiting for action, you're waiting for a decision, you're waiting for somebody else to solve a problem, or you're waiting for somebody else to talk about an issue. And really be honest with yourself about whether you could step up and begin to have that conversation or begin to address that problem. So if you look down your own to-do list, or on your own projects, where are you waiting and what can you do about that? And oftentimes that opens up real opportunities. And if you're not waiting on anything, you're charging ahead, everything's, you know, full steam ahead, then I'd say the exercises, as we referred to earlier, look at your time and think about how much time you're spending on the future, and how much time you're spending on the present or the past. To be honest, a lot of managers and leaders and executives should be spending some time on the past, learning from history and understanding best practices, but if you're not waiting for anything, which I'd bet, honestly, from my experience, all of us are waiting on somebody for something where we kind of maybe need to prod ourselves to make the next step. 

But the other great analysis you can quickly do is think about how much time you want to be spending on the past, present, and future, and how much time are you really spending? To be honest. And what can you do about shifting that? And those are just two quick, really effective exercises that will help you just to see. Yeah, I actually am activating my strategic leadership in lots of ways. Maybe you're not calling it that. You're just, you know, being a great employee, you're being a great teammate, you're making things happen, you're pursuing value, you're landing the next customer, you're implementing new technologies, you're launching a new product. That's all part of it. We don't care if you call yourself a strategic leader; we care that you're out there pursuing value and not letting formal titles get in the way of the good you can do. 

[Jordan] That's great. I'm excited to dive into this series with you. Thanks for joining us. 

[Trish] Thank you very much for the opportunity.

Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. You can find more information about the topic and continue the conversation at The Done Right podcast is hosted by me, Jordan Staples, the show is produced by Workfront. Our team includes Jeremy Tippetts and Marc Hansen. 

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