The Done Right Podcast
Episode 12

Strategic Leadership Principle 1––Cultivate Self-Awareness, Personal Agility, & Continual Growth


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] We are here in Lehi, Utah, Workfront headquarters and we are back with Trish Gorman from the University of Utah, and she is the managing director of the Goff Strategic Leadership Institute. Trish, thanks for being here with us. 

[Trish] My pleasure. Glad to be here. 

[Jordan] Awesome. We are talking about strategic leadership. We've got a few conversations out there as episodes, hitting on your six key principles of strategic leadership. Maybe just a quick intro to you, and what do we mean by strategic leadership, because this episode today is focusing on self-awareness, personal agility, and continuous learning. Some of those core components of being a strategic leader. 

[Trish] Great. Well, I am a professor at the University of Utah at the Eccles School of Business, and I teach strategy and innovation. And as you say, I work with the Strategic Leadership Center there. My background and what brought me to this was the continual quest for how do some teams succeed and others fail. How do some organizations keep bringing out great products, and great services, and great experiences, and others, in spite of all their best efforts, don't. So at the essence of all this, we believe it comes down to strategic leadership. And you've already referenced one thing there. We break it down into three parts. Who you are as a strategic leader; we call that your core. What you do when you work with others; we call it your role. And why you do it at all; we call that your goal. So today, I'm glad we have some time to talk about the core and the elements that help make you who you are, your self-awareness, your personal agility and the ability to continuously learn and change. 

Defining Self-Awareness, Personal Agility, and Continual Growth:

[Jordan] That seems pretty broad. Tell me a little bit more about what you mean by this principle. Because there's a lot of elements to it. 

[Trish] Well, this principle is sort of three ways of saying the same thing. So the self-awareness is realizing who you are and where you are in your journey today. And a lot of us are kind of self-deceiving. Some of us are really hard on ourselves. But the awareness of not just how you come across to others, but what you really bring to your team and your situation is the first piece. 

But along with that self-awareness, we add personal agility, and that's the ability to realize what you are––your self-awareness––and you realize that there's a lot of pieces to who you are. And the personal agility is the ability to move around in the domain. So let's say I'm somebody who can be under pressure; a quick decision-maker. But I prefer to be very analytical and take my time. That's self-awareness about the different ways I like to make decisions. If I add personal agility to that, that allows me to move from my preferred state of analysis to my possible state of quick decision making with some agility. If I need to make a decision today, can I get there and can I do it? I could have just asked you that question, Jordan. If I need you to make a quick decision this afternoon, can you do it? And you can say yes/no. But it's much more intentional and thoughtful if you already have done the work to say, “gee, I know a lot about myself. I won't like doing it Trish, but I'll be able to” because you have that self-awareness and you got the personal agility. 

That leads us to the third piece, continuous learning, which is if I ask you, can you make a quick, tough decision today by five o'clock and maybe it's a hiring decision, maybe it's a financial decision or a budget decision. And you say, yes, I can. And it turns out, well, you know, you actually didn't do a great job on it. How do we then play that back, reflect on it and say, what can we learn from this? Maybe you were at the edge of your comfort zone, we tried to get you to grow that comfort zone wasn't you weren't ready yet; there's a skill missing. Maybe your self-awareness has some biases to it. So the three pieces, even though it seemed super broad, there's a very logical progression. Find out about yourself. Figure out what you can do, get more comfortable moving around your domain, your comfort zone, grow your comfort zone by continuously learning so that tomorrow when somebody asks you to do something that you're not really comfortable doing, you know whether you should say yes or no. And if you say yes, you'll nail it. 

[Jordan] That's really interesting to distinguish... I mean, that personal agility piece, because obviously, my job today is learning and development. So the continuous learning piece in my brain is like, no duh, I mean, if you don't know how to do that in your career, you know, or as a leader, you've got some opportunities to improve, certainly. But what's really interesting is self-awareness is kind of the foundation to any of this. But that personal agility was really interesting because it's like understanding and being aware of what your preferred mode is, you know, with decision making, let's say, but understanding also in yourself what's possible, like you can operate, might not be your comfort zone, but you can operate effectively, perhaps in a different mode. You just state your preferred state, because what I'm hearing is that people maybe are navigating their day to day, they default to the preferred and they don't really think about what's possible and open themselves up to that flexibility, that agility that you're talking about. 

[Trish] Right. And it may not be so much a personal preference, it may be something you feel that your organization is steering you towards. So we talked a lot about making a decision based on analytics versus kind of gut or quick decision making. But let's take long term, short term thinking or being tactical versus being short, being in the weeds versus looking at the 10,000-foot level or thinking about your customer versus thinking about your competition. There are so many times when you have this push and pull and you might be great at both. Maybe you're really great working one on one, and you're really great in big groups. That agility still factors in for you. Sometimes you hear people say, I'm switching gears or I'm putting on my finance hat. Maybe I'm great at operations and finance. But when I put on my finance hat, that's showing my personal agility to say I'm taking and inhabiting that role fully. And I'm going to just give you an answer that’s going to be financial. Now I can switch back to my operations role and I can toggle between them. 

So we talk a lot about toggling, turning something on and off. We talk about porpoising where you dive deep into the details like diving down and then you jump up out of the water and you're getting a high-level view, but you can't kind of hang out too high too long, you’ve got to dive back down. So there's a lot of ways to think about this movement back and forth and around within a space that hopefully is one that you're ultimately comfortable with all throughout. 

Why develop this core skill?

[Jordan] Okay. So this sounds really good. And this all makes sense logically in terms of how a leader, specifically a strategic leader should operate. But it also sounds like a lot of brutal work. I mean, self-awareness is not easy. Like for you to open yourself up to understanding why, you know, you've failed on something or even just admit that you failed on something. And for you to, you know, kind of challenge yourself in terms of going from just staying, you're in that preferred state and shifting gears and toggling into something different. Just those opportunities to change and do things a little bit differently, it seems like it's a lot of work. So tell me why this is critical for a leader to put the time and effort into developing this core skill. 

[Trish] It is a lot of work. And you're asking a great question. To be a great strategic leader, to be an effective strategic leader requires you to find and solve problems and create value. So most likely, if you have a narrow range of abilities, you're good at analytical short term thinking through a financial lens. That doesn't mean you can't have a great career. You know, you can find a role for yourself. But the strategic leadership role is more demanding. It's asking you to look at problems that most likely need not only one skill set to solve, because if they were easy to solve with a small amount of knowledge they’d already be solved. If they were easy to solve with one kind of basic toolkit, then many people would be able to address them successfully. So by definition, we're looking at things that have the need for maybe collaborative skills, breaking new ground, those kinds of things. 

But even beyond that, I think the tough work when you really think about it is being self-aware and knowing what your limits are and when you want to collaborate. So I'm not saying everybody can exponentially grow their skill set. It's knowing where I need to ask for help and where I need to go find an expert, or where I need to collaborate with others or acknowledge that, you know, this is not the time for me to step up. I worked with a CEO who perceived himself as being a great public speaker and calm in a crisis. But when his organization actually came into a crisis and the media specialist showed up and he was supposed to be on CNN and so on, he had to acknowledge that his self-perception was not in line with reality, and they had to figure out who else was going to speak for the company. 

Practicing self-awareness in a powerful role:

[Jordan] That’s really interesting, and I was going to ask you, does it mean if you're further up the chain like you're in a director role, a V.P., or an executive, by virtue of you being in that role, are you telling me that if I've got self-awareness, that I am personally agile? Because it doesn't mean you were hired to be essentially a strategic leader, right? So this is totally not a leading question; that's not my intent here. But is there in terms of relevance in really like checking yourself on this, is it relevant for those higher-ups that maybe have been rewarded for adding strategic value to an organization? 

[Trish] I think when people reached that what they perceive as the really high goals of their career, they become the CFO, they are the executive director of a big organization or the CEO, maybe the temptation is to say, I'm done and I can rest. But the reality is far from it. It actually is harder to be self-aware and more important to be self-aware when you have formal power because it will be less likely that somebody will actually speak truth to power and actually say to you, “hello, powerful person who could really harm my career. I want to tell you something that you're not good at. I want to tell you something you did that really upset the troops. I want to tell you something that you did that customers didn't like very much.” 

And fortunately, most organizations have a conduit for that kind of communication that makes it possible. You know, I can give you the market researcher, the customer satisfaction report, and you can see what's happening. You can take a barometer of morale in your company and find out. But the really savvy strategic leaders at all levels are asking for feedback, and they show a real desire to hear it. Not just you know, there's a classic sort of, does this dress make me look fat? You're supposed to say, no, it makes you look beautiful. So the CEO is saying, do you think my decision was too hasty? Oh, no. Your timing is impeccable. Do you think that I've been too hard on the Pittsburgh office? Oh, no. They needed tough love. You know? You don't want to ask for that feedback just to reinforce yourself. And it's really hard to tease away the power aspect from the communication aspect.

[Jordan] It’s just more difficult at that level is what you’re saying. You know what's interesting about that is that a couple of years ago, Alex Shootman, our CEO, you know, he'd been here for a little while. And I was just starting to you know, I've been some meetings with him. And my boss let me know that in some conversation that Alex was having with my boss, paid me what I considered a compliment. But it was also eye-opening to me about what his experiences was as an executive. And that was that Alex said, “you know what? I like Jordan because he didn't treat me like a CEO.” And I'm like, ok, he likes me. So that's cool. But I don't treat him like a CEO, does he know I respect him? You know, you kind of go into that mode, but it just kind of gave me some insight into what you were saying of, you know, when people talk about executive presence in that whole thing. And this could take us on a different topic, but it's really interesting at all levels in your career, I mean, it's on you to really just be aware of how well you are doing, you know, X, Y or Z. 

[Trish] Well, I want to make sure listeners don't think, ok, I don’t have to listen to this part because I'm not a highly powerful person. It could be the parking attendant or the janitor in your office who doesn't want to tell you the truth about something you're doing. It could be a colleague in the cafeteria, it could be a customer or somebody who you're a supplier to. In every interaction, there's some kind of a power dynamic. And it could be because you're paying their bills or they want your business. It could be because they're polite and they don't feel like it's their place to give you any constructive or critical feedback. But look for opportunities even to have, you know, a summer intern or a colleague playback to you some of the things that you're doing and some of the ways you might improve. It doesn't even mean you have to be bad at something. It doesn't mean you have to find something terrible. It can be more in the terms of sort of coaching, and somebody could already be having a great season and batting well and you can still give them an adjustment on their grip or their stance and they can do even better. So we're not always looking for somebody who's, you know, had a real hitting slump and they need to be taken out to retool entirely. 

There are small things, but some people just really have low self-awareness. And if you're working with people like that, you can also help them. So try out your own. It's both getting feedback and giving feedback. And I have a colleague who does workshops on this and when she started, it actually used to just be the workshop giving and getting feedback, and she's broken it apart because it's two very different sets of skills. Getting feedback is different than giving feedback. And they're both incredibly important if you really want to be able to lead people and motivate them and motivate yourself to really create value in new ways. 

Effectively demonstrating personal agility:

[Jordan] Sure. Now, we actually had a leadership development opportunity where we were learning about actually seeking out feedback and just some ways to do that, which, you know, it's not very often that I go to my peers at the company and I'm actually asking for feedback. And so it was a good reminder that that is critical for us to really continue to grow and progress. So let me ask you, in terms of the personal agility, how do you do that without it seeming like you are changing your mind all the time? Or, you know, you're maybe using that as a way to cover up your own indecisiveness. 

[Trish] Oh, dear. We see this all the time, because if at one moment I really am trying to be very transparent and inclusive and let everyone speak their mind and share in the decision, and in another time I need to be or want to be very directive and clear and focused. And it may seem like, hey, what happened? You know, yesterday she wanted my opinion, and today she went off and did this without even asking me. And I think we know the answer to that question is, it's very situational. And a lot of it comes with understanding your own criteria. So if it really just catches as catch can: on Tuesdays, I'm inclusive and on Wednesdays, I'm not. That's not going to help very much. But if I can be clear to my team or to myself that I'm inclusive in certain types of decisions.

[Jordan] In what moments we’re operating in these different ways. 

[Trish] Yeah, and it may be, I want to hear the voice of the customer or the voice of the team really clearly in certain situations, and in other situations, my own subject matter expertise or the nature of the decision changes things. But now we're getting into really sophisticated decision making and transparency. So to make it easier for everyone, it's more having an open dialog and saying I am you know, “if I did everything the same all the time, I would not be creating the most value.” And if we can do that, if we can routinize our work, if we know there's a formula for doing our work, we can automate it these days. So it's almost the very necessity of humans doing tough jobs at every level from the shop floor all the way to CEO, is that you need to know when to let the machine kind of run a little bit longer without oiling it and when to oil it. And not just saying we do this in a very mechanistic way. I think we'll get better at it with practice. 

And it's also to ask the people who are upset by it. If somebody says, “boy, you're confusing me.” That's a different discussion. A lot of times in team meetings, I do a little process check. So in the middle of the meeting, or at the end of the meeting, I just go around the room––and sometimes it's a big room, and sometimes it’s just a little room––and say, “give me one word about how you feel right now.” And sometimes you hear hungry, tired, bored, but often you hear engaged or curious, and every once in awhile, I do hear confused, frustrated, annoyed. And then that's a conversation you want to have. Not maybe in that moment. 

[Jordan] Sure. But to take note of it and go out and have the conversation. 

[Trish] Yeah. Because process checks are totally judgment-free. It's literally just going through a fast take around the room to see if people are, you know, what they're feeling in the moment, truthfully. And there's no judgment. But the information you glean from them allows you to say, wow, a lot of people are confused, I'm not clear enough in what I'm doing, how I'm doing it. And also give yourself that voice. No matter where you are in the hierarchy, be comfortable to say to people, I'm frustrated, I don't see the pattern in the way our organization is acting towards customers. I don't see that pattern in the way our leadership is acting towards key decisions. And it's the patterns that make sense. It's not the actual activities. 

[Jordan] That's really helpful because, you know when you think about some of the stereotypes of leaders, you know, kind of being this stalwart, always know the right answer, and they kind of operate from this even thick skin, always clear sort of approach. That's not at all what an actual strategic leader is doing. It's really... and I’m not trying to put words into your mouth here, but just kind of teach me here. It's almost like really good leaders, they understand their patterns in certain situations. It's like situational patterns, like they know how to operate and act. And obviously they are evolving that and improving what that is, but they know they've got to operate differently depending on situation so that the team or the the cross-functional group or the one on one, like that person, that group, that project is getting that side of you, if you will, that they need.

[Trish] No, it's really true and knowing when you can't… So, let's just think about a skier. When you're deciding whether or not to ski this season, that's a different question than which ski resort to go to today based on maybe snow conditions. So we're in Utah, and I’m going to use this. So whether or not to ski this season. It's summer right now as we're recording this. And so if you're thinking about buying a pass for next winter, you can buy cheaply, but you've got to decide, you know, if you think you're gonna ski Alta, you're going to ski Park City or where you’re going to ski, and what kind of investment you're going to make based on how much you're going to ski; different kind of decision. Then fast forward to next winter when you're deciding, you know, what time to go, where to park, where to ski, who to ski with. And an even very different kind of decision when you're at the top of a run and you're deciding, you know, how to take the moguls or whether to go down the side near the trees. 

In your business world, you're making different types of decisions, too. Should we enter a certain market? You know, you're six months out and you're trying to decide if you're going to target 18 to 22 year-olds or if you're going to go for a broader age range or not. Once you've decided to enter the market, then there's a different level and type of decision, and then once you're actually in the mix and your product’s out and you're making day to day decisions about sales or pricing or service or customer satisfaction, each of those is different. And the pace of those decisions, the type of the decision, the inclusiveness, and the risk involved with them is different. So the idea that you could be indecisive is hard to tease apart from the type of decision it is, and what's at risk, what's at stake.

So when we think about the stereotypical leader, this, you know, I know exactly what's happening and they almost want you to be prescient that they already know exactly who's going to be buying their product off which shelf and which place, you know, six months from now at what price. And they don't actually. They might still be in the early days of thinking about how to unpack each level and layer of decisions. But we often want our competition to think that we're prescient and we know everything ahead of time. But we need to be more honest than that with our own team. 

How to approach continuous learning:

[Jordan] Sure. No, absolutely. And it kind of leads to the third piece of this principle. And that really is about continuous learning, because I think to operate with that self-awareness and that personal agility, it takes a lot of continuous learning. And so my question is that whether it's with continuous learning on how to be a strategic leader or it is about, you know, your actual industry or the business that you're in, how would you advise, or maybe how would you approach continuous learning? 

[Trish] I think of it in a couple of ways: think of things that you know are outdated that you need to replace. That's usually where the most valuable learning comes. Outdated ways of thinking about people, about teams, about technology, about businesses, about markets. If you're still operating with something you learned––and it was right at the time, but it's not correct anymore––replacing that learning, updating is kind of like plugging yourself into version 3.0 from version 2.0. Doing those updates, that's actually a huge value in some of us are doing that automatically, we can't help but do it because you're out in the marketplace and you see that people are acting differently, buying differently, if consumers want to rent versus own, if your suppliers have different payment terms, you've got to update. But that kind of learning, it would be, I think, the first one. And even making the distinction between that kind of learning and learning that's additive, that I already know this and now we know more about it. You know, I'm going deeper. I'm going broader. I'm adding to what I already know, and I'm getting a more rich understanding of it. And that comes with observation, kind of running little experiments. I think this is how this is going, let me try this out and see. The market or your customers or your team will give you the feedback that you need––different kind of feedback here––they'll give you the input data you need to be able to test your hypotheses. 

[Jordan] Yeah, there was something interesting because I read a data point, I think it was from Josh Bersin, about, you know, people only spend twenty-two, three, or four minutes a week learning. And I just didn't buy into that. Like just to me, I think maybe formal traditional learning where maybe they spent, you know, that amount of time, you know, listening to a LinkedIn learning course or… You know what I mean? But I feel like the way you're describing continuous learning, that's every day. I mean, that's like you're tinkering; you're figuring out what's working, what's not. I mean, you're evolving what you're offering, you know? It just seems to me like maybe the question is, is that the way that you think about continuous learning is it's more part of your job as a leader to be experimenting, to be understanding trends and to be adjusting and pivoting and like you said, personal agility? Give me more about the paradigm that you approach continuously from. 

[Trish] Well, there's two things here. I think we're straying into learning about other things. And the core principle oftentimes is really learning about yourself. So continuous learning about what can I do? How am I doing? How can I be better? When should I change the way I've been operating in the past? So it'll be very interesting. And I've done a little work with Josh Bersin, and his data is usually really good. So we just have to figure out what metric was he using, because 24 minutes of learning a week sounds low to me also, unless it is formal learning and then it kind of sounds high. And I'll give props to our listeners who are listening to us and hopefully learning a little bit or testing what they already know. 

But the continuous learning that we're referring to here that I'd like to come back to as we kind of start to wrap up here, is learning about yourself, what you really want, what are your ambitions? What are you judging yourself against? So let's put aside for a moment the learning about the world in your customers and everything else and just say if you could spend a little time every day or every week learning about who you really are, what really motivates you, what you believe success is... And honestly, if you say all money doesn't matter, but it actually does. Then, you know, that's something that you need to work out yourself. Or, if you really want to be doing something that makes a dent in the universe and you have really high aspirations and ambitions, then be honest with yourself about that as well. So learning about yourself, how you're coming across to others, whether you are on a trajectory that's going to help you make your impact on the world. That's more the kind of learning that we're associating with this core of strategic leadership. Because if you don't have real transparency and honesty with yourself at that level, there's only so far you're going to go before you're going to have to go back and do that core work. 

How to get results with self-awareness, personal agility, and continual growth:

[Jordan] Now, that makes a ton of sense. And I think it's being clear on what you want, what matters to you, you know, really as grounding, because all these things we've been talking about, strategic leadership, ownership, and driving results, and those kinds of things in other conversations, it's like really all of that, you know, you don't want to be a slave to something that ultimately doesn't matter to you. And you want to make sure that you're always focused on that path. So I really appreciate that. So let's wrap up here with two final questions. What happens when people don't get results? When folks are trying to push for those results, but, you know, maybe their agility or their learning is not really going their way. Like, how can they deploy those things when they're not getting the results that they want? 

[Trish] No. And it's a great question to ask. It's a tough question ask, because we'd always like to be more positive and upbeat and say, I recognize a deficiency in myself. I fixed it and then everything went well. Many times we don't see that; we might see a part of that. People might recognize a deficiency addressed and things still don't go well. You may have solved part of the problem, you may have solved the wrong problem, or you maybe even have framed the problem in the wrong way. So there are so many ways to go wrong on this, and the commentary I would make is to be, in a way, gentle with yourself, because everyone who's working is working on this. Everyone, no matter how successful they are at the moment, somewhere in their history, they've struggled. Somewhere in their future, they will struggle. 

And when things are not going your way, a big piece of it is to take it personally; it's about you. But don't take it so personally and realize that, you know, even the most successful people are going to have these times; it could be you. Do the introspection, get the feedback and figure out what you can do differently. Look at the culture of the place you're working, look at external forces and try to see if maybe everyone who's in your spot is, you know, if everyone who is trained up in your generation on the technology that you're using and the way of working you're doing is frustrated now, then that's very different than if you're the only one who's kind of either reaching a career plateau or having trouble landing sales or not getting along with your colleagues. So a piece of it is making the time and the space to reflect, and don't do that thing that… what's it called when you expect to get different results by doing the same thing over?

[Jordan] Insanity. 

[Trish] Insanity. Yeah. So some people, when they have a problem, they just kind of bear down harder and do more. So you know that that may be the worst thing to do, even though it might feel like your only option is, you know, let me just beat harder on this door. Let me just yell louder at this group. So backing up, and again, ask for help. You know, there's a lot of people out there who want to see you succeed and you may already know those people, you may not have met them yet, but putting them in your life and letting them have an opportunity to support and enable you will change everything. 

Today’s best next action:

[Jordan] So one thing that listeners can do right away to improve that self-awareness and personal agility. You've given us a lot of great insight, but what’s one takeaway, one action item for our listeners? 

[Trish] I would say go out today and ask for feedback from someone who would normally not give it to you. But don't just ask for the feedback, commit yourself to hearing it in a new way. Or if someone has given you feedback recently, play it back in your mind and really give it a chance to do its work. So even if someone told you, “gee, we love the way you always take control in the meetings, Trish,” maybe put that through a different filter and say. Wow, maybe I'm being a little too assertive, or go ask somebody who you don't think would feel legitimized to give you feedback and give them the opportunity. So have a different conversation. That's all I'd say, and hear it with fresh ears and let it do good work on you. 

[Jordan] Very, very good. Thanks, Trish. Really appreciate your time today. Talking about strategic leadership and specifically about self-awareness and personal agility. 

[Trish] My pleasure. Have a great rest of the day! 

[Jordan] You, too. 

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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