The Done Right Podcast
Episode 16

Strategic Leadership Principle 4––Navigating the Unknown

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 at Workfront headquarters, back with Dr. Trish Gorman on our strategic leadership series. We're so excited to have you back. We've had some great conversations so far. Today, our episode is going to be focusing on a specific role of a strategic leader, and that is to navigate the unknown. But let's get people caught up. So let's give them a little bit of an intro to you and a little bit about what we mean by a strategic leader. And then we'll really dig into this concept of navigating the unknown. 

[Trish] Great. Thank you. And thank you for having me. It's great to be back here at Workfront. I'm Trish Gorman, and I've spent part of my life being a consultant, part of my life trying to manage people and run organizations, and a large portion of my life studying as an academic and teaching, trying to help other people build skills around, how do you motivate others to take risky actions under time constraints when things are really uncertain? And it's a personal fascination of mine. And the last few years I've been very fortunate to be at the Goff Strategic Leadership Center at the Eccles School at the University of Utah, where our mission is to help people understand strategic leadership and to build the skills that help them to engage with, and motivate, and lead others to create value. 

[Jordan] That's awesome. Now, if you guys haven't checked out the previous episodes we've got one about that topic of strategic leadership, and what that is. And then we also dig into this principle around strategic leadership, specifically, the role of enabling and supporting shared success is what we've hit on so far. So we’re excited to jump into navigating the unknown. So we think about a strategic leader's role and navigating the unknown. Trish, I was telling you this off-air. I love the unknown. Like, I love uncertainty. I love ambiguity. It's where I thrive. I mean, maybe I certainly have room to improve, I guess, but it's a place that’s comfortable for me because I like to problem solve in that context. My team is not a huge fan. So you're my coach. Well, let's say for a minute. Help me understand. When we talk about navigating the unknown, what do I need to understand about that? 

[Trish] Well, there's a lot to unpack there, but it's also a very common situation where you have some people who are already in this, what we call the strategic leadership mindset, which is as opposed to avoiding uncertainty, you embrace it. You go towards the problems. You don't run away from them because where there are problems, there are opportunities. And where there is risk, there is potential for reward. But everyone doesn't want to live that way. Everyone hasn't had positive experiences. Some people have run towards uncertainty and received a trouncing because they couldn't really make meaning of it or they couldn't navigate it in a successful way. And others just have never really tried it and have had great success in doing things that they understand exactly how to do, and want to reinforce that wonderful feeling of mastery of something you know how to do. 

So there are two things here. One is your role as the leader of a team that may or may not want to head off in uncertain directions or be open-minded and realistic about the uncertainties all of us face in our jobs going forward. And the other is helping others convert over to where you are, shift the mindset and adopt this sort of growth-oriented, option oriented mindset. And both of those are probably too much for today's segment. But we'll start to get into it. Certainly the idea to make the clear linkage for your team that where the biggest glory lies, where the biggest value lies, where the biggest opportunity lies, are also where the biggest uncertainties are is a fundamental and very basic way that you can communicate with them. And that depends on your area, being able to show that, you know, the toughest client that no one thought you guys could land actually forced you to up your game, change some of your software––and I'm making this up––but, you know, forced you to change and adapt in some difficult ways, but it had huge payoff. Moving into an area that was less known to your company, or you personally, or your team, whether that's geography, a product, technology, showing that, that actually is where the payoff is and where the personal and professional value is. The personal value in terms of learning challenge engagement and the professional value in terms of results, output and value capture. 

[Jordan] So I think a lot of us––maybe this is because I'm in the tech industry––think of the unknown as it relates to maybe those that are wanting to be on the bleeding edge of innovation and those that want to change the world and really challenge the status quo constantly. And it's this early adopter sort of innovator, end of the bell curve. Tell me in your mind with leadership, how much of our job is navigating the unknown? 

[Trish] I would really say all of your job, because if it's obvious, then it either can be delegated or it can be routinized, it can be programmed or automated. So if you know how to do something, you should pretty easily in today's world––and again, define easily depending on your industry and your company and yourself––but either bring it to a level where someone who is less experienced can do it or program it. The jobs that you want to be aspiring to do, where the value lies in the unknown. And again, we say unknown and leave that wide open. So there's uncertainty, and we know there are different levels of uncertainty. Sometimes, you know something's going to happen, you just don't know when. Sometimes you don't know if it'll happen or how big it'll be when it happens. Those are different dimensions. And you can use different tools. In fact, there's some fantastic work that's been done on breaking down uncertainty. There are other ways to think about risk. 

And one of the biggest things that I find that strategic leaders who are powerful do is they don't just think about risk in terms of financial risk or economic risk; they think about career risk for their team. They think about reputation risk. They think about a number of the other types of risk that may be the blockage. And again, can I help someone else on my team and manage the fallout if their foray into the unknown doesn't pan out? Do I help to still support them or is it a career-ending kind of experience? And a lot of times you're hearing people talk about embracing failure, or having a culture that learns from failure, even just saying the “F” word. 

And sometimes the culture of the organization is you can't really admit that your project wasn't a grand success. And so then how are you going to actually help share the learning from, you know, your trial and error? So there are some things that are not that scary that are about how do you navigate the unknown? Well, try something, figure out how it went, play back what you did and how far it got you along the path to value. And then either continue along that path maybe with, you know, a bigger team or a different approach or backtrack and take a different path. You call it pivot, I think, a lot of times when you discuss it. 

Making Meaning While Navigating the Unknown

[Jordan] Yeah. So the content you sent over, I’m going to read the excerpt from it where you define navigating the unknown because I thought it was really interesting. These are some topics that we hit on in the podcast in some previous episodes, and some we will hit in the future. “In navigating the unknown, strategic leaders embrace rather than avoid uncertainty. They understand that value can only be created when certain risks are accepted.” So we've kind of hit on that. What's interesting is that as you guys define this principle and really how it's about like how an individual can impact a team or organization, there's this element of: in working with others, they make meaning. These strategic leaders, they make meaning, set priorities and help others see around the next corner. So let's dig into that a little bit, where as a strategic leader, what do you mean by they make meaning as they navigate the unknown? 

[Trish] Well, all of us, whether we realize it or not, are always taking in signals and cues and converting that data we get into what we think of as information, knowledge, wisdom or insights. And strategic leaders are able to be self-aware of that process in themselves and then help guide other people there. So early in my career, I actually worked in an aggregates factory. And you dig gravel and stone out of the ground and you make wonderful things like paving stones, and you do roadbeds, and road construction. So this was the early days, but every time we had a team meeting, the CEO would ask what all the different team members had observed in the marketplace. And of course, you know, I'm young and I kind of doze off during this part because why would we care what the competitors were doing? In my mind back then, I thought, what are we doing, and how much have we sold, and what do we need to do next? So I was definitely out of the “I” and into the “we”, but I wasn't thinking about the competitive landscape at that point. 

But this particular leader wanted to hear what was going on in the marketplace. And pretty specifically, you know, who won this road bid, who was pulling out inventory more quickly from the ground and who was leaving theirs lie and not extracting a lot this year? And he was able to then make meaning from those signals to say, oh, it looks like these guys are bidding low on the big contracts this year. These other guys are getting poised to make a couple acquisitions. They're trying to drive down prices so that they can pick up some assets cheap. He would say these things and it would be totally like he was speaking a different language to me. I would say, “how do you know from these bids and these different tidbits that the people bring you from the field, how do you make these grand statements about, oh, clearly this is happening?”

Well, I couldn't make that meaning because I didn't have the industry expertise. I couldn't put the pieces of the puzzle together. But that's where your own problem-solving ability and awareness of your own industry expertise, or domain expertise, and functional expertise, and subject matter expertise all come together to be able to say, I'm connecting the dots. And often the strategic leader’s also not just connecting today's dots to say, oh, I can see how this week's going to play out in our bids with the aggregate company. Right? But to say, and that's where we say seeing around corners––and actually a good friend of mine, Rena McGrath, has a new book coming out just about seeing around corners––so it's so important right now to know. 

And Jack Walsh always talked about it, not what's directly ahead, but the idea that you're walking down a dark alleyway, and someone's gonna jump out, and it might be a new competitor, or you turn a corner and suddenly what you think is an alleyway opens up into a broad field of flowers. You don't know what's around that next corner. But if you can hear the faint signals, if you listen to other experts, if you're always gathering and moving from data to information, to knowledge, to wisdom, and insights, then, you know you're really helping your team because you don't expect the young Trish Gorman sitting at the aggregates meeting to figure out any pattern. But if you can communicate the vision of what you see, then I can do my job better even if I don't have that vision that my leader has. 

Storytelling in Leadership

[Jordan] That's really interesting because, you know, kind of the simplified version of that is, you know, you think about like seeing around the corner, so Workfront is a tech company. And so there's the seeing around the corner of what good tech companies are doing, there’s seeing around the corner of work management and that industry, and then there’s seeing around the corner for my team, which is the whole world of leadership development, learning and development, enablement, you know, all of that. And putting it all together because the thing I think is interesting about this is that this is not a solo exercise. It's almost this theme as we've been talking about storytelling. But like what I'm gathering, even just as much as we've talked about strategic leadership––and we actually talked about this in another episode––but this is really providing some meat to it, is that storytelling, it’s your job as a leader. And like because you've got to tell stories that matter and make sense to stakeholders, team members and whatever. And that's you essentially processing the data, like you’re saying, the signals that are coming in and even just interpreting the actions that you're taking so that people understand what was, what is, and what's coming down the road.

[Trish] And telling stories opens up rather than just stating facts. So if we were able to say that in the future, no one will listen to podcasts and everyone will have a chip embedded in their brain and they'll already know everything they need to know, that might end up being true. But where it becomes interesting and a source of value creation is when you say, ok, that's like opening your book at the last page and saying, ok, they caught the criminal. Does that mean don't bother reading the book? No. The interesting bit is between now, when we have podcasts and later, when we don't have podcasts, where's the value to be created? How can you be sort of a step ahead? Or often, in my classes, I talk a lot about the strategic leader as a time traveler, and I literally do this little thing where I pretend I get in my time machine and I walk to the other end of the room and then I say, now I'm in the future. And it's really hokey, but people kind of follow me there. And I say, Now it's 2040. We're not in this classroom at the University of Utah anymore. You know, I'm an avatar and you're viewing me through some, you know, much better version of Google Glass or something else is happening here. And what are we talking about and why are we talking about it? And actually, stop a minute. And as you say, it's multiple dimensions. You're not you sitting here now, you're you of 2040. So where are you 21 years from now in your career, and who are you, and what kind of power do you have and what motivates you now? 

[Jordan] Well, it’s like the cliche example of Netflix and Blockbuster, Netflix, theoretically, was having those conversations because they went from, you know, I think sending out DVD, you know, via mail to their online platform, even Redbox, you know, they were thinking ahead and how they approached things. 

[Trish] Right. And meanwhile, Blockbuster was saying, boy, isn't it great to get all these fees from late returns? 

[Jordan] Yeah, and the thing like, hey, real estate. Let's go and invest more in real estate and build that out versus, you know, the technology. 

[Trish] And we can learn a lot from companies who got leapfrogged, or who were forced out, but there's also a lot of techniques. You can do future thinking, rollback to the future, you can do scenario planning, even though it is an old tool, it's a really valuable tool. What are the key uncertainties that might disrupt your industry, might change your life, might create new veins of opportunity and new paths to value and should you pursue it? Because the other thing is, even if you knew that streaming video was, you know, a new path to value, were you willing to walk away from the goldmine that was Blockbuster at the time? 

[Jordan] Right. You’re not going to walk into Netflix to invest a billion dollars in their content. The next day, because, you know, that's where you're going. 

[Trish] But it's really a process. And if people would have said that Netflix or these different companies that were seen as distributors would now be creating their own content and that the quality of something that was a Netflix original series would be what it is, you would have laughed. You would have been sitting at NBC, laughing. And again, it depends where you are in your own life. There's always something new. Even when YouTube came on and it was really exciting that, you know, they were posting, whatever, a million videos a week or something. I mean, the numbers are crazy now. But what's next? And even the big established players, sometimes they're more subject to attack. But they also have more resources with which to move forward. But if you're a player in this game, you have to decide where do you want to play? Do you want to tell the story? Do you want to tell the story over and over and over until everyone in your organization gets it? 

I had a chance to work with Jack Walsh for a while at G.E., and you know, he would say the same thing over and over and over. What he wanted to be able to do was to, as he used to say, you know, wake someone up at 2 o'clock in the morning and ask him a question and everyone would give the same answer. You know, you had and really know what was our priority, what was our strategy, what are we doing? That comes from repetition. But then you get tired of hearing yourself talk. Many of the senior leaders that I've talked to who are really strategic leaders have soundbites. And you can be really dismissive of that and just say they’re saying the same thing. Well, a lot of people are hearing it for the first time, and a lot of people are understanding it and contextualizing it for the first time. And just like with stories, sometimes you want to hear that same story over and over again until you really can feel whether it's the hero's journey, you know, to achieve the impossible or whether it's just the, now I know where I am and what my right next step is, to use your language. 

Handling Follower Disagreement

[Jordan] Yeah, that's really, really interesting. So here's my next question and that is, what if I am in a leadership role and my followers disagree? Right? With the way I've decided to navigate forward, and we're telling that story, but, you know, I know that sometimes even loyal teams don't agree on what to do and whether to do anything when there is insufficient evidence or a lot of uncertainty, so kind of what's the right way to approach your role as a leader when that sort of feet dragging is happening? 

[Trish] Well, I'd say the very first thing is to recognize it. So if you know it's happening, you're ahead of the game because the worst situations like this are where, on the surface, you get agreement and buy-in… You think. But then you get dragging of the feet, sabotage, dispersion of efforts. So let's assume that your followers are verbally, vocally disagreeing with you. That's a gift because that allows you to do a number of things. You can decide to formally say, ok, let's do a red team, blue team, you know, prove you've got a better answer than I do. Or you can get every brain in the game and try to get more people to say, why don't you agree? Maybe they have information you don't have. Maybe they're interpreting it through a lens you don't have access to. So it could be that this is great, and you say thank you, you've either made me more certain of my position by, you know, let me stress test it or you've helped me to move off my position and improved where I am because you've brought new information. 

But there is an assumption here that there is a functioning culture and a team spirit that allows you to fight about it today, but then when a decision is made, they're going to get on board. And sometimes it's really difficult, so you might need to give people an off-ramp. You might need to say, you know, if you really don't think this is the direction we're going, we've still got some people doing other things or going other directions, some companies actually go ahead and let different teams follow different paths for a while, not, you know, to create billion-dollar businesses, but go through a few stage gates just as though your group is managing sort of a venture capital portfolio. So you could say to these folks, ok, I'll give you, you know, six weeks and twenty-five thousand dollars, go out on your path and then let's meet up again and show you how far you got, if it's that kind of a problem. I actually think my way of designing this product is better than yours or I think my pitch to the clients is gonna work better than yours. Is there an experiment, a controlled experiment that you can do so everybody learns? 

So every time someone disagrees, it's really hard to get your ego out of the way because your first impulse is to just say, come on, don't you know I'm right, or don't waste my time, or we've already been through this already. And if you have, there is a time when the dialog is over and it's time to act. But there is a number of things that you can embed in the way you work with others, and again, it's making meaning instead of saying, I'm right, you're wrong, you're saying that's interesting, you know? Have we really investigated thoroughly or is it time to do more analysis, or is it time to do an experiment, or is it time to just decide and act? 

And I think in most cases, the respect that comes with being really open––and not to seem schizophrenic––the problem I do see with some folks, and you would ask for coaching before, is one day they're asking for input and they're really, you know, casual about it and saying, oh, I'm okay to be wrong, and the next meeting they're rigid and they're, you know, I've decided and please stop the discussions. And with some people it is, you know, on a Friday, always go in with your ask on a Friday afternoon because he just wants to say yes and get out. 

But the reality is we have a broad repertoire of strategic leadership skills and our ability to be flexible or to be rigid, our ability to be inclusive or autocratic. None of those is in itself bad. It's just bad if you do it at the wrong time, in the wrong place. 

Traps in Navigating the Unknown

[Jordan] So let me ask this. What are the things, the traps we need to avoid as we're navigating the unknown? 

[Trish] Well, one is getting into the “I” instead of the “we”. So we've talked before in some of these podcasts about stakeholders and your team, so part of it is really checking your ego. Are you doing this in some way because it was your idea or because you have some other fear or motivation other than the value for the group? And that's just really being self-aware and honest and taking ownership of your own feelings and actions. So making sure you're really in the “we, us” mindset. 

Second is checking your assumptions and maybe they were really right yesterday, but has anything changed? And checking your biases, debiasing as much as you can. And if those are things that you're not familiar with doing, there are ways to learn how to do those things. But mostly it's just saying, how sure am I, and am I using outdated information? Am I only seeing the world I want to see? So some of the traps are, we see what we want to see. We'd use confirmation bias, which is saying I already think that women never get the plum job, so I'll just focus on the times when they didn't get the plum jobs instead of the times they did. Confirmation bias, it affects all of us. 

The third thing, so after making sure you’re in the “we, us” mindset and you're checking your assumptions and updating, and being willing to change your mind is really listening. Some of that dissent you hear is because people have a different point of view, some because they have a different set of facts. And we'd like to believe that two intelligent people, given the same information, will make the same decision. But that actually is not always true. So it's really listening for what's in the mix. Is it ambition or fear? Is it a better way? Is it a different model of the world? So if we're talking about Netflix and Blockbuster, if you're living in a world where we have a physical product, and I'm living in a world where we have a digital stream, we're not going to agree on everything right off the bat. Until we understand what we agree to disagree about. 

For a long time, I was fully convinced that higher education was going to yield to online modality and we'd be doing a lot more online learning. My first online learning I think was in, let's say 1991. You know, with something I was doing for maybe Wharton way back when, and we called it “distance learning” and it was a dial-up modem, it was a glorified conference call, but we were sure we were right around the next corner––to talk about what was seen around the corner––right around the next corner was online learning and we really underestimated the institutional inertia and a lot of the reasons why people actually like to learn in groups in a physical space and some other things. So anyway, so being wrong and learning from it is vitally important. But the traps are really, you know, reinforcing your own biases, failing to check your assumptions and letting your ego get in the way.

Expecting to Be Wrong

[Jordan] So two last questions, one is what if you're wrong? Like, not that I ever have the experience of being wrong, but we all do. And when you need to change your mind and go a different direction, how should leaders be approaching that?

[Trish] One is expect to be wrong. I think a lot of us who did really well in grade school and even in college or whatever experience you had, sports or anything else.

[Jordan] That embracing failure thing you were saying earlier.

[Trish] Yeah! I told you I was watching Wimbledon recently. And, you know, Roger Federer double-faulted, I don't know, maybe five times in the match. But I remember they put the stat up and I thought, ok, next time I double fault in a match, instead of getting really angry at myself that I should never double fault, I have to remind myself that even Roger Federer double-faults. And then Wayne Gretzky, one of the best hockey players of all time, used to say “you miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take.” So it's saying I tried my best. It's accepting a certain rate of failure or misses and just try to be closer to the goal next time. Try to make a better-designed experiment next time. So it's learning from the failure, it's accepting yourself, normalizing it, but also not letting yourself get lazy and sloppy because we do see some places and people, and it's human nature, if you know failure is accepted, sometimes you don't put in your best effort or you figure I'm going to have another few tries. So there is this delicate balance between your really best effort to get everything done, and the tradeoffs you might make to say, well, this time, it's not that sometimes I try and sometimes, I fail, it's sometimes I try, and sometimes I learn. And it's figuring out how to share that learning, find out who's been down the path before you, and don't reinvent the wheel. I know all these things sound so cliche, but they're just so useful. 

[Jordan] Totally. And I think when we get into the episodes where we talk about the goal principles, it's kind of that forward thinking and forward driving sort of approach, you know, mitigates, I think, some of the almost learned helplessness if I can use that term. 

[Trish] It's a great term because if you know you're moving toward something, it's the idea that if everybody who tried to sing and said, oh, I'm a terrible singer, they tried to sing the song next to somebody who's a top recording artist, and they say, I'm a terrible singer as opposed to saying, today I don't sound very good, but could I develop my vocal skills? And we send people out into business and maybe they're learning to sell, or they're learning to code, or they're learning to lead. And you can't expect them to be great at it the first time they try it. All you can expect is that you're going to get better every day. 

Today’s best next action:

[Jordan] So last question. What would you like to see from our listeners every day, whether it's for the next couple of weeks, see them do to improve their ability to lead in this important way? 

[Trish] I would pick out something if you'd go along with me, try this. In the next three, or four, or five days, find something you think that is absolutely crazy, insane or stupid going on in your organization or in your broader ecosystem. Some supplier is selling something at a crazy price or giving something away for free. Somebody is hiring people who don't seem qualified. When you have that moment where you say, what are they doing? They're idiots. Is he crazy? Then add a piece and say, is he crazy or am I wrong? Is there something about the way I'm looking at the world? You know, why is everyone piling on to this IPO and raising this company up to an 8 billion-dollar valuation? You can close a newspaper and close the browser and say, that's stupid. Those people are stupid. Or you can stop and say, huh, maybe I'm wrong. And that will help you with this navigating uncertainty. That's a part of this embracing the unknown, is allowing yourself to say, wow, maybe my whole world view is wrong. 

I remember being in Japan and students, young students had phones or they had something that I didn't even call a phone and they were texting things, which now I know what texting is, but they were pushing little buttons and looking down instead of talking to each other. And I thought, oh, how stupid. I really hope this fad doesn't last very long. And if I would have used this little thing of just saying to myself, they're doing something that doesn't make sense at all to me, don't just close my mind to it, investigate it. Open up. Find out more about it. Well, if I would have realized how great and important texting was going to be back then, and I can say that about so many other things. It's having that open mind, and when you think something doesn't make sense to you, take the next step to figure out are they crazy or are you wrong? 

[Jordan] That's great. Thanks, Trish. Thanks for your insight, your experience. And we'll catch you guys next time. 

[Trish] Thank you very much. Have a great day. 

Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. You can find more information about the topic and continue the conversation at donerightpodcast.org. 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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