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Take 5: Q&A with CEO Peter Sheahan, ChangeLabs

June 11, 2013
"Don’t feel like you have a monopoly on the truth, meaning your process, your orientation, your philosophy; your approach isn’t the only orientation, philosophy or approach," Peter Sheahan, CEO/Founder of ChangeLabs.

For the past 13 years, Peter Sheahan has developed ChangeLabs, a consultancy he founded in 2000 to help clients undertake large-scale behavioral change projects.

In addition to his work leading change through ChangeLabs, Sheahan also is the author of several books, including Fl!p and Generation Y.

During the Industrial Research Institute’s 75th annual meeting in D.C., Sheahan offered IW his insights on leading change, which he has gleaned from working with leaders at Google and Harley Davidson (IW 500/192), among others.

Q: In your opinion, are the companies that come to you seeking change and innovation the ones in most need of such initiatives? Or is it more of a cycle of the already self aware companies seeking to further improve?

Firstly, I think everyone’s looking for innovation and breakthrough ideas right now. There are very few industries that aren’t under some level of fundamental change – even some of these web and tech companies that are on the way forward are seeing their business model mature and evolve. So, I think everyone’s looking for it.

I think the bit that determines how much trouble someone’s in and how much trouble they’re not in is their ability to execute on what the clear and obvious opportunities out there right in front of them are.

You don’t want to name any industries or anything or individual companies, but there’s no shortage of examples out there now where you’re looking and going, ‘why aren’t they doing this? The writing’s on the wall.’ And the reality is some of them are doing it, they just can’t get it to scale or they can’t get their people on board with it, etc. It’s usually on the execution side, we think, that it’s falling down.

Q:  How can leaders best bridge the gap between younger and older workers? Why is it important to do so?

There could be two answers to that question. No. 1 is stop treating them as younger workers…I actually think that this belief system that they’re younger and they have to be handled or that they should be on a youth committee, that sort of stuff, kills any chance of them feeling like you’re taking them seriously, you’re trusting them, they’re credible.

But at the same time, there is no question that working styles are evolving. Where people like to work, how they like to work, under what structures they might want to work, how much security they need in that, that is definitely changing. I think a shift from a manager towards outward-faced management and away from inward-faced management is the first thing you have to do.

If you can’t clearly articulate success, and then hold someone accountable for it, you find yourself also heading back to how many hours were they there and did they wear the right clothes. That’s where all of the tension happens. To find success, they’re either meeting it or they’re not. That’s the first reason to stop.

No. 2 is don’t feel like you have a monopoly on the truth, meaning your process, your orientation, your philosophy; your approach isn’t the only orientation, philosophy or approach. Some people can get to that same endgame without following the exact same path that you would get there.

And you rob yourself of learning as a manager if you articulate the process. Now I get that it might be part of a big innovation process or a big supply chain, I get that bit, but I mean with an individual worker, you don’t have to engineer everything to within an inch of its life.

And then, third, is to realize that different is not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.

Q: What is your greatest success story in initiating change within a company?

We’ve worked with about 30,000 teachers in about three years, helping them apply technology in the classroom…We did it in a way that was not only good for the classroom, but the company that funded it.

That’s probably my biggest success. I’m very proud of our financial literacy education stuff.

Q: As a leader yourself, how do you take your own advice within ChangeLabs?

I put up a chart showing R&D in the Silicon Valley. We have a higher percentage of revenue going to R&D than Microsoft (IW 500/15). So we spend a lot of money as a small business on R&D and new product development because you have to. We’re not a billion-dollar corporation.

The thing I don’t like to talk about much, because I’m very bad at doing it internally, is the leadership bit itself. Because I’m so busy thinking about the ideas and in the market talking about them that I sometimes don’t like the fact that people can’t read my mind. So, as a company we absolutely like to talk.

Q: From your experience, what are the strongest qualities you’ve seen in leaders and how do said qualities translate into success?

Clarity would be No. 1. People could think you’re a [jerk], but if they’re really clear what you’re trying to get done and they can buy into that theme, they will forgive you your personality.

Courage would be the second one. And courage is not about visionary ideas or breakthroughs. No, the courage that we see most powerful in leaders is the courage to have security in your choices, to be really clear on where you want to go.

But, don’t pretend you have all of the answers. Don’t micromanage…That takes a lot of courage because you still remain accountable for the outcome but you’re trusting someone else to be responsible for it. That takes a lot of courage: the courage to show up at work and take the mask off and be who you really are and say how you really feel. We think that’s a really big trait.

So, clarity, courage, and the third one would be self awareness. There’s a great line a friend of mine, Dr. Peter Fuda has, which says, “We judge ourselves by our intent and everybody else by their impact.”

We judge ourselves by our intent and everyone else by their behavior. Everyone around us is judging us by our behavior…You know, you have to have that self awareness to go, ‘Wow, when I say things like that it makes people feel like that.’ Because otherwise, you’re just out for a walk, you know. I’ve never met one individual who created an amazing company. I’ve met individuals who have great teams. 

Check out IW's complete "Take Five" series, a regular section featuring interviews with top executives.

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