Walking The Razor’s Edge With Peter Sheahan
In this rapidly changing world, corporations and communities are but two sides of one coin. To solve higher order problems, they must work with each other, not against each other. How can these two parties play their respective roles in the common struggle for the common good? This is but one of the big topics tackled in this wide-ranging conversation between Kathy Twells and Peter Sheahan, a top-rated keynote speaker, innovative business thinker and thought leader, and Group CEO of Karrikins Group. Kathy and Peter also talk about other thought-provoking topics in the corporate leadership sphere, including ambition, alignment, change, personal development, presence and social impact. Whether you’re a top executive mulling over how to lead your corporation to be a leader of change, or a middle manager wondering what role you could possibly play in all this transformation, this episode is a must-listen.
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Walking The Razor’s Edge With Peter Sheahan
Solving Higher Order Problems In A Changing World
I’m happy to share this conversation on the show. I’ll be speaking with Peter Sheahan who was a speaker at our summit in Nashville a few years ago. Since that time, he has remained a source for me of strategic wisdom. I think you’ll see why as you read some of the powerful insights that he’ll be sharing with us. Let me tell you a little bit more about Peter. After decades of standing in the fire with leaders of high performing organizations, he’s come to believe that an organization will only go commercially where its leaders first go personally. That’s a powerful idea that we’ll explore.
Having grown his own companies by accelerating the growth and transformation for clients that include Apple, Chick-fil-A, DeBeers, and AT&T, Peter will provoke you to get bigger by getting better. When leaders are true to their purpose, they gravitate towards doing the work that matters and solving higher-order problems. That’s what we all need to be doing now in the environment we’re living in.
The journey to get there requires that we have the courage to tell ourselves the truth to take intelligent risk and assume ownership for driving the type of alignment necessary to build an organization that behaves in ways worthy of its leadership position. Being true to his own ambitions and relentless pursuit of growth, Peter has published seven books, built three global companies, and delivered more than 2,500 presentations in over 40 countries. He and his team at the Karrikins Group are focused exclusively on inspiring leaders to do the hard work required to accelerate growth and transformation. In our conversation, he’s going to share such valuable insights that will truly serve us as we continue to navigate significant changes.
Pete, I’m happy to be having this conversation. I know you and I met a couple of years ago and you have been generous with your time with your wisdom, both of the CMO Summit and in subsequent conversations with me. I am thrilled to have you on the show and I wanted to say thank you.
It’s a pleasure, Katherine. I’m happy to have the chat.
Let’s go ahead and get started and even though, at the beginning of this show, I will have shared with our audiences a little bit about your bio and who you are and the accomplishments that you’ve had but what I love to do to kick off the conversation is to know a little bit more about your origin story. How through life have you gotten to where you are and defined your mission and purpose in your work?
There are a couple of critical moments. Number one is I’m one of eight children in a small country town. I have a raging and uncontrollable desire for independence and control over my own life and my strategy. It’s not about controlling other people. It’s about not being controlled by other people. As a result of that, I have been on the entrepreneurial path since I was nineteen years old. I got a full-ride scholarship and a job at Coopers & Lybrand back in the day, straight out of high school.
They’re going to put me through college. I did eight days in this job and I was like, “This is not for me.” I ended up going into the hospitality business and running a couple of successful bars in Australia. I knew two things at the time. One, I wanted to be even better at that job than I was at the time. Two, I felt like I needed to be in service and contribution. I would have used words like that back then, believe it or not, it was about how do I make an impact in the world?
I’ve always been driven by that. Some of your audiences would remember a deceased personal development guru named Jim Rohn. Australia’s a small country with 25 million people. Once a year, some big conference promoters would bring Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins or Jim Rohn and they did this big sales success day. It was the worst cliche of all of the cliches. I couldn’t afford a ticket. I was engaged. I bought a house and these tickets were $1,200 and I was twenty years old or something but I can afford the $100 ticket.In order to have social impact, you need to have a sustainable business model at the same time. Click To Tweet
I called him and I said, “Do you got any desperation tickets?” They’re like, “We have a few tickets behind a concrete pylon and they’re a $100.” Long story short, this guy named Jim Rohn blew my mind with the precision and the simplicity of his insight. It immediately had a sustained impact on my life. From that day on, from months following, I wasn’t the same person. I got this idea, “Wouldn’t it be a beautiful gift to be able to do that for people?”
When you’re 19, 20 years old who you do that for? I decided I was going to go into schools and teach kids about those critical decisions they have to make as they transitioned from school to work. I dedicated the first 6 or 7 years of my entrepreneurial life going into schools, delivering seminars on a Friday afternoon at 100 degrees with no air conditioning. I was pounding the pavement stuff and then I happened on a business model where I would go to large corporations and companies like Coca-Cola. You weren’t a client of ours, but big ones like Apple, IBM and the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. They’re all looking to do great things in the community.
I was like, “Why don’t you stop giving the money to other people and build your own signature programs so you build your own sense of mission and purpose and your own brand in the social space?” We pioneered a business model that was a large scale behavior change in schools funded by corporations. I did that for eighteen years. In 2019, we did 40,000 workshops for one million kids in seven countries. Most people don’t know me for that work. Most people know me for the second chapter which is working with CEOs and their leadership teams on accelerating transformation. That’s how it got started. Ernst & Young own that business and are doing a beautiful job of helping large organizations focus on the community.
For me, that purpose and mission were driven by the desire to inspire people to take intelligent risks in pursuit of an extraordinary life. I found a pathway to do it with young kids and in many years, I have been obsessed with doing it with CEOs and the leadership teams because I believe the role of companies in societies are substantially evolving and therefore the way companies show up and create value has to change. I can work with 8 CEO in 8 direct reports and transform 100,000 people that work for them and the millions of people that are impacted by them. For the last 10 to 15 years, my personal focus has been on organizational and CEO transformation.
That is not too long of an answer because, in the texture of that, there’s much. First of all, the fact that as a young person, you were geared towards service to the greater good. A lot of people get to that point later in life and they think, “I need to start giving back.” You wanted to give back from the beginning. You have this internal compass, this internal knowing that this was part of your gift and this is what you were going to do. It gives me goosebumps to hear about that initial chapter. I didn’t know that about you because we have our relationship and talking more.
To be honest to your audience though, I was also obsessed with making money. I don’t know where that internal compass came from. I suspect it probably came from my father who dedicated his life to public service and my mother who couldn’t help other people. She had eight kids. It didn’t come from organized religion. It didn’t come from a structured and moral framework but probably from their example and something deeper.
At the same time, I was obsessed with financial and practical success as well. I think that the tension between those two things can create extraordinary outcomes in terms of you have to get more creative. People weren’t talking conscious capitalism. People weren’t talking about something big corporations now. We were ten years ahead of that movement. It came from my personal tension with, “I want to be successful because of that freedom independence I talked about.” At the same time, I didn’t want to do that by exploiting things. I wanted to do that by creating things and that’s where that goal came from.
I did a project and I interviewed a lot of mission-based entrepreneurial companies to understand how can we at Coca-Cola learn from people who are creating mission and purpose-based outcomes? Because they create a different flavor in the organization and a different fire in the belly of the people who are working there. What you tend to find sometimes is this fascinating us and them mentality. I’m either the scrappy changed the world entrepreneur or I’m the big corporation that’s been around forever and I’m the one destroying the resources on the planet, which is simply not true. It is yes and for all of us.
We all have our roles. Big companies have scale. They have money. They have an impact. They have relationships and the ability to do good is phenomenal. I look at the fact that Coca-Cola is a global organization that has been centered around unity, connecting people, connecting communities and that’s a core part of what we do. It’s interesting as you think about, you can be successful and make money and do it in a way that creates value for others. I think sometimes we separate those things but they do not need to be separate at all. They can be together.
A Social And Moral Obligation
I have many opinions about this and I’d love to make a couple of points. Number one, corporations have a responsibility to solve the problems that only they are able to solve. Take a company like Coca-Cola, and I know you have an incredible breadth of products that you take to the world and you have assets that aren’t a product like distribution, the ability to get into every corner of the globe. Coca-Cola’s ability to help evolve the tastes and preferences of societies is something that they are uniquely positioned to be able to do.
There are 2 or 3 other FMCG companies or CPG companies that could play that game with you but that’s it. I do believe there is a social and moral obligation for organizations to solve higher-order problems. I do not buy into the maximize shareholder value only argument. As a University of Chicago school guy, then I would say yes but over what timeframe? I think the long-term success of these organizations will depend on how well they can serve those things.
Then that doesn’t say Coca-Cola shouldn’t make beautiful drinks that bring people happiness. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make a sugary soft drink. I’m not saying we shouldn’t make potato chips. I’m not saying we shouldn’t sell people things that bring them joy. I personally like to drink. They’re all part of the rich fabric of our lives but at the same time, companies have to solve that. I think that is one piece. Two, we don’t beat up on society enough.
We beat up on corporations too much. I’ll give an example. In Australia, there are four major banks and it is the media and the public’s favorite thing to beat up on those banks, yet they are some of the most prudently run organizations on the planet. That society is demanding that those banks do more for them and then the second a great bank like the Commonwealth Bank of Australia does is amazing in-school financial literacy programs, school banking programs.
I’m not saying that they do it all perfectly and that no one makes a mistake, but you can’t ask a corporation to play a different role in your life and then beat the crap out of them every time they do it. There has to be a meeting in the middle of both the way boards and CEOs think about value creation. Also, the appetite permission and space that consumers in the marketplace and community give to those organizations to come on that journey because you can’t click your fingers and change the way a Coca-Cola or an IBM operates.
These are huge organisms. They’re like countries in some cases. I guess the point I’m trying to make is I believe companies should solve higher-order problems that they’re uniquely positioned to solve. I believe that society should give them space and permission to do that because right now, as you see in the political sphere, we’re finding ourselves on two sides of the coin and we need to get on the same side.
There’s no question. The divisiveness doesn’t move us forward in any way, shape or form. You mentioned conscious capitalism. As I look at the evolution of our organization and others that I know of, it is a rising level of consciousness. You could argue that generational shifts were a catalyst to this where our younger generations were going, “I better see how you are consciously working in the world and how you are making shifts for the future.”
I believe it has now become accepted and embraced part of that. I know being a leader in my organization and others, you want to know that you are stepping into a place that is co-creating a different future. A better future that is way beyond just shareholder value but it is about solving your point higher-level problems. If we do that well, we’re not finger-pointing, and we’re not villainizing, there’s a lot of power in everyone playing their role. What role do you have? What role do I have? If we all play it well, there’s a lot of power in that.
We used to call it the razor’s edge. We have these hundreds of young people come work for us and they were into social impact. We had to teach them that in order to have a social impact, you need to have a sustainable business model at the same time and being able to walk that razor’s edge. I don’t know if we’re in the middle, the beginning or the end of COVID. It’s hard to figure out but we’re certainly in the middle of the level of our people riding. Let’s make these bigger than social impact. I think organizations have had to rapidly change and transform in response to COVID. I do believe some of that will be sustained long-term because I think what’s going to come out of this period that we’re in is a couple of things. I think at an individual level, we’re all asking bigger questions like, “What’s our life going to be about? Where do I want to spend my time?”It's not only a burning platform that creates change. Click To Tweet
There are industries that are booming but there are around staying in place and the physical environment that you raised your family in. There’s a whole value shift where that money’s being spent. On the other side, I think organizations have now got a new set of reference experiences for what’s possible. You set reference experiences for what it means to work and where the work’s a place or a digital space, I think they’ve got a new set of reference experiences for how quickly both they and their consumers are prepared to adapt when there’s a good case for doing so.
Everyone’s like, “Change takes forever.” It turns out that you can do this stuff in four weeks if you mean it. I don’t love the fact that it’s taken a burning platform to get that done. I would prefer companies have done that from a place of ambition and desire. I think those reference experiences mean boards, CEOs but more to the point middle managers where most things go to die can no longer stand up and go, “That doesn’t work around here. You’re disconnected from the marketplace. I’m closer to the consumer.”
That’s because you don’t want to change. The fact of the matter is we now know what’s possible and how quickly we can move. I think third and finally on this evolution that we’re in is accelerated, amplified rate of change we’re in is that the whole value chain is how we take solutions to market that add value to people, corporations, communities’ lives or whatever. All of a sudden there are players that are being exposed in our value chain that aren’t additive. They extracting.
They’ve got their hand in the pie or the hand in the pocket and taking what they can out. I think we’re starting to ask questions about, “Is there a better way to do this? What would a direct to consumer model look like for some of those things? Do I need seven people between a manufactured bottled product and the happiness that comes from consuming it? Maybe not.” That’s not true. I don’t mean that for Coca-Cola. I mean that generally because we’re seeing it in every industry.
There’s a couple of things that you said that I want to build on. One is this whole idea of givers and takers and the fact that I do think we’re asking new questions. If we are going to raise our consciousness in business and humanity, we have to be thinking about the balance between giving and taking. We’re an ecosystem. I’ve talked about this on some of the other shows. There’s some interesting work. Frederic Laloux talks about reinventing organizations and this idea of Holacracy and the fact that you do need to think about a company, a family and many groups as a total ecosystem. Gone are the days of hierarchical power sits in one place. The power needs to be distributed. There needs to be this equation of giving and taking.
A Painful Transition
You mentioned digging deeper. Ambition and desire to create a better future like a vision of, “The world could be this way,” versus having to go through pain. COVID being a painful way to learn that we are an ecosystem and that what happens across the world is separate from you. Our actions matter. It matters to the people close to us. It matters to people far away. Why do you think it takes a painful transition to create change? This immediate change and this immediate fire in the belly to do something different. I’d love to talk more about that.
A resource for your audiences, there is an incredible practitioner out of Australia named Dr. Peter Fuda. He’s also a PhD and CEO transformation, both a friend and mentor of mine. The work he’s done around this is where I get inspired from and a lot of my ideas have evolved. I’m standing on the feet of that giant. That guy is a genius. He did a PhD studying the difference between a burning platform and a burning desire. I have a couple of things to say about it. Number one is it’s not only a burning platform that creates change. There are examples of incredible transformation both society-wide as well as the organizational transformation that did not require a crisis or a burning platform at all. One is don’t feel like that’s the only option.
Two, with that said, you can accelerate that process with a burning platform if you need to. There are certain ways if you get one. If I was leading an organization now, I wouldn’t be using that as my primary mechanism because what you end up doing is burning people out. A burning platform leads to low margins. It leads to crisis energy. It leads to high anxiety in the organization. It leads to constant restructuring. The first thing that every new CEO wants to do is restructure the old chart and think that that’s going to fix the problem. It’s done or dies and it’s blood on the other side of it.
Maybe that’s your reality. Firstly, I feel sorry for you but secondly, don’t waste it. If it’s not your reality, don’t create a narrative that it is because smart, talented, brilliant people like a challenge but they like to be beaten down. I think that’s a critical distinction. Let’s go to the second piece, which is how do you do it from a place of a burning desire? In my world, we call that ambition. There’s a couple of things that have to happen. One, you need a CEO that has the courage to do that. I think there is a lack of vision on behalf of many senior leaders and organizations around the world. I think they fall victim to a couple of things. Number one, they are worried that the board’s going to ask them if they have two bad quotas and the truth is there are some boards like that. At the same time, a good CEO takes his or her board on a journey as well.
If you look at the transformation that happened at Adobe over the years 15, 20 times increase in enterprise value, a complete transformation of the business model from software in a box to Software as a Service. They move up the value chain from not just making beautiful images but aggregating and collecting data to make sure marketers were putting their money in places that work. What a stunning transformation. Their CFO said his job for the first five years was to protect the senior management team from the investment community.
He was the buffer between them because he had an ambition about what that organization could look like that was worth going to bath for. I think we fall victim that there’s an external locus of control and that as a senior team, we can’t influence the board or influence the analyst community. I think part of that influence needs to be around patients and timeframes. You might not like moving from $27 a share to $18 a share when Adobe began that transformation journey but you damn well like it at $325 a share.
A little more patient capital but also a senior team that’s willing to back themselves to produce those results, not in a year but at least 2 to 3 which is a fair amount of time. I think the combination of courage with a willingness to not accept an external locus of control with a level of influence that drives patients both up and down that chain, that’s how you move from a place of ambition and desire. What Fuda would say though is that the CEO’s personal ambition matters as much as the organizational ambition. At the end of the day, if she doesn’t want to go on this journey, the organization will never make it.
As we would say in my world, a company will only go commercially where its CEO first goes personally. That’s a rich area. Maybe another space to go in that conversation is I think one of the changes we’ve seen irrespective of COVID in the last few years is that the complexity of the challenges that organizations are facing now is bigger than any single individual’s ability to understand, retain and so forth. I know this is a global audience, the American quarterback hero model that all roads lead to the CEO. I think that we are breaking that mold now. We’re moving to a construct of a team solving that problem rather than a CEO. You’ve been in and around big corporations for a long time and in our experience, most corporations are run by a group of individuals who report together and not a leadership team. They are fundamentally different things in my opinion.
Agreement Vs. Alignment
You talk a lot in your work about this idea of the inside job and the collaborations. What I love about what you’re saying and I do think it’s a challenge is being able to lead from a long game perspective because there are many times you do need to take short-term diversions that do not drive the stock to the earlier point with Adobe where you want it in the short run. It’s courage and you said this. It’s like, “Do you have the courage to play the long game and to create a vision with all stakeholders, people within your company as well as the board and to take them on that journey?”
That takes real skill to be able to do that. Let’s say that you’re a leader reading to this conversation and COVID has been a disruptor. There was already massive change before this happened and suddenly you need to figure out how to have the answers, which to your point, you’re not going to have it alone. You either create collaboration and use that diverse thinking to create it. How do you as an inside job start creating behavioral change if you’re leading a company that’s going to navigate you through these crazy waters? How do you think about that?
I think the first step is taking ownership of what’s happening and accepting the reality of the marketplace within which you now compete and the truth about what it’s going to look like tomorrow. There are a lot of people in COVID now waiting for things to go back. They’re not going back. We’re all moving forward and it will look different. Some people massively overstate how different, and there’s a thing called projection bias and behavioral economics that talks about an individual’s belief that the current emotional state will be sustained longer than it is.
I’ll give you an example. After 9/11, they said, it’ll be a decade before commercial air travel would return to the level it was at. It took three years before they broke previous records. If you think of the global financial crisis, people like thirteen years before corporate balance sheets would be leveraged and back where. It took under five. We do overestimate these things. Let’s go back to the core of your question and that is you have to accept reality. Tell it how it is and stop confusing the fact that you’re talking about it with the fact that you’ve assumed ownership for doing something about it.
I remember working with a company and there is a lot of FMCG work and they’re all sitting around and they are working with the big five retailers in America who’d lost 35% of their market value in 45 days after Amazon bought Whole Foods. I facilitated the day. They all sit around for the day and I go to the end of the day, I asked the CMO of a large corporation, “What’s your conclusion?” She said, “All I know is you can’t blame us because we didn’t see it coming.”A company will only go commercially where its CEO first goes personally. Click To Tweet
I’m like, “Every analyst on earth saw Amazon buying last-mile distribution.” When you are a trillion-dollar company, the easiest way to solve that problem is buy anyone you like. With the exception of Walmart, they could have bought anyone. I’m like, “How did you not know this?” They’re like, “Don’t blame us.” That’s because they confuse the fact that they talk about strategic risk with taking ownership and doing something about it. That’s the first thing. It’s called brutal facts. Tell yourself the truth. The second thing to do is to seek a level of clarity that will help you determine what actions and decisions are aligned and misaligned but do not do it by yourself.
A great executive, particularly a CEO will have a strong sense of what he or she wants to create. I think about Satya Nadella at Microsoft that followed Ballmer. There’s an example of how quickly it can happen. Think about the enterprise value created under Nadellas’ leadership of Microsoft relative to Ballmer in the same period. I know he had ideas and we did a lot of work for them over the years. I know he knew what he wanted to do, but the process by which he got to clarity is as important as the clarity itself. What I mean by that is if you come and you pull each individual division of Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Unilever or any of these great companies is as big enough to be a corporation on its own. Even if you run a small company, the people who are running a P&L, they didn’t think they’re in your company. They think they’re running their own company and reporting the numbers to you because that’s how most of us have set them up to run.
You need to take them on a journey where you collectively get to clarity. The outcome of the process is courage, commitment, connection, and then ideally alignment because if you bring the plan or you pay McKinsey $3 million for the binder that’s going to sit on the shelf, you’re not getting any change. You might get agreement and that makes sense but you’re not getting alignment, which is where the real change happens. Your question was if you’re leading an organization, where would you start? Number one with truth-telling session that’s brutal and honest but inspiring in its possibilities.
That takes real skill to do that well.
It’s not about personal courage or skill. It’s also about assumptions and beliefs because what tends to happen in those environments is, we filter the external information through our existing filters, our existing beliefs, our existing assumptions about the world and we say things like, “That would never work around here.” This is what was happening leading to COVID. People are not productive when they work from home. That turned out to be bull. They are incredibly productive and in fact, the engagement scores are up and there are all sorts of stuff.
It’s not just skill. Usually, you need an external partner to do that stuff. You need to question your assumptions. At the same time, you need to both channel your own ambition but then you have to go on a process of clarification where the process yields connection, commitment and courage, because it’s done with the collective team rather than you dictating it or worse done by an external firm to you by them. It should be done for you by your team. To sum that piece up, the level of transformation you are likely to need to undergo and I know you’ll feel this at Coca-Cola, it’s been announced and it’s happening. It is bigger than any one person’s ability to energetically lead. You need a senior executive team that is singing from the same page and marching in the same direction. You don’t get that by dictating to people what they need to do.
I want to go a little deeper on one of the concepts that you talked about. This whole idea of agreement versus alignment. At face value, you might go, “We agree. We’re aligned. It’s the same thing.” Alignment to me and I think about this in my business life and my personal life is much deeper. It’s having a clear understanding of my value structure, the vision and am I aligned with the people in my life? Are we going in the same direction? Can you share a little bit more about the distinction between those two things?
I think there’s a third piece in it. I think of basic agreement, you sit around the table and you’re like, “This is what we think we want to do, and here’s where we think the market’s going to go.” Everyone nods their head and thinks that’s a great idea. You say things to your team like, “Does this make sense?” People will say yes. “Am I being clear?” “Yes. You’re being clear.” Everyone leaves the meeting and assumes that it is someone else’s job to make that happen. You leave the meeting feeling like everyone’s on board but they’re not.
They think, “That’s a great idea. You should do that. I’m going to get back to my business.” There is then this next phase that creates even more confusion for leadership teams because they have an agreement about what makes sense but then they have a level of camaraderie and connection, and they confuse camaraderie and connection with deep commitment and action. Just because you get along as a senior team, that does not mean you have alignment at a senior team.
The way you have an alignment is when people make decisions and act in ways that are generating that future clearly defined ambition even if it’s at the expense of their own P&L, silo, or at the expense of the existing hard to dislodge core business that exists. If you’ve declared a direction, what we would call an ambition in our work, are you making decisions, and are you acting in ways that are going to take you there? When you presented with 32 different ideas is the question, not lots of good ideas, the question which ones aligned or misaligned to this new direction.
Alignment happens in action and happens in behavior. It happens in decision making. It doesn’t happen in intellectual agreement. You use an example of personal alignment. Most of our works are with leadership teams and larger organizations but I think it’s the difference between values and rules. You and I might agree that we are adventurous. I’ve never met anyone in the world that doesn’t say they’re spontaneous and adventurous.
My definition of adventurous is, “I’m going to pick you up from work today. Make sure you get your passport because we’re going to Africa tomorrow. No, we didn’t plan it but we’ll get our shots on the way to the plane.” Your idea of adventurous might be, “Can we go to Cabo next March? I’ve got plenty of time to prepare. Look how adventurous I am. I love to travel.” The rules are different. This process we’re talking about collective clarification. When we do that work with businesses, we don’t just clarify the ambition. We clarify the behaviors that senior team needs to live, eat, sleep, and breathe in order to manifest the ambition.
In other words, it’s a much about clarifying how they’re going to work together as it is about clarifying what they’re trying to create. What happens is you sit around a table and everyone nods their head and like, “We’re going to do that.” One person thinks it’s about restructuring the organization. Another person thinks about doubling the salesforce. Another person thinks it’s about firing bad customers and doubling down. That’s not alignment. That’s 52 different ideas about something you’re clearly in agreement on but you don’t understand how to get there. The devil is in that detail to do that stuff well.
Change From The Middle Change From The Middle
I’ve seen that come to life and good intent, good visionary direction but yet that detail orientation, that distinction of how are we going to link arms and minds to move forward to this different vision that we’re creating is powerful. Let’s say you’re an audience and you are not the leader. Let’s say you’re an individual. Maybe you’re a mid-level manager and you’re like, “Maybe you don’t think you have power or you think you can’t make a difference.” What would you say to people who might desire to be change agents or to create greater agility but they’re not sure how? Is there a road to do that if you’re not the leader?
Inside that question lies the greatest myth of old time. As though you need to be the most senior person to create change. I know I can move an organization quickly with that senior team, which is why I do my work there but for a manager of any team to think that he or she can create impact is a rather convenient belief to have because the payoff of that belief is, I don’t have to take the professional risk. You can’t blame me if things go wrong.
I’m just executing the strategy. Organizations are living, breathing organisms. Every one of you has the ability to influence that ecosystem and the way things work inside of that. The world is full of examples of people who are in junior positions that created radical transformations in companies. A great example from Coca-Cola in the way you solve distribution in the third world. You couldn’t pick up and take an American style mass transit freeway system model and plant it in India, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka.
The way you use small local single person distribution. That didn’t come from the CEO of Coca-Cola. That came from people in the field who saw how that stuff works. We talked about Microsoft, take a guy like J Allard who was working on Windows 95 that was going to have zero internet-based technology in it. He wrote a memo to Bill Gates who read it on his Think Week about the internet being the killer application and then that gave birth to the Internet Explorer and the rest is history.
You could talk about someone like Alph Bingham at Eli Lilly who finally came to the conclusion that not all the smart people worked at Eli Lilly. There are cool things happening outside your four walls. He builds an open innovation network where they would take core problems, put them out to the scientific community and offer incentives to people who could solve these problems. Talk about tapping into 100,000 scientists that are on someone else’s balance sheet instead of your own.Alignment happens in action. It happens in behavior. It happens in decision making. It doesn't happen in intellectual agreement. Click To Tweet
What about the accounts payable kid at Progressive years ago who worked out that Progressive spent more money on lawyers alone defending cases that were not fraudulent or unable to be proven fraudulent than it would have cost them if they paid out each vehicle that that person claimed for. This is a kid working on a spreadsheet in his twenties somewhere in Ohio coming out with a breakthrough. That’s the most convenient excuse to do nothing I’ve ever heard.
The second question needs to be, what is the impact you want to leave on that team? What is the change you would like to put in motion inside of that organization? We use words like courage, ambition yourself, “I want to go through the day. I want to make it to my kid’s football game.” Don’t tell me that you can’t have an impact. Tell me that you’re reprioritizing and that this isn’t that important to you. I’m okay with that but if you want to have an impact, unleash your own burning ambition.
You and the three people that you work with. What if you’re a property development company? Do you know many property developers think the legal department is the chief disablement department? How about you be the one team of four lawyers that makes it easy to get a deal done? What a concept. What would it be with one professional service firm that charges for value instead of time? I’m using that as a simple example. Anything between a manager and a bigger impact is the story they tell themselves about why they can’t have one.
It’s the belief system. What do we believe about our place and our role and what’s possible? As many examples as you can share about the people who did create burning personal platforms and visionary change, you also hear the stories of the people that didn’t have the courage, did not speak up and it became massive destruction that happened because they saw a problem and they didn’t say anything. They didn’t feel safe. They didn’t feel that they had that value. I think we underestimate our personal power all the time.
If we’re going to transition into a world where we truly understand at a deep level that it is an ecosystem. That it’s not just up to a leader of an organization but that your choice now when you get up and go about your business and the world will have an impact on other people. That’s a different place to be creating from than to think you’re a cog in the wheel and you don’t have an impact. How do we shift people’s beliefs into this bigger place of power? If we all do that, there’s some crazy, good stuff that can come out of that.
I was sitting there thinking, “This is not as simple as flicking a switch.” The moment I had with Jim Rohn and behind that concrete pylon at The Hordern Pavilion in Sydney. I had been building up through the teen years that I had this desire. It was like the straw that broke the camel’s back in a beautiful way. I’m in this stage of my life now where I’m looking to do that again to go back and create from a place of abundance and from a place of curiosity.
I said something earlier in this show where I said, “Companies only go commercially where people first go personally.” I think if you take the deeper meaning there, which means any impact you look to have “out there” starts by creating impact, alignment, meaning, purpose, and clarity inside you first. I know you’re passionate about personal development as well and I know you’ve invested a lot in your own journey. It would blow people’s minds to know how much time, effort, energy, and money I spend on my own personal journey whether that be therapists, like old school work out your daddy issues. I can tell CEO’s that that’s the primary lever that we pull and the company transfers. Coaches, people who understand how to create accountability and discipline.
I’m constantly working on that stuff personally because I know if I can get that clear in me, I can have an impact out there. I would say to anyone who’s looking to have that shift, let go of the shame you have around doing that work. Let go of the fear you have of the cliche of like, “I don’t want to be the kind of person that goes to a Tony Robbins event.” Do you know how many people’s lives would change at a Tony Robinson event? I don’t know if I’m ready for meditation. If you think about all the podcasts of this high performers, the two things that they all say the most is that they meditate and they journal.
Find your path, find your partners, find your people, find your content platforms, and lean into that stuff. That work is the work that will give you the clarity and the courage to want to do it outside as well. Don’t get addicted to the introversion. At some point you’ve got to stop excavating and you’ve got to start creating. You do find these spiritual warriors who are obsessed. I’m honestly talking from a bit of personal experience here.
I have gotten obsessed with my own journey in the last few years. I’ve only realized that it was a self-absorbed activity. The real breakthroughs for me are coming from getting back to a place of other centricity and back to a place of contribution and there is one caveat. Do the work if you’ve never done it but if you’re still doing the bloody work and you’re not making any impact, maybe it’s time to move on and put in place and integrate the things that the early work has delivered to you.
I love this conversation so much because now you’ve hit on my passion point on several fronts. One is if you don’t do that work, and to your point, there are a million pathways but what are our blind spots? What do we not know? What do we need to unearth in order to shine our light, the brightest we can? That other centric mindset because you’re right. It can’t be just this internal treadmill of constantly assessing and analyzing versus, “Let me put some of this to the test. Let me put this in the world. Let me bounce it off of other people.” We co-create through our energies together. Several people doing their work and then coming together to be a collective, there are some amazing things that can happen from that type of space. I think your guidance is amazing and spot-on for everyone reading.
I don’t know if you want an example of that. It took me about three years of therapy to work out that the first question I ask in any situation is how do I not be controlled by this? If you’re reading this, the nuance of that framing has some specific implications. There are some people who are like, “How do I be liked?” They might have come to the answer, “I’ll be funny.” Some people are like, “How do I control this situation?” I didn’t ask that. I asked, “How do I not be controlled by this situation?”
As a result of that, there have been some negative patents in my life. One is I’d start these companies but I let other people build them. I miss out on so much of the joy that comes from being a member of a team. I tend to run away. As soon as I create this beautiful space, these great people and this gorgeous mission, I tend to like, “You guys run that and I’m going to go and start something else.” I honestly have been the pourer for it.
I think about some of the teams that have run companies I’ve owned, started and sold. I’m like, “I wish I had that journey with those people.” Because I was worried that I would be controlled by my need to belong. Belonging takes compromise. Belonging can’t be just about getting things your away. You have to be willing to give something up or for things to not be exactly how you want to fit in a family, in a team or in a community. To your point about us coming together, it’s not going to be how you want it to be if you come together.
It took me three years to figure that out. It took me another year to figure out that I wired up that independence would mean I didn’t need love and connection. Not that independence would mean that I would get love and connection, but if I was independent enough and nothing controlled me, then I wouldn’t need this basic human need of deep, intimate, and vulnerable. Could you imagine what that does to my marriage? Imagine what that does to my children.
You can’t measure in dollar terms the value of understanding those two things were for me. I could then obsess of every moment in my life that those two patents, which started young have played out but it’s no longer of any use how they’ve played out. The only question is how do I want that to be different moving forward? The transition people have to make is when you get that insight, how do you take that and begin to manifest a different experience for yourself in life. To get out of the abstract and into the real world, that’s a simple personal part of that experience.
Creating The Future
I think that story will be helpful and healing to a lot of people because often people think that highly successful people have had it figured out from birth or they have some formula. No, it is the walk. It is the work. It is understanding. What was important about what you said is, the past is the past. The past is not something changeable. It’s a construct in many ways. The only thing you can exist in is right now at this moment. When you shine a light on those blind spots that were running you to some degree and creating outcomes that may not have been ideal, then you can shift. In that shift, you create a different future which is powerful.
I want to dig a little bit deeper to a few more things before we conclude about this whole idea of being in this moment that we’re in. You shared a lot of examples about this disruption and when you mentioned Amazon buying Whole Foods. There’re all sorts of comments about hindsight being 2020 and I couldn’t have known that and all this. I have found and I’m curious about your point of view on this, that part of being able to anticipate the future is being present to what’s happening now and paying attention to what’s going on.You can have social impact and make money at the same time. Click To Tweet
I think sometimes what happens is we’re running fast and we’ve been highly distracted. The last episode that came out here was with Boyd Varty. He talks about the track of your life and that internal attunement. Part of that is paying attention to what’s happening around you that you are able to more effectively walk in the direction of a more powerful future. How would you guide people to balance anticipating changes with being present to what’s happening now?
I’m going to sound technical when I talk about this. I think the concept of predicting the future is a little bit of a myth. We do make bets but the bets we make are best and most accurate when we’re connecting dots and we’re seeing the space between things. Garry Kasparov, the chess player was once asked why he was such an incredible player and he said it was about his ability to see the whole board and the relationships between things. I know this sounds a little abstract. Think about the converging trends that create a new opportunity.
I’ll give an example. For thirteen years before Apple “invented” the iPad, OPC manufacturers were making tablets. Any one may see in the mid-’90s that was as best it could be at the time. I’ve used a tablet PC forever. Every market indication that a tablet-like experience was never going to work because people hadn’t failed spectacularly. Apple sold 3.8 million iPads in their first quarter, which was more than the total units sold of every PC manufacturer for the decade before. There was a convergence of things that were happening. There was a massive improvement in battery life, which Apple had been at the forefront of. There had been a ubiquitous distribution of broadband connectivity particularly in developed markets.
There was the creation of content in models where people were willing to go over the top of traditional distribution for content. There were breakthroughs in screen quality and in the battery implications of screen quality. Finally, someone had built a business model where you could charge for content that was broken up iTunes. The combination of those five things created a ripe and perfect environment for a tablet-based technology to grow. There were people who were thirteen years ahead of that trend that did not profit from it at all. Then Apple came super late to it but they came when those things were converging.
When you talk about being present, what you’re trying to understand is, what is the forward momentum in some of these meta-level changes that are happening? What are the new capabilities that mean things that once weren’t possible that are now possible? The third question is what happens when they converge and come together? What does that going to mean? This explosion of direct to consumer CPG models, what does that mean for how cereal gets? What does that mean for how beverages get sold? You’re not much predicting a future as you play a few scenarios out.
Your accuracy in doing that depends on how quickly you can see and notice a change in the demand signals or notice a change in the usage cases or notice a change in the experiences that I either consumers, B2B or technologists are beginning to adapt. I think that’s the role of being present. You pick that stuff up faster than anybody else does because you’re in the moment, you’re not lost in last quarter’s numbers or in a ten-year piece. There is a thing you need to get good at which is reflecting and noticing what you notice. If you don’t have a reflective practice, you can be present, you can be a Buddha in a moment and not get the learning out of those experiences.
If you don’t then step back and go, “I’m going to get out of the precedent and I’m going to look at what’s happened from 30,000 feet and see if I can notice that whole board, that relationship so that I can connect the dots.” I think being present allows you to identify the demand signals so you can see what’s moving forward. You can begin to understand the scenarios of what new capabilities do particularly when they converge and you have a reflective that allows you to see it at a distance. Now, you’re talking about an ability to get ahead of the trend and to get ahead of those curves.
That is powerful and I will tell you that it has come up on several of the show conversations about this idea of space, because there’s the content but without space, without the reflective time to be able to see what’s emerging, you miss part of that equation. Part of speed, not paying enough attention and flying down the road, we do miss that opportunity to see what’s in the space and to understand the insight that’s come to us. I think this is a practice that will be powerful for leaders, for individuals, and for all of us, as we think about what type of world we want to create moving forward.
I want to be respectful of your time and wrap up the conversation. I want to conclude broad. You shared your story. You shared how you had this inner guidance from early on about giving back and how that’s transformed over time. If you think about your total experience, what would you say has been some of the most valuable wisdom that you’ve ever received? You’ve already shared some of the insight along the way. What would you leave with people in this conversation like, “If I could tell you one or two things, this is what I would share?”
Let’s make it two. I’ll make one personal and one about productivity. One about production and one about fulfillment because they’re different things. On the fulfillment front, it’s taken me many years to figure it out but at the end of the day, you’ve got love and connection and there’s nothing else. It’s the relationships, the people and the generosity of spirit that ultimately matters. As someone who has been fortunate in their life in terms of production capability, I would tell you, I’d give it all up for love and connection every day of the week.
I know it’s hard to say to someone, “A Ferrari is not a great car.” You don’t know that unless you’ve owned a Ferrari or whatever. It’s the same thing. I don’t want to tell you that financial wealth and these things don’t matter. They do, but you don’t have to trade them off and you sure as hell shouldn’t trade them off for relationships and space. I think you’ll have a richer full of life if that is the hierarchy of values. With that said, why not have both? That’s the underlying thing in my life is I’m not going to choose. I’m going to have a social impact and I’m going to make money. I’m going to be happy. I just don’t trade that stuff off. I don’t believe you have to.
On the production side, get in line and stay in line. It was Peter Fuda who gave me that advice. In order to be world-class at something, you have to be incredibly focused and obsessive about that something. If you’re trying to do seventeen different things, you are never going to be differentiating in any one of those seventeen things. In my experience, the moment I feel like I’ve mastered something and I’m ready to change is the most important moment to stay in line and keep driving my state deep in that space. I do a lot of public speaking and I thought I’d mastered it and then I worked out that I now had the ability because I was never worried anymore about what I was going to say.
Now, I could dive into this world about how you say it. I learned more in the next six weeks and I learned in the five years before. I’m constantly surprised by how stupid I was months ago. I think Bill Gates said that we overestimate what we can do in a year but we underestimate what we can do in a decade. The problem is most people get out before they’ve done that decade. They think they’ve crushed it after a year and they jumped from one thing.
As we close out the conversation, you mentioned generosity and you are one of the most generous people I know in sharing your time and sharing your wisdom. You’ve been that to me, you’ve been that to so many people and you live the words you’re sharing. You live the wisdom that you’re telling everyone that’s reading this. That is valuable and I want to thank you publicly for being that for many people. I’ve loved this conversation. It is been enlightening on many levels. Thank you for being here with us and sharing much of yourself throughout this conversation.
You are welcome. It is a pleasure. Thanks to everyone for tuning in.
About Peter Sheahan
After 15 years of standing in the fire with leaders of high-performing organizations, Peter Sheahan has come to believe that an organization will only go commercially where its leaders first grow personally. Having grown his own companies by accelerating growth and transformation for Apple, Chick-fil-A, DeBeers, and AT&T — Peter will provoke you to get bigger, by getting better! When leaders are true to their purpose, they gravitate towards doing work that matters and solving higher-order problems.
The journey to get there requires that they have the courage to tell themselves the truth, take intelligent risks, and assume ownership for driving the alignment necessary to build an organization that behaves in ways worthy of its leadership position. In being true to his own ambitions and relentless pursuit of growth, Peter has published seven books, built three global companies and delivered more than 3,000 presentations in 40+ countries. Today he and his team are focused exclusively on inspiring leaders to do the hard work required to enable growth and transformation.
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