Seth Kahan is a change specialist, helping create the uptake and support for significant transformation. He has worked with executives and senior leaders on high-impact change at World Bank, Peace Corps, Shell, NASA, and 20+ organizations in the public and private sectors. His latest book is Getting Change Right: Creating Rapid, Widespread Change. His website is VisionaryLeadership.com.
Morris: Before discussing your books, a few general questions. Long ago, Thomas Edison observed, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” One man’s opinion, your emphasis on leaders being visionaries seems to ignore or at least subordinate the importance of leaders also being results-driven.
Kahan: I like to break visionary leadership down word-by-word. Visionary means there is a future state you are working toward that makes a positive difference to your beneficiaries and the world at large. Leadership implies that you not only take personal accountability for bringing that vision into existence, but you put in the hard work and execution required. If you’re not results driven, I don’t see how you can consider yourself a leader.
Morris: Much has been written in recent years about “followership.” I especially admire Barbara Kellerman’s Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, Michael Useem’s Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win, and The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Create Great Leaders and Organizations co-edited by Ronald E. Riggio, Ira Chaleff, and Jean Lipman-Blumen. Here’s my question: Can followers also be “visionary” in the same sense that all great leaders are?
Kahan: Yes. Anyone can be considered visionary who is operating with a powerful sense of a better future, an image of what is possible, a powerful desire to realize a new and vastly improved world. But, not everyone takes the reins to make it happen. Many choose wisely to support another who has stepped into the driver’s seat. They are, as you call them, visionary followers.
Morris: Here’s a follow-up question. If recent Gallup research is correct, that less than 30% of the U.S. workers are positively and productively engaged, how specifically can a visionary leader increase that percentage?
Kahan: This is what my book, Getting Change Right, is all about. I have a long history of success in what is called the “soft stuff” – the people part of change. There is a dearth of competency when it comes to getting people involved, contributing, participating, and engaged. The old mind-set is, “That is not the leader’s problem. The leader sets the strategy and hires people to execute. It’s up to the subordinates to generate their own motivation. They are, after all, professionals – which means they are paid. Therefore, they have all the inspiration they need to get with the program.”
But, that’s not how real, lasting, widespread change happens fast. Putting it on subordinates to quickly implement and relay new ideas is a cop out. Excellent leaders get to know their constituents, what turns them on, and use their self-interest to create powerful transformation that spreads because people want it to.
My book provides over 200 tactics, frameworks, step-by-step instructions, guidelines, and templates on how to carry this out. The book was written as a guide, a manual for putting these techniques to work, based on my experience as a practitioner.
Here’s a high-level summary of what specifically can be done to increase the percentage of people who are productively engaged:
1. Learn how to craft messages that are compelling and enticing to your constituents. Become a specialist at speaking in ways that excite them, arouse their enthusiasm, and create desire.
2. Know the people you depend on for success: front line staff, managers, partners, content specialists, thought leaders, practical visionaries, even detractors. I call them your Most Valuable Players (MVPs).
3. Get to know the worlds of your MVPs – where are they stuck, what do they need and want, where do things go well for them, what concerns do they have. Make sure you focus on both technical expertise and politics – savvy leaders acknowledge that professionals grapple with increasing their professional competencies and do it an environment of power plays. Become adept at listening – take ownership for understanding how your MVPs see the world and operate.
4 Build communities that deliver business returns. Become proficient at helping people organize around their own interests, in ways that provide them with payoffs while simultaneously moving your organization forward.
5. Bring people together when it counts the most: when strategy is on the line and coordinated behavior is at a premium. Learn how to create events that inspire your professionals.
6. Treat logjams, obstacles, stalls, and unforeseen downturns as the opportunities they are. When circumstances turn against you it is a huge message from the system, piling issues and concerns together in ways that frustrate your works. This is the time to address these issues all at once and move forward on all fronts simultaneously. Seen this way, a logjam or obstacle is a time of great opportunity.
Morris: What to do when two leaders in the same organizations have mutually exclusive visions?
Kahan: This happens all the time. Mutual exclusivity is the hallmark of a third higher way that transcends the current situation. A great book that goes into detail about how leaders use this type of seemingly impossible situation to their advantage is The Opposable Mind, by Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management. Martin discovered that great leaders from all domains (business, art, politics, social activism, etc) use this technique to achieve what others fail to see. I recommend the book unreservedly.
Morris: What to do if two leaders in the same organization have the same vision but disagree almost completely about how to make that vision a reality?
Kahan: This, too, happens all the time. If the end result is truly the same, you have to find a way to allow both to pursue their separate paths. Achievement is not about how, it is about the goal. If you are limiting others who have the same objective as you, it’s time for some reflection.
Morris: What prompted you to write Building Beehives: A Handbook for Creating Communities that Generate Returns? For whom was it written?
Kahan: In the mid 90s I was part of a small team that achieved extraordinary success at the World Bank. We took an unfunded idea and without any budget in two short years turned it into a $60 million program that spanned the globe with tens of thousands of participants. One of our primary tools were thematic groups, which were a special form of community that generated returns for the organization. This is what I call a beehive in my handbook. We spawned over 120 of these thematic groups at the World Bank.
Today, over a decade later, after our initiative has fallen out of favor multiple times, through numerous budget swings, and even multiple presidents, over half of our communities are still in existence, doing the work we initiated in the 90s. I have come to see these type of communities as the basic building blocks for massive, impressive change. The book was written to provide change agents with a quick overview of how to build beehives that will do this kind of work for them.
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If you would like to read the complete interview, please contact me at [email protected]
Your are cordially invited to contact Seth Kahan directly: [email protected] and/or his home office: (301) 229-2221) and check out the wealth of resources at these websites:
Seth Kahan on Fast Company: SethFast.com
Seth Kahan in the Washington Post: SethPost.com