Hi, I’m Ian McClean. I’m the founder of Flow Group and GreenLine Conversations. And this podcast has grown out of the chaos that’s been thrust upon us. During the podcast, I’m going to try and share with you the best of 25 years of helping corporate organizations deal and cope with change. So, as you’re out there, busy making sense of it all, trying to cope, and maybe, in some cases, trying to rebuild your organizations, I’m hoping that some of this can be of some assistance. We’ll keep it deliberately short, because I know you’re busy. Let’s dive in.


Last week, we hosted a Flow CEO Forum, which was the first of its kind virtually. Where we invited 10 CEOs from non-competing industries and non-competing organizations together in an open space environment to share what Marvin Gaye might describe or ask as “what’s going on?”.

There were 5 nationalities, 10 different businesses. And there were two main insights that came from the 90-minute discussion that we had. The first was the isolation of the leader. As leaders we’re currently getting up in the dark, logging off in the dark, and all the way in between we’re going from meeting to meeting to meeting, mostly helping to empty the cup of others. And the question became, from a leader’s perspective, who is emptying your cup?

The second biggest insight was to the question, “What is the biggest challenge you are currently facing as a leader at this moment?”. And surprisingly it had nothing to do with revenue or profit. It had nothing to do with digital transformation, or supply chain, or market share. The number one cause of concern for 9 out of 10 of the CEOs assembled was “our people are struggling”. I’m going to come back to the people’s struggle in a second.

A few years ago, I interviewed, onstage live, Dave Wehner. Who’s the CFO of Facebook global. This was done in a hotel, in the days that we used to go to hotels, in front of a live audience of about 300 CFOs. The interview lasted about 45 minutes. Directly after the interview was over, there was a Q&A and one of the most interesting questions came from the floor, off one of the members.

And they said, “My niece has just graduated as an accountant trainee and is going into industry for the first time and starting her career as an accountant. What’s the number one piece of advice you would give her starting off?”. To which Wehner replied, “Study psychology”. It wasn’t really even tongue-in-cheek. It reminds me of the Henry Kissinger observation, that the further up the food chain you go in life, the more it becomes only about who is sitting on the other side of the table.

The one thing that we know about this pandemic is that the trauma that it’s created, and it’s created many traumas, at its core above all else is a human trauma. And at the centre of that human trauma is the feeling of, or the fear, that we’ve lost control. And this loss of control, which is one of the foundational fears of humanity is based on two elements. It categorizes itself into the economy and the autonomy. Both of which we feel are out of control.

Economy. Why? Because we just don’t know how long this is going to last. The vaccine rollout, how that’s going to work. Infections, and cases, and numbers. The implications for our industry, the implications for our business.

And then, on the autonomy side, we can’t control our movement. We’re restricted in where we could go and how far. We can’t socialize with friends. So, that autonomy has been taken away. We don’t know when we’re going to have the next holiday. The kids are all over us in homeschool currently. So, our personal autonomy has gone out of control.

So, ironically enough, work, which is normally the bete noire of life and the thing that we feel we ‘have to do’, suddenly becomes an opportunity or a refuge. Every strength is a weakness in some context, and every weakness is a strength.

As a leader as the person who’s captaining the ship in the workplace with your team or with your business or with your enterprise, you have the capacity, the ability, and the mandate to be able to help people. And help people take back control. And I don’t mean that in any populous way. What I mean by that is by enabling or helping people to take back more control, it overcomes the fear, it boosts morale, it helps with motivation, and it increases or improves people’s mental health, which is what people are struggling with.

We’re going to spend the rest of the episode talking about what that looks like.

So how can you as a leader, with this valuable mandate that you have to help people take control, which is going to be the antidote to a lot of the ills that they have, how do you do that? In the time that we have, there are three things that I want to focus on.

And before I do that, I just want to talk about expectations around what you can’t do as well as what you can do. There are many, many leaders that I deal with who are tormented and tortured and crippled by the idea that there are people are struggling and they feel responsible and they feel accountable.

So the piece of self-compassion is to realize for yourself that what you can’t do, and what you are not, is Albus Dumbledore. You do not have a magic wand. You are not the wizard who can just cast a spell that’s going to make all of people’s ills go away. So by just recognizing that, allowing your own compassion and empathy to realize that there are limitations to what you can do for your people as a leader, is already a star for you in your mental approach to how you help people.

So what can you do? Well, there are three things that you can do and going back to our psychology 101, there are two principles around motivation that are basic things to understand as a leader.

The first is that people do not do nothing. They don’t occupy a vacuum. They don’t occupy a void. People will always do something. Now we know from our experience that people don’t always do the right things. They don’t always do the things that you want them to do, or that you expect them to do, or that you’ve mandated them to do. But realize that people will always do something.

One of the most interesting pieces of research that I’ve come across around this subject in the last 25 years is by Ferdinand Fournies who went out to understand and answer the question, why people don’t do what they’re supposed to do. To do this he researched and interviewed 25,000 different leaders and managers across the globe in lots of different industries, all the way through the verticals of leadership and in lots of different jurisdictions and continents. Very comprehensive survey. What was most striking was the similarity of response.

So he compiled a list of the top 16 answers to the question, but there were two answers to the question that appeared in the top three in 99% of all responses.

So the question again was, why people don’t do what they’re supposed to do. And these two answers appeared in the top three in 99% of the cases.

The first is, people don’t know what they’re supposed to do. And the second one is, people don’t know why they’re supposed to do it.

So if we take those two things and just focus on what we can do as leaders, in order to address those two things, it’s going to take down so much of the resistance, or the ambiguity, or the uncertainty that people feel on a daily basis.

So the obvious first step as a leader is to be absolutely clear around the priorities that people have and make sure that they’re clear as to what they should and shouldn’t be doing. Of what the expectations are and what the expectations aren’t. Because everybody at the moment with the surrounding uncertainty is drowning in a sea of possibility, of tasks, of projects, of objectives. And there’s too much.

And on a daily basis, people get up in the morning, and they’re wondering what to do. They’re going to do something. So the more clear they are, and the more specific you are about what they should be doing and what they shouldn’t be doing, what it does is it creates a focus for them. It levels out the boundaries and introduces an element of certainty in terms of their activity.

Principle number two, psychology 101, is that there are only two reasons in the world why humans take action and behave in a particular way. They’re either moving towards pleasure or moving away from pain.

That’s the only motivation that people have to act. In previous episodes, we talked about the Survival Brain and the Thinking Brain. As leaders, we want to create an environment where we allow, or enable, or attract people to move towards something. And in order to do that, we’ve got to create something that’s inviting for them to move towards.

If we get them or inspire them to move towards something, it means that they are not moving away from pain, and it’s not invoking the Survival Brain, which becomes narrowly focused and ignores any future consequences of its actions. By getting people to move towards something it means that it introduces or engages their Thinking Brain, which is where their problem solving mind resides, where their creativity resides, and where the innovation resides.

People are inherently all of these things. It’s the role of the leader or the manager to create something that helps them move towards so that they can engage all of these faculties in their brain that’s at their disposal.

People have a basic human need to do something or feel that they’re doing something that’s important, and that’s making a contribution to something that’s greater than themselves.

This is evidenced in the story of JFK. When he first visited NASA in 1961, and as he was doing his tour, he was introduced or walked by the janitor and asked the janitor what he was doing. And the janitor replied, “Sir, I’m helping to put a man on the moon”.

This just demonstrates that the leadership was very clear, not just about the priorities of what that person’s job description needed to be and was on a daily basis, but something greater than that. Why? What he was doing was important and that there was a greater good at play here.

So, put simply as a leader, the two things we can do to give people a sense, or restore people’s feeling, of control, even if it is an illusion, is to be very clear on what they should be doing and shouldn’t be doing, and to also articulate how that fits into the larger picture and the ‘Why’ of the strategy and the direction in which the entity, your team, your organization is going.

The third thing is that, in an environment of total volatility, we need to commit to regularly tapping-in with our people, to adjust if things are going off the course, and to confirm when people are on track. Managers and leaders are typically very good at doing the adjustments, and finding out and tapping-in with people when things are going off track.

But at this time when people are looking for reassurance, looking for understanding that they’re on the right track more than ever, to inspire them to go and do more of what you want them to do, the ability to tap in, check-in, and confirm that people are on the right track more frequently and more regularly becomes even more invaluable.

The other reason that we need to check in more regularly with our people is that in the current volatility, we may need to regularly recalibrate what the priorities are and reset why it’s important that these priorities have changed.

So, in summary, there are only two questions you need to ask yourself to have the maximum impact in these two areas. The first is, are your people clear? Is each individual clear on what their priorities are and, what they should be working on, and, more importantly, what they shouldn’t be working on in terms of those priorities?

And secondly, do they understand where that activity and that focus is leading and why it’s important to the overall team, to the overall strategy, to the overall enterprise at this point?

If you can answer those two questions, then be assured that your people are going to struggle less. And if they’re struggling less, then the payoff for you is that you will struggle less.

The final thing to share is a story. And it’s a story about Professor Einstein, who was already world famous. And he was in the Twilight of his career at Princeton University. He was sitting with the final year class of graduates who were doing their final exam. The paper was handed out. There was a little rustle of curiosity and perplection amongst the sitting students. One student was emboldened enough to take the paper, bring it to the front of the room, and ask Professor Einstein, “Professor the paper we’ve just received, it’s exactly the same paper as the one we got last year”. To which the professor looked over his famous spectacles at the young student and said, “Ah yes, but the answers have changed”.

Until next time, stay safe, stay sane, stay connected.

Leave a Reply