Seth Kahan is a change leadership expert who helps guide organizations through large-scale change, innovation, and growth. He’s also author of the business bestsellers, Getting Change Right and Getting Innovation Right as well as founder of Visionary Leadership where he helps visionary leaders achieve success on a grand scale. And if any of this sounds familiar, that’s because this is now his third appearance on the podcast—a true testament to how much we value his work.
In this episode of the Leading Learning podcast, Celisa talks with Seth about new competencies for leadership, the difference between sustaining innovation and disruptive innovation, as well as what it takes to lead for collective impact.
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[01:35] – A preview of what will be covered in this podcast where Celisa interviews Seth Kahan, change leadership expert, author, and founder of Visionary Leadership.
Note that Seth has been a guest on the podcast twice before—check out Getting Innovation – and Learning – Right with Seth Kahan and Leadership and Innovation with Seth Kahan.
[03:20] – Introduction to Seth and some additional information about his work including that he’s focused the last ten years of his career working with associations because of the big impact and value you can bring to members, and ultimately, the world.
[04:51] – I reached out to you to talk again because of a brief report you issued called “What it Takes to Lead in 2018” that highlights 7 new leadership competencies. Leadership is ancient, as old as the hills, so why are new competencies needed? And are these new competencies supplanting or augmenting older, tried and true leadership competencies? Seth explains that it’s an evolutionary process so many of the traditional leadership competencies form the foundation for these but they’re needed because of the amount of disruption, especially when it comes to technology. So these are adjusted skills that help you with a “whitewater” environment where there’s rapid, disruptive change.
[06:16] – One of the points that you make is that not all innovation is the same—there are flavors of innovation, so to speak: sustaining innovation and disruptive innovation. What’s the difference, and why is it important for leaders today to “get” that distinction? Seth talks about how there is a really significant difference between them and that these ideas were laid out by Clayton Christensen in his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. He explains that incremental improvement (sustaining innovation) is about taking products and services and making them better—so bringing an existing offering up-to-date and making sure it serves people today. However, disruptive innovation is a game changer. It’s where you have the whole field reorganized around a new idea/new way of doing things/new capability. Many organizations, especially associations, are not designed to identify the disruptors—or even to create the disruptors, which is a great business strategy if you’re able to do that.
[08:05] – Does this mean that leaders need to focus solely on disruptive innovation and eschew sustaining innovation? Seth says not at all because sustaining is a way of life—we all have to be improving the products and services that we have. You just want to be careful that you’re not blind to disruptors so that they don’t hit you broadside or even potentially take you out.
[08:36] – You also talk and write about leading for collective impact. Given my perspective, my focus on learning, I see a corollary or parallel in learning for collective impact. That is, if an organization really wants its educational offerings to make a difference, it’s beyond impacting individual learners—it’s about impacting an entire profession or field or industry by helping those in that profession, field, industry learn and apply what they’ve learned. But collective impact can be tricky to bring about. In what you’ve observed and tried, what have you learned about how collective impact is best achieved? Seth shares there are two things (he notes this comes right out of the work that’s been published in the Stanford Social Innovation for Review on collective impact):
- A common agenda needs to be put in place – this is the key to channeling and corralling the energies of multiple organizations and groups of activists/concerned individuals.
- The organization that takes on a large collective impact effort is considered the backbone organization – this means they are tasked with things like the coordination of activities across multiple organizations, making sure there is a common set of metrics, and communication.
[11:18] – How does a group go about forming a common agenda that can really drive things forward? Seth says there usually needs to be some kind of an existential threat that the common agenda is centered around. This is because in order to galvanize action you need to have the core activity framed as a crisis, otherwise it doesn’t receive enough priority. He shares an example of this through the work Susan Neely at the American Beverage Association has done regarding beverages and nutritional awareness.
[13:55] – You mentioned the “backbone organization”—how do they get chosen when you’re dealing with collective impact? Seth explains they have to have a brand that says they are the organization to do this—so the credibility coupled with a solid plan, market outreach, etc. He illustrates this through his experience working with Marla Weston at the American Nurses Association (see our interview with Marla about the ANA’s Grand Challenge, Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation).
[15:50] – You have a friend who says, “Hurry up and slow down so you can go faster.” What does that paradox mean to you? How does it play out in your life and work? Seth shares that quote comes from his friend Rob Creekmore who was referring to mindfulness meditation, something Seth practices and teaches as well in many of his CEO development seminars. He explains that through mindfulness you can create a still place to see very clearly what’s going to be powerful. Oftentimes leaders get stretched in so many different directions that they’re getting hit with one challenge after the next making it possible to get into a mode of triage where they lose their strategic focus. So taking the time to see your strategic focus clearly so you can ensure your actions are aligned with your longer term, more valuable goals.
[17:14] – One of the leadership competencies you highlight in your report is intentional self-transformation. What do you mean by “intentional self-transformation” and what’s its connection with learning? Seth talks about how every leader he knows is pushing the envelope and doing things they’ve never done before so that means they need to build new capabilities. If you think about the results you’re getting today are a reflection of your understanding/mental models/personal capabilities, that means the limit of what you’re able to achieve today is created from those very experiences and mental models. So if you want to expand your ability to influence more, you have to gain the experiences/mental models that allow you to make that jump. This process is about more than studying—you need to have it experientially—it’s basically like throwing yourself in the deep end of the pool and learning to swim.
[19:46] – I know you’re someone who takes learning and self-transformation and self-care very seriously. What have you learned about leading in today’s world since your report came out? Seth points out that the world is always changing and what he sees among the successful leaders is that they’re not only inhaling all the new developments, they’re constantly dabbling/experimenting—personally and with their staff.
[21:11] – What’s going on these days that most excites you? Seth says it’s about understanding how technology is impacting the particulars of your sector or profession and then asking how to get ahead of that. He shares an example of how this is being done with developments in ultrasound technology.
[24:28] – What is one of the most powerful learning experiences you’ve been involved in, as an adult, since finishing your formal education? Seth shares that one of his favorite experiences have been attending Tony Robbins events because at the essence of what he teaches is that you are capable of so much more than you believe you’re capable of—the limits on what a human being can do in this world are much greater than any of us imagine based on our life experience and brain’s model of the world. Tony teaches specific techniques for breaking that and this has been both a source of joy and expanded impact for Seth.
[26:14] – How to connect with Seth and/or learn more:
[26:37]– Wrap Up
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[28:56] – Sign off