Seth Kahan is founder of the consulting firm, Visionary Leadership and author of the business bestsellers, Getting Change Right, Getting Innovation Right, and, most recently, Visionary Leadership: How Association Leaders Embrace Disruption in the 21st Century .
He’s worked with leaders of large multinational organizations and over a hundred association CEOs. Some of his most exciting work with those CEOs involves Grand Challenges—big, bold goals that organizations take on, partnering with others to make a difference with problems that society has thus far not been able to resolve.
And learning how to navigate the major disruptors we’ve seen unfold in 2020 related to the pandemic, politics, social issues, and our economic situation, have certainly created a new set of related challenges for organizations, particularly for those of us in the learning business.
In this second episode in our seven-episode series on the learning business in disruptive times, Jeff talks to Seth about how organizations have responded and evolved due to recent circumstances surrounding not only the coronavirus pandemic, but to other major disruptors such as climate change and racial injustice. They also discuss Seth’s 100 CEOs and 100 Days initiative, the various resources he’s created to help organizations in this time of crisis, and the lasting – and in some cases, positive – impact that all of this will potentially have on society.
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[00:18] – A preview of what will be covered in this episode where Jeff interviews Seth Kahan.
Make sure to check out our previous interviews with Seth below:
- Getting Innovation – and Learning – Right with Seth Kahan
- Leadership and Innovation with Seth Kahan
- Leadership, Innovation, and Collective Impact with Seth Kahan
Adapting and Evolving in Disruptive Times
[01:45] – When you think about what we’re living through and working through right now, what are some of the things that are top of mind for you?
Seth talks about how learning and learning in real time is top of mind for him.
We are in a time where our ability to adapt is making a difference in our survival. And for many, many people here in the United States as well as around the world, it’s really gets down to food, money, basics, and health. So those of us who are fortunate enough to have businesses that are keeping us afloat are really having to retool and to think about how we serve in this incredibly disrupted environment we’re in.
He says that sometimes things are changing so fast and it requires much more than just tuning into the news. So it means being in touch with customers, with clients, with our family, with our core values, and figuring out how to land on our feet over and over and over again.
[03:09] – I know you as somebody who is a very serious, very dedicated lifelong learner yourself. Have you changed anything in current times from what you were doing before all of this hit?
Seth admits that he’s changed a lot. He had to get really close to his customers really fast when his incoming work stopped for over two months after the shelter-in-place began in March.
But he knew that disruption could be shortened if he was aggressive and worked to understand what his customers were going through.
He immediately started reaching out to association CEOs and holding Zoom conferences to deal with the issues that they felt were most urgent. And he did it all for free because he felt it was important for him to educate himself as part of his own learning process.
Seth also reflects that personally, it’s also shifted.
His reading habits are really different than they were. So for example, he’s been deep into racial justice and he’s in a couple of Facebook groups where they get together weekly and discuss. He’s also participating with black CEOs in the association space.
He’s been getting much more into meditation as well because he’s found that as stress and crisis emerge around him, he wants to be as clear-sighted as possible—and that requires practice. So he’s been working to develop an internal sense of clarity and equanimity in the face of chaos so that he can find his way through it.
[05:17] – You’re working primarily with trade and professional associations. A huge part of what those organizations do is around providing continuing education, professional development, lifelong learning, and they’re often doing that through seminars and conferences which have been really disrupted in the current times. How are you seeing some of the organizations you’ve worked with or are working with respond in these circumstances?
Seth explains that it’s a very wide continuum but fortunately, there are people who are leading and getting good results.
In fact, one of the best services he’s been able to provide his clients is just sharing knowledge about what’s working because everybody is scrambling and trying to figure it out. People are trying to figure out how to retool their meetings for a virtual environment, some of them with many thousands of people.
And there have been some huge successes as people have been forced into this virtual space.
One of the things that’s happening is that we’re discovering things that work better than they do in a live situation.
But Seth notes that it’s still painful because nobody had a choice about it and people were caught off guard.
Some organizations were very good at virtual working and meetings because they’d been doing it for years and had built competencies around it.
And then you’ve got the other end of the spectrum where people were scrambling, disconnected, and having challenges with leadership in a virtual environment.
Some of the big issues Seth says that have really risen up internally in organizations are around mental health and how to lead in a virtual environment.
He shares an example of how he had success bringing together 30 association leaders to collaborate and get creative around how to create virtual meetings that will serve members. And that some of it involved getting back to the basics such as always asking who’s your target audience and what’s the value you’re trying to create.
But the thing was is that people were starting over, people who had thirty years of experience…And those who really took the time to do an honest reset landed on their feet primarily.
He adds that associations are being forced to realize that meetings are not the value proposition and figure out how to replace them. And the question around learning is just at the top of the list to address.
Underestimating the Impact of Disruptions
[09:51] – What do you see as the real threats right now that if you don’t address this it could be, I guess, fatal is the word to use relative to an organization’s existence or at least their effectiveness as an organization?
Seth first points to strategy and how one, two and three-year strategies are not working—they need to have rolling strategies, three to six months.
And they’re underestimating the impact of the different disruptions that are taking place.
He shares that several months ago he spoke to Susan Robertson, CEO of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) and how she said she isn’t sure that the meetings world (which includes the hospitality industry, the meetings themselves, the meetings planners, and transportation) is going to be able to recover until after/end of 2021.
So any association that thinks they’ll have their meetings back up to normal by April, could be really underestimating a significant force that could harm them in the long run.
Seth points out that meetings are not just an association thing, they are how the world does business, so everybody’s dependent on this.
He talks about how we are being impacted at every level—economic, unemployment, supply chain, etc.— and how it could take decades to iron out.
So underestimating, thinking we’ll get back to where we were. That’s not going to happen. We’re going to find our way forward. Now, I’m not all doom and gloom, I don’t think this is the end of civilization or the end of business as we know it, but those organizations that are learning again, they’re adept, they’re doing everything they can to figure out what’s going on and how to adapt themselves to this new world that we’re in. Those are the ones that we’re going to see succeeding.
Response to Climate Change and Racial Injustice
[13:25] – Underlying the whole meetings, coming together, travel issue, in the background is the whole issue of climate change which that whole industry has an impact on. And that hasn’t gone away in all of this obviously, it’s still sitting back there as a big, hairy problem to wrestle with. And then of course, we’ve also got so much social inequity going on right now, racial inequity, economic inequity. How are you and how are some of the organizations you’re interacting with thinking about those issues right now and potentially taking action relative to those sorts of issues?
Seth discusses how he sees a disparity between those two issues in particular based on what he’s hearing from CEOs.
Across the board, he says everybody recognizes climate change. We have reached a threshold with climate change, at least among the leaders in business that he speaks with regularly. Conservative and progressives alike recognize climate change is big, but we have not figured it out.
It’s going to impact the whole planet and everybody wants to know what we’re going to do about it and is ready to invest in it.
However, Seth has realized that is not true with racial injustice.
He notes how the book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude Jr. really connected a lot of dots for him in terms of understanding where American society is in relationship to African Americans and their journey in this country.
Jeff also read the book and highly recommends it to anybody who really wants to get more into how these circumstances are.
Seth says the African American experience is not the experience of growing up white in America. And we are still very much split in this country around that. There are a significant number of people who see a level playing field and they feel like we just need to move forward, and it’s a meritocracy.
And then there are people who recognize the tremendous disadvantage, continuous oppression, and even traumatic terrorization, of the African American community and the impact it’s having on this very significant segment of our population. And when he talks to CEOs, that’s reflected.
He has some CEOs who say, “Hey, that doesn’t impact me. We’re fine, business as usual.”
And then there’s a big hump of, “We recognize that our diversity and inclusion efforts have not been successful or as successful as we hope they would be and we don’t know what to do about it, we’re trying to figure that out.” Seth explains that many of those people are still thinking in terms of DEI taskforces and kind of longer projects.
Then you have people on the other end who say, “This is a game changer. We must change and we must change as fast as we possibly can. And we don’t even understand what it means to grapple with structural racism. And that’s our quest right now, how do we get in there and make a difference?”
So unlike climate change, we still have a big spread in that space.
The Silver Lining in These Disruptive Times
[18:32] – I consider myself something of an optimist, I think you are as well in knowing that in any sort of trying turbulent times like these, they’re going to be silver linings and opportunities that come out of it. So I’m wondering with everything that’s going on it feels like so much darkness right now, what excites you, where are you seeing light and hope, and what’s giving you energy and enthusiasm at this point?
For Seth, one area is around racial justice. He’s in it much more deeply than ever before, and while it is emotionally hard to read and expose himself to some of the content, he feels like the lights are coming on. And there’s a significant segment of the population that holds the power in this country that is going through that journey right now.
He thinks there’s a wave of a new level of depth and understanding of the African American experience and how it is a metaphor for all marginalized people. So people who are disabled, Native Americans, Hispanics—really anyone who’s marginalized in our society. And if we can really make strong progress in this space, it’s going to lift up many boats, so he’s heartened by that.
Another silver lining Seth sees is that there are things happening because of the speed of the disruption, forcing us into new spaces.
We’re discovering things that can be done in virtual learning that are much better than what could be done in a face-to-face learning environment. Same thing is true with virtual working at home. Many associations that were pushed to the edge financially or felt pushed to the edge suddenly we’re able to kill sacred cows that have been around for a long time. They were able to get fast decisions through governance by calling emergency meetings with the executive committee and then the board and moving things through. And what you saw was this kind of jettisoning of that bureaucracy that associations are so known for, that makes things feel like they’re going to take forever. Well, a lot of associations flipped the switch on multiple fronts and now they know they can. And that, to me, says that associations can be more responsive to Americans’ needs.
How These Disruptions Will Impact Us in the Future
[21:13] – You just referenced some changes that you feel like are happening, or at least have the potential to happen. When you look in your crystal ball and do the dangerous work of predicting the future, what changes do you think are going to come and what are going to be the lasting changes that actually come out of all of this, whether they’re for good, bad or indifferent?
Seth predicts that with any progress we make with racial justice right now, there will be a line drawn in the sand that will be really hard to slide back. He knows there will be pressure to slide back, but thinks that people are so hungry, determined, and in some cases so angry, that if we can really take new ground and change the way we think about who we are and move much closer to multi-racial democracy, that those are going to be more permanent.
And he thinks the learning around what works well in a virtual environment is going to stay with us. He doesn’t see us going back to being so heavily weighted on face-to-face, and that we’re going to be in a hybrid environment going forward—and that includes working.
So now you really need to ask, Do I really need to be in the same city as the office? Do I need an office? Do I need the same size office?
He thinks we’re going to see some permanent changes there.
Seth sees that ability to kind of atomize by being virtual instead of being all clumped together like in a co-located space is actually going to bring some value with it.
For example, if you have 30 people on your staff and instead of having them all in an office in Washington, D.C., now they’re spread all over the country and maybe a couple of other countries, now you’re going to be getting an input from a much wider (geographic) web, but and you could use that to your advantage.
So he thinks that some of the virtualization is here to stay.
Advice for Learning Businesses
[23:34] – And then particularly for the people/organizations that are listening and in the learning business, what words of advice, caution, courage might you have for them right now?
Seth reiterates that this is a time of great learning and the people who are succeeding are eating it and digesting it as fast as they can.
Anything that you can do to facilitate that learning, bring people together to think together, collaborate or share best practices so that they can speedily move to where they’re needed most and understand the new modes that are taking place when it comes to learning.
For example, Seth says he’s retooling. He now has some videos that he sells as part of his business model. He’s going to be bringing them all down into 15-minute chunks, and maybe even lower than that because that’s how he’s been learning.
And even though these micro units have been around for roughly 15 years, he notes that now suddenly everybody’s doing it. So this ability to lean into what people are actually doing that’s working in the adult learning world he thinks is really important.
Also, not being afraid to try things that seem kind of off-the-wall. For example, mingling different topics in ways that they haven’t been mingled before because it’s required in order to understand how to build solutions to complex problems.
100 CEOs and 100 Days
[25:35] – We referenced earlier your 100 CEOs and 100 Days initiative. Can you tell us what’s involved there, why you decided to undertake that initiative and then, what are some of your biggest learnings from it so far?
Seth shares that the idea was actually introduced to him by a close friend, Robbie Baxter and her husband who did it when he went to work for an insurance company. The first assignment they gave him was they wanted him to talk to 100 prospects in 100 days. They didn’t care if he sold anything but they just wanted him to get out there and talk and learn.
Check out our interviews with Robbie, Exploring the Membership Economy with Robbie Kellman Baxter and Building the Forever Transaction with Robbie Kellman Baxter.
Seth says he was inspired by that idea and started immediately reaching out to CEOs. He was there to simply to learn, ask questions, and find out what he could. And because he wasn’t doing sales, it gave him the freedom to really probe deeply and ask questions without feeling like people were getting defensive.
It allowed him to have real conversations as peers and get that important information flowing so that he could get a sense of what was going on in their world and what they needed to address. As an independent businessperson, he says that’s so important.
He got to understand where there’s traction, what people are hungry for, and what they need. And then he could go out, hunt it down, develop it, and give it back to them.
The biggest things he learned (two that were already mentioned), involved the spread around racial justice and the common understanding that climate change still needs to be dealt with (and the concern around that).
He’s been learning a lot about the polarization in the election in our country because different professions in different trades tend to cut in different directions.
Some are much more red, some are much more blue, and some are in the middle and all over the place. And of course the association has to have their arm around everybody and has to take that trade or that profession forward regardless of the political orientation of the members.
However, that can be really challenging if there’s fragmentation and polarization, but Seth says it’s like a minilab for our country. It’s one of the things he loves about associations—that they have their arms around this population that’s diverse politically but united through a profession or a trade.
He talks about how the financial pressures are also like racial justice—they’re spread across a continuum. There are organizations that have multiple years worth of revenue in the bank and then organizations that are on the brink of extinction. And Seth says it’s been great to watch them help each other.
One of the wonderful things about associations he says is, generally speaking, they don’t compete with each other. So some organizations have built spreadsheets to help them navigate the ups and downs of the revenue streams in this environment and are sharing them openly with smaller organizations that don’t have the expertise to build that kind of modeling.
Seth also explains how the set of issues that are hitting association leaders or rather, the association model, are all over the place. He describes it as a shotgun, not a single bullet, because when you combine the pandemic, the economic disruption, supply chain disruptions, job loss, contentious election, racial justice, etc., it ends up just covering the organizations.
So even if they might say racial justice is not an issue for them, the other four or five are still there. And so people are really having to question their core, mission, vision, and values. And ask themselves, what are we doing in this world? Are we able to serve our members?
Member’s needs are going through the roof so those associations that see this as an opportunity and are doing things they’ve never done before because their members need it, creates the kind of loyalty and trust that can get you through a crisis. And this is the kind of stuff Seth is being exposed to in the calls which has been great.
Resources for Dealing with the Pandemic
[31:19] – You’ve assembled – and I assume this is partly in response to what you’ve been hearing out there – this whole collection of resources that I found on your website for leaders and organizations that are dealing with the pandemic. Can you tell us a little bit more about that—the resources you’ve put together and how you went about determining what they should be and what leaders really need the most right now?
For Seth, some of it was clear right off the bat. For example, a lot of associations were grappling with whether to cancel their meeting.
When he worked at The World Bank, they had created a triage system for deciding whether or not to cancel or postpone a meeting. So he created a meeting triaged infographic that he was able to share broadly.
Another resource he created was an emergency response checklist. Seth was in the front lines of 9/11 when it happened and as a result of that at the bank, he was put into working groups that dealt with emergency responses should they happen again in the future.
So he made a checklist of emergency responses for associations. These were things that he was able to get out there fast because he’d already had experience and knew intuitively that they would be valued.
Then Seth also started interviewing association leaders on standing up a virtual work environment or on communication in these environments and then publishing the videos on his website. And he also did some of his own videos where he’d teach some of this (such as the one below about leading through the pandemic).
Initially there was a lot that was easy to imagine that people needed. Then as he began doing the 100 phone calls and holding the Zoom conversations, he started getting specifics from his client group (and Seth gives an example of this).
Final Thoughts on the Major Disruptors
[34:32] – Is there anything else you’d like to say about any of those major disruptors or maybe how they’re potentially working in concert at this particular time?
Seth acknowledges that we know the pandemic is not under control in this country (we just crossed 200,000 deaths at the time of this recording). It’s clear that we’re not out of the woods yet, and that is a basic health issue, which kind of pushes a lot of the other stuff out of the way if you’re dealing with it.
If you have a loved one, if you are sick, then all the other stuff slides to the back burner and it’s just all about your own health and getting through it. So we’re going to need to continue to support people who are dealing with loss, but also in remaining safe.
Also, he notes that people are tired of wearing masks and social distancing. But this isn’t going away. The associations are going to play a major role in making sure that people stay healthy and safe.
Some of that extends, as he touched on before, into mental health. Seth stresses that anything that we can do to help each other get through this—anything that conveys human warmth and helps people take the next step on this long journey—is still really important.
When we talk about the economy, Seth explains how there’s at least three different dimensions to that.
There’s the economy itself so you see businesses rising and falling—some areas like Amazon, UPS, restaurant delivery, and Zoom going up, and then other areas plummeting like restaurants and in-house services.
There’s the flow of markets that’s changing and it’s challenging to go through. Seth also mentions the job loss, which is huge. The numbers are staggering and we can expect that to be with us for a long time.
Then there is also supply chain disruption.
So you have this kind of three-dimensional thing going on that can be very personal, especially if you get into the impacts of job loss. This is why Seth says learning is so important—you really want to understand the details and it gets very specific to your profession or your trade.
He references Lisa McLeod who just released her second edition of Selling With Noble Purpose: How to Drive Revenue and Do Work That Makes You Proud and authored the recent HBR article, 3 Ways to Improve Sales Forecasts When the Future Is Unclear, Seth says she has very perceptive advice for people who are involved in sales and influence in one way or another (which is basically everyone).
In addition to systemic racism and racial justice, which was already discussed, Seth says we also have the contentious election and then the fallout from whatever happens, which is going to be really challenging for this country.
He also thinks we’re at an inflection point in this country. We’re being watched by the rest of the world, but also internally, and we are all looking ahead to see what’s going to happen.
He adds that he’s a big believer in nonviolence (fine with protests, just not violence). And he thinks anything we can do to learn the skills of how to help people ratchet down when they’re getting ratcheted up so that we can keep the conversation one that everybody wants to engage in, is a really healthy skillset.
As an association leader, he says that’s a skillset to teach your staff because they’re going to need to do that with members.
Finally, Seth thinks this is a time for leadership development. And that is a learning opportunity because leadership and this environment is like no other leadership we’ve ever had. So training your staff, volunteers, and members in leadership and he says the competencies that are in the leadership world are needed now just to make it through. So that’s a real opportunity in the learning world also.
[40:15] – Wrap-Up
Seth Kahan is founder of Visionary Leadership and the author of the books Getting Change Right, Getting Innovation Right, and Visionary Leadership. Find him online at visionaryleadership.com and reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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[41:43] – Sign off