Andrew Temte on Balancing Volatile Priorities: An interview by Bob Morris

Dr. Andrew Temte, CFA, is President and Global Head of Corporate Learning at Kaplan North America and former CEO of Kaplan Professional. A thought leader on issues related to workforce reskilling and upskilling, he is the author of Balancing Act: Teach Coach Mentor Inspire, published by Kaplan (April 2021). His 30+ year career includes teaching and executive leadership roles in both professional education and higher education institutions. An accomplished musician and leader of the rock band, The Remainders, he is active in numerous fundraising events and committees in the La Crosse, WI, community.

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Before discussing Balancing Act, here are a few general questions. First, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) years ago that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

I’ve had a number of turning points through the years, but the primary impetus for setting me on the path I’m on today occurred in 1986 while I was pursuing my undergraduate degree in economics at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse. I had a wonderful instructor named Keith Sherony who taught sophomore-level economics and I was convinced that teaching at the university level would be my calling.

Over the next two years, we developed a strong mentoring relationship and he helped shape the path that would take me to The University of Iowa for masters and Ph.D. It was there that I met my mentor and future business partner, Carl Schweser. Carl and I would work together to build the Schweser Study Program for the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams, which we ultimately sold to Kaplan in late 1999.

So looking back, if it wasn’t for Keith, I would have ended up in a much different place 35 years later.

Who and/or what have had the greatest impact on the development of your thoughts about education? How so?

Contrary to my parent’s wishes, I dropped out of high school in the 11th grade to pursue a career in music. While I was out testing the waters of the rock ‘n roll music scene, my father’s voice kept ringing in my head: “get an education, Andy.” You see, both of my parents were educators – my father was an administrator at the local technical college and my mother was a corporate trainer. I knew intellectually that continuing my education was the key to long-term success, but the allure of the stage clouded my vision.

It was only after I met my future spouse that the urgency of providing for both myself and a prospective family jolted me into getting my act together. Within two months of meeting Linda, I had cut my hair (yes, I had a mullet) and with the help of my father, had enrolled at UW-L.

During my education at both UW-L and Iowa, it became clearer that education would be my life’s passion and my purpose. After my stint as an educational entrepreneur with Dr. Schweser, the fit with Kaplan was perfect for me. Kaplan’s mission, which is to “build futures, one success story at a time,” fit well with my purpose.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Unfortunately, many leaders view their people resources as nothing more than “coin operated” cogs in a very big wheel. However, once a leader recognizes that people represent the company’s most valuable asset, the mindset begins to change because the relationship between business economics and organizational health become more clear.

Recent research from companies like McKinsey have shown a strong positive link between improvements in organizational health and business performance. Everyone benefits from investments in improving transparency, communication, inclusion, accountability, and trust.

From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what “not to do.”

I agree wholeheartedly with this statement and can attest to the benefits of organizational focus. When an organization tries to be all things to all people, it’s easy to lose sight of mission and purpose. In addition, the company’s people resources become stretched too thin and organizational priorities shift as the business chases opportunities in areas it has not established the right or capability to play effectively.

Annual and multi-year planning sessions typically get a bad rap because they’re poorly run and are not implemented effectively. However, annual planning is critical to get right so that goals are clear, tie together across functional areas, and relate directly to the company’s stated purpose and north star.

From Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

This quote is very relevant in today’s world. While we say the words that mental agility and active listening are key skills for the 21st century, our actions tell a story of extreme polarization and fixed mindsets. I’m not keen to get political here, but many of us have convinced ourselves that there is a “right side” and a “wrong side.”

In my book, Balancing Act, I take readers on a hypothetical journey on a spaceship and park the vessel 10 million miles from our planet. At that distance, our seemingly limitless world is reduced to a pale blue dot in a sea of black. Once you realize that everything we’ve ever known or done is on that pale blue dot (with the exception of a small number of extraterrestrial adventures), it becomes clear that we’re all in this together.

Division based on unassailable truths and unwavering viewpoints will only serve to destroy us as a species. We sit at a unique point in time when we should be coming together to “solve the world’s problems,” not fighting over petty ideological differences that won’t matter in the long run.

From Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

This is a favorite topic of mine. We live in a time when technology is changing at an accelerating pace. While technology has been advancing more rapidly over the past 200-300 years, our place in time is different because we have built machines that can “think” at low, but ever-increasing cognitive levels. This means that job disruption over the next few decades will be unprecedented and the humans that populate our workforce must continually learn, unlearn, and relearn.

To make the challenge less philosophical and more “real,” World Economic Forum has been doing research since 2018 that shows that up to a billion people will need to be reskilled over the next decade. To reskill this many people, we need to change the meaning of the term “lifelong learning,” which today translates into “lifelong curiosity” for most that identify as lifelong learners. Instead, we need new terminology for lifelong skill acquisition and promote continual upskilling in our schools, workplaces, and homes. The generation that’s in school today needs to know that learning and skill acquisition must not stop.

From Margaret Mead: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”

It’s only been in the last few years that uniqueness, diversity, and inclusion have been embraced in the world of work. Prior to that, we operated under the expectation that the person you are at work is not the same person you are at home. It’s exhausting, both mentally and physically to pretend to be someone you’re not.

Fortunately, business leaders are waking up to the reality that more diversity of thought and demographics is preferred to less. Research is beginning to show clearly that when everyone looks the same and thinks the same way, performance suffers relative to organizations that welcome and draw strength from a more rich tapestry of human experience.

From Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

This is why human/interpersonal/behavioral skills are so important to our success in the future world of work – much more than our technical skill to solve a specific problem – especially as computers will be performing more and more of the technical parts of our jobs.

The damage that’s caused within teams and between individual contributors from unrefined emotional quotients is not just a people issue, it has direct implications for the economics of the business. I have many examples from my 30+ year career where a project failed, customers walked, or products had more defects than necessary because of preventable interpersonal conflict. Building emotional intelligence, situational awareness, and mental agility should be a top priority for all business leaders, not just HR and learning and development.

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Temte: I have been rightfully accused many times in my career of being too philosophical and not sufficiently pragmatic on certain issues. This is one of the main reasons why I’ve adopted the principles of continuous improvement and organizational health in my management practice. Philosophy and great ideas must be balanced with effective research, planning, and communication tools to ensure a vision becomes reality or is abandoned before precious resources are wasted on concepts that should never see the light of day.

In your opinion, what are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which trust is most likely to thrive?

The counterbalance to trust in the workplace is accountability. For trust to thrive, leadership must promote an environment of transparency where both the successes and the challenges of each department are available for all to see. In my experience, this is best accomplished through effective visual management systems and goal setting. If I know what you’re doing, what your goals are, and how you’re performing relative to those goals, I can have more empathy for you and your team’s situation, and better align my work to yours.

If instead we work in an environment of obfuscation and weak communication, it’s much easier to point fingers for failures and place blame on our co-workers. Remember, when you point a finger at someone, three other fingers are pointing back at you.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

In my opinion, truly embracing diversity, inclusion, and behavioral skill as key business drivers versus “flavor of the day” programs and lip service to these issues will be the greatest challenge. It’s human nature to want to surround yourself with people who look and think like you do – it’s comfortable, but ultimately will become the “velvet ditch” for underperforming businesses and CEOs.

My advice? It all starts with you and the senior leadership team. If the CEO doesn’t genuinely drive change and walk the talk, the rest of the organization will not follow and all the “initiatives” in the world won’t help.

Now please shift your attention to Balancing Act. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, when and why did you decide to write it?

I started writing the stories that made their way into Balancing Act back in 2017. Like many people who have accumulated experience in life and business, I felt I had something important to give back to current and future generations – specifically the mistakes I’ve made and how I learned from those mistakes. If I can help even a few people avoid the mud puddles I’ve stepped in, I will have made an

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

The head-snapper for me was how difficult it would be to take a series of stories and have them all “hang together” in the form of a cohesive narrative. Since I started the project, I’ve talked to many other people with awesome stories to tell who ultimately decided not to write their book because of the difficulty of getting from idea to finished product. It’s a real grind, but I’m happy that we reached the finish line. Now the real hard work starts to muster the persistence and drive it takes to get my name out there and ask total strangers to take a leap of faith that the investment of their time in my work will pay off for them.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

The original concept and title of the book was going to be “Tales from a Mid-level Senior Executive” (tongue firmly in cheek). There is a large audience of managers and leaders that I aspired to help find balance between managing up, down, and across their organizations. No one was really speaking directly to them. However, after I got started in earnest, I quickly realized that balance was the theme that connected my stories together in other important ways. Balance between work and life, balance between technical and behavioral skill, balance between profit and people, and balance between commitment to self and obligation to society.

Therefore, the final product is really aimed at a much wider audience than I originally intended and can help almost everyone identify and refine the myriad balancing acts we continually play throughout our lives.

Who and/or what have had the greatest impact on the development of your own thoughts about the challenges of balancing the demands and obligations of career and personal life? Please explain.

It was the act of engaging in marriage counseling with my dear wife Linda beginning in 2005. As we progressed through the challenging, but ultimately rewarding process of learning how to communicate more effectively with each other and rebuilding a broken relationship, I realized that the toolkits we were developing could be applied to almost any situation.

We were talking about “head snapping” moments before, and another real epiphany for me was that this toolkit of interpersonal skills was applicable as much in my business dealings as it was in my personal life.

In your opinion, what is the single greatest challenge when attempting to establish balance? Why?

I believe that building strong internal mediation skills is critical to sift through all the competing, directive, polarized messages we receive from the outside world every day. Dan Strafford and I explore this concept in depth during the first season of The Balancing Act Podcast by employing the Freudian definition of ego as the mediator between the id and superego. It’s easy to get out of balance when too much weight is ascribed to the opinions of others. A strong ego is needed to balance our personal needs with those of influencers, leaders, and our accumulated view of the ideal self.

For me, the greatest challenge was adjusting the balance when obligations changed, often unexpectedly. I had to adjust my priorities and allocation of resources, especially time and attention. Any advice?

Mental agility is one of the top behavioral skills we need to continually refine and grow. I personally find that purposefully engaging in quiet reflection to evaluate where I am on the change management curve for a given disruption in my life is extremely helpful. Am I in denial? Am I in the “valley of despair”? Or have I reached the stage of acceptance and need to commit to integrating the change into my life? It may sound silly to some, but developing and refining the ability to have conversations with yourself through reflection is a valuable tool for personal and professional growth.

Stephen Covey once asserted that people spend too much time on what is urgent, not enough on what is important. What are your own thoughts about that?

You hear it all the time: “I’m too busy for x” or “I just don’t have time for y.” We’ve all become so busy putting out fires, pleasing other people, or living up to an unattainable standard that we’ve lost sight of what’s truly important. One of the benefits of the COVID-19 pandemic is that many of us were forced into smaller circles and a lot of the unnecessary hustle and bustle in our lives was reduced or eliminated.

On a personal level, we should all take stock of what’s really important and shed unnecessary or low value interaction. At work, this is the perfect time to reevaluate goals, from the north star down to individual and team goals to ensure we’re working on the right things and jettisoning that which does not help us make meaningful progress.

Of all the leaders throughout history, which one — in your opinion — offers the best example of the balance that you endorse in your brilliant book? Please explain.

The name that immediately comes to mind is Eleanor Roosevelt. The three words I strive to live every day are grace, dignity, and compassion. She certainly fits that bill. However, it’s important to stress that everyone has challenges and no one is perfect – myself included.

Insofar as effective leadership is concerned, I wholly agree with you about the importance of self-awareness, mental agility, active listening, two-way communication, and bringing one’s “whole self” to work. Which of these capabilities seems to be the most difficult to master? Why?

I would say active listening. It is very difficult to quiet the mind, open your ears and truly listen. We’ve gotten so accustomed to our own voices and our own narratives that we seldom engage in a conversation in which we’re genuinely interested in what the other person has to say. I catch myself frequently dreaming up the next zinger so I can sound like the smartest guy in the room and, as a result, I completely miss the point my conversational counterpart is trying to make!

In your opinion, to what extent (if any) can parents help their sons and daughters to establish and then sustain appropriate balance in their lives?

Two opportunities come to mind. First, parents need to promote the concept of lifelong learning and skill development early in their child’s life. Unfortunately, too many parents send the message that learning is somehow “done” after high school or college. This gives the next generation the idea that there is a time for learning and then a time for work – the two need to go hand-in-hand to ensure we minimize the number of folks in the workforce who are caught flat- footed by change.

The second is to promote mental agility, active listening, and compassion for others. One tool I’ve seen employed with success is the “speaking stick” around the dinner table or during a family conversation.

How specifically can their children’s teachers and coaches also help them to do so?

Teachers and coaches can get involved by letting students know that it’s okay to be who they are and that living up to artificial, unattainable standards is a formula for a future breakdown. We can only live within skin that’s not our own for short periods of time. Balance can be achieved through acceptance and inclusion.

How specifically can supervisors help their direct reports to establish and then sustain an appropriate balance of their personal and professional obligations?

The first step is for managers and leaders to work on themselves. Only then can they provide meaningful counsel and guidance to their team members. Unfortunately, we have somewhat of an epidemic in disengagement amongst middle managers. In Balancing Act I refer to these managers who are “stuck” or who abhor change as the “organizational permafrost” or “clay layer.”

When a manager or leader has an open mind, open ears, is not afraid to hire people smarter than they are, and possesses strong situational and emotional intelligence, they can begin dispensing advice on achieving balance. Words without action or emulation by leaders are just words.

If your readers get nothing else out of the final chapter, “Conclusion: Learning from Our Past,” what do you hope it will be?

My hope is that we periodically reflect on both the positives and negatives from our past. We tend to keep the images of the happy times and tuck our challenges into mental boxes and lock them away. While we shouldn’t dwell on our painful memories, we should ask if we really learned all we could have from times of strife. In some cases, the long lens of time and additional levels of maturity can help us see things we couldn’t in the moment.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Balancing Act will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

There’s a section in the book where I talk about purpose. I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have had my personal purpose align with the purpose of the company I’ve dedicated most of my professional life to. I would ask members of the Millennial and Gen Z generations to seek out career paths that align with their purpose and then find companies that live that purpose.

To the owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

Pay close attention to the sections of the book on organizational health and continuous improvement. Your business is neither too small nor too large to focus on creating and reinforcing clarity, building trust and accountability, identifying and minimizing waste, and establishing a keen focus on the needs of the customer.

To C-level executives in Fortune 500 companies?

Remember that your words matter – more than you’d like to think they do. If actions don’t follow your words, or if you implement initiatives but believe you’re exempt from participating, your people will see that disconnect and not fully climb on board. “You are responsible for your own wake,” and as a C-level executive of a major company, your wake is large, powerful, and can create real damage if not handled with care.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Not necessarily a question, but a clarification. I talk a lot about the benefits of collaboration, consensus-building, and inclusion. Some might think that the planning, communication, and clarity exercises I espouse will lead to paralysis and indecision. This does not need to be the case. A strong, astute leader has honed the skill of knowing when a decision needs to be made and how to rally teams together.

At the end of the day, decisions must be made and not everyone gets what they want. However, through the process of collecting diverse opinions and engaging in constructive conflict, all voices can be heard, and most, if not all, agendas can be moved forward. In rare cases, a leader must be directive and make unpopular decisions for the good of the whole, but as organizational muscles are built in the areas of organizational health and continuous improvement, these directive episodes will become the exception and not the norm.

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Andy cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites.

Balancing Act is available today at Amazon, Barnes & Noble  and wherever else books are sold.

The Balancing Act Podcast is available on Audible, Spotify, and other major podcast outlets.

You can follow Andy on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


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