Dan Pontefract: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

PontefractDan Pontefract is the author of Flat Army: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization. He also holds the role of Head of Learning & Collaboration at TELUS where he is responsible for the overarching leadership development, learning and collaboration strategy for the company where he introduced the TELUS Leadership Philosophy and the Learning 2.0 framework alongside a litany of social collaboration technologies. Between 2010 and 2013, Dan has been acknowledged with several awards from CLO, CUBIC, Skillsoft and Brandon Hall. In 2013, his team became an 8-time winner of the prestigious ASTD BEST award.

His career is interwoven with both corporate and academic experience, coupled with an MBA, B.Ed and multiple industry certifications and accreditations. Dan is also a renowned speaker and has been invited to deliver over 50 external keynotes and presentations since 2009. In 2012 he appeared on the covers of T+D Magazine and Chief Learning Officer Magazine.

When he’s not cycling, he’s goofing around with Denise, Claire, Cole and Cate. Visit their blogs; they’d love to hear from you. He is currently in the midst of writing his second book, scheduled for release in 2014.

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Morris: Before discussing Flat Army in Part 2, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Pontefract: Terry Fox is my hero and a Canadian icon. After losing his leg due to an amputation as a result of cancer, Terry decided to run across Canada to raise money for research when I was only 9 years old and he only in his early 20’s. Imagine running a marathon a day on one good leg and one prosthetic leg all in an effort to help others. He succumbed to a second bout of cancer and died cutting his dream short roughly half-way across Canada, but his resiliency, leadership and desire to give back and end cancer not only gave me hope, it drove me to give back, to learn as much as I can and to believe I can accomplish anything if I put my mind to it.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Pontefract: My network. I learned how to learn in my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees but it’s been my network that has had the greatest impact on my professional development. I’ve always been a believer in ‘storing my knowledge in my network’ and that has only proved its weight in gold with the proliferation of social collaborative tools that allow me to reach out and learn from countless others. As Michelangelo once said, “I am still learning.”

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Pontefract: I originally wanted to be a doctor, and then a physiotherapist because (in the footsteps of Terry Fox) I wanted to help and give back. I realized I could be more effective and potentially more influential if I shifted course and entered the education field. With three years as a high school teacher, and then five years leading a post-secondary education initiative, I then turned my attention to corporate organizations in 2002 to see if I could help there. I will eventually sort out a way to help many more, so stay tuned.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Pontefract: Credentials are a necessary evil in today’s world unless you are a programming whiz kid like Gates or Zuckerberg. I have a B.Ed, an MBA, a diploma in Educational Technology as well as an array of information technology certificates and credentials. Without the credentials, I don’t get the job in high school nor the job in higher education. From there, I don’t get recruited into roles within the corporate sector. It’s still somewhat premature to say we can achieve career greatness (or at a minimum success) if we don’t have formal credentials and thus formal education.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Pontefract: There is no formal course in the art (and science) of corporate politics. One really has to go through the hazing and initiation of corporate politics to appreciate how lethal it can be at times in addition to how much one can learn going through the various trials and tribulations. I wasn’t prepared for backroom politics as I much prefer an open, collaborative, honest and to-the-point mindset. It still continues to this day, which is disappointing in itself.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Pontefract: Chariots of Fire. There is so much going on in this film from the hierarchy of academic administration, to the willingness to listen, empathy, re-vectoring as well as coaching, mentoring, being communicative and collaborative as well as learning from mistakes. The film is layered with symbolism and in my opinion both replicates what is happening in today’s disengaged workforces (through hierarchy, command, etc.) as well as what can go right through the aforementioned attributes and many more.

Morris: From which non– business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Pontefract: Denise and I have three young children and as we’re both educators, books are an important part of the child rearing diet. There is a book called The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein that epitomizes our home and my hope for all organizations. A young boy meets his new best friend,”The Giving Tree,” where they spend hours together. As the boy grows older into his teens, adulthood and late adulthood he keeps visiting the tree only to ask for help. It obliges each and every time to assist his friend. By the end of the boy’s life The Giving Tree is now merely a stump, but the boy is now near death and can’t do much more than sit. So, what does our Giving Tree do? He offers the boy a seat on the stump. The moral of the story of course is we all have something to give no matter the situation or times.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’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.”

Pontefract: It reminds me of my personal motto, “We’re not here to see through each other, we’re here to see each other through.” Let us all put the word human back into humanity.

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Pontefract: There is no right answer, per se, and most importantly no one person has the best answer. Encourage openness, creativity and ideas and when opinions differ, discuss, debate and dialogue all sides of the story before making a final decision.

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Pontefract: After Denise and I got married in 1995 at the tender age of 24, I shaved my head bald knowing full well I was eventually going to be bald at some point in my mid- to late-30s. I am DAN – which is simply an anagram for DNA – and no one is going to stop me from being me.

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Pontefract: He should have said, “We should not create problems to solve that require thinking we haven’t thought of yet.”

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Pontefract: One word … bureaucracy.

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Pontefract: I’m reminded of a passage from Gary Hamel and Bill Breen in The Future of Management where they stated: “Hierarchies are very good at aggregating effort, at coordinating the activities of many people with widely varying roles. But they’re not very good at mobilizing effort, at inspiring people to go above and beyond. When it comes to mobilizing human capability, communities outperform bureaucracies.” The community can make good calls and wise moves if it’s empowered to do so.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Pontefract: The thought of mistakes and the immediate mental negativity that surrounds the word (and the act) might never be mitigated. The word “mistake” is derived from Old Norse “mistaka” which meant “take in error.” That’s the problem. A mistake should not be taken in error, rather, taken as a learning opportunity to finalize a result. After all, it was Picasso who said, “Unfinished, a picture remains alive, dangerous. A finished work is a dead work, killed.”

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Pontefract: In the PwC 15th Annual Global CEO Survey, roughly 80% of CEO’s believe CEOs believe information about their workforce (i.e. their people and projects) is important but they don’t receive comprehensive reports or the right level of data to make decisions. If, perhaps, they set up their organizational structure such that they had better business and talent management intelligence, perhaps they wouldn’t be acting in a micro-managing way. (i.e. not delegating is simply another form of distrust)

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Pontefract: We humans are riveted by stories. We work in organizations so fixated by left-brained thinking (numbers, budgets, financials, margins, etc.) that we yearn for right-brained creative stories to help us make sense of why we’re there in the first place. The numbers are binary; the stories are dreamy.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Pontefract: I personally live by, and love, a quote by Winston Churchill where he said, “to improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” Denise and I have been married since 1995 and have lived in seven cities, in three countries, and moved house twenty times. Our children – now 10, 7 and 6 – are growing up in a petri dish called Change. I think our parenting habits have to change alongside the way we’re teaching children in K-12 and to a degree post-secondary education. It’s not merely the organization’s fault (or that of leadership) as it has a significant relationship to parenting and education. We too often play it safe as parents – the ideology of comfort – versus challenging ourselves, our children and our families to enjoy the process of change tyranny. If as a society we were to start in our homes and in our schools, I posit the organization would have a better time with many types of change that are required.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Pontefract: If ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, then (in my opinion) application eats theory for lunch. I delivered a TEDxTalk once called “Mr. Classroomachev, Tear Down These Walls” where any type of education institution must do away with the regimented, archaic, pedagogy/curriculum driven way in which to teach, to learn, to educate. MBA programs need to shift from textbook learning of Porter to a much more hands-on (face-to-face and digital) way of becoming better leaders. They need to become better people in their actions not corporate drones perfecting Taylorism.

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

Pontefract: Career Development. As we become flatter and thus more connected societally, the hierarchical or closed-minded mentalities will cease to exist. I can tweet a celebrity author like Dan Pink and he responds back. That never used to happen. What happens when I do that inside my organization with the CEO, will she respond back? Now, as we are becoming flatter and more connected, we will analogously believe we can achieve greatness in our career as easy as it is to tweet Dan Pink and get a reply. I don’t think this is far-fetched. CEO’s are going to want to proactively prepare for a different way in which to define and support Career Development in the organization, regardless of age, rank or geography. Rotations, open markets, shadowing, external swaps, and the ‘long tail’ of career development are all areas CEO’s should explore. (and implement)

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Dan cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Flat Army page

TELUS blog link

His Amazon page

Please support Wikipedia

Claire’s website

Cole’s website

Cate’s website

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  1. […] To read Part 1 of my interview of Dan, please click here. […]

  2. […] To read my two-part interview of Dan, please click here. […]

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