Dan Pontefract: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

PontefractDan Pontefractis 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 to release in 2014.

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Morris: When and why did you decide to write Flat Army?

Pontefract: On January 1, 2012, I sent an email out to 20 people in my network who I thought could help me with my ‘New Year’s Resolution’, which of course was to write and publish a book in 2012. A friend of mine in Boston hooked me up with Wiley, and the rest as they say is history. The decision to write was easy; corporate hierarchy for the sake of hierarchy and command and control leadership styles as the de facto way in which to lead is as prevalent as hydrogen and oxygen molecules in water. Not to sound righteous, but I wanted to put my thoughts out there in the public domain for others to learn from.

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

Pontefract: The book was supposed to be 70,000 words and it turned out to be 90,000. I could have written a 150,000 word book in all honesty, so my revelation was the problems in our organizations today are wicked, wretched and omnipresent. The first three chapters of Flat Army are a setup for the five models that I surface. The first three chapters outline what’s wrong so in essence, I could have simply written a book about what’s wrong at about 150,000 words in length and never have gotten to a solution. That was a head-snapping revelation for certain.

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

Pontefract: Great question. Originally, I had thought the thesis should be told as a story. I wrote three chapters (roughly 20,000 words) under the working title of The Coffee Shop Leader, where the main character (Dean) walks into a coffee shop one day and builds a relationship with the owner, a barista and four other passerby’s. From there, they discuss, debate and debunk current practices of management and leadership today, and they then cook up an answer to the world’s problems. At the suggestion of Wiley (the publisher) we decided to scrap that plan and write it as you see it today.

Morris: As I indicate in my review for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For those who have not as yet read the book, please explain what you view as the key take-away in several. First, “The Organization vs. Life Itself” (Pages 18-20)

Pontefract: If the C-Suite is looking for ROI, leaders need not prove it by return on investment, but by return on intelligence, by return on innovation and by return on ideas. This turns itself into an open culture of leadership, and a more engaged workforce.

Morris: “The Connected Leader Chasm” and “Falling into the Chasm” (50-54)

Pontefract: Leaders are Harmful, Hurtful, Hopeful, or Harmonious. Most of the time, leaders don’t know they are in the harmful or hurtful quadrants. Which is to say they are a closed leader and their team is closed. As they shift to (or are already at) the hopeful or harmonious quadrants they and their teams are becoming more open … which is a fundamental ingredient to creating an engaged organization.

Morris: “The Connected Leader Attributes” (61-66)

Pontefract: Aside from where I currently hang my hat, I think there are two great examples to study (as an organization) that demonstrate the Connected Leader Attributes in totality; IBM and Zappos. IBM, on one hand, was a mercurial, monolithic giant that had lost its way with its customers and its employees until Lou Gerstner came into the fold and for the better part of the past 20 years IBM has redeveloped its culture and its business principles to define for all of us how an organization can revector mid-stream to accomplish good things. Lou embodied all of the fifteen Connected Leader Attributes. On the other hand are those at Zappos who fundamentally believe “culture is their single most important and competitive advantage” and (under tony Hsieh’s leadership) have achieved great things solely based on this business principle. I do say “business principle” when I refer to culture (and to Zappos) because that’s my entire point: without a strong operating culture there will never be strong business principles. Their business principle is in fact the Connected Leader Attributes.

Morris: “The Participative Leader Framework” (63-69)

Pontefract: If one employs CARE (Continuous, Authentic, Reciprocal and Educating) in both their personal and professional networks, all the while equally consuming and contributing ideas, content, knowledge and feedback, a leader is therefore being ‘participative’.

Morris: “Trusting” (74-77)

Pontefract: Whether a bouquet or a brickbat, whether a high or a low, whether a peak or a valley, whether a success or a mistake, the leader must create an environment that ensures all members of the team (direct or indirect) feel safe not just to do their jobs, but also to break free of them.

Morris: “Empathizing” (79-82)

Pontefract: During the Christmas Truce of 1914, German and Allied forces stopped shooting at each other on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. They did so (I believe out of empathy) knowing they each missed their families and despite ‘orders’ to continue fighting, they dropped their guns and actually played football in no man’s land, exchanged cigarettes and rations too. It’s the true spirit of empathy that needs to be found in our organizations today.

Morris: “Cooperating” (101-105)

Pontefract: Cooperating literally means “to work with”. Anything less than being cooperative is a failure in the Flat Army model.

Morris: “The Untutored Eye” (132-134)

Pontefract: Stan Brakhage penned a piece in the journal Film Culture entitled “Metaphors on Vision.” It’s a classic and in particular the first three stanzas. I think the behavior of participation is a lot like this. We need to see differently. We therefore require a new lens, an untutored eye if you will. If we took Brakhage’s thinking to the element of participation we would break free of accepted and tolerated levels of crappy leadership.

Morris: “Hierarchy Is Not Anarchy” (158-160)

Pontefract: Organizations can’t be run as though they were yard sales or high school dances. There needs to be stability, credibility and direction. Heterarchy, however, is closer to what we might want to investigate as a definition of Flat Army. Or perhaps it’s the term “Directed Heteroarchy”. Let’s allow relationships to form and permit ideas to permeate, but let’s not lose sight of the fact we need to produce results.

Morris: What are the core principles and values of the “Flat Army Philosophy”? (263-266)

Pontefract: The principle thesis underpinning a Flat Army culture is if your people are engaged – if they feel connected to the leader and organization, and if they are working within a collaborative, connected and learning-first environment – employees will be happier, more innovative, productive and thus more likely to not only recommend the organization to others, but to stay at said organization and to go above and beyond the call of duty.

The Flat Army structure is made up of 5 key frameworks:

1) The Connected Leader: 15 key leadership attributes that make up a Flat Army leader

2) Participative Leader Framework: a participation ethos of leaders to demonstrate CARE (continuous, authentic, reciprocal and educating) with direct professional networks

3) Collaborative Leader Action Model (CLAM): a 6 stage daily habit that encourages leaders to connect, consider, communicate, create, confirm and congratulate on actions, initiatives and projects

4) Pervasive Learning: learning is part formal, informal and social and both the leader and the organization need to employ this new mindset in order to feel engaged, connected and collaborative

5) Collaboration Technologies: to hide in an office with an executive assistant is asinine in today’s 2.0 world. Using 15 key social collaborative technologies in the Flat Army model will help drive employee engagement, participation, collaboration and learning

Morris: In Weaving the Web, published in 1999, Tim Berners-Lee explains the process by which he invented the World Wide Web. I now ask you to share your own thoughts in response to each of three brief excerpts from Berners-Lee’s book. First, “In an extreme view, the world can be seen only as connections, nothing else. We think of a dictionary as the repository of meaning, but it defines words only in terms of other words. I liked the idea that that a piece of information is defined only by what it’s related to, and how it’s related. There really is little else to meaning. The structure is everything. There are billions of neurons in our brains, but what are neurons? Just cells. The brain has no knowledge until connections are made between neurons. All that we know, all that we are, comes from the way our neurons are connected.” (Page 12)

Pontefract: I used to often say in public speaking events that “my network is my net worth” but then came along Porter Gale with her book “Your Network is Your Net Worth” so I’m not sure if I have to attribute or not going forward. My point? As per the Participative Leader Framework from Flat Army itself, if we aim to demonstrate care, authenticity, reciprocity and an educating way of being as we canvass, harbor and build both personal and professional networks, we will in fact be better off in the long run. My book was as a result of my network. Any position I’ve ever held is as a result of my network. Vacation spots I visit annually are as a result of my network. If we aren’t fixated on both building AND maintaining our direct network, the purpose of being an open leader will be quashed.

Morris: “To build understanding, we need to be able to link terms. This will be made possible by inference languages, which work one level above the schema languages. Inference languages allow computers to explain to each other that two terms that may seem different are in some way the same — a little like an English-French dictionary. Inference languages will allow computers to convert data from one format to another.” (Page 185)

Pontefract: Senior executives of publicly traded corporations and those that are private driven by profit will always be guided by the necessity of higher revenues and higher profits. It’s the nature of the beast in business and it will never go away, nor (perhaps) should it. That does not mean, however, that those same executives can’t work, speak and collaborate with employees whose modus operandi or personal goals might not unilaterally reflect the need for higher revenues and greater profits. There ought to be an inference language between senior executives and common employees – devised by both parties perhaps – that allows the needs of the senior executives to be translated to employees in ways that don’t make them feel as though they are merely ants in the farm or sheep in a flock.

Morris: And now the concluding paragraph: “Should we then feel that we are getting smarter and smarter, more and more in control of nature, as we evolve? No really. Just better connected — connected into better shape. The experience of seeing the Web take off by the grassroots effort of thousands gives me tremendous hope that if we have the individual will, we can collectively make of our world what we want.” (Page 209)

Pontefract: Let’s look at Thunderclap for a minute. What is Thunderclap?

Thunderclap is the first crowd-speaking platform that helps people be heard by saying something together. How does it work? If enough people support it, Thunderclap will blast out a timed Facebook Post or Tweet from all your supporters, creating a wave of attention. You might have a cause, a wish, a job request, hope for humanity, something to give back … whatever the case may be, there is a platform like Thunderclap now that can assist you with your message and outcome. It can demonstrate, as Berners-Lee suggests, “if we have the individual will, we can collectively make of our world what we want.” That, and countless other examples, shows the power of the network. There is good on this planet and the Internet, the web and particularly networks are allowing it to manifest several thousand times over.

Morris: I think some of the most valuable material in the book is provided in Chapter 10. I share your high regard for what collaborative technologies can help to accomplish, especially in a workplace based on Henry Chesbrough’s open business model. You discuss various tools in this chapter. Which seems to be the most difficult to master? Why?

Pontefract: That question is really a role specific question. Senior executives, for example, seem to have difficulty with their time often purporting “there is no time to be social” so they don’t really get into it at all. Lower down the hierarchy food chain, you see adoption happening. For an individual contributor it may be easier to micro-blog than it is to video-blog or video-capture due to confidence issues. Middle managers might be better at blogging and micro-blogging but are averse to providing details about their own background and profile on a company held profile system.

Morris: Which of the rules you discuss seems to be most difficult to follow? Why?

Pontefract: I think in general it would be “user generated content.”Whether Bradley Horowitz, Jakob Nielsen or even Jimmy Wales, it’s been found that only a very small percentage of users actually create the content, whereas most of us simply lurk and benefit. Whilst I truly believe that ‘learning is lurking’, it behooves us all to equally consume AND contribute content, knowledge and expertise to the grid (be it in our organizations or externally) so that others can benefit. In the end, I think we need to turn ourselves into a ‘user generated content mindset’ and that itself is the most difficult to follow.

Morris: Now please explain your reference to the “jewels of being a flat army leader.”

Pontefract: Let’s look at my beloved for a minute, Denise. When we go out to a fancy party or dinner, she looks absolutely ravishing in a sleek, sexy strapless dress alongside her manicured nails, tasteful shoes in addition to whatever she does to her face and hair to make herself out to be a movie star. 18 years later I’m still in awe. What’s the final piece that makes the entire ensemble sing? It’s whatever she has chosen for a necklace, earrings, bracelet, rings or other jewelry that marks her perfection. It’s the same thing with our Flat Army model. The Connected Leader Attributes, the Collaborative Leader Action Model, the Participative Leader Framework and the Pervasive Learning models are all fine and dandy to employ … but if you want Flat Army perfection, you are going to want to employ the jewels as well, and those are the Collaborative Technologies set out in Chapter 10.

Morris: What are the core principles of the TELUS Leadership Philosophy (TLP) introduced in 2010? What differentiates it from comparable philosophies? Please explain.

Pontefract: There are four key pillars to the TLP: our four Values and the corresponding eleven Values Attributes we built. (the DNA) There are the 10 Effective Leadership Techniques; habits, if you will. There is something we call “Fair Process” which is to engage and explore options before executing. And there is the target audiences we serve (customers, business, team and community) that ensure we know who we’re doing what for.

Morris: You conclude the book with one of my favorites quotations (among several dozen) from the works of Henry Mintzberg: “No one likes to be led by someone who is not a manager and no one wants to be managed by someone who is not a leader.” Your own thoughts about this observation?

Pontefract: Well I personally abhor the term “manager,” but it encapsulates my point in Flat Army rather well. Things have to get done in a business (there are revenue, profit, stock market, analyst requirements) but we don’t have to do it in militaristic ways. Let’s execute whilst engaging … it’s really not that hard.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Flat Army and is now determined to increase connection and engagement at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Pontefract: The first two places I would start would be with the Connected Leader Attributes (CLA’s) and the Collaborative Leader Action Model (CLAM). The 15 attributes found in Chapters 4-6 are really behaviors and habits for everyone in the organization to subscribe to. If a CEO wants to change the culture of an organization he/she had better redefine its habits and the CLA’s are a perfect way in which to do so. Alongside the CLA’s is the CLAM – which could be become an institution-wide habit for any project, idea or action to begin with. Let’s say the company needed to curb expenses over the remaining six months of a fiscal year. Why not invoke the CLAM such that the entire organization could be a part of that conversation? It’s a daily habit that can be easily built into any leader and team’s rituals.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Flat Army, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Pontefract: The CLAM – the collaborative leader action model – is a simple, daily behavioral framework for leader to connect, consider, communicate, create, confirm and congratulate. If leaders were only to focus on this one model (of the five from Flat Army) they would be in a very good spot going forward.

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

Pontefract: What do you plan on doing next with your career…with your passion?

Eventually, I’d like to help more than one organization at a time. Flat Army was the first step toward my personal plan of creating “corporate commonality” for all. Book #2 is in the works as well. I hope you have the chance to review it Robert, you’re a class act.

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

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

Flat Army page

His Amazon page

TELUS blog link

Please support Wikipedia and do generously

Claire’s website

Cole’s website

Cate’s website

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