Jon Younger and Norm Smallwood on “Agile Talent”: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

YoungerJon Younger is founding partner of the Agile Talent Collaborative (and partner emeritus at the RBL Group where he established the firm’s HR transformation practice. He is well known and respected for his consulting in HR transformation, talent management, and change leadership. He is the author of 5 books including the new Agile Talent: How to Source and Manage Outside Experts (Harvard Business Review Press, February 2016), several books with Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank, including the best-selling HR From the Outside In (McGraw-Hill, 2012), and many articles. He has taught at the University of Toronto, Ross School of Business University of Michigan, the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, and the Copenhagen School of Business, among other universities. Prior to RBL he was SVP and chief talent and learning officer for one of the largest US banks.

He and his partner Carolyn divide their time between NYC and restoring a 200-year-old barn in rural Connecticut. His teaching and consulting practice has taken him to over 40 countries in the last few years.

SmallwoodNorm Smallwood is co-founder of The RBL Group and a recognized authority in developing businesses and their leaders to deliver results and increase value. His current work relates to increasing business value by building “outside in” organization, leadership, and people capabilities that measurably impact market value.

In 2010, the Harvard Business Review recognized Norm in an ad as doing “innovative and ground-breaking work on effective leadership.” He has co-authored eight books: Real-Time Strategy, Results-Based Leadership, How Leaders Build Value, Change Champions Field Guide, Leadership Brand, Leadership Code, Leadership Sustainability, and Agile Talent. Norm was a faculty member in executive education at the University of Michigan in the Ross School of Management between 2001 and 2003.

Prior to co-founding the RBL Group, Norm was a founding partner of Novations Group, Inc. where he led business strategy, organization design, and human resource management projects for a wide variety of clients spanning multiple industries. Before this, he was an organization development professional at Procter and Gamble in a start up business in Georgia and in Calgary, Alberta with Esso Resources Canada. Norm and his wife Tricia enjoy their children and grandchildren as well as their wide variety of pets.

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Morris: Before discussing Agile Talent, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Before answering that initial question, I wanted to thank you for the invitation to talk with you about our new research and new book Agile Talent. You are a bit of a legend and we’re glad to join your orbit. The greatest influence? Personally, I suppose like many people my father, Ben Younger. He was a kind, generous and hard working man who always made time for others.

Smallwood: I’d have to say my wife Tricia. I have tendency to embellish stories and exaggerate. She is becoming an Ayurveda master at the Chopra Center in San Diego and meditates, eats healthy, and is very sensitive to hype or untruth of any kind. She has influenced me to be less impulsive and judgmental.

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

Smallwood: I’ve had two types of professional development relationships. The first were with seniors that mentored me and the second is collegial. I had two professors in graduate school at BYU that really shaped my personal growth — Bonner Ritchie and Gene Dalton. Bonner is an organization theorist who pushed me (and others) very hard to think independently about complex issues. Gene started as a professor and then became a business partner. He shaped my approach to consulting and really caring about clients as well as the team working with the client.

The other is Jon, my co-author on this book. We met at Esso Resources when both of us were fresh out of school. We have been both competitive and collaborative since 1979. Jon pushes me to think more deeply and work harder to keep up.

Younger: Professionally, I would have to say two people. First was Herb Shepard, the legendary consultant and author. Herb was a mentor to me for over a decade. Younger people might not know him: he was a founder of NTL, was an architect of the Yale School of Management, and a brilliant consultant and writer. I was fortunate to know him. I encourage your audience to read Rules of Thumb for Change Agents. I’m sure it can be found on the web. It is a brief and succinct masterpiece. The second is probably Norm Smallwood, my co-author. He and I have been working together in one form or another for 35 years. Its always a challenge to keep up with Norm, he is so bright and creative, and equally a pleasure.

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

Younger: Absolutely. Sometimes adversity is as helpful as good fortune. I graduated with a PhD in social psychology from the University of Toronto a year when academic jobs were in short supply. My wife Carolyn and I decided that, rather than take the route of multiple postdocs, I would seek a career that married teaching and business. I was able to find such a job at Imperial Oil, the Canada unit of Exxon Corp. It was a best experience I could have had. Exxon was a terrific place to develop, and they were incredibly kind and generous to me, giving me seven or eight jobs in ten years, mostly operating as an internal consultant or manager of internal consultants, and the opportunity to work all over the world on really interesting projects that were important to the business.

Smallwood: During my last semester of my undergraduate degree in English and psychology, I was on my way to a career in law. I had taken the LSAT and had been accepted into a few prominent law schools. My grandfather had started a successful firm and my uncle had built on it. So I had a career all set for me. I took a class in Organization Behavior where the professor was on visiting from a large, local company. The teaching assistant was a graduate student named Pete Sorenson who led the class resistance to the approach that this unfortunate professor was taking. I learned that leadership is not about position and that if you didn’t obey authority you actually had power. I was hooked. I was accepted into the OB program the next semester. Law school was out. Organization Behavior became my passion.

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

Smallwood: It has been very valuable to me. There are three elements of it that have been useful. The first element is the content that helped me to interpret and understand information as I gained experience and the encouragement to keep learning and writing. The second is the network of other students that I have stayed in touch with through the years. The third are the faculty I met there many of whom have become good friends over the years and two of whom (Gene Dalton and Paul Thompson) were partners in an earlier firm that Jon and I were part of, The Novations Group.

Younger: Extremely valuable. I can’t think of a better platform than social psychology. Why? First, it demands a rigorous approach to behavior, whether it’s the behavior of an individual, team or large organization. Second, the empirical method is a commitment to data versus impression or bias. And third, social psychology reinforces the importance of social context and culture in problem solving.

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

Younger: A great question, and not an easy one to answer. I suppose it would be the importance of building and maintaining a strong, broad and diverse network of relationships. For example, this week I am in Hong Kong with a group of 30 people from Maersk, the Danish based shipping and logistics giant. Among the people in this leadership development program are people from 19 different countries, from China to Cameroon to Mexico. Having the point of view of smart people from all over the world has been a huge source of knowledge and insight is a huge advantage in professional development.

Smallwood: To better balance family and work and to lean to family. It has taken my whole career to figure this out. I tend to be a workaholic and it’s no way to raise a family or have a good relationship with your spouse. I wish I had learned this earlier.

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

Younger: I’m glad you asked this question because I worry that many of my younger colleagues are not connected to the great business and organizational writers of years past. Wonderful books like Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, Alfred Chandler’s The Visible Hand, Ed Schein’s Organization Culture and Leadership, Ralph Sui’s The Master Manager, and any of the books by Peter Drucker have enriched my understanding of how to build high performing organizations.

Smallwood: The book that influenced me the most was Karl Weick’s The Social Psychology of Organizing. Weick’s notion of creating your own reality, understanding your career from the rear view mirror (post hoc rationality) and making tradeoffs around GAS through Thorndike’s theory of commensurate complexity struck a strong chord with me early on. I even wrote a letter to Karl Weick when he was teaching at Cornell and where I had a good friend, Gordon Meyer, getting a PhD at the time. Weick read the letter to his class, which was a big victory for me at the time in confirming that I could think independently and out of the box.

Morris: 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.”
Smallwood: This is both insightful and Machiavellian at the same time.

Younger: My university minor was Chinese philosophy, and I’m familiar with Lao Tse’s extraordinary work. We know from research how important it is to build what Ed Lawler calls “high engagement organizations”. And, we know from Gallup and other survey shops that engagement is a crucial element in teamwork, innovation, and agility. Lao Tse has, in this passage, given us a formula for creating highly engaged organizations.

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

Smallwood: Earlier I said that I was influenced by Weick’s writings about tradeoffs. Making tradeoffs in strategy is critical but also in everything else. In my experience many leaders are terrible at making tradeoffs and by not making them create unintentional paradox: cost v. quality; growth versus profitability. Another example-when business strategy is to do too much, then structure does not follow and matrix organizations are the result. A matrix is the result of not making tradeoffs and trying to do too much. Choosing what not to do and being explicit is as helpful as articulating what you will do.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Smallwood: In the spirit of tradeoffs some dangerous ideas should not become cliché and others should. I like the convenience that I’m on an airplane thirty five thousand feet in the air responding to these questions on my laptop and slightly irritated that it took so long to connect to the airplane Wi-Fi. I love that dangerous ideas in science have led to cures for many diseases. However, on the downside, we are losing civility on the Internet because we can be anonymous and mean. Or we watch movies about inflicting violence on others and lose our empathy to pain.

Younger: I think that nicely sums up where the nascent agile talent industry stands. When we began doing our research for the book, there were at best a half dozen start ups in the sector. Now we are finding a great many more. It’s by no means a mature industry, but it’s no longer just an interesting idea.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Younger: Many years ago I had the privilege of working as a consultant to 3M’s research and development organization. It was an extraordinary time, when 3M was creating iconic products like Post-its and Scotchguard. Both were virtuous mistakes that turned into billion dollar businesses because the R&D professionals saw the potential in what they had discovered.

Smallwood: Both of those responses are better than the alternative: Oh, Crap!

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

Smallwood: Walt Disney’s response would be execution without vision is drudgery.

Younger: I have heard this quote before and think it was attributed to Steve Case, the founder of AOL. It’s a wonderful reminder that the world is full of smart people and great ideas. But, great ideas aren’t enough. The people who change the world – the Edisons, Jobses and Musks – are the extraordinary few who aren’t satisfied with being clever or creative. Instead, they insist on changing things!

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

Younger: When I read this quote, I’m reminded of the sturm und drang of traditional performance evaluation. HR invests so much time and energy into sharpening the rating scale when we all recognize that, as Deming demonstrated, we can’t reliably differentiate more than three categories: above, at or below standard. HR is, of course, not alone in continuously improving a bad system.

Smallwood: I’ve called this “turd polishing.” It’s gratifying to know that Peter Drucker had to deal with polishing turds too. The strange thing is that it’s often difficult to convince people not to polish turds. This work is usually legacy or politically supported and therefore continues. Workout at GE was their official attempt to identify and then eliminate unnecessary administrative work such as meetings, policies and reports. It was very successful when supported by a clear process and supported by senior management.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, 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?

Smallwood: My first book was called Real Time Strategy co-authored with Lee Perry and Randy Stott. We used a jazz metaphor as a more effective approach to judgment and decision-making than orchestras. Many large organizations become orchestras as they become more global and complex and want conductor/leaders to tell them what to do. They create silos (wind instruments here and percussion there). They are usually beaten in the market by smaller organizations that are more jazz ensembles. Jazz ensembles improvise. Improvising means that the strategy is simple (lead sheet not an orchestra score) so that as conditions change, people can improvise to achieve success. Organizations that have simple ends can ensure very complex means to achieve purpose. They don’t need direction if they understand the intent.

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

Younger: Norm, a thought leader in leadership so I will mostly defer to him, other than to offer this quote from Jeff Dixon, the author: “That is the power of a good story. It can encourage you, it can make you laugh, it can bring you joy. It will make you think, it will tap into your hidden emotions, and it can make you cry.“ And isn’t that the power of a great leader, someone who can help you to transcend time and circumstance, and see the potential in another way?

Smallwood: Feel like the best response to this would be to tell a story. Stories bring emotion and a way to identify with whatever is being discussed. We grow up with stories from the Bible or from Grimm’s fairy tales that teach morals and principles. Have you ever noticed that you pay more for art when there’s a good story that goes along with it? There is no amount of analytical data that can’t be refuted by a good presenter telling a story that makes the opposite point. It’s frustrating and wonderful.

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?

Smallwood: In order to make change happen there are two sets of issues that must be addressed. First there has to be a need for change and then the change must be sustained. O’Toole’s quote is about the second issue about how to sustain the change. Dave Ulrich and I wrote a book a couple of years ago called Leadership Sustainability that synthesized 7 disciplines for sustaining change that spell STARTME.

Simplicity: describe what you want to happen concisely

Timing: get in on your calendar. If it’s not there it won’t happen

Accountability: Go public with what you intend to do. No excuses

Resources: Ensure that you put in the time, effort and money

Tracking: Measure progress

Meliorate: French word that means adapt and learn

Emotion: find the why that makes this change important

Younger: Well, O’ Toole certainly makes a good point in describing comfort and custom as barriers to change. I remember Herb Shepard teaching me a little formula about change: change equals vision plus need plus first steps over the cost of change. People change when they see a better alternative that is needed and achievable, and exceeds the cost or risk of making that change. It’s a formula I’ve found very helpful over the years.

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

Younger: I wouldn’t dare guess the greatest challenge that leaders will face in the years ahead. How to decide between disruptive technology, globalization, climate, and political instability? But I will suggest one area that’s certainly connected with our work in agile talent. That is the need to think very differently about talent in the next three, five or 35 years. The combination of demographics, the speed of change, and the shifting values of the workforce all suggest that the workforce of the future will be very different than today. Leaders who aren’t able to take advantage of this shift will be at a real disadvantage.

Smallwood: I agree with Jon that the nature of where and how to source talent will be a critical issue. Demographics over the next 5-10 years suggest that baby boomers will retire and that birth rates in the USA and Europe will not replace them. That means significant shifts. I’d bet that the wall that Donald Trump is talking about building between Mexico and the USA (if it is ever built physically or psychologically) would end up becoming a welcome mat where we are paying incentives to get people back into the US.

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Jon and Norm invite you to visit their website and take the agile talent EQ survey. It’s brief (10 minutes), free, and you will receive instant results as well as a comparison with survey global norms. Please click here to visit the website.

You are also invited to write to Jon for more information about the Agile Talent Collaborative. Contact Jon at or Norm at

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  1. Professor M S Rao on March 25, 2016 at 7:29 am

    Great insights from two amazing leadership thinkers!

  2. Murray Hiebert on April 13, 2016 at 9:14 am

    A great interview with two people I admire!!

  3. Layton Fisher on April 13, 2016 at 7:43 pm

    Clear and elegant thinking about complex and critical issues.
    These men have been doing this for a long time.
    Senior leaders must invest in understanding the deep nature of their organizations and of their responsibilities. The word “Boss” should be taken out of the world of work.

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