Seth Kahan: An interview by Bob Morris

Seth Kahan

Seth Kahan is a change specialist, helping create the uptake and support for significant transformation. He has worked with executives and senior leaders on high-impact change at World Bank, Peace Corps, Shell, NASA, and 20+ organizations in the public and private sectors. His latest book is Getting Change Right: Creating Rapid, Widespread Change. His website is

Morris: Before discussing your books, a few general questions. Long ago, Thomas Edison observed, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” One man’s opinion, your emphasis on leaders being visionaries seems to ignore or at least subordinate the importance of leaders also being results-driven.

Kahan: I like to break visionary leadership down word-by-word. Visionary means there is a future state you are working toward that makes a positive difference to your beneficiaries and the world at large. Leadership implies that you not only take personal accountability for bringing that vision into existence, but you put in the hard work and execution required. If you’re not results driven, I don’t see how you can consider yourself a leader.

Morris: Much has been written in recent years about “followership.” I especially admire Barbara Kellerman’s Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, Michael Useem’s Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win, and The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Create Great Leaders and Organizations co-edited by Ronald E. Riggio, Ira Chaleff, and Jean Lipman-Blumen. Here’s my question: Can followers also be “visionary” in the same sense that all great leaders are?

Kahan: Yes. Anyone can be considered visionary who is operating with a powerful sense of a better future, an image of what is possible, a powerful desire to realize a new and vastly improved world. But, not everyone takes the reins to make it happen. Many choose wisely to support another who has stepped into the driver’s seat.  They are, as you call them, visionary followers.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question. If recent Gallup research is correct, that less than 30% of the U.S. workers are positively and productively engaged, how specifically can a visionary leader increase that percentage?

Kahan: This is what my book, Getting Change Right, is all about.  I have a long history of success in what is called the “soft stuff” – the people part of change. There is a dearth of competency when it comes to getting people involved, contributing, participating, and engaged. The old mind-set is, “That is not the leader’s problem. The leader sets the strategy and hires people to execute. It’s up to the subordinates to generate their own motivation.   They are, after all, professionals – which means they are paid. Therefore, they have all the inspiration they need to get with the program.”

But, that’s not how real, lasting, widespread change happens fast. Putting it on subordinates to quickly implement and relay new ideas is a cop out. Excellent leaders get to know their constituents, what turns them on, and use their self-interest to create powerful transformation that spreads because people want it to.

My book provides over 200 tactics, frameworks, step-by-step instructions, guidelines, and templates on how to carry this out. The book was written as a guide, a manual for putting these techniques to work, based on my experience as a practitioner.

Here’s a high-level summary of what specifically can be done to increase the percentage of people who are productively engaged:

1. Learn how to craft messages that are compelling and enticing to your constituents. Become a specialist at speaking in ways that excite them, arouse their enthusiasm, and create desire.

2. Know the people you depend on for success: front line staff, managers, partners, content specialists, thought leaders, practical visionaries, even detractors. I call them your Most Valuable Players (MVPs).

3.  Get to know the worlds of your MVPs – where are they stuck, what do they need and want, where do things go well for them, what  concerns do they have. Make sure you focus on both technical expertise and politics – savvy leaders acknowledge that  professionals grapple with increasing their professional competencies and do it an environment of power plays. Become adept at listening – take ownership for understanding how your MVPs see the world and operate.

4 Build communities that deliver business returns. Become proficient at helping people organize around their own interests, in ways that provide them with payoffs while simultaneously moving your organization forward.

5. Bring people together when it counts the most: when strategy is on the line and coordinated behavior is at a premium. Learn how to create events that inspire your professionals.

6. Treat logjams, obstacles, stalls, and unforeseen downturns as the opportunities they are. When circumstances turn against you it is a huge message from the system, piling issues and concerns together in ways that frustrate your works. This is the time to address these issues all at once and move forward on all fronts simultaneously. Seen this way, a logjam or obstacle is a time of great opportunity.

Morris: What to do when two leaders in the same organizations have mutually exclusive visions?

Kahan: This happens all the time. Mutual exclusivity is the hallmark of a third higher way that transcends the current situation. A great book that goes into detail about how leaders use this type of seemingly impossible situation to their advantage is The Opposable Mind, by Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management.  Martin discovered that great leaders from all domains (business, art, politics, social activism, etc) use this technique to achieve what others fail to see. I recommend the book unreservedly.

Morris: What to do if two leaders in the same organization have the same vision but disagree almost completely about how to make that vision a reality?

Kahan: This, too, happens all the time. If the end result is truly the same, you have to find a way to allow both to pursue their separate paths. Achievement is not about how, it is about the goal. If you are limiting others who have the same objective as you, it’s time for some reflection.

Morris: What prompted you to write Building Beehives: A Handbook for Creating Communities that Generate Returns? For whom was it written?

Kahan: In the mid 90s I was part of a small team that achieved extraordinary success at the World Bank. We took an unfunded idea and without any budget in two short years turned it into a $60 million program that spanned the globe with tens of thousands of participants. One of our primary tools were thematic groups, which were a special form of community that generated returns for the organization. This is what I call a beehive in my handbook. We spawned over 120 of these thematic groups at the World Bank.

Today, over a decade later, after our initiative has fallen out of favor multiple times, through numerous budget swings, and even multiple presidents, over half of our communities are still in existence, doing the work we initiated in the 90s. I have come to see these type of communities as the basic building blocks for massive, impressive change. The book was written to provide change agents with a quick overview of how to build beehives that will do this kind of work for them.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Building Beehives, you use the beehive (and its residents) as an extended metaphor for what will provide a decisive competitive advantage to a human organization. You suggest “four keys” to optimizing success. What are they and why is each so important?

Kahan: 1. Keep membership voluntary.

When people self-select their participation, they only choose to involve themselves if the rewards are personal. This type of motivation is qualitatively superior to responding to a mandate.

2. Let beehives be autonomous, operating outside traditional bureaucracy.

Although they receive sponsorship from the organization, high-value activity in a beehive is not bound by traditional command-and-control decision-making. The beehive uses this flexibility and freedom as one of its advantages. Where will decision-making come from, if not through traditional management? The process is developed within the beehive, shaped by the members based on their best judgment.  In some beehives a new, smaller version of command-and-control will emerge. In others there will be varieties of democratic coordination.  It is important that you allow the control structure to emerge from the members.

3. Allow beehives to be driven by members’ common concerns.

By giving expression to what people genuinely care about, community achieves its power. As members work together to contribute, they turn competition on its head. Contribution is a fundamentally different approach to getting work done than exists in most organizations.  It accentuates successful accomplishment of the group’s goals rather than individual achievement.  To do this well the group must cultivate individual talent as well as collective capacity.  This is real synergy… and it comes from giving people the opportunity to work on what they truly care about.

4. Let beehives grow ecologically.

Operating outside the organizational chart, beehives are free to cross boundaries. They will likely confer new status on people, making new types of collaboration possible, possibly even bringing together those who have not often been included yet have relevant know-how or experience.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question. How can those who read your books, Building Beehives and Getting Change Right, create their own community of practice with effective social learning systems, such as those you and Etienne Wenger endorse?

Kahan: Building a successful community requires both a deep understanding of the needs of the members and an eye towards group achievement. This means you will have to work side-by-side with your experts – not always easy personalities to manage – and your constituents. In addition, you must become adept at what I affectionately call party planning. What I mean here is you need to learn how to bring people together (online or face-to-face) in ways that they enjoy and want to engage.

In addition to my book, I recommend three other resources to help those who are serious:

1. Cultivating Communities of Practice, by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder (Harvard Business Press, 2002). An excellent book – the best on the subject

2. Learning for a Small Planet, a document by Etienne Wenger which can be found on his website, This is the best paper I have ever read on social learning systems and gives many good ideas for realizing their potential

3. the community of practice for people interested in communities of practice! If you join you will find yourself in an active learning community that appreciates dialog and sharing practices worth replicating.

Morris: As I read Building Beehives, I was reminded of two other books I also highly admire: Michael O’Malley’s The Wisdom of Bees and The Power of Collective Wisdom co-authored by Alan Briskin, Sheryl Erickson, John Ott, and Tom Callanan. You and their authors affirm core values and recommend strategies that are relevant to any organization, whatever its size and nature may be. Is that an accurate assessment?

Kahan: Yes, it is.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Getting Change Right, you focus on the most important “whats” of change initiatives and then explain with both precision and eloquence how to do what must be done to ensure the success of those initiatives. In the Introduction, you identify seven “lessons” for getting change right. Which of them seems to be the most difficult to follow? Why?

Kahan: Getting people out of their office to have conversations with people who matter on a regular basis. This falls under Lesson 1: communicate so people get it and spread it. The ‘‘it’’ is not a precooked, hard-boiled message. Instead, it is a conversation that spreads, a dialogue that arouses passion and creates its own social network. People must become adept at sparking cascades of conversations. Instead, most prefer to hang out with the people they already know, the people who come to them. With this group of the regular suspects they plot and scheme, create project plans, and generate documents, spreadsheets, and powerpoint presentations.

Why is this so hard? Here are the three tendencies I see most often hamstringing leaders:

1. It is tempting to imagine how you will create change. People get sidetracked into imagining it rather than doing it.

2. It is challenging to engage people. This requires good interpersonal skills and a willingness to repeatedly open up messy conversations. Many leaders prefer to avoid this and instead work solo or with a small group of like-minded colleagues, on dependencies, resources, and time lines.

3. People often confuse building a mental model with the real thing. They think, ‘The more we work on our plan, the more we are getting done.’ Until the rubber hits the road, you have accomplished nothing.

Morris: Based on your own experience as well as what you have observed, what seem to be the best strategies for successful social construction?

Kahan: Let me first define social construction. It is the process of building (constructing) our understanding of how the world works, and it is done collectively (social). To effectively communicate, you must understand how people assemble their understanding of the world, so you can help them to do that work with your initiative. This is how you get beyond elevator speeches, mantras, and taglines. When people truly understand what you are trying to do, they are in the best possible position to help you bring it into being.

The best strategies for success are those that bring people together in a safe, supportive environment and help them to wrestle with the tough aspects of a new effort, challenge it, and come to grips with its nuances and intricacies. In Chapter 6 of Getting Change Right, I address how to generate dramatic surges in progress. Each of the activities I recommend are based on getting social construction down so it does the job. My favorite is the TouchStone event.

The original touchstone was basanite, a smooth, black stone used to test the quality of gold and silver. It was rubbed across the precious metal, and the authenticity could be determined by the color of the streak produced. The word touchstone now means anything that tests genuineness or excellence.

Genuineness and excellence are at the heart of what drives people forward in dramatic surges of progress. They are the roots. From this powerful core, real transformation takes place. But people will want to test it. So give them something powerful to test.

For this very reason I created Touchstone Events. These are gatherings that dive deep and make contact with what is real, essential, and core to the work of change in ways that generate sudden, striking forward momentum. The purpose of a Touchstone Event is to gain a perch in a particular culture by striking a keynote, like a tuning fork, that causes the entire community to resonate in response with powerful authenticity. Done well, a Touchstone Event moves the entire community forward in one giant leap, constructing the common beliefs and understandings that sustain coherent activity into the foreseeable future.

In Chapter Six I provide extensive guidance on how to design and execute a Touchstone Event .

Morris: Most change initiatives fail and many of the barriers are cultural, the result of what James O’Toole aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” How to overcome those barriers?

Kahan: Most change initiatives fail because leaders are generally horrible at identifying and connecting with the very people whose behavior will midwife their success. For example, I am told repeatedly that middle management is the quicksand of every change initiative. It is easy to get leaders aroused, and the front lines are quick to see the benefits of new ways of working or better goals. But, middle managers are notoriously difficult to engage. In my experience this is because the attempts at engaging them always fall short. They are not treated with the same respect other constituents are accorded.

Here’s how it goes. Every change initiative is birthed through a social network. There are many different types of people (see my 14 categories of Most Valuable Players in Getting Change Right) who must change their ways of looking at the world and consequently their behavior in order for change to take root.  This includes the obvious folks – managers, front line staff, partners – and the not-so-often-engaged: detractors and competitors.  Change leaders must learn to establish who these powerful players are and reach out to them on their own terms. That is what I teach my clients to do and that is why they are successful.

Morris: How to establish an “atmosphere of genuine exploration” for various conversations that are needed to increase engagement and strengthen solidarity?

Kahan: This atmosphere extends from the interests of those who are initiating it. The reason it is often absent is because change leaders do not recognize its value. If they could see the ROI (return on investment) their genuine interest will create, they would adopt this stance much more quickly and thoroughly. Instead, they often believe it is not necessary, un-needed. This gets back to the old mindset of wanting people to motivate themselves. Where would Madison Avenue be if they took that tack? What retailer or purveyor of services leaves it to their clients to become motivated to purchase their wares? None, and neither should leaders behave that way toward their Most Valuable Players.

Morris: What are the most effective ways by which supervisors can energize their most valuable “players”?


1. Establish their impact. Make it clear to them how their effort is going to make a powerful and positive difference. Nobody likes to go to a meeting when it’s clear the outcome will not have impact. The inverse is also true. When it’s possible to change the way things done, whether through influence, policy, or access to power, everyone gets pumped.

2. Link personal passion to contribution. Find out what turns your MVPs on, and figure out how to make their participation in the change program a way to pursue that.

3. Improve your MVP’s situation. Can you wire your success to your MVP’s next promotion? How about making one of your milestones to achieve his unit’s target goals? Can you take work off his desk as a result of his participation? What about creating efficiencies that reduce his budget costs or increased performance that results in increasing his revenues?

4. Advance the growing edge of your MVP’s vocation. Every professional I have worked with takes great pride in his or her field. Create events that push the envelope in each MVP’s chosen profession. Bring in outside experts and thought leaders as well as internal gurus. Shape the topics of your events to address the most exciting developments in his domain. Publicize big names and important topics, and request your MVP’s attendance out of respect.

5. Show your appreciation. Appreciation is one of the most cost-effective (free) and underused resources available in the work world today. I am referring to taking the time to get to know what is most important in the lives of your MVPs and then expressing your personal appreciation for their efforts.


In Chapter 4, you explain how to understand what you call “the territory of change” and suggest formulating a reconnaissance report. Here’s a three-part question: Who prepares this report, what does it contain, and why is it so important to the ultimate success of change initiatives?

Kahan: Let’s start with why it’s so important. Otherwise, who cares? Here are three of the six benefits I outline in Getting Change Right:

1. It serves to document the territory of change. It is a record and a snapshot of important themes, perceptions, issues, and challenges during a particular time span.

2. It is especially helpful for addressing the elephants in the room. These are the important and obvious topics that everyone is aware of but are not discussed because they are uncomfortable to address.

3. It continues the MVPs participation and contribution. Through the interview, they begin to contribute to the initiative. This documentation of their contributions publicly acknowledges the value they’re offering .

A sample report is included in Getting Change Right. Here is the elements of a good one:

• A statement of purpose
• Description of what was done
• List of names of those who were interviewed. These may include organizational designation or partner affiliation in a larger organization. In a smaller company or insular group where the names are easily recognized, it is not necessary.

• A synthesis of what was learned


This report should be prepared by a truly neutral party. I did many while an employee so it is not necessary to bring in outside help. It is, however, critical that the source not have an agenda.

Morris: How specifically can change be accelerated through performance communities?

Kahan: Performance communities are perhaps the most powerful way to distribute and decentralize the activity of authentic change. We had our thematic groups at the World Bank. They carried the ball for us all around the world when we had no budget to subsidize nor manage them. Performance communities are groups of people acting in their own interest who further the agenda of the change initiative. They are energetic, innovative, and literally the worker bees of widespread change. There are many contributions they can make, including improving operational performance, designing new products and services, increasing engagement with stakeholders, improving client satisfaction, do an extraordinary job of communications, improve market outreach, penetrate new markets, and innovate.

Morris: What are “vertical” and “horizontal” learning and how can they be sustained in proper balance?

Kahan: Vertical learning is what most people think of learning – it refers to the vertical relationship between a teacher and student. The one with the know-how is “above” the learner.  Horizontal learning is peer-to-peer, as when everyone is at the same level of power and conversations happen “across and among” the learners.  Vertical learning is critical, but not sufficient. We all like cutting our learning curve by picking up the hard-won lessons of a veteran or expert. But, we need to temper these insights with our colleagues and co-practitioners. Here we can do the challenging and thinking out loud that helps us to build new and better practices.

Here are three ways to balance vertical and horizontal learning:

1. Combine them. Provide a presentation by the leading expert, and follow it with a loosely organized conversation in a business casual environment, like a living room or bar.

2. Hold multiple events, each with a focus on one or the other. At one session, provide an intensive learning event that exposes people to the thought leaders, giving the authority the stage and providing support materials and case studies that showcase his or her materials. Then host a peer-to-peer exchange with the express purpose of allowing people to work together to address common challenges.

3. Bring in a facilitator to design and lead a self-organizing process, such as Open Space, World Café, Appreciative Inquiry, or Future Search. These structures naturally surface opportunities for leaders to emerge (though who emerges as a leader may surprise you) as well as for participants to work hand-in-hand.

Morris: What are the most effective ways by which to breakthrough logjams?

Kahan: Be prepared. Anticipate difficulties. Accept that they are part and parcel of successful implementation. Have a plan. When they occur, go to meet them. Use them as opportunities for a breakthrough. I have designed a special event I call a Breakthrough Session which I elaborate on in Getting Change Right.

The Breakthrough Session is for difficult and challenging problems that need multiple minds and representation from multiple points in the system to address. It is not a formula that generates a solution for a particular issue. Rather, it is a formula for engaging people successfully in the tough job of collaboration so they will work together to face difficult and challenging issues.

Here is my Six-Step Breakthrough Session Protocol:

1. Get the scope right. Identify the area to address. This will determine what is relevant and what is not as you move forward, untangling interdependent relationships.

2. Identify your Most Valuable Players. Now you are looking at the group that is relevant to the logjam. Who needs to be in the room to find and initiate a real solution? This is your guest list.

3. Conduct the interviews to map the territory. Using the techniques in Chapter Four, contact people, and put together your reconnaissance report. Keep this in mind: because you are operating on a logjam, initial contact begins the process directing attention to the obstacle. Movement will begin immediately. There is a tendency to view this as preparation. In truth, the operation began with the first conversation.

4. Set up the Breakthrough Session for success. All bets ride on the outcome of the face-to-face event. Do everything in your power to ensure it is successful. Pour your heart and effort into establishing the conditions for success.

5. Execute the session for impact and outcomes. Each step of the way, do everything you can do to press for results. This requires focused attention to the group’s process. Your job is to ensure that the group takes up the challenge and deals with the issues as effectively as possible with a common intention to find the most productive way forward.

6. Be ready to provide support in follow-up. When the breakthrough occurs, it will require support to be carried out. Jump in and lend help where needed.

Morris: What is WorkLifeSuccess and how can it be achieved and then sustained?

Kahan: Every change stems from the insights, actions, and bold acts of an individual.

Change leaders require a customized approach to self-care. Their ability to pull it off has immediate and profound consequences for the quality of change leadership they provide. Their job is unique. In contrast to those carrying out predefined work, they put their efforts into shifting the status quo, arousing and inspiring peers, marshaling collective intelligence, and facilitating a coordinated response from disparate parties, all the while staying in touch with changing circumstances and shifting tactics to maintain strategy and achieve results. This requires a very effective form of self-care.

All change leaders I have worked with live and breathe their work. They think about it all the time, pulling together lessons from every aspect of their lives and applying them to help with moving things forward. This does not mean they give up the rest of their lives. This does not mean that their health suffers, their families never see them, their hearts are closed and their bodies exhausted, or they have no fun. In fact, among the best leaders, the opposite is true.

Strong change leaders sustain their vision and energy by improving their health, having fun, pouring their energy into other worthy causes, creating special interactions with their families, having deep relationships with their partners, pursuing spiritual development, and cultivating their energy so they can give their best. This is in fact what makes it possible for them to get change right, challenge after challenge, rising more than they are pushed down, and prevailing to see results achieved.

It’s a tall order for anyone. Those who are at the growing edge of change know that it requires significant strength and even greater mental clarity. They dedicate themselves to achieve inner and outer energy and power so they can rise to meet the demands of their work.

I call this high-spirited, high-performance state WorkLifeSuccess.

The ability to be high functioning arises from having a mind-set that knows optimal performance is reliant on total health. Job No. 1 is to care for yourself, putting and keeping you in the best possible state to meet challenges and succeed. That said, your well-being is interrelated with the comfort, health, and happiness of those around you. People are fundamentally social creatures, and those we relate to profoundly influence us. This is key to a sustainable approach to WorkLifeSuccess.

Morris: Which leadership challenges are unique to change initiatives?

Kahan: The most important is learning how to navigate a changing environment. It can be literally disorienting. That is why it is critical to have a small cadre of people you can depend on to help you navigate an environment in transition. A few of these people need to be inside the change program. A few need to be outside. A trusty consultant like myself is one of the best investments a leader can make… assuming they are planning for success, because that’s when the map starts to transmute and an outside advisor can make all the difference.

Leading change is demanding, requiring that you juggle an overwhelming number of balls simultaneously. It is easy to get out of balance, drop a ball, or become distracted by a crisis. One of the most effective ways that change leaders compensate is by bringing in an outside expert—an advisor with extensive experience who can provide solutions other leaders have used successfully and help you with strategic reflection.

*     *     *

Your are cordially invited to contact Seth Kahan directly ( and/or his home office: (301) 229-2221) and check out the wealth of resources at these websites:

Seth Kahan on Fast Company:

Seth Kahan in the Washington Post:


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1 Comment

  1. Seth Kahan on getting change and innovation right on November 27, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    […] Meanwhile, please click here to read my interview of him. […]

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