Shawn Hunter: An interview by Bob Morris

HunterShawn Hunter is Executive Producer & Vice President for Leadership Solutions at Skillsoft. For over a decade Hunter has interviewed, collaborated with, and filmed, hundreds of leading business authors, executives, and business school faculty in an effort to assemble video learning solutions, as both an entrepreneur and later as a product developer for Skillsoft. Hunter originally co-founded Targeted Learning Corporation with his father Hal Hunter, Ph.D., which was acquired by Skillsoft in February 2007. His book, Out Think: How Innovative Leaders Drive Exceptional Outcomes, was published by Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Brand in 2013.

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

Hunter: It has to be my family. I learn more about life, myself, others… than anywhere else. Our kids, in particular, astonish me every day with their capabilities and insight. Kids are far more capable than we often give them credit for.

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.

Hunter: Probably starting and building our first company 20 years ago. It taught me what’s possible. I read a book once called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying and in it, the author Bronnie Ware describes one of the top five as “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” After the experience of creating something of value from scratch I realized it’s important to follow your own values in life.

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

Hunter: I went to a liberal arts residential college in North Carolina called St. Andrews, one that most of your readers have never heard of. It was a magnificent experience. I took a variety of classes, did a lot of theatre work, helped start a rugby club, and made some remarkable lifelong friends who are all still close today. Now our group is flung across the globe from Japan to China to Hong Kong, Canada, South Africa, the States and elsewhere, but we have done a good job of staying in touch and keeping our families together periodically throughout the years.

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?

Hunter: It’s not as mysterious, complicated and impenetrable as I first thought. The more I learn about excellence in leadership, team development, product design, organizational culture…and more, the more I discover it’s common sense. However, as Voltaire once observed, “Common sense is not so common.” There has always existed this gap between what we know we should do, and what we actually do.

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

Hunter: Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn is nice. It’s about self-discovery and finding truth in the world. It’s a fun, fast read.

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.”

Hunter: That’s perfect. Indeed, the best leaders give the ownership to those throughout the organization. So in the end, people feel a great sense of connectedness to the end result.

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

Hunter: This line about “beware of those who find it” really resonates with me. I become wary of people who proclaim to have discovered immutable truths, or present their ideas and models as if there are no other possibilities, or ways of thinking and considering things. To express ideas coherently for an audience we certainly need a shared language, but learning is a constant journey.

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

Hunter: Of course. But this is hard, particularly when starting out and developing yourself, and your own identity. Your own distinct voice takes time to mature and develop. Early on, there is much to be learned by emulating behaviors, but ultimately our greatest strength comes from developing our own personal identity. Rick Warren once taught me the etymology of the word integrity: it is from the Latin integer, meaning oneness, whole. That is, true integrity means not partitioning yourself into different personas in different circumstances, but bringing your whole self to bear in any occasion.

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

Hunter: Isn’t that the truth! I learned a related expression from Marshall Goldsmith years ago. He likes to say, “Stop adding too much value.” That is, sometimes in our need to be helpful, contributive, and recognized by our teammates as valuable, we keep upping the ante by throwing new ideas out. And pretty soon the idea, the project, the effort has become an unmanageable mess because everyone wants a hand in tweaking it. Sometimes simple is good. Simple is enough.

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?

Hunter: What occurs to me from this brief excerpt is differentiating between above-the-waterline, and below-the-waterline kinds of mistakes. That is, if we make a mistake and blow a hole in the boat above the waterline, we’ve made a mistake but not the kind that will sink the boat. A below-the-waterline mistake jeopardizes the integrity of the enterprise. My advice would be to encourage mistakes that result in learning opportunities that don’t put the enterprise at genuine risk. And it’s a leader’s job to help people understand the difference.

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

Hunter: I think it’s a problem pervasive among middle managers who have been promoted with an expectation they will contribute excellence, yet don’t know how to manage people. Those are two very different skills sets. I think once you reach C-level executives, who have arrived near the top, they are making positive contribution. These senior-level executives are good at identifying talent around them and delegating tasks, decisions, and –importantly – accountability for results. I think the problem is more pervasive in middle management.

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

Hunter: I love stories. We have learned that stories are what people remember…and cherish. That’s why the greatest religious leaders throughout history used parables to share their insights. So the key is to use [begin italics] strategic [end italics] stories – stories that illustrate how people in the given organization behave, how they conduct themselves, make decisions, interact with customers, develop products, etc. The key is to dramatize those target behaviors with a narrative that’s [begin italics] anchored in human experience [end italics].

Numbers, data, charts, bullet points – that’s all the necessary supporting back end analysis, but it’s strategic, emotionally powerful stories that move masses.

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?

Hunter: It’s important to recognize leading change is an act of courage. I would advise people that when they get that feeling that they’re a little afraid – that they might be in over their head – to relax and think instead that maybe they might be doing just the right thing to push the edges of their comfort and grow. A key characteristic of happy flourishing people is that they have the ability to turn negative stress into positive pressure. I heard once, “Monet was a radical before he was a calendar.”

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Out Think. When and why did you decide to write it?

Hunter: After we sold the company in 2007, I started blogging along with millions of others. And probably like millions of others, I thought people would flock to follow my blog. Totally wrong. No one paid any attention, but it did give me the necessary discipline to keep writing. Since I had to keep this hungry blog alive, I kept writing and writing about the interviews we were conducting, the collaborations we were having with various executives and thought-leaders. Originally I called the blog LottaGuru. After a few years I started to notice consistent themes emerging throughout these conversations. My goal was to try to synthesize all of these many discussions in to a coherent narrative.

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

Hunter: The biggest thing was that the original manuscript had very little of me in it – very little of my own identity. My editors and early readers all suggested that although it’s very informative and valuable to reference various executives and hotshot thinkers, the reader wasn’t really going to connect with the book unless they understood who I was. That was the tough part – I started writing about building the company with my Dad, writing about my Mom’s cancer, about applying the ideas in the book to coaching soccer with our kids, etc…I started incorporating my life in a way which tries to demonstrate these are holistic ideas. That journey of applying and sharing the personal side of behavioral change was challenging and rewarding.

Morris: Please explain the reference to “marketquake.”

Hunter: It’s a word I coined to simply mean today’s business marketplace is in such turmoil and change that it’s as if an earthquake has upended the economic environment. With the speed of technological advance, big data, seamless sourcing globally, emerging demographics – all of these factors have contributed to the increasingly frictionless way in which small upstart companies can enter previously impenetrable markets.

Look at almost any market in which previously large-cap companies owned the space – from banking, insurance, healthcare, cutting edge technology, and more – now little companies sourcing expertise around the world can competitively enter big markets. It’s an exciting time and often scares big companies quite a bit.

Morris: There are, and I now quote you, “several emerging ideas in developing twenty-first century leadership methods, mindsets, behaviors, and beliefs about driving engagement, building deep collaboration, and deviating from the norm onto new paths toward innovation.”

Here’s my question: Which of these emerging developments is most promising? Please explain.

Hunter: At the moment I’m captivated by what’s possible from a mindset perspective. If you look at what we’re learning from inducing FLOW states in athletes and creative types, and then translating it to the business world, it’s really exciting. Flow is this concept developed decades ago by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and others. What’s exciting is that by immersing in this state of focus, control, we’re making huge leaps in what’s possible. Start by looking at what athletes are doing in surfing, skiing, snowboarding – the level of change, the nature and extent of performance improvement.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of an “Out Think Leader”?

Hunter: I’m reminded of a defining interview in the book with the President of Ingersoll-Rand, India. Venekesh Valluri said the three defining characteristics of a 21st century leader are:

1. The ability to scan a constantly moving stream of technologies and information and pick out the meaningful trends in their businesses;

2. The ability to conceptualize these identified new technologies and capabilities into innovations that are right for your market;

And 3. The strength and capability to lead a team to execution.

It’s the last part that often eludes people. Coming up with great ideas isn’t uncommon. What’s uncommon is the ability to both clearly explain that idea, and lead a team to a concerted execution of that vision.

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 suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of these passages.

Morris: Leave People More Energized (38-44)

Hunter: It’s a binary question: Do you leave people with more, or less energy, after they interact with you. A professor and researcher at the University of Virginia named Rob Cross interviewed and identified the traits and characteristics of energy creators and their impact on productivity, culture, mood-state in the organization, and innovative capacity. Not surprisingly, those who create and give energy to others were consistently sought out over de-energizers. According to Cross and his colleagues, top energizers can create and communicate a compelling vision of the future, convey that others are making meaningful contributions, identify and convey a clear sense of progress, and fully engage in each interaction. It has a huge impact on accelerating innovation in organizations.

Morris: Exercise Divergent Thinking (49-54)

Hunter: One of the main points of the book is that we need to ultimately converge on the intersection of different ideas to create innovation. But before we can do that, we have to first diverge into different environments to find novel value. The great theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once said, “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird.” His point is that, once we label and partition a thing or an idea, it can curtail our sense of discovery and curiosity to learn more.

Morris: Choose Optimism (54-60)

Hunter: It counts for a lot. And it’s a choice. There’s some great research showing that often those in situations of greatest adversity have the ability to develop the most optimistic mindset.

Morris: Deal with Innovation Blockers (79-83)

Hunter: Yes, in every organization of course we will find naysayers and blockers. I have a few tips on either co-opting them to your point of view, or simply removing them from the equation.

Morris: Embrace Social Risk (115-122)

Hunter: I constantly interact with organizations that have a low threshold for risk, and emphasize their risk management policies. Yet want great leaps in their product and service innovation. I think it’s important for managers to remember there’s a difference between operational kinds of risk that can jeopardize the core business, and the kind of social risk we should be encouraging in people in the organization. Different ways of interacting with customers, different ways of performing tasks, allocating their time, etc… can have nothing to do with changing the companies mission or deliverable, and yet can increase the quality and engagement of those in the organization.

To encourage social risk, I urge supervisors to identify and publicly praise acts of positive deviation. When someone does something differently – takes a different path – to achieve a superior outcome, leaders should identify and publicly reward that behavior. They should also praise those whose prudent risks result in the aforementioned “above-the-waterline” failures. In fact, I dislike the word “failure” when valuable information is gained from such efforts.

Morris: Borrow Brilliance (151-156)

Hunter: I believe strongly in this idea that we are all standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s important to recognize and respect that tomorrow’s innovation is predicated on the ideas available today. Once we recognize the arc of brilliance, I think we can better conceptualize the intersection of two brilliant ideas. I’m alluding to the expression “mash-up” I use in the book to refer to the convergence of two disparate ideas to create something new with recognized value.

Morris: When to Trust, But Qualify, Your Gut Instinct (180-184)

Hunter: This section came out of heavy reading of Daniel Kahneman, and an interview with Jill Klein from Melbourne Business School. I thought it was an important section on decision-making.

Morris: Why is developing a “prepared mind” so important, especially now when change is the only constant and it occurs faster and with greater impact than at any prior time that I can remember?

Hunter: One’s ability to conceive of our talents, imagination, creativity, focus, as elastic and malleable with effort is critical. If we get stuck in the belief that our capabilities are fixed and immutable, that’s the beginning of a stagnating mindset.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Out Think and is now determined to accelerate development of innovative leadership at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Hunter: In the book, I write about applying these ideas in three different domains – first with yourself; then with immediate teammates, colleagues, peers, community members; and finally at scale affecting change in whole divisions, organizations and communities. But it starts with the self.

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 Out Think, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Hunter: For small companies, I really recommend the ideas around building signature – or unique – solutions that reflect your own strengths and convictions. It’s pretty easy as a small company to get focused on emulating bigger competitors and trying to beat them at their own game. My recommendation is to win new market share by playing your own game.

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Shawn cordially invites you to check out the resources at his website. Here’s a link.

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