William Seidman: A second interview by Bob Morris

SeidmanDr. William (Bill) Seidman has worked as a manager or consultant with many large and small organizations including Hewlett-Packard, Jack in the Box, Intel, Tektronix, CVS Pharmacies, and Sears. As a recognized expert on leadership in high-performing organizations, he contributes an in-depth understanding of the processes required to discover and use expert wisdom to create extraordinary organizational performance. He is co-founder and chief executive officer of Cerebyte, Inc., co-author with Rick Grbavac of Strategy to Action in Ten Days and then The Star Factor: Discover What Your Top Performers Do Differently–and Inspire a New Level of Greatness in All, published by AMACOM in 2013. The Star Factor presents Affirmative Leadership, a methodology for discovering what your top performers do differently – and inspiring a new level of greatness in all.

[Note: The Star Factor has won the silver medal for the leadership category of Axion Best Business Books.]

Seidman earned his doctorate at Stanford University where he did a study of how management training effected the development of managers’ attitudes, cognitive patterns and behaviors. As part of this study, he developed a technique for analyzing management down to the single word and action level. This technique is the basis for understanding what makes a star performer so extraordinary and understanding the newest neuroscience for elevating everyone else’s performance to the level of the stars.

He lives in Lake Oswego, Oregon, with his wife. He enjoys traveling, golf and spending time with his three kids.

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Morris: When and why did you and Rick decide to write The Star Factor and do so in collaboration?

Seidman: It was the convergence of two factors. First, after years of development, the Affirmative Leadership process had reached a maturity where it was producing the same excellent results in terms of participant response and impact on business outcomes every time, regardless of the organization or industry.

We felt that the underlying methodology was now strong enough to share with others. Second, at about the same time, three books were published – DRiVE by Pink, Your Brain at Work by Rock and The Power of Positive Deviance by Pascale, Sternin and Sternin — that legitimized different aspects of the methodology. Although these came after we had proven the methodology, they independently supported the role of positive deviants (our stars), the importance of purpose and mastery and the connection of all of these to the neuroscience of learning.

By connecting all of these through a applied methodology, an organization could get performance that was literally beyond what they previously thought possible. Our compelling purpose became to share something we believed would improve people’s lives, organizations and ultimately society.

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

Seidman: The single most “head-snapping” revelation that came from writing the book was the importance and value of self-directed learning. We realized that one of the most important characteristics of the stars was that they were fanatical learners. We also realized that the way we were doing the Launch Workshops and the Guided Practicum – particularly the emphasis on people adapting the learning tasks to generate enhanced value — were a significant learning and leadership breakthrough.

It was transformational for us to see people’s reactions to true self-directed learning. There was a real joy at the re-awaking of their natural, human desire to learn. Put together, we realized that the complexity of today’s world requires leaders to be great learners. You simply can’t be a great leader without being a great [begin italics] learner [end italics], which was a new idea to us and, as far as we could see, a new idea in the literature on leadership.

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

Seidman: About 75% of the book is how we originally envisioned it. The two big changes were the emergence of self-directed learning as a core theme. We also had planned to do a lot more on the implications of Affirmative Leadership programs for executive decision-making. One of the effects of Affirmative Leadership programs is to illuminate disconnects and other types of conflicts in organizations. This can be incredibly valuable for executive teams if they accept the information and use it for better decision-making. But it can be destructive if the executives reject, ignore or overtly suppress the information. We wanted to talk a lot more about how executives can use the issues that bubble-up from Affirmative Leadership programs to be better leaders themselves. But this added 10,000 more words than we were allowed by the publisher. Maybe that will be our next book.

Morris: As I indicate in my review of the book 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 several passages.

First, The Affirmative Leadership Methodology (Pages 6-9)

Seidman: This is the only methodology for cultural development and change leadership that we know of that consistently and systematically works. As one executive put it: “you mean you can generate levels of performance in six weeks that I couldn’t achieve in five years?”

Yes, because of the synergy between all of the different elements and the underlying science tells us precisely how to drive these changes. This gives organizations capabilities that are quite revolutionary. The most important impacts are in some ways the least tangible, though. When an organization uses Affirmative Leadership for multiple roles, the culture visibly changes. It is just a better, more confident, more productive place at which to work. You can feel the difference and it feels great.

Morris: Your Stars (18-21)

Seidman: They are just great people. Not only are they consistently the top performers on a variety of metrics and perspectives, but they are just plain great people. We hesitated to use the term “stars” because that term is so often associated with egotistical, self-centered people. Our stars are invariably humble, gracious and considerate, in part because their deep commitment to achieving a significant purpose makes them very aware of how little they know and are able to accomplish. The beauty of the methodology is that it causes what is truly the best in people to surface and this then drives creating better places to work.

Morris: Unconscious Competence, and, Engaging Stars (24-28)

Seidman: We often see organizations trying to create best practices through observation and interviews focused on what people are doing. These approaches consistently miss what is most important, and unconscious about the stars, which is how they think. Everything that makes them a star derives from an unconscious sense of deep purpose so you have to start with understanding that sense of purpose – and nourishing  — to learn what makes them extraordinary. Fortunately, if you ask them about their purpose in the way we do in the Wisdom Discovery, they just love talking about it. They become so engaged that we have to be very assertive to drive them to solidify their purpose into a written statement.

Morris: Path to Mastery — The Big Steps (35-40). Which seems to be most difficult to complete? Why?

Seidman: There is a very interesting and important pattern to the Path to Mastery/Big Steps, regardless of the organization or role being developed. The Path always starts with reinforcing the values around the purpose, moves into reinforcing the functional basics of a role (i.e. ensuring that people can do the core job well), followed by expanding horizons such as becoming more of a corporate or even societal actor. Everyone loves the first Big Step.

For new people or people in a new role, they love the fundamentals of their work, but tend to struggle with the being stretched in the later Big Steps. We prepare the coaches to provide more support for these people in the later Big Steps. For experienced people, they sometimes feel like the fundamentals are a little too basic for them, even though we keep telling them to drive “deeper and wider.” However, they love the stretch Big Steps at the end. Most of our groups now go on to the Sustainer program, so they must like it.

Morris: Converting Raw Experiences Into Effective Learning Tasks 50-57)

Seidman: There is an art form to doing this. The idea is to have people do their normal work but in a different way that is much more likely to give them a growth experience similar to what the stars had. The system is designed to drive multiple explorations of that growth experience to ensure that the desired learning actually occurs. It is rarely telling people anything, but trusting that people will find the right learnings themselves when they try doing their work and doing it better, discuss it with their learning groups, and consistently document in a journal what they learned, not what they did, but what they learned. However, it is impossible to write a learning exercise that works for everyone, so we don’t even try. The learning tasks are designed to focus attention, but with the primary emphasis is on adapting the task to make it valuable, which causes people to find the most appropriate opportunities to learn.

Morris: Measuring Success (57-59)

Seidman: We find that executives who spend a lot of time and energy asking about measurement are usually looking for a reason to block a change initiative. We came to this conclusion because, as we got better about correlating to business outcome measures, we would say to them: “We will use whatever measures you are currently using to gauge performance.” About 90% of the time, they don’t have any measures and don’t plan to create any. However, they have learned that asking people about measurement is usually a way to stop a program without having to be definitive. They are incredibly surprised when we say – “Glad you asked about measurement, because Affirmative Leadership encompasses five levels of measurement beginning with a way to evaluate the applied learning experience of each participant and ending with correlations between progress on the Big Steps and Tasks to business outcome measures.” This tends to re-direct the conversation rather quickly.

So few organizations and roles have good performance measures, and they are so hard to define and gather the data for, that most organizations measure through a “Demonstration of Capability.” This uses a technique I developed for my doctoral dissertation that allows people to measure attitudes and behaviors down to the single word or action. Using the technique it is possible to quickly – it takes about 1-2 days of effort– develop a statistically reliable and valid means of measuring alignment with and application of the stars’ wisdom. This is where we got the statistic that 90+% of people in Affirmative Leadership programs demonstrate the same attitudes and capabilities as the stars, because that number (actually it is closer to 95%) came from formal and “lite” certifications of demonstrated capabilities.

Morris: The Neuroscience of Learning (70-73). In your opinion, what is the most significant revelation? Please explain.

Seidman: I don’t think there is any one revelation that matters, but it is instead a cluster of four taken together that changes the way we think about learning. The first of these is the neuroscience of positive images. The neuroscience shows that the brain responds differently to positive images than to negatives – no surprise there – but what is important is that the positive image responses create a state where people are more open to new ideas and learn faster. The star’s purpose is the ultimate positive image.

The second area of neuroscience is about the impact of writing on resistance to change. The science shows that the act of physically writing something draws on portions of the brain associated with control. As these portions of the brain become active, portions of the brain associated with fear and resistance become less active. Having people work with and re-write the stars purpose therefore has the double effect of positive images and change to the allocation of neural resources.

The third area is that social learning is very different that individual learning. The science has shown that group learning releases neurochemical associated with enhanced openness to learning too.

Once we have combined these three, engagement and learning soar. But we aren’t done, because the fourth area of neuroscience – actually the most fundamental – is that all learning is the wiring together of neurons. They wire together through repetition. While each area is important by itself, by having people interact with the purpose, apply the purpose in realistic setting, discuss in a social group their experiences and write about it, you get a combination of factors that creating learning at extraordinary levels.

Morris: Building Motivation Through Collective Purpose (77-84)

Seidman: I defer to Dan Pink on this one. His book, DRiVE, which is a summary of the latest research on motivation, is, in my opinion, one of the most important business books ever. He makes a strong case for the importance of purpose as a key motivator. However, I think the importance of purpose as a motivator goes farther then he goes, because he treats purpose as one of three key motivators, as though all of them are equal. In our experience, they aren’t equal at all.

Collective purpose is the driver of the other forms of motivation so by working to build a collective purpose, the organization creates the foundation for greatness. We have validated this perspective again and again with a simple question to people. We ask them to describe their most satisfying work experience and invariably they describe working with a closely knit team to achieve something meaningful.

I want to emphasize that the idea of “collective” is critically mportant. This is not a CEO or executive telling everyone about their mission. It is instead listening to collective wisdom of the stars, formulating it into the purpose statement we describe, and then proliferating throughout the organization using the Launch Workshops and Guided Practicum. However, executives have to trust that this will align with the best interests of the organization, and it almost always does.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question: How best to determine a purpose that can achieve buy-in at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise?

Seidman: Start with the stars, particularly if you do Affirmative Leadership for many roles, and it will organically produce the desired alignment. Look at the examples of sales and service in Chapters 10 and 11 and you will see how the alignment occurs naturally and easily. But, and this is a big “but,” this requires trust in the stars and the process.

Morris: Principles: Defining Greatness in the First Big Step (89-92)

Seidman: I would pose a slightly different question about the Principles in general and the ones supporting the first Big Step specifically. The real issue is about the value that the principles create and then sustain. My co-author, Rick Grbavac, contends that the Principles are the most important part of the entire process because they are the true, specific wisdom of the stars. The Principles reflect how people should think, BEFORE they get into completing the exercises. This is most critical for the first Big Step, because this one frames everything that comes later.

Morris: Basic Scaling Infrastructure (133-136)

Seidman: I think that this is another of the more important, less immediately obvious benefits of Affirmative Leadership. Every person, office, market…you name it… thinks it is unique and, to a certain degree, and in fact is unique. By creating at least some substantive grassroots control, everyone feels honored and there is much wider and deeper acceptance. In turn, once there is an infrastructure of Affirmative Leadership, particularly acceptance of the stars’ best practices, coaching and the Do-Discuss-Anchor process, other changes can be accomplished, often with startling speed and greater impact. We saw this happen at a global technology company that was able to go from Discovery in response to a new significant competitive challenge to a global cultural change in only 14 days, which is very fast – certainly faster than any other approach we know.

Morris:  Wisdom Discovery (174-185)

Seidman: The Wisdom Discovery is the starting point for all that is good in the process. The star’s wisdom is always amazing. One of the interesting aspects is that people can really detect the difference between the star’s wisdom and content provided by outsiders, corporate or others, that don’t actually do the job. There is something about the way the stars think and talk that creates a resonance with others in the same role that just doesn’t occur when someone other than the stars dominates. When the stars really get engaged it is magical in terms of their great attitude and the content they generate.

Morris: What are its defining characteristics of an Exemplary Culture (214-219)?

Seidman: This is one of the most important ideas in the book. An organization’s culture determines so much about what we feel about our jobs and ourselves. We talk about creating a culture of greatness where everyone strives for being extraordinary around a common powerful purpose. This may sound cute, but cultures of greatness – ones that promote the best in all of us – are great cultures. They simply are wonderful places to work. Their defining characteristics are alignment around a compelling purpose, fair process as a way of living, and a constant drive for mastery. You know without question when you are in such a culture – and, unfortunately, you know when you are not.

Morris:  In my review of The Star Factor for various Amazon websites, I suggest that sustaining greatness, for individuals as well as for organizations, is a far greater challenge than is achieving it. Those who read this book would be well-advised to keep two observations in mind. First, from Marshall Goldsmith: “What got you here won’t get you there.” And then from Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

What are your own thoughts about all this?

Seidman: I think that this is old world thinking based on the failures of traditional learning and leadership methodologies. In contrast, one of the greatest attributes of the stars is that they are driven self-directed learners. They are always hungry for new ideas and are early adopters of change. They don’t see this as risky, just what you must do to achieve the given purpose.

When we talk about having others think and act like the stars, we include this passion for learning and openness to new ideas. The later Big Steps are always about developing a habit of learning to stretch boundaries – so we teach people how to be forward thinkers as part of the stars wisdom. However, we have to teach people to be better learners not just directly from the stars wisdom but in the learning methodology itself. The sections on adapting learning tasks to “Make it Work for You” – our slogan – are meant to teach people to truly own their learning.

It usually takes about two months for people to believe we are serious – we have to overcome long histories of passive learning environments – but once it takes, there is no going back. When you look at the complete program, you can see that this is all about teaching people “how to fish” – not just giving them some short-term skills, a fish or two to get by – in our fast-paced, complex world. This means we are consciously and systematically teaching people new habits as well as new skills that enable them to avoid the problems associated with these quotes.

Morris: When viewing a workplace as a garden, great leaders “grow” the people for whom they are responsible. What is the “green thumb” that all great leaders possess?

Seidman: There are several that all work together. First there is fair process and trust. The leader must believe that every one of their people has the potential for being extraordinary. Second there is alignment around a compelling collective purpose. This isn’t some lame top-down mission statement but something that everyone agrees is worth accomplishing. Third, apply the principles of Affirmative Leadership! I had to sneak that in.

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

Seidman: What does it feel like to be an Affirmative Leader, whatever your role? It feels great, in a very profound way. There is a deep feeling of confidence in your ability to achieve something extraordinary for yourself and for others. You know it and everyone around you knows it. It is the feeling that we are always becoming the best of ourselves. And it is really wonderful to spend time with such people.

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Here’s a link to my first interview of Bill

Here is a link to my review of The Star Factor.

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

YouTube video link

Cerebyte link

NeuroLeadership Institute link

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