“Disrupt Yourself Or Be Disrupted”: The Key To Being Innovative

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Kevin Kruse: What are the skills you need to be successful in the future? Hello everyone, I'm Kevin Kruse. Welcome to The LEADx Show, where we help you to stand out and to get ahead. If you're the kind of person who helps others to be successful, then you'll want to take one minute and leave a rating and two sentence review on iTunes for The LEADx Show. That's how we're going to build up our audience, that's how we're going to build the LEADx family. 

Today on the show, you're going to hear from someone whose job it is to reinvent leadership development. We talk about the new competencies managers need to be successful, the way 30-year-old new managers like to receive training, and her best piece of advice for a first-time manager. Our challenge of the day is going to be thriving on change, being agile. So, here's the challenge. I want you to think of three things that have changed recently, or are changing in your organization.

Maybe they're rolling out a new software package that you have to learn and use. Maybe you're relocating down into the basement, your whole office has to move. Maybe you got a new boss, maybe your role has changed. Think about one thing, the one thing that's changed, that's causing you the most distress, that's bumming you out, weighing you down. Then ask for this one thing. Is it going against your values? Like, if this change in your organization goes against your values, then that's a big problem. You need to fight back on that change or move to a different group or leave the organization. You can't be living against your values. 

But, in most cases we might not like change but it's not going against our values, and I encourage you as part of this challenge to then think, “Look, nobody's making this decision to be bad on purpose, to be dumb on purpose, so what good is supposed to come from it?” What good will come to you a little bit further down the road? What benefits are going to come to your team a little bit further down the road? What's the benefit to the company? If you can focus on this eventual benefit, it might make this short-term easier to get through. 

If you're a leader, remember, you're paid to lead, you're paid to represent the interests of the company. Focus on this ultimate benefit, perhaps not to them, perhaps not to your team, but to the company. Keep the focus on the benefit to the company, and people will find a way to get through.  

Our quote of the day is from none other than Albert Einstein. “Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” Great classic quote, Einstein quote. It reminds me of the management guru Jim Collins. He wrote “Good To Great” and some other good books, great books. He said something about his life changed when a professor told him, when he was young, he said, “Jim, don't try so hard to be interesting. Just be interested.” That's what I've found to be true, as well. The more I'm interested in others, the better things are for everybody. 

Now, our guest today is a Senior Vice President at Skillsoft, where she leads the development of leadership training. She's kind of been charged with reinventing not just the curriculum, but how it's delivered. She's also an adjunct professor at the Boston College Carroll School of Management. Our guest is Heide Abelli. Heide, welcome to the show.

Heide Abelli: Thank you.

Kruse: Now, I have a tradition on the show where I always ask the same first question. It's because I believe all of our failures are just stepping stones to something else, even if we don't know what that's going to be at the time. So, tell me a story. What's one of your best failures and what'd you learn from it?

Abelli: Great question. I'm also a believer that we learn a tremendous amount from failures and mistakes. When I was a second-year business school student, I had a great idea for a new business, and I actually was lucky enough to receive funding for that idea from a mid-sized media company, and so after I graduated, I was eagerly working away at putting all the details and all the analysis together to create this perfect business plan.

While I was independently twirling away on making this business plan perfect, I didn't realize that I really only had about nine months of runway before the board was going to expect some real progress, right? So, after about nine months, the board actually decided to fund another idea.

Kruse: Wow.

Abelli: Pulled the plug on investing on this particular idea, and while at the time obviously, it was painful because I was very excited about the opportunity, I learned some valuable lessons from it. One of them is that you can analyze to death. I'm a very analytical person, but at some point, you really have to shift into the mode of prototyping and getting something tangible out into the marketplace so that you can validate the idea. You can get reactions to the idea, and this is actually something that with everything that's happening with digital transformation, is so critical.

The idea of experimenting, the idea of early prototyping a minimum viable product, all of that I think is gaining tremendous ground, and for very good reason. I happened to learn that lesson very early on, but what I needed to be doing was getting the idea into the market for validation and testing, so that the board could continue to have confidence in supporting me and the idea.

The other thing that I learned was I was working very much as an individual on this idea, and what I should have been more focused on was pulling together. I had a couple of people working with me, but I needed to be pulling together a team of people that had complementary skillsets, capabilities, and experience. Because you don't get it alone in life, and particularly in the business context. One the most critical things you can do as a manager, as a leader, is to put together a team that complements you very well.

Find folks who have strengths that you don't have, who have experience that you're lacking, who can bring all of that together. That really creates a powerful ability to get something off the ground faster, and with more success. So, those are a couple lessons that I learned and one thing that I'll say, because I now try to tell managers and leaders that, “You know what? Failure is inevitable. Mistakes are inevitable.” What's really, really important from my perspective, if you're a manager or leader, is not to overly criticize someone for a failure or making a mistake, but to ask two questions.

I think there's tremendous power in these two questions. One is, “What were you trying to accomplish and what would you do differently next time?” If we can focus on those two questions rather than demotivating somebody because we're focusing too much on what happened that maybe now can't be changed. Let's focus on what we were trying to accomplish and what we would do differently next time.

That has also stayed with me through the years as a manager and a leader, and it's really strong advice that I give anyone, because we do have to experiment more and more today, and that means that there will be failure in the process. Mistakes will be made. It's what we learn from that that's important, not berating somebody over those mistakes.

Kruse: Yeah. What I love is the distinction of, “What did you learn?” Because you're right, everybody's trying to push innovation, creativity, and yet that's not going to happen if you're going to get slapped in one way or another with your failures. But by looking at everything as an experiment, but making sure there's that learning, that takeaway for the setup of that next experiment, then it changes the whole game. 

You've obviously been a leader yourself, manager, for many years, very successful career. And this is unique in that your focus has been on management development, leadership content, for so long. What's one piece of advice you would always tell a first-time manager? Someone young just starting out. What's your go-to advice to a first-time manager?

Abelli: I would say a couple things. One of my key pieces of advice is you need to build relationships with key people early on. Where I have seen people falter is when they have not actively built strong relationships with their direct reports, with their supervisor, their boss, and their peers. You need a supportive coalition to be successful in the workplace, and if you don't really invest in building those relationships early on, you'll find that the lack of that supportive coalition really gets in the way.

Another thing that I really emphasize to first time managers in particular is, “You know what? Ask everyone around you for honest feedback.” It's at that point when you're still pretty malleable and you can change your leadership behavior, but you'll only achieve that if you actively seek feedback and then you actively work on changing, right? So, do I listen enough in meetings? Am I a strategic thinker? Get over every piece of feedback that you can. Make this a relentless mission of yours, because where I've seen people be successful, it's because they sought that feedback, they listened to it, and they acted on it.

Then, over time, they were able to build up those strengths and those capabilities and became great leaders as a result of that. So, I really think that's important, and we could talk about learning to embrace failure and you know what? I do think that going forward, leaders are going to need to be able to experiment more and take these risks, be more agile, because you also have to worry about having some early wins as a manager. That does require you to experiment a bit, right? And to do something different, to do something new, and innovative. So, to secure those early wins, you have to adopt a behavior of, “I'm going to try this and I'm going to experiment a bit.”

Then, the other thing that I would say is find out what kind of development resources your organization has that can help you develop professionally as a manager and leader. One of my pet peeves about the leadership development industry is that so much money is reserved for development of very, very senior leaders, and not enough is invested in developing first time managers, and people who are earlier in their career.

You know, very senior leaders are more set in their ways. They've been leading for 20, 30, 40 years even. Whereas, managers can really start to form those good leadership behaviors very early in their career, and I just wish more development went there, and I'm actively working on solving that problem in my role at Skillsoft, but find out what resources out are available to you, and develop a habit of being a passionate learner. Because that's another thing that's going to be key going forward. People really need to become passionate about continuous skill and capability development, and continuous learning. That's going to be a requirement for success for everybody. Manager and individual contributor, going forward.

Kruse: Well, you hit on one of my hot buttons. I go crazy when I see these usually large organizations who are willing to spend money on a very expensive executive coach for their most senior level, or send people to a $50,000, one-year certificate management course at a big university, but they won't spend $100 or $200 on training for their first-time manager. Whatever it is. I'm just thinking, “It's too late, it's too late. You've got to get some of that early on.” 

You talk about the leadership development industry. What are you seeing as emerging trends? Either from the offerings, or even from the student side? Because as I think about it, I'm 50 years old now, but a first time manager today, I'm assuming is closer to 30ish and the way they've been raised with technology and mobile phones and the way they're learning, the way they're consuming content's probably different than when I was 30 years old. What are you seeing?

Abelli: Yeah. So, I think there is a change in the kinds of skills and competencies need to have now, and I'll talk about that. There's also a change in the way in which leaders want to consume leadership and development content. Let me start with what we're seeing in terms of skills and competencies. Digital transformation is really changing the kinds of competencies that leaders need to have in the workplace today.

The ability to lead change, to drive forward a change initiative, to help a team be resilient through change, is a really critical capability that leaders need to have today, and it sometimes can be a very hard one to be good at. But I think any organization who doesn't assume the change cycles that are going to be occurring in the organization from here on out, given how rapidly technology is evolving, is underestimating the requirement here.

So, leading change, absolutely. The ability to collaborate. Organizations are developing, so we don't have these siloed functional organizational structures that were so prevalent in the past. A lot of the work now is getting done through mission-based teams, and these teams are cross-functional, and collaboration within and across these teams is critical.

Leaders have to be able to collaborate with their leader peers, they have to be able to collaborate with other teams. That is absolutely essential. Being agile. So, everybody talks about the implementation of agile process in the workplace. Leaders need to be agile. You have to be comfortable with ambiguity, and that is not something that every person is good at, but increasingly leaders are going to have to be comfortable with an ambiguous landscape, and leading through that.

Data driven decision-making, right? With the access to all this data that we have now, and analytics and what technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence can enable with respect to the kind of insights that all of this data can provide, mean that leaders need to be data driven in their decision-making. They need to leverage all of those capabilities, and I would say there's this notion of organizational dexterity, so the ability of a leader to work seamlessly across functional areas is also really important.

Then, just a passion for learning. Every leader, and this is of course, something that I care a lot about because I'm in the leadership and development space, but people need to have a continuous passion around learning. So, learning new skills every day. Learning about new technologies every day. You've got to be interested every day in learning. I think that's just so important.

Then, when we talk about how people want to learn, the landscape there is shifting a bit, where people like to have learning occur through what I would call more modern consumer experiences. Video, for example. We're seeing that particularly those under the age of 30 really like to learn through video-based content. They like to learn through stories, as opposed to instructor talking to camera, and transferring information.

They want to learn on demand, so anytime, anywhere. Access on a device of choice. A lot of the learning now is occurring on somebody's mobile phone. So, all of this is changing and we at Skillsoft are really addressing all of those evolving needs through our new platform, and through our new content offerings. So, I think both what we need to teach, because those competencies are shifting, and how we need to deliver that content, both are changing.

Kruse: Yeah. That's really dramatic stuff. I'm glad you broke that down, in terms of the competencies of the new leader, as well as the channels and the delivery, and that, in a couple ways you came back to being agile and comfortable with change, and it sure seems like it's accelerating and going to continue to be that way.

So, I guess a final question is, tell us even more about the changes that are going on at Skillsoft? I think it was about a year ago you had a new CEO, and he brought on many new leaders, including yourself. So, what have some of the changes been and what should we expect moving forward?

Abelli: Skillsoft, like so many companies, probably I could say every company, is needing to think about all of the threats and opportunities that are associated with digital transformation and new technologies coming into the marketplace, new consumer experiences that can be enabled by technology.

Periods of major transformation in any industry bring about either brave threats to the players in that industry, or significant opportunities. What I would say is that Bill has really come onboard and transformed Skillsoft into a digital technology company. He's done that by driving the company to develop and launch early last summer a new content discovery and delivery platform called Percipio. It's really a state of the art platform.

It's a consumer-driven, Netflix-like experience for learning, and he's really put a new platform into the marketplace that's game-changing. Then, the other thing that I would say, the impact that he's had has been around reimagining our content offerings. We have leveraged all of the advantages of designed thinking and adult learning science to reimagine our content, and achieve through that, not only an immersive, engaging experience for the users, but ensuring that we have good learning outcomes, right?

Because that's where the rubber meets the road, at the end of the day. When an organization places trust in you to deliver content to skill up the organization, we need to make sure that that content is designed with all the latest knowledge of how adults learn most effectively. So, we're actually doing a groundbreaking research study with MIT that is looking into how adults learn most effectively. We're incorporating the findings from that study that uses FMRI technology and other technologies to elucidate our understanding of this, but we're incorporating all the findings from that into our development of content.

So, that is really new and different, and very, very exciting. I think what you can expect under Bill's leadership and from Skillsoft going forward is really the constant evolution of our content and our platforms, and we'll continue to lead the sector. I think we're passionate about making sure that, again, we're enabling the best experiences possible for our customers and our learners. It's really about figure out how to disrupt yourself, or you'll be disrupted.

I mean, this sounds trite, but that's the new reality for businesses, right? You need to be very proactive in your thinking around this, and constantly challenging yourself to do better. I think Bill's really driven the company forward on so many different dimensions with respect to all of this. He is really been a transformational CEO for Skillsoft.

Kruse: We've touched a few times now on this accelerated change, never-ending change, and being agile, and I can hear the passion in your voice for embracing change in your world, so it's great that you're actually modeling some of the leadership behaviors that we're looking for everyone to adopt. So, Heide, how can we find out more about you and Skillsoft?

Abelli: Absolutely. So, I think the best way for people to learn more about Skillsoft is to go to our website, www.Skillsoft.com. We have all kinds of information on the website about our platform, our content offerings, and we have multiple ways for people to engage with us. But I think the starting point is really to come to our website.

Kruse: That sounds fantastic. We'll make sure we have that in the show notes as well. Heide, best of luck. Thanks for coming onto The LEADx Show.

Abelli: Thank you very much.

Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at https://leadx.org/preview.