Showing Up As Yourself: Mike Prokopeak and 1440 Cofounder Scott Kriens on Leadership
Mike Prokopeak is vice president and editor in chief of Human Capital Media–publisher of Chief Learning Officer, Talent Economy, and Workforce magazines.
He spent some recent time on the 1440 campus talking with our cofounder Scott Kriens about what it takes to be an authentic leader and how to sustain a business culture that inspires genuine engagement.
Scott Kriens: [00:01] Hello, everybody. This is Scott Kriens with 1440. With me today is Mike Prokopeak, editor in chief of Chief Learning Officer magazine. We’re here at 1440, in the beautiful redwoods. We’re going to take 5 or 10 minutes of time here and just chat a little bit. Mike, welcome to 1440.
Mike Prokopeak: [00:18] Thank you, Scott.
Scott: [00:19] Great to have you here.
Mike: [00:20] A pleasure to be here. Having had a chance to talk to you a little bit about 1440 a few weeks ago, when I was writing a story about leadership, it’s really a great opportunity to see this in person. I appreciate you hosting me here.
Scott: [00:33] We admire the work you guys are doing and look forward to working together.
Mike: [00:37] Thank you. This is a golden opportunity for me, as somebody who writes and covers the area of leadership development, to talk to you, as somebody who has been a veteran leader and is now really taking your ideas about leadership and applying them at some place like 1440. Putting your money where your mouth is, so to speak, in developing this campus.
[00:58] I’d love to ask you a bit about your experience as a leader and how you see things changing. When would you say is the time you cut your teeth as a leader? What was the leadership philosophy at that time?
Scott: [01:14] At my age, going back to that is a lot of years back. In the ’80s, in the ’90s, maybe in the last generation, let’s call it, I think there was a common view that the leader stood in the face of the storm without ever a doubt, issued orders without a moment’s hesitation, and needed to be this rock that never hesitated for fear that the troops would lose confidence.
[01:47] That was your only way through the storm. I’ve come to think that’s not right. I think there’s a large view still held by many that that’s what it’s about, being the ship’s captain. I don’t think so anymore.
Mike: [02:01] How has leadership changed, from your point of view? That’s my fundamental question, is the skills of execution, of being responsible for results, those are consistent now. It’s maybe in the way that you carry it out that’s a bit different. Maybe you can explain a little bit about how you see it different now than perhaps it was then.
Scott: [02:20] It’s a great point, first of all, that the objective at the end of the day if you’re looking after shareholders or any set of metrics that we know are quantifiably required in any business. What hasn’t changed is the need to optimize for those results and to deliver. What I think has changed is how you get there.
[02:45] What’s fundamentally, I don’t want to call it different, I’ll say new to the field, in my view, is that it becomes much more about the study of energy, human energy, and how that gets cultivated. If you want to get energy going, it requires, in my opinion, being explicit in thinking about how to do that.
Ultimately, if you want to get your results, it’s going to take energized people.
It’s a work backwards to where it all begins way of approaching it. It all starts with how we cultivate that energy that’s resident in any of us, and bring it to bear, to the task at hand, and results follow.
Mike: [03:36] That’s got to be uncomfortable, though, for a lot of leaders who grew up in perhaps an era when you grew up, to say, “It’s not just about the results. It’s about who you are and how you engage people, how you inspire them.”
[03:51] How do you find that authenticity, that voice within you that says, “Here’s who I am. Here’s how I lead,” that is going to cultivate your own energy, make it sustainable for you, but also be something that can be inspiring, engaging, and sustaining for the organization? What are ways to do that?
Scott: [04:09] It’s a symbiotic thing, in my view. It’s not something that a leader generates on their own and then passes on. It’s every well feed off each other. At the outset, in my view, and I’m not the first to say this, I latched onto it when I heard it, which is, “Nobody cares what you know until they know who you are.”
Until people feel safe and until they feel like they’re cared about, they’re going to hold back.
Holding back and being hesitant is not going to produce the kind of energy that somebody who’s all-in and feeling trusted, and [inaudible] people have their back. That’s a fundamental requirement.
[04:53] That’s only going to happen if somebody is in an environment that is cultivating trust. There’s not going to be trust unless people know who they’re surrounded by. Otherwise, we’re programmed as a species to survive. If we don’t know who’s around us, then we’re not all-in on that, because we don’t want to get eaten, in case it’s a tiger.
[05:21] It’s this really fundamental requirement to say, “Do I know who Mike is? Do people know who Scott is or who the leader is, who they really are?” At least, that’s possible to know in a setting. That’s a lot more than just knowing that they’re smart, or knowing that they’ve got a brilliant strategy or that they’re a very eloquent speaker.
[05:41] I’m not saying any of those things aren’t good to have, or that you don’t need those. Nobody is listening to any of that unless, first, they feel like, “I’m in a setting where I know my best interests are being looked out for. I know I’m dealing with people that are standing straight in front of me.”
[05:58] For the leader, you have to be what I call first to offer. You could be the first to show up like that because everybody else is waiting for somebody. It has to be the person at the top.
Mike: [06:08] One of the things we cover at Chief Learning Officer magazine, when we talk about leadership, is the role of technology and how that plays a role in how you develop leaders. Learning and development organizations are really challenged with pressure for efficiency, doing things cheaper.
[06:28] Technology is a way, in many cases, for companies to do things at a distance, where people don’t have to travel. They don’t necessarily have to be together sometimes in order to have development experiences. To develop that sophisticated leadership philosophy, knowing who you are, exploring who you are as a leader individually but also as a group together, how do you do that?
[06:51] What’s the role of a place in coming together to do that, versus, “We can just throw it up on a webinar. Hey, we’re going to do a thing. You guys get together. We’re going to talk about this. Then you can go back to work. You don’t have to bother with it.”?
Scott: [07:04] This is such a great question, Mike. Actually, it’s one of the fundamental questions that Joanie, my wife, and I asked when we first were deciding whether to build the Multiversity here at 1440. We said [inaudible] , “We really need a brick-and-mortar place because look at everything we could do if we take the same effort and put it online.”
[07:23] Fast-forwarding to our obvious conclusions, because we built it, what’s required is to engage the whole person.
We don’t just learn with our brains. We learn with our bodies and with our whole beings. It’s a full sensory engagement.
If you really want to engage the whole person, you can’t do that through one dimension of sight or sound only that comes on a webinar.
[07:54] It’s not that those aren’t valuable tools. They certainly belong in the mix. And, it’s not a “but” it’s an “and,” in our belief, there needs to be some in-person, immersive time spent because connecting with another person in a way that really builds trust is only possible to a certain degree with remote control, and over a webinar, at a distance, intellectually.
[08:24] Really engaging like this, in a felt sense, that only happens when we’re side by side, is an element in the equation, the absence of which compromises really building a relationship. Ultimately, that’s what leadership is about.
Mike: [08:44] How do you sustain it? I get it, I think a lot of people get it, that when you’re able to go someplace and have that back-and-forth with people, it’s a different experience. That experience is significant. It’s meaningful. It can be transformative if it’s done right. How do you sustain it?
[08:59] It’s nice to come to some place like 1440 and spend a couple of days, a week, whatever it is, to have a learning experience that’s like that or a leadership experience that’s like that. Then I go back to the office and I’m involved in getting all that stuff done, and all the pressures of that. How do you carry that through beyond being together and having that in-person experience?
Scott: [09:23] This is one of the fundamental challenges of real change in transformative work. As valuable as an immersive setting is, if we go back and are surrounded by people that weren’t participating, aren’t predisposed, and in fact, are predisposed to the contrary.
[09:41] They’re full speed on the hamster wheel. They don’t even notice that you were gone, [laughs] let alone want to look at you differently when you get back. So, this is a key question, and it’s where I think whether it’s online webinar or other tools and vehicles to keep the community that got connected in the in-person experience together are critical.
[10:09] The good news is, in our experience here and in my experience in that setting, what you need are touchstones. It’s not a continuous need.
There’s a bond that can be built in person with some real explorative, deep work that can be reignited at periodic touchstones, especially with others that were part of the experience.
[10:37] There’s a sustaining value in it if you do it at a certain interval. If you do it every two weeks, it lasts for 10 days. After three or four times, maybe it lasts for 14 days. After a dozen times, maybe it lasts for a month. There’s some cumulative value in the touchstone experience. That actually has to be choreographed in a learning module so that the in-person intensity doesn’t just dissipate.
Mike: [11:08] I certainly agree with that. I think that one of the things that we see quite a bit is there’s a question of leadership. Then there’s a question of sustainable leadership. Everybody wants leadership. Everybody talks about leadership. It’s critical because of the fast-moving pace of business, with the transformations that are happening, the disruptions that are happening in many industries.
[11:28] Leadership is key to that, it’s not just leadership. It’s that leadership that is sustaining, that is going beyond a year or two years, to one that is scalable. It is really a thing that is going to be lasting within the organization and have a lasting effect.
[11:45] It’s also difficult when you look at the job of leader, because you have to be somewhat autocratic in a way. You have to be very assertive, aggressive, and decisive. Maybe aggressive isn’t the right word but decisive.
[11:59] Yet, you’ve got to balance that with a workforce that maybe is changing, as it’s expecting different things of leaders and wants to be more participative. How do you keep up with pace and the rapid changes when you have things that are happening to the workforce?
[12:19] Maybe you’re slowing it down, like that need to be more participative, that need to come to more consensus or dialog, I think, is the word that you’ve used with it when you’re talking about leadership. How do you keep that energy behind getting things done with making sure they’re done in the right way?
Scott: [12:36] Here’s the way I would describe it. There’s a time and place for everything. Being transparent about this is really important. There’s a time for gathering of information, debating, and brainstorming of ideas.
[12:53] That’s the participative part, where you want to be able to say to the team in total, “I’m not sure what we ought to do next. I’ve got some ideas, but I’m not the smartest guy in this room. I want to understand the rest of the ideas in the room.” That’s not a time to be assertive and decisive. It’s a time for input, inquiry, and dialog.
[13:16] The leader’s job is to arrive at the time where you say, “All right. I want everyone to feel like they’ve been considered. We put all these inputs into the mix. Now we’re going to do this.” At this point, you get to something that is really important, which is most often in any complex decision I can name.
It has far less to do with making the right decision. It has far more to do with making the decision right once made.
[13:46] I’ll borrow a football analogy. If you’re going to build a passing team, you better have a great quarterback and really fast wide receivers. If you’re going to build a running team, you better have a great big offensive line and a really quick running back. It’s not really that you have to decide that passing is good and running is bad.
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[14:08] The leader has to say, “This is what we’re going to do, input all considered. Here’s the basic risks of this approach. Here’s our contingencies. Here’s how we’re going to go about it.” It’s clearly a time to set course and speed. That has to be preceded by the inquiry, input, and dialog. That has to be preceded by creating the trusted environment in the condition where that dialog is felt and heard, not just casual and symbolic.
[14:38] If that trust creates the conditions where the dialog, the inquiry, and the exchange is really considered, then when the leader says, “All input included. Thank you very much. This is what we’re going to do,” the team rallies. As Intel used to say, “You disagree but then commit.” Obviously, it’s not going to be the case that everybody agrees. That’s not required. There’s time and place for everything.
Mike: [15:06] It seems like humility as a leader is the key to that, to be able to say, “I don’t know all the answers, but I know we have the right people in place. I know we have the right approach in place.” To pick up the football analogy, “We might not have called the right play right now, but we’re going to go back and huddle up. We’ll try again. We’ll try a different play. Maybe this one will work.”
Scott: [15:26] There’s a lot of decisions involved in ultimately, what is “right and wrong.” There’s not a reason to get too hung up on any one of them. The I don’t know part is so important, too. I know going through a couple of different downturns in the real Internet crash in 2000, 2001, or the downturn in ’08, ’09.
[15:44] I remember standing in front of the company, saying, “I’m really worried about the people that we’re going to have to let go here during this downturn. It’s going to be very tough for them to find jobs. This is a very bad situation. I’m really worried for what that’s going to mean.”
[16:00] Instead of that causing people to panic, jump off the boat, to go back to the first analogy, they said, “Wow! We’re at least hearing real truth about what’s really going on. I feel better in a bad situation. I feel better than somebody saying, ‘Don’t worry.'”
[16:15] It’s like, “What do you mean, ‘Don’t worry’? [laughs] The sky is falling. First, we need to acknowledge that. Then, we need to figure out what we’re going to do. If we pretend it’s not happening, then I’m really worried.” I’ve just found that to always work better.
Mike: [16:32] We will wrap up with this question. There’s undoubtedly no question that the challenges leaders are facing are significant, from a business standpoint, from an economic standpoint, from just the environment that we live in. That’s looking at it from a negative point of view.
[16:49] What are you most excited about when you look at the state of leadership? What gets you excited as you look towards the future of folks, whether they’re coming through 1440 or what you’re seeing as you look at the business environment? What most excites you that you’re seeing in leaders?
Scott: [17:05] In my opinion, we’re living in the greatest of times that have ever been. I say that because it’s today. It will be true tomorrow and the day after that. Everything that’s happening, there’s all kinds of concerns about privacy and about how we’re interacting with each other.
[17:25] In my opinion, all of those things that are being made visible now online were all happening off-line anyway. Nothing is any worse than it ever was, we just know more about it.
By definition, if you know what’s happening, you’re closer to solving it than if your head’s in the sand or if you didn’t know.
[17:47] We’re in a time of the greatest connectivity between human beings in the history of civilization. Has that unveiled a lot of previously hidden scary things? Yes, but it didn’t invent them. In my view, we’re closer than we’ve ever been to the best society that man has ever produced.
[18:09] As a leader, what that translates to mean is standing up and acknowledging both things. For me, at least, these are the best of times. This is really tough. There’s a lot of things we’re going to have to navigate here that we didn’t have to do before. Are we worried that cell phones are hijacking our minds? Maybe so. We’re still better off with them than we are without them, so let’s figure out what to do about that.
The most important leadership attribute to bring to the world today is not hand-wringing and wishing the old days would come back, but excitement about all the power of what’s in our hands and what’s in front of us.
[18:49] Leaning into it and making the most of it, which is what we’re trying to do here at 1440, what I know learning is about, in many dimensions, at least, and why I so admire what you guys are doing with Chief Learning Officer, and what so many people in that role are doing out in the world. It’s an exciting time.
Mike: [19:08] Thank you for having me here, hosting me here. It’s a beautiful campus. I definitely enjoyed being here. I appreciate the conversation and the chance to meet you in person and talk a little bit more about this.
Scott: [19:19] Likewise, Mike. Great to have you here.
Mike: [19:20] Thanks, Scott.
Scott: [19:21] We’ll see you all soon.