In our second episode, we welcome senior leadership consultant, mindfulness teacher, and business professor Alex Trisoglio to the show to discuss what it takes to lead change in an increasingly volatile and uncertain world. Take a listen to this lively conversation that touched on cross-disciplinary thinking, generational shifts, psychological safety, and the importance of diverse strengths.
"Leading for Change," with Alex Trisoglio
Alex Trisoglio, Ph.D.
Alex has spent over two decades advising and coaching senior leaders on strategy, leadership and organizational change. His global consulting experience includes 19 years advising senior leaders at McKinsey and Company. He holds a PhD in leadership with a focus on decision-making in highly complex conditions. Alex is also a respected mindfulness and meditation teacher and an Adjunct Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at the UBC Sauder School of Business.
Kevan brings wisdom from over a decade of experience leading award-winning digital strategies for a wide variety of institutions and businesses. A seasoned and engaging facilitator and speaker who has been with Domain7 since 2010, Kevan has helped shape our collaborative and people-centric culture. He’s studied design thinking and innovation processes at the THNK School of Creative Leadership.
Kevan: Welcome to “Change is in the Making,” Domain7’s podcast where we explore all things digital through the lens of purposeful change. I’m Kevan Gilbert.
Veronica: I’m Veronica Collins, and together, we’ll be discussing themes of connection making and culture shaping. We’ll be delving into how to create meaningful change, from a business standpoint and a human perspective.
Kevan: Let’s get started. Today, we’re exploring the topic of Leading for Change with Alex Trisoglio. Is that even how I say your name, Alex?
Alex: It’s beautiful. It’s actually Italian. You have to do the G-L as “lia”, like “Trisolio.”
Veronica: Oh, that is nice.
Alex: I grew up in London, so for me anything which even gets the letters in the right order is a major victory.
Kevan: Alex has spent over two decades advising and coaching senior leaders on strategy, leadership, and organizational change. His global consulting experience includes 19 years advising senior leaders at McKinsey and Company. He holds a PhD in leadership with a focus on decision-making in highly complex conditions.
Veronica: Alex has a fascinating background that combines technology and mindfulness. As a research scientist and software engineer for IBM, his work in machine learning and neural networks was awarded a US patent. He’s also a practicing Buddhist and a respected mindfulness and meditation teacher. Alex combines these multi-disciplinary areas of expertise and experience to bring a distinctive lens to both his consulting work and current role as Adjunct Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at the UBC Sauder School of Business. Alex, we’re so happy to have you on the show today, thanks for making the time to join us.
Alex: Well, thanks guys. I’m super happy to be here.
Kevan: Alex, when we were chatting yesterday, you were bringing up how in academia, it seems like a lot of disciplines, a lot of researchers, a lot of fields tend to stick to their own and don’t necessarily get the advantage of crossing paths with other ways of seeing, other forms of knowledge. You were pointing out that seems to be where a lot of the opportunity for growth is next.
Alex: Yeah, I think it’s part of the challenge of just the vast exponential growth in knowledge in general. To be good at anything, you have to become increasingly specialized. I was reading an article last week about the last man who knew everything. How they determine this, I don’t know. But apparently, he lived 150 years ago or something. Nowadays, even if you know a corner of a field, to truly have a niche where you are generating new and distinctive knowledge, it has to be a true niche. The people who are knowledge creators, they tend to really get specialized. It’s hard for people, especially in a very competitive world, to become really good at multiple niches. This idea of finding people who can be integrators and cross pollinators—certainly in the academic world, there’s not a lot of journals of cross pollination of ideas.
Kevan: Yet, when we look towards what innovation just is by definition it’s combining different ideas to create new juxtapositions to take us to new places. It’s almost as if we’re in these structures but we’ve unintentionally created environments where the blending isn’t happening.
Alex: No, I think you are right. I mean, just as you were talking I was thinking, I don’t think it’s just in academia. I think it’s even in our ordinary lives. For most people now, they feel this intense pressure to have a resume that makes sense. There has to be a linear narrative and you can make sense of each step, and the idea of doing one thing today and something completely different tomorrow—people get very nervous about that. I think at every level—people, employers, society—there is this push for optimization and it’s an interference, it’s getting the way of this cross-process thinking. Which, as you say, is foundational for innovation and for creativity, which are things we want and yet our systems almost get in the way of the very things we want.
Veronica: It’s almost a question of what is optimization. How do you define optimization? If that means ever increasing specialization and focus and productivity—or does that mean something a little bit different?
Alex: I think it really comes to this fallacy that we can know everything that is relevant in a given situation. Because the whole notion of optimization means that we can write a complete description of the situation, of the people, of the actors, of their concerns. I mean, to the question of how does change happen and what’s different today from what we used to think: I would say one of the biggest changes in the last couple of decades goes back to this idea—in the 60s, we used to think in terms of this ideal human actor. Called homo economicus, this idea of someone who is purely rational. You give them all the information and they would just do the right thing. You wouldn’t have to persuade them because they would see what was right. They would act in their rational self interest.
Alex: If you look at any economics textbook, this is what you will learn as an economist. It turns out that real people aren’t like that. Which is part of the reason why economic theory hasn’t always been so accurate. We now know, people aren’t like that at all.
Alex: It’s very, very difficult, even if you think of yourself. If you are to say, “Wow, last time I made a big decision, what was really going on for me? Was I optimizing? If so, what on earth was I optimizing?” Most of us, even with hindsight, can’t answer that question.
Veronica: I suppose any life context is complex, whether we realize it or not. The term VUCA has been thrown around a lot right now.
Alex: Absolutely, yes.
Veronica: We talk about an era of increased complexity especially with digital transformation. We might have kidded ourselves at one time that it was this linear process we could optimize scientifically. But I know you also have a deep respect for the science of change, and for what the science says. How do you balance those two things?
Alex: I think a lot of this is historical. If you look at management as a practice, as a theory, it really emerged with the early factories and the first advent of mass production. If you think about mass production, we really thought of humans then as being almost mechanical machines. They weren’t required to think, they weren’t required to have emotions, they were required to execute a replicable physical task.
Alex: Actually, in parentheses I would say, it’s fascinating now looking at the kind of outcry that’s happening about Amazon’s warehouses. Because it looks like we are going full circle back to that kind of model. We’re now having humans and machines working alongside each other. Now, humans are being optimized by AI’s. I mean, an Amazon worker, they are given a task list which is put together by an AI which then they have to execute as quickly as possible and of course they are measured in detail on their productivity and so forth. That to me is sort of separate tangent, which is like “what are we building now as workplaces of the future?” Going back to the history, where management theory started, it was really based on optimization. It took a long time to get through the early manufacturing world and then into the corporate world, and it wasn’t really till the beginning of the 70’s where you started to have people being seen more as individuals. But I would say the whole focus on learning and people and emotions and all of that really didn’t get going until the 80’s. In relative terms, in terms of management history, it’s only been the last 15% or 20% of the time where we’ve actually started to think about people as people. Of course now, even more so I think with millennials and the younger generation. People expect to be treated as people. The idea of an inhumane workplace—people just don’t put up with that anymore. I think that’s also an interesting transition, which I think … you hear all these older executives say, “Oh, young people are so entitled now today that they wanted to be treated like people.” Who would have thought of that?
It is interesting to me, I mean, how each generation, of course it grows up with the management theory and the management practice of its time. If you were a young man and a young woman coming into the workforce and you are now in your 50’s and you are now a senior executive: the world has moved on but you still remember how it was 30 years ago.
Veronica: Okay, you have a new generational shift—even within our time—of perhaps people who are slightly older and the executive functions, and a new workforce coming in. Then you have the digital layer which is both automating and shifting the future of work but forcing sort of a user centric lens as well and forcing things like listening. Then you have a need for a leaders—for those people who perhaps were not cutting their teeth on a very human centric perspective when they first came into the professionalized lives—needing to lead change amid this very turbulent time with people who have an intensely human focused perspective, with non-human tech…like, it’s a very interesting brew. I’m trying to think of what it would like to be a leader perhaps, of a different age group even, and try to think and empathize about how complex that place actually would be and how do you embrace the flux and the human demands on you as a leader in this moment in time?
Alex: One of the things I find is most leaders get frustrated with how unresponsive their organizations are. The more we talk about agile, the more we talk about needing to move things quickly: people are like, “Why can’t people move more quickly?” I like to say to people, okay, well, let’s reflect on your last couple of new year’s resolutions. How did you do, Mr. And Mrs. CEO? Surprisingly, when they look at change in their own lives it turns out it’s not so easy to do.
Alex: It turns out all of us struggle with change, if we could just say … Excuse me. All of us struggle with change. I bet you if I were to sit down with any of us, and write down, “here are the five things we know that we should be doing differently in our lives.” We could all write this today. That is the question, why aren’t we doing it? Nothing really stopping us. I think that gets to the heart of so much of change. It isn’t as easy as we want it to be. As a leader then, I have to start to think much more holistically about all the different elements and moving parts to actually make it all happen.
Veronica: I’m thinking of our conversation yesterday about psychological safety. And I feel like there’s a connection here.
Alex: Yeah. I think you are right. Psychological safety is an idea that’s been around for a while. I mean, Amy Edmondson at Harvard has been researching this for a long time, but I think it became widely popular with the work done at Google, where they are looking at “what makes for a more successful team?” Google is wonderful in that they take their people analytics very seriously. They apply data to all of these things more comprehensively than any other company that I know. And they found … because initially they were thinking, well maybe it’s just a matter of team composition. Maybe it’s a matter of getting the right people together on the team. A few introverts, a few extroverts, more men, more women, or whatever. And it turns out none of that was relevant. It has nothing to do with personalities or team composition or whether or not they have a kick off meeting or an offsite or a foosball table. None of these things mattered. The only thing that mattered was whether or not their manager created this sense of psychological safety. Which, all that really means is, “I feel safe that I can say anything in front of the team. I feel safe that if I make a mistake, we’re going to look at it as a learning opportunity rather than something that is be punished.” Assuming it was an honest mistake. Just generally finding ways that people feel they can take risk and speak up and open up and try things.
When you repeat that over and over again, day-in, day-out, week-in, week-out, month-in, month-out, that starts to generate a very different kind of team. To answer your question: what are the kinds of leaders that can produce that? Well, firstly you don’t want a leader who is highly critical, and who doesn’t take time to really understand and empathize and invest in people. But the flip side is, leaders that can be more self aware and actually vulnerable and share with their teams some of their own process, some of their own self awareness and acknowledge “this stuff isn’t easy”— that can actually contribute a great deal, as you are suggesting, to creating psychological safety.
Alex: It’s interesting, it’s one of these things that we’re seeing much more of now as more women are getting into leadership positions. Because, again, I hate to apply a gender label to these things—but it is true enough that women seem to be more comfortable with that style of leadership, whereas men prefer the traditional more male side of leadership, which always tended to be more decisive, more clarity, more power, more pushing, more driving. Which is very much kind of the 1960s wearing a suit, the executive suite and no women in sight. Again, part of what I think is so interesting in our current times is how we’re getting a shift in the very notion of what it is to be a good leader and how you can combine traits that would be considered both masculine and feminine. Noticing how, for many leaders, that can actually in itself be a challenge.
It’s going back to mindfulness. If you’ve got a strong identity of “I am a leader like this,” then the idea of having to take on other leadership characteristics can be very threatening. Again, what we’re seeing is that really successful leaders are the ones who have that self awareness, who have that flexibility, who are building that kind of duality where they can have a more flexible and more integrated style.
Veronica: I think of my early days in entry-level jobs and how… sort of the bad traditional advice you get as a women entering the work force, is sort of “mimic the men.” Take on this sort of tougher — well, women can be very tough too in a different way — but take on this more sort of “bulldoze your way through,” which is not all men. It doesn’t work for everyone. It’s wonderful just to see this sort of richness coming to play.
Alex: It’s funny. I just saw a very interesting piece of academic research, that if you wrote a job advertisement and said “your job will be managing people,” and then had exactly the same job but you said in the advertisement “your job would be helping to coach and to develop people,” there was a massive gender difference in who applied. And you can guess which applied to which.
Veronica: So interesting.
Alex: To me it’s remarkable because for the organizations we need to build, we can’t have the leader being a boss. The leader has to be a coach. It’s interesting that a lot of men don’t like that language, just as that experiment showed. We’re going to have to somehow get men comfortable with the notion that being a boss isn’t necessarily the only or the best way to lead.
Veronica: Why do you think psychological safety is so effective? I mean, I hate to be so optimization minded and bringing back to ROI but what is it about this sort of vulnerability, empathy, ability to be transparent and vulnerable that makes good business sense?
Alex: Well, I think it goes back to Kevan’s earlier point. I think in the modern environment…two different ideas: one is what constitutes a good decision, the second is creativity and innovation. Let’s start with decision making. Most decisions now are very complex and the notion that any one person is smart enough to figure it out, I don’t think anybody believes that anymore. We know that teams make better decisions, but that’s only true if all the people sitting around the table are contributing their individual brilliance.
Alex: It’s a truism that you can have a team where everyone’s got an individual IQ of 120, and the team has an IQ of 90.
Veronica: Yes. Yeah.
Alex: I think that’s the problem. We’ve all experienced this.
Alex: Again, it’s truism because it’s true. Most teams play way below their collective potential. Much more so than individuals. Yes, individuals play less than their potential but teams way more so. A big reason is because of the team dynamics where people do not feel they can share their ideas for number of reasons. Some of it is they are worried that they are going to get shut down. Some of it is, it’s safer to fall in-line with your colleagues think: go with the flow, go with the crowd. It’s the same social dynamics you see online. That’s one whole idea. I think, going back to what Kevan was saying about creativity, I think it’s the same point. What makes an organization innovative and creative is the ability to have these different perspectives kind of coexist and cross pollinate with the sense that they are all worthy.
They are all important and whereas again, I mean to the point about silos, how many organizations are there where there’s that kind of subtle kind of warfare happening between marketing and production? It happens everywhere. Because we’re all working in our silos and the other people are getting in our way. That’s our experience of organizational life. As long as you’re starting from this position that “I don’t feel safe, and I don’t really feel that everyone wants to know what I have to say,” then you’re not going to get the best out of your people. To answer your question, yeah: that translates to real ROI.
Kevan: I’m wondering if you have a name for this developing phenomenon Alex, when you look around at all these different factors that you are calling out here, where you have more willingness across a whole team to participate safely in contributing their best, when you have a leader who cultivates, nurtures facilitates and coaches people into that, where you have an organization that is aligned towards putting its people first, so that holistically, they can flourish. Is that called something yet?
Alex: Yes, a great question. I think it’s one of those things where there are lots of different words. There are words like mindful leadership. There are words like conscious leadership. There are words like centered leadership. I mean you hear all these kinds of terms, people talk about a people-centered business.
Alex: I don’t have a single word.
Kevan: It’s up for grab, yours to brand…
Alex: It’s up for grabs, yeah. Hey, somebody has to do that.
Veronica: It’s interesting the focus on the healthy workplace too. I am going to borrow from Shawn our CEO here. He’s been having some interesting conversations with us internally that we referenced the other day Alex, about “start with the why” can be terrible advice. This idea that you get to the drawing board, you put the “why” of your organization in the middle of the circle—referencing Simon Sinek here and the Golden Circle—and then everything radiates out from that. And he talks a lot more, Shawn talks more about how you engage. I hear a lot of sort of echoes of that in what you are saying about, be aware of the people within your organization. Be aware of the danger of holding up a goal and being blind to the change that you just do effect on a day to day basis having an organization of people that ripples out into the world.
Kevan: As you guys describe that, I’m interested in it and I’m wondering what you might say to somebody who would consider it too much of a risk, to say yes, to some of those characteristics. When you say, humble, when you say sensitive, when you say letting go of your own goal. I imagine somebody saying, “No. That’s me doing my job when I’m decisive. That’s me being responsible when I state a goal. I am up at night about this issue and I see it more clearly than a lot of other people because of the data that I have and the passion that I feel and it’s my job to be turning down my humbleness, my humility, so I can get the job done.” What you begin bringing up sounds like a threat to somebody’s responsibility.
Alex: Well-phrased. I think maybe I’ve mis-spoken in that case. I’m not saying…it’s what we’ve all been saying. It’s not that you abandon the good things that you were doing before. It’s the both/and. You need to be clear in your thinking and open to the fact that your thinking may have holes. I’m not sort of suggesting it’s a free for all now, and any employee can do whatever they want. No, no. Likewise, when I say we shouldn’t have over-confidence about where we’re going, I’m not saying we just throw our hands in the air and say “we have no idea” and then we stop trying. I think you end up actually in this more interesting place where it really is these seeming polar opposites where you do have to do both. Again, it’s like the ancient Greeks and the Buddha said. It’s about combining these things that are seemingly opposites: this is the paradox of great leadership. More and more, I think we will find that leaders start to see, “Oh, I need to have both the male and female elements of leadership. I need both the clear thinking and the humility. I need both the ability to be tough when required and the ability to be extremely compassionate when required.” The idea that I can be uni-dimensional and that’s going to work, I think that’s what we are going to see as becoming harder to maintain.
Kevan: Harder to maintain and that creates the opportunities. Somebody is forced to the position where they say, I can’t do this alone. The answer is, that’s great. Now you are willing to work with other people. You are growing a team. You are welcoming other perspectives to the table. You’re embracing diversity. You’re seeing the opportunity of not doing it alone.
Veronica: Alex, as I am listening to this it’s so galvanizing and yet it’s a lot. It’s a pretty challenging call to an individual. I am wondering if there’s somebody who would be listening to this and thinking a lot of this resonates but it feels likes steep work. What would you want them to take away from this conversation as just something to try starting today or something to look into?
Alex: The first thing I would say, it’s a piece of advice from Bill Gates. He says, we can accomplish a lot less in six months than we think we can, but we can accomplish a lot more in two years than we think we can. Part of the challenge is that a lot of us operate to quarterly or annual cycles, which give us artificially restrictive horizons that we’re working within. I think the way to make any of the stuff work is a bit like when people go to AA and they are trying to make that kind of change. AA doesn’t say, “Hey, you are going to stop drinking in three months and that would be it.” They say, “This is the first day of the rest of your life.” It’s a reinvention and a redefinition of who you are. I think that’s where you start, but once you have started with that idea, then a lot of the pressure goes off. “Okay. I am reinventing myself as this kind of leader. I’ve got the rest of my life. I don’t have to do it all in the next two weeks. But the thing I do have to do is maintain some kind of consistent practice or discipline.”
Now, to your question. I think there’s no immediate best answer. It will depend on the person. I do think one thing we know is that people end up practicing the things where they personally feel a sense of resonance or excitement or energy.
Alex: You know, I think find something that you think you are interested in and where you could immediately see there’s a benefit to you. But I would say we do know that building greater awareness, greater mindfulness is beneficial for everybody. I think the other thing we know is that cultivating the capacity to learn more speedily and become a better learner—again, that is beneficial to anybody. If that’s all you do…actually, the third one would be that we know that the ability to cultivate good relationships, that’s also beneficial for everyone. I think if you can just have some combination of those. Just know deep down that it’s going to be useful to me to invest in strengthening my awareness, that is going to be useful to me to learn how to learn more efficiently and that you know, even though AI’s and computers are likely going to take over, there’s something about the jobs that will remain and the connections that will remain and what it will be to have a good and meaningful life, that will always in some way have something to do with our fellow humans. That relationship will always be there.
Veronica: It’s almost becoming more human. How can we invest in ourselves that way?
Alex: You know, I like that. If you are going to synthesize it, that goes back to Kevan’s earlier question: how would we call this? Yeah, the human organization.
Kevan: That’s amazing. Alex, thank you so much for being on the show today.
Alex: It’s a total pleasure, it’s been delightful talking to you guys.
Veronica: It’s been wonderful. I’ve enjoyed this conversation so much and I have lot to think about, thank you.
Kevan: Absolutely, and that does bring us to the end of what we have planned for today. Thank you for tuning in. We hoped you enjoyed today’s conversation and that you’ll join us for upcoming episode as we continue to tackle the complex challenges we face as leaders, digital makers and simply as human beings in this technological moment in time.
Veronica: You can find upcoming episodes at Domain7.com/podcast where you can also sign up for our newsletter if you like. You can find us on Medium at The Connection and follow us on Twitter @domain7. You can also drop us a line with any of your ideas or feedback about the podcast. I’m firstname.lastname@example.org and Kevan is, email@example.com. Thanks so much for listening.
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