April 17, 2024

Céline Schillinger on network activation, curious conversations, podcasting for connection, and creative freedom (AC Ep40)

Criticizing and blaming people, organizational culture, or the company for problems doesn’t lead you to a better place. What may lead you to a better place is to actually roll up your sleeves, connect with each other, and do something about it.”

– Céline Schillinger

Robert Scoble
About Céline Schillinger

Céline Schillinger is Founder and CEO of We Need Social, which works with organizations globally on engagement leadership. She is the author of Dare to Un-Lead, which was Porchlight Leadership & Strategy Book of the Year and on the Thinkers50 Best Management Booklist. Previously she worked in senior roles in the pharmaceutical industry across many countries and continents. Her extensive awards include Knight of the French National Order of Merit.

What you will learn

  • Exploring the journey from entrepreneurial beginnings to corporate transformation
  • The shock of transitioning to a large pharmaceutical company’s culture
  • The power of forming an employee network to instigate positive change
  • Challenging traditional hierarchies with network activation
  • Leveraging digital tools and volunteer networks for organizational innovation
  • Embracing agency, networking, and community for future-ready organizations
  • Personal practices for amplifying individual capabilities and fostering connections

Episode Resources



Ross Dawson: Celine, it’s a delight to have you on the show.

Céline Schillinger: Thank you so much, Ross. Thanks for having me.

Ross: So you work a lot with organizations and amplify their capabilities. And I think the really interesting starting point was, how is it that you think of what organizations are and how they function? What are the underlying principles that guide you?

Céline: Yeah, you know, this question came to me quite late in life. And actually, I started my career in small organizations in a very entrepreneurial kind of setting. I was working in Asia at the time. I moved to Asia, quite young, on my own to look for a job, look for adventure. And I started to build my career there, and I spent years in Vietnam, and then in China, and then I joined a large pharmaceutical company returning to Europe after about 10 years. And that was a shock for me to discover this whole new world of large enterprise. It had a different language that I did not understand. I thought I was already sort of a seasoned professional with 10 years experience behind me, but I did not understand this new language. It was talking about frameworks and metrics processes, and I wondered. I did not even understand the job description, I was off the job I was responding to the job offer is so funny, I asked someone to help me decipher this, I think, but that’s part of organizational culture, to have this their own language and references and acronyms and all those things and ways of doing of course, so I discovered the large enterprise.

And for a while, I did not question or did not even wonder how it worked. Because I was all in on the pleasure of discovery. It was all about experimenting and meeting new people, and it was great. And then progressively I started to realize that, yeah, there’s there are…how can I say principles ways of working, which do not necessarily emerge from which are kind of a religion kind of in a way – they do not emerge from the field or from common sense or the ways of working are prescribed and determined by habits, beliefs, and not necessarily by what would be needed, by customers by efficiency and so on. And I thought of, I had, maybe this kind of ethnological view coming from outside coming from a very different world. I started to question this, and question my role in perpetuating role models, behaviors that made no real sense. What was my role in maintaining that? Could I contribute to changing them a little bit instead? But what could I do on my own? So probably nothing. But then, about 15 years ago, I joined forces with other colleagues. And we formed a network of people wanting to bring about positive change, not wanting to protest. No, so I didn’t join any union. For example, I joined a network. I co created a network. And that was when I remember the surprise, the puzzled look on the face of HR, HR did not understand what this thing was about. ‘An employee network. Well, what is it?’ It was before employee resource groups became popular? And then it was really weird for them, some of them. I remember somebody asking me who’s the boss of your network, I would say, we have no boss, it’s a network. But they felt like it was impossible to imagine another way of organizing than the one they were accustomed to. In the organization. A pyramid with a boss with a senior leader or the top, people reporting to him or her – often it’s a him and we created a bit by chance originally was a bit of came a bit of a surprise for me, but we created something new a new way of delivering value, delivering value by connecting people around something they want to achieve together. There was no hierarchy, no one giving orders to each other to anyone else. There was a common desire, I was fueled by this willingness, this desire to create change, create an impact. 

Ross: This was around 15 years ago within the organization?

Céline: 2010, in a big pharma company that I was working with, at that time, called Sanofi. We created a new space for freedom, a space for creativity, where we sort of realized we empower ourselves. And we sort of realized that criticizing, blaming people or organization culture or the company for problems, what leads you to a better place, what may lead you to a better place is to actually roll up your sleeves, connect with each other and do something about it. Right? 

Ross: Absolutely. 

Céline: We had no idea until we started this and did it and, and it was amazing to realize that we had more power than we thought. And we didn’t need a roadmap created by somebody else, we didn’t need an order by or a job description or whatever, for other forms of prescription to create, and to innovate. And, and so we did that. And to me, it was a whole new world opening up to the whole new world of agency connection, and community building.

Ross: Originally, I mean, I think organizations are networks intrinsically, they always have been. 

Céline: Yes, you’re right.

Ross: So kind of, that’s been harder to image, you know, given the traditional hierarchical structures. And yeah, the first thing that started to shift us more towards the realities of networks was actually email. So anybody could send an email to anyone else in the organization. And so that’s the flattening of the organization’s ability to connect. So the networks have always been there. That’s the reality, all organizations are networks, they function as networks, but that recognition, and giving it the name, and to give me as you say, framing in the way, what you’ve done, just gives enormous power to the ability to create values. I think this idea of, you know, whoever’s in the organization, be able to connect them with where they can create the most value, solve a challenge to see an opportunity. And so if you can have that fluid, network enablement, that creates an extraordinary value in the organization.

Céline: Definitely. I remember the time, I was very naive, and I remember drawing the org chart to newcomers who wanted to understand what this company was about and who we were…and I said, ‘Look, let me draw you the organization chart. This is how we work’ – how naive was that, right? Now, in hindsight, I am like, oh, this is just a symbolic representation. 

Ross: Yes, it is not the reality. 

Céline: Exactly. It is not the reality.  It is far from it, right? It does serve some purpose, including ego boosting purpose, which is not the most useful thing for business. But yes, we definitely need to expand people’s views to other forms of representation. And one of them is something I’ve been working on lately. I call it “network activation” using visualization tools. So there are plenty of them on the market. And some of them can be extremely useful. Using some of those tools to make people look at themselves as a network and realize visually that they are a network they are connected by so many more things than they even imagine. And it’s very often an aha moment for them. To see that what matters is not so much who is where in which position. How long are they still going to be the boss of this or that, but what matters is the density and the quality of our connections.

Ross: So, are you using digital trails or survey-based or how are you discovering what the networks are?

Céline: Yes, yes. So survey-based, is quite simple and very powerful. Because then you involve people in the responses in the process, right? You explain to them

Ross: They’re also thinking about it.

Céline: Exactly. 

Ross: I mean, I always love one of the best questions…there’s a number of wonderful questions in network surveys. And one of them is, you know, who helped you the most in doing your work. And often, it’s not the boss, or the person reporting to you; someone different in the organization. These kinds of things, and people start thinking, ‘Oh, well, actually, who is it that I draw on when I need help?’ And that’s the start, you know, that’s already a way of awakening that awareness. 

Céline: Yeah, you’re right. These questions are not always easy to answer. But other questions are easier. For example, what do you know? Which country have you worked in? What? Those kinds of questions about personal professional experience, history, skills, aspirations. Then on a map, you realize that these things are actually common with other people that you didn’t even know existed. But now you have a reason to go and talk with them, or to create something or sometimes you realize that there are potential nodes that can become communities of practice, for example, which are a fantastic way to further an organization — to connect the system to more of itself. 

Ross: So thinking about this, this idea of amplifying cognition, or just thinking about amplifying organizational capabilities. So this is, as you described, this is a wonderful network activation tool. So what are some of the other approaches that you use with organizations to be able to amplify the capabilities of individuals or the organization as a whole?

Céline: So you see, we are here on the podcast.  Podcast, I think, is a super interesting tool as well, to bring to the world of organizations. So I’ve also been working with a partner Lila North, on the Community Studio — some it’s an offer, we’ve, we’ve been implementing successfully in several organizations by which you get a group of volunteers, create together an internal podcast, with a series of episodes and the volunteer group is gets renewed after each season, each podcast season. So you amplify the group of people that the podcast community, the internal podcast community, through, it’s really important to have community engagement there so that the guests can become part of this community. And you have this community, this community grows progressively and becomes a sort of not a platform in the sense of a technical platform, but an opportunity, a group that enables cross entity cross level conversations. And that creates a habit or an openness to curious conversations. It’s really hard in organizations today to have curious conversations about each other. We’re so focused on our rules on milestones or deliverables and we’re still enclosed in this hierarchical structure very much. And this pushes communication habits with. With these kinds of things, internal podcasts, the studio is run by a community of volunteers, and from which we collect insights in order to create meta conversations. Were able to open up I wouldn’t say change dramatically, culture, this is I don’t think this is possible anyway. But at least open up new possibilities. And whether people seize or not depends on them. So we always remain very aware of the freedom we need to let people act otherwise if they act upon order from anybody else or upon our suggestion or if it’s not their own. You like this ownership piece that makes it sustainable.

Ross: Most of the best ideas come from conversations — the best thinking, ways, and perspectives. So what you’re doing is basically having these conversations in public so they can be heard by the organization. I love this idea of being able to distill that into meta conversations. But I’m interested in some of the practicalities of that. I mean, you’ve got networked people who are interested in that. But how do you disseminate that to make that people listen to it? One of the ways in which you helped him propagate this through the organization?

Céline: You have to make it interesting. So we equip volunteers with good question, interviewing skills. And it’s fascinating to see that they become better and better at interviewing people. First, in the first episodes, they sort of follow the script, you know, the questions we’ve written together, it’s very, very scripted. And progressively, you see them evolving, and actually paying attention to the responses of their guests, and asking follow up questions. And that kind of thing. It’s really fascinating to see it develop skills, but also it creates better episodes, more interesting questions. Yep, sessions. 

And so with promotion, and engagement, it’s also part of the work that volunteers get involved in. And so we equip them with that kind of skills, we help them become engaging leaders, rather than just makers of something. You know, it’s about engaging colleagues creating connections, and then connections, and conversations over those. Those first conversations, it’s really interesting to hopefully see it grow and expand throughout the organization, some departments or less, for example, it’s very easy to get salespeople interviewed. Those people are used to talking and you know, bringing their points. And for some others, it’s more difficult for people in maintenance jobs and technical jobs on the front line. But that’s the challenge. That’s part of it, it’s precisely what we try to bring volunteers to do more of, you know, go and have those. Reach out to these. These people who do not have a voice, try to build rapport, create the conditions for them to come in and talk and express their views because we don’t hear those people enough. 

Ross: I couldn’t imagine to see the…you’ll get a far richer flavor of the organization, usually just speaking to the people you deal with in your current projects and your work. So to be exposed to, as you say, technicians or maintenance or other far, far flung parts of the organization that would really make you feel more belonging. So this is internal only. So just available on the intranet.

Céline: Yes, this is internal only because you have freedom of speech. It’s already not easy for people to speak openly on a podcast on an internal podcast. So if it was external, it would be really way too challenging. But you know, I’m thinking of another example of amplification, which is a piece of work I was involved in, back in 2014, to ‘18, when I was an internal change agent, I did not work on my own at that time yet. But it was really an interesting piece of work involving volunteers as well as quality improvement. And for many years, the company had tried to establish pharmaceutical company factories, enormous industrial challenges. And for many years, the company had addressed those challenges. Were through the quality department — a small group of experts, professional people, highly dedicated to their mission. 

But this was not enough. And the outcomes were not great. It was only when we amplified this work by involving volunteers, by involving people from all over the company, not just quality professionals, but anyone, anyone who wanted you can be you could be, I don’t know, a legal expert, you could be an admin, you could be a technician, anyone was welcome to participate in this movement. And there are ways of creating a movement. And it doesn’t work. All the time in this particular case, it worked beautifully. And we engaged I think, around 5000 people instead of the originally, I don’t know maybe 250. You were involved in creating quality, improving quality and by having many more people, but also many more viewpoints, many more a greater diversity of perspectives. And also by making this work, not just an intellectual work, like, how do we solve problems, but an emotional work, too? How do we connect around solving problems? How do we make it engaging? Interesting? How do we create enthusiasm? How do we make people? How do we create desire? Right? So this is what made it work.

Ross: So extending your ideas, I mean, I’m not sure to what degree you think of yourself as a futurist. But I’d like you to cast forward to, you know, this, these the ideas you have around the sorts of organizations that are truly effective. So let’s say you know, 2030, whatever in the years to come, we have many unfolding forces. So what are some of the ways in which you would point to this very successful organization of the future, and how that can be enabled?

Céline: You know, I think I’m not a futurist at all, I’m a presentist. Because these things already work now. So you don’t have to wait until tomorrow to put them in practice. They do work already now. And I would say, I would recommend three key practices or lines of thoughts, right? That I have found for myself and my colleagues, and my clients now immensely useful, the first line of thought is around agency, creating more space for creative freedom. Instead of trying to enclose people further and further into narrow job descriptions or scripted courses of action, instead of trying to transform them in a way as in robots, we will never be great robots. So it’s about removing those expanding territories, in which people can first get back this thinking capacity that is often lost under process in organizations. So recreating space and time to think and it starts with ourselves, right? What do I maintain from this system that would deserve to be changed? How can I be authentic to my n and really walk the talk and what I do, and what I think and so agency creating more space for people to to act for impact, to decide to negotiate to create sense making opportunities and so on. The second line of thought is around networks, creating, removing this, we talked about this pyramid, hierarchical thought pattern, I think the hierarchy will not go away. I think it is still useful in many ways, but removing the patterns of domination and submission that it entails, will be immensely useful. So that information can flow faster and be more readily accessible throughout a network. That’s why we need to bring in. 

Ross: What are some of the enablers of that? I suppose we want to create more networked organizations that often say that the successful organizations of the future will be very effective networks. What are some of those things that enable that?

Céline: think volunteer networks, think digital networks, enterprise social platforms, think communities of practice? Think network activator with a network visualization, I mentioned think those kinds of the Community Studio amplifying stories in a peer to peer mode. The possibilities are infinite. As soon as we move away from this pyramidal thought pattern, and try to look at networks and what could enable them then we realize the possibilities are limitless. Now we need to find, I would say the most practical and simple solutions to put that forward but creating a volunteer network around an opportunity. Something that really matters to an organization is a good way to start. If you create a volunteer group around something that is not really valued by the data – that is not that important for the organization will not produce much impact. But if leaders, leaders, if the company gets really serious about it, let’s involve more people. 

Let’s change the type and the nature of our conversations. I remember the clients I worked with a few years ago who had decided to create a new technology that they wanted to roll out. And I suggested that instead of rolling it out, they create conversations around with people who would be affected by this new technology, and create a volunteer group with people who wanted in order to address that issue, the technology and more broadly, the digital future of the company. And by doing that, it was a very simple move. But by doing that, we transform people from victims of a change to co creators of a change. And we formed networks between these people, and between these people and their leaders — their leaders and titles.

Ross: So that was the third point too?

Céline: Yeah, to community building exactly, let’s third line of thought is creating community, bringing the network together and making it stick together. So that it doesn’t go in all directions, and sticking together around a big opportunity, the vision of a better future that is CO created by those people, not just by the executive team in a boardroom. But that involves at least a representative sample of the organization. So that a diversity of perspective is already present from the very start of an initiative. And then there’s a lot of effort to be made to reinforce the value of this community so that people do not default back to a purely functional role, a vision of their role.

Ross: So, to round out, I’m interested in just you personally, in how you…you have expansive ways of thinking and experience in ways do you apply that? So I’d love to hear anything you would do personally, to be able to amplify your own cognition and thinking and capabilities.

Céline: I’ve been using digital networks a lot myself, and that has been a huge enhancer amplifier. enabler, I’ve been able to connect with people to learn about new ideas, new thoughts. I was an avid fan, that’s the first thing. So connecting with people, and I’m very sad of what Twitter has become, because I don’t like it anymore. But what it was in the past was a really amazing blessing. So I’m very grateful for that. 

And the other practice that I’ve used personally was to write. And it took some effort for me. At first I felt absolutely unable and not even legitimate. I thought, you know, what could I write about? Why would people even read anything about me? Or about my ideas, and I was pushed gently by friends of mine who said, ‘Yeah, you should.’ And actually writing is a fantastic way to organize your thoughts, to expose them to others, to be challenged by others, to grow. Now I look as I look back at some of my older posts and think, I wouldn’t think this way anymore. But it was a necessary step in this process of sense making, really. So I think this is a great thing and making them public so that you can share and connect and learn from others.

Ross: It creates a feedback loop. It networks of thought and I think one of the largest networks of people is networks of ideas and thoughts. And when you put things out there, then that starts to catalyze, these different connections, these different ideas, the different possibilities, so, absolutely,

Céline: yeah. And participating in podcasts, like yours is also another way. That’s why I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity.

Ross: Where can people go to find out more about your work?

Céline: They can find me on LinkedIn. They can find me also on my website, weneedsocial.com

Ross: Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time and your insights, Céline.. It’s wonderful work you’re doing.

Céline: Thank you so much, Ross. Very grateful.

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