“Our persistence guided us when we shifted from being defensive to adaptive. We recognized that in all that swirl, being courageously persistent would ultimately lead us to where we needed to be.”
– Graham Winter
“Many think of taking a pause as an indulgent use of time. It’s probably one of the best investments in time you can make as an executive leader.”
– Martin Bean
About Graham Winter and Martin Bean
What you will learn
- Adapting leadership strategies in response to unprecedented challenges (03:31)
- Importance of understanding and managing emotional reactions in leadership (07:54)
- Persisting through adversities as key strategies for success and personal growth (10:22)
- Confronting fear, aligning individual values with team objectives, and instilling a disciplined operational rhythm (12:10)
- Emphasizing a feedback culture and reflection in team dynamics (17:02)
- Revamping team operating rhythms for agility in a turbulent world (18:00)
- Challenging of feedback vs. seeking of insights (20:40)
- Creating a culture of learning and discipline in teams (22:15)
- ‘Decompression stops’ for realignment and reassessment (24:44)
- Importance of teams clarifying their unique roles beyond just executing strategy (28:37)
- Development of partnering relationships and creating synergy in decision-making (29:38)
- Importance of team leaders transitioning to a coaching approach while prioritizing their own self-care (30:46)
- Align, collaborate, and learn team canvas (33:39)
- Shifting away from traditional, linear industrial models of performance (34:40)
Toolkit for Turbulence: The Mindset and Methods That Leaders Need to Turn Adversity to Advantage by Graham Winter and Martin Bean
Think One Team: The Essential Guide to Building and Connecting Teams by Graham Winter
Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson
Ross Dawson: You have a marvelous book just out by the time this podcast is released on Toolkits for Turbulent times. Part of the Genesis story began in March 2020. Martin, you have been a leader for some time at RMIT, a very large university with 11,000 employees and 80,000 students. In March 2020, the world changed. What was that experience like in terms of your readiness or how you changed through that?
Martin Bean: Yes, it was quite the time, and I’m sure many of your listeners remember what they had to do to respond. But if everybody remembers, it was particularly difficult for universities. We weren’t allowed to receive any of the job keeper funding, and our students and our international students were cut off because of the border closures. In my context, Ross, it meant that to survive, we needed to reduce the expenditure of the university by well over $200 million, almost overnight. Luckily for me, Ross, I had already been doing a lot of work with my team for the prior couple of years with Graham as our coach, really putting in some performance psychology techniques to make sure that we could be a great team.
But when those borders closed, Ross, I remember sitting there, having a moment of pause, gathering myself, inviting Graham to a Teams meeting, and quite humbly in one way, but also I was in a bit of shock at the time, admitting to Graham that I knew that the leadership playbook that had served me incredibly well for decades just was not going to be the playbook that I was going to need for the next 12 months to lead my team through the turbulence and all of the challenges that we would have ahead of us. Graham, A, agreed, and then B, gave me some very, very sound advice that I’ll let him elaborate on.
Ross: Graham, of course, you’re not working just with Martin, but a whole team. No doubt. Many of us had different frames of mind around the situation. In a nutshell, what tools or frames did you bring to the situation?
Graham Winter: I think having spent a number of my working years in the performance psychology area, I’m always very mindful that the first thing to do is to understand what your aims are, but particularly what the context is in which you’re operating. We talked quite a lot about technical challenges, and adaptive challenges, and linear and nonlinear environments. We recognized that from a team’s perspective, the amount of thinking we had, well over half of your team were professors, it was also a large team, three of them were running sub-parts of the university with 25,000 plus students, bigger than many Australian universities. You had that high level of complexity and scale. But you also had people in an incredibly human position as well.
I remember one of the first things I said to Martin was, let’s break this up into three simple pieces: functional, social, and emotional. Let’s just have some pretty regular conversations about each of your individuals. Where are they functionally? What are they trying to do? What are their relationships like? Where are the conflicts? Where are the difficulties they’re going to face? And emotionally, where are they at? We pretty much tic-tac on that, we covered a whole lot of other things. But that was almost the first tool, also many others, but Martin found it pretty handy because it gave us a quick reference point to know where to invest our time.
Ross: That’s interesting. You mentioned this idea of linear to nonlinear. It’s probably a long time since we lived in linear times as it were, but they are, of course, complex. Part of the thing is the human brain is not well-suited, or we need to continue to evolve to think that way. You’ve provided, in that case, a very simple framework that enables us to pull out the complexity there. What are some of the other ways in which we can, in this incredibly nonlinear, essentially beyond the ability for humans to grasp easily, how can we break it down into elements? What is the mindset in which we approach breaking these things down into elements that we can work with?
Graham: I think one of the critical elements, Ross, is to normalize the natural human emotional reaction. In very simple terms, we are wired for negativity. We wouldn’t have survived from an evolutionary biology perspective if we weren’t. But that doesn’t necessarily serve us well because when we’re placed in these nonlinear environments, we like certainty. Now, there’s some good research out of University College London where they talk about that as uncertainty increases, stress increases. Hence, they used a simple example, but a pretty compelling one: people who are fearful of some form of serious illness, their stress level is actually reduced once they get the diagnosis, even if the diagnosis is particularly dire. We love certainty.
To me, one of the first things to do is to have not just one conversation, but a norming conversation, if you like, with the team around that human reaction to go toward defensiveness, to go toward protection. Then how do you do that? Do you do that in an aggressive way? Do you take control? Do you become perfectionistic? Do you become more passive, more dependent? What are those elements? Then how can we, in a sense, go, ‘Okay, I’m recognizing the squirm, how do I now lean into that?’ But to me, that’s the first point.
It’s not that I’m invincible or whatever, I’m sure we’ll talk about this. But as we’ve interviewed leaders for the book, the prevailing theme throughout it has been this discovery of greater vulnerability, and that emotional vulnerability as a strength. To me, that’s that recognition that I’m human, I’m experiencing this. But it doesn’t mean that I can’t then choose to put my focus on certain things and move forward. But I’m going to have to deal with that first. Martin will share an experience there. We ran a session very early on in COVID. Martin called it ‘Going towards the fire’.
It was a pretty compelling one. But we were looking at our plan B and C, Scenario B and C, which actually ended up coming into fruition, which was the ideal months for a two-year lockdown.
Martin: Ross, I remember as if it was yesterday when we ran that exercise, and I remember it personally because I could feel myself moving defensive. What Graham helped us do was to recognize those feelings, understand them as perfectly natural, and then give us some very practical ways of moving more towards opportunity, Ross. We landed on three Cs: it’s about being constructive, courageous, and creative. If we could get ourselves to be that way, if we could have a clear intent and go towards the challenge rather than back away from them, but also give ourselves almost the permission to iterate and experiment, expect mistakes, and realize that as we would make those mistakes, we would learn from them.
But also persistence. It was the persistence once we unlocked ourselves from defensive into adaptive. We recognized that in all of that swirl, being courageously persistent was going to ultimately get us to where we needed to be. But I just remember because it was deeply personal for me, Ross, that sense of ‘run away, this is all too hard,’ but actually very liberating when I leaned forward into the opportunity.
Ross: I love that frame of constructive, courageous, and creative. That seems very useful but I’m always interested in where the rubber hits the road. Those are nice words, wonderful words. But working with your team, how is it that you shift people’s frame of mind to be constructive, to be courageous, and to be creative when it’s a very, very confronting situation? What’s the reality of it?
Martin: I’ll give the reality of my team and then maybe Graham, you can expand on your other observations. But there are probably a few rubber-hits-the-road moments. First of all, you’ve got to openly discuss the fear and the defensive mindset, Ross. It can’t be unspoken. We had some very confronting, open, candid conversations about the fear, about what we were going to have to do together. The second thing that Graham helped me construct was to link my deeply held personal values, Ross. What are those things that, in my case, as you would have seen in the book, took me back to very early times in my childhood, of those key underlying values that fueled me to want to be with the team to get through this?
There was a moment, literally hours before we locked down, where I shared those values with the group; they, in kind, became very vulnerable and reflected theirs. We used that as an anchor point to give us the courage and the persistence that we would need to hold us together through what was going to be our most challenging year in business, Ross. We fell back on those deeply held values as a way of fueling our conviction to get it done. Those were some of the things where the rubber hit the road we used to get people out of that defensive mindset and more into that creative, courageous, constructive mindset. But Graham, what would you add to that as you worked with other teams through it?
Graham: What I’ve observed over many years, and this is just, borrowing from a number of other models, Deming talked about the plan, do, check, adapt. The scientific method is a loop. Over the last 15 years or so, to me, the critical issue is that when you’re in these high-demand environments, this is about Amplifying Cognition, but in those high-demand environments, the danger is that your cognition gets degraded. But the way to not derail it is, to some extent what Martin’s talked about, but it’s then to use the team, and a team is any more than one person. What we’re endeavoring to do is to form that ability to operate in teams.
The question then is, okay, if you look at special military services, you look at emergency medicine, you look at fleets of yachts, agile software, and so on, there’s a natural characteristic that all of those teams operate with, and it’s a rhythm. It’s a disciplined rhythm. It’s a rhythm of alignment, of collaboration, of learning to deliver. What we’re then doing is, in a sense, taking almost the most powerful psychology tool, which is a short-term goal, and then guiding the team into that disciplined rhythm. Where are we at the moment? What can we do today? Let’s get aligned and collaborate. How do we do that? Then simple tools around collaborative problem-solving, tools around co-creation, very, very quick but effective debriefs, individually and collectively. To me, that’s the key.
I’ve just spent the last two days in Canberra, working something for one of the new defense teams, exactly the same thing, setting up their align, collaborate, and learn loops. It’s the discipline then. We talk about the emotion, and we normalize that, but it’s a task to be done here. We have to get that done. We’re going to get it done through alignment, collaboration, and learning. In that loop, the critical one is learning. You get to learn right. It’s like a fleet of yachts. We can align, we collaborate, but it’s actually driven by learning. Because then we realign, we re-collaborate, we learn again. That’s the adaptive power, which I’m sure, Ross, will take us into that. How do you create the environment in which people can learn fast because you’ve all learned faster than the environment that’s coming at you.
Ross: It is a critical, important point. Recently, John Hagel on the podcast, talked about scalable learning. How do we scale up our learning as individuals and organizations? Again, always want to go from their concept to their reality. You have your framework there, and they’re learning. I believe very much in learning by doing because you’re putting people in the situation, but what is the reality? We have to learn faster. The world is turbulent, the world is moving faster and faster, we have to learn more, and we have to be more inclined to learn. Again, in a very pragmatic, real-world sense, what do you do? How do you get people to learn more?
Graham: I want to highlight one of the things. As you know my background is I spent a fair bit of time with Olympic teams, and so on. Then also in the corporate area. One thing you notice in the sports area is there is what I would call a feedback expectation. If you’re in an environment, in a sporting context, where you’re not getting feedback, where you’re not able to provide feedback, you’re going to get out of there. Because you know that’s not the environment in which you’re going to develop. That is not the environment in most corporate situations. A lot of it’s about developing the skill to debrief, to reflect, and to have conversations, that’d be point one. And then point number two is that often, the debriefs tend to be more about the task and not about the people and the dynamics. It’s getting the discipline of the debrief, the discipline of the reflection into the operating rhythm of teams, and into the operating rhythm of individuals. But not…I’m sure you’ll be able to explore a little more how you do that with your team.
Martin: What I did with my team, and what I’m observing, Ross, with teams across Australia that I’m working with now, is they’re often trapped in an operating rhythm, a cycle of the way that they collaborate and learn, that actually no longer is relevant to the turbulent world that we live in. One of the things that we did with my team, and I work with other teams on now, is to actually get the operating rhythm up on the wall, and step back from it and say, ‘Is this any longer fit-for-purpose?’ and have the courage to revisit the operating rhythm and embed those shorter, sharper, debriefed ways of working. Stealing from agile methodology, we’re working in a series of sprints, rather than rigid quarters or annual cycles, Ross.
The other thing, then that you’ve got to be prepared to do, though, is to get information from your people, your organization, your environment, your customers, your stakeholders, that is more timely and potentially less perfect. In other words, you’re better off bringing what you’ve got into the room that’s timely and reflective of what’s going on right now, rather than waiting six to seven months for something that has been beautifully manicured and polished. When I talk about information, often, it’s not just bringing data or information into the room, it’s bringing different people into the room who are closer to what is going on and can act as subject matter experts to speed your learning up, Ross.
Ross: This is the idea of feedback at the heart of it. Graham, when you refer to athletes need immediate feedback on performance to be able to improve on that. In your mind, you’re referring to accelerating that feedback loop, where you have something in order to be able to learn from. Are there ways in which we can make that feedback more explicit or more helpful in an organizational environment?
Graham: I think a couple of things we have recognized, and it has come from some of the research. People are not necessarily wired to get up every morning and say, ‘Gee, I’d love to get some challenging feedback today.’ That’s not what we do, is it? It’s certainly not coming culturally, and it’s not what we do, either. One of the ways we do it is to flip that into gaining insights, seeking insights, rather than a straight-out conversation of, ‘How do I go and get feedback?’
For example, I’ve got a leadership team I’m working with at the moment. We’ve got to catch up next week. Their task over the last two weeks has been to have five-minute conversations with each colleague, three-point feedback: one thing that you’d like me to do more of, one thing that maybe I could do less of, and one thing that you value that I should keep doing. None of these things are rocket science, but they don’t get embedded. There’s an old rule in performance psychology that says the last thing you learn is the first thing that falls apart under pressure.
One of the things I pride ourselves on in the way that we’ve gone about with Toolkit is you’ve got to work under pressure, so it’s not an exercise in trying to make things complex, it’s an exercise in producing insights. What you’re doing is trying to create that environment where you get more insights. I think one of the best ways to get insight is to help people seek feedback; people are more likely to give it as well if they ask for insights. Even just that language of insight versus feedback can be very useful as well. But at the end of the day, it’s building a discipline, it’s building a rhythm. We want to amplify cognitions in a team environment where there are high levels of turbulence. Discipline is critical. It is critical because it is the drumbeat of align, collaborate, learn is what happens around it.
I find with executive teams when they start thinking about ‘We’re not like we used to be; we’re not like a train where everybody hitches their wagons and we know where we’re going to go and we’ve got a schedule,’ and so on. We’re like a fleet of yachts. We’re accountable for our own yacht; we’ve got a role in the fleet. We’re going to be experiencing difficulties at times, but they can simply take that back to, ‘How do we align? How do we collaborate? How do we learn? How do we do that in our yacht? How do we do it with other yachts? How do we build a culture of discipline?’
I’ve got an exercise with a group next week. It’s exactly what we’re discussing: what do you want your culture of learning and discipline to look like and feel like, and what’s going to work in your environment? It’s got to be comfortable; it’s got to work for them. There’s not a cookie-cutter approach to this. But it is about insights coming in, and as Martin said, one of the biggest challenges for CEOs is they don’t get insights. People don’t want them to know. They’ve got to go to the edge of their organizations to experience that.
Ross: The book ‘Peak’ by Anders Ericsson. He is famous for being the originator of the research of the ten-thousand-hour rule that Malcolm Gladwell popularized. But essentially, Anders Ericsson says, well no, it doesn’t matter. 10,000 hours, it doesn’t do it, what does is 10,000 hours of practice with feedback. When you do something, and every time you do it, you get some feedback on whether or not it’s the right thing and how to get better. You don’t even need 10,000 hours necessarily, but it is the feedback that enables you to improve your performance. That’s in a way the heart of it, so any way in which you can get that useful feedback. In sports, of course, you’ve got all sorts of wonderful data centers, as well as coaches. In a corporate environment, there’s far less feedback, as you say, for all reasons, Graham, including that people don’t like receiving feedback, and managers are often disinclined to go to that challenging territory of giving that feedback.
Graham: Ross, I want to add a point and then pop to Martin. One of the things we observed a few years ago, it’s one of those light bulb moments. We looked at special military, we looked at emergency medicine, we looked at a whole variety of these areas, and we realized that all of these high-performance environments had natural pauses. There’s a natural pause in a sporting event, there’s a pause between a mission, there’s a pause between a critical incident. A big challenge for business leaders, and credit to Martin more than probably any chief executive I’ve ever worked with, he built the pauses into his team, to enable them to set, and it is that ability to get that poise that separates the effective teams from not so effective when they’re in turbulence.
Ross: Yes. Martin, how did you design those pauses which give opportunities for feedback and reflection? How did those become part of the working process?
Martin: It’s so important, isn’t it, Graham? Because feedback can only really be received appropriately if people are in the right mindset and they feel psychologically safe to deliver it openly and candidly, and for the receiver, to have the support around them to be able to hear it and process it. None of that can happen unless you create literally, I used to do scuba diving when I was younger, Ross, and you used to have those decompression stops as you came up, so I think of them as decompression stops. But when you hit the decompression stop, I then really anchored in one of the core tools in the book, which is the ACLs. You would take time in the pause to realign. Are we all still focused on the right strategy and the right direction? If not, what’s changed? What do we need to do to realign and pause there?
We then paused around collaboration. Okay, we said these were the signature ways we wanted to work together, and there’s a great tool called the five shares in the book that helps diagnose where the team is at and develop their signature ways of working, so you’d do a debriefing and a feedback exercise, looking in the mirror to say, there are a lot of lovely words, but are we really living those, not just when we’re in the room, but when we scatter into the organization. Then perhaps the hardest one was to pause to learn because everybody’s so busy, particularly in turbulence, we make ‘learn’ that thing that we’ll get to eventually, but forcing the pause to learn, to bring the external voice in, bring the information in from the edges. But I increasingly find that unless leaders set their rhythm of the business up to have those decompression stops, once a month, once a quarter, things will go horribly wrong under pressure. Many think of it as an indulgent use of time. It’s probably one of the best investments in time I think you can make as an executive leader.
Ross: Fantastic. More broadly, the book is largely around teams; it’s around leadership, organizations, the teams, and how those can work effectively is at the heart of it. We talked about amplifying cognition; cognition applies just as much to teams as to individuals. What are some distilled thoughts on how is it we can amplify the capabilities of teams? What’s the nub of it? Where’s the heart of being able to amplify that ability to make sense to work well together?
Graham: There are a few elements to it, Ross. The frame we use, again, I will go ‘align, collaborate, learn,’ and we hone in on six building blocks or two on each side. ‘Align’ is, do we have a sense of direction and do we have a focus? Our data shows somewhere between 60-70% of the leadership teams do not have a clear purpose for their team. Now, that might sound ridiculous, but when you really pin an executive team down and go, ‘What are you accountable for?’ Very few can be clear about what that is. They’ll often say, ‘We’ll deliver on the strategy.’ I look at the CEO and go, ‘That’s you. That’s what you’re accountable for. What is this team accountable for?’ I think the first point is that you amplify leadership teams’ cognition and impact when they’re clear that their role is to create the environment in which success can occur. Then the environment has a whole lot of elements to it. Then they’ve got to provide the focus.
The second part, if you think of it then is that ‘Collaborate’ really has got two pieces to it. It’s the development of partnering relationships because as much as we think organizations operate in teams and people are aggregated in teams, stuff doesn’t get done in teams, stuff gets done between people. It’s the partnering connections and relationships. Then, it’s the ability of the synergy to make the decisions effectively. Martin is exceptionally good at taking his team through some incredibly complex areas. The third part is ‘Learn,’ which is the awareness and the tempo, which are the elements.
To me, it’s building. We use that as a frame with a team, and we’ve used that in the book, and we’re essentially saying, calibrate yourself against this. Do we have direction to our focus? Do we have the connections? Do we have the synergy? Do we have the awareness? Do we have the tempo? Where are we at? How do we need to move those forward? We can’t afford the investment to be good at and very good at all of them but if we like, as in a business, there’ll be one or two things in an apt context, we need to get really good. What is it? And then do you have any derailers?
Martin: I’d just add to that, perhaps speaking to the listeners who are running teams, who might be the team leader, Ross, is to get the most out of the team. It’s shifting your mindset from being a manager or a leader or an executive to much more thinking of yourself as a coach, Ross, and thinking about what are those differences. A very powerful technique we talk about in the book is, first of all, you’ve got to dial up the pace of your interactions with your team members. But then you’ve got to reconstruct the conversation. Then we talk about if you move to conversations that are anchored in, ‘What have you achieved that you’re really proud of? How have you developed yourself in the last 60 days to learn and understand what’s going on? What brings you joy? What do you enjoy in your role? How, as I, as your coach, dial into that? But then also, how are you partnering with your colleagues in the team? Where have you got challenges? How can I help? How can I unlock the barriers that might be emerging or existing?’
And Graham mentioned, literally, every Friday afternoon, we would get together and go team member by team member. The onus was on me as the coach on Monday morning to adjust my interactions with them around that framework to help them bring their best to themselves and the team. A little bit of that was prioritizing self-care, Ross, that we talk about in the book as well. Self-care for me as the coach and being in my best space, but also caring for the whole person, not just how they’re achieving with the task. We talk in the book about how it’s got to start with the coach first and the leader first, and then bringing those new techniques to the team so that they can excel individually, and as one, Ross.
Ross: Fantastic. Just to round out quickly. There are 25 tools, I tried to count them in the book, and I don’t think we are able to describe them in any detail right now. But just for each of you, what is the outline of one tool that you would offer as a gift, as a suggestion, or as something that could be useful to be able to take and apply immediately?
Martin: Oh, sure. The tool that comes to mind for me, I’ll pick one, and you’ll see where you go, Graham, but we have a tool in the book, which is called the Align, Collaborate, and Learn team canvas, Ross. It talks about the building blocks of building a team. Graham touched on it already, where it’s got to start, and you can start anywhere with the blocks except we think you need to start first with what is the team’s direction and why the team exists. But if you get that up on a wall and you explain each of the six elements and have a great team conversation around where they believe the strengths and the gaps are in the team, it unlocks one of the most powerful conversations, Ross, around a shared understanding of where the team needs to build on its strengths or go after its gaps. It’s never failed me. It’s that tool that you can use multiple times because teams aren’t static. It is part of the debriefing process that I used with my team, and I now help other leaders take to theirs. What about you, Graham?
Graham: I’m going to tackle the performance conversation, Ross. I think the vast majority of organizations have a linear industrial model for their performance conversations. I would encourage your listeners to redefine what they mean by performance. The tool we talk about there, and Martin mentioned it briefly earlier, if you want to sustain performance, there are four elements: you need to be achieving meaningful outcomes, you need to be developing and growing, enjoying what you’re doing, and partnering. You put that into a cadence with your team. I have achieved, developed, enjoyed, partnered, have a 90-day alignment around what we’re going to do, and then 30-day check-ins.
In the book, we’ve interviewed 15 leaders, many of whom are leaders that we’ve worked with, and they use that. The chief defense scientist uses it with her team, Martin uses it with his team, Paul Doughty is using this, it’s used in a number of banks and universities and so on. It’s very simple because it just allows you to have a proper conversation about the four critical inputs to performance, whereas so many performance conversations tend to be just about the task and a little bit about maybe some training stuff. I’d shorthand this idea, achieve, develop, enjoy, and partner. Try that. I see that it worked, just the funnier side, when we first tested this out, a lady came back to me after about 30 days… a 60-day debrief. She said, ‘Oh my goodness, this idea works.’ I said, ‘How do you know it?’ She said, ‘I caught myself having a conversation with my eight-year-old daughter.’ I said, ‘It’s an ideal conversation. I’m asking you, who did she play with? What did she achieve? What sort of fun did she have?’ We need to make natural tools embedded in organizations so that the performance we’re bringing out is the best in people. That’s how you amplify cognition.
Ross: Fantastic. Thank you so much for your insights, Graham and Martin. Where can people go to find out more about each of your works and find the book?
Martin: We have got a website that people can go to, which is quite a simple URL. It’s just toolkitforturbulence.com, one word, and you’ll see everything that you need to know about the book there. Plus, we’ve got some tools that people can grab and start using right away, Ross. You’ll also find the links there if you’d like to order the book. We also have in the month of November, a masterclass that we’re offering free for anybody who wants to register and come along. The website has the link to that as well. If you would like to join us, it would be a pleasure to meet you and hear a little bit more about the book. Thank you for asking, Ross.
Ross: Fantastic. All of those links to both of your other works will be on the show notes. Thank you so much. It’s been a great pleasure having you on the show.
Graham: Ross, thank you very much, and thanks for the podcast. I find it incredibly valuable and I refer it to so many of my clients, so thank you.
Martin: Thank you, Ross.