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Following Your Compass During Times of Change . . . A Training Unleashed Interview with Kris Girrell

Kris Girrell

For more than 30 years, Kris Girrell has excelled as an organizational consultant, executive leadership coach, keynote speaker, and more.  He is founder of Innerworks Consulting, a Massachusetts-based consulting agency with clients in the pharmaceutical, financial, manufacturing, construction, and other sectors. Kris is the author of books that include A Guide to the Periodic Table of Human Emotions and Leadership Gold: Discovering the Value of Failure.

Kris recently sat down with Evan Hackel and recorded “Following Your Own Compass During Times of Change,” one of Tortal Training’s Training Unleashed podcasts.

We are pleased to present this stimulating conversation that took place between Evan and Kris. Please note that this transcript has been edited for length and conciseness. 

Evan: Welcome, everyone, to an exciting edition of Training Unleashed. I am proud to have a member of the C-Suite Network with us today, Kris Girrell. Kris is the CEO of Innerworks Consulting. He has done coaching with Fortune 500 companies and with smaller organizations.

It’s been my pleasure to know Kris for a little over a year. He is one of the most insightful people that I know on change. Our topic today will be Following Your Own Compass During Times of Change.

Kris, given what’s going on in the world right now with the pandemic, how do you not react? How do you make deliberate change? And Kris, what do you mean when you say, “Follow your own compass?”

Kris: Well, you know, normally when we do training around change, there is a model we follow that it’s based on some objectives that we’ve set up with a client. But what’s happened recently is that that those things have been taken away.

Normally when we do strategic planning, we talk about planning into a future that has certain dynamics to it. Now, that’s been taken away. So there’s an ambiguity that’s facing leaders, and an uncertain dynamic about what’s going to happen next, that we don’t have any predictive ability about.

So where does the leader lead from or lead to, when we’re facing such rapid change and accelerated uncertainty? Today, we are really talking about, what are the internal values of the company? What are you? What’s your true North Star? Because, you know, whatever you choose to do, you have to be true to that.

Evan Hackel

Because we are all kind of luffing right now, we can no longer say, “Let’s bounce our values off the external environment and see where we go.” There’s no wind in the sails and nowhere to tack. So the real internal compass is the corporate value structure that you have, your real deeper mission. It’s not that you want to be the best, you know, X in your industry. It has become, what’s your real purpose?

And I think that’s the place that we’re trying to coach people, especially leaders, to start from and to rally their teams around so that in the face of ambiguity, there’s at least clarity around what the company’s purpose and vision really are.

Evan: Well, I do love that. You know pivot is a big word right now . . . pivot, pivot. Alright, I do think people have to pivot. But I also think there’s a possibility that people are pivoting for the sake of pivoting, without really doing the gut check. Are they living true to who they are and moving toward their strategic vision?

So Kris, if you were a leader right now in an organization, what process would you take on with your team to ensure that people are living to that internal compass?

Kris: Well, it starts with the leader, you know. So if I’m the leader, where I have to go first is to inspect what my beliefs are and allow the change to change me, to affect me. You know, what I mean by that is to delay or strip away some of the ego that has been driving me.

Now, leadership ego is a good thing, although ego often gets a bad rap. The problem happens when ego gets in charge and it’s more important than values, more important than commitment to core beliefs.

In these big crises, we have to pivot, and to do that, we need to strip away what was driving us, the ego strength in our leadership, and actually take a look inside first. So I think the first step is to do that internal inspection, and that’s hard to do, because many leaders take on the persona of their companies. They wear it like a coat and taking it off is a really difficult first step.

Evan: I think you said something really important, which is that leaders  often feel they need to portray a confidence that inspires others. They want people in the company to feel, “The person in charge here knows what’s going on, can handle it, and knows what to do.” But at the same time, a leader could be more effective by setting that aside and really listening to the team.

But how does a leader balance that? How does he or she project leadership while accepting knowledge from the team?

Kris: I remember back to the 2009 financial crisis. I was working with a CEO who invited me into a senior management team meeting. And at one point in that meeting, he literally just stood up almost tearfully and opened his jacket and said, “This is all you get.”

He was literally saying, “I don’t know where to go. Help me lead you.” That level of vulnerability shifted the whole senior team. Talk about pivot! He had the courage to literally say, “I don’t know what’s next. You know, we’re tanking, and we need to totally change the organization because of our financial situation. Do we cut back to the bare bones? Do we all take half salaries?”

And it was a really pivotal moment for him. So, yes, I think that first step is to strip away the ego and get that out of the way so you can actually say, who am I really as this leader? Not with the title, but who am I?

And then secondly, getting into a state of vulnerability where you can say, “Hey, you know, this is all you get. This is the best I can give you. I am who I am. And that’s it.”

That is the place from where you get empathy for somebody else. No, not until you go there. First, as the leader, can you really listen in with empathy to what your team is saying?

I don’t care how smart the leader, one person, is. Because the combined talent of the team is really where the solution lies. But as long as that overarching persona of the leader’s ego prevails (“this is how we have been existing”) you can’t pivot because you’re stuck inside that infrastructure.

Evan: But aren’t there two different pivots? There is the temporary pivot, “How do we exist during this shelter in place of minimal open economy and customers’ fear of going out?” Because even if places like restaurants have opened, that doesn’t mean people are going to go out to dinner. And then you have to have that other pivot to, you know, “Things are now back to normal,” or the new normal, as I like to call it. And what opportunities does our organization have to grow and pivot and be ready to take that second leap?

Kris: I think it’s a huge dilemma that we’re facing. The first part, the initial pivot, addresses issues like, “How do we function now, within the confines of business as it’s structured right now? “

You know, some businesses are at a total standstill, because of the nature of their businesses. They could be restaurants or early childhood education centers, places where there is close contact with people. Businesses like those cannot open until we are at, you know, phase three or phase four of mandated opening requirements.

Evan: Let me interrupt you for a second. I live in a community where there are a lot of restaurants. Most are closed. But one restaurant decided to stay open to do takeout and delivery. And they then opened a whole grocery because they could offer people food from the restaurant. They began to sell toilet paper, paper towels, eggs. They began to sell food packages that contained everything customers needed to make meals at home.

In time, that restaurant was selling like $5,000 a day in groceries, on top of the prepared meals they were selling. They reinvented themselves while other restaurants were, well, sort of taking the easy way out.

So there’s a beautiful example, a metaphor for that second pivot you’re talking about. That restaurant said, “Wait, let’s reimagine the whole thing. We have access to something that nobody else has. How can we totally pivot at this point and create a value that will be recognized by the customers?” That’s the difference.

Kris: That’s exactly what I mean. And so, it’s a question of rethinking what your resources are, in the context of what’s needed from the market, because what’s needed from the market now isn’t the same as what you were providing before. So you have to rethink that.

That’s where the ego gets into the structure. And I think a company has an ego the same as an individual does. The structure that you have is your preexisting paradigm of how your business works, and that can get in the way. That’s why the first step is stripping that away. What is it you have that’s needed and how can you pivot to do that?

Evan: How do you get the team to create that new future so that your organization can maximize your opportunities?

Kris: Well, the new future is the same paradigm shift as you described in your restaurant analogy. If people go back into business just with, you know, hand sanitizers and sanitation techniques and add those onto what they normally did before the pandemic, they will miss the window.

What is needed in the new world? You have to accept that you may not come out of this with the same infrastructure, the same financials, the structure, the same economy as we entered in. You may not come out with the same customer base that you had when the whole pandemic started.

But like that restaurant you described, you have a talent. You know what your moral compass is. And you can anticipate that there are people who have a particular need.

So let’s anticipate what that need is and pivot our company before we hit that new inflection point. And that’s the big one that has to change. I think it’s the same metaphor, the same dynamic that was found in the restaurant you described.

Evan: You’re a psychologist and you have had a tremendous amount of experience in the workplace. How do you think different generations will respond to the current challenge of business recovery? There are still people who lived through the depression, who lived through World War II, and now they have been joined by traditionalist millennials, and now Gen X, Y and Z. Every generation has been impacted by the pandemic, but how will these different groups respond and react?

Kris: It’s a brilliant question. And I first will say I don’t have the answer to it. But one thing is that different generations will have different capacities or different styles of reacting to this.

Evan: Well you know, my Gen Xer son has been the least affected member of our family in certain ways. He is completely happy being in his bedroom with a couple of computers going, you know, talking to his friends on one, playing interactive games on the other. And he didn’t have really any desire to leave the house before now. But, you know, being in the house is not so much fun for me, a boomer. It’s getting old, being in the house.

Kris: Gen Xers get to a certain point in a game and then the get stalled or lose, and they start again, and it’s not such a big deal for them. But it’s not just the devices and the computer, you know, that has given that generation that facility, that ability to flip and turn and flip and turn.

My generation, even in the tech world, we think of failure as a setback. We think that if something didn’t work, we have to go back, reinvent that. But a lot of kids who grew up with gaming technology think of failure as just, you know, “Okay, let’s hit reset and start anew.” They’re not as seriously affected by such a huge upheaval. They just see it as another bump in the road. It’s another challenge. It’s another gnome running out of the cave. And, you know, with the battle axes, something in the game, you know, and so we zap that one and we move to the next one. So I think there are different levels and different gradients in terms of our ability to roll with the punches.

And yet there are people within my generation, our generation, who are early adapters, who have technology, who are up to any challenge, up to making the new change. You know, some people look at this in and say, sign me up.

A few months ago, a friend asked me, “Why haven’t you retired yet?” But I can’t think of anything more exciting than being in my profession right now, with what’s happening in the world.

There are people like me who are saying, “This is the best ride we can get, you know?” And there are people who are scared to death.

I really feel compassionate for them. They are scared out of their wits, because they don’t know what’s going to happen to them. They don’t know what’s going to happen to their 401Ks. So you get from one end to the other end of the spectrum, you know, you can slice it one way with how different generations are prepared for change and are dealing with change. You know, the geometric curve of change.

People have noted that between 1940 and the present, there have been more changes in technology and information structure and business structure that there have been in all of history. You know that it’s just going this way.

Evan: My God, I love this. And to return to the issue of getting your company back to work successfully, what should company leaders be asking?

Kris: What is it that the world needs? What talent and other resources do we have in our company that can meet them?

Project how your talent and resources can meet that specific need, not move you into some predicted future dynamic. How can you provide what’s really needed? That’s part of the internal compass I’m talking about.

To learn more about Kris Girrell and hear his complete Training Unleashed Podcast discussion with Evan Hackel, CLICK HERE.