About Dan Pontefract
Dan Pontefract is the founder of the Pontefract group. He is a very well known Keynote speaker, and author of the bestselling book, OPEN TO THINK, which was the 2019 getAbstract International Book of the Year and the Axiom Business Book silver medal for leadership in 2019. He is also a writer for Forbes and Harvard Business Review. Dan helps build bridges between life and work, through his activities, and we are happy to have him on our interview series.
We have the pleasure of welcoming Dan Pontefract today to our interview series. I’m Aishwarya Jain from the peopleHum team. Before we begin, just a quick intro of PeopleHum. PeopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work with AI and automation technologies. We run the peopleHum blog and video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month.
Welcome, Dan, we’re thrilled to have you!
Miss Jain, thank you so much for having me today. Happy beginning of the week. During an epically, sad period of the pandemic but I like to see your smiling face.
Our pleasure Dan. So, Dan, tell us a little about the Pontefract Group. What was your vision to start something like this?
That's a great question. In essence, I figured that I had better leave the corporate world to help more than one organization at a time with what I felt to be sort of a lifelong career of culture change, of purpose, of flexible work. But enough in a time like the pandemic that's coming in handy.
As well as you know, different ways in which to learn, as opposed to just face to face. So ostensibly being in the corporate world, in the academic world for about 25 years, I said, You know what? I'm 48. I think it's time to help other organizations than just one.
And if you could tell us, what exactly do you help organizations with?
Yeah, Well, I guess I'm kind of flexible, but ultimately I do four things. So one is, as you mentioned, I could deliver a keynote and sort of help an organization with an event or how they need to educate, if you will, like attendees of their employees.
But really, where I'm probably more useful or where I provide the best value is when I'm inside the organization and actually helping them shift. So, that can come in three ways. One is, I like to go into organizations who let me and conduct what I call a culture assessment and a culture assessment takes between 3 to 4 months.
But it's a chance for me to interview executives, to have focus groups with team members to survey, to walk the floor if you will and really understand what's going on. And there's always great things that are happening and not so great things.
The second thing I do is I kind of help with modeling. So modeling, maybe leadership models, it may be learning models, it may be organizational design, sort of helping the organization see how it might become more effective with who reports to whom or what teams they're sort of ineffective or effective.
So the whole kind of modeling work, which is a consulting opportunity, brings my experience again to the forefront of, 'Well, how do we do things around here? And how might we do things differently?'
And then the third one, are essentially workshops and coaching. So are there ways for me to come in and to provide an intact team with particular skill development? Maybe that's like how to think differently. Maybe that's how to drive purpose differently, but also on a one on one coaching exchange. I'll do that as well. So that’s what I do. I do keynotes, and I do culture assessments, modeling, and then kind of workshops /coaching/facilitation.
Well, that's a lot of stuff that you do, and I'm sure it must be very interesting every day for you.
It's great. That's exactly why I wanted to go out on my own where you know, I get to work with the government and public sector at a federal or national level, plus provincial and state level or municipality, right at the city level. I can work with a small or medium-sized organization. You know, 500 employees or I can work with, a bank that has 250,000 employees.
I mean, they're all different, for sure and I get a lot of self-satisfaction reward out of working with those organizations because they're different.
Yeah, I think now it's the norm that businesses are shifting from being very business-centric to really people-centric and suddenly, you know, they are all about, the people and the people are our assets.
You did mention that you take cultural assessment tests, right? So what is it that you're really looking for? And what is what are your findings out of those you know from all of these assessments that you made?
Well, essentially, when I'm hired in to do a culture assessment, the organization and its typically either you know, the CEO or the COO or the CHRO and sometimes a CIO, but they're basically recognizing that, once they've probably done a pretty good job thus far, they want to sort of elevate their game a little more.
They want to find ways in which to improve their engagements, improve their productivity, maybe improve their innovation. And if you kind of look to the current day with the pandemic, they may want to change the way in which, that they actually function, how they do the work, and particularly where they do the work. My role in those cases is kind of coming in and saying, "Okay, well, here’s, where your culture is.
You know, you're doing great things over here with, let's say, performance development or you're doing not so great things over here with, say, recognition. So you're not recognizing your people at all, or you give them a pin for being there for five years like who cares? Right?
And then there are all the other kinds of people and culture pieces or attributes that fall in that. So there's leadership. There's learning. There's a collaboration or lack of it, there’s organizational design and how they might be too hierarchical. And maybe they need to be a little flatter. Maybe paying hommage to my first book, perhaps Flat Army, covers all of that.
And then it's like, Okay, here's some good things going on. You may have teams that are doing none of it, you may have teams that are doing all of it. And so there's disparity throughout an organization. I find it fascinating, you know, I’ll give you an example and I won't share what organization it is because that's obviously wrong. They're 1500 people that work in the group, and they're based across an entire province. And you have basically, 800 people that work in the headquarters and 800 people that work in offices throughout the rest of the province.
The culture of the 800 people that don't work at headquarters is vastly different and better than the headquarter culture. The headquarter culture is very hierarchical, very competitive with one another, and not very collaborative, even though they're face to face.
Whereas the folks who were kind of in the fields that splattered across the province, they are collegial and they're proactive and they're a little more community-driven. And they're a little more helping out one another, way more collaborative and sort of bringing this to the attention of that organization, right after kind of going through interviews and looking at the organization, they're like, 'Wow, we didn't know that we could figure it out. So we are the headquarter goofball.'
So it's that where you know, on the surface, you look at the website, you look at what they do. It's like you know, company X, great. But when you look behind the scenes, they could be so much more productive and efficient and customer-friendly if they sorted out how they operate between headquarters and the field.
And so they're there in the middle of kind of switching how they do that, and some progress being made. But, you know, it gives me a great opportunity to learn from that different dynamic. And now I have that example in my sort of repertoire, and I can draw upon that, the next time I go to another organization.
Absolutely and do you attribute this culture gap to mainly leadership or is it something else?
Well, it's mostly leadership. I think every human problem is a human problem. Problems caused by humans but what I find is that leaders do a few things strangely. One is they ignore the employee, and it's there's this kind of saying, 'Oh, you're just a number' where basically, one of my most loathed terms is headcount, where you're just a number of your headcount in a spreadsheet and they forget or they lose sight of the fact that the employee is still a human, that they have emotions that they have needs, that they have problems at home, that their kids are having difficulty at school, that it's a long commute, that, there's really societal issues.
because then the team looks up like, she or he doesn't care about me, they’re only in it for themselves, right? And why would I wanna work hard or innovate or create or whatever with that person? So they check out or worse, they go against the orders of the team and they're literally doing things that are probably ill-advised, but they're angry, so they're kind of entering into spite and a spite world as opposed to, you know, collective good world.
So I see that, but again, there are lots of good stories where when the leaders kind of check their ego at the door, when they realize that this the sum of all is greater than the individual parts separately, that they tap into the collective intelligence of the team, that they reward the team, that they develop and learn with the team...
You know, they're there to help break down barriers to provide air covers to think about, diversity, equity, inclusion, right? Like thinking about the whole of what makes a team operate is we're all different, but can be collective ones.
If that leader creates a culture that allows that to manifest and you know, three out of ten times, that's how it is happening. But the other seven out of 10 times it's not, it's frightening.
Right and I think, leaders that they kind of become less empathizing. You know, the empathy factors are not there because I don't know what it is about leaders, is about keeping their reputation or just being, less genuine and all of that.
So I think a lot of people that I speak to, they talk about leaders showing their vulnerabilities. So, you know, just kind of accepting that they are human, too on, and you know, that raised them down if they do not accept it. What is your opinion on that?
I just finished writing a book, right? Like spot on with that sentiment and the book is called “Lead, Care, Win- How to Become a Leader Who Matters” and the point of ‘Lead Care Win’ is not about winning per se. It's that when you lead by caring, you will win the team over, you will win the customer over, and that's the outcome we're looking for, us to kind of win, but not in a money or I'm first sense. It's about the engagement and the culture and the love of humanity sense.
That's what I'm getting at in ‘Lead Care Win’ and you're right about empathy. That's chapter number one. It's actually called ‘Be Relatable’. And when you're relatable amongst other attributes, you are demonstrating empathy.
But I'll let you in on a kind of spoiler alert. We get empathy wrong because we don't realize that there are three types of empathy like there's the word empathy and generally speaking as, an, umbrella term. It's fantastic. But...
So the Head is Cognitive Empathy. That's when you can intellectually think about what someone is thinking, so they may be frightened, they may be thinking differently. Uh, they may have thoughts on something that you hadn't thought about before. That's cognitive empathy. You're putting your head in their head.
And then on the Heart that's called, Emotional Empathy and emotional empathy is when you're feeling what they're feeling, so they could be feeling down or sad or happy or, like scared of something. There's just a feeling and so now you're in their shoes of their feelings, so you're kind of sensing their heart.
And then the third type, which I use my hands to describe. That one metaphorically, is called Sympathetic Empathy and sympathetic empathy is when you've intellectualized how they're thinking, and you've got a sense of how they're feeling with their heart that you're going to do something about it.
So you're doing something about it, and when you do all three, it's a wonderful, birth to compassion. And when we're compassionate about that individual, we're now taking into consideration all factors: their ethnicity, their gender, their schooling, their places of work beforehand, the pressures at home, the pressures of the job, right?
Whatever the situation, all of that compassion is now born because you as a leader have thought through the three types of empathy and that's how we can be more relatable.
Whereas the irony of course, right, has been that leaders think they need to tell their team what to do, to whip them with a leather lash. Right? Say, Come up. Faster, Faster, faster. Get going, right. But we're not horses, right? We're not bulls. We're people and bulls and horses are not people, so people need the opposite. We need to relate to the head, heart, and then also take action with the hands.
You see, like Hallmark cards and you see, Instagram memes that say, there's no 'I' in team. I mean, there's a reason that joke has been around forever. But what ultimately happens is the other metaphor I like to use is, you know, let's say, cricket or football, soccer, right? You have the player’s crest or the team's crests right on the front, somewhere on the lapel or somewhere in the front. It's like, you know, it's Manchester United, right? There's the crest on the front but on the back is a number and their name.
So Marcus Rashford, let's say you know Number 10 Rashford on the back there. Well, does Marcus Rashford the football player, play just for Marcus Rashford? Or does he play for the team? And my argument is that if he only played for himself, he wouldn't be on the team. He would be looked at by his coach, his manager, his team members as a selfish player.
And so what Rashford has to do for Manchester United is, he needs to play for the crest of Man United, and that means playing with and for and through and about all the team members, the coaching staff, the training staff, the physical therapist, the doctors, management executive. That's the team. So now, play that into the organization's today.
If a leader does not see that she or he has a team of which they're leading, then they're only playing for the name on the back of their own kind of jersey. That would be me playing just for Pontefract on the back, not whatever my company logo is, my organization logo is on the front, and that's what I see far too often is that leaders are playing for the name on the back of their jersey only.
So they're interested in salary increases or stocks or raising the share price or whatever it takes to increase revenues and to eliminate costs or to increase profitability.
Absolutely. So it's the leader's job to keep a team engaged and not just play for himself, but act as a coach and you know, build that team experience, right? And it's about, ah, higher value purpose, not just a very individualistic or a selfish purpose right?
It's exactly what I mean. If leaders only knew and decided to move from selfishness to selflessness, then you got yourself a pretty good game. Then I would be out of business because then every leader is acting with a selfless sense of character and a purpose, not a selfish sense of character or purpose. And once you start figuring that out again, the team is just, you know, amazingly going to go to that or further for you.
So I'll give you an example recently with the pandemic. So I checked in on one of my clients. You know, I said, 'Hey, Robert, you know how you do and you know how are things?' And he told me the story. He's a director of a team, 15 or so people, and Robert says, you know, everyone was asked to work from home, but no one wanted to go back into the office of his team because they were frightened about the virus to get their PC because they didn’t have laptops, they had PCs and their stuff, right, and they're a bunch of accountants.
So they got files and papers and things that they needed. So the organization made a decision to send everyone home, but they didn't really necessarily think through, you know, all the steps to get everybody from home.
So, Robert, instead of saying I want you all to go into the office and go get your stuff. He said, don't worry, I've got your back and so he went into the office and he collected their PC, their files and their ergonomic chair. Put it into his truck and he drove to everybody's home whether they're in a condo, a flat or a house, phoned them up and said, 'Hey, I'm here. I've wiped down everything with isopropyl alcohol so that, you know, there's no remnants potential of any virus whatsoever. The stuff is sitting at your door or in the hallway, the front lobby, come and get it and I'm going back to do the next team member'.
Well, yeah, So it wasn't to even tell him to go get their stuff, and he didn't say, 'OK, figure it out. You know, I'm not doing anything for you'. He was compassionate. He was empathic and he did what...
Absolutely. That is strong leadership and you know, that is something that any employee will always remember and, you know, kind of keep that person in mind, even though they might have left the company after some time. Right? You always remember such leaders.
Tell me something Dan, you know, do you think that tools and tech can help in this? Do they play your role as an enabler to kind of build out, you know, good leadership, plus an employee experience?
Yes and no. So I have this sort of line, I say often 'behavior before tools and form before function'. So behavior before tools, form before function, what I mean, behavior and form are the attributes. They're the ways in which that you react whether you're proactive, compassionate, open, transparent, authentic, trustworthy, you know, you name it those are all behaviors of relatability, behaviors of collaboration, behaviors of being humane and no technology is going to teach you that.
No technology is actually going to fix your errors.
So if you are not, for example, around the office saying, 'Hey, how are you doing today? You okay?' or around the office say, 'Hey, I've got a file for you. I thought you might need this for a client or a customer call or whatever. Or 'hey, can I get you coffee? you look like you're overworked today, why don’t I go get you a tea'.
If you don't do that face to face, the technology is not gonna help you because now you're even further removed from the face to face arena. And technology is like, What? Because you're gonna send some sort of, I don't know, like a cat playing piano on Instagram video to them, to make them laugh.
That's not enough, right? It just looks weird. So there's that. But that being said, there are some instances of technology, if you have the behavior down, that certainly will demonstrate continued like behavior, like continued positive behavior.
So, funny enough, that's the same individual who went and got the desks there, the chairs and the PC and the files for the accountants. So it was his birthday last week. So that story happened, like, three weeks ago. So last week, it's his birthday, and he is at home. And so he sets up a zoom call with the team, and he says, he is a single guy.
So he's like, You know what? I want to celebrate my birthday. It's a big birthday, so he's having a certain number on the calendar. And so he gets the people around the zoom call. He says, 'Look, I want you to teach me how to make a cake from scratch' and so these guys and laptop in his kitchen, he's got you know, the 49 people in their zoom that's right there, and they're teaching him over like a two hour period- How to make a cake from scratch, so that he could celebrate his birthday and that his team sort of helped him.
But there's using technology just to kind of continue and extend your accentuate who this leader is. A very open, charismatic, down to earth, no hierarchy. 'Hey, I don't know how to make a cake. You guys want to help me out here?' and they did, and he made the cake and, took photos of him eating the cake and sent it out with the team the next day. That's what I'm getting at like we don't have to be so, rigid as a leader, we can be humane.
Absolutely. I think it can be an enabler to some extent, but it's really dependent on the user. The way they would like to use it. It can be misused as well in a lot of ways.
Exactly. I'll give an example, Right. So I got a director, sort of contacted me. This is before the pandemic about how his boss, VP would text like orders. Like I want you to do this. It would be texts or you didn't do this well and it would be texts. So just like these streams of consciousness through texts and almost like violent types of text, right?
Like they were not compassionate. They were directive. They were lacking any Kouf. They were horrible. Like I saw a couple of them, and so he was looking for advice on what he should do? And I said, Well, you gotta meet face to face and just tell him how you're feeling because it's impacting your productivity and that's really what the VP should be thinking about is when you do this, it's doing the opposite right?
The feedback is like, so negative. It's making me feel negative and down. So he did eventually have a conversation with the VP. To ask him to not lead by texting and again, some leaders who think technology is easier. To my point earlier are exactly exacerbating the negative leadership that they actually already demonstrate. It's exploding in a more negative way because they're using it even worse.
Yeah, absolutely. That is not the right use of technology and especially for people who are very uptight and are very rigid, I think those leaders just make it worse by using tech.
Yeah. I think it will be helpful to really align to your employees to, um, you know, kind of have the culture fit in place and the leaders to understand the psyche of their team as well as to, you know, give them the right opportunities and help them really, really grow.
And, are you a believer in the gig economy? And, have you seen the adoption of the gig economy over time? And have you seen the increase in, the millennial workforce? And how do you think this trend is relevant with respect to the future of work?
A couple of thoughts. I think you know, mainstream media, they've sort of hijacked the term the gig economy. People have had part-time jobs forever like it's not new. So there's that.
So when we used to have part-time jobs, maybe you say two part-time jobs or three part-time jobs. Often there would be someone within the two or three jobs that would be looking at benefits, if you got to 50% part-time job, you'd have benefits or 60% lower rate.
Now, these days, one of the things that's really falling by the wayside is our benefits. Where organizations look to cut costs, so they employ gig economy employees and they only get them up to a certain threshold of hours, so they don't have to pay benefits. And I think that's just wrong.
I mean, that goes back to why are we here? Is the organization here solely to make money and profit and to up the share price because some of those gig economy type decisions of hiring are based on the fact that, well, it's cheaper to not hire a full-time employee, you don't have to pay them benefits, you don't have to pay them salary increases every year. And we know that depending on where you live, that the benefit package can be, upwards of 35% more on top of the salary.
So that kind of frightens me a little bit, to be honest, and then there's this 'they don't really work for us, so we don't really have to care about them' mentality. And what I mean by that is, the employer, sort of suggesting to the employee who's the gig economy employee, the part-time kind of worker, the contractor, you're just a number, we can get someone else.
You're replaceable and whether you're a lift or Uber driver or you know whatever the case may be, this whole notion that the employer can hold the baton to, whack someone and say, 'Look, there's someone else right there.' That doesn't create a great culture because if your organization is made up of the so-called gig economy employees and full-time employees, the full-time employees still are working with the gig economy employees. Do they wanna work in an organization that treats the gig economy employees differently and less than humane? That frightens me dearly.
Yeah, that is true.
I think the inclusion in both places with respect to the gig economy is it's not that, positive, you know. But do you think that will change after the pandemic is over? Would it be more inclusive as organizations?
That's a great question. What I think is gonna happen is yes, there's gonna be a short term boost to being inclusive and patient and we're all in this together. I think there's also going to be a short term boost to organizations thinking about how they serve their community, so their direct community.
And, yes, the multinationals have to look at things on a global level. Whether you are Amazon or Walmart or Unilever or McDonald's or Coca Cola, you know that that's a different story, but I think a lot of organizations and communities will be looking to the community now.
'Hey, how can we help each other? You know, how can we keep the local merchants, the restaurant, the shop up and running rather than having them go away?' I do see that happening. What?
So why don't we operate with that humanity? I worry about that. I do. Case in point, Garner did a study last week with CFO's across the planet. 3000 CFO's and 5% of the CFO's said that they were going to now think about a more flexible work program for their employees.
And I was like only 5%. We just went through everyone working from home and we're proving with some bumps that we can do it and the CFO there's only 5% of us said, 'Yeah, We think that this would be a good idea. We're gonna do more work from home going forward'. So far, they're not quite, you know, reading the tarot cards all that well, right?
Yeah. It's kinda messed up, right? I mean, you just don't know what you're gonna expect, and it's just, we’re kind of trying to swim in the shark pond. But you know, I think CXOs are just in a fix and they're perplexed by the situation. They just don't know how to handle this. They never saw this coming.
You know, about 12 years ago, I was working for a telecommunications company as its Chief learning officer, and I got wind of a story from a vice president of the finance team who during the 08/09 economic meltdown. If you remember that one. Everybody was sort of tasked with a number, to bring down the budget because revenues were falling.
So every vice president across the organizations that look, please bring down your budget by whatever 100,000 a 1,000,000 whatever the case was. And as we both know, the largest expense in an organization is People.
Right, their salaries.
So this particular vice president got the number and instead of making a unilateral decision by himself, went to the entire team. I mean said, Look, I've got this problem, You know, I've been asked to reduce the budget by X amount and I need your help because I don't think I have all the ideas. And I think you probably have better ideas than mine anyway.
And so they spent a couple of days like working through what the possibilities would be for them to reach, the number that was issued to them by the CFO, and through that consultative, open, transparent, authentic, humane discussion, the team ultimately came up with the ideas that were put forward, which included some early retirements.
People were happy to sort of say, I'm out of here, which included some job sharing for the short term, so people reduced their salaries by a percentage. But then, they did a way in which they could kind of still keep their benefits, and they're full-time kind of employment for a period of time. It was part-time and then later on, when things got better, they would come back and a couple of things that they decided to do, some training costs and whatever.
And the VP, you know, I tell the story and I asked him about it, you know, he was like, Well, it was just the right thing to do.
I'm like, Yeah, that's pretty much what I'm talking about. If you can do that, then you are a leader that gets it. Even though you might have the VP title, it doesn't mean that you're playing just for the name on the back of the jersey. You play for the team.
Right. It's just not about titles or, you know, just about your position, your designation. It's really about leading by example, and this is such a great example because, it's a problem that is so well solved and it's for the people, it's by the people on and you know, everybody's in unison and they take decisions unanimously, and I think that's the best kind of decisions you can really take, and that's amazing.
Well, I was gonna say finally, like, the buck still has to stop with the leader. So you may employ a fair process. It may not be a fair outcome to your liking, but at least you were involved. And that's really what every leader's duty I think is. It's a duty of care, involve your people. But you still got to make the decision. And it may not be liked by everyone, but at least they were part of it.
Yeah, you did the right thing. So your conscience is clear. You know, you did the right thing.
Here you go.
Well, just for the last leg off the interview, Dan. If you have any other important sound bites that you like to leave for our viewers?
I'll leave with this. My purpose statement. So long ago, I was climbing up and down the mountain doing a daily health kind of thing, where I was getting back into shape after an injury. And it was in Vancouver, a mount called Grouse Mountain. So it's like 1.8 kilometers up and a lot of fun anyway. I was massaging and marinating with some words I didn't think I had what I was originally calling a mission statement, but I turned it into what I call my declaration of purpose.
And so that kind of formed by thinking and my decision making and my habits and behavior ever since and that the purpose statement is this.
Very Gandhi, like actually, in my opinion. But it's, why are we here? Like if we're at each other's throats? If we're pushing back all the time, If we're just in it for me, how are we here to see each other through? We're not.
So you know, for 20 odd years now, I've been kind of operating with that in mind. And that's why I don't mind giving away tool kits for remote leadership and giving away tool kits for working from home employees and doing things like free virtual conferences for anyone.
Because I know that eventually someone sees the good and says, 'Okay, can we hire you now?' It's that 'Yeah, sure. Let's help you out.'
Absolutely. I think money is the consequence. You just have to, you know, really do what you think is right, follow a passion, help people, you know, really create something that goes beyond yourselves, create something of higher-order value and you'd be known for your work and not for the fame and fortune that you've collected. And that's an amazing thought.
Ah, well, thank you so much, Dan. I had a really wonderful conversation with you. I know we're kind of like, short on time. I could really go on and we could converse a lot more. Maybe like doing a sequel of this interview, I don't know. But I had, like, I had a lot of fun talking to you and thank you so much. I appreciate your time and you know, you sharing your views with us. I will really stay in touch with you.
Awesome. Thank you for the time, the opportunity and I really enjoyed our chat. It's a privilege to be able to share my thoughts and I hope that this helps at least one person out there.
Absolutely. It definitely will. It helped me. So I’m pretty sure, it will help a lot of people.