Collaborative vs. Authoritarian decision-making - Jesse Lyn Stoner [Interview]

About Jesse Lyn Stoner

Jesse is the founder of Seapoint Center, where she focuses on helping leaders create engaged communities that make a powerful and positive impact on the world. Her clients range from international corporations to small businesses, government, and nonprofits. She is co-author of the international bestseller, “Full Steam Ahead: Unleash the Power of Vision,” which has been translated into 21 languages. We are extremely happy and honored to have someone of her stature on our interview series today.

Collaborative vs. Authoritarian decision-making - Jesse Lyn Stoner [Interview]

Vanessa Rose

We have the pleasure of welcoming Jesse Lyn Stoner today to our interview series. I am Vanessa Rose from the peopleHum team. before Let’s begin with just a quick introduction 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. We run the peopleHum blog and the video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month.

Vanessa

Welcome, Jesse. We’re thrilled to have you.

Jesse

Thank you very much. Vanessa, I’m happy to be here. 

Vanessa

It’s our pleasure. So, Jesse, you’ve had quite a great journey. Could you tell us a little bit about your experiences and what shaped your thinking to get you where you are right now at Seapoint Center?

Jesse

My background is in creating a shared vision. And I began studying that in the 1980s. I started out becoming actually interested in sports training and what was happening with the Olympics and how they were training athletes. And I realized that when people have a vision of what it is that they want to accomplish, they are able to overcome what often seem like insurmountable obstacles. 

And I began to study that more closely and realized a few principles, one being that the power to the picture of the end result is not necessarily the power to get there. And in my doctoral research, I looked specifically at visionary leadership, and I looked at the relationship between good managers without a vision and the performance of their work team and visionary leaders and the performance of their work team. And what the level of functioning was, whether somebody had good management skills but poor vision, or whether they had a good vision but poor management skills or both. 

“One being that the power to the picture of the end result is not necessarily the power to get there.”

And I expected that if somebody was a visionary leader and also a very good manager, that the work unit would be working at a very high level. And if they were a poor manager and also had no vision of where they were going, the work unit would be performing at a very low level. And then I assumed that in the middle if you were high in one and low in the other, your work unit would be in the middle, and the results, unfortunately, I had access to over 1000 people who were rating their managers on these instruments. 

I discovered that indeed, if you, the manager was high on both, high work unit as you expect, low on both, a low performing work unit. But what was interesting was that if they were a good manager but didn’t have a very strong vision, it was a mid-level functioning work unit, as expected. But if they were visionary, not necessarily a good manager, but had a wonderful vision that people were excited about, the work unit was performing at a really high level. I thought, what is this? What’s going on? 

So I began to delve even more closely after I finished my doctoral work into vision. And along the way I discovered that some visions work and inspire people, and some are either they inspire the person who came up with it or maybe the management team that went off on a retreat and identified it together, but not necessarily the rest of the people in the organization. 

And, so I discovered that there’s three principles of what makes a vision actually something that’s actionable and will continue to guide you into the future and that also, it’s not just what it says, but what’s important is also how it’s created. And I could see that a lot of people were talking about vision and everybody had different ideas about what vision was or what it meant. And I felt like it was really important to help people understand how to create a vision that actually is something that’s gonna guide you. 

And so my friend, Ken Blanchard and, I was also working with the Blanchard companies during those years, approached me and asked me if I wanted to write a book with him on vision because he knew that this was the area that I focused on the most. And so we wrote Full steam ahead together to clarify these principles, and it’s been very exciting. It’s now in its second edition and has been translated into, it’s now 22 languages.

So, although one of them’s English, so I don’t know if that actually counts as a language. Apparently, when they published it in the UK, they translated it for British English, as opposed to American English. So, in any case, it is internationally read. And I’m very happy for that, that it continues to inspire people and guide them in terms of creating a vision.

And then over the years, what’s happened is that vision has become, it has started to become a buzzword. And then it became something that wasn’t, so interesting. It became much more, I think, short-term-focused. And I think what’s happening now, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic is, a lot of businesses and also a lot of individuals are having to go back and take a look at the fundamentals and if you don’t have a vision, now is the time to create one. If you had a vision, now is the time to revisit it.

“If you don’t have a vision now is the time to create one. If you had a vision, now is the time to revisit it.”

So that’s a long answer to a short question. I’m sorry I spoke so long. 

Vanessa

That’s really interesting. Congratulations on your book by the way.

Jesse

Oh, thank you very much. 

Vanessa

It was really interesting. So you’re saying it’s important to really have a goal that everyone is aligned with. 

Jesse

Yes. And the interesting thing about vision when I talked about the elements of what makes a vision compelling is that a lot of people think the vision is a picture of the end result and that actually is a goal by itself. You can have a goal with a picture of the end result. And so what I like to do is use the example of the Apollo Moon project.

When the United States put a man on the moon, and this was in the 1960s, quite a few years ago, but it’s still a great story. When President Kennedy articulated this, in 1960, he announced that the United States would place a man on the moon by the end of the decade. 

And what was absolutely remarkable about that was that the technology to do that had not even been invented. And they overcame amazing obstacles in order to create the technology and in order to actually make this happen. And they did it. 1969, before the end of the decade, they placed a man on the moon and brought him home safely again.

And the people that rallied around that and that produced it and made it happen were absolutely surpassed. I mean, it’s a wonderful story of how people can unite together around this common goal. But the problem was we didn’t know why we were doing it. 

And a lot of people thought it was to win the space race, to beat the Russians. Some people thought it was to begin the space defense initiative, which was this satellite protection system around the United States, an early warning and then some people thought it was in the spirit of Star Trek to boldly go where no one has gone before and because there was no agreed-upon purpose, what happened was we achieved the goal in the United States, and then they never recreated anything as spectacular or amazing as that. So it ended. 

And that’s the problem if you don’t actually have a clear purpose that everybody is aligned around. So it’s not just a picture of the end result. You have to know why you’re doing it because otherwise there’s nothing to guide your decision making on what’s next. So a vision that’s enduring, that will guide you into the future says why, and then the other thing that it does is that it also illuminates the underlying values that are guiding it. 

It’s not just why, but what are the values that are gonna guide your journey? For example, the vision that Martin Luther King Jr articulated. Again, I’m sorry for my US-centric examples, but, his vision and his, ‘I have a dream’ speech was a clear image of his children going to school with the children of other races and other religions, of people singing together, holding hands together and clearly a vision, a picture of the end result but the values and the reason that we’re so also so clearly embedded in it, of brotherhood and unity and respect and dignity for all that, this is a vision that continues to guide people well beyond the lifetime of the person who articulated it. 

So if you only have a picture of the end result and you’re not also illuminating your purpose, your reason for existence, the why, and this is at an organizational level. It’s also true for individuals if you have a vision, for example, if you want to lose weight, you can create an image of the end result, and that will help you lose weight.

It’s much easier to focus on what you want to create than what you want to get rid of and keeping a picture in your mind of those blue jeans that you want to get back into or you know what you’re going to look like when you lose the weight will really help. But if you connect it with the why, why do you want to lose weight? Well, I want to be healthy, that’ll help you keep it off, so it’s not just short-term. So there’s a difference between a vision and a goal. A goal is short-term, it’s a milestone along the way, but the journey is toward the vision. 

“There’s a difference between a vision and a goal. A goal is short-term, it’s a milestone along the way. But a journey is toward the vision.”

Vanessa

But Jesse, do you think just having a vision and asking the question Why is enough? Are there any other factors that play into this? 

Jesse

Well, you need support for it. So if it’s just your vision, even at a personal level, you need support from others in order to achieve it. At an organizational level, unless other people are going to enlist in it, you’re not going to get there. So that’s why I said earlier, it’s not just important what it says, what’s also important is how it’s created. And now we’re moving into the whole idea of collaborative leadership and collaboration because you can’t just bring it down from the mountain like tablets and assume that people are going to accept them. 

People need an opportunity to help shape it, to have to see how they make a contribution to it. I mean, even the Martin Luther King Jr vision, he was articulating the hopes and dreams of the people that were already there, and we’re already articulating, wanting it and needing it. And he actually encapsulated and got in front of a movement, a very strong movement that was already underway. 

So without collaborative processes in allowing other people to have an opportunity to participate in shaping it, it’s pretty hard to expect them to take an opportunity to help implement it. Also, it rarely works out that way. 

Vanessa

So, Jesse, you were talking something about the collaborative leadership style. So how do you think this style differentiates as compared to the other leadership styles?

Jesse

Well, you know, there’s the traditional top-down style, and it’s more of a bureaucratic if you think of it visually. And I think that’s pretty traditional in large organizations especially, and I think what happens is that people tend to mimic the styles of the way that they’re being managed.

And so organizations that have a lot of processes in place to monitor people and to measure things tend to be bureaucratic. Some organizations tend to have a more competitive culture. Sometimes sales organizations are more like that. So there’s two things going on. 

One is the culture of the organization. Is the culture more of a bureaucratic culture or more competitive culture or entrepreneurial? A lot of the newer organizations, especially startups are smaller, they’re figuring things out, they’re nimble. They’re making quick decisions and moving forward and learning as they go. That’s a particular kind of culture.

And then a more community-oriented type of culture. And then there are leadership styles within those that might be similar or might be different. But they tend to mostly be variations within that larger style. I think it’s possible to have a collaborative style within a bureaucratic organization because all we’re talking about is letting go of a little bit of control and asking a few more questions before you make final decisions. 

“It’s possible to have a collaborative style within a bureaucratic organization because all we’re talking about is letting go of a little bit of control and asking a few more questions before you make final decisions.”

And what’s really important is to let people know whether they’re actually part of the decision-making process or whether you’re seeking their input. And when people begin to feel upset, or a little unhappy when they think that they’re gonna be part of making the decision and then they find out, ‘Well, then why’d you ask my point of view if you weren’t going to listen to me?’ But if you’re clear ahead of time as a leader and say, ‘I want to hear a lot of different thinking to take into account as I’m making the decision.’ Then people are much more willing to accept that. 

So as a leader, be clear about what decision-making process you’re using. Are you making this on your own? And is it without other people? And if you are, the first question you need to ask yourself is do you have all the information you need in order to make that decision? And then the second question is, what’s the likelihood that people will implement this if they’re not involved in it? Do they buy into it? Do you need them to buy into it or not? 

Because if the answer to either those questions is no, you have to involve other people. It’s just not gonna work. The decision will fail. So even within a bureaucratic culture and I’m going to stay with that one because most of us are working within bureaucratic cultures, a collaborative style is one where you’re clear about when and how you need to involve others. And you do it because it’s going to make a better decision and it’s going to make the implementation of the decision easier. 

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I think people get mixed up and they think it’s either-or like either I make the decision myself where I get everybody together, we’re gonna talk forever and, well, you know it’ll take forever to make the decision, and it’s going to drive everyone nuts. And that’s not exactly what a collaborative style is. The collaborative style is involving people in ways that are needed in order to make the best possible decision and to ensure that it will be implemented and being very clear about how decisions are going to be made. 

Vanessa

Absolutely. 

Since you’re speaking so much about cultures, what do you think are the elements that leaders should look into to build an innovative and resilient culture in an organization?

Jesse

I think that to build a resilient and innovative culture, you’ve got to kind of remove some of the boundaries. Not all companies want to be innovative. They probably all want to be resilient but to the extent that they’re innovative, there’s going to be a kind of attention between established practices and processes versus support for trying things and failing.

And so there needs to be not only a mindset and an attitude on the part of the leader that experimenting is actually a good thing to do and that diversity is actually absolutely necessary because if everybody is the same in the way that they think and the way that they experience the world, you’re not going to get a whole lot of new things coming out of it. So you have to actually value diversity. You have to see mistakes as the fertile ground that will support new thinking. 

“You have to see mistakes as the fertile ground that will support new thinking.” 

And there needs to be processed in place, not just in attitude but processes in place that support and reward those kinds of experimentation and differences. It’s easier to do that, as I was talking earlier about it in an entrepreneurial culture, and even to some extent, in a competitive culture. It’s more difficult in a bureaucratic culture, but I have seen many really excellent leaders pull this off, and I think that the way that they do it is that they protect their particular team and their work unit, and they draw a kind of, it’s their job to field and support them and protect them from the rest of the organization. 

And when other departments come and complain about them there, they step in and say, Well, wait a minute. You know, they’re actually acting on my authority, and let’s talk about what we need to do here. So that they don’t put their people in a situation where they’re going to be constantly bombarded with negative feedback and difficulty from other departments. And then the way that they manage people is they ask questions instead of giving answers. I think we need a new management style called management by asking questions.

“I think we need a new management style called management by asking questions.

And I think that to really get the best out of people is to really challenge them. And to think about so what? And what next? And if you try that, what do you think will happen? And really help people use their own good minds to figure out how they’re going to move forward.

Vanessa

I think nowadays people don’t like the authoritative style of leadership. It’s more of collaborating with your peers.

Jesse

Yeah, I mean, nobody likes it. We’re not children. We don’t need parents, you know. I mean, we live our lives, we go out on the weekends and at home and in the world and then go to work and all of a sudden we’re treated like children. If you have a paternalistic, authoritarian style, nobody likes it. And yet so many people actually use that style without even realizing that they’re doing it for exactly the same reason that I said earlier. 

Because their modeling the style of the way that they’re being managed themselves and you’ve got a break out of that, you’ve got to say, even if my boss is managing me this way, if I’m a middle manager, I shouldn’t. I’ve got to find a different way of managing my own people. And that’s what I’m saying you need to almost create a kind of a bubble on and take the heat. You know, that’s your job. 

Vanessa

Jesse, moving on to the next question. What do you think is your opinion of the all-inclusive term, the future of work? Has it changed post the pandemic? 

Jesse

You know, everything’s changed, don’t you think?

Vanessa

Yeah.

Jesse

Everything’s a big question mark right now. So, I think, there are so many businesses, as I said earlier that are having to go back and taking a look at their core business model and their fundamental of how they’re going to deliver, what they’re going to deliver, and it’s back to these three elements that I was talking about with vision, the first one being purpose. 

Why do you exist? I mean, we want to go back to the very core question of what business are you really in? And this is a concept that was identified in the 1920s by the pioneering business consultant, a woman named Mary Parker Follett. And she was working with a window shade company that was struggling, and she asked them the question, ‘What business are you really in?’

And they said, ‘Well, we make window shades’, and she said, ‘Not from the point of view of your customer. When the customer walks in the door and they want to buy a window shade, why do they want a window shade?’ And they thought about it, and they realized that they were in the light control and privacy business. They make window shades but the business they were really in was light control and privacy.

And during that time, the Levelor blinds were coming out in Paris and people were getting interested in them in Europe, and this company kind of said, ‘Well, look at that, here is a beautiful way, a new way to control light and create privacy besides window shades.’ They imported them into the United States for this particular company, turned their business around because they went back to what business are we really in? 

And so I think that’s happening right now. Airbnb sadly just made a decision to lay off 25% of its workforce. But what was interesting to me when I read about it is they didn’t start with, ‘Oh, you know, we’re having business problems. We need to lay people off.’ They started with, ‘Where do we think the future of work is going in our field?’ And they said, ‘I think with this pandemic right now, there’s going to be fewer business travelers, fewer people traveling long distances. But probably people will be traveling within their own countries and maybe driving. And maybe they’re not wanting to be staying in big hotels. They might want to stay in homes that they believe are clean and where they’re not gonna have to come in contact with a lot of people and let’s go back to our core model, which was originally, supporting people who were providing a friendly, comfortable, warm, connected environment in their homes.’

And so they made the decision to pivot, refocus their strategy and let go of their strategy in developing the business lines. And because of that, they then, now, because they can see that’s where the future is going. That’s their business model. That makes sense. Now, how many people do we need and who do we need and how do they need to be organized in order to staff that, so, hence the decision to drop those lines and therefore unfortunately and sadly for these people to downsize. But from a business point of view, it makes so much more sense than just saying, ‘We’re not going to make our profits over the next two years. We’re gonna have to cut costs, but we’re still going to do business as usual.’

So I think when we look at the future of work in relation to the pandemic, we would all do well to take a look at what do we believe is going to be true? At least over the next 24 months, I would say, and probably even going to you on that, because what’s happening is, people are experiencing how to get work done and how to communicate virtually from a distance. And, that’s also going to impact how we do our work going forward into the future. 

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Vanessa

Okay so, our last question for today, is there anything you’d like to share with our audience, Jesse? 

Jesse

I think these are great questions and I’m really delighted to be here today and to meet you and to talk about this, it’s so important now, especially now more than ever. I feel strongly as I look at the organizations that are doing things right and those that are struggling that we have to go back and take a look at these fundamentals before we start making decisions.

Because if we make decisions that well, we need to downsize because we’re not gonna make our numbers over the next few quarters and we don’t also rethink how we’re doing our business and what business we’re really in, we’re gonna try to do more with fewer people and we might not even be doing the right stuff. 

So let’s take a look at what business are you really in and what are the values that need to guide you as you’re moving forward? And then what would it look like if you, when you are fulfilling this purpose and your values. I would take into account the learnings that we’re getting out of this pandemic about how is working virtually actually changing possibilities for how we could work into the future.

And the last thing that I would say is that the important thing is not just to have a vision, but also to be quite realistic about current reality at the same time. If you only have a vision and you’re not paying attention to what’s really happening, you’re in danger of just being high in the sky, la la land. But without a vision, you’re in danger of just being stuck in the mud, and you really have to have both and what that will do is create tension.

“If you only have a vision and you’re not paying attention to what’s really happening, you’re in danger of just being high in the sky, la la land. But without a vision, you’re in danger of just being stuck in the mud, and you really have to have both.”

And usually, what we do, we don’t like the tension. We want to get rid of it. So we say, well, the vision wasn’t possible. It wasn’t realistic. But if you give yourself permission to live with that tension, tension will seek resolution. And if you continue to be honest about the current reality and also hold on to your vision, then it will begin to shift in favor of your vision. 

The one more thing that I will also say is that we don’t see the whole path. We never can because we don’t know everything that’s going to happen. But if you’re clear about where you are now, and if you keep your sight on your vision, each step will begin to reveal itself possibilities and opportunities. And if you make your choices in the context of the vision, you will be moving slowly and gradually in the right direction. 

Vanessa

That was wonderful advice, Jesse. Thank you so much for that. I really appreciate you sharing your time and you agreeing to do this for us. That was wonderful advice, Jesse. Thank you so much for that. 

Jesse

It is my pleasure. Thank you. 

Vanessa

Thank you so much.