Meet The Disruptors: Ryan Lahti of OrgLeader On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

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…Open. When we focus on accomplishing the multitude of tasks that come with daily responsibilities, it can be easy to succumb to tunnel vision. By this, I mean relying too much on certain viewpoints or ways of doing things. In this case, open refers to objectively considering other perspectives and methods for fulfilling responsibilities.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Ryan Lahti.

Dr. Ryan Lahti is the Founder and Managing Principal of OrgLeader. As a strategic advisor to STEM organizations, he specializes in helping leaders thrive in uncertainty and better manage risk.

Ryan combines business experience serving Fortune 500 and midsize companies in 20 industries with a background in leadership and organizational effectiveness spanning three decades. Prior to founding OrgLeader in 2006, he worked for global consulting firms including Ernst & Young and Hay Group. He also held corporate positions overseeing leadership and organizational development.

Ryan is the author of the book The Finesse Factor: How to Build Exceptional Leaders in STEM Organizations. He is a frequent speaker on uncertainty and risk as well as a contributor to Forbes on leadership and organizational effectiveness topics. Ryan has been featured on NBC TV, Inside Forbes Councils and in a variety of publications including Fast Company and CIO.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

From an early age, I was intrigued by how organizations operate including how they’re structured, how systems and processes enable them to function, how they strategize to compete in different markets as well as adapt to change. When I was an undergrad at UCLA, I often found reading one article on these topics took me down a rabbit hole of reading several more when I was supposed to be doing research for a class assignment. This intrigue became a personal pursuit to figure out how to help organizations operate more effectively. Since I believe leadership effectiveness and organizational effectiveness go hand in hand, I was especially interested in helping leaders run their organizations.

Because of this pursuit, I not only served in roles where I was the client but also roles where I was the service provider. I intentionally did this so I could better understand each viewpoint. Corporate positions overseeing leadership and organizational development as well as positions with global consulting firms made this possible. With this as a solid foundation, I eventually launched my own professional services firm, OrgLeader. To better enhance leadership and organizational effectiveness, I sought more depth and rigor in my educational background. Consequently, I earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology along the way to complement my business experience.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

As an advocate of science, technology, engineering, and math (aka STEM), I view STEM from a different perspective. I look at it as a continuum from STEM curricula to building STEM economies. Over the years, most of the discussions I heard about STEM related to curricula at the middle school, high school, or college level to build crucial STEM skills. What I heard less often in those conversations was the other end of the continuum — STEM economies. We now know that metropolitan areas with STEM-related economies perform better on jobs and innovation. Both ends of the STEM continuum are important.

As I continued to hear these conversations, something caught my attention. There was one element that is critical to the STEM continuum that I didn’t hear anyone talking about — STEM organizations. STEM organizations are technical and data driven. While all organizations possess these attributes to some degree, those driven by science, technology, engineering, and math rely on them more heavily.

The reason STEM organizations are so important is they’re the linchpin in the STEM continuum. They directly affect individuals with STEM skills and the jobs they take, and they’re key drivers of STEM-related economies. If you think about a typical week, you’ll find most of what you do, where you go, how you get there and how you remain able to do these things involve STEM organizations. Examples include hospitals, software companies, automobile manufacturers and banks. In addition to the enterprise level, STEM organizations also exist at the functional or departmental level. Finance, accounting, IT and R&D departments are also STEM organizations.

As I worked with STEM organizations across 20 industries, I noticed a pattern. Certain leaders handled uncertainty and risk exceptionally well, and certain leaders did not. Because I wanted to determine what made some leaders better at handling uncertainty and risk, I examined the work I had done across industries and analyzed 10 years of leadership assessments I had conducted in STEM organizations. This revealed seven finesse essentials that enabled leaders to thrive in these tricky situations. Three of the essentials relate to what leaders think about and process on their own prior to and during situations involving uncertainty and risk. The four remaining ones deal with how leaders relate to others as they handle the uncertainty and risk.

Due to what I just mentioned, OrgLeader specializes in developing resilient leaders who excel in the face of uncertainty and risk. Thriving in this form of adversity is more than agility. It includes using authenticity to apply the right mindset and capabilities so they can address whatever comes their way in a resolute manner. Since leaders are not the only ones impacted by uncertainty and risk, thriving also entails inspiring team engagement. By team, I’m referring to the workforce not just peers and direct reports. For this reason, OrgLeader partners with these leaders to build motivating work environments where people want to be and stay. This isn’t just talking about culture and corporate values. It’s about fostering the success of talented employees by how leaders understand them, coach them, provide valuable opportunities and support life balance.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’m not sure I was laughing at the time, but I found it comical after the fact. Early in my career, I worked downtown Los Angeles. During a busy week, I rushed back to my office from a meeting to finish some work. Since the parking at my office building and nearby surface lots were full, I paid to park in an old parking structure next door. Given how crazy the week had been, I had to stay late to finish a project. By the time I left the office, it was 11pm. To my surprise, the parking structure was completely closed, the lights were off, and no one was there. In rushing to get to the office, I failed to notice the structure only stayed open until 9pm. During the day, this structure was nothing to behold. At 11pm at night, it looked like a condemned tenement.

I had an 8am meeting the next morning with a client that was an hour south. So, I needed to get my car out, make it home to west LA to sleep, clean up and then drive to the meeting. After thoroughly searching the outside of the building, I found a tiny sign that had a phone number at the bottom. I called it, and an irritable man answered who managed the parking structure. I explained my situation, and he said he was 45 minutes away and there was nothing he could do about it. After negotiating with him for 15 minutes, he begrudgingly agreed to drive to the structure. However, if I wasn’t standing in front of the entrance, he said he would drive by, and I’d be out of luck.

It was now after midnight. As I waited outside the parking structure, the security guard for the office building where I worked walked across the street and asked me if everything was okay. I told him it was. He pointed out that a guy wearing a suit with a laptop bag over his shoulder was a target for mugging at that time of night. I told him I appreciated the concern but needed to wait there to get my car from the structure.

After another 20 minutes, the manager of the parking structure drove up, opened the exit, blurted out the parking structure door would close on its own after I left, and then sped off. I walked in and thought to myself “you’ve got to be kidding.” Inside the structure, it was pitch black. Since I didn’t have anything I could use as a flashlight, I had to feel my way up seven flights in a dark stairwell hoping I didn’t run into anything or anyone. After bumping into the wall and stumbling a couple times, I finally reached my car and triumphantly drove it out of the structure.

The moral of the story for me was threefold. First, there is always a solution if you persevere. Second, situational awareness is your ally. Third, be sure to write down the hours of the place where you park.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

There have been a few people along my journey who had an impact on me and my career. In my early 20s, I had a boss who provided challenging opportunities that gave me a chance to prove what I could do to others and myself. She outlined the objectives, the timing, and the end result that was needed. Then she turned me loose, checking in occasionally and offering guidance if I asked for it.

If I had to pick one person who was the most impactful, it would be my dad. I’m not saying this to be a dutiful son, and we didn’t always see eye to eye. He was the most impactful due to how he objectively listened and provided guidance through empathetic candor. He took the time to understand the issue but didn’t hold back when it came to sharing things that I needed to hear. He had a strong interest in organizational effectiveness which could be in part what sparked mine. This combined with his big-picture perspective and political savvy were great resources for me.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Whether it relates to business and industry or a social movement, I often hear the word “disruption” used (or overused) in circumstances. As you might expect, it can bring about strong reactions. From my perspective, the word disruption is not the issue. It is how you disrupt that can motivate or rub people the wrong way. If your way of disrupting is simply to abolish, don’t be surprised if you get limited support. For example, I’ve seen some leaders and organizations get rid of a product or service or alter a business strategy, structure or process based on what seems like a whim. This form of disruption usually brings more headaches than celebrations.

If your way of disrupting is innovation, this is the form that energizes and produces the greatest benefit particularly when objectivity is an ingredient. Disruption of this type results in new solutions whether they are devices, service offerings, strategies, policies, or methods. In this case, disruption is change driven by a need, discovery, or purpose instead of eliminating something with little rhyme or reason. It is in our best interest to take a moment to consider how disruption occurs, including the catalyst for it, who’s involved, and the outcome it produces before passing judgement on it.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Three words have been especially meaningful for me:

Open. When we focus on accomplishing the multitude of tasks that come with daily responsibilities, it can be easy to succumb to tunnel vision. By this, I mean relying too much on certain viewpoints or ways of doing things. In this case, open refers to objectively considering other perspectives and methods for fulfilling responsibilities.

Tenacity. Setbacks inevitably occur in business, careers, and life outside of work, particularly when dealing with different forms of uncertainty and risk. This word resonated with me because it represents what we need to handle the setbacks or hurdles we encounter. We may need to start again or use an alternate approach, but we still persevere with resolve to get the desired outcome.

Present. Examining what happened in the past and strategizing how to address similar or even new situations in the future is beneficial. However, it’s just as important to tune into what’s going on around us in the here and now. The data in the room often provides more insight than the data we see in charts and spreadsheets.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I’m far from done. I’m just getting started helping leaders of STEM as well as other organizations look at uncertainty and risk differently. You can’t eliminate uncertainty, but you can control its impact which helps you manage risk. It’s not enough for leaders to do risk-benefit analyses. Unless you can get the powers that be as well as other affected parties to understand, commit to taking action and execute successfully based on this information, it has limited value. This requires building crucial intrapersonal as well as interpersonal capabilities.

The point is to increase leaders’ proficiency at handling uncertainty and risk so they can consistently rise to the occasion whether it’s dealing with the impact of Covid, taking on larger roles and responsibilities, trying to retain top performers, or establishing trust with customers. Incidentally, I’m using a broader definition of leader. By leader, I mean anyone who sets direction, aligns and motivates others and/or moves an undertaking forward in some way. This could be determining company strategy, spearheading an initiative, or getting people on board with the task at hand.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

What comes to mind is an improv class that I took in Hollywood. Just to clarify, I’m not an aspiring actor or comedian. Periodically, I like to do something I’ve never done before to gain a new perspective, experiment with different approaches, or just challenge myself. I thought an improv class could be a way to strengthen thinking on my feet or adjusting to a situation in real time.

One activity that resonated with me was called “Yes, and…” The basic idea is one person makes a statement and the other person accepts what the first person stated (the “yes” part of the activity) then builds off it (the “and” part of the activity). If we take a step back and observe discussions at work or even outside of work, we often say “no,” whether it’s intentional or not, by the way we respond through our actions as well as words. This can shut down communication.

The “Yes, and…” approach is just as applicable to work situations as it is to those on a stage or in front of a camera. By applying more “Yes, and…” thinking to interactions with colleagues, clients, and other business associates, I’ve found it enhances the flow of conversation and facilitates the sharing of ideas.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

For me, it’s not a quote. It’s the Finnish term or concept of Sisu. I’m an American, but a primary nationality in my heritage is Finnish which some might guess by my last name. Because of this heritage, I learned about Finnish culture, including Sisu, at an early age.

Roughly translated, Sisu refers to tenacity, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity. Regardless of what I encountered at points in my life, this concept came to mind. Here’s another Sisu moment. How am I going to respond? I may not like it, but the reality of the situation is I still need to figure out how to deal with it in an effective way.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

When it comes to thriving in uncertainty and the risk that comes with it, profit and positive impact are not mutually exclusive. In fact, success in the midst of uncertainty and risk is accelerated by creating positive impact. By this, I mean producing beneficial outcomes for those inside and outside company walls who have a vested interest whether they are employees, customers, shareholders, community members or parties anywhere along the supply chain. Given that STEM organizations are so prevalent in our daily lives, they are critical in demonstrating the synergy between profit and positive impact.

Some are skeptical of such stakeholder capitalism because they consider it too idealistic. That’s okay. A little skepticism can be healthy. I’m a pragmatist who believes in stakeholder capitalism. In the last couple of years, members of the Business Roundtable signed a pledge, and leaders of other organizations have made similar commitments regarding environmental, social and governance (aka ESG) concerns. While pledges are nice, actions involving strategies, structures, processes, and metrics reinforce accountability to pledges and commitments. We are in the early stages of companies putting these in place.

Whether organizations decide to become Certified B Corporations, benefit corporations or something that shares similar interests with them, positive impact will not happen without leadership. By partnering with leaders of these organizations, my goal is to help them put in place strategies, structures, and processes not only to create but to sustain positive impact once they have made the decision. This includes ensuring these leaders have the right capabilities to succeed despite any uncertainty and risk they face as they strive for this outcome.

Most of us would like situations to be black and white when it comes to making decisions and taking action. This applies to positive impact, profit as well as other business concerns. Uncertainty and risk will always create gray areas (probably more than we think). So, we need to become comfortable with this and get better at finessing the gray.

How can our readers follow you online?

On LinkedIn (@ryanlahti) and on the web at OrgLeader.com.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market