Exercising Leadership in the Moment:
Focusing on the Here and Now

Geoff Mendal
The Startup
Published in
8 min readAug 13, 2019

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I demonstrate how leaders can deploy themselves in a novel fashion to mobilize an organization or team to make progress on hard challenges. To affect change, leaders must test and challenge the status quo, specifically the prevailing wisdom, attitudes and behavior inherent in an organization. There are multitudes of ways in which leaders deploy themselves in their day-to-day activities to do so. Whenever a leader notices or is made aware of a gap between what his or her organization elevates as its values and what it is doing or not doing, there is an opportunity to raise awareness on the challenges that the organization is facing.

How might a leader raise awareness within an organization?

Traditional methods would suggest that a leader calls out the gap and using their authority and/or influence, attempt to rally the organization around formulating a plan to solve it, and then allocate and direct resources to do so. These tried and true methods work best when the nature of the gap is well understood and the goal is already within the organization’s competency to solve, that is, a problem that is known and the process by which to mitigate it is within the wheelhouse of the organization to address. What about the class of problems that an organization does not already have the expertise to solve? In such cases, learning and experimentation will be required to both better understand the challenge being faced as well as building the capacity to address it.

How can a leader help an organization learn?

It need not be daunting and does not require someone in the business of leadership development to facilitate. An important tenet of leadership is simply holding people to the challenges of organizational change. For example, observing behavior in a system, diagnosing the situation, and holding people in a deep conversation about the challenges an organization is facing are all activities a leader hoping to raise awareness about a challenge might draw upon.

As a software engineering manager in the tech sector, one of the most important lessons I have learned in studying and practicing leadership is that it is not necessary to explain leadership theory to those I work with. Indeed, when I have practiced leadership as a member of an intact organization, few if any of my colleagues have any understanding of the underlying leadership concepts I am deploying.

Shining a Light on a Group

Most recently, I worked at the music streaming company Pandora Media LLC (a subsidiary of SiriusXM) located in the San Francisco Bay Area. Like nearly all tech companies in Silicon Valley, Pandora was very aware and concerned about its diversity and inclusion issues in the workforce. Pandora, like all tech companies, made it a point to elevate diversity and inclusion as a company-wide goal and to some extent achieved a modicum of success in improving its metrics. But in the Fall of 2018, the company admitted that its diversity and inclusion efforts were falling short of its goals. This is not at all unusual: tech companies are repeatedly making public disclosures on how they are falling short. Pandora wanted to find a way to make significant improvements. So a “SWAT” team was formed to study the problem and provide recommendations to executive management on changes needed.

The SWAT team met regularly for a couple of months when one day its chairperson approached me privately asking for advice. The chairperson asked if I would be willing to attend the SWAT team’s next meeting and join as a regular member. I agreed to engage. At that next meeting, I observed the group and listened to what was being discussed for the first 10–15 minutes. There was a natural pause and all eyes turned to me. I said that I had something provocative to share with the group. Looking around the table, I stated that I was one of four men, all senior and white. I also noted that although there was a significant representation of women at the meeting, they too were all highly senior and mostly white. Persons of color were minimally represented. I asked the group what they made of my observations and whether anyone would consider it an issue for a diversity and inclusion SWAT team to not be very diverse or inclusive.

One of the women immediately responded, suggesting we ask a well known African American HR manager in the company to join the SWAT team. I responded that although that seemed like an excellent idea, it misses the mark. I challenged the team to understand how “this” happened, that is how this team as it presently exists and is operating right now in this room came to be. Because if we could understand how a diversity and inclusion SWAT team whose goal is to significantly improve diversity and inclusion throughout Pandora failed in its own right to be diverse and inclusive, we stand a chance of solving it for Pandora at large. I suggested we consider temporarily tabling our agenda and turn the mirror inward, study our SWAT team, and report out to executive management and perhaps the entire company how a diversity and inclusion team formed and operated as many other Pandora teams, oblivious to diversity and inclusion issues. It took another 3 months, but the team incorporated self-reflection and understanding its D&I issues in addition to producing the recommendations the executives were expecting. There is no doubt that the recommendations made were affected by that first meeting I attended and the group’s response to understanding its role in the mess.

My intervention at that first SWAT team meeting is an example of exercising leadership in-the-moment, unplanned. My purpose for that intervention was two-fold:

(1) to test an assumption I had made in my head that the organization is unaware that the default manner in which it operates causes it to get in its way vis-à-vis diversity and inclusion efforts, and

(2) to shine a light on the group so that it could recognize that it may be contributing to the very problem it was tasked to solve.

After initiating my intervention which disrupted the work of the group, I facilitated an in-the-moment discussion focusing on the “here and now”, what was going on in the room rather than “out there”. I didn’t have to use any leadership development terminology nor prepare the team in advance for a structured leadership lesson. I deployed myself at that moment based on what I observed and heard without much prior context. While there could have been severe blowback to my intervention — there is always a risk when practicing leadership — I was well known to the group and felt ready to absorb any body blows. Practicing leadership in-the-moment requires holding steady as it would under any situation where conflict exists. Those in the business of mobilizing others to make significant progress on daunting challenges already know this. So I did not deploy myself any differently than I would have otherwise. The only difference is that I made an in-the-moment decision to intervene and disrupt by simply making an observation, shining the light on the group, and providing a holding environment for the group to work through it.

Getting a Group to Reflect From the Balcony

As noted earlier, the impact of practicing leadership need not be extraordinary to be effective. At Pandora, I facilitated periodic strategy planning sessions with my team. These sessions were largely and purposefully unstructured, providing ample time for the team to get underneath the tactical work and focus instead on the “meta”, the more difficult “how” we’re going to work better together. At one of these sessions, as the group was debating competing technology directions by which we could experiment, one of the engineers offered an idea with some justification. The team didn’t acknowledge that idea and moved onto discussing something else.

I let this play out for a few minutes before calling a timeout and asking if anyone noticed what happened in the room a few minutes ago. I asked everyone to recall what just happened in this room with this team. As memories were being recalled, I responded repeatedly with “Yes, and what happened right before that?” It didn’t take too long for the team to wind the tape back to the point where the engineer who offered an idea was steamrolled without any acknowledgment. I shined a light on that moment and asked the team to think about how this interaction happens every day “out there”. I could see in their faces that they got it. By taking a timeout and discussing the behaviors all of us exhibit from time to time, awareness was raised so that the team stood a chance of calling it out the next time it happens “out there”. The obvious benefit to the team is that quieter voices will be better respected and all ideas will be given due consideration no matter where they originate. Productivity and communication would improve shortly after that.

There is no way I could have predicted that moment happening in the strategic planning session, no “teach piece” I could have prepared ahead of time to educate the team that would have had any meaningful impact. Focusing on the here and now was an extremely effective intervention technique for that moment and in that context. And I didn’t have to work that hard: I simply called a timeout, asked a question or two, and sparked a discussion among the group about a moment that occurred minutes prior. Deploying myself at that moment required that I give the work back to the group, and make them own it.

I am sure there have been many such moments in each of your leadership journeys and would encourage you to consider practicing leadership in-the-moment — focusing on the here and now — the next time you stumble upon the opportunity.

Acknowledgments and Where to Learn More

I’d like to thank and acknowledge my mentor Michael Johnstone who reviewed multiple drafts of this article, made numerous impactful suggestions, and most importantly helped focus me in shaping this work for a new audience, those who do not teach, facilitate, coach or consult on leadership development.

For those who are interested in learning more, the leadership practice described above is called Case-in-Point (CIP) [1]. Jill Hufnagel, a master leadership development facilitator and coach writes that Case-in-Point is “a teaching method that uses a group’s own interactions to learn concepts” [2]. CIP is taught in many places around the world including the Harvard Kennedy School [3], Kansas Leadership Center [4], Australian Adaptive Leadership Institute [5], and the Adaptive Leadership Network [6]. Instead of relying solely on traditional teaching methods to gain competency in how to practice leadership, CIP uses the participants of a class and the strong holding environment that the classroom provides to teach and practice leadership, experiencing the same conditions in exercising leadership that make it so challenging “out there”. Said another way, the curriculum of a CIP class are the participants themselves.

[1] Michael Johnstone and Maxime Fern (2010). Case-in-Point: An experimental methodology for leadership education and practice. The Journal, Kansas Leadership Center, Volume 2, Issue 2, Fall 2010. https://www.academia.edu/26514756/CASE_IN_POINT_AN_EXPERIENTIAL_METHODOLGY_FOR_LEADERSHIP_EDUCATION_AND_PRACTICE

[2] Jill Hufnagel (2015). The Point of Case-In-Point: Six Anchors for Turning Classrooms into Living Leadership Labs, The Journal, Kansas Leadership Center, Volume 7, Issue 1, Winter 2015. https://issuu.com/kansasleadershipcenter/docs/journalwinter_final_web/52

[3] https://www.hks.harvard.edu/educational-programs/executive-education/art-and-practice-leadership-development

[4] https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/intensives/#caseinpointintensive

[5] Michael Johnstone and Maxime Fern, Australian Adaptive Leadership Institute, aali.caseinpoint@gmail.com

[6] Case In Point as an Experiential Method: An Introduction and Refresher, Adaptive Leadership Network, October 2019. http://www.adaptive-leadership.net/case_in_point_workshop

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Geoff Mendal
The Startup

I like writing about the teaching and practice of leadership as a member of an intact team, where I am implicated too.