In this edition of MixR Talks, we’re thrilled to introduce Wendy Ryan, CEO of Kadabra, a future-focused leadership and change consulting firm, and valued MixR partner. Our CEO, Cecile Moulard, recently had a conversation with Wendy about her outstanding new book, Learn Lead Lift: How to Think, Act and Inspire Your Way to Greatness, which was released earlier this year.
Throughout the conversation, Wendy shed light on surprising figures, including why research says that 95% of people think they are self aware, yet only 15% actually are. And, why companies perceive themselves as being more inclusive than they really are.
Special thank you to Wendy for sharing these thoughtful insights with our readers. Enjoy!
Cecile: I enjoyed reading your book because of the clear passion you have for the topic and your willingness to offer practical solutions to leaders who are “on the transition team.” Why do you think it is so important for leaders to evolve and find new ways to Learn, Lead and Lift? And, why now?
Wendy: The calculus for great leadership has been shifting gradually over the past 20-30 years. Then it accelerated dramatically in 2020 and will continue to shift rapidly in the coming decades. You can summarize it this way: DEPTH creates VUCA which requires I EAT leadership.
DEPTH is an acronym for 5 mega changes/trends that impact everyone and every organization on the planet: Demographic changes, Extreme weather, Pandemics, Technology and Health (expanding to a more holistic definition beyond physical or mental).
VUCA describes the social and business context which DEPTH has and will continue to produce, which is one characterized by higher Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Finally, I EAT leadership is inclusive, Equity-minded, Authentic and Trauma-informed.
Cecile: You write: “Self-awareness is the meta-skill of the 21st Century.” Can you dive deeper into this? Interestingly, research says that 95% of people think they are self aware, however, only 15% actually are self aware (including me :-). Why do you think there is such a significant discrepancy, and what can and should we do about it?
Wendy: To successfully exercise I EAT leadership, we must cultivate self-awareness in ourselves and in others, and it has to be continuous and ongoing – not episodic. Part of the discrepancy you mention around actual vs. perceived self-awareness is a self-protective mechanism. Some might describe it as our ego getting in the way. Unless we are very intentional about cultivating greater self-awareness and we are convinced that it ultimately serves us to be more self-aware, our brain has evolved many ways to help us avoid having to experience any negative emotions like discomfort, fear and shame. Negative emotions as well as very positive ones can both arise with increasing self-awareness, but it can be hard for us to stay focused on the upside part of that equation sometimes.
Cecile: You outline a powerful framework for becoming a mindful leader based on the alignment of Mindset, Skillset and Behaviors. In this post-pandemic world, with 40% expected turnover and a whole new set of employee expectations, how do you suggest future mindful leaders start their journey? What are the first three concrete actions they should take?
Wendy: Start by recording your answers to two questions: 1) Why do I want to lead? and 2) Who do I want to be or am I being as a leader? Then, record 1-2 mindsets, 1-2 skill sets and 1-2 behaviors you can leverage or strengthen to manifest your why and reflect who you want to be as a leader. Finally, record what actions you will commit to take, by when, and share your plan with someone else – your partner, your boss, your friend, etc.
Cecile: Some of the main positive attributes that employees are seeking when joining and staying in an organization are Belonging and Inclusion. In your book, you shed light on the discrepancy between companies that perceive themselves as inclusive and welcoming, but are not really when you ask their employees when you ask their employees. What needs to be done to align intention and perceived reality? Should employees be involved in the process? If so, what could that look like?
Wendy: The most important thing leaders can contribute to foster belonging and inclusion is to adopt a learner’s mindset and show up with a level of personal humility aligned to that. When we have a learner’s mindset, we admit that we have little to no initial expertise in the subject and we commit to doing the work to acquire basic expertise. We ask for help and for guidance from our employees about what needs to change and invite them to help lead the way. We pay them for their additional labor and publicly recognize their contributions and their leadership. In other words, we invest in them and ensure they have the resources, the visibility and our clear partnership to create the conditions around belonging and inclusion that we say we want. And we do all of the above while holding ourselves and others accountable for the outcomes. In other words, we don’t hire a head of diversity and inclusion and/or create a bunch of employee resource groups and then shrug our shoulders when the data from next year’s employee survey shows no significant difference. All leaders have an essential role and responsibility to foster belonging and inclusion in their organization, not just the “DEI folks.”
Cecile: You remind us that we live in a VUCA world (Volatility, Uncertainty Complexity, Ambiguity) and that leaders have the choice to either overlook this reality, or to harness the power of VUCA in their businesses like you do at Kadabra. How is VUCA encoded in your DNA? What does that look like for your partners and your clients?
Wendy: Our 3T Model™ suggests that at any point in time and for any set of circumstances or variables, your choice as a leader boils down to one of three things. You can either choose to tolerate, transform or transcend it. It doesn’t matter whether those variables or circumstances are internal or external to you or the organization. In a VUCA context, applying the 3T
Model gets even more interesting because the tradeoffs between options can be more extreme. We might find it harder to be selective and be tempted to think we have to transform everything, or we might be tempted to bypass transformation altogether in favor of transcending when it’s really not appropriate to do so (e.g. we can’t transcend our way past systemic racism – that would be bypassing. Transforming is the work we actually must do there).
At Kadabra we take the long view (systems thinking) and we align our decisions and actions in accordance with our core values of curiosity, depth, vulnerability, inclusivity and impact. If something or someone doesn’t align, we won’t do it or engage with them. Period. In addition to operationalizing our values and integrating the 3T Model into our decision making, we are also intentional about building flexible and adaptable systems throughout every facet of our operations, because we know that being successful in a VUCA context means we ultimately have to optimize for agility, not stability.
Our clients and partners tell us they both appreciate and benefit from our ongoing transparency about what we are discovering and learning along the way. I think It helps us to cultivate strong relational trust with each other which frankly has even more value than predictive trust in a VUCA world.
Cecile: One very last tiny question. Your company is named Kadabra. Tell us why you chose this name, and how important the unseen, the unexpected and the magic is to you and your partners?
Wendy: Our purpose is manifesting change, whether that is for one person, a team or a whole organization. While the methods we use are repeatable, rooted in science and data always informs our approach, no two people, teams or organizations are exactly alike. And insights and breakthroughs for people can occur when you least expect them to.
When people experience a shared insight together during a team session, for example, it can feel almost magical because the energy and excitement that generates for the team is palpable – and really cool to witness. The name, Kadabra, evokes that moment of anticipation when you can feel a new understanding is just about to dawn, the energy is building and the potential for something amazing seems to be waiting for us within the next heartbeat.
I think it speaks also to our team’s inherent optimism – our belief that anything is possible and as humans we are all somehow better together than we are alone.
Wendy Ryan is the CEO of Kadabra, an interdisciplinary team of leadership and organizational change experts based in Silicon Valley. Wendy holds more than 25 years of combined experience in human resources, organizational development, non-profit leadership and executive coaching. She has partnered with hundreds of individuals and organizations throughout the U.S., helping C-suite leaders and board members achieve success as individuals and in teams.
In addition to her work with Kadabra, Wendy is an active mentor, strategic advisor and angel investor in early stage, BIPOC, LGBTQ++ and womxn-led companies and an advocate for expanding diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in the investor and business ecosystem.
Wendy released her first book, Learn Lead Lift: How to Think, Act and Inspire Your Way to Greatness in May 2021. We highly encourage you to pick up a copy of her book and visit www.learnleadlift.com or www.wearekadabra.com for more details.