Michael Leckie on Sparking Change
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Michael J. Leckie is the chief learning officer for Digital Industrial at GE. He believes that our ability to learn and engage with our fellow human beings is the catalyst for transformation. In this interview, Michael and I discuss:
- Giving people the tools and the space that can spark change.
- Why the ability to step into your own ignorance can be valuable for a leader.
- Leading with your heart and with honesty, while knowing you can’t control the outcome.
- How action requires clarity—and how, without it, you’re wasting energy.
Also mentioned in this podcast:
- Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, by Edgar H. Schein
- Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey
- An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey
- Carol Dweck
- Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age, by Edward D. Hess and Katherine Ludwig
Michael: I am Michael Bungay Stanier, you’re listening to The Coaching Habit Podcast. This is where you will find the best strategies for leading yourself and others, by tapping into the wisdom of thinkers, of leaders, of writers, we even throw in an occasional coach or two.
And my guest today is a great friend of mine, a long-time friend of Box of Crayons as well, Michael Leckie. He is currently the CLO for an idea called Digital Industrial within GE, with this driving force that GE will be the platform for industrial digital, the industrial internet. But I met Michael Leckie 18 years ago now, or something ridiculous like that, in a training program with Edgar Schein. Regular readers and listeners will know that I reference Schein quite a lot. And Michael moved to Gartner, the big tech research company, and we ended up doing quite a lot of work and having quite a lot of fun together there at Gartner. So I’m always excited to talk to Michael Leckie. All the more so when we get to record it as a podcast. So hello MJL, how are you doing?
Michael Leckie: Hi MBS, I am fine today. Thank you, sir.
Michael: Yeah. You know, BS is just not that great a combination of letters for a surname, but never mind. I’ll move on with it. So here’s how I want to jump in. I know some of your journey, but I’m curious to know what your focus is right now. You know, as you know well, at Box of Crayons we’re talking about the difference between good work at job description and great work, the work that has more impact, the work that has more meaning. So what for you is great work these days?
Michael Leckie: You know, great question because it continues to evolve, although there are, as you probably would predict and probably have in several of your books and themes around it, but for me my great work has always centered around how do you make a space for people to a little more safely, a little more comfortably, maybe a little more boldly, step into and really grow and change and transform. And so at GE right now, what we’re really focusing on is the much-wanted digital transformation. But what’s become really clear to me is there’s so many definitions for that, but that really what it’s about is individuals making real personal change and transformation that allows them to lead this type of change. And I’ve really come to realize it’s not about the program, it’s about the person and giving them the tools and the space and the awareness, and helping kinda stoke the fires of the need to change.
So I guess I’d say I’m still working on my great work around trying to help people find that place, but find it very specifically around some pretty cool business needs right now.
Michael: So you’re a kinda L&D geek like I am, and so you’ve been thinking about and wrestling with these whole challenges around change. How it is both a personal thing and a team thing and an organizational thing. And, putting Box of Crayons work aside, should you have been going to mention it, who do you look for as kind of really interesting thinkers and writers in this particular space? Because it’s such an important topic and there’s a lot of not very good stuff out there. So I’m always keen to know what the really good stuff is. So who do you look to as having an influential way of thinking or doing in this space?
Michael Leckie: Sure. And at least the first mention, I know that you also share an affinity for, cause we went to their session together to learn about immunity to change …
Michael Leckie: And that would be Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey at Harvard School of Education.
Michael: Yeah. Really good.
Michael Leckie: I think that the work that they’ve done, both around Immunity to Change and now most recently they wrote about in An Everyone Culture, is really foundational because it starts with the individual and their mindset. I think that mindsets are more often associated with Carol Dweck and I love her work, but I really like how Bob and Lisa make it pragmatic and help you dig in. The other thing recently that really has got my attention was, I think it’s Katherine Ludwig and Ed Hess wrote a book called Humility is the New Smart. And when I …
Michael: Love it.
Michael Leckie: What I loved about it is that … You hear it, you see a title like that and you think, “Okay. This is going to be a good, soft and fluffy, you know L&D OD type of thing.” And they immediately start out with a smart machine error and how artificial intelligence and machine learning is changing what has a value and what doesn’t. You know, that knowledge becomes a commodity, but the ability to influence and to guide and to lead is where the value is. And so they’ve really brought home the fact that it’s no longer about knowing, it’s about learning and your ability to be able to learn and re-learn with the pace of change. So I think that that’s had a real … Their work’s had a real profound on how I work with people, and especially anything around learning and development. It’s no longer about here’s what we can teach you, it’s about how can we help you really learn and question and challenge yourself. Which takes it right back to the Kegan and Lahey stuff is they’re also focused on how can you understand where it is that you trip yourself up or put your own boundaries in place. So those are the two that come to mind right now.
Michael: And I like the connection also to Ed Schein’s work. I mean, his last book was called, Humble Inquiry and that connection between humble and humility, very close. So yeah, two great resources there.
Michael Leckie: Yeah.
Michael: So let me take you back a little bit. You know one of the quotes I say every podcast now cause I love it so is, “Inspiration is when your past suddenly makes sense.” And as we get to where we’ve got to and we look back … You know, the one where you can make up that you always knew where you were going and this was always part of a plan, but for most of us there have been these kind of crossroads moments where we’ve gone left instead of right and it’s made all the difference. So I’m curious to you, for the part of the journey that’s taken you to this role about digital, about learning, about change at an organizational and individual level, what have been one or two of the crossroad moments for you?
Michael Leckie: Well, you know, it’s funny I’ve kicked around for a long time, and I’ll have to do this now because I’m saying it on your podcast before somebody else steals my idea, but I’ve toed around with the concept I sort of call the “Know Nothing Leader”. And to me it’s about accessing … As that chime would say, accessing your ignorance, and just going ahead and stepping in with what you’ve got.
And I think that one of the things that I find interesting about the place that I’m at, you know when I got to Gartner I joined Leading HR for a number of businesses and I ended up working in Executive Programs. Which as you know is their CXO advisory business. And I ended up working with coaching and advising C level executives, especially Chief Information and Chief Digital Officers around the globe. I don’t know anything particularly about that, or didn’t when I started, and I’m not a techie, and I don’t have that depth of knowledge, but what I did is I just kinda stepped in with what I knew. And I would say, “Here’s what I don’t know.” And I really started to learn that stepping into that place of unknowing could be valuable.
And one of the most interesting moments I had was when I was talking to someone and where they were going was so far over my head. I mean, I didn’t even understand some of the words they were using. I’d heard them, but didn’t know what they meant.
Michael Leckie: All these terms. And I thought, “Okay. So what’s valuable in this other than just the fact that I feel afraid and stupid?” And I stopped for a minute and I thought, “Wait a minute. I work with executives all the time, and it’s not that I’m an idiot, it’s just I don’t understand what they’re saying cause it’s such …” “Inside baseball” as a friend of mine would say down here in the States. And so I stopped them and I said, “Hey. You know, I’ve got to tell you. I don’t really understand what you’re talking about.” And they sort of stopped and looked at me and I said … And I’m a fairly educated individual so the question I have is “Do you think there are people in your organization that are your peers, or maybe even your bosses, feeling the same way when you talk to them?” And they stopped and looked at me, and the conversation broke open there, and we realized that this person really had been in a sense hiding behind what they knew.
Michael Leckie: And you know staying in that place of comfort. And so I guess, one of those moments for me was just saying, you know, just step into places that are scary, step into the places where you think you’re going to come out looking foolish. We talk about Ed Schein or the great thinkers. One of my favorite quotes is the great 20th Century philosopher, Cher, when she said that if you’re not willing to look foolish, you’ll never have the chance at greatness. So I guess I subscribe to that as well.
Michael: And I’m happy to say that I’ve seen you look foolish many, many times. So greatness is surely just around the corner for you Michael.
Michael Leckie: For those of you listening, the planking episode never happened.
Michael: Yes. So look, let me ask you this, speaking of planking, one of the questions I believe to be true as to those people I look to and admire, are the people who’ve done their own work, they continue to refine their sense of self, their sense of presence, their sense of emotional intelligence and self-knowledge. And for myself anyway, what I’ve come to realize is I tend to not have hundreds of lessons to learn, but just like a few lessons that I have to keep learning. So I’m wondering what for you is the hard lesson that you’ve had to learn, or you’ve had to keep learning?
Michael Leckie: There’s probably a few of them, but a couple that come to mind. One is just an aspect of me that I’ve had to learn to recognize, is that I like to be liked. So one of the things I need to do is not let that take place of me being effective. Cause sometimes to be effective you have to disrupt, you have to push, you have to break some eggs or ruffle some feathers. By just being honest and caring, not in a way to be superior, but in a way that really shows that you love someone enough to tell them the truth as you see it.
Michael Leckie: So I need to be aware of that and keep that balanced, and not go too far down that road.
Michael: I love that. I’m going to stop you there cause I want people to hear it because for those of us who are trying to be coaches, or to be more coach-like in the work that we do, this I think is such a big recurrent, deep pattern. So I love that Michael’s kinda copping to it and pointing to it, which is that … The way it plays out for me anyway is I make up this story about how I’m protecting the other person. And then I’m like, “Ah, who am I kidding here? I’m just protecting myself.” And there’s a way that you can sell the other person short by your own lack of courage to say the hard thing. So, thanks Michael, I’m really happy you said that.
Michael Leckie: Cool. You’re welcome. And I thought … We’re talking about the other lessons I’ve learned. I guess one of them is that I’m a … I can be a real in my head person.
Michael Leckie: I’ve got a good vocabulary. I can fake it through a lot of really erudite sounding thoughts and come off scholarly, but the fact of the matter is that I’ve really had to learn that from the head comes programs, but from the heart really comes the things that can go a bit viral. And as I’ve started to work, especially with large organizations. I mean, I got to GE, there’s 300,000 people here. Trying to roll out and scale a program, it became so esoteric and tool driven, that by the time you scale it you really haven’t scaled much. And I started to realize that you really had to be open to leading with your heart, leading with honesty and not … Knowing you couldn’t control the outcome, but that you can’t make things go viral through a program, it’s just not part of the nature of it. You have to put it out there and experiment and see what sticks, not knowing the outcomes. Which a lot of people don’t like. And I don’t like it, cause I like to know that something I do is gonna work. Otherwise I’m afraid I won’t look that smart. But it really has helped me to go ahead and look foolish.
Michael: Well, they say … I mean I’ve just had this insight with a report that we’re writing at the moment for Box of Crayons. And it’s just taken us six different cycles to get this thing even close to being good enough. And it’s been so painful, but there’s just been part of the learning again for me, which is it takes six cycles or something like it, to take something from being okay to actually going, “Ooh, this is beginning to kinda hum with possibilities here.” So, yeah. There’s something about what it takes to do the work to take it from that first okay to really being something that’s going to have the impact that we all dream of.
Michael Leckie: Yeah, I think so. And you kinda have to … As part of a non-controlling or letting go, you have to give it away. And I think it comes back to what we talked about earlier. Another influence, I got to know Adam Grant through work that I did with Gartner and beyond that. And I really just embraced what he talks about when it comes to giving. And to me, you just can’t … I’ve never been able to give so much that it hurts. Now, I understand that you need to be smart about it, a lot of great giving is in connecting people and putting things together, not just taking all your time for others. But the more that I continue to give and put things out there, those are the things that take off once I let go of them. And that can be the hard thing is to let that baby go out into the world and see what happens.
Michael: So, as a final question I want to ask you as part of this, part of the interview. And people listening will know that for every guest I have, we actually do three interviews. We do this main one, which is the longer one. We do a shorter one, which is about the guest’s favorite question. And then we do a kind of inner circle one, where we talk about the two sources of wisdom that that guest relies on. Which you have to be signed up for, a user for to get access to. But this is the last question for the main interview. And it’s about this. Michael, in your role as a leader and as somebody who has coaching as part of your leadership repertoire, what’s your favorite tool or a process or a model that you go to and just rely on, lean into. Just where you go, “Man, this one almost never fails. I’ve got it as a well-used tool in my repertoire.” Do you have one, or something like that?
Michael Leckie: Well, and certainly you’ll know for the years we’ve worked together the kind of questions that are in the Coaching Habit and the programs that Box of Crayons runs, are deeply ingrained in me. But if I think about the one that I really go to probably the most often, it comes out of your work as well as the work of others. And I think it’s the question around “What do you want?” I mean for me, the “How can I help?” But also the “What do you want?” And there are so many things that just come down to that. And it’s a question that you can ask and ask again. And we’ve talked about this a number of times.
The first time you ask the question, the answer you get is just usually garbage. It’s so high level or so easy to say, but if you truly get down to what you really, really want, a lot can be revealed. And it’s a tough question to answer, but it’s one that I definitely will use on a regular basis to deepen understanding, deepen relationship, and try to truly be helpful to someone.
Michael: And for me that question is kinda connecting us back to humility and groundedness, and all of that stuff that we talked about right at the start of the conversation. I think this question is wonderful to ask other people, but really wonderful to ask yourself.
Michael Leckie: Yeah.
Michael: Particularly when you’re confused or discombobulated or when a relationship’s slightly off or when you’re feeling anything other than the best version of yourself. Rather than looking externally and going, “What’s going on here?” Part of it’s just maybe going, “Well, look here’s the data of the situation. Here are the facts. Knowing that to be true, what do I want here?” And for me it’s often such a relieving insight, which is like, “Oh, here’s the thing I want to say this. Or I want this to be different.” And it just takes you to where the real issue is. And once you see the real issue, you have the choice to actually start doing something about it. So, yeah.
The fourth book in The Coaching Habit book is “What do you want?” And we call it the foundation question for that very reason that you’re pointing to.
Michael Leckie: Yeah. And one thing I’d add to that is it’s just a great question to ask yourself and it’s a really hard question to answer well for yourself. I mean, just a couple of weeks ago I came up to spend some time with you and our other co-conspirator Mark [Burden 00:17:35] up there in Toronto. Because there’s something I was wrestling with. And that was what it was. I said, “Look guys, it’s worth it for me to take the time, come up here, sit down, and let’s talk through what do I want with people who care about me and are willing to be honest, pushing me and saying is that what you really want?” Because doing that, I got real clarity. And once the clarity was there, man, the action just followed. I know exactly what needs to be done, it’s that moment of when you see what you need to do. Then you can get there, but when you don’t quite see it, you don’t know what you really want, you’ll stumble around and waste an incredible amount of energy. So it’s worth engaging others to find out what you want, I think.
Michael: I love it. So Michael, you are one of 300,000 people at GE. For people who are authors and kind of external people like that, we ask them to say, “How do we find you on the web?” Do you want people to be able to find you, or would you prefer to stay kind of mysterious and enigmatic?
Michael Leckie: No. Absolutely. I want them to be able to find me. So on Twitter you can find me at Leckiemichaelj. L-E-C-K-I-E. Michaelj. And on LinkedIn at MJLeckie. You can find me quite easily, I’m open, and reach out to me at any time. I love to connect with people. I’ve found that making those connections with people I’ve never met have been some of the most fruitful and have led to longstanding relationships. So if something I’ve said here is useful, people should feel free to reach out.
Michael: Perfect. Michael it’s always a pleasure. Thank you.
Michael Leckie: Thank you.