The Uncommon Leader Podcast

11 - Mark Graban - On humble leadership - Influencing without authority

October 19, 2021 John Gallagher
The Uncommon Leader Podcast
11 - Mark Graban - On humble leadership - Influencing without authority
Show Notes Transcript

Welcome back listeners to the uncommon leader podcast. This week's guest is Mark Graban. Mark is an internationally recognized consultant, author, speaker, blogger, and podcaster. He's authored or co-authored four books, the most recent being The Measure of Success... React Less, Lead Better and Improve More. He has hosted more than 600 podcasts, over many names, including his Lean Blog, Lean Whiskey, and his newest podcast, My Favorite Mistake.

Mark's motivation is to "humbly help others learn how to improve and sustain performance". Now common leaders can help others, but Uncommon leaders humbly help others. It's this area that we dive deep to learn more about Mark and how he models humble leadership.

He shared with me his stories and experience. He spoke about the challenges of leading humbly with regards to telling his clients what to do vs. helping them to  discover what to do. He spoke about other leaders that have influenced him how to lead as well as some examples of learning from others how not to lead(which is sometimes just as important). He spoke about the need to have empathy when asking others to change.

You can follow Mark at

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Welcome back listeners to the uncommon leader podcast. This week's guest is mark Graban. Let me tell you a little bit about mark and his bio. Mark is an internationally recognized consultant, author, speaker, blogger, and podcaster. He's either authored or co-authored four books. The most. Beat recent being the measure of success, react less, lead better and improve more. He has hosted more than 600 podcasts, over many names, including his lien blog. Lean whisky. Which I'm really interested in learning more about and his most recent, my favorite mistake. So I'm glad to put him on the other side of the microphone. If you will, during this interview. But what really caught my eye though. Amongst his lengthy accomplishments was this sentence in his about page. Mark's motivation is to humbly help others learn how to improve and sustain performance. Now common leaders help others, but uncommon leaders humbly help others. It's this area that we dive deep to learn more about mark and how he models. Humble leadership. Let's meet mark. Braver

Mark Graban:

Mark welcome to the uncommon leader podcast. I'm glad to have you on the show and I appreciate you taking the time to be with us today. How you doing? I'm doing well. Thanks. Thanks for having me, John. Absolutely. Mark. Well, let's jump right in because I know our time and for our listeners, they want to get right to it. But it's a question that I always have. Each one of my guests. And it's something that gets to gets the listeners to know a little bit more about you personally, but do you have kind of a story from your past, from your youth that still impacts the way you are today as a leader and as a person does early twenties count as youth? I guess you didn't say childhood. Well, I would say it's youth for me. Yeah, absolutely. In terms of how it's going back. So my kids are in their twenties, so absolutely early twenties. So, you know, right out of college. My first full-time job was at a general motors. Plants actually in my hometown of Lavonia, Michigan. So it was kind of a homecoming after college. I took the job there because they told a really good story during the interviewing process, that this was a plant that was managed using the Deming philosophy. And I was maybe an odd duck where that was meaningful. Coming out of college. My dad, thanks to my dad. I had some exposure at least to the work of Dr. Deming. And it resonated with me. I thought, well, this place might be like, I thought it was maybe sort of like a Numi type pocket within GM. I didn't even know the Numi story at that point. But when I came in, I learned very quickly that ironically, like this had been like two plant managers ago, the Deming stuff had been. Degraded to the point where it was nothing but posters and slogans on the wall, which at that point, the late Dr. Deming would have, of course just hated. So that right there was, was a lesson. And so then I learned this environment, there were two sides to it. The first side is going to sound really negative, but it, there were a lot of lessons in how not to leave. It was, it was the very traditional. Environment of yelling and screaming and blaming the workers for everything. And it was, it was a really toxic environment. The people didn't like coming to work, whether they were hourly or salaried. There was a lot of like, okay, I can see why I can understand why things are broken here. Don't lead like that. When you get the chance to leave now the positive side. And alive, but that sticks with me and more of a, what to do element was the fact that general motors powertrain division had hired in some amazing outside employees from Nissan and some Toyota supplier. Now they were very underutilized. Cause they were saying like, we're from headquarters, we're here to help. And you know how that goes sometimes slowly, but since I was young and impressionable and willing to learn, they spent a lot of time with me. And when you talk about doing a wastewater, there's no shortage of waste, no shortage of dysfunctional, how not to do things. But then I have their coaching of hearing about here's, how it was back at my old organization. Here's how. It would become here at this GM facility and then about a year into it after a number of quality problems or activity problems we got a new plant manager who was one of those original, numerous. People the quote-unquote Numi commandos as they were labeled Larry Spiegel. And so then I learned very early on, oh my goodness, that leader at the top, in this case, a leader of 800 people, that leader and the way they operate and their behaviors and that all that starts to trickle down through the organization. Not immediately, but there's just no getting around. Like you could hire. All the great outside coaches, but boy, if that, that, that leader, whether it's a plant manager or a hospital CEO, that makes all the difference. So that, that that's all really stuck with me. And a lot of, I think, meaningful ways. Yeah. In a short period of time, a tremendous amount of lessons, right? Some of them, some of the best lessons we learn or how not to do things when we can observe behaviors just like at the top of the organization when they're a certain way. And then when you see when they are, when those behaviors are. From a leadership standpoint, what the success with what the results can multiply with regards to performance improvement and going through that especially implementing something like that Demi model in terms of change that has to happen. So, no, I appreciate you sharing that. And actually it leads really, really, really well into what next question I have because when I had a chance to we'll call, do some research, I mean, you've been doing this podcasting thing for a long time. You got over 600. Underneath your belt and things like that. But when I read your about page to really go through it, something that struck me was hearing something that, or reading something that said Mark's motivation is to humbly, help others learn how to improve and sustain performance. So it's one thing to say, you want to help others improve and sustain performance. It's another thing to say. You want to humbly help others improve and sustain performance. So what's the difference to you and how does it to me that goes from. Leadership to uncommon leadership and great leadership. When, when the leader is humble and wants to improve performance, what does that mean to you? Well, I think there's a couple things come to mind. One is I think a key influence from the Toyota way leadership model and the importance that's placed on leading. With humility and we can unpack what that means. I mean, I think like, for example, when I think of other influences and, you know, positive influences and mentors someone, you know, well of course, you know, Dr. John Tucson with emphasize leading with humility means not insisting that you have all the answers and not putting pressure on yourself as a leader. To have all the answers. It's interesting. You're making me reflect on why did I stick that word into the bio? I mean, it's, it's a word that's meaningful to me. I'm not trying to brag, you know, it would be the high, the irony of like, ah, I'm the most humble person. I had a, a joke coffee mug made for a colleague a couple years back that says world's most humble leader, got a chuckle out of that. But, I mean, I think, you know, this idea of leading with humility is important. So I think I'm trying to convey that in the bio and, and maybe it's an invitation for people to call me on it, if I'm not being humble. Oh, I like that. So I like that as an invitation, you said you were this and then. You have this and you know, are any of us perfect? No. Do I have moments where might someone might say, well, you seem kind of full of yourself. I mean, I'm sure it happens at times, but my ideal state. Would be leading with humility and as an author or as a podcaster or as a consultant coach. I, I try to lift that. I do my best, you know, I can definitely see where as a consultant, again, putting that word into place, those two words, as you say, whether it's irony or whether it's antithesis consultant and humble at times, because you know, you have a role and you and I are kind of similar in terms of some of that consulting piece that we've done. With regards to going in and trying to coach trying to teach leaders many times in the C-suite to do things a different way, and they don't always want to listen to that. So I'm sure that humility, that, that calmness, that you exhibit is challenged by that leadership inside of that space. Can you think of a time where you actually feel like you had to step outside of that and get more assertive when you were doing consulting and felt. Had to be more of a direct kind of leader as you went through that or as you're trying to teach them. Yeah, that's a real good question. I mean, there's, there's this conundrum where there there's, there's how you might want to operate as a coach or as a consultant, and then there's the client expectations or requirements. And I think a lot of times. There's this history or expectation. So if we hire a consultant, they're going to come in and tell us what to do. We're hiring them for answers. Bring up. No definitive directive. Tell us what to do. Now. The flip side of that is that people sometimes will say, we want you to tell us what to do, and then they don't want to listen. That's difficult to navigate, but I've tried to operate more and people I've worked with, you know, operating more in the mode of, if we're going to tell you to do anything, what we're going to tell you to do is let's figure it out together. Right. So there's, there's teaching a process, a problem solving model from the lean methodology or the Toyota production system? No, I might be a little bit more directive in here's. If you want me to tell you anything, I will tell you a framework that we can use to figure it out together. And because, you know, I think there's a lot to be said from exposure I've had working in healthcare to different philosophies and approaches that, that, that are born out of, let's say counseling or, or therapy where I've studied this. Just sort of as a engineer, lay person, not a clinician. There's a real interesting psychology around, you know, when we tell people what to do that change tends not to be. Even if it's being invited, sometimes there's just this natural, I think human instinct to push back on, being told what to do. We see that that's happening in daily life around the world these days. So you know, it, I, you know, I try to come in, not as the expert of, I'm going to tell you 10 things you need to do to fix your emergency department, because I've done those 10 things everywhere. The common theme is more of having you know, problem solving frameworks and coaching and teaching methods of the help. Others figure it out themselves because I think that's more effective and more sustainable. I like that a lot. I mean, especially from that consulting framework, when I listen and hear what you're talking about, I, I go back to different even stories myself. And you mentioned emergency rooms specifically. Yes. And, you know, everyone likes to believe that every emergency room is exactly the same. And that come on, just tell me what you did at these other 12 emergency rooms that you've already worked at. And we'll just implement that and they won't take as long, and sometimes it takes longer to teach them through that journey to coach them through that journey. The other thing that you touched on really that, that is important as I listened through it is that to have someone be told to do that. Can also give them the authority to say, well, if it doesn't work, it wasn't my idea. Exactly. Right. It was the consultant's idea. Rather than that consultant take me to a space and we always want to leave, leave as influence. As leaders, we always want to challenge the individuals that we're coaching, that we're consulting, whatever that is to take ownership and take responsibility and not allow that to become a, a victim mentality as they go through it. So you talk about therapy and that's exactly what it is. Do not allow the indivi. To pull the responsibility off of their shoulders and place it on yours, especially as a consultant. Now, very important to take a look at, I'm curious, mark. See, you mentioned some of the challenges and, and going through that, my listeners are kind of looking for tips sometimes. So here we go again. Now we're going to tell them how to do that, right. With regards to influencing, but again, what's been successful for you. To be able to humbly influence others to make a change and maybe share a story with us about, you know, when you were able to be successful on the results that either a leader was able to achieve or an organization was able to achieve to see that happen. Well, I mean, that's, so that's an interesting way of framing it, of, of trying to influence others there's opportunities that are very much face to face elbow to elbow. Working with people where you're trying to influence them to consider doing things a different way. There's indirect influence. It's, it's harder to gauge the effectiveness of the influence when it's done. Via a book that was about saying, you know, an arm's length distance instead of elbow to elbow, someone's holding a book, arm's length away. Of what, what is the effectiveness of attempts to influence through a book, a podcast, a video, a social media posts. You know, I think one of the biggest challenges. So for example, like my, my most recent book measures of success is trying to help make a case. Like, you know, there, there there's a powerful. Human habit to be grounded in the way we've always done it or the way I was taught to do it. And so if we look at, let's say performance measures in an organization it's one thing to try to teach a better way. So I I'm a student of the statistician Donald Wheeler is his amazing book. Understanding variation has been very influential for me. And so Wheeler would argue that you know, we, we should stop making two data point comparisons. We should visualize our data in a chart and better. Use the control chart, methodology process, behavior charts, as he calls them. And he tried to demonstrate, look, here's a way that's really useful and effective, but before you can get to that, like people have to learn something new people have to be willing to unlearn. Something else. And it could be like, well, the previous consultant a year ago taught me to do it this way. Like it might not even be the way we've always done it, but it could be like, well, we don't want to change again. Even if the organization says we're a culture of continuous improvement, that's easier said than done sometimes. So I don't want to find answering the core of your question, but I mean, I think trying to help people work through. Just the emotion. And this is where trying to be a little bit like a counselor is helpful of just helping people work through those cycles of realizing, oh, it's okay to change. It's okay. To admit the way we were doing something wasn't ideal. I mean, there are times just bringing it back to more general health care changes where like, I really feel like I'm helping people through stages of grief where they feel. Almost or they'll articulate a sense of shame of, oh, now that we see those, these problems and we see this waste, why didn't we fix it before? And I have to try to help people move through, like, well, that doesn't matter. And there's a nicer way of saying it, but like, don't feel bad about yourself. Don't beat yourself up. If I listen. I think you did answer the question. If I summarize kind of what I heard you say with regards to the challenges that. There's a few things. One is in the very last part you talked about is that to be able to influence someone, even without authority, first, you have to have empathy and realize that you are asking them to do something different. I mean, as consultants, we do different exercises to challenge people, whether it's folding their arms differently or whatever it is to get them realize that that changes. Necessary or change can be done, but it's uncomfortable. So empathy to the, to the situation is very important. You touched on it. You've used the word therapy a couple of times, and I have had people at leaders or groups say, yeah, I just feel like I've been through a therapy session after I'm undone. So, you know, asking them questions in terms of where they are, is very important versus telling them all the experience that you have. And then the third piece, whether that's, whether it's still aligned with empathy, but it's certainly putting yourself in their shoes to say, they've already been taught a certain way and we're asking them to do it differently as teachers, as influencers. So, you know, we, we don't necessarily. We shouldn't expect them to change right away. They've been told things a certain way. Look, mark you. And I see this in healthcare all the time and trying to coach physicians, right. Physicians have never been told in their lives that they've done anything wrong. They've been star students all the way through school with straight A's. They've been told that they have to be number one in their class to get the best. Opportunities at whatever healthcare system they want to work. And then they've been told they got to work the most and be the best. So nobody wants to tell them there, they don't want to be told they need to do things differently. So being able to recognize and meet them where they are at times is very important. Does it slow the progress down, maybe. Does it create friction in the process where it challenges your humility? And your ability and even sometimes your confidence as a consultant or a leader. Absolutely. But it is something where you have to be empathetic. You have to realize and meet them where they are, and then continue to push forward. Despite all of that conflict, knowing that there's a better way, as you say, on the other end, you want to help them. So that. Performance improves, whether it's in healthcare or manufacturing or it's in life or fitness, whatever it is, you know, there's an opportunity to get better when you work your way through those things. So, absolutely. If I just add one more thing to that point, you know, the idea of empathy and building trust and respecting the person that you're trying to help. So I come back to lessons from therapy that I think do apply to consultant. To ask yourself, do you want to be right? Or do you want to be helpful? Those are sometimes two very different things, help telling someone they need to change versus helping them discover that they, that there's an opportunity to change that they need to change and that they can change because I've seen people be kind of self-defeating in any of those categories. They might say, well, I know. It would be ideal to reduce patient harm and falls and infection rates and what have you, but it's just not possible. Well, if, if, if, if, if you've convinced yourself that then certainly it's not possible, but how can you help people take baby steps to start building confidence. And, and, and, and start building some capabilities and start taking baby steps, and then people can then talk themselves into it, like, oh, well, okay. We've made some progress. Let's, let's keep at it. Absolutely. If they see that, that becomes the mic drop moment. Right. In terms of going through, as you were talking through that, there's a movie that I've used as an example in teaching like that nanny McPhee, when you need me, but don't want me, then I've got. I've got to keep working with you when you want me, but don't need me. That's my time to go, because you've started to learn how to do that on your own. And that's really what we're doing as consultants and coaches is getting them see what's possible on their own, getting them to see, you know, we talk about it in our lean world of getting them to be able to see the waste in process, because they've looked at it the same way for so long. They can't see it. And when they get that correct lens, They can really make it powerful go. No, that's a good story. And I think that's helpful as we go through it and being able to summarize some of those key points. So let me keep going. I'll stay a little bit more on the influence. Maybe one more question. So you've off authored many books and I'll, I'll put those in the, I'll put a link to your website in the show notes as we go through this. But tell me, maybe from that influence standpoint, from that leadership standpoint, is there a book that's been influential on you? Outside of maybe the problem solving capability, but a book on the leadership side reset. This is a book that I recommend that might help others recognize what it takes to be a humble leader. So one book I really, really love and have recommended a lot. And I've, I've interviewed the three co-authors in a podcast is a book. Is born out of the counseling therapy realm, but it's clearly applied to the workplace and leadership. It's a book called motivational interviewing for leadership. So motivational interviewing is that sort of, you know, counseling therapy methodology, but then applying that to the leadership environment and, and, and that framework called motivational interviewing is something. I've really tried to study. I've tried to practice. And in different ways, it's a relatively short book, really readable. It's it's, it's not a psychology textbook. You know, it's, it's not overwhelming. It's, it's a really helpful book. So then I, I felt like somebody a social worker I'd crossed paths with professionally recommended that I study, she invited me in a way, right. She didn't tell me, I had to. She said you might be interested in. Yeah, she planted the seed and I did read the psychology textbook and it was the only psychology textbook I've ever read. But then that motivational interviewing for leadership book, I think really, really distills it in a way that's really interesting, really helped. Good. Thank you. Thank you for recommending that market. Again, I'll put a link to that in the show notes as well. And I'll take, I'll take a look for that podcast that you mentioned as well, where you interviewed the authors and my gift. Give the listeners a chance to listen to something else there too. Well, our mark, not to say that we rush through. It's been, it's been great. Having a conversation with you, kind of watching the time as we go through it, learning about you as a leader has been a lot of fun, and I appreciate your time today. I'll finish with. Two questions. One is what's the suggested way that you would recommend if my listeners want to stay in touch with you, how they stay in touch with you. But secondly, and then I'm going to let you finish off and have the last word I'm giving you a billboard and one of the busiest intersections and you're from Chicago. And there's a billboard at somebody who's going to see. What are the, what is the mantra that you want to leave? Both with my listeners that are listening to the podcast, as well as the individuals that are gonna drive by that every day. If you wanted to get your message out there. So for finding me online I'm very find-able mark graven is a unique enough name. Mark is my website. I can be found there, LinkedIn. The word I'll add the worst way to contact me. And somebody did this a couple of years ago, and I did not know that Instagram even had a messaging function. I'm not a heavy Instagram user, so don't send me an Instagram message, but otherwise I'm pretty easily found. So to the billboard and to the mantra, I'm going to just read it off of a coffee mug. I guess I repeat this to myself enough, which, which makes it a mantra. So kind of inspired by the podcast I've been doing the last year called my favorite mistake. So the coffee mug has the podcast logo on the one side then on the other side. So this is a little bit of collaboration with my friend, Karen Ross, or at least inspired by Karen. So it says four things on here and th this is really what the podcast is about, but I think these are good reminders. It says one be kind to yourself to nobody is perfect. Three, we all make mistakes for the important thing is continuing to learn from our mistakes. I think that would be a helpful thing to put up on a billboard mark. I think that fits it so well for what somebody needs to hear, especially in today's world. It aligns so well with what you said. And I'm glad I got you to think about that from your about, in terms of the humility that you work to lead with. And I know it comes across in the work that you do. So I appreciate you being humble enough to invest some time with the uncommon leader podcast today and our listeners. And I look forward to chatting with you again in the future. Thanks, John.

I hope you enjoyed that interview with mark graven. I know I did. With regards to humble leadership. I admire his sharing with us, his stories and experience. He spoke about the challenges of leading humbly with regards to telling his clients what to do. Versus helping them to figure it out together. You spoke about other leaders that have influenced him how to lead. As well as some examples of learning from others, how not to lead. Which is sometimes just as important. He spoke about the need to have empathy when asking others to change. And more. Thanks for listening to today's episode. If you enjoy it. I hope you'll consider sharing this with a friend or somebody that needs to hear this message as well. To catch up on past episodes, go to www dot, growing backslash podcast. For all those past interviews. Until next time go and grow champions.