283: From Communication Breakdowns to Breakthroughs, with Marsha Acker

October 18, 2023

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Dr. Pelè: 

Hello happy people, welcome to the Profitable Happiness Podcast. Hello everyone, this is Dr. Pelè with the Profitable Happiness Podcast, and today it is my pleasure to introduce you to Marsha Acker, who is the CEO and principal at Team Catapult. She's a leadership and team coach and today she's going to share with us a whole bunch of things that actually have to do with the idea that the problem is not out there. We can start solving the problem inside here, right, marcia? How are you doing today?

Marsha Acker: 

I'm doing great. It's wonderful to be here, so thanks for having me.

Dr. Pelè: 

Absolutely so, Marcia. We were discussing earlier about the fact that there is an abundance of challenges and problems in the business world and the world too, but let's focus on the organizations first. What specific problem, what specific challenge do you seem to see over and over inside of organizations that has made it necessary for you to do what you do today?

Marsha Acker: 

Yeah, well, I would key off of the way you asked that question, because I think that one of the challenges in our day-to-day work in organizations is that we all will likely have had the experience of having the same conversation over and over again. So just think about when was the? As I asked that question, like what's an example of a time when you've had the same conversation over and over again? So maybe you were asking for something to get done and it didn't get done, or there's a place that you notice like it keeps coming up. People keep asking you when you go. Wait a minute. I thought we've already decided this or we've already talked about it.

Dr. Pelè: 

Yeah.

Marsha Acker: 

So I think that it's the. It's just that simple phenomenon that happens. That's a little bit like the warning flag or the canary in the coal mine that we're stuck in our conversation in some way, so we are stuck in our conversations.

Dr. Pelè: 

Help me understand exactly what you mean by that, because I think, when I look at companies and I think of that, I'm thinking of people who are either getting irritated because things aren't happening and they've talked about it a million times and they're not happening or they're getting bored with the routine of work. Which exact area are we focused on?

Marsha Acker: 

I think any of it. I think that what happens, what those repetitive conversations are, is there this warning, signer, indicator that there's something that's breaking down in our conversation, and so I think it shows up when we want to lead change. So an executive is making a move and they see a gap. So we're here today, we need to get here tomorrow and we're going to move in this direction. It's a transformation or it's a reorg or it's a restructure, and they're noticing pushback or people keep bringing it up and actually the executive or the team that's putting the move forward gets frustrated because they feel like things aren't moving forward. So they say it louder or they say it in different ways, or we develop these mechanisms and tools and processes because clearly people aren't doing it, because maybe they don't understand or maybe they don't know how to do it or maybe they need training. So we go about, I think, trying to solve or fix what we identify as a problem, like we're at one place and we want to get somewhere else, we want to see change happen. We try to solve it with processes and tools and techniques and training and communication plans and slide decks and we speak louder or we say it more often I think all of that is the way it plays out and what I believe is actually, there's an opportunity and an invitation for something maybe harder but actually much more simple as a way to navigate that.

Dr. Pelè: 

You know, what it sounds to me like you're saying is that all is not lost, because the picture you have just painted is very bleak and scary. For a lot of people it's like is there actually a solution? But you're saying that there is a solution and it starts from inside of us. Tell me more about that angle.

Marsha Acker: 

Yeah, well, I think so, all of the things that I think we're wanting in an organization. So, whether we would say the organization, things are moving well, or whether we're saying we're giving somebody feedback or we're just simply asking about the status of the task last week, and we find ourselves repeatedly asking about it because it's not moving forward or even a transformation. What I believe and have come to learn through lots of experiences, that All of that often comes down to the space, in the interface, in the in-between when we come together in conversation, and that there are aspects of the way we're communicating with one another that just break down so we communicate differently, and when we encounter difference, we tend to not like difference. We like people who communicate in the same way that we do or communicate from the same perspective we do, and so, yes, you know, we help leaders and teams See what's happening in their conversation. We call it reading the room, like how to read the room and notice when we're getting stuck in those Conversations and then how to change the nature of the outcome of the conversation. So, yes, I think it does start with us and I think it comes, you know, if you strip all of it down, if you just think about the last time you had one of those frustrating conversations, we're like wait a minute, like haven't we haven't we talked about this before? I think if you strip all of it down, even the context of it, really it will come down to what's happening in the communication, in the words that are exchanged between you and I, and where there's a little bit of breakdown and actually I can be finished.

Dr. Pelè: 

Oh, I love that and actually, you know, one of the best examples I got about something like what you're sharing is the difference between saying something is a problem versus something is an opportunity or or a challenge that you know it's like just these words, it's. It's all down to common Conversations and communication. So thank you so much for sharing that. But I'm curious, marsha, what got you to become Marsha Acker? What's your story? How did you decide that this is the problem, challenge, opportunity that you are going to address in this world?

Marsha Acker: 

um, I experienced working in Organizations. There's two things actually I experienced in my own leadership, a gap of it, and how to work with other humans. And then I also experienced working with leaders that actually, for me, didn't model a great view of leadership, and so those two things, I think, have called me to do the work that I do. So I'm actually a software engineer by training and and a little bit of my first career. So you know, I have two degrees in software engineering. Um, and I often say, you know, I, I came into the workforce really focused on process improvement, like, how do we improve? By creating processes and automating things and taking, you know, making change happen. But in my view at that time it was really through Automation and, you know, making things easier. And it was probably about 10 years into that first part of my career when I started to discover that I was out over my skis in terms of leading, like, like I had lots of training and processes and tools and you know so mapping things and creating systems diagrams. But I started to reach the point where I realized that I also had to work with other humans and I I quit, frankly didn't have skills for it. And I found myself, you know, quite Quite in difficult situations that I didn't understand how to handle, and that that piece of it is really what sent me down the path of the coaching. I went to coach training because I wanted to grow better leadership skills and what I ended up getting out of that was a whole different lens and a view for how to look at personal relationships, the importance of relationship, the importance of building relationship, and I think I used to. I would have said relationships are for outside of work. And now I say, oh, relationships are. They're just how we operate and you're either paying attention to them or you're not. But, yeah, yeah. So I think that experience was one part of what led me to do what I'm doing now. I think the second part is early on in my career, I got feedback. I was in the position of a director of operations for a software technology firm at the time and we were in the startup boom phase. You know, life was good until it wasn't, and we, you know we were also on the decline of the tech boom in the late 90s and one of the things that was really challenging me at that moment was what did it look like to lead? And so the CEO had come into my office one afternoon and just said you know, I really appreciate what you're doing. I know you're fairly new in this role, but I really am not sure that you're cut out for leadership and I really think that your lacking gravitas in your leadership.

Dr. Pelè: 

So after that feedback, I don't even know what that means.

Marsha Acker: 

First off, let's look up the word gravitas. And then, God like? What does that? What are you trying to tell me? What does that mean? And what I'd say to you now that I couldn't say to you then is that that particular individual just had a different model for leadership and in his viewpoint, leadership looked like a certain way and the feedback was about, you know, the gap that he saw between what I was doing versus what he was doing. I will say just credit. About three months later, a similar time of day, he came and sat back in my office one day and just said you know, I want to say to you I know I gave you some feedback a couple months ago and it was really wrong. I see how what you're doing, you're effective and it's really helpful, it's just really different. And so I think that I share that story a lot, because I think that we encounter difference all the time, and it'll be difference in our communication, like we could name it, in terms of how we're communicating but also what we're doing. And I think we encountered difference. And as soon as we encounter something that's different, we push back on it, or we give someone feedback about it, or we don't like it or we're. You know, we're telling people that they need to be more like us. I don't think that we really maybe consciously do that, but I think it's quite subconscious and I'm all about people defining what their model of leadership and change looks like and then being really clear about growing tolerance for difference when you see differing viewpoints, and to be able to say to someone I'm noticing, you have a really different way of doing this, you do it this way, I do it this way, and then we can have a dialogue about what that is like, what's the intermingling of that, but we take it away from it being so much about feedback to someone else, that of something that they have to do differently. I think, if we talk about it in the concept of, it's my model for leadership and here's where it comes from, what it looks like. So those, those two events really have led me to. I have a tremendous passion for working with leaders. I often say we work with technical leaders who, If you, you know if you would describe yourself as someone who has a lot of expertise in your skill set and your swim lane, but find yourself kind of out of your skis and working with other humans. That's what we have to be learning to do.

Dr. Pelè: 

Yeah, you know, I have to say that a lot of what you're sharing actually touched me personally, because this idea of relationships I think it's such a tragedy that no one gets taught relationships in school. We get taught. We get taught about technologies, you know histories and all kinds of things, and we become experts and we go earn PhDs, like I did and then we wake up one day with our big PhDs and all of our expertise and then we realize that nobody wants to talk to us. Why is that? Why can't I get along with that guy? He's in the C-suite and I'm over here and and he won't talk. On and on and on, and you realize that the real mechanism of success, of leadership, of anything, was actually relationships all along. So I can't tell you how it connects to me, and I'm sure that most people learning are listening to this and I would love to learn from you. How exactly do you help leaders or employees and organizations focus in on this idea that you know the skill of relationships starts with you, starts with conversation, and how do you get them from A to B? How do you get them to actually get better at this big God, relationships.

Marsha Acker: 

Well, because we work with a lot of tech leaders and I would say I think the idea of relationships at least it was for me was honestly quite nebulous. So, okay, and I love what you're saying, right, so you're, it's ringing bells for you. You know, I see it and I thought you know this was true for me at one point too. Okay, I get it, I need to build relationships, but I don't. I don't really know, like what that means, but I'm a what does it look like? Person. So, yeah, that's partly my communication domain of power. Like I need to know the mechanics or the you know what it's gonna look like, and so I find that it's. It can be nebulous, yes, and there are aspects of it, but one of the one of the most effective ways that I have uncovered in all the models that I've worked with has been helping leaders focus in first on that face-to-face communication. So when we come together and we start to communicate with one another, there are sort of a technology that we share with leaders to help them code a conversation. So it's really different. You know, there's personality assessments and there's so many different assessments that we can take that give us colors or they give us letters. But in this particular modality what we're actually doing is looking at the facts of what's happening in a conversation. So just just by way of a really small example, there's there's a lot to it, to the coding, but if we start with just simply actions in a conversation all conversations actually can be. So everything that we say can be coded into one of four actions. It's either a move, a follow, an oppose or a bystand. So a move is setting new direction. So you might say you know, marsha, let's, let's go grab lunch after we finish the podcast. We'd have to do it virtually because we're fairly distant, but that would be a move. And so I could follow you and say that sounds great. Or I could oppose you and say you know, play that today doesn't work for me. Or I might bystand and say you know, I'm noticing there's quite a big distance between us. You know what's? Tell me more about what getting lunch would look like. So bystand is morally neutral. It's, it's a comment or an inquiry. So one of the ways that kind of factually that starts to happen in conversations, that begins to break down the conversation, is this idea of pushing back or opposing people. So I often tell a story about my daughter she's. She's 15 now, but when she was much younger, she and I had this kind of Groundhog Day conversation where I'd ask her to put her shoes on. you know or and put shoes on and she'd say okay, but five minutes later the shoes still weren't on.

Dr. Pelè: 

Yeah, so was that a bystand?

Marsha Acker: 

Yeah Well, you know it was a move from me. So I said, lauren, please put your shoes on. And she voiced to follow.

Dr. Pelè: 

She said she voiced to follow, but she didn't mean to follow.

Marsha Acker: 

Exactly what she meant was an oppose. But for some reason, you know, she's got some story of her own that says mustn't tell mommy no, and the only appropriate answer here is yes or OK. But so she voiced to follow, but she do an oppose, and so we call that a covert oppose. Now I'm going to tell you a little hint that in corporate America that pattern we call it courteous compliance actually shows up in so many conversations every day, Wow, and it creates the breakdown and the difference between what I intend versus my action. And so in that moment we have a voiced action with a really different intent. And so now, if I do that to you enough, you're going to start to feel it. If you pay attention to it, you're going to go. You know, marsha, she, she does this thing where she says, yes, I don't feel it like I notice it doesn't happen, or it just seems like there's something left unsaid. You know, we have lots of phrases for it, so we we call it the elephant in the room, like we can point to it. So a lot of times, intuition will tell us that something's going on. But one of the ways that we equip leaders is by giving them a way to look at the facts of what's happening in the conversation, so that we don't have to make up stories about it.

Dr. Pelè: 

Mm, hmm, right.

Marsha Acker: 

So, rather than judge Lauren or tell her, you know what she's doing or you know you need to start voicing a pose. So I think one of the ways that we help leaders is by helping them number one see what's happening in their conversations day to day right now, notice where they're getting stuck or where they're starting to misunderstand or be confused by something, and then develop the muscle. So the bystand would say you know, it's like it seems like there's more to this conversation that's actually not being talked about and I'm really wondering what that is. Can you say a bit about what's happening for you? Or can you say a little bit more about what might be at risk if we choose this direction? Or, marsha, I'm noticing. Another bystand might be I'm noticing I've asked four times for this to be done and it's not happening. So I'm really curious about what's going on for you. But it brings that true, genuine curiosity and a lot of times, leadership teams in any team. Really, somewhere along the way we've lost the ability to truly voice a pose, to clearly voice a pose, to push back and say I disagree or I see this differently, or here's, you know, I don't want us to move forward on this because and I think that very act of making it okay to not just okay but actually to welcome it as a leader. So for a leader to say here's the direction I think we should go. You know I see gap between this point and this point and you know, right now they might be wondering why they get crickets when they say that or they put the move out there and they don't feel the follow behind it. It's to actually stop and ask where might I be wrong? What's at risk when we do this? Because if we don't voice the oppose, it just goes underground and offline.

Dr. Pelè: 

First of all, you shared that you began as a software engineer. So I'm thinking myself, ooh, is there an app for that? Or have you built the app for that? Because it's just so. You know, I love models. I love being able to look at the world, look at the challenges of the world, explain them and then use that model to solve them. I think that's so powerful. When you have done this work, what are you seeing in terms of blind spots or maybe pushback that leaders need to overcome? You know, a lot of people think that leadership is easy Another one of those things that people think they can just wake up and do right and then they realize, oh, my goodness, this thing is as hard as the software engineering I ever learned. It's as hard as all that rigor. What do you find that they need to? Just overcome the blind spots in order to really truly do this stuff right.

Marsha Acker: 

I think there are. I think there are many blind spots.

Dr. Pelè: 

Yeah, yeah.

Marsha Acker: 

And you've heard me describe one of them. Actually, you know, I think that there's a belief that many of us hold, myself included, that to oppose someone is rude or implied or inconsiderate, or that somebody might think that I don't like them. So I think that's one piece. I think that there's two others that come to mind. For me that I see happen so often is that we believe that we have to have all the answers. So, when problems emerge, we sort of it's a little bit like there's some narrative for us that says to suffer and endure, there's a prize at the end for that. So we get stuck in conversations and we start trying to solve it on our own. So we notice that the thing isn't working between you and I, and then I take it off and I go muddle in my head about it Gosh, why is it not moving forward? What am I doing wrong? What do I need to? How can I fix it? Maybe if I say it louder, maybe if I develop a presentation. So we go off and we get into this fix it mode. So I think one belief is that we have to have all the answers. I think the other blind spot that we end up working with a lot of leaders on is when things are not going well. Teams have this really fascinating phenomenon where they make the problem a person. So if you've ever heard of a team go, hey, we would be fantastic if not for this one individual here, what we need you to do is come in and just do some coaching for that individual, or we need you to come help us work this out, because person A is in the way, and I think sometimes it's. My hypothesis is that maybe it's just easier to make it a person's fault, and so we tend to treat problems as performance issues with an individual rather than a systemic issue that actually sits in the system and we are likely contributing to them. So I think we tend to look at things as performance issues that need to be handled by a PIP, not to say that sometimes those aren't truly performance issues where you need to know HR, but I think we go there too fast.

Dr. Pelè: 

Yeah, no, I hear you. How about the employee side? You know we talk a lot about leaders and that's really where we need to start. As they say, the fish stinks from the head down, right. So if we don't get that right, like how are we going to get anything else right? But you know, clearly the perspective of leaders is to achieve performance and profitability. But how about employees who they have a perspective of just wanting to enjoy their work and be engaged in their work and be happy in their work? How do we have both profit for a company and happy employees coexist, based on the way you've seen things in your work?

Marsha Acker: 

I think that well, in my work I hold that some of that happiness by employees happens when they feel heard and understood and that some of that profitability that executives are seeking happens when the feeling heard and understood is alive, and so I see them as quite connected. I see the challenge in organizations today is that we move at such a pace and such a rigor that we really don't create space to have real conversation. We create conversations I call it collaboration theater, where we pull people together and we sort of pretend like we want to hear input, but we limit the conversation to 30 minutes. We talk over top of one another, we stay at a very surface level in an agenda and we don't get, so we don't hear the real oppose. And we don't hear the real oppose because we don't have time or create the space to do it. So we cut people off, we talk over top of them, and I believe that the link to that whole notion that you're pointing to, which I love, is about the balance between getting things done, being profitable, doing it well, and the fact that you're I think happiness comes from when people feel heard and understood and we're aligned with. I often say I talk a lot about collaboration, and I don't think that any of us walk into an organization feeling like it all needs to be done our way, but we do often want to believe that we've had a voice in it. And I think leaders don't really quite know what that means how to give people a voice and feel like they make progress at the same time. So I think leaders see that. Maybe that's another blind spot, but I think leaders see it as a continuum where they have to choose. It's either or, and I think it's an end.

Dr. Pelè: 

Wow. All I can say is all is not lost. There is a solution here. And what I love about when you say that employees it's really all about being they want to feel heard and understood, and even on the leadership side they want to feel heard and understood, Because if people are hearing and understanding each other and the conversations are working, then profitability will happen. As a result of that, Action will be taken. I love that. I'm really impressed by this whole methodology and I would love to learn more personally. Tell us what projects you have out there that people can go connect with and learn from. What are you excited about right now and where can we find you online?

Marsha Acker: 

So there's lots of ways. I have a book that came out this year. It's called Build your Model for Leading Change. You can find it at buildyourmodelcom. There's actually an excerpt that you can download. So it talks about it's a guided workbook, so it's definitely not a read it in a weekend kind of book. You can think about it as like it's your map for a leadership journey. But it also introduces the technology that I'm talking about and that's actually from David Cantor's theory of structural dynamics. So that's A Place. You can also find me at teamcatapultcom. I have a podcast called Defining Moments of Leadership, where I invite leaders to tell their stories, their real stories of moments where they've experienced the dip and how they've come out of it, and then, more importantly, how it's informed, their model for leadership, so how they go about building that. And then we do individual and teamcoaching at teamcatapultcom. So those are so awesome.

Dr. Pelè: 

I will share all of those links, as well as your LinkedIn link, and I just want to say thank you so much, marsha, for being a part of the Profitable Happiness Podcast. I appreciate it, yeah.

Marsha Acker: 

Yeah, thank you.

Dr. Pelè: 

Thanks for tuning in to the Profitable Happiness Podcast. For more episodes, visit DrPalletcom. And remember get happy first and success will follow.