POWERING THE PROJECT ECONOMY
Identifying New Ways of Working

Resilient Leadership | Madelyn Blair | PMI Center Stage Podcast

Resilient Leadership | PMI Center Stage Podcast

Center Stage podcast: The Voice of the Project Economy

With Dr. Madelyn Blair and Joseph Cahill - Season 1 Episode 3

Dr. Madelyn Blair is a leader, author, and researcher who has studied the factors that lead to resilient leadership. This capability is more relevant than ever before, exploring how individuals, managers and senior leaders can increase their agility in the face of our volatile and uncertain world. Madelyn is an award-winning author who will share perspectives with PMI COO, Joseph Cahill, about the qualities that promote excelling in a world of challenge, uncertainty, and loss.

CAHILL:

Hi, my name is Joe Cahill. I’m the COO of the Project Management Institute, PMI. Thank you to all our new and returning listeners to the Center Stage podcast series. As always, today’s podcast is exclusively and proudly sponsored by the PMI Knowledge Initiative. The Knowledge Initiative is a community of professionals and thought leaders that are focused on the art of getting things done. This global community is sharing knowledge, developing new thinking and harnessing the collective intelligence of the entire PMI global community as it relates to the future of work.

So, onto the program. It is my pleasure to be here today with Madelyn Blair, PhD. Dr. Madelyn Blair is a speaker, author, executive advisor, faculty at the Columbia University’s IKNS program and the creator of the Riding the Current program. Madelyn is the author of five books:  “A Conversation on Gender,” “Riding the Current,” “RTC Workbook” “Essays in Two Voices” and her latest number one international best-selling book, “Unlocked: Discover How to Embrace the Unexpected.”

In addition, she has penned numerous articles for publications such as Psychology Today and has contributed chapters to five other books, including most recently “The Future of the University.” Furthermore, her designs have been featured in numerous books on storytelling such as “Circle of the Nine Muses.” 

Madelyn focuses her work in the emerging field of resilient leadership, exploring how individuals, managers and senior leaders can increase their agility in the face of our volatile and uncertain world. She speaks regularly around the world on resilient leadership and related topics. Madelyn also writes regularly on this subject at Psychology Today and MadelynBlair.com. 

So, Madelyn, you’re an author, an educator, a coach, a consultant. Did you ever imagine that you’d be on this path when you were growing up?

BLAIR:

Oh my goodness, Joe, no, I did not. I would never have imagined that I would be doing what I’m doing today. My mother always wanted me to be a secretary because she said you can always get work doing that. [laughs] 

CAHILL:

Sounds familiar.

BLAIR:

Does that sound familiar?

CAHILL:

Yeah. 

BLAIR:

And I remember when I came home from college one time and I said I’ve changed my major, I’m going to study mathematics. And she had this terrible look on her face and she thought about it for a while and she said, well at least you can teach. [laughter]

CAHILL:

Right.

BLAIR:

But it’s fun, all these things have just come out so naturally and organically for my career.

The important thing is to find your voice.

CAHILL:

Is there any one event or person who has been instrumental in you becoming who you are today?

BLAIR:

Ah, well I’m going to cheat and there are two people that I’m going to name. One person is my mother. I mean, she was a remarkable person. Actually, she was so brilliant. I look like a piker next to her. She was one person who understood me perfectly. Now it’s really special when you live in this world and there is somebody else who actually understands you perfectly. She always supported whatever I did, she would listen to my crazy ideas and she pushed me. And she pushed me through expecting me to do my best. So I always give honor to my mother.

CAHILL:

Isn’t that the truth, isn’t that the truth about our mothers.

BLAIR:

Well I’ll tell ya, if everybody had a mother with that kind of quality the world would be just wonderful, it would be a better place even. Okay, the second person though was really important. His name is John Rijsman. John was my advisor, my PhD advisor. This was in the Netherlands so he was actually called a promoter because that’s what they call the advisors there. 

And when I began working with him, he would listen intently to what I had to say and he would ask me question after question.  And I kept wondering, why is he doing this?  He is supposed to be teaching me, isn’t he?  No, it turns out, he said he wanted me to find my voice. He said getting a PhD is, yes, there is research, yes, there is writing but the important thing is that you find your story, your voice. And I found my voice working with him and it shifted my whole orientation. So those are the two people, I just can’t not say anything enough about them.

CAHILL:

And I’m sure we’re going to find out more in this conversation how your voice was formed and how it showed up in your work and your research. Let me ask you about your most recent book. What prompted you to write “Unlocked: Learning to Embrace the Unexpected?”

BLAIR:

Oh it’s actually... Every time I tell this story I get goosebumps. I have always been interested in how adults learn. Now I don’t mean the theoretical stuff. I mean the practical stuff. How do people who are in their careers, how do they keep refreshing their knowledge? Because you have to these days.

So I started doing interviews and I did interviews all over the world across four continents, all different kinds of people. There were computer specialists and there were carpenters. I mean it was a nice blend. The youngest I think was 17 or 18, the oldest was 83. All different socioeconomic levels and ages. When I finished that I discovered a lot of things about how adults keep learning and I wrote a book called “Riding the Current,” you mentioned it earlier, I had the Riding the Current program. And I published it there.

Well, after it was published, a friend of mine asked me a question. Now don’t ask me what the question was because I don’t remember that. All I know is I went into my research again and I discovered in there a subset of people who were remarkable. I mean they were very successful, they were energetic, but they were also resilient. They had reinvented themselves, they had hit barriers and overcome them. And I said these are special people. What is it that is common across them?

And they had three qualities. The first was that they knew who they were. The second was that they had in-depth knowledge in some area, maybe their vocation, maybe an avocation, whatever, and thirdly, they were insatiably curious, they were constantly pushing the edges of what they knew. And I said, you know, those three things anybody can build and increase and enhance in themselves. So there is no reason why I can’t help people discover how to do that for themselves and therefore enhance their resilience. 

And that’s really where I began because I knew how to do that. I mean, I have managed huge groups and divisions and things, and that was one of the things that I did was really get people to know who they were and increase their knowledge and really always being, creating a learning environment for them.

CAHILL:

So somebody can develop the resilience, it’s not necessarily something that you’re born with?

BLAIR:

As a matter of fact, you are born with it.

CAHILL:

Tell me more, yeah.

BLAIR:

If we weren’t a resilient species, I don’t think we’d be around. If you watch a child who is learning how to crawl… Let’s say walk because they will fall and they’ll get up, they’ll fall... Because they want that goal. We really are born with that. What happens is that in our culture we tend to push that down. And it starts when the child asks why, why, why, why, why and we say no more questions. That’s one example. I think in schools it is also tamped down because of time pressures, et cetera. 

But to come back to the point - can you increase or enhance your resilience today - the answer is absolutely. Psychologists say that’s one area in our lives where you can do it yourself, in fact, you are the person to do it, yourself. 

CAHILL:

That’s very interesting because not often do you have the chance to acquire or build or grow a capability. Often we rely on our talents and our experiences. 

BLAIR:

That’s right. No, this is one that we really can work on.

CAHILL:

We find similar things from a PMI perspective when we’re helping our professionals with their career. More than just the technical skills are important to succeed in a profession or in a career so we definitely see that as well. So, let me just ask you, since we’re in the middle of this Covid-19 crisis, we’re in this unique, globally shared experience, just about everybody is experiencing the same thing, and as it relates to our new ways of working and the new ways of working we find ourselves in how would you advise managers and leaders to do differently to help their organizations deal with these changes?

BLAIR:

Oh, I think that’s the question of the hour. And from my perspective, it really is important for organizations to do everything they can to help their staff become more and more resilient because this is a huge change and impact, a disruption. But of course we all know that those disruptions, smaller ones maybe, but disruptions are constant.

So this is what I would suggest. One is that the leader themselves recognizes, number one, that they are going to model what they want their staff to be. So you better work on your own resilience, you better work on your own self-identity, you better work on your own capture of new knowledge, keeping yourself fresh. That is number one. 

In my book, I talk about some practices that people can do that build these capabilities, well, I call them traits. And we can translate those into an organizational setting. One of those, for example, is that you should take five minutes a day to sit in silence. You say well, I can’t even get... it can’t ever be silent. Well the key is to find five minutes where you are uninterrupted. 

CAHILL:

The only place I can find that is in my car at this time.

BLAIR:

Hey, you know, a lot of people that I work with in New York say it’s in the subway because they are not interrupted. It’s noisy but they’re not interrupted. The key is to give yourself permission as well as time to reflect. We don’t as a society really honor and take the time to really reflect on what is happening around us. I think today with Covid it’s a little bit more... We are a little bit more reflective, if you will, because there is just so much that we have to process. But normally we don’t. 

So I say just start with five minutes. I’ve been astounded. I do all of my own practices. I say, if you’re going to tell other people, you better do it yourself. So I do that myself. Every day I start the day with five minutes of silence. And I get so many ideas during that time. 

So that’s one thing. Now how do you translate that into the business setting? Well, you can’t say to people would you please... We are having this meeting, let’s all just sit here for five minutes in silence, you can’t do that. But what you can do is you can say to the staff, look, we are going to have a meeting tomorrow, these are the agenda items, would you please consider these questions in relationship to these agenda items? That way the people who come to the meeting know that this is the question, I can take my own time to reflect on those, and I come in and I can be more effective in the conversation. 

And I can tell you, you do that and your meetings will take a 180, I mean, they will just be amazing how productive they become. I always use that in my division meetings. 

CAHILL:

That’s great advice. 

BLAIR:

That is one thing that I think managers can do in Covid. 

Silence at the start of the day can be very powerful. Take five minutes in silence to think about the coming day.

CAHILL:

Madelyn, your work has created significant insight into what it means to be resilient. Please share some of those key insights with us at this point.

BLAIR:

Well I think that one of the things I want to do is, first of all, define resilience from my perspective. People sometimes think that resilience is oh, just having a positive attitude. It is much more than that. They think it’s persistence, persistence. Yes, it is persistence in the end but to me resilience lies in a particular place. 

Now Viktor Frankl is a famous psychologist who wrote some amazing things. One of the things that he said was that between stimulus and response there is a space and in that space lies our power to choose our response. Now I tell you, I looked at that and I went oh my goodness, that’s were resilience lies. You’re going along, life is good, and then wham, something happens and that’s the stimulus, and you go I have to do something in order to move on. That’s the decision that you’re going to make. 

And that to me is where resilience lies and that’s why resilience can be worked on because it is really that decision place. So that’s how I see resilience. So that is one of the major insights that I gained.

CAHILL:

So part of that is a decision to do nothing or to do something. So if you have a high degree of resilience, are you more apt to do something in those situations or not?

BLAIR:

I think the choice to do nothing is still a choice. I would not say that that’s a person who is less resilient or whatever.

CAHILL:

Understood.

BLAIR:

I think that what you’re reflecting is maybe the person who doesn’t know what to do because they are so upset. Often times when you get into that situation that is tough, I call it the uncomfortable place, your emotions go up, that amygdala in your brain, sometimes called the reptile brain, is saying get out of here, this is dangerous, and you get so emotional.

I will never forget the time I thought I left my handbag in a taxi in New York. I mean, you talk about panic. I thought about all the things that were sitting in there, including my passport. I mean, the list goes on. I was so emotional because I didn’t know what to do. And it was only through taking one step at a time that I could finally gain a little control of both my emotions and my mental capacity so that I could then resolve it. It turned out it was sitting in the hotel room but who knew that when you started out thinking you had lost it?

CAHILL:

Of course. Yes, it makes me think when you’re saying that, those other features of resilience, the three features, particularly the one about knowing yourself and the one about being highly curious, not to say that being deeply knowledgeable doesn’t help, but I think those two seem very important in those moments. 

BLAIR:

You are absolutely right, Joe. That’s really good insight. Because when we know who we are our confidence goes up and as your confidence goes up literally your resilience goes up as well. Those things really are linked. And that is why it’s so important that you really take the time to think about who am I, why am I here, what do I want to do, what are my strengths, what are my weaknesses, what do I love about myself, what do I want to improve. All of these things really create this strong sense that the winds may hit you but they don’t blow you over.

In fact, it’s really funny, this morning I had this brilliancy as I was thinking about this and I said you know, when I was a kid they would tell me that fairy tale about three pigs in their straw house and their twig house and their brick house and I said what a perfect metaphor. I never realized that’s what it was teaching you, that yes, you can have a weak one and it’s going to get blown over but when you start building with brick then those little interruptions, those disruptions, that wind, doesn’t blow you over. So that is that aspect of identity.

CAHILL:

So it certainly implies an investment in time. You can’t just wait for a stimulus to start thinking about who you are. These are things that you have to work on throughout your career, it’s an ongoing investment. 

BLAIR:

You know, you are absolutely right. If you are seeking and continuing to explore who you are, that happens. It happens all the time through our lives. You can walk out of a meeting and remember that you did something different that you had never done before and you go wow, I didn’t know I had that capability. Well that’s a little more knowledge about who you are and that just keeps building you stronger and stronger.

CAHILL:

Can you tell me what role does knowledge play in enhancing resilience?

BLAIR:

Okay, well, just think about that definition of resilience that I told you, it’s in that space between stimulus and response you have to make a decision. Now what is it that we like to have when we’re making a decision as an executive or as a manager? You want to have as much information as possible so that you can make that decision and make a good decision. 

And I often define knowledge as information on which you can take action or make a decision. So to me that’s, hey, build that pot as big as possible so that you have lots of knowledge you can draw on as you’re trying to look at options and make that decision.

CAHILL:

That makes perfect sense. Tell me a little bit about resilience or how resilience comes into play when it relates to innovation. How do they interplay?

BLAIR:

Well that’s that third quality - insatiably curious. Now when I went back and I looked at the interviews of these people, I was astounded at how they had pushed themselves way past what most people would do. Peter Block is an example. I mean, this is a man who has written many bestsellers. And when I interviewed him, he said, well, Madelyn, every six or seven years I just move into a totally different area because otherwise I would get bored. And that is typical of people who are insatiably curious. You keep pushing the edges of what you know.

There as another example of a man who failed at suicide and when he woke up and he was in a rehabilitation center, he discovered a room full of wood, it was a woodworking shop. And he became incredibly curious about the wood and he described to me the experiments that he made with this wood. And through that curiosity today he is a master carpenter. 

To me, when you are really curious and you’re really pushing it’s stimulating your creativity as well as your curiosity. And of course creativity is the beginning of innovation. So, in fact, to me resilience and creativity and innovation... I call them the three sisters. You can invite them on a date but all three of them are going to come. 

CAHILL:

You need them all, you can’t have one or the other. Understood. What I’m hearing from you is resilience is something that grows and evolves over time. Can you help our listeners make the choice that we are often faced with, the choice between investing their time in a longer term personal growth focus versus doing something that’s going to help them right now? There is always the give and take of that but how do you help them make that choice... and particularly in these times where things are changing rapidly and we are faced with a lot of uncertainty?

BLAIR:

That is a great question and a great way to put it, Joe. Because you’re right, it almost depends on the situation. If we are having a hurricane and a tree falls on my garage, I’m going to do some things very quickly to do make sure that the house is safe and that the rain is not coming in, etcetera. But maybe the next day I will get some more insurance and all sort of thing. So there are those short term and then the longer term decisions.

I think that in the case of where we are today, the temptation would be to just work on the urgent, urgent, urgent and neglect the fact that what you really want to do is constantly feed your staff so that they are able to handle the urgency. You want to create for them an environment in which they themselves will become more resilient even as they are dealing with this difficult situation.

So one example would be... I’ve only talked about one of my practices, another of the practices is to ask a question every day. As an individual that is easy to do. In a staff meeting, how does a leader help people ask questions? Well, one is they model it, they ask questions, not in a critical way but simply to learn more.

CAHILL:

Would you describe that as a Socratic approach?

BLAIR:

No, I would not.

CAHILL:

No, okay.

BLAIR:

Because Socratic is where you are... there is this goal of pulling the information out of the person so that they learn. To me, you ask the question because you want to learn. 

CAHILL:

Understood, okay.

BLAIR:

In fact, when I work with my students I always say to them I’m going to ask you a lot of questions. Never, ever consider this a critique that you don’t know the answer or that you’ve done something wrong. It’s only because I need to understand. And I want to tell you, that just calms everything down, so I can ask them anything. 

And I did the same thing with my staff - you could ask anything and they knew this was not personal, this was just because Madelyn didn’t quite understand it so let me give her more information. And if people see that and feel that comfort in that then they feel free to ask questions. And asking questions actually nurtures curiosity.

CAHILL:

So this is similar to the PhD professor that influenced you greatly. Is there a similarity there to what you described earlier with the listening?

BLAIR:

Oh yes. Yes. He taught me.

What are the questions that we should ask to understand the situation?

CAHILL:

I know that you spent a lot of your practices and your studies and research are focused on the individual. What about those who want to bring that resilience into the workplace? You talked about a couple of examples already, how to bring things into a meeting. But how do your practices scale into a larger setting?

BLAIR:

They absolutely scale into... certainly as a team they scale to a unit. I think they scale to a division. I have never tried it with a full company so I can’t speak to that. But to me that’s where the action is, is in those arenas that I just named. And every one of them scales. I told you already about one example of how you take silence and bring it in. There are other things you can do. 

Another practice is to write a story every day, that’s a way in which you get to know who you are, by looking at your own past experiences. Well how do you bring that into your workplace? Have your team tell each other a story about a time they were really proud.

Now this is my secret that I always tell a new project manager. I say to them, look, this is the first time you’re doing this, this is a new project, have everybody tell a story about a success they had and you will learn so much about those people in that room and they will learn each other. I have done this with groups as large as... well let’s see, that one was about 30. And it was amazing how trust was built so quickly because people understood who was in the room. 

Now there are other things you can do with that. I have a practice which I have used for years. It’s called Stories Inside Words, and I may take a mission statement... Oh, I was working with a board one time, this was really funny, they were so bored with their work and so I looked at their mission statement. Joe, it was wonderful. I said to them, look, one of the words in this mission statement is global. Would you please tell a story that’s inspired by that word.

We went around the table and, oh it took maybe... there were 12 people in the room so maybe it took, I don’t know, 45 minutes to do that. By the time they finished they were getting excited about their mission because suddenly that word had come alive for them. So that’s two more examples of how you can bring it into the workplace. 

CAHILL:

And you can revive something that’s been there all along in that example.

BLAIR:

Yes, yes.

CAHILL:

Perfect example of that. So many of our listeners are project managers, agilists, people that really get things done. And these folks are usually between the idea and the reality and they are part of the process of getting that idea into the real world. And we know that these folks are going to be really instrumental in this recovery process of Covid-19. What is one last piece of advice you would give to them as individuals in the context of what we talked about as they take part in this recovery in terms of what kind of inspiration can you provide them?

BLAIR:

I’m going to answer this question on two levels. The first is the simple one, which is go buy my book and do the five practices because it really works and that helps you. 

But I think on another level people who are coming out of this are grieving. We are grieving because we have lost a way of life, whether you have a job or you don’t have a job, whether... it doesn’t matter what your situation is, you suddenly cannot do what you could do before. I mean, just think of what happened after 9/11. Before 9/11 you could walk in and out of an airport, you could greet your family at the gate. Today it’s all secure. The world changed. And that is what has happened now and we are grieving the loss of that. 

So when people are grieving something you want to give them an opportunity to express that, not to be maudlin but to just have an opportunity that when we are feeling low you give them the two minutes or the three minutes to find that out. That is a simple, human way in which we can help people move on. 

To me, I remember one time I was working with a client and literally my client died very suddenly and I had to continue the work. And I will never forget, there was one manager in the group and I said I just need to talk to you for five minutes, and that’s all it took was five minutes, and I told him about how much I really appreciated this other man. And it was amazing for me, here I was, a consultant to this group, and that was the only way that I could grieve the loss of this person was to talk about him for, as I said, less than five minutes. But then it was finished and I could go on and do my work. And I think he appreciated it as well. 

CAHILL:

That’s very, very good advice. I guess you hear a lot about AI these days but that’s in the category of PI, people intelligence, right? 

BLAIR:

Yes.

CAHILL:

Which really is at the core of what our project managers and agilists do, they have to really relate with individuals and help projects get completed in a successful way.

BLAIR:

You know, Joe, believe it or not, that is one of my favorite levels, if you will, of people to work with, the people who actually make things happen. That’s very satisfying to me because that’s the kind of manager I was. I was at the World Bank as a division chief. I managed about 70 people. And it was seeing things happen, making... creating the ground, breaking down the barriers so that we could get things done. To me that was just really very satisfying. So I love working with people like that, so I’m delighted to hear that.

CAHILL:

Folks often don’t get the recognition either but they are always behind successful change. 

BLAIR:

You have asked me about what I would advise in this Covid thing. Let me step back because even after we get back to work the same kinds of problems will come. Tell me about a typical problem that your membership would encounter and let’s play with that a little bit and see if there is something that we could recommend in terms of using it to build resilience.

CAHILL:

I think the typical issues that folks run into is working in teams, whether they’re small teams or large teams, managing the different personalities, the different skills, the strengths and weaknesses of the team in order to keep them focused on the end goal, on true north. And that happens in the projects or in an agile project. And it’s the same challenge that a large corporation has at the very top, there is no difference. 

And for me, we work really hard at PMI to fill in the blanks in terms of folks... their skill base.  We promote strongly lifetime learning, we promote strongly the development of power skills that help them to navigate those waters. 

BLAIR:

Mmhmm. What you just said reminded me of a strategy that I have used for years and your word true north is what struck it. We often think that the true north is the mission of the organization. In fact, when you have a team of people every person has their own true north.

CAHILL:

Exactly.

BLAIR:

And as a manager, I always made sure that I spent time with those people and understood what their true north was. And once we had an understanding of what they wanted to accomplish we would continue the conversation about how their work for me would help them achieve that. And I mean literally I would create projects. 

Like, someone wanted to learn Excel, okay, then let’s create this project over here so that you have to learn Excel in order to do that project. I mean that’s a simple example but a very real one. So I was always conscious of that as I was thinking about what they were doing. And I’ll tell you, once staff understood that, I had no motivation problems, none. 

CAHILL:

No that makes perfect sense because getting that alignment on true north is the hardest part. To the variability point that you made that everybody has a different true north, getting that alignment does take a lot of nurturing.

BLAIR:

Well but the key is you don’t change their true north because their true north is theirs. You just help them understand how the two of you can work together and interweave, and you have to be willing to do that, to do your part.

CAHILL:

I completely agree. This has been a fantastic 30 minutes or so, Madelyn. I really, really appreciate you taking the time to share your expertise with us and our community and we look forward to working with you more in the months and years ahead. There’s a lot of exciting things going on at PMI and we are happy to be a part of it.

BLAIR:

Joe, I can’t thank you enough for this opportunity. The more I know about PMI the more excited I become about its potential. So I look forward to working with you on whatever. 

CAHILL:

Thank you so much, Madelyn.