Dr. Rodger Dean Duncan on the ‘Real Stuff’

A couple of months ago, my publicist Barbara sent me an email asking if I’d be interested in writing an endorsement for a book called Change-friendly Leadership: How to Transform Good Intentions into Great Performance.  I generally feel both flattered and wary when I get these requests; I worry that I won’t like the book.  But this one resonated for me; it’s very accessible and wise – and I felt very much aligned with the author, Dr. Rodger Dean Duncan.

I wrote an endorsement for Rodger; he asked me to do a guest interview for his blog; I asked him to return the favor. With every interchange, we feel more like kindred spirits!  Here’s a little more about Rodger – hope you enjoy his answers as much as I did.

Dr. Rodger Dean Duncan is widely known for his expertise in leadership development, organizational culture, and the strategic management of change. Early in his career he was an award-winning journalist and university professor. He’s been an officer at two Fortune 500 companies. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide, a consulting firm focusing on human performance. Rodger’s clients have ranged from cabinet officers in two White House administrations to senior executives in some of the world’s best companies in several industries.

In your book Change-friendly Leadership, you talk about how to help employees accept change, rather than resist it.  If you had to pick the single most powerful tool in the leader’s toolkit for increasing people’s openness to change, what would it be?

Listening. Really listening. This requires using your eyes and your heart as well as your ears. Effective leaders listen to learn and understand rather than to rebut and overpower. They exercise influence rather than authority. They’re willing to be influenced rather than assuming that the views of others should always be subservient to theirs. Change-Friendly people tend to be good conversationalists. And the best conversationalists are usually people who ask good questions. They don’t interrogate, they simply ask meaningful questions that other people are willing to answer. People who are really good at engaging the heads, hearts, and hopes of others tend to ask questions that evoke that engagement. As I frequently tell my clients, we are most effective when we talk so other people will listen and when we listen so other people will talk.

What’s the least change-friendly thing you see leaders doing?

I suppose that would be the opposite of the good listening behavior I described in my answer to the previous question. Too many people try to lead by title, by authority, and by power. They try to bring about change by executive fiat, with heavy reliance on high-testosterone sloganeering. None of that works. In fact, those tactics usually do no more than foster cynicism and resistance.

When confronted with change, most people tune in to their favorite internal radio station: WIIFM – What’s In It For Me? That’s not to suggest that most people are selfish. It’s simply a fact that personal context is usually the first filter we use to evaluate our environment. It’s especially true when we’re asked to participate in some sort of change.

Many leaders are so focused on compliance that they forget the importance of commitment. These are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they can and should be mutually reinforcing. For example, you want people to follow safety standards. That’s compliance. But they are more likely to comply when they understand and buy in to the reasons for the safety standards. That’s commitment. Commitment is about doing the right thing for the right reasons. Leaders cannot be truly effective unless and until they genuinely listen to and engage the heads, hearts, and hopes of their people.

I’d love to know how you became involved in this area – what led you to your interest in leading through change?

My interest in leadership issues was first sprouted when I was a university undergraduate. That interest blossomed into full-scale passion when I covered business and politics as a young journalist. One of my early editors was Jim Lehrer (later of PBS television fame) who taught me how to connect the dots between what people aspire to and what they actually accomplish. Later, as a university professor, I worked with a range of change issues – from helping students improve their academic performance to navigating the white water of faculty politics. I worked for cabinet officers in two White House administrations and closely observed what works and what does not work in dealing with change issues. I was an officer in two Fortune 500 corporations, and had the opportunity to lead a number of major change efforts. Finally, I’ve helped clients in many industries dealing with a wide range of challenges involving change. My PhD program [Purdue University] focused on organizational behavior. So my academic and professional experiences, combined with my life-long interest and involvement in human relationships, have brought me to where I am today. My interest in leading change came early in my life, and it’s been my major focus for the past 40 years.

If you had an hour with a smart young Gen-Yer, about to start his or her first management job, what would you share?

I would say, stay alert. Stay focused. Notice the behaviors that foster fear and disrespect and cynicism. Reject them. Then notice the behaviors that build trust and collaboration and respect and mutual purpose. Embrace those behaviors and practice them yourself until they become your automatic, default behaviors.

Early in my career I was in London and I met a man who worked for Scotland Yard. He was famous for his work with counterfeit currency. In our conversation I said, “To become such an expert you must spend an enormous amount of time studying counterfeits.” And he said, “No. In fact, I seldom look at counterfeits. I focus on the real stuff. I invest my time in examining authentic currency, then when I see a counterfeit I can instantly identify it as a fake.” As a consultant in leadership and change issues, I follow that model. I focus on the “real stuff,” then I can immediately identify inferior practices. That’s the counsel I’d give any smart young person who wants to succeed.

What do you hope your legacy is – that is, how do you want to leave the world a better place?

Everything I try to do – with my clients, with my friends, with my family, with people in my various communities – is aimed at improving relationships. Even the word “relationships” sounds touchy-feely to some people, but it’s through relationships that we accomplish the most important things in life. We don’t add our greatest value by virtue of our technical skills, although those can be vital. We add our greatest value by virtue of how well we relate to and with other human beings. I want to leave a legacy of helping people with their most important relationships.

About Erika Andersen

Over the past 30 years, Erika has developed a reputation for creating approaches to learning and business-building that are custom tailored to her clients’ challenges, goals, and culture.

Visit Erika's Forbes.com Blog

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