Peter Quinn

Senior Vice President for Corporate Development, Greenhorne & O’Mara, Inc.

Deborah Brownstein held this conversation with Pete on May 5, 2010.

Deborah: In the final chapter, “Change Happens,” in The Inner-Work of Leadership Barry included examples of organizations that make an ongoing commitment to education and inner-work as the fuel for healthy change. In describing educational initiatives at G&O you said:

“I think that all of us need to reflect more to fully appreciate the dynamics of what we experience. Unfortunately, I don’t think we get much education in how or why to do it, and I think that most organizations don’t place much emphasis on it, which to me explains why countless organizations wallow in their repeated mistakes.”

Inner-work is indeed a deliberate practice of self-reflection. Most people don’t start their career thinking like this; along the way you found this practice for yourself—this need for self-reflection.

Pete: Earlier in my career I had a misguided belief that good leaders showed no emotion, knew everything, were always in control, and had all the answers. Now I understand that if you have to use the power associated with your job title to get things done you really have very little control or power. Nobody has all the answers and nobody is in total control of everything. Once you come to understand and accept this, it is liberating.

We find ourselves on treadmills as we focus on the report that has to get done or the project that has to be completed. We are running hard, often with a singular focus. When we get to the finish line, we don’t usually take a step back to reflect and learn from our experiences; we simply jump on the next treadmill. When we disregard or ignore the opportunity for reflection and introspection, it is an opportunity lost. This happens at both the individual and corporate levels, and acts as a barrier to individual growth and corporate evolution.

A favorite quote of mine is people are born on the wrong side of their eyes. We all have our biases; we think we know who we are. We need to get to the point that we can see ourselves the ways others see us. This is a big opportunity to fulfill our potential. Looking inward and seeing what others see in us can be a bit daunting, but it is essential for our continued growth and development.

When you are feeling frustrated, stop to wonder where did that come from? When you operated very smooth, ask why was that? When we allow ourselves the time and space to reflect, we continue to morph and adapt and get better and learn. Otherwise, we are creatures of repetition, but not growth.

The problem is a lack of reflection. In organizations, people get little encouragement to do it. People jump on a treadmill and ask, “What do you want me to do?” We need to stop and force ourselves to look inside. Organizations not only can support that, but it’s essential that they endorse it.

Deborah: How is self-reflection supported in an organization?

Pete: One way is to encourage the giving and receiving of feedback. I still reflect on a formative experience I had 20 years ago, shortly after I came to G&O as Department Head of Human Resources. I had taught my staff a technique for giving and receiving feedback; under this protocol the recipient of the feedback is expected to listen intently without responding. It can be a frustrating exercise, but it is also quite effective when the feedback is delivered clearly and with honest intention. When properly delivered, feedback is a gift; you are giving someone a perspective they cannot get on their own, a perspective about themselves that they do not have.

I learned the value of feedback when our President at the time asked me for a budget. In those days this task had no protocol, little computer programming and no software package support. He asked for it on a Monday; I had to get it to him by Friday. I thought I was reasonably effective at telling my staff not what to do but where I needed to end up; using this approach I generally got a better product and my people took ownership of both the process and the ultimate deliverable. But in that particular instance, I did the exact opposite—I told my people what to do. They were running around, basically giving me what I’d asked for. I’d give it back to them saying this isn’t going to work; and I’d bark out more orders. My stress level went up as Friday drew closer and closer. By Wednesday, I was desperate when Cheryl, a young professional, and a couple others working on the assignment came into my office. Cheryl said, “Let’s stop here.” She asked me to give them the big picture. They would take that information, re-consider how things were working, or not working, and come back in an hour or so with some suggestions on how to successfully complete the assignment. Well, they completely re-designed the approach and by Thursday they gave me a report that fit the expectation to “a tee.” What they ultimately produced was not what I had been telling them to do but it was exactly what was needed. Now I’m feeling great. I give the report to the President who also thinks it is great. It’s done, I put it behind me, and I get ready to jump onto another treadmill.

Then Cheryl stopped me and asked, “Hey Pete, can I give you some feedback?” I say sure and we go into my office. I heard her saying, “This week has been stressful on everyone, and it didn’t need to be that way. You usually don’t tell us the what, when, and how’s. You’ve always been good at telling us what you need and giving us creative license to figure out the best way to get you there. This time you didn’t do that. We were working our…off and not getting anywhere. I’d like you to understand what was happening here. In the future, why don’t you go back to what you’ve done before. Tells us what you need but don’t bark out orders. What you were doing wasn’t working and everyone was completely stressed out.”

Now, by my own rules, I am not allowed to talk; I can’t debate it; I can’t justify my behavior. After she leaves I’m thinking, “She’s an entry level employee and she’s telling me the emperor has no clothes.” I took my story home to my wife complaining that Cheryl didn’t understand how important this assignment was to my career and corporate reputation. This was my first direct deliverable to the President; she didn’t know how much pressure I was under. My wife stopped me and pretty much said that, from her perspective, Cheryl had told me the truth. The truth stopped me in my tracks.

I think too many of us believe that we only learn from people who are older and more experienced. That’s a dangerous and limiting assumption. Learning comes from everywhere. Your secretary and the clerk in the mailroom can be your teachers. There is a big opportunity lost if we don’t remain open to learning from others all of the time. A hundred times I’ve thought of the feedback Cheryl gave me. I’ve thought of the courage she had to say what she said, of her confidence that her feedback would be positively received. I cannot over emphasize how much learning came out of that for me. It was humbling. What she did for me was to create a moment in which I had to reflect; it was a moment that I was not creating for myself.

Deborah: Your story shows how our lives are always in transition. We stride forward with one foot behind in control mode and one ahead as facilitator. Your rules for feedback are so helpful: Sit quiet, listen, do not defend, do not identify with your position; then you can truly hear the message.

Pete: It is human nature to justify and defend our actions, to say what we did was appropriate. When somebody gives you feedback that causes you to pause and weigh their message—it puts you at a crossroad. If you take the undefended path, you learn a lot. It may be painful learning, but it’s impactful. If you choose the path of denying it, resisting it, saying it has no credibility, you’ve missed an opportunity. How one responds behaviorally after receiving feedback that was intended to be constructive really defines a person.

Deborah: Something else I am hearing in your story is that you had to have respect for your staff in order to give them permission to engage in this kind of feedback. Hearing it was humbling. But being humble in the first place made this possible as well.

Pete: I’ve never been one to believe that when you are at the top of the hierarchy you are smarter than everyone else. Learning and development comes from all directions if you are open to it. My staff learns from me, but I fully appreciate what I learn from them.

My staff tells me I am very picky about who I want to join our team. Guilty as charged! I view the selection process as one of the most significant things I do. I want to be surrounded by people who are not only talented or gifted from a technical or professional standpoint, but they have got to have character and values. They have to fit into our team philosophy and culture. When you find the right people you have a more free flowing exchange of ideas and feedback that creates a learning environment. It’s also when it’s fun!

Deborah: You have been part of a major initiative at G&O to allow values and vision to replace command and control. That is what is happening in your unit when you bring in people who share your values. You can give up command and control as you align around vision and values.

Pete: G&O has had a GOLD (Greenhorne & O’Mara Leadership Development) program, an initiative that we designed with the good people at the Merrick School of Business at the University of Baltimore. Barry describes it in The Inner-Work of Leadership. It was a year long program with 15 people selected from different markets and different levels across our organization. That program challenged us to articulate our vision and values, and out of that came an initiative led by our President to help transform the company. This process was completely different from the start. It was not going to be the typical approach where a handful of executives goes off to some nice hotel for a weekend and comes back with vision and values statements. It had to be meaningful; it had to be inclusive it if was going to be anything more than an academic exercise. The core group had representation from virtually every corner of the organization. When we came together is was refreshing because it was one person, one voice. The fact that you were a Vice President did not mean that your ideas had more credence or credibility than those of an individual at a lower organizational level; it became an exchange of the best ideas and the best viewpoints. Once we came up with a couple of versions of our vision and values statements we created a blog and invited every employee regardless of title or tenure to weigh in. We received about a hundred and twenty-five blog entries. Some skeptics feared people would stop at I like version 1 better than version 2. Or, “work between” should be “work among.” But what we got was very insightful feedback; people took time to self-reflect and share their perspectives. We incorporated those comments into our end product.

Deborah: Their inner-work helped them to uncover and articulate their values and that helped to shape the corporate vision and values.

Pete: Absolutely. And now we are taking steps to keep our vision and values visible—we’re not just reciting the tag line. We want people to give and receive feedback to each other about how they embody these values, how they demonstrate them in day-to-day behavior. That is where the real power comes from. Early on, the feedback was of the positive nature, like telling people when they were a good team member, giving positive reinforcement when they saw behavior aligned with values. What I see now is that people are holding each other accountable much like what Cheryl did for me, giving feedback when someone is not embodying and embracing the values; this goes beyond the easy stuff. To me, this evolution is a higher level of integration, and it is creating real opportunities for self-reflection at both the personal and organizational levels.

Deborah: Values are becoming concrete.

Pete: If it is to truly be our culture; it has to be more than just words. The process is ongoing: It had a distinct beginning, but I do not see an endpoint for the process of inculcating values into our everyday behavior. Employees at G&O walk in the front door knowing what they are expected to do, and importantly, they buy-in because they value the values—it is important to them.

Right now we are in the process of completely redesigning our performance appraisal document to incorporate what we have identified as high performance behavioral attributes consistent with our vision and values. Instead of evaluating people on punctuality and dependability we can look at the passion they bring to the workplace and the integrity with which they conduct themselves wherever they represent the company. The reward system will then align with values-based performance.

Consistent with this, we are redesigning the career section at our website. Our vision and values and high performance attributes will be prominent. When prospective employees click on the career section of our website, they’ll find a sequence of rhetorical questions. Have you ever been accused of being a bit of an overachiever? Have you been cited for being too enthusiastic at work? Are you impatient with the status quo, and like to look for ways to make something better? If you answer “yes,” you are somebody we would like to talk to. People will self select. When we recruit people, we are forthright in saying these are the things that are important here. We will pass on people having just technical expertise if we feel they are not able to fully embrace our values; they will be happier going someplace else.

Deborah: Having a happy workplace is important to you. Is there a relationship between aligning your organization with vision and values and the level of engagement and happiness that people bring to work?

Pete: Anytime you give employees a voice and a place at the table, without a rigid pecking order or stifling procedures, it translates into better performance and is reflected in the perception people have of work and how they feel when they are at work.

I also think that people vote with their feet. When they are happy and feel they are being challenged and given a voice in an organization, they are here at 5:30 PM, or they are working through lunch, or they come in on a Saturday. If the job is something they have to do to put bread on the table and they’re viewed simply as drones, they are walking out the front door at 4:59 PM and are off the parking lot at 5:00 PM.

Our Vision and Values say what we stand for. It translates into what is important to each of us so we can each take ownership. Our Vision and Values are meaningful to people. People are proud to be part of a company that believes in values that align with their own. That is how you get buy-in. If a vision is trite, if it could apply to any company whether it is a 7-11 or Zerox, employees will look at it with a jaundiced eye. But if the vision resonates with them, if the company tries to align itself with values, if the organization’s leaders demonstrate commitment and serve as positive role models, vision and values become real for people.

Deborah: Many people plod through the workday enduring miserable experiences. Organizations do not have to be that way. Experiments like yours give people permission to stretch themselves to create organizations where they can ask What am I excited about doing? What makes me feel alive? What can I bring to my work? That is self-reflection we can encourage; and in the end, when people come from their core values of what is important to them, they are going to work hard for you.

Pete: It works like that. I’ve read studies that talk about high percentages of disengaged employees. We are leaving fuel in the tank if we don’t engage our people and create opportunities for them to fully apply their talents. But, you can’t force people to give that to you. It has to be something they volunteer. All a manager can do is enforce minimal standards—this is, what you have to do to stay employed. That is far distant from having people who are engaged and connected saying I can give more. You will never get 100% of the people to do that; I am not Pollyannaish about that. But engagement does translate into people coming up with better ideas. I firmly believe that every employee has at least one great idea to contribute if given the chance.

Deborah: So engagement at a personal level is a real, powerful, unseen fuel for healthy change.

Pete: Engaged people are eager for opportunities to act on their innovative ideas. I can give you an example of the CADD operators from our land development group. These are the people who translate engineering designs into computer drawings; they are not the highest paid people, many are non-degreed, but they are very valuable and very bright employees. Recently at G&O, on their own, a handful of these people contacted our Information Systems Department to say they had an idea to improve a long standing process to yield significant improvements in productivity. Their group had been using as reference guides old three-ring binders to house codes about line weights and other standards. Pages, some torn, accumulated over the years. Before starting a drawing they would page through these old binders; it was a very manual process, very slow, and very inefficient. On their own they computerized the whole thing. They came up with a system that automatically uploads the proper line weights and dimensions for a design. Our Executive Council heard about it and asked for a demonstration. What was scheduled for thirty minutes went almost twice as long; they were so energetic, so enthusiastic. It was crystal clear to all of us that they were incredibly passionate about their work and this particular accomplishment. It is almost magical when something like this happens. You can’t mandate a project like this and expect these types of incredible results. If it had been an assignment, would it have been done? Yes. Would it have had the same outcome? I think it would not have come close.

Deborah: There is ground to till here, isn’t there! Just think of the intelligence in organizations that never gets tapped.

Pete: Absolutely. We were so impressed with their innovation and resourcefulness that it has lead to the creation of the President’s Innovation Award of which they were the first recipients. Their effort created something that will now become a corporate recognition program, and it started with initiative taken at a lower level in the organization.

I think of my own staff. If they did only what I asked them to do, the products we’d put out would be far inferior in quality and innovation than what they actually produce. I am the first to admit that. They continue to amaze me. I marvel at their creativity and their self-drive. Each is a special person and I’m incredibly proud of them.

Deborah: Weaning our organizations off hierarchical command and control and onto vision and values and creating space for the self-reflection are goals shared by inner-work leaders. Choosing this course for our leadership journey, we are never quite finished doing our homework. What advice would you like to give others who are choosing to grow their leadership effectiveness by doing their inner-work?

Pete: It is a never ending journey, much bumpier and a whole lot longer than we think. But we can consciously create time and space to think about what we’re experiencing and that is really important. The corporate culture supports this when information flows freely and when the giving and receiving of feedback is a normal part of our interactions.

Conversations that are open and unrestrained—where you can confront matters that are important but not easy to talk about—provide the foundation for our growth and development as leaders. Feedback creates moments for self-reflection and conscious awareness—this is an unbelievably different mode from autopilot.

In giving and receiving feedback, one of the challenges that I keep in front of me is do not rush to judgment. I think it becomes particularly important when you have a certain image of somebody whether that person is someone with whom you have an amicable relationship or someone with whom you’ve struggled. We react to them because of how we see them, not because of how they are—we are in a box. Seeing I’m in a box and choosing to get out of the box is almost a daily practice for me.

When you see yourself in a episode of rushing to judgment it really says more about who you are than it does about someone else. That to me is the linchpin, and smacks at the whole issue of ownership of situations or interactions. It is so much easier to say I know what someone else is going to do because they have always behaved similarly in the past. You are forming an indictment charging all ownership of an event or situation to them. It is the easy thing to do, but it sure isn’t fair.

Deborah: It is probably not true either. There is probably something in your self-identify that you are clinging to that leads you to make the judgment.

Pete: It can be that your ego gets in the way; you can call it different things—but you are not taking ownership when you say it is all about them. If a situation is unsettling or stressful or causing anxiety, you are getting signals that here is an opportunity to step back and reflect. The stress comes as we apply and cling to our own biases.

We can train ourselves to stop looking at things as right or wrong, good or bad; we can stop making judgments about others. We can practice being more observational and less accusational. Instead of looking at something and saying this is good or bad, simply describe what you are seeing. You do not need to add the interpretation that it is better or worse, good or bad. Dropping the interpretation may not come easily. But with practice you can slow down and start to catch yourself; you can become more mindful of what is going on in your own thinking and in the circumstances around you. You can look at any situation differently.

When I was younger I was a pretty good tennis player. Even after college I played in local tournaments. In sports, after a lot of practice, you get to a level where you can function with ease. After a certain point you can almost slow the game down. Certainly the pros are masters at this. You are not playing at tennis; you are just being tennis, you are one with the game. Everything slows down, becomes more natural, more fluid. As game slows down, your performance increases. The ball looks bigger, even though it is traveling at the same speed; it looks slower because you are more alert and prepared. That comes from training and repetition.

The same opportunities exist in leadership. You can slow things down and become more mindful. If you do this, you will not jump back on that treadmill again. To me, this embodies the essence of the inner-work. You are slowing things down so that you can see things more clearly and become much more mindful of your experiences. It is within this slowness that one can experience real possibility for improving leadership effectiveness.

Greenhorne & O’Mara (G&O) is a full-service consulting engineering firm that brings together the best in integrative consulting and technical talent. They provide their clients with inspired solutions for improving lives through better communities, a healthier environment, and a safer world. The firm provides public and private sector solutions in the areas of infrastructure and design; transportation, environmental and water resources engineering; geospatial and information technology; and hazard mitigation and security services. G&O’s offices support projects located throughout the United States and overseas. The firm is proudly celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2010, and is consistently identified in industry rankings among the top architectural / engineering design firms in the United States.

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