Excerpt from the interview
Morris: Before discussing Making Your Own Waves, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?
Patler: Probably it was my mother. She was very wise and the queen of one-liners. “Learn how to back into a clearing,” she would tell me.
Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?
Patler: Believe it or not, the greatest influence professionally may have been the 15 years or so I taught poetry and poetics at university. I also have a PhD in sociological theory, which gave me a sense of rigor and discipline and the value of data. That helped too.
Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.
Patler: I suppose the turning point for me was getting hired right out of grad school to teach on the Semester at Sea program, which allowed me to sail around the world for nearly four years. The international perspective I gained from visiting about 40 countries was invaluable. Then, there came the decision to leave university and academic life. I was tiring of university politics and also have five children so I needed to earn more income than that of a college prof.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
Patler: As I said, there were many things my formal education brought to the table for me. I like to have my head in the clouds while my feet are also on the ground. Theory and data. Strategy and numbers. They coexist for me.
Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?
Patler: Tolstoy said, “all happy families resemble one another.” I have found this to be true of organizations and their leaders. Having worked mainly with CEOs and corporate Presidents for the past 15 or more years, I find that the best of them share similar traits and are just people like the rest of us. I am not intimidated nor do I pedestalize them any more.
Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.
Patler: This may sound odd, but Field of Dreams held many business lessons for me. The power of a vision and a wild goal. The importance of relationships. The power of continutity from generation to generation. The importance of having family, friends and support around you. All of these things apply in business too.
Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:
“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”
Patler: I believe that a leader’s role is to make it possible for everyone else to do with ease whatever it is that they have to do. Make resources available. Minimize obstacles. Articulate core values. In doing so, “the people” will indeed have “done it themselves.”
Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
Patler: I think Porter got that half right. What NOT to do and what TO do, and in what SEQUENCE have equal value to me. But strategy is ephemeral. Amorphous. Even porous. These days strategy has to be agile and flexible because we are in a world now ruled by exponential change.
Morris: Peter Drucker once said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”
Patler: And yet today’s cliché can generate the next dangerous idea. I gained that insight while reading The Structure of Scientific Revolution by Thomas Kuhn many years ago. Paradigms shift when an entirely new orthodoxy replaces the prior one… e.g. from Copernicus to Galileo, Galileo to Newton, Newton to Einstein. ‘Twas ever thus, as my mom would say.
Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”
Patler: “Odd” is God. The anomalies have always sucked me in. Called to me.
Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”
Patler: And innovation without execution is folly. Today, results matter. There are lots of ways to generate all kinds of ideas for products and services but unless you figure out how to move from idea to delivery, they have little business consequence. That’s one of the reasons I created a training program and workshops under the title Innovating for Results.
Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”
Patler: Most large organizations fall prey to becoming masters of efficient uselessness. This takes many forms…archaic policies and procedures, fear of taking risks, rewarding complacency. My first book, the NY Times bestseller If it ain’t broke…BREAK IT! addressed this head on.
Morris: Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be closely associated for an extended weekend of one-on-one conversation? Why?
Patler: There are so many. Plato would be solid. Lincoln has always interested me. I suspect that the man from Omaha, Warren Buffet, would be a good companion for a weekend. Steve Jobs too, although I don’t think he could sit still that long! But, as of today, as I write this, it is Bishop Desmond Tutu’s birthday, so my friend “Arch” is on my mind. I have known him for many years and he is truly very special. His wisdom. His humor. His patience in the face of adversity are all extraordinary. His “Truth and Reconciliation Committee” process in South Africa helped stave off a blood bath after the end of apartheid, and led to a smoother transition to the presidency of Nelson Mandela. Arch has spent time with most of the world’s spiritual and political leaders and I am sure I could learn much from him.
Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”
Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?
Patler: Most change initiatives that fail are those that come top down. For example, I cannot tell you how many times CEOs have sought to create “a culture of innovation” by making that a priority for a given period of time. But in my experience and research, there is a valuable distinction I make between “a culture of innovation” and “a company of innovators.” If you focus on the latter you eventuate with the former. Change and innovation have to be seen as everybody’s everyday job. And what, at the end of the day, is “innovation” if not a form of problem solving or the provision of a new opportunity?
Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?
Patler: I don’t subscribe to the idea that a “workplace” culture is any different than any environment…e.g. a living room or locker room or school room…in the sense that all these places encourage and foster growth and help people to thrive. Any environment that treats people with respect, that values each of our uniquenesses, that gives us needed tools and resources will create a “culture” conducive to our development.
Morris: Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?
Patler: The problem is related to the circumstances. In highly regulated industries like insurance and government, repetitive tasks lead to boredom and lack of zeal. In many blue collar/assembly line jobs, “productivity” is quantitative and people work by rote and routine. So, in each “circumstance” the challenge is to offer “meaning” to the employee. For example, in aerospace and defense, even the most menial jobs can be enhanced by the opportunity to see your work as helping “protect those who protect us.” This has motivational power.