I interviewed Nick Blawat who discussed Leadership Development at the Intersection of Mindfulness and Speech Act Theory.
It’s great to speak with you today, Nick. Today we have an interesting topic. I’m looking forward to hearing your views and experience on leadership development, and it’s at the intersection of mindfulness and speech-act theory. Before we start, can you provide a brief background of yourself?
Sure. I’m an operations executive. I’ve been in different roles for most of my professional career in business. First as a consultant with the Boston Consulting Group and then in two different supply chain and operations leadership roles at Feeding America and a relatively new company named Corbion that recently had its name changed and is in the bioingredients business. Prior to that, I had a five-year stint as a U.S. Naval officer in the Submarine Force. I’ve spent a lot of my career really focused on operations roles and leadership roles and people-development roles, which is part of the reason why I wanted to talk to you today about this topic.
This sounds interesting. Can you first explain what mindfulness is?
Mindfulness is an old practice but an evolving term. I think it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For me, it’s really kind of a state of being balanced, balanced from a mind-body standpoint and centered, and really being very self-aware and focused on what you’re doing, who you’re with, and the task at hand. I think it has a lot of its origins in what I would call Eastern practices, meditation, et cetera, but I think it extends well beyond those historical stereotypes into the realm of, really, modern science and neuroscience. There’s a lot of very provocative research in this area for anybody who’s interested. Obviously, I can’t go in depth in this venue.
What about speech-act theory? What is that?
Speech-act theory is a decades-old theory that was developed by two philosophers (Austin and Searle) and several other innovators in the world of communications and communication theory. It essentially has to do with defining the types of moves that individuals make linguistically, carrying out their lives.
A framework or example of it would be what’s called the core-commitment cycle, where one essentially makes a request of someone else. That person has to assess your request and determine whether or not they can both accept it and commit to fulfilling on it, at which point they’ve made a promise. To close out the cycle within speech-act theory, you have to complete the request and then, from the requestor, confirm whether or not the conditions of satisfaction have been met. As I describe some of the leadership-development work that I did, you’ll see evidence of that core-commitment cycle being practiced and the effects that it creates with regard to trust-building. This is a critical enabler for effectiveness for any individual in any professional domain, quite frankly, and it has huge implications for the personal domain, as well, and how people get along and how relationships develop.
How did you combine both of these concepts—the mindfulness and speech-act theory—to develop leaders? Can you talk about some of the practices you use?
That’s a good question, Dustin. To provide some context for your readers and listeners, we actually developed a program at my former employer where we had roughly 25 customer service representatives who had perhaps the most difficult job in that business. They were essentially at the center of all of the heat between external customers, the sales force, and all of the internal functions that had to engage to resolve any sort of customer service issue. As a result, they were in extraordinarily stressful jobs. Quite frankly, many of them weren’t equipped to remain centered in that highly, highly volatile environment.
As I was thinking about how we would equip this group to handle some of the increasing challenges we were experiencing in our business (customers continuing to expect higher and higher service levels and quicker turnarounds on everything, all the typical things you would expect with a continuous improvement in an industry, and a lot of internal changes we were experiencing), it occurred to me that for these folks to really be successful, ultimately, they had to be empowered to decline requests in a positive, dignified way, and craft promises with customers of all sorts that they would be able to successfully keep in order to build trust. The status quo was that they were forced to consistently make promises that would require heroism to fulfill, and that was not a sustainable model.
As I started thinking about what we needed to do with this group to develop them as leaders and what would make that sustainable, I engaged with an executive coach who was an expert in mindfulness and speech-act theory and a host of other important leadership-development frameworks. Essentially, she and I worked together with my customer service manager to create a program that consisted of five parts.
We started by defining the outcomes for the program, which were really oriented around creating a sustainable customer service model for the business that would inspire customer loyalty, which would ultimately lead to business success. From there, we defined key leading indicators of those outcomes, because, quite frankly, those outcomes can really only be measured on a pretty long timeline, so we were looking for something shorter-term and more directly related to our work. The key leading indicators were an important component of the framework.
Then, there were four different areas that we built, all of which fall into this realm of mindfulness and speech-act theory. The first was creating an engaged and centered mind and body for these staff members. We developed practices that would help them do that. We created a new lexicon using a different set of words to describe actions than one would normally use. It really created a different way for these people to interact, and it allowed us to formalize and monitor the degree to which behaviors were changing in the group.
We also employed some of the concepts from an HBR article and framework called “Promise-Based Management,” which was really the philosophy for the whole program. If you build trust in an organization among stakeholders by making good promises and keeping them, then everything all of your people need to do becomes easier, more efficient, and quicker. Pretty fundamental philosophical belief we had to have in place to drive the success of the program.
And the last piece was that core-commitment cycle I mentioned. Those things in and of themselves are not practices; they were the overall framework and structure for the program, which we ran for more than a year in order to make it sustainable. The practices, though, were far more interesting. As part of this program, we had a monthly workshop with our coaches, and part of that workshop involved training our minds and bodies to actually decline requests with dignity, which is something most human beings have a very, very hard time doing. To practice that, we actually had, it was kind of scenario-based, where an individual would walk toward another individual, holding in their hand a request—you could do it with just your hand or a piece of paper—and then the other individual would essentially center themselves, take a deep breath, and become mindful of where they are and what they’re doing and then slowly step aside, put their hand on the individual’s back and walk them to the other side of the room. We literally practiced embodying physically a decline of a request.
I give that particular example because declines are so difficult for anyone in business or in a customer service function to offer to a customer, because you never want to have to do that, but, inevitably, you must. Conditioning these customer service reps to be able to say no with dignity to a demanding customer (or salesperson) when they make an unfair request was a really powerful practice that enabled these folks to really, what I would say, mature professionally as leaders.
It was also a very powerful practice for the leadership—myself, my customer service manager, and everybody in that chain of command—to demonstrate on a regular basis as well, supporting those individuals when on the job (after training) they actually made those leadership moves to decline requests. This was really, really powerful culture- and behavior-changing stuff.
How can these practices and concepts you’ve been working with be developed further and improved to help more companies and people?
It’s interesting. When I embarked on this journey with the support of this coach, I had spent two or three years engaging slowly in the practices of mindfulness and having a centered mind-body when engaging with others and dealing with challenging situations at work and at home. I had seen a lot of the benefits that offered me as a leader. I was kind of sold on the concept from the get-go. I faced a lot of resistance from folks who simply weren’t as familiar with these somewhat New Age, if you will, practices.
I think any organization or team can benefit from work like this. I certainly can’t, in this venue, go into enough depth to really make the case for it. But one thing I’ll do is make some information available in the not-too-distant future as a case study so others can read the details. To specifically answer your question, Dustin, I think a critical prerequisite is to have a leader who understands and is willing to innovate in the realm of leadership development and make a relatively small investment from a cash standpoint in their staff.
At the end of the day, for a year of training, the way we structured it cost us maybe $2000 to $3000 per person to do this. When I compare the costs to the benefits of this work in terms of the enhanced productivity, the reduced turnover, the improvements on customer satisfaction, KPIs, and, ultimately, the outcomes those things are going to drive in terms of loyalty and revenue growth, the ROI on this work is extraordinarily high. Mainly, you need an engaged leader, and commitment to consistent training over time. We did it for a year, and we could’ve easily justified another year of this type of training and work with our teams.
A bit of a burning platform also helps. Like any successful transformation program, there needs to be a good reason to really double down and invest in leadership development for a significant portion of an organization or a large team.
I look forward to hearing how things develop. You’re welcome to participate and share with our supply chain community how things are going in the future.
It’s one of those things that is easy to push off when other priorities come up because of the nature of a well-written case study. I will definitely forward you that content and a link to it once I get it published on LinkedIn.
Great and thank you for sharing.
About Nick Blawat
Transitioning Business Leader and Operations Executive
Case_Study_Figures.pptx 64.8 KB