November 10, 2021

Changing Altitude: Greg Hiebert, Dennis O’Neil

You strive to be your best in every step of your career, now you’re starting a new leadership role, one with more responsibility in areas and organizations where your experience is limited. The template for success you’ve always relied on may no longer apply. You need an adaptable roadmap based on shared values and thoughtful strategy. You need improved clarity. You need renewed confidence and deeper capabilities. But first, you need a starting point. 

In Changing Altitudes, Dennis O’Neil and Greg Hiebert provide you with a comprehensive framework for optimizing your impact and maximizing personal and professional growth. 

Welcome into Author Hour. I’m your host, Benji Block, and today, I am honored to be joined by Dennis O’Neil and Greg Hiebert. They have just authored a new book; the book is titled, Changing Altitude: How To Soar in Your New Leadership Role. Guys, we’re so glad to have you here on Author Hour today.

Dennis O’Neil: Thanks, Benji, we’re glad to be here.

Greg Hiebert: Yeah, same here.

Benji Block: For listeners who could be new to your work, could you guys tell us a little bit about yourselves and your background, what led to this book?

Dennis O’Neil: Yeah, absolutely. I was a career Army officer, armor and then an army strategist and spent my last several years in the military, in the Pentagon, in the Whitehouse and National Defense University. So, I culminated a multi-decade career into kind of an assignment around organizational development and learning, went from the military into the corporate sector for a large aluminum company and then, went back to my passion of education and teaching and leader development, working as an executive coach with Greg.

I have four children and one grandchild with another on the way, I have a doctorate in psychology from Duke University and live outside the D.C. area as we’ve been there for about 15 years now. That’s what my background is. 

We wrote the book in terms of thinking about everybody in a transition role, whether it’s your first leadership role and you’re transitioning from an individual contributor or you’re moving up to the CEO position. 

Our premise is that, as you change roles, it’s not just doing more of the same on a bigger scale, but it actually fundamentally requires a different skillset. And there’s just an absence out there in, what do I do to best prepare myself for those transition points and how do we think through in a sequential way? How can I accelerate the process, so that I can be more successful in my new leadership role?

Greg Hiebert: I’d like to build on that, Denny. One specific client actually had, was overseeing a healthcare consulting company of 250 colleagues and he received a massive promotion where he now had responsibility for 2,500 consultants and he put before to Dennis and I, this challenge of, “You know, there must be articles, there must be books that can help me going from one business unit to six.” So, Denny and I took that challenge, and sadly, we couldn’t find anything that we could give them.

The book was born out of that desire to want to provide not just to people like him but many others who all find themselves in this massively more complex, volatile, uncertain responsibility and where they may have a lot of content knowledge about one domain within all the things they’re responsible for.

Now they have to know a lot more about things that are maybe not as familiar and so we wanted to provide sort of a how-to guidebook for that leader who is starting out or that leader like him who is incredibly experienced but now finds themself in a much different set of responsibilities and scope and need a hand on their shoulder to help sort of, “Okay, now how do I make sense of this new environment?”

Dennis O’Neil: Greg, you didn’t give us your background, would you mind doing that a little bit?

Greg Hiebert: Thank you. I started out in very similar paths as my good colleague Dennis. I graduated from West Point and was an infantry officer serving in the 82nd Airborne Division where I had an opportunity to go back and get my MBA at the Harvard Business School and then go on and teach leadership and leading change at both the undergraduate and graduate levels on the faculty at West Point.

From that, diverted from the military and joined the McKinsey & Company, just an incredible strategic consulting company with offices throughout the world and that was a very incredibly exciting and stimulating time. Then got recruited away by a client, served in a host of different executive roles in both the large corporations as well as technology, telecommunication startups. Then got recruited away to be an executive search consultant where I did C-level placements throughout the globe for a lot of technology and telecommunication companies.

I always had this dream of wanting to start my own leadership development company, so 20 years ago, started Leadership Forward with the purpose and intent to help leaders be much more thoughtful and reflective about how did they lead and make sense of the world in a very volatile, uncertain and challenging time.

Changing Altitudes

Benji Block: To set the table for the book, the way you guys, kind of— the picture you use is like flying a plane, right? Maybe set up that for us a little bit and paint that picture for why you felt a plane was the right narrative because I thought, it really does hit home in a number of ways.

Greg Hiebert: Thank you for that question. You sometimes come along and find metaphors that can be incredibly helpful in making sense of a very complex world. So, this metaphor of changing altitude as a key element of, “How do you make sense of your new environment?” and as we thought about changing altitude, Dennis and I spend probably far too much time on the road on planes. 

The airplane metaphor worked perfectly and in understanding that as leaders, you’re guiding this aircraft and that from time to time, based upon the weather, based upon the route, based upon a whole bunch of variables, you need to change altitude to ensure the successful arrival and the safety of your passengers. 

We thought it was a way to make sense of giving that leader a tool to say, “Okay, now you’re in a new environment. Before you start leading the way you always have, is this an opportunity because of what’s going on around you and the environment for you to go up to 30,000 feet, or is this now the time when you drop down to 5,000?”

Benji Block: I love the gap that you guys are working to fill, and I think it’s so necessary and so I appreciate the content of this book and I’m excited to dive into some of these actual principles. You really split the book into three key areas.

You say that every leader must be aware of themselves, right? You got to know yourself, you got to know your people, you got to know your environment. This might just be an observation I guess on my part but when it comes to ourselves, what got us into leadership doesn’t actually have to necessarily be self-awareness. We could be placed in a position maybe out of necessity in an organization or maybe we stand out in one skillset, right?

We were organized but we maybe lack certain people skills. The longer you’re in leadership, there’s this necessity for self-awareness that continues to build and build and can become glaringly obvious if it’s unaddressed. Is that true in your experience?

Dennis O’Neil: Yeah, I think that’s actually very well-said. I wish I would have had that quote to put into the book. That would have been a great lead-in, but absolutely. This notion of self-aware and that is, “Where do I gather information from objective sources about what I do well and where are my best opportunities for growth are?”

Benji Block: Right.

Dennis O’Neil: This notion that it’s really hard to be objective about others if we’re not objective about ourselves. We do spend a little bit of time in the book asking the questions that you can seek out. I’m a big believer in trying to understand proxies and that is what are the things that aren’t maybe readily apparent but are great indicators in helping us identify some of those strengths and weaknesses.

Then we go into some of the research around 360-degree assessments— that’s when we ask our peers, our subordinates, and our superiors for candid and open feedback that is solely for developmental purposes, as well as evaluating other places where we can grab some of that important information about what is our greatest opportunity.

As we move into new leadership positions, as we change altitude, then having that reassessment of what we need to develop going forward with also a hindsight look at the same time about what is our past track record. So, bringing that all together to say, “How do we gain in our own personal development through a better understanding of our growth opportunities?”

Greg Hiebert: Yeah, I want to build on that, Denny. If you go back, Benji, to all of the— some of the earliest literature on leadership, even the Sumerians and the Code of Hammurabi, talked about the need for leaders to be aware and I still find that one of the greatest enablers of effective leadership and one of the greatest barriers is, how easy am I approachable, how easy do I make it for others who work with me to give me feedback?

How is it for people to be able to say, “You know Greg, I’ve got a better idea” and if I am not in the reasonable understanding of how well I either make it easy or difficult for people to approach me, be open with me, be honest and transparent and then I create this huge massive obstacle to my ability to motivate, influence and inspire others to greatness. I think knowing thyself, yes, it’s widely talked about, but I still believe as much as it’s written about and talked about, it still is what I would call this massive foundation to build a highly effective set of leadership principles around.

Benji Block: Greg, follow-up for you here. When someone does, let’s say, a 360-assessment or they, for whatever reason, realize maybe they’re not as approachable as they want to be or as they thought they were. What are some common ways that we can try to grow in that area specifically?

Greg Hiebert: Yeah, it’s a great question and I actually had an opportunity to speak about that yesterday with a leader who got some feedback that said that they come across as overly blunt, incredibly too direct, and very intense. So, I challenged that leader to be clear in what kind of leader did they want to be. 

Were they comfortable with that— what I would call disconnect— between how they see themselves and how others see them and are they willing to sort of close that gap. One of the easiest ways, and this is the gift of getting feedback and 360-feedback in particular, is to be able to go back to the people who took the time to give you that feedback and with some courage, and most importantly some humility, to be able to say, “Look it, I got some feedback. Some of it was very good, some of it was disappointing.” 

“To that point of being disappointed, I’m willing to do something about it and I want to share that one of the things that was given to me was I don’t listen well” or in this case, “I come across as too intense and it creates barriers for people to communicate effectively. I am deeply committed to wanting to close that gap and so I’m committing to you publicly that I’m going to work on that. I may not get it right all the time. Would you be willing to continue giving me feedback when you see me doing it well and most importantly, when you see me struggling? Because I really want to make a change around that.”

Benji Block: That’s amazing. That humility is so necessary and then you have all these skill sets that did get you to where you are, so that intensity and those things that those teammates are feeling are still good but in moderation. And when you add humility, man, that can really stoke the fire and add some momentum, so I love that. 

You guys talk about true north. I’ll quote you here, you say “As a leader, you’re responsible for identifying the true north and holding others, including yourselves, accountable to follow it.” Dennis, can you talk a little bit about what it looks like to identify our true north?

Dennis O’Neil: Absolutely. To tie it back this notion of self-awareness is the foundation for so many other of our leadership traits a true north is oftentimes referred to and is our direction. What is our moral compass, how do we make decisions in the absence of guidance, how do we identify what we personally believe in, and what are our convictions?

If we have that ability to look at a compass or any other gauge in our aircraft, as the pilot analogy of changing altitude, then we can have a pretty good idea of where we’re going to head even if we can’t see everything in front of us out in the darkness.

We still have that ability to look at what it means to have a clear understanding of how we’re perceived by others and awareness of our challenges and our strengths and maybe most importantly, an ability to see what— not just what’s above the surface for an iceberg, but what are the things below that are unseen but are still important to our own personal wellbeing or our team or our organization.

Greg Hiebert: I want to follow up on that with, if you sort of study any spiritual path, if you look at organizations, values, you find commonality across the globe of what human beings find to be morally right. Tell the truth, don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal. I find there’s actually tremendous commonality in what we hold as the espouse principles of how to behave, how to treat each other and what Dennis and I have found in our walk is that the best leaders are the most authentic, where there’s almost no light and no gap between what they espouse and actually, how they live.

We had a client, a large health system, that one of their values on their website and all their literature is kindness. When they came out with that value, I was inspired but I was worried. I was inspired because I believe that’s one of my internal values and I have to work hard at that because it doesn’t come naturally.

I was worried because whenever you put on your documents that kindness is something you are committed to, you better be prepared to have the courage it takes to fair it out, those people who are not being kind and to treat them as much kindness as you can to say, “You’ve got to either change the way you behave or this may not be the right place for you.”

That moral compass, that true north, one of the expressions that we have in the book is, “great leaders live with a very strong say:do ratio” and that’s a simple notion that, are they doing what they say and those people who have the tightest ratio of alignment between what they say and do and they’re the most authentic and they’re the most believable, the most credible.

Investing In Your Team

Benji Block: Yeah, the say:do ratio is so vital because anyone can put kindness on their walls, but you know it when someone’s really living it out and that’s so powerful. Let’s move to the next phase. Going back to what the book covers, you talk about yourself, your people, your environment. When we move into this discussion around people, you have this quote. You say, “The foundation of high performance is how you treat the people around you. Conversely, the epitome of dysfunction will be grounded in your treatment of the people around you.” Break that down for us a little bit. 

Greg Hiebert: One of the most successful companies in the world is Google and some years ago, they’ve spent a massive amount of money on two projects, Project Oxygen and Project Aristotle, where the intents of these projects were to look across the Google enterprise and just see what were the elements and the characteristics of the best performing teams and what were the elements and the characteristics of the most highly respected trusted leaders. 

Invariably, their research came back, lots of great, great quantitative research to sort of affirm what Dennis and I have often assumed over the years has been sort of foundational to effective leadership, and that is, it’s not the brilliance of the team that matters most. What really matters is how people treat each other, how leaders foster an environment where people feel valued, heard, seen, respected, and because they feel safe, they are willing to take risks.

They are willing to say, “You know, I know nobody has thought of this and this may sound like the craziest idea ever, but you know, what if we did this?” and that team’s capacity not to feel threatened because there is something outside the box coming in. It’s like, “Wow, I never thought of that” and some of the greatest ideas of humanity have come about in those kinds of conditions. And then when you look at what Google found out about the best leaders, the number one element in ranked order is a great coach. 

When you unpack that great coach it was, “I have a leader who invests time, energy, effort to make me want to be better”. And when I always ask the question, “Who’s been the greatest, besides your parents, who has been the greatest source of inspiration in your life?” and it’s a teacher, it’s a coach, it’s a pastor. It’s invariably the characteristics will come back that, you know, first and foremost is, they knew me and they saw more in me than I saw myself and they challenged me to be the very best of who I could become. 

Benji Block: It’s trust and it’s kind of communication, right? It all boils back to these two things where I can trust this person. A great coach, I think of someone that communicates really clearly really well, probably over-communicates. But also, I trust this person so they’re not just barking orders at me, but I know that there is some level of integrity to our relationship, our friendship, whatever that would be, so trust and communication. 

I wonder, Dennis maybe, how have you seen this change in this time of COVID because I would assume— and I’m part of this remote work situation as well— but trust can be hard to build when you’re not maybe in the same room. How do you see the need for this in this season of COVID and remote work getting heightened, how has that played out? 

Dennis O’Neil: A great way to apply this to the current environment. As we’re thinking about a remote workforce and this notion of trust— and I always combine trust and respect, Benji, when I talk about it because I think that the two go hand in hand— you are absolutely correct. It can be more difficult and certainly requires a more intentional building of positive relationships in the workforce. 

If you want to look at what makes the most engaged employees, it’s a pretty simple recipe. It’s, does the person feel valued for the work that they do? Is the work that they do meaningful and impactful, and do they feel like they have positive relationships at work? Well, the first two may or may not be more challenging in a remote environment but certainly, the third one is and especially if you didn’t have a solid foundation of the relationships prior to going into a remote environment. 

You asked how it’s changed throughout COVID, well, I do think relatively early on, it was new and novel, and people had to figure out how to work in a Zoom world. There was a little bit of an excitement around it, but we still knew each other relatively well. We were used to having lunch on a pretty regular basis in the office. We were used to going out on Friday afternoons to have a social hour but as you progress towards you know, 18+ months of the COVID environment, you are starting to hire people into your organization that you may never have seen. 

I was coaching one organization last week and they have about a third of their team that they have never met in person now. That intentional ability to build relationships with people, and as you said, the absolute critical piece of effective communication, I would suggest that people truly focus on making sure— [with] the new hires or those that they haven’t established a strong relationship— is that for the leader, the critical piece is to make sure that everybody feels heard. 

That every member of the team has an equal ability to contribute to the input so that when we are together, we’re pulling out those different personalities. There’s always going to be someone that’s a little bit louder or speaks more freely or more often and there’s always going to be someone that’s a little quieter but has great ideas and we have to pull those forward. Being more cognizant of that in a remote work environment and using that to build on the team’s capabilities, I think, is certainly part of the recipe of understanding how to change altitude in a remote work environment. 

Greg Hiebert: I have two stories to sort of illustrate that. The first story is I was doing a team Zoom facilitation of a group of 20 leaders and one of the areas that we were exploring was vulnerability. It’s pretty hard to be vulnerable on Zoom, but this one leader felt that it was safe and they expressed that they joined this organization right at the beginning of COVID when everybody went virtual. 

This person got very emotional as they shared that they never felt welcomed. People assumed somebody else was doing the welcoming and the outpouring of support for this person’s courage to say, “You know, this was something that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.” And you know, to the credit of this person they said, “I know we have 27 open positions and if we continue to stay virtual I hope what happened to me doesn’t happen to those 27.” 

Out of that came this outpouring of, “You know, we owe you an apology and more importantly going forward, we’re going to make sure this doesn’t happen to what happened to you, so thank you for your courage to be vulnerable and to share what’s really going on for you.” So, I share that story. 

The second story, last Friday, I was with another team and this emergency room nurse director, who is in the front of the first surge in a massive way, she’s gone through hell. She’s a mother of two children, she’s divorced, and she shared that some time ago, the CEO— and this is a 39,000-person organization healthcare— called her and said, “How are you doing?” I asked her permission on Friday, “Could I make sure I share this story?” 

She said, “Absolutely!” So, Crystal said her always response when anyone asks, “How are you doing?” was “Great. I’m doing great.” And the CEO said, “No, how are you really doing?” and just that second question said with that kindness and compassion, all had this nurse director to just open up, emotional, and say, “This has been hell.” And just as I am reflecting on her sharing that in a group of 15 leaders, I just like, “Wow, I want to tell this story.” 

How does one CEO of 39,000 know that the right thing to do is reach out to one of his emergency room directors, you know? There’s probably hundreds of directors if not— in this organization, reaches out to her and allows her to know, “We care, I care and tell me how you really are doing”. Unbelievable. 

Benji Block: Leadership needs to be human. We can have all the best systems we can have, you know, we can get into all the apps and figure out how to optimize and all that and make our company more money but there is at a human level, that’s what leadership is all about. So I love that story. It really drives this point home because again, it goes back to trust and communication. That story hits on both of those. 

If you have trust built from the top down, no matter how big the organization is, all it takes is a phone call, right? I mean, that is a great way of building trust. It is not a hard thing, it’s just a time thing, how you spend your time. 

Greg Hiebert: I also think completely agree about the trust and communication, but I think the other thing is you really got to care, and I think that CEO’s communication to that young nurse leader was, “I really care. I really care.” 

Dennis O’Neil: Maybe a little bit into that— it’s a wonderful story and obviously a very true story— is that every one of us has the ability to do something very similar in a leadership position, whether we run 39,000 people or three people. What was demonstrated was that this person respected you as an individual, that they were approachable, that they valued you as an employee, that they were committed to fostering a psychologically safe environment while encouraging people to be high achievers. 

This notion of a culture of positivity and combined with grace is really such an important part of our ability to create an inspiring engagement. 

Seeing The World As We Are

Benji Block: That’s so good. Well, let’s go back to that airplane example from the beginning. Before flying anywhere, we need two crucial pieces of information. You need to know where you’re going and where you’re starting. The final portion of this book, we start to talk about environment. I’d love for you to just set up for people what they can expect in that third section as we start to wrap up here. 

Greg Hiebert: I’m so excited because writing this book has made me a better coach, as I have tried to be much more deliberate about using the tools of the book and in particular where it’s really enhanced my ability to support other human beings has been in this third sort of domain of helping leaders make sense of their environments. Just yesterday, I have a new leader who just got promoted into a new role. 

We went through “knowing thyself” and we walked through, “Who are the people and the stakeholders you’re going to have to understand and create meaningful relationships?” but where the third piece is, how are you going to make sense of this environment? How are you going to change altitude to go deep where you need to go deep? To go high where you need to go high and to try to make sure that you are not too quickly coming to the conclusion of what’s going on because the world that we have to lead in is incredibly complex. 

One of the empowering quotes that I think about often comes from the Jewish Talmud that says, “We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are”. And in our book, we reference these two researchers from UNC, Dunning, and Kruger, who have come up with what’s known as The Dunning-Kruger effect of too many people think they know far more than they really do and that one of the greatest gifts of leadership is the courage and the vulnerability to say, “I don’t know.” 

In this third domain, challenge yourself with, “How do you know?” Because it’s the things you don’t know you don’t know that will often get you most in trouble. So, stepping back on the balcony, moving up to a higher altitude to say, “How do I make sense of what’s really going on when it’s highly complex, highly volatile?” And the more that, the leader who can best diagnose the situation with as much accuracy and rigor as possible. It’s been our experience that those leaders would make much more thoughtful, much more careful and better, precise decisions about their organization and their leadership. 

Dennis O’Neil: As we looked at this, we wanted to provide a framework in a relatively simple way that people could apply to their own process of evaluating the environment. This was developed over quite a bit of time, but it’s one that I found incredibly useful in my time in Iraq as a special missions team leader called a mid-team and looking at what’s going on in the environment, you really had to learn how do you figure out the things that people don’t tell you just as much as what they do. 

For example, if a shopkeeper would keep the store open well past dark, then that area was probably pretty safe. But if they had to close their doors by 4 PM and they wanted to be out of there before dusk, then there was something going on in that area that we probably had to take a harder look at. That kind of got this notion of, “How do we look at the environment and what’s going on today?” And then a great book by a friend, Ori Brafman, called The Starfish and the Spider, looks at how do we collect the information from the peripheries. 

The higher you go in the organization, the more difficult it can be to collect information from the external or the front line. We wanted to come up with a concept that, for a leader to get off the balcony and instead of looking down, give them a chance to lie on their back and look up from a perspective of those that are doing much of the workaround you so that we can better understand. 

We came up with this pretty simple— but I think important— framework of understanding what’s going on today and how do I collect that information, who do I need to get that from and what are the inputs, and then a clear articulation of what do we want a better tomorrow to look like. What is our defined success? And I find all too often that people can actually have an understanding of where we’re at and they have kind of a concept of where we want to go but they aren’t able to clearly identify, “What does success look like?” 

The third step being identifying where we’re going to act, and the fourth being how we’re going to act and then what are the resources that are required. I was a speechwriter for three chiefs of staff for the Army. A chief-of-staff of the Army is the CEO, kind-of the head person and they run hundreds of thousands of individuals on a daily basis. I found that in polishing this process of being able to help somebody identify what’s going on, what does success look like, where we’re going to act, how we’re going to act, and what resources we need, is a tremendous compliment to somebody’s ability to communicate more effectively, so that not only do they deliver a message but they are able to articulate it in a way that people can see how we’re going to get from where we are to where we want to be.

Benji Block: Well, the book is, Changing Altitude: How To Soar in Your New Leadership Role. Greg, Dennis, this book is going to be a great resource for so many. It’s been amazing to get to talk with you guys today here on Author Hour. For those that want to follow you and stay connected to what you’re doing, what are some ways we can connect? 

Greg Hiebert: We have several social medias, the easiest way is we have a website, and then at the other book-specific website is – 

Dennis O’Neil: and then, of course, there is a link there to the Changing Altitude book that will come out on November 9th. 

Benji Block: So great. Thank you, guys, for the work you’re doing, and appreciate your time here on Author Hour. Best of luck as this book goes live. 

Dennis O’Neil: Thanks so much Benji, appreciate you. 

Greg Hiebert: Yeah, thank you.