February 17, 2021

The Transformational Leadership Compass: Benny Ausmus

Thousands of books about business and leadership are published every single year but we seldom have time to digest that knowledge, let alone put it all into action. Organizational change is rarely simple but Benny Ausmus’ new book, The Transformational Leadership Compass, TLC for short, makes the process as clear, accessible, and practical as possible.

Through simple, jargon-free language, it has succeeded at IT consultancies, yogurt factories, flying trapeze school, telecommunications providers, other schools, and more. The TLC system helps you bring your people’s heads and hearts together on the journey towards a new and better normal.

Drew Appelbaum: Hey listeners, my name is Drew Appelbaum and I’m excited to be here today with Benny Ausmus, author of The Transformational Leadership Compass: A Dynamic Coaching System for Creating Big Change. Benny, thank you for joining, welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.

Benny Ausmus: Hi Drew Appelbaum, thanks for putting me on, it’s great to be here.

Drew Appelbaum: Let’s kick this off, can you give us a rundown of your professional background?

Benny Ausmus: Well, look, I’ve spent the last 12 or so years in leadership and organizational development in a coaching and consulting capacity. I’ve essentially worked with leaders at all levels of businesses, to help them reshape, re-engineer culture and business processes. In the early days, I worked with a whole series of wonderful mentors, and I’ve been given the opportunity right from the start to get thrown in the deep end and turn this into my craft, which allowed me to codify some of this and write this book we’re talking about today.

Drew Appelbaum: Now, you’re a professional in this space, you just said, you’ve been doing it for a dozen years, why was now the time to write the book? Did you have a moment of inspiration, did you have a little bit of extra time on your hands because of COVID?

Benny Ausmus: It’s a great question. It happened about two years ago, there was a week in my work, in my practice where I think four or five clients asked me all in that one week to write a book. We’d been running trainings for their staff and for their leadership team, and they were like, “Benny, you’ve got to put this into a book, this content, we want to be able to refer back to it”.

If a lot of customers are asking you to do something, you should probably listen to that. So, I was doing that and at the same time, a friend introduced me to Scribe and to Tucker. I reached out and made an inquiry and Tucker said, “Come on down to Austin and let’s help you write a book.” The rest is history.

Drew Appelbaum: That’s perfect. Now, I know you know your stuff cold–you give speeches like this all the time, you’ve coached so many business professionals, but sometimes during the writing process, you’ll have some really major learnings or breakthroughs while you’re writing a book. Did you have any of those during your process?

Benny Ausmus: My gosh, yes. It was one of the more difficult things I’ve done in my career–to sit down consistently. I think it took about two years to consistently write, articulate the thoughts, to simplify what’s quite a complex process, into language that’s accessible for people.

I did find it very challenging but also very formative, because going through that process really allowed me to clarify and crystalize the methods we use, and it was so valuable to not only create something I can share with the world, but to get very, very clear on how we go about doing these works of transformation, and how we go about teaching it. It was a very worthwhile but difficult challenge and I’m super glad I did it.

Drew Appelbaum: Now, who exactly is this book for? Is it for executives only or is this something where managers and other workers can find knowledge inside of the book?

Benny Ausmus: That’s a really great question. The book is written for anybody that’s responsible for making conditions around them better. You know, if you look at leadership, a key responsibility of leadership is to take us somewhere we haven’t been, and to make tomorrow better than today. If we use that as a frame definition for it, it can be for the CEO of a large or medium company, but it can also be for someone that has a small team of six or a dozen people.

It can also be for someone that has an interest in human resources and shaping how people interact and work within a culture. There are a few audiences there and it’s flexible enough to apply to the very senior leader, but there’s also a language that’s accessible to people that are on their way up in leadership and have a genuine interest in developing leadership skills and practices.

We’ve very intentionally made it accessible to a wide audience of leaders because we really believe that leaders at all levels collaborating together is what makes big change work.

Bringing Together Best Practices

Drew Appelbaum: Now, let’s dive right into the title. The book is based on a methodology you developed to help leaders and to help companies. You call it TLC, which stands for Transformational Leadership Compass. Inside of the Transformational Leadership Compass methodology, what theories and other research does it incorporate?

Benny Ausmus: Yeah, great question. Well, I didn’t just make this stuff up. I’ll preface with that. I have, through my own career and my own company practice, Big Change, used a lot of the best practice models in the world. So things borrowed from the transformational leadership space–the work of Bernard Bass, systems thinking, Peter Senge, we’re looking at Agile methodologies, the Denning crowd, and essentially, the TLC or the transformational leadership compass is an attempt to integrate over 50 of these models into one place, and distill it into a language that’s easy to share, easy to teach, and easy to build a transformation effort around.

It’s the cliché of standing on the shoulders of giants, which I think is attributed to Galileo but actually, I think Galileo borrowed it off somebody else, which you know, is a bit funny. These are all referenced through the book, and I think it’s important to acknowledge these multi-disciplinary lineages of thinking and models have all been brought together to make the TLC a pedagogy or a teaching method for transformational leadership. And doing it in a way that’s not dry or academic or too much theory, wrapping it up in this narrative story of a character, our hero in the TLC, called John. That was what the intention was, and early feedback’s been quite positive, so I am happy with that.

Drew Appelbaum: You do make a promise in the book that the TLC method will assist you in creating transformational change in your company. What makes you so confident that this can scale and fit for most companies out there?

Benny Ausmus: Well, it’s based on what works. Again, these are not things that I’ve made up or pulled out of thin air. Through my career and seeing the thinking required to shift culture and to shift a system and a strategy with groups of people within a company, it requires a dynamic approach that considers many interrelated elements.

I’m very confident that this works because once a leader elevates their level of thinking and decision making, or refines I should say, their level of thinking and decision making to consider as many possible perspectives, coordinate those perspectives, collaborate with people to make the change together, it gives us the best shot at making a change happen and stick.

And, this is a methodology that’s proven time and time again to work for that. Is it going to work to make any change you want at any time? No, and I certainly don’t promise that, but my conviction is that using this thinking and developing this thinking in your people certainly ups the odds of making a transformation effort work.

Drew Appelbaum: Is this method a step-by-step approach, or is this something where you can pick and choose maybe certain elements and bring them inside of your company?

Benny Ausmus: Well, it can be both. There are steps to do it, but change doesn’t really work like that. It’s an interrelated system. You can think of it in terms of understanding each element of the compass, which we do in installation one–the first chapter that walks you through it. By having an understanding of all of these elements, you can then go make a change to, for example, your sales team’s communication method or, your ops team’s meeting rhythm. You can go and make those changes, but you can understand how the change you make affects the whole system by using the TLC.

When we say it’s a dynamic coaching system for creating big change, it’s really an upgrade of the thinking of the reader. It’s an operating system for the mind of the leader. When they face day to day challenges, they can think of them from a multi-dimensional approach and craft better strategies.

There are step-by-step exercises in the book that people could benefit from and get a lot of value from. But the real intention is for them to adopt this TLC mindset and the system into their own thinking and decision making and communication. Because that makes anything they want to change better and gives them an ability to level up in their leadership decision making power.

Drew Appelbaum: Now, the book is extremely deep and detailed, but I’d love to dig into just a few of those details that I found really interesting and ask a few questions about them. The first one is mental software and I think that is a really interesting concept. What should people using TLC install into their mental software to be successful?

Benny Ausmus: Yeah, it’s a funny term and really, you can think of any book as psychoactive software or mental software. If it changes the way you think then that’s sort of what we’re referring to.

TLC was built very intentionally to upgrade the thinking of the reader and improve the reader’s ability to think through and make decisions. The upgrade that you’re getting is almost a structure around your thoughts or a very organized way of thinking about how you approach change and improvement.

What I like to think of is, let’s say we judge leadership’s effectiveness by the effectiveness of the decision a leader makes and how they involve others in the short-term and long term in carrying out those decisions. Say that’s a premise.

Working with this, just understanding the language and how it fits together, you’re able to face these problems and make these decisions with much greater clarity and effectiveness. This happens because you’re able to coordinate different perspectives, you’re able to align blind spots, you’re able to overcome the limitations of immediate knowledge.

When people start practicing these, they get faster at it and better at it. More effective decision making, I think we can agree, makes better leaders. The TLC is an upgrade to the processing of making decisions–the act and the events of collaboration and developing others.

It may sound complex how I’m explaining it now, but it’s written in the simplest possible language to get these ideas across to anybody. The CEO can read it and understand it, but he could hand it to an up and comer in management that he wants to get this taxonomy, he wants to get the system as a way of doing things, and it’s very accessible for that.

Something happens there, not just for the individual’s own thinking and operating system, but the company’s operating system because now, the CEO and that up-and-coming manager are speaking the same language, so they can coordinate and organize and program how the organization is going and growing.

That’s when it gets really exciting, because if we’re able to share the same language and markers around how we define things, it makes the process of reorganizing, re-engineering a company much easier, and much more effective.

The North Star

Drew Appelbaum: Now, every company should have their North Star goals, but some just fall back on a high sales number or look at profit. Is this right for a North Star goal and how should companies go about creating that North Star asset?

Benny Ausmus: The North Star in TLC–it’s not a new concept, you find this in a lot of very famous business books, but the North Star is the direction that the compass points to.

Within the North Star, we have the vision so, “Where are we going, and does everybody know this?” The mission, “What’s our worthy cause, what’s our fight, what do we stand for, and how do we serve? What are our core values?” The things that, not that we wish we are, but we are at our core, even when nobody’s looking. “What are our aspirational values, what do we wish we could be, what are we aspiring to be and do?”

Then from there, we have what we call our big goals. Two, maybe three big, important goals that align the whole company towards the mission, the vision, the value system, and choosing those, to answer your question, is a matter of finding something that every team, department, individual player within the organization can direct and contribute their daily activities towards.

If we have big, important goals, let’s say, a good one is, “Serve 10,000 delighted customers with our wonderful service,” whatever that may be. That’s a much better big goal than making gazillion dollars in profit because it’s worded in a way that it can tie into a mission and a worthy cause people are willing to fight for. Then we can cascade that to the departments. We can have the sales team, that has a supporting goal that slots in with that, that works well, you can have an operations team, and your service team aligning to that goal.

A good big goal in the North Star is something that everybody has a clear line of sight and a part to play within. You’ll see in the TLC that then comes into how we construct our GAMES to achieve the goals, how we build our teams, how we develop our individuals, all pointing to this direction of North Star, our vision, mission, values, standards, big goals, and eventually these can form into greater cultural principles.

Drew Appelbaum: I’d love to dig into one thing you just mentioned a little bit more, which is the culture and values part because culture and values at companies right now, it’s really huge and it’s a major part of successful companies.

Can you talk a little bit more about how to find those deep and, as you call it, the taken for granted assumptions that are really the essence of how a company should be and how they should be acting internally and externally?

Benny Ausmus: Well, you know it’s been a hot topic for a while. I have been obsessed with understanding company and organizational culture for a long time, but I think particularly in the last five years, it’s become, kind of pop psychology buzz phrases, “You need good culture and you need good values.” There aren’t a lot of what I consider to be true experts in the field of company and organizational culture but there are a few and they’re mentioned through the book.

The book is very much about shaping and intentionally developing culture. When we think about organizational culture, there are two definitions that exist in the literature. One is the anthropological definition that organizations are cultures, so that’s what it is, that is what a company is, it is its culture. And the sociological definition, an organization has a culture, as a thing.

A good reference for this is Edgar Schein. He is considered one of the greats in this field. He defines culture as these deep, taken for granted assumptions that are so enmeshed in what we do day to day that they drop out of awareness and they’re consistent over time. When we’re looking at and trying to figure out the status quo of where our culture’s at, the best way to approach that is a narrative format. I do long, semi-structured interviews with everyone from leadership right to the frontline, as many people as we can get involved, and we just listen to their stories.

We ask them, “What’s really taken for granted around here?” That’s a hard thing for people to come up with on the fly. You really need to have a bit of a series of clarifying questions to dig into that and find where the gold is, but it’s the things that, because we’re not even aware of them anymore, they become automatic. So, what remains taken for granted, the way we do things automatically here overtime consistently, rain, hail, or shine, I think that could be a very good indicator of what culture is.

I think by knowing that and by taking the time and the resources to uncover that and define that explicitly, that gives us a really good chance to start to shape it and to start to work with what we’ve got and to start to influence that culture.

Drew Appelbaum: Now, you told us about the method, and you told us that it’s a step-by-step process. How easy is it to get started? Is this one of those things where you come in on a Monday and it’s a total overhaul or do you dip your toes in and you enact slow change?

Benny Ausmus: Well, it’s practice. I think it’s as easy to get started as beginning any new effort or endeavor and, we know very well from our coaching and consulting practice that early wins are super important, and in almost all companies and organizations, they’re easy to find, particularly when you get people working together in collaborative improvement workshops. Easy wins are there, so there’s a great return on investment from day one.

But the point of this is making this a practice of the organization, a recurring theme. When we talk about running regular events, the organization that has ongoing regular events that develop their people, and that step outside the day to day of the business to improve the business collaboratively, and they practice that as a discipline and they practice the TLC as an ongoing thing, they do very well.

Organizations and companies that have a strong rhythm of communication, so they follow up those events in their daily huddles and stand up meetings, they bring that language in, they turn it into the way we do things around here. That’s where the magic is because, over time, that’s what shifts and shapes and forms and reforms these deeper assumptions that form our culture.

It’s very much a new operating system for the organization that makes change the new normal and, the lovely thing about this is yes, there are plenty of early wins, but once people find themselves in the real groove of doing this, it feels great because it taps into our natural desire to progress and to learn and do work together.

We see almost always an immediate ROI on improvement, but an immediate uptick in engagement as well, from the people. Now, there’s always some naysayers and some old people that have got a fair amount of, I would say, history baggage, and trauma around the old world in the company, and they either shape up or ship out. That does happen but I think overall, there are early wins to be made.

Engagement goes through the roof the moment we involve people in making the place better, and then the hard work or the discipline or the thing that makes it great is the commitment and the ongoing maintenance to practice this as something we do as a daily practice of the company. That’s what makes companies excellent and I think the great Jim Collins will attest to that as well.

Transformational Change

Drew Appelbaum: Now, you have a glossary in the back of the book with all of the terms you use throughout. Can you talk about the language of TLC?

Benny Ausmus: Well yeah, there are a few references to that at the front of the book as well. There is a lexicon, a group of definitions and we suggest in the book, in the first chapter, to actually read through these definitions three times, and there’s a good reason for that. As you work through the book, these core definitions, there are about 12 of them, they are highlighted in bold all the way through.

This is the language of TLC, and if you get the definitions right off the bat, what ends up happening is you’re able to make the links and connections really quickly and that’s how our brains learn. That is how our brains learn, when in that optimal model.

We’ve done that very intentionally and it makes it very easy for people to start talking and sharing this language to bring it all together, but we have it at the taxonomy there. I’ll share a few bits around this if it’s all right?

Drew Appelbaum: Sure.

Benny Ausmus: We have very clear definitions around North Star, which I brought up before. The North Star is the guiding direction. It’s the vision, mission, the values, the standards, the big goals, and the principles of the whole company and organization. From there we have this big nebulous blob. I wish I had some visuals here. You should have a look at the TLC if you are listening to this. We’ll put a link in the show notes if that’s okay.

But the big blob there is culture. Everything is happening within the culture. Culture is like we discussed before, it is this consistent, pervading set of deeper assumptions in the way we do things over time as a collective, and that’s defined in the lexicon.

Then we have brand, and brand is defined, and this is controversial, as an outward expression of culture. We say an authentic brand for a company is how the world experiences the company’s culture.

An example here is, you can claim the taglines and the marketing initiatives that a company is shit-hot and this and that and wonderful but the moment the customer or the market comes in contact with your people or your products, they are experiencing your culture directly, through those people. We like to think that an authentic brand is an outwards expression of the company’s culture and you can see this visualized quite clearly in the symbol of the TLC.

It looks like a blob, almost like a mandala with brand pointing out and culture pointing in. So, this is part of the dynamic here.

Then almost like a calendar circle around it, we have events. And we define events as when we step outside of the business to work together to improve the business. An event is a workshop essentially, or it’s anytime that we have planned on a routine basis to step outside the whirlwind, as Mr. Collins would say, of the day to day and actually work on improving things.

We have events and these events create assets. The assets are the outputs of the events. For example, you could have a vision statement. A vision statement is an asset of the business that’s come out of the event that helps shape the culture. Assets are the tangibles. The deliverables. I even have some clients whose organizational development assets that they create sit on their balance sheet. That is something that they have built as IP of the company, so that’s your assets.

Then you have the rhythm, and the rhythm is the daily movement and consistency of communication. An easy example of rhythm is a standup meeting. Each day, people get together in a huddle. They talk about the North Star, they talk about the assets, they talk about the challenges of strategies. They go through each element of the TLC to set them and their team up to have a really successful day.

Then we have four categories in the middle, and these are really important. These are pretty much what make up the dynamic system of leadership. One is results. We define results as the outcomes, the numbers, the hard facts, and data. Results are useful when they are visible, we can see what’s going on and we can use results to inform strategy. We can look at them, we can find the patterns, we can see what emerges, we can make better decisions. Results are there but you can’t influence results directly. You can’t yell at them and ask them to improve.

To improve results, you need to have a GAME and GAME is the next definition there and GAMES is a TLC concept that’s basically a management system. It’s an acronym and GAMES stands for goals, activities, measures, expectations, and support. Each group, each team, each individual has a game plan that aligns to the North Star big goals, that they turn into an asset as we discussed before, and they practice in the rhythm. So that’s a GAME.

The next element is a team, and we all know what a team is. It’s a group of people with a common goal or playing a common GAME. Each team has an ethos. It has a way of putting people together on a set of rules within the GAME to get the result.

And finally, we have a player and the player is the individual. It’s the individual’s natural tendencies, their personality, their talents, their strengths, their stretches, that make up the teams to play the game to get results to practice in the rhythm, to run events to create assets, to form a culture, to move us towards our North Star and bang right in the center, you’ve got leadership.

Now, I know that’s a lot to consider, but this is not a simple process and I think dumbing down the idea of what it takes to transform the group or a culture or a company is not serving anybody. So, in this lexicon, we invite the reader to get very familiar with these terms and as they walk through the book and the content that we offer, their brain starts making connections between, “How does GAME work with the player? How does that play out in the rhythm? How does that move towards the North Star?” Because our brains are these rich neural networks that build knowledge through connections and the TLC’s designed to work with those learning tendencies, to work in a way that makes it not only easy to learn, but fun and even a little addictive to learn. That’s why we have this lexicon.

We have chosen the words very deliberately. We have made them very simple and teachable because if you can teach everybody in your company, from the CEO to the janitor, what these terms mean, you can involve them, you engage them, you could use their minds and hearts together towards any direction you want to move and that’s a very powerful thing.

Effective Leadership

Drew Appelbaum: Benny, writing a book like this, and again, we just touched on the surface and I know you just gave a pretty good overview, but it is so detailed, and it still managed to be, as you mentioned earlier, a pretty easy read. It’s understandable, it’s no small feat and it is going to help so many business professionals. I just want to say congratulations.

Benny Ausmus: Thanks, Drew. I’ve put a lot of effort and heart and soul into this and look, I’m pretty excited to share this with the world.  I hope some readers out there get their hands on this and apply it to make a great change around them. That’s my dream.

Drew Appelbaum: Now, I do also want to say that in the back of the book, there is an installation of assessment questions to see, questions that you should ask yourself, and exercises towards the end of the book as well so that’s incredibly useful for readers but one last question for you Benny. If readers could take away only one thing from the book, what would you want it to be?

Benny Ausmus: I want it to be this–develop a system or a systematic way of considering your environment and making better decisions and actions. If there is one thing you could develop and the one thing that the world needs now, you know, just look around and see the size of the leadership crisis that we face globally, it’s codifying and communicating the way we make decisions, the way we form strategies, and the way we consider how everything we do affects everything else.

It’s a big one but the answer is to learn to think in systems and principles because that is the level of thinking we need for effective leadership towards the future.

Drew Appelbaum: Benny, this has been a pleasure and I am so excited for people to check out this book. Everyone, the book is called The Transformational Leadership Compass and you can find it on Amazon. Besides checking out the book, Benny, where can people connect with you?

Benny Ausmus: You can reach us at bigchange.group. On the website, you’ll find all of our socials there as well. We’ve got some exciting things coming out as well as far as the academy is going and content is going. You can subscribe to us at bigchange.group and we’ll be in touch.

Drew Appelbaum: Well Benny, thank you so much for coming on the show today, and best of luck with your new book.

Benny Ausmus: Thank you so much, Drew, it’s been a pleasure.