The New Portrait Of Leadership: Christi Phillips Of FranklinCovey On Strategies to Shape Yourself Into A Modern Masterpiece
An Interview with Karen Mangia
Persist. Leaders know that it can be tough to keep going when conditions (inflation, social conventions, the stock price, turnover, disruption, fatigue, naysayers) require a pause or halt in proceeding ahead in strategy or execution.
We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Christi Phillips.
Christi Phillips is FranklinCovey’s director of Learning, Development, and Inclusion. She began her career in adult learning as a certified corporate team-building facilitator and has since served as a developmental consultant, program developer, and talent coach. Christi specializes in learning and organizational development, talent management, and change leadership. Before joining FranklinCovey, Christi was the assistant director of program management at the Center for Executive Development at Mays Business School and a senior organizational development specialist at CHI St. Luke’s Health in Houston, Texas. Christi spent her early life in Asia, North America, Europe, and Africa. Christi has a Ph.D. in Human Resource Development from Texas A&M University, a master’s in business management, and bachelor’s degrees in political science and French.
Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?
I am so excited because I have a book called Change: How to Turn Uncertainty into Opportunity coming out on April 18 with three amazing co-authors. Launching this book a is a personal and professional wish fulfilled.
We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?
While there are many leaders who have had influence in me, the advice that has been most helpful as come from leaders who have become friends and from close personal friends. We all know lots of smart, thoughtful people! And I believe you have to look for wisdom where you are.
Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?
My biggest mistake helped me discover the phrase I say most often, at least to myself, “Never use an email when you should talk directly to a human.” Technology and the availability of expediency lets us use electronic communication with impunity, but it’s a terrible substitute for human interaction. Once, late in a workday, I was in an email exchange with my boss about how we managed a client’s account. We were not in agreement about how either one of us perceived the issue or what should be done about it. At the end of the day, I headed home to bed and to hopefully make new progress the next day. But later in the same evening my boss then sent an email that I awoke to the following day. It had a red exclamation point indicating high importance. I consumed the email before leaving home for work. In the response it was clear that my point of view was misconstrued, not merely that we disagreed. My emotions were so high. You don’t have to work hard to figure this out. I sent a reply right then instead of waiting, thinking it through, pausing before responding, and checking my intent first. Not surprisingly, my response further escalated the challenge coming from my perceived insubordination. I believe that everyone who reports to a leader needs to speak up and share when we see things differently. That said, what would have made the outcome less volatile would have been to talk in person or over the phone.
This issue is potentially universal, but my takeaway isn’t only that it is better to create a space between the stimulus and your response, which is from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s to think further about the outcome you’re trying to achieve with that person or issue. The idea of never using electronic communication as a substitute for dialogue is about valuing the relationship, taking ownership of the moment to get at the root of confusion, to excavate the assumptions buried within misunderstandings, to de-escalate, and to rebuild. Once confusion and misinterpretation enter a conversation, additional emails or texts don’t solve the problem — not even those which are well-written. That is something that only people can do — live.
How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?
I’ve only been using this definition for the past two years because I hadn’t heard it until I joined FranklinCovey. “Leadership is communicating someone’s worth and potential so clearly that they’re inspired to see it in themselves.” It’s a quote from Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I’ve adopted this definition so completely that I can’t remember how I used to define leadership, but I’m sure it had something to do with Peter Drucker and Jack Welch.
I believe that anyone can be a leader and that the leadership mantle can be passed on to many without formal leaders losing credibility. I still see instances where top-down, command and control dynamics call the shots, but with less and less success and tolerance in work settings. I’m glad for that because I don’t believe it serves the global workforce for leadership to be defined exclusively by those who have the title and power; those who are in power. The evolution of how leadership is defined only happens with an evolution of who occupies the leadership seat. Fortunately for us now, leadership is more diverse, and many more people have the opportunity to sit in the seat.
Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?
Not everything needs to have the words “strategic” or “critical” in front of it to be valuable. I used to believe that feedback needed to have the word “critical” in front of it to be of any value to myself or to the person to whom I was delivering it. More often than not, I found that I had fallen into a pattern where critical feedback meant offering tough or even harsh commentary until I came across the concept of Appreciative Inquiry (“AI”), as I was leading an employee engagement program.
What makes AI so much more valuable and different than just critical feedback is its root in potentiality and affirmation of people and experiences. If you’re unfamiliar with the AI model, a five-step process is most often done with others in an interview or group setting. You start by clarifying the issue or challenge. Next you ask questions to surface what’s working within the issue or topic and you stay focused only on those positive elements. Then you ask questions about how the topic or issue might be improved upon to envision the future you’d like to see. The design stage is where you construct the strategic and tactical elements of that future or ideal outcome with others. The final stage of the model is focused on the future and you brainstorm how the issue, idea or outcome might be continuously improved, how you might learn more or adjust, based on what you’ve learned together.
I have used AI focus groups to improve the employee engagement process, to uncover what was working, discover the vision employees have before going into action planning. I have also used AI as a framework for “stay” interviews with employees. It helped me explore and imagine the most important elements for employee retention, but in a way that allowed for manager or department localization.
What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?
Build emotional, mental, psychological, and physical safety on your team and within your organization. Having a work environment in which people feel safe will dictate how well feedback works and will determine how productive your team can be. It will also impact accountability and will inform your team’s relationships with you and with each other. As leaders ask others to change and to continually embrace change, it will surface many emotions. We identify five common reactions to change so that leaders know what to look for in their team members. Though we know that many other reactions can occur (I see these quite regularly), when it comes to change people are inclined to:
- Move quickly
- Minimize perceived concerns or challenges
- Wait to see what’s going to happen
- Resist taking an active part in the change
- Quit by actively disengaging, but sticking around to make others miserable, or leaving the organization altogether
We all experience these reactions depending on what’s happening and none of them are better or worse than the others. It’s just what we do. But without an environment where people feel safe, these reactions become stereotypes that can impede a leader’s ability to remove barriers and keep dialogue going.
What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having difficulty letting go of what made them successful in the past?
As I think through the question, I’m assuming that the past playbook and patterns are not working any longer. Change isn’t any easier for a leader than it is for those being led, and while it can be tiring, leaders have to continually manage their reactions to change so their mental and emotional wellbeing is a priority. I rely on these four steps from our new book for managing reactions:
- Pause and breathe.
- Label what you’re thinking and feeling.
- Ask: Is this reaction helping me or preventing me from making progress?
- Focus on what you can control, both about the change itself and how you choose to react to it.
Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?
First, find a mentor. Your initial mentor can be a podcast, a book, YouTube videos, whatever. Just find someone or source who does leadership well, and then listen to them and benefit from their experiences. Second, set a regular cadence of meeting with your team so you get to know them well. The bonds you foster will go a long way to further your credibility as a leader.
Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now? Please share a story or an example for each.
These skills can be learned and repeated. If you don’t have these skills, work on acquiring them. They will help you to become a leader or improve in that role if you are already one.
- Prepare. This one seems too easy, but its equally easy to miss the necessity of readiness, to scan the environment, the industry, your organization or team and the social climate for what’s shifting. I don’t know where the saying came from, but we say it a lot in my family, “Stay ready, so you don’t have to get ready.” When I was a senior OD/change agent, I supported a healthcare system through an enterprise-level change with the onset of the electronic medical record. It was long and brutal. The project took over two years and most of my time was spent in various stages of preparation, first getting systems ready, then getting people ready. Leaders know that it is an extremely heavy lift preparing for an imagined future. But without it, we waste a lot of time playing catch up.
- Clarify don’t commiserate. When people are collaborating, trying to get things done, leaders know there is always a need to state and restate the “what, why, and how” of a project or desired outcome. The thing I like best about the skill of clarification is that everyone or anyone can do it — not just the person with the leader title. Clarity is a secret superpower that everyone can acquire. Can you recall a time when everyone you were on a project with was in lockstep about the outcome, roles, responsibilities and deliverables? It’s rare! Once, I was part of an HR team that was laser-focused on a company reorganization for over 3,000 people that involved moving leaders to different departments, rewriting job descriptions, restructuring pay scales, training, and a new HR system where employee self-service would be available. We were all so clear on each of our interrelated parts, why they mattered, how we were to execute and what the end result would be. While I can’t say it was completely flawless, we collectively delivered the outcome in less time than expected. Clarification pulls your outcomes into focus. Clarify as often as necessary.
- Persist. Leaders know that it can be tough to keep going when conditions (inflation, social conventions, the stock price, turnover, disruption, fatigue, naysayers) require a pause or halt in proceeding ahead in strategy or execution. That isn’t to say leaders shouldn’t be smart or prudent. But the need for persistence is challenging because very often, it only shows up when resistance is present, making it feel more like a fight than just a next step. No one has to persist when coasting downhill. You have to persist to get the desired outcome. Persistence is a force of will and a call for inspiration. In order for us to accomplish difficult things, we must persist together.
- Explore. This skill goes hand in hand with preparation. I think of them as two sides of the same coin that complement each other. Leaders who understand the need for exploration understand that hardly anything is static, so exploring allows for new horizons to be considered, inviting innovation and the next big idea. For example, organizations explore when they build in-house innovation teams, or funnel revenue to research projects. Exploration can occur at many other levels, such as when we invite college students to explore opportunities through an internship, or when we engage in cross-functional projects, giving mid-level managers exposure to different organizational challenges. When you’ve explored a bit, you get a glimpse of what to prepare for next.
- Safety. I know I have mentioned already how it is such a valuable leadership skill. It’s the bedrock of trust and cannot be overstated. Leaders get the relationship between safety and trust and purposefully create it for those they support. Stephen M.R. Covey, the author of The Wall Street Journal bestseller, The Speed of Trust, said, “The ability to develop, restore, and extend trust with all stakeholders — employees, customers business partners, and co-workers — is the key leadership competency of the global economy.” When it’s not safe to share, to show up as yourself, everything else becomes performative.
American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.
For me, this quote is about being at choice for how each day will unfold. Certainly, there is focus and/or discipline I can bring to the game, but then I can also choose to have the perspective that regardless of the outcome, I’ve won the day by playing ‘full on’ — whatever that might look like. Coach Wooden’s entire quote is:
“Be true to yourself.
Make each day your masterpiece.
Drink deeply from good books.
Make friendship a fine art.
Build a shelter against a rainy day.
Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.”
The whole of the quote suggests to me that he was the kind of person who didn’t wait for life to happen to him — most leaders of his caliber are not. Change certainly doesn’t wait around until we’re all comfortable, have our seat belts on and are ready for takeoff.
He was all about preparation and discipline to get to the desired outcome. Leading change requires a similar sort of discipline ─ to prepare and scan the horizon when things seem to be just fine, to level-up others, to constantly clarify when things are challenging, to gain commitment and then recommit to the team and the outcomes, to persist when discouraged, and to inspire yourself and others along the way.
What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?
I have a mental exercise I do when I start a new job, project, or enter into any kind of a collaborative exercise with others. I ask myself “What do I want them to say about me when I’m gone, or behind my back?” This exercise reminds me of two things that keep me grounded. The first is that things change. I’m here now, but I may not be down the road, or it may be in some other capacity. I hope to model for others that change is okay and that we can get better at participating in and leading through it, especially when we plan for change and invite new possibilities.
If you’re a leader, people are always going to talk about you when you’re not around, and since there’s not much you can do about it, it’s not personally useful to fret about making everyone happy. But hopefully you can make it safe enough for many or most of the things said behind your back to be offered thoughtfully and respectfully to your face where you can dissect and dialogue about them together. That’s how you lead change.
How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!
About The Interviewer: Karen Mangia is one of the most sought-after keynote speakers in the world, sharing her thought leadership with over 10,000 organizations during the course of her career. As Vice President of Customer and Market Insights at Salesforce, she helps individuals and organizations define, design and deliver the future. Discover her proven strategies to access your own success in her fourth book Success from Anywhere and by connecting with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.
The New Portrait Of Leadership: Christi Phillips Of FranklinCovey On Strategies to Shape Yourself… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.