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December 9, 2021
clock 7 MIN READ

Let’s be honest, COVID-19 did not create remote work, the need for community, or the changing values of a population. It accelerated them.  

This very blog exists because seven years ago we saw an opportunity to discuss these issues in a forum for leaders with shared values. Our posts have often focused on the importance of treating teammates with trust and respect, the concept of “bringing your whole self to work,” adopting a growth mindset over a fixed mindset, and letting employees determine where their work gets done. We’ve talked about business being human and the need for employee value propositions (EVPs). We’ve discussed the war for talent and the need to market to your employees, as well as to your customers.  

Throughout 2017 and 2018, we even built and launched an internal branding campaign on a concept we called “responsive connectivity” to better engage our workforce and create a stronger sense of community. I was willing to bet on the positive impact this would have on employee retention and business growth. In this community, we have been talking and acting a lot like our post-COVID-19 world, long before a global pandemic was part of our reality, so when the virus hit, our team saw very little disruption—at least as it relates to remote working models. In fact, remote work may have been the easiest part of adjusting to living and working through a pandemic, which was by no means “easy.” But we were already frequently working remotely, mostly seamlessly, before we and everyone else were forced to do it, so we felt a little less guilty (which is sometimes an unnecessary but unavoidable consequence to going against the “societal grain”). 

Ultimately, our team had plenty of experience working remotely well before the pandemic. We were lucky. 

Turning frustration into inspiration

I had talked about remote work and life-work integration for years, but honestly, it wasn’t being openly embraced beyond the team I led. I thought technology had created an opportunity to think differently about culture and work, while competing for talent at a different level. However, I struggled to influence others and drive wider adoption. Outside of my team, I think what we were doing was viewed as “soft,” and the positive impact of an employee-led culture wasn’t fully understood. While this created an opportunity for my team and me (our team attraction and retention rates had never been higher), it did not feel good as a leader. It felt like I was falling short with respect to the broader organization. As a leader, I began to reflect on what I saw as a missed opportunity. What happened, and why was I struggling to influence people to see this opportunity?  

One thing I learned was the power of resistance; the fact that people generally do not like to change and often don’t see the need for change. It is not as if I didn’t understand change and resistance (we sell change for a living, so believe me, I know how hard it is). I just didn’t have a true appreciation for the impact of resistance. In fact, the biggest thing COVID-19 may have done was expose the inefficiency related to resistance. COVID-19 made it hard for those in power to say “no.” We were forced to try things, instead of saying why “it can’t be done.” As a leader, this inspired me.  

Opening yourself up to learning – there are lessons everywhere

I wanted to understand human behavior at a deeper level, so I took an online class in psychology using a platform called Outlier (side note: one of the truly beautiful things about advancement is that learning is available everywhere). The course helped me appreciate motivation, identity theory, and other things that impact an individual’s decisions and desire to change and perform. It made it clear to me that work is truly human. As leaders, we need to invest in upskilling our soft skills, such as psychology, because it will impact organizational performance. 

In October of 2020, I read an article by McKinsey, How COVID-19 has pushed companies over the technology tipping point and transformed business forever. I thought “this is it, resistance exposed!” At this point, I was working on my strategic themes for our 2021 business plan. I decided to create imperative around my desire to challenge the status quo. As such, I created an entire theme called “Rethinking what we think.” Time to place another bet. This time the bet was that we could drive team performance by removing resistance and challenging all assumptions about our business. To kick this off, I wanted to engage the thoughts and energy of my team and use this inflection point to drive more positive change.  

One more bet—I thought this will truly empower others to lean in.

Then I learned my second major lesson. Unlearning what you know is hard. It felt great to say 2021 was about “rethinking what we think.” But as people began to ask what that meant and how we would do it, it became clear that we needed to “learn” to rethink. Once again we got lucky. In February 2021, Adam Grant released his latest book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. I purchased the book for my entire leadership team. We read a chapter or so a week and shared our lessons learned with each other. The lessons were personal and organizational. The dialogue was focused on generating new ideas and challenging our current practices and assumptions. It felt great, but honestly not much was changing. We had ideas, but we were not implementing anything yet. We had our day jobs, people were busy adapting. They appreciated the opportunity to learn new things, but where was the space and time needed to experiment and execute these ideas?

Unlocking our true potential by scaling to learn

"The biggest thing COVID-19 may have done was expose the inefficiency related to resistance"

At this point, I learned my biggest lesson. As a leader I need to create an organization that learns, not just individuals that learn. To survive in a chaotic and uncertain world, I need to focus on building and scaling the organization to learn. Building resilience is not an individual exercise, but a collective one. So, I began to think about how to scale organizational—or at least team-based—learning and I initiated a three-step process:

  • Step 1 – Expose new ideas
  • Step 2 - Empower others to use their voice to challenge assumptions and practices
  • Step 3 - Create opportunities to organize around those things we believe need to change and give employees the authority to make those changes.  

Next, we purchased the book for everyone on the team. We had them read 3-4 chapters every couple of weeks and share thoughts and comments about what they learned. In the end, we themed those comments and set up internal projects forced us to “rethink.” Two important initiatives grew out of this effort: the employee experience and the customer experience. We’re currently focused on both of them. 

Betting on my work community to win is the safest bet I will make

With our projects underway, and an endless group of talented volunteers pushing them forward, I am not sure what will happen next. But I can see the energy. I can feel the excitement. Will it stick? Will we change? I hope so. I believe so. In fact I know so, because this same group of individuals worked remotely before COVID-19 forced them to. This same group engaged in challenging the status quo before it was popular. So if I am going to bet on anyone, I am going to bet on this team, and this community.  

Over the coming months I will continue to share the changes and the progress we make, good or bad. One thing is certain—the future, and our future success, will be based on our willingness to learn. Scaling to learn requires courage to push boundaries and lead fearlessly. I’m committed to scaling our organization to learn and as a team and a community we are committed to building brave futures that allow our employees, our clients, and society to thrive.

Albert Chiaradonna

Executive Vice President, SEI Global Private Banking

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