Ashley Goodall is an executive, leadership expert, and author, and has spent his career exploring large organizations from the inside. He looks for lessons from the real world that help people and teams thrive, and that make work a more human place for all of the humans in it.
His first experiences of teams and leadership were as a student musician and conductor. He was fascinated by the unspoken understanding between people playing together and carried this fascination into the corporate world. He is currently the Senior Vice President of Methods and Intelligence, the data and research engine behind all the people stuff at Cisco. His organization aims to reveal the answers to some of the most challenging questions about work. How can we measure the experience at work reliably? Of the things that we can measure, which matter most? And how can we take what matters most and embed it into our people practices and systems?
The new approaches he has pioneered address everything from performance management to feedback, to team activation technology, to real-time team intelligence, to social network mapping, to strengths-based leadership—and together, these challenge much of the conventional wisdom of work today.
Ashley is the co-author, with Marcus Buckingham, of Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World (Harvard Business Review Press, April 2019), and of two cover stories in the Harvard Business Review: The Feedback Fallacy, (March/April 2019), and Reinventing Performance Management, (April 2015).
Here are the excerpts of the interview.
You have over two decades of experience in HR and leadership development. What has changed in work, workplace, and workforce over the years?
Technology has changed how we all interact with each other at work and outside of work. We can work from home and construct organizations that are truly global with teams that are truly global as well. With the rise of social media, there are many more voices in the world. We also expect that the technologies we use at work will be as useful as the technologies we use outside of work.
What has not changed? Humans are still tribal. We still receive our greatest satisfaction and stability from working with people, and when we are denied that experience, we shrink a little. When that experience is given to us, but is a negative one, we suffer. This has been so for hundreds of thousands of years, and it is certainly not going to change anytime soon.
How do you build a successful, enduring culture, and how do you sustain that culture? How would you define Cisco's culture and what makes it unique?
The funny thing about how we experience work is that when you start measuring it, you find out it varies more within an organization than between one organization and the next. So, the idea that any organization has a uniform experience that distinguishes it from some other organization has no basis in the data. This is why the conversation about culture can be frustrating for many of us who work at large organizations; it seems remote. The local experience, the team experience, always trumps the company experience because it is what we live. And the two most important elements of that experience, in turn, are the communal experience of a team—what it offers to all of its members—and the individual experience of a team—what it offers to each of its members. At Cisco, we have 15,000 team leaders. At the end of last year, 51% of our people were fully engaged; they were having the best possible team experience. And that is what we are challenging ourselves to do, to create a best-team experience for every employee at Cisco.
HR plays an important role in enabling and equipping digital leaders in the organization with the essential skills and furthering their leadership characteristics. How is Cisco enabling its digital leaders with skills of the future?
Our focus is not so much on skills of the future, but on the skills of the leader. There are some eternal truths to those skills: the skills of paying attention frequently to the people on the team, the skills of understanding what is special about each individual and how to bring that out, the skills of understanding the right way to support the growth of each person, the skills of helping people navigate their career opportunities in an organization. These are in many ways old fashioned, but they are what’s important, and they are what we focus on.
Describe an instance of implementing a company-wide change? What strategies did you take and what was the outcome? How do you overtake resistance?
We spent two and a half years rolling out our team technology, which we call Team Space. We started with a pilot where we included everyone in the HR organization so they could explain the technology as it rolled out more broadly, and we included a couple of select business groups as well. We used the pilot to test the technology and the communications. Then, for the next phase, we included a 10,000-employee business to know that we could deploy at that scale. We did that for three months, and then after that, we divided the rest of Cisco into 10,000-employee chunks and went one by one through them. We continued to make the changes by quantifying the impacts of those who had fully embraced the new set of rituals and behaviors and those who were still on the sidelines. We did this to demonstrate to organization leaders, team leaders, and employees that there were tangible differences and improvements to be had when they leaned in.
To make a success of digital transformation, effective leadership and a mature organization culture is required. What is the mindset that leaders require in order to succeed in a digital world?
We have massively rotated on digital and massively under-rotated on humans. Digital technology is a tool that enables us to plan, communicate, and connect. It is a medium, not content itself. We have new channels, but the people on the other end of the channels are still people. The challenge for leaders is to not get distracted by the next-generation, futuristic, leading-edge thing. The job of a team leader is to turn the fears, aspirations, spikes, and uniqueness of humans into something useful. When it comes to leadership, the technology you use to support you in your job as a leader, is the less important than the way you do that job.
Can you share some instances of challenges that you might have faced in terms of team building, creating the right culture, or anything else? How did you get over them?
The fundamental challenge of team building is that we are all weird to everybody else. We are not weird to ourselves because we are with ourselves all of the time. But, to everybody else, we are weird. We can do things that to others seem to be enormously difficult or far-fetched. And we are not good in the areas that other people think are obvious and easy. The fundamental challenge is to help people see that the differences between team members are a fantastic feature and not a bug. When you do that, you get people to pull on one another’s strengths, on their energies. You get people to pull on the best of each person, and all of a sudden, two plus two equals 14. But we are not wired to do that. We look at other people and say they are just not very good at this or that. That is the opposite mindset that builds a great team. A great team has a mindset where each of us can, without fear, explain what we are not very good at and what does not energize us, and at the same time, lean into our teammates for what they are magnificent at. A great team leader has conversations with their team about what makes each person unique. They distribute and design the work to harness each person’s strengths. They talk one-on-one to everybody on the team about how they do their best work. And they keep going at this for a long, long time.
Rethinking performance management is at the top of many executive teams' agendas, as we were told my many people managers and CHROs. What according to you will define the new frontiers of performance management?
Firstly, it will not contain ratings. Many performance management approaches do not contain ratings today. We know that ratings are bad data, and we know that the process of manufacturing ratings wastes a lot of time that could be put to much better use at work. Secondly, the fundamental currency of a performance management system should be frequent attention to the humans in our teams. We know that this is the most powerful thing to actually lift levels of performance over time. And the point of performance management, of course, is not to categorize performance as much as it is to enhance and increase it over time. Thirdly, we know that the best way to measure what a team leader thinks of somebody on their team is not to have them attach a rating to that person, but to describe how they would invest in them. And so, the performance management system of the future will have some way of understanding which investments we decided to make in people—who did we decide to move, who did we decide to promote, who did we decide to give a stretch assignment to—and ask which of those decisions we followed through on, and then use those as a gauge of what our team leaders actually think about their team members.
What's your role at Cisco and how do you bring value to the business?
Over the last five years, I have led a team at Cisco that figures out how to make more teams like our best teams and more leaders like our best leaders. We help our leaders and teams by providing them with the best quality intelligence, the best quality data. We have introduced a technology for every team to use. We have reinvented the way that we do learning. We have overhauled the way we think about team leadership and the way that we train leaders. We have transformed the way that we do organizational listening. We have pushed into social network analysis as a way to understand patterns of team formation over time. We have pioneered new approaches to performance management.
The next frontier for us will be to see if we can establish some universal guidelines across the organization for what makes a great team, what makes a great learning experience, what makes a great meeting, what makes a great interview, and at the same time, to continue our research in all areas of organizational effectiveness so that we can continue to be informed by the best science has to offer us.
How do you view the ever-changing landscape of technology, jobs scenario, and the future of work?
I think we can all talk about the future of work when the present of work is taken care of, but sadly, I do not think that time has yet arrived. It is very easy to get caught up in talking about the gig economy, slicing work into smaller and smaller chunks, asking people who are not on our company’s payroll to do some of those chunks on a voluntary basis, or outsourcing jobs to algorithms. These are some profound changes. I worry that in all of those changes, we lose something if we are not very careful, which is that people have a need for stability. People have a need for a place to call their own, if you like. People have a need for predictability, for rootedness.
We are terribly excited about a collection of technologies that uproot people. We have not yet discovered in the future or the present to root people most powerfully. Until we do this, we will continue to find that the world of work is less than what it could be.
What experiences, people, or philosophies have most influenced the way you view and practice leadership, and why?
Back when I was in undergrad, I thought I was going to be a symphony conductor, and I spent a year conducting one of the student orchestras. An orchestra is a very interesting and deep metaphor for any other sort of team. Everybody has a different specialty, in other words, different strengths. There is, of course, a set of instructions for how all of these things should be combined because everybody has a score in front of them. And yet, the score does not really contain the music. The music only happens when you play the score, and the person whose job it is to translate the score into music is the conductor. The funny thing about a conductor is firstly, the conductor has his or her back to the audience, to the consumer. The conductor is not engaging with the consumer at all but is instead engaging with the musicians who are then engaging with the consumer. And, of course, the second thing is that the product that the orchestra is making, and the consumers are consuming, is noise. The only person not making any music is the conductor. So, what is that person doing? When you do it for a little while, you discover that the only thing that person does is make space for others to perform. It is not an exercise in instruction. It is an exercise in space making. It is an exercise in helping people feel the same thing at the same time so that we all move together. It is an exercise in listening, serving, shaping, and empowering. That is my philosophy of leadership.
How can business leaders gear up to sail through the impending situation? What's Cisco's take on leadership at a crisis time like this?
Cisco's priorities are very clear right now: People come first.
Leadership, just like the role of a symphony conductor, is an exercise in helping people feel the same thing at the same time so that we all move together. It is an exercise in listening, serving, shaping, and empowering