Episode 291 – The Art of Questions with Michael Leckie

‘It’s not that you’re wrong. You’re just no longer right. And that’s a big difference.’

Michael LeckieMichael Leckie has built his career on asking good questions at the right time, and in his book The Heart of Transformation he talks about ‘operationalizing curiosity’ as one of the capabilities that drive successful transformation in organizations.

Questions are also core to creating a powerful business book: questions for yourself, and for your reader. In this fascinating conversation we talk about change, curiosity and co-creation at work and on the page.



Michael’s site: https://michaelleckie.com/

Michael on Twitter: https://twitter.com/leckiemichaelj

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2022: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Michael Leckie, who is the former Chief Learning Officer for Digital Transformation at GE. He also acted as the Chief Learning Officer and Global Head of Organizational Development for Bloomberg LP, and previously spent 12 years at Gartner Inc, where he most recently held the position of Managing Vice President Programs associates.

He speaks internationally on the art and science of leadership, digital leadership, culture change, influencing and communication skills, and the changing role of the CXO leader in a socio-technical world. He’s the author of The Heart of Transformation: Build the human capabilities that change organizations for good.

There it is look, did you see that: quickly flashed up on screen if you’re watching the video. Gorgeous.

Welcome to the show, Michael, it’s lovely to have you here.

Michael Leckie: It’s lovely to be here, so nice to join you after all this time. For those of you that don’t know, we met when I took your proposal challenge, I think, so long ago. And then, there was proposal that I didn’t know what to do with, and somebody actually then took and said, I want to publish this. So, you know,

Alison Jones: Here you are, fantastic. And what I also love is that you positioned the book behind you, sort of slightly out of focus. There’s a sort of subliminal ‘book over the shoulder’ the whole time. I love that. Got the branding spot on.

 I love it. So let’s start with the idea behind the book. Which obviously, you know, I have sort of a little bit of prior knowledge here and know kind of where it came from, but for people who weren’t working with you on that 10 Day Business Book Proposal Challenge, where did the itch for the book come from?

Michael Leckie: Ah, well, you know, I’ve always wanted to write something, I just didn’t feel like I could write. I guess it came from the fact that, I’ve been privileged enough to work with some really amazing clients and some great companies. And Gartner especially, as would expand my reach and the conferences we had, and touched so many people, but yet there’s only so much you can do live as a human being.

And so I felt like I had some ideas that I had struggled with for, you know, years and more years than I care to say. And I thought, how can I actually share something beyond just with those I come in contact with? And so writing a book, as daunting as it was, seemed to be potentially one of the better ways to do that. So I thought, it’s time to go ahead and to suck it up. See what I can do.

Alison Jones: And it’s very much around digital transformation for humans, isn’t it? And that sort of gap between, and there’s a wonderful phrase used in the book about we’re on fifth generation technologies, but second generation kind of human interfaces. And that obviously is always the thing that stymies change efforts, is that, yeah sure we have the technology, but the human piece is often missing.

So, I mean there’s an awful lot been written on change. How do you grapple with that? And how did you kind of get to the point where you were like, I’m really clear now on what I’m talking about in terms of the heart of transformation?

Michael Leckie: You know, it’s funny, there was an old quote attributed to a American football coach who was at Notre Dame named Lou Holtz. And he said, when all is said and done, there’s a lot more said than done. And that really sort of sums up what’s been dealt with change or so-called change management.

You know, how many times do you see the big consulting firms or someone come in and say, we’ll do this and this and this and manage the change. Which is sort of like get a biscuit, it’s like, it’s that easy, but yet it’s the thing they give completely short shrift to cause nobody really knows how to do it.

And that really frustrated me, really frustrated to me that we would tell people just manage change. You know, we throw out words like, we need to be more collaborative, more engaged, we’re working towards a more agile organization; and most people aren’t sitting there saying, well, this has to be useful cause I’m totally obstinate, uncollaborative, completely disengaged, and I don’t really care about anything. People don’t see themselves that way.

And so we throw all these nice words and they already say Yes. that’s me, so what are you asking for? I don’t get it.

And the book, as I wrote it it evolved as you know, it kind of finds itself as you start writing it, got down to the point that look, if you want to change beliefs, you have to change behaviors first. Beliefs just don’t change easily. You have to try some new behaviors on that actually cause you to see your own assumptions, your own beliefs, and then maybe question them.

And then it’s like, well, what behaviors? And the easiest behaviors I think to add into your life or to change, are the questions you ask or asking new questions. So that’s really what it kind of came down to for me is that throughout the book there’s a series of questions that kind of fall into different areas of change capability. That if you ask those questions of yourself, of others in your team, and then really to learn from that, not only what you’ve found out in asking them, but from the process of doing the asking, what did it teach you about what you believe, what your assumptions are? Do you see them? Can you question them? That starts to actually drive change at the individual level. Which is the key to organization change.

 I make a comment in the book, and I’ll stop my soliloquy here, but I make a comment in the book that organizations don’t exist, now there’s buildings and signs and t-shirts, but you know, truly, other than the legal entity, an organization is just a group of people working together towards a purpose, no matter what size, and without the people there is no organization, but yet we seem to want to overlook the individuals and their ability to change as we’re trying to change an organization which makes no sense. We treat it like a thing that just doesn’t exist.

Alison Jones: The point about questions really resonated with me. I know we were just talking in the green room about Edgar Schein as one of the people that’s endorsed this book and you know, the guy who wrote Humble Inquiry, which is fantastic, but I love that phrase you use about operationalizing curiosity. It struck me as, I was like, I wish you’d made that the title actually. Maybe book two Michael, but it’s such a powerful… and you walk the talk in the book, there’s a lot of questions in the book and there’s a lot of inviting the reader in to kind of co-create that process, which I think is really interesting.

Were you aware of that? Was that something that you set out to do?

Michael Leckie: Yes, it was because the vast majority of the work I do for a living is just asking questions. And there’s a great writer on executive coaching, Mary Beth O’Neill, and she has a book called Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart. And she kind of defines backbone as having the courage to say the truth or state your convictions and heart as staying engaged and even reaching out when there’s conflict, even if those questions cause the conflict.

And so I have built an entire career around asking good questions at the right time. And it’s not that hard to do. It just takes your willingness to do it and then deal with the consequences. Because a good question can cut to the heart of everything. We’ve all had that moment where somebody says well, how about, or what about,

 And you’re like yes, that one just laid me bare, didn’t it? And that can be really uncomfortable and we can run from it. It can be something that we can step into and embrace.

And so, yes, I mean questions are so powerful and yet we live in a world of answers and knowledge.

People are all about here’s what I know and let me tell you my solution and my answer. As opposed to asking a question and engaging. You know, answers, you are throwing them up on people, questions, you’re drawing people in.

It’s just such a different dynamic and why it’s so underutilized formally and how our organizations work is always kind of amazing to me.

Especially, one of the things I do when I teach these questions is it’ll be a simple question, but then I have a tool you can actually download from my website for free that’s basically based on a lean canvas, which says: why might you ask this question? What could the value be? How do you ask the question?

And it kind of takes you through this whole anatomy of a question, but the idea of how do you ask it? You know, I love that because I’ve been in those meetings where you can use a question, you know, Okay. Well, what do you think? That’s a little different question from the statement of, okay, what do you think?

Alison Jones: Yes.

Michael Leckie: Which means shut up and don’t say anything because your opinion’s not valued, but I’m going to ask it like it’s a question and make a judgment about you.

So anyway, questions are amazing And I love them.

Alison Jones: And that point about questions and answers and the interplay between them in leadership I think is really interesting because historically you became a leader by having all the answers. And I think that it’s hard for people to give that up culturally, isn’t it? And recognize that actually, and you use that great story about Clay Christensen in that suddenly, you know, having the epiphany out loud.

That it’s not so much about the skills. It’s about the learning today.

Michael Leckie: Yes, it is and the thing is, is that sometimes when you bring these concepts forward, people are like, well, I’ve been wrong all this time. It’s like, no, no, you haven’t. It was a perfectly good strategy until it no longer was. And what’s changed is the world around us, right?

The questions and the answers are more complex. The problems themselves we’re facing are far less stable. I mean, it used to be that you could look at the problem, get the best minds together, think it through, come up with a great solution, then implement and scale that via an organization and that drove business success.

But by the time you go through that process now, just getting people together, having the conversation, making some decisions, looking at the budgeting, all that process, then you start to roll out your answer… Well the question has changed, you know, it’s different. And so now you’re not addressing the right problem anymore, and that’s been driven by the pace of change and the speed of technology changing what’s possible.

And so we have to make that switch into what’s kind of a brand new world. We’re seeing that right now. A lot of people I’m talking to we’re seeing it with trying to hire people. There are tens of millions of people here in the United States that are looking for jobs and tens of millions that are quitting jobs, and nobody can seem to figure out, well, what are they looking for? Because no one’s asked that question. They’re giving them the same answers, as opposed to what are you really looking for?

 But yet the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought people to a different place of what they’re looking for in life. And as organizations we can’t figure out how to respond to that.

What do you mean they don’t want the same old crappy deal we been offering them for, you know, a hundred years? We have to do something different? That doesn’t make any sense. But yet again the world has changed and so you have to start looking at it differently and that’s not your fault. You didn’t make a mistake before. It’s not that you’re wrong. You’re just no longer right. And that’s a big difference.

Alison Jones: That’s a great way of putting it. I love that. Yes. And let’s talk about the writing as well. Michael, how did you get started? How did you find it? What surprised you about the process?

Michael Leckie: Ah, well, you know, I mean, you set me up here because it was so easy to write the proposal with the process.

And then I didn’t know what to do with it. Had this book proposal, now what do I do with that?

Alison Jones: Got to write it now.

Michael Leckie: That’s right. And so I called a friend of mine, who’d been published several times and he said, look let me put you in touch with the editor I’ve used in the past, she’s with a new company Kogan Page now.

And he said, and I quote, and she won’t want to publish your book or anything, but she’ll give you some good advice. And I’m like, Okay. I guess I can work with that.

And so we got on the phone to the lovely Kathe Sweeney. And I said, what guidance do you have for me? She goes, my guidance for you is you should let me publish your book, which, you know, completely surprised me. So then I was like, well, now I got to write a book.

So. Well, what surprised me, you know, I actually write about this in the book, as you will have seen, what surprised me is how little time of my writing time I spent writing the book and how much of it I spent agonizing over the writing of the book.

And as I mentioned there, and it just becomes kind of a lesson for other things in my life and work is that it didn’t become a process of writing a book, it became a series of starting to write.

I say start to write. And if I had thought too much about it, about did I have anything to say that was useful or important or valuable, I would just get hung up on that.

Or what was the end product going to be? I couldn’t see the end. I had to just start with the first step, which is, you know, once upon a time, and start typing and then things would start to come like they come into conversation. You know, we’re talking now, I can’t plan out what my sentences are going to be to say to you. I just have to start talking and believe that I will kind of figure it out as I do that.

So that’s what I had to do with writing. And that was a wholly different experience for me. And also how I’ve been taught to write, which is to, you know, think it all through and then fill it in. And it wasn’t that way at all.

It had to take shape and reform itself.

Alison Jones: So interesting. The way I often teach people to write, as you know, is get a kind of MVP, get your table of contents as you think it’s going to be. And then you do the writing and you just iterate because you think like, oh no, actually of course it needs to be this next and using that, that comes out as well.

But I love that point about almost the metawriting. So much of writing looks so much like staring out of the window or talking to somebody on a phone or reading a book, you know, there’s an awful lot of stuff that isn’t actually writing that is covered by the you know, I am writing my book, just as you almost had your meta questions before, didn’t you, the questions about the questions?

You can drive yourself mad with this, but I think, you know, and everything that brings your attention to, expands your awareness of, the thing in front of you, counts, right?

Michael Leckie: Yes, it does. I mean, you helped me write a proposal that was compelling enough for someone to want to publish it and I went back to it and I’m just looking at the chapter headings and thought that looks clever, I wonder what in the hell that means.

Alison Jones: I wish I knew what I was thinking when I wrote that.

Michael Leckie: Yes, it’d been a year before and I didn’t know what it was. But you know, it all did eventually come. And I think one of the things that was most useful for me in the writing process is early on I was kind of obsessed with researching and making sure that was basically almost like, you know, aggregating thought together, but that it was all true and factual, not just some guy’s opinion.

And Kathe said to me, she goes, people are going to read your book because they want to hear what you have to say. So, you know, don’t outright tell a bunch of lies, that’s not what we’re talking about. She goes, tell the truth, but your truth as you see it, you don’t have to prove everything scientifically and make this just a compendium of facts, say what you want to say.

And then I did that and I also found that as I was doing that, that for the most part, the thoughts that I had were actually based upon things that I had read and heard and researched. And I was able to pull that into support it as well. But you know, one of the things that really made it a fun process for me is because of that advice I was kind of able to find my voice and when people read the book, they hear me in it too, those who know me.

Which Kathe had said, she goes, that’s actually kind of hard for a first time writer. But it was her guidance there, I think, that really helped me find a voice and be able just to speak what I had to say. And then, you know, found out in the end that it was actually relatively good, which was kind of a surprise to me.

Alison Jones: And I think that that’s a lovely point about the balance of evidence and other people’s thinking and the research that you do and your own voice. Because I think particularly when you are a first-time writer, there’s a real temptation to sort of back everything up. Look, see, it’s not just me. Discovering that this is my book and I don’t even have to say, ‘I think that’ or ‘in my opinion’. Clearly I think this and clearly this is my opinion, because this is my book and I am saying it.

So really owning that and making your arguments, the narrative arc, if you like, that the evidence supports rather than piling up all the evidence to create your narrative arc is a subtle difference. But you know when you’ve shifted, don’t you?

Michael Leckie: Well you do, and it’s interesting when I started doing that, I guess, I realized that’s what I do in my work. And if you look at how the book starts, I start by telling it’s not the answer, right. And it’s not, I mean, it’s one part, it’s one portion, it’s one aspect. And so I think that so many times we begin to feel that kind of what we know we figured out is right for everyone and everything, but it’s not.

 It’s something that maybe is right for us right then. And so, as I began to write, I’d say look, this is just one person’s opinion, but take it and decide what parts of it are useful and you’re going to use, and that’s the best thing to do with knowledge, right?

It’s not to say this is the new way. It’s like, that’s really interesting, what am I going to choose to do with that now? And that’s how we pull together from different pieces to fit the framework and the fabric of our lives. And what it is we’re trying to do as we take those things.

And so for me, I didn’t want to write a book that was the truth. I just wanted to write something that was useful, that people would get some value out of and take away some main concepts that, you know, the behaviors drive beliefs, not the other way around, change is an individual game played in groups that can affect an entire organization or country, you know, things like that.

I mean, if you can take away a few nuggets and then figure out how am I going to apply those in my day to day life, then you’ve got something that makes a contribution as opposed to just a vanity project, I guess.

Alison Jones: That’s a lovely way of putting it and also actually takes the pressure off you as a writer, doesn’t it? If you go into this thinking, this is going to be the last word on… this is going to be the ultimate truth on… it’s pretty paralyzing, but if you’re just like, you know, here’s some interesting stuff, you know, take it or leave it, see how it works for you, see how it fits with your experience of life, then that’s a much more humble, much more liberating way to write.

Michael Leckie: Yes, and it gives you an escape belt too. If you say, look, this may all be wrong. And later on when something changes, it is wrong. And you say well, I told you, you know,

Alison Jones: It’s not that I was wrong. I’m just no longer right.

Michael Leckie: That’s right. That’s right. There you go.

Alison Jones: You I think used Scrivener, didn’t you, to put thing together? I’d love to just talk to you about that. Because I know a lot of people try Scrivener. I tried Scrivener and gave up on it because I just couldn’t get over the technology hump. I’m actually using it again. I’m just like, come on, come on, Alison, you can do this. But I don’t find it as intuitive as I’d like. How about you?

Michael Leckie: I would agree. You know, I used Scrivener because I think I read somewhere that was a great way to do it. And I think that I probably, like many of us do with the technology we engage with, I used a very small percentage of it. You know, it’s not easy to learn. And so, I think that… and there’s probably things I could have done to, you know, watch YouTube videos to learn Scrivener better, but I didn’t because I kind of wanted to get to writing and not learn a piece of software.

So, you know, all due respect to the Scrivener folks, there’s a lot of tremendous stuff in there, I under utilized it, it was nice to have it in there, in its own special place. And that’s all I did there, was open that up and that was kind of, I think almost using Scrivener pulled me into a place of writing because right now, if I look at my desktops here, there’s all sorts of stuff going on that can distract me. But if I opened up that software, I’m focused on that. That’s the only thing I was doing in there. So I think that was an unintended value from it.

 I would probably use it again and hopefully try and use it a little bit more intelligently and thoroughly, but I used it, then I exported into Word because that’s what was requested by the publisher when I sent them the document.

Alison Jones: Yes, I love the idea that actually the best, the biggest benefit of this is psychological because I’m now in book writing mode. In Word, I do so much stuff, but when I’m in Scrivener, this is what I’m doing. I love that, I agree. I think, you know, I always get the impression with Scrivener that I’m kind of driving a Ferrari around the block to the supermarket.

You know, there’s just so much more it should be doing. I have this image of it sort of, you know, just sinking its head into its hands at me.

One thing I do love about it is that you can set targets and you get a little kind of satisfying green light and ping when you’ve hit your target for the day. I do love that.

Michael Leckie: Yes, yes it’s got a lot of those little things. This is really great. Just to learn to use them on that takes a little bit more time than I wanted to put in. But maybe most people will do.

Alison Jones: Yes, well, I’m slightly heartened to hear you say that. And I hadn’t quite appreciated how the value of simply having it as one thing, the one place that you’re writing a book. It’s almost like having a physical space, isn’t it, that you can go to or a soundtrack, or just those things that tell your brain, this is what we’re doing now and we’re going to focus. The deep work prompt.

Now I always ask guests, Michael, for a tip for a first-time writer. So you’ve given us loads already, I know, but if I had to say to you, what’s your one best tip for somebody who’s just starting out on this journey? What would you say?

Michael Leckie: And I guess it has to do with that kind of, you know, finding your voice. Write what you want to write, write what you want to hear. You know, I mean, know your audience. Yes absolutely. But what is it you really have to say? Because when I am saying something that I believe in, that I’m passionate about, that’s how I say it with belief and with passion and I get excited about, and I get lost in it.

And I think, I didn’t think about the commercialization of this book or anything else I just thought about. Well, okay, if people want to hear what I have to say, what is it I have to say?

And as I mentioned to you, you know, Edgar Schein was so kind to take time to read it and to respond and to write me a beautiful endorsement for the back cover.

 And he sent me an email and he’s been a hero of mine for over 30 years since I first learned from him in graduate school at Pepperdine MSOD and he said I think this is a book that can have real impact. And I thought, that’s it. I don’t care who reads it now. It doesn’t really matter if nobody reads it but Ed and Ed has said that, then I can die a happy man.

 But I didn’t set out to do that. I didn’t set out to impress him. Didn’t set out to impress when I kind of got into it and set out to write what it is that I really wanted to say. And fortunately that seemed to resonate.

So kind of a long way of saying that, but, you know, write what’s in your heart and let the rest kind of fall where it may.

Alison Jones: Yes, that’s a great, great tip. Thank you. And I also, as you know, ask people to recommend a business book. So obviously yours. Yes. We know that, but which other business book would you recommend that people listening should read?

Michael Leckie: Yes, I looked at that and I thought, oh my gosh, that was the hardest question in what you sent me was which business book? I’m like, well, how much time do we have, how many hours? And I’ve published all sorts of things in my bookshelf. But I was going to say anything by Ed Schein but I grabbed this one and I’m not done. I just started reading it. The Next Rules of Work by my friend, Gary Bolles. I’m doing some work with him. Why I recommend it is it’s acknowledging what we kind of talked about, that the world has changed and shifted around us, and there are some new rules of working where we have to work with each other. And he’s got a couple of things in there that just stood out to me the moment I read them.

 One was he goes, I’ll give you a hint of what the purpose of this is a world with no human left behind, because we’re leaving a lot behind. And this talks about that. And I think that that’s incredibly important. He and I are doing some work right now that I really can’t share in detail because it’s confidential, but you know, it has to do with being able to actually get organizations and corporations to not only give people a job, but give them a home in that case where they need it and bring them into an organization in a much different way and a different kind of social contract for how we operate together.

And so yes, The Next Rules of Work by Gary Bolles is the next thing I’m reading and loving it, loving working with Gary. So that’s the one I wanted to recommend.

Alison Jones: Fantastic and well, I hadn’t heard of it, but I don’t feel so bad now because it’s clearly a new book. So it’s one for the radar. Yes, brilliant. Thank you so much.

And Michael, if people want to find out more about you, more about the book, more about the work that you do, where should they go?

Michael Leckie: Sure. So my website is simply michaelleckie.com. M I C H A E L L E C K I E. That is where you can find me. LinkedIn at MJLeckie and I’m on all the normals, Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. But you know, Michaelleckie.com is probably the best way. Join my mailing list. It is short, I think of it as small, but mighty. I don’t have a huge amount of stuff I churn out. I try and put out things that have value, free courses, free tools, information, you know, a short blog posts. And that’s a great way to stay in touch.

 And I am one of those just, you know, networkers and I almost hate the word, but it’s so important because my ecosystem is how I get things done and be able to work in huge companies as an independent, because the three or four people I draw in that I work with are world-class and I love meeting people and getting connected. michaelleckie.com and sign up for the newsletters, absolutely the best place.

And yes, please, read the book and I’ll make the pitch for, if you read it and you like it, the one thing that is critically important to any author, maybe unfortunately, is write that quick review, honest review on amazon.com.

As people who don’t know me say, why should I read this book? They see a few ratings there and they see a few intelligent thoughts from your readers that makes all the difference to them when I’m an unknown quantity in the sea of new thought that is out there.

Alison Jones: Yes, it’s such a valuable point. Isn’t it? And honestly, if you do, if you read a book, if you love a book, don’t just do that and enjoy it yourself, write the review because it is absolute gold in the attention economy, and particularly on Amazon, reviews are what drive awareness and drive sales. So, yes, it’s a way of thanking the author. Isn’t it?

Michael Leckie: Absolutely it is. It’s something that until you’ve been an author, I mean, now when I’m asked to do them. I put the time in. It’s in a sense time I don’t have. And I put that time in, because I know just how profoundly important it is and how it’s like, oh yes, but then I got to run. Then I got to think about it. It’s kind of inconvenient, but you know, getting over that inconvenience can change other people’s lives and put them in touch with something that is what they need at that point in their life.

And I’m hoping that for some people, I’ve heard from a few that this book is that for them, and this is not an ego trip, but if it can be that thing for those people, there may be more of them and the fact that I can’t reach them because I don’t have, you know enough volume and I haven’t paid people to go out and cheat the system on Amazon or something to get the reviews up there. This kind of is heartbreaking.

So yes, if you love something take a moment and write about it. Write that review.

Alison Jones: Yes brilliant. Good principle. Thank you. And of course, I will put your links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com for anybody who isn’t standing next to pen and paper right now.

But thank you. It was brilliant to talk to you, Michael, and I love hearing how those, you know, glints in the eye that start off at the beginning of the 10 Day Business Book Proposal Challenge emerge into fully formed, gorgeous books like this, hold it up again.

Michael Leckie: Yes but I want to hold it up to say that, you know, I mean, this wouldn’t exist I think we got kind of reconnected again recently, but this would not exist were it not for you and your wonderful program, which, I mean, just kind of opened everything up for me. So I feel a tremendous debt of gratitude for that.

And for any of you and I’m not doing it because she’s asking me to, any of you out there that are thinking, even considering writing a book, I’m telling you The Proposal Challenge is just, as we might say here in The States, pretty kick ass. So go ahead and check it out.

Alison Jones: I might use that as a new strap line. Thank you. Love it. Thank you so much for your time today, Michael. And I do hope that it is a huge success. It really deserves to be,

Michael Leckie: Thank you.

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