In this episode, we were joined by Dr. Amy Centers as she explores the topic of workforce change, and shares her unique organizational and leadership development strategy experience. Listeners tuned in to hear Amy uncover gems of wisdom about preparing employees for change, and why increasing employee agency and autonomy can help decrease change resistance.
As the Founder and Principal Consultant at Neurolifeworks, Amy has a proven career in talent engagement, retention, and leadership development, and has made a positive impact on innumerable companies and employees. In this episode, she also delves into the recent dramatic shift we have seen in the global work landscape, and lifts the veil on how organizations can more successfully enact and support workforce change during these unprecedented times.
Here’s how the conversation went… This interview has been edited and condensed.
Rhonda Taylor: Welcome to the Talent Experience Podcast, I’m your host Rhonda Taylor. I know our listeners are global in nature, as is the production of this podcast. This podcast is produced in Auckland, New Zealand. I am in Canada, just outside of Toronto, and my guest today is Dr. Amy Centers who is from San Diego, California, in the United States. Amy is the founder and principal consultant of neurolifeworks.com, a brain science-based personal effectiveness content provider. She has a Ph.D. in Organizational Development and Leadership and is a professional certified coach through the International Coaching Federation, otherwise known as ICF. One of Amy’s areas of expertise, and our primary topic for today’s session is Amy’s ability to help companies develop a workforce change strategy. Amy, have I missed anything?
Amy Centers: That was pretty comprehensive, thank you so much. Um, no, I would just add that my passion really is to help folks wherever they are in their careers, organizations, entrepreneurs, really maximize one their potential and two their experience of all they do. I mean, one of the things I say a lot is, the average adult works about 80,000 hours of their life, and how can we be really intentional and proactive about creating sort of the optimal experience from an experiential perspective, but also in terms of really maximizing our potential? I think that’s, that’s probably my, one of my big passions and workforce change is a big part of that. Because change is near-constant, as we know, and being able to navigate that on an individual level, team level, and organizational level, is so critical to people’s, you know, wellbeing productivity and overall work/life engagement.
Rhonda Taylor: Yes, we’re going to talk about how change does not always come easy.
Amy Centers: True.
Rhonda Taylor: Amy, while I was looking at your LinkedIn profile, and before we get into the meat of the conversation, there was something that just jumped right out at me. It was your work that you do, or you did do at one time, with the Honor Foundation? Can you tell me about that organization?
Amy Centers: Yeah, that’s a really an incredible organization, based on the east coast and the west coast working with transitioning Special Forces operators, who you know, maybe have put in 20 years with a branch of the military here in San Diego, we work a lot with the navy seals, and then they’re ready to sort of retire and transition into a corporate position. Because at that point, they probably, you know, maybe they’re in their early 40s or something like that, and they still have quite a bit of work-life left and interests, and they want to move into the corporate realm. A lot of these folks have been incredible leaders doing really high-level important work, but that doesn’t necessarily translate easily to the corporate realm. So what the Honor Foundation was finding is, they were looking at, you know, top MBA, Business School Graduates, these types of folks, and the length of time to get, you know, really decent job offers. For a Business School Graduate, they would have say, I don’t know, let’s just say three, maybe six-figure offers within a month of graduation, but these transitioning Special Forces Operators and Leaders could be going 18 months without anything that felt sort of commensurate with their experience. So the Honor Foundation aims to bridge that gap by almost kind of doing like a, you know, four months MBA, where they sort of help them translate, from a resume perspective, job interviews, how they dress, language that they speak, into the corporate realm. So they have an easier transition and can do you know, meaningful work, that again really leverages the level of experience that they’re bringing to the dynamic.
Rhonda Taylor: Yeah.
Amy Centers: Oh, I was just gonna say my role with the Honor Foundation was a Volunteer Executive Coach. So I would partner up with one or two participants per cohort and do some coaching to kinda again, help that journey along.
Rhonda Taylor: Yeah, and I was just gonna say, I watched the documentary on the Bin Laden takedown and all the seals that were involved. And oh my, that was like, organizational effectiveness at its peak. They had Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, you know, like, when the helicopter crashed etc. This is what they were forced to do, and they’re walking MBAs, and we just don’t realize it.
Amy Centers: Yeah, I mean, again, as long as you can get sort of the language and some of the transferable skills to be communicated in a way that somebody, a hiring manager, in a corporate environment can understand. That’s the crux of it, right? So it’s really again, placing people really where they belong on a corporate journey, they’ve just, you know, had a slightly different path or on-ramp to their current state.
Rhonda Taylor : Yeah, and I guess now we need to go and focus on the topic of this podcast, and that’s Workforce Change Strategies. And heaven forbid, would you have ever thought we all would be forced to make changes so quickly as we have in the past two years?
Amy Centers: Yeah, I mean, going into 2020 we didn’t know really, until March, what was gonna come our way. But one of the things looking back now, roughly a year and a half later, I think that’s been really a silver lining, is how well we adapted. The fact that people have been able to innovate, drive business results, without business travel, often creating trusted relationships around the world with people with whom they may never meet in person. The fact that all happened is pretty incredible. And it’s dramatically shifted the global work landscape. I think it really advantageous ways I feel like it’s taken sort of a path that we were on and accelerated it by say, I don’t know. 510 years, right. Oh, yeah. version of the evolution of the global workplace.
Rhonda Taylor: Yeah, it created a new normal way of doing business.
Amy Centers: Yeah, and I think even as we go back to our previous normal, we’re fundamentally changed in terms of how we do business and I think a lot of that is really for the better, for sure.
Rhonda Taylor: Well yeah, you know I always remember what a really good friend of mine, Kevin Wheeler, once said, “Think of before COVID as a normal paperclip, and then with COVID, the paperclip got all crinkled and bent out of shape. Now, no matter how hard we try, that paperclip will never be normal again.”
Amy Centers: Well it won’t be its original state, it’s a new normal, right. And again, some of this new normal, I think, is to the benefit of our collective right. As we’re sort of figuring out what this path looks like, and maybe a more hybrid model, also the ability, we’ll see if this is sustainable, but for folks sometimes to move into other geographic locations with lower cost of living and things of that nature. So there’s definitely been some pluses in the middle of all this stuff that we’ve had to kind of grapple with that hasn’t been so, so welcoming.
Rhonda Taylor: Exactly, Amy why do you think change is so hard for people in organizations?
Amy Centers: I think change is hard for people in general, right. So our brains are wired for constancy because we’ve evolved with that state of fight, flight, freeze, or fun. So change in general, I think neurologically is a little bit, it’s upsetting for us and it’s very difficult for us to adjust to because the constancy as we evolved as humans is what kept us safe or safe from danger. Of course, we all know, the danger that you know, historically, we would have faced it’s not what we see in the corporate realm, but our brains can’t evolve that quickly. So I think humans are naturally resistant to change, and you know, we always talk about change management, and I like that term, but I also really, like change normalization, because it is kind of constant state of our work environments. But because humans are generally resistant to change, even when it’s advantageous for us, even if we’re, generally speaking, change-friendly folks. The collectiveness of the humans is what comprises the organizational shifts. So it just makes sense that it’s hard for organizations to shift, and I also think, kind of a different piece of this is that organizations in general, love new things. They love new philosophies, they love new initiatives, they love new software, they love all kinds of new tools, but because of that love of the new, there’s oftentimes not enough time to really place, set, and sustain change to make it effective.
Rhonda Taylor: Yeah, and you’re, you’re sort of going on my next question, which is, what can leaders and organizations do to support the change they are trying to affect?
Amy Centers: Yeah, well, I think the first step is really that recognition that people are resistant, you know a lot of times do you hear sort of the philosophy, different ways to language it, of either get on board or hit the road, you know. That’s not the right way to kind of win people over with change. You know, a lot of times when I’m working with different groups, especially with leader groups, we talk about the natural curvature of the change model and that dip of productivity and engagement as people are adjusting. Part of that I think, is really zeroing in on things that leaders can do to shorten that dip and get people out quickly. Part of it is appropriate, transparent communication. I think a lot of times organizations are hesitant to communicate too much to people, and of course, you don’t want to inappropriately share. I’m not a fan of leaders, just, you know, “I’m in disagreement too. I’m with you, but I have to do it,” I don’t like that approach, but I think giving as much transparency as early on, even if things aren’t solidified, helps people buy-in and have ownership to the change process versus feeling like it’s foisted upon them. I think, you know, office hours are time for people to, with some psychological safety, share their concerns or frustrations, or how is this going to impact me, and then using that as a platform for some productive problem solving or solution-oriented approach to navigating through change in a collective sense. But I do think a lot of times because organizations are moving at a quick rate and people, you know, sometimes it takes them a long time to get decisions made, a lot of people feel like things are just foisted upon them. When people don’t feel like they have agency, or autonomy, into something as important as their work-life, they’re even more resistant.
Rhonda Taylor: Yeah. It’s so important right now that there’s the level of trust. I think we’ve heard Josh Bersin say, “Trust is the new currency,” and how do we create that trust?
Amy Centers: Are you talking from a leader perspective, because I have a lot to say on that. I’ve worked in leadership development a long time and I’ve seen a lot of things. I think one of the main things is, we judge ourselves by our intent, we judge other people by how we observe them to behave. I think because of that misalignment, a lot of times leaders, there’s the perception that they don’t walk their talk, especially when they’re stressed or under pressure, or they have maybe a rub with an employee. They’re not always consistent in walking their talk from the employee’s perspective, and that’s the perspective that matters. Because in today’s business environment, where for the most part, leaders can’t get away with position authority, or commanding control, they can utilize it, but they’re never going to intrinsically motivate people with that approach. Because of that change, your only capital in an organization is your ability to be influential to people and that is directly tied to who you are and how you show up every day. Whether you’re tired, or stressed or have personal problems, or don’t like the person reporting to you, or you just had a bad meeting right before a one-on-one with the direct report, none of that matters! It’s how people feel around you, do they feel like you have a good level of integrity? Do they feel like you have the capability to be in your role? All that’s amplified, the higher you go up in organizations. I think people sort of forget about that and they think people are just going to give them some grace and that doesn’t really happen. So, you know, it’s hard. It’s hard to have that kind of influence on a regular basis. It takes a lot of proactivity, introspection, a good level of self-awareness and self-regulation.
Rhonda Taylor: And then and then you have to flip it because change has got two sides. It’s the employee that’s going under change; there has to be some ownership there.
Amy Centers: Oh, absolutely. I mean, absolutely, that’s part of it, too. In fact, I would say probably one of the bigger sort of detrimental aspects of organizational environments is the tendency to not hold people accountable soon enough. You know I love that, I can’t remember that book now, but there’s like a continuum of, you know, the brilliant jerk and the friendly incompetent, and then everybody in the middle. But everybody’s kind of on that continuum, one is unhealthy and the other is very disengaging, and leaders need to kind of have a perspective of what the individual impact, how the individual impacts the collective. One thing I heard a leader say once that I loved was, “As your leader, I’m going to have your back. I’m going to advocate for you. I’m going to support you. I’m going to do everything that I can to make you successful. But if you start negatively impacting the collective, I’m coming down quick and hard because I can’t have that kind of toxicity in our team environment or in our functional area environment,” and I thought that was really wise.
Rhonda Taylor: Yeah and this actually leads right into my next question. How can leaders best develop their people or their change process?
Amy Centers: Yeah, well, part of it is that leaders have to recognize they’re not omnipotent. They don’t know everything, they are not really in the best position to define how a person wants to progress in their career, what kind of development would be most advantageous for them, that’s really the employee’s role to define that. The leader’s in a support role and advocating role, checking for alignment, course-correcting when needed. But I think when managers try to assume all that responsibility for all their team members, at best they’re just going to hit the surface because they’re already busy. In a leadership development course I used to conduct, we did a little worksheet where we had people, you know, figure out what percentage of your week is spent on emails and meetings, your own deliverables, all the other stuff that we do, and leaders are at 120%. Before we even add on the people-leading functions of their role, people are super tapped out. So to try to come up with meaningful customized development for other people is nearly impossible. Understanding that humans learn by doing, and they learn by doing things that are meaningful that will stretch them, having a growth-mindset orientation, that people have much more potential than they’ll typically define for themselves, being open to what people want to do for their career experience and their development orientation, I think all that is really helpful, and then pulling the thread through with setting meaningful goals that aren’t over-engineered, so you actually remember them, and then tracking the progress so that they actually get done. Oftentimes, I think people set goals at the beginning of the year. Maybe they talk about it for a minute in June, and then they really get focused on it at the end of the year when they’re wrapping up the performance evaluations, but that’s not really moving the needle. That’s just kind of checking a box for HR.
Rhonda Taylor: And you know there’s so much change has occurred, but I really love what you shared with me about an example of a change that was done exceptionally well. I think we all know the company, and it’s an incredible story. So share it with us, please.
Amy Centers: Yeah I wish now, I wish I would have had the exact numbers that I had shared with you when we talked about it before. But one of my favorite sort of case studies around organizational change involves Microsoft. Which again, I’m not going to be perfect with these numbers, but I’m going to say roughly around the time that the CEO Satya Nadella took over, I think Microsoft is valued at $35 billion and the shares it was like $34 a share. Now it’s over $200 a share and over $2 trillion dollars in value. So there’s been, you know, exponential growth for Microsoft since Satya Nadella took over. There also if you think about 2014, and we were talking about some of the more influential global organizations, Microsoft was not on our radar. It was considered a bit of a dinosaur. Where now, it is kind of a forerunner in terms of innovation. It is kind of cool again, and it’s routinely valued between the second and fourth most valued company in the world. So that’s kind of where they were to where they are. Satya Nadella grew up at Microsoft, he’d spent I think most, if not all of his career there. He knew the culture, he knew how people showed up and he realized, “We are not going to be able to innovate at the level needed to have a competitive advantage if every time our employees walk into a room for a meeting, they sit down, so confident that they’re the smartest ones in the room,” and that’s what was happening. Everything was predicated on a person’s cognitive ability and everybody was so sure they were the smartest people in the room, that nobody was listening to each other. And he thought, “We’ve got to put curiosity back, we’ve got to put collaboration back into our culture,” and he decided that the route for Microsoft was going to be adopting the philosophy of growth mindset, which was popularized by Carol Dweck’s book. There’s all kinds of podcasts and articles and Ted Talks around growth mindset now, so if you’re not familiar with it, there’s no dearth of opportunities to become acquainted. The idea really is that we’re not born with innate talents and traits and abilities and weaknesses, it’s cultivated, and a lot of the limiting beliefs or ego-driven beliefs are really just our own artificially created self-talk. So the reason why I think that was so successful, however, is he decided that early on, so again, it’s 2013-2014 and he’s stuck with it. It’s been a primary driver, and he’s never liked his foot off the gas. That is how you get like permeating the culture that I was talking about to embed change. That’s where it becomes part of your organizational ecosystem. But too often, organizations get enamoured with a philosophy or a software or an idea. They introduced it into the organization. And then six months later, they’re enamoured with something new. And so there’s never that seeded-ness, or that stickiness to really affect change, because the truth is, organizations aren’t steamboats, they’re big barges, it takes a long time to navigate and make turns. Right. So I love that story because I think it was just brilliant that he doggedly stuck to one idea, and made that part of their culture and how they show up with each other.
Rhonda Taylor: Amy, it’s been amazing having this discussion with you, at the Talent Experience Podcast, we believe that everyone should enjoy their career journey. You are obviously passionate about what you do at neurolifeworks.com, how do you consistently keep bringing your A-game to the table?
Amy Centers: Wow. So I think like A-game is very closely tied to, it almost sounds a little trite at this point, but my level of self-care frankly, and just awareness around energy management. When I’m at my best, and when I need to kind of do more administrative tasks and things like that. So really, you know, I think the crux of so much of what we’re able to do in our work, in our lives, is really just attentiveness and awareness around when we’re at our best when we’re in a lull, and then how can we structure, our tasks and responsibilities accordingly.
Rhonda Taylor: Amy, it’s been amazing having you on this discussion. I want to say thank you so much for spending time with us today on the Talent Experience Podcast. When you speak, it’s so clear how passionate you are about your work and it’s and it’s been awesome to hear your unique perspective on all the topics today. We really appreciate you taking the time to join us.
Amy Centers: Thank you so much, Rhonda. It’s been a pleasure to be here and a pleasure chatting with you. I really appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.