For this episode, I interviewed Eric Pliner, CEO of YSC Consulting, a global leadership strategy consultancy headquartered in London and focused on the styles, dynamics, and cultures that enable successful achievement of strategy. He advises CEOs and Boards across industries and sectors; for nearly twenty-five years, he’s worked in leadership development, organizational change, and strategic diversity and inclusion initiatives.
I’m going to kick us off with an article you wrote for Forbes about tips for leaders who are having difficult conversations. One tip that you shared in the article was that you should always listen more than you talk. Can you elaborate on this and actually share why listening is so important and why it is sometimes so easy to talk more than you listen?
I think there are good reasons and bad reasons why we’re tempted to talk more than we listen. The good reason is that, for many leaders, we get used to interacting with lots of people, and part of how we process information and make sense of it is often by sounding it out. Saying it out loud, trying on: How does this idea sound? How does this idea feel, how might it land? And so the temptation sometimes when confronted with a challenge is to begin by working it out loud, live in the moment.
That can be really positive in a situation that isn’t especially heated or volatile but oftentimes, when we’re having a difficult conversation, the other person just wants to be heard. Our desire to respond, to find an answer in the moment, runs counter to the notion that the individual just wants somebody to listen to them, to hear them, to help them to make sense of their feelings rather than to come back at them with an explanation, with an excuse, with a rationale. The more that we listen, the greater the likelihood that we’re helping to meet multiple needs, the content of what the person is saying but also the underlying emotion that’s about feeling connected and feeling heard.
Another point from the article that really resonated with me talked about when you’re feeling uncertain or uncomfortable as a leader, you should really start by acknowledging that you actually might get this wrong to the person that you’re having the conversation with. Can you talk a little bit about why you put that in the piece and if you have a moment in your past where you employed this technique that you could share with our listeners?
Yes, absolutely. The first thing is to say that many of us learn that great leadership is often a manifestation of authentic confidence and that confidence is conveyed by demonstrating not just self-belief but control over a situation. The problem is that when we’re having difficult conversations, we rarely have control of the situation. In fact, we need to think about how to show up with the other person rather than in opposition to the other person. What that means is starting from a place of authentic humility or vulnerability that acknowledges that our connection is more important than my need to get something right or to demonstrate my ostensible confidence.
In fact, we often think of vulnerability and humility as being in contrast to confidence, but they really are part and parcel of the same thing. Starting off with another person by acknowledging that you may get it wrong reminds them of your humanity, it allows you to be authentically vulnerable, and most importantly it allows you to connect meaningfully with one another.
I’ll tell you lots of times in my life and in my career when I’ve had deep, meaningful, and sometimes difficult conversations with people with whom I don’t share core social identities — maybe we have different racial identities, different genders, different parenting status, different sexual orientation identities — in those moments, I’ve found that it sometimes takes a bit of the heat out of the conversation and allows me to be more fully present to start off by saying, “Hey, look, I want to connect with you authentically. I don’t know if I’m going to say the right thing here. I don’t know if I’m going to get anything right in this conversation, but I’m coming to you open-hearted and with a desire to connect meaningfully and I’m engaging with you under the assumption that you’re doing the same with me.” That goes a really long way towards building trust and a real relationship and it makes it possible to have what might otherwise be a difficult conversation.
I think you’ve been CEO for around two years, maybe a little bit more than two years, and given COVID I’m assuming the last year was vastly different from a part of your first year. When you look back at the lessons from the last year, what did you learn about yourself as a leader in charge of a global firm during a period of great uncertainty and change?
Well, I learned that what you think you’ve signed up for is very rarely what you’ve actually signed up for. I learned that we have to be in constant learning mode. That might sound a little bit sarcastic, but I don’t mean it to. We have to expect that every day, every step of the way, we’re going to be learning new lessons over and over again until we really internalize them. One of the things about leading a global firm is that most of our colleagues are not used to being in the same room together. Frankly, we’re across pretty much every timezone, we work in more than 50 countries, have offices across 15 countries, and what that means is we’re used to being on the screen together as a way of connecting.
We found pretty quickly that there were a lot of lessons that we could share with our clients, with our partners who were not used to that experience, about how we connect with each other, about how we re-energize together, and at the same time, that we had something to share and lessons that we were able to convey. What we had to learn was that doing that for an hour or two a day or the occasional late night or early morning is really different from sustaining the energy of being behind a laptop, being on the screen all day, every day, for a full year. It meant that as our days and our habits and our behaviors got less human, that the criticality of us dialing up our humanity and authentic connection with each other was more important than ever.
When you look ahead towards what comes next, what’s the plan to try to return to some semblance of normalcy? Or asked another way, what do you think the new normal looks like for your organization?
I think we’ll probably end up in a scenario where we rely less on expecting people to be working from offices — ours or our clients — and more where we use physical space as a way of enhancing our connection. Again, because we’re physically separated from each other often, it’s meant that some of the most important times in our firm’s journey have been times where we’ve brought everyone together, maybe for five or six days in London where our business is headquartered or somewhere else in the world. I think it means that we want to use travel judiciously but thoughtfully, it means that we want to engage with intent but that the default of being in an office probably won’t be our new norm and it probably wasn’t serving us as well as we thought it was prior to COVID, either.
I want to use that as a springboard to talk about an article you wrote for the Harvard Business Review about making difficult decisions. In that article, you shared three principles to always keep in mind. The three principles were ethics, morals, and role responsibility. I want you to take us back to when you were first promoted to CEO. How did your mindset shift when that happened and how did you go about understanding the responsibilities of your new role?
I think there’s been a lot of conversation over the last few years about the notion of stakeholder capitalism, of the idea that private sector businesses are not accountable only to their shareholders but are accountable to a wide range of stakeholders. I feel like I took on this leadership role in a moment where that principle was beginning to become alive in the day to day, differently than it had been in the years and decades prior. I had the advantage, because we are a leadership strategy consultancy, of spending a lot of time with some of the biggest leaders in the world. Although I was there to advise them, I got a lot of advice, learning, and counsel from them along the way.
In my first few days, weeks, months as CEO, I thought a lot about what I was seeing from my clients in terms of them recognizing that they had to deliver financial performance, but also that there would be an outcome of caring for their employees, of engaging thoughtfully and heartfully with their customers, of being mindful about the environment, of being mindful about their role in communities. The role of CEO isn’t just about delivering results to shareholders. It has to include that or we don’t get the privilege of holding that job, but that is an outcome rather than a starting place. I learned that over and over again, and I think I continue to learn it over and over again as I run this business through a lot of very different scenarios than the ones that I’ve envisioned.
A question that we get frequently from listeners focuses on time management or organization. Are there certain things that you do to structure your day in order to handle all the responsibilities that you have? Anything that you can share with our listeners that might help them in their roles?
Absolutely, but I get zero credit for this. I’m very fortunate to have an extraordinary partner in a woman named Steph Koman, who is my executive assistant. Steph has taught me a lot about thinking differently about my time, and I really trust her, follow her, and listen to her counsel. I used to believe, before I took on this role, that the way to get everything done was to pack my schedule as full as possible. I made sure I took breaks, I made sure that I had time with my family, of course, but I thought, especially being across so many time zones, “Hey, I’ll just do early meetings and late meetings and I’ll fill the day in between.”
I can run back to back from thing to thing, and I can make that work. Steph really challenged me on that. Initially, I was tremendously resistant. I thought, “You can take stuff out of my calendar, but how am I supposed to get everything done?” What we eventually got to together was that a great way for me to work was to keep one or two days a week entirely clear of meetings. I know that’s going to sound impossible to many of your listeners, Matthew, but what I learned was that by filling a couple of days, but leaving a couple of days empty consistently, my ability to get everything done multiplied really, really fast.
In fact, we decided to extend part of that principle to our entire firm because it’s easy to say, “Well, sure, as the CEO, you can decide what your schedule is.” But we introduced ‘Meet-free Fridays’ starting last August where we said we have no meetings internally scheduled on Fridays anywhere in the business, and that it’s at the individual employee’s discretion whether they want to schedule any time with clients then. Keeping at least one and, in my case, two days a week entirely clear of being on camera and of being in meetings has made me more productive than I’ve ever been in my entire career.
As a leader, what training do you look for for your own development? What do you wish you had more time for?
In terms of my own development, I’m always looking to learn about stuff that I don’t know anything about. One of the advantages of being in consulting is that anything that I’m curious about, odds are good that we work with a company or at least have met a company in that field. It means that in doing my job or in working with a team to do our job, I can go spend time in a company, in an industry, maybe even in a geography that I haven’t been exposed to before, and go in there as a really curious learner. It’s partly out of my own interest and partly to become a better partner to or supporter of our clients in that organization.
Anything that piques my curiosity, that makes me feel like, “Wow, I’ve never heard of this before,” or “I really know absolutely nothing here,” is one of my favorite places to spend my time for professional development. I also find that one of the most basic things, and we certainly offer this to other companies, that we have to make sure we practice ourselves is engaging in regular executive coaching, making sure we have an external sounding board to share some of our challenges and hold up the mirror.
A decent chunk of the listeners that we hear from are early on in their career and hoping to rise the ranks of organizations. If you were giving advice to one of those listeners about the types of skills that they should be focused on, doesn’t matter what industry they’re a part of, and you are looking to add to your team, what are some of the skills that you’re really looking for in this environment for future leaders to have?
One of the most important things is sense-making. I am wholly uninterested in people who say, “I have pursued a particular path with relentless focus from day one.” I’m much more compelled by people who try lots of different things, who experiment with industries or sectors or practice or roles, and who can make sense or make a story out of their journeys. I want to know, if you went from the arts to retail to practicing sciences to being in operations, what’s the story behind that?
How did you make sense of making those moves throughout your life? How did you make sense of whatever time you’ve taken off, whatever travel you’ve done, or conversely, not done? How do you use that story in a way that shows me your judgment, that shows me your drive, your aspiration, and desire to have impact in the world, and that shows me your ability to influence across lots of different contexts and audiences? That’s the stuff I always look for. It’s not about a particular skill set necessarily, but more about making sense of the experiences that they’ve had in their lives.
That is a wonderful spot to shift to the final two rapid-fire questions that I ask all of our guests. The first one is this: If you could describe your personal leadership style in just one word, what would that word be?
I’d go with bold. I love the idea of thinking about a future that’s very different from today and figuring out what it’s going to take to build that future, to shape that future, to co-create that future with the people around me. The other version of that definition is that I’m not shy about sharing my point of view. I tend to have a strong viewpoint and like to lead with that viewpoint very clearly articulated so that other people know when I have a strong stance, how to engage, versus when I’m just in a space of curiosity.
The final rapid-fire question is this: What is the best piece of advice that you have ever received?
I think I’ve got two answers for you on that Matthew, which is probably cheating, but I’m going to give you both of them anyway. The first is that an early mentor when I was probably about 16 or 17 and in the early stages of coming out as a gay man said to me, “Those who feel discomfort easily are charged with the obligation of making others aware. Be more sensitive to the discomfort of others because they are your allies.” 30 years later, I still have that committed to memory because the notion of being more sensitive to the discomfort of others is something that has been a guiding principle for me personally and professionally.
The other one that’s a bit shorter, but still equally meaningful: I went to see the play Lobby Hero off-Broadway many, many years ago, and I spotted the playwright Kenneth Lonergan, who many people know from his film You Can Count On Me, in the audience. During intermission, I went up to him, introduced myself, and thanked him for his work, which had been very meaningful to me. He was very generous and he asked, “Hey, what do you do?” At the time I said, “I’m a struggling writer.” He said, “Can I give you a bit of advice?” I said, “Of course,” and he said, “Do less struggling and more writing.” I think that’s great advice for all of us. Do a little less struggling and a little more doing of whatever it is we want to do and be.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.