John Kotter’s Town Hall at ASTD ICE

I attended the conference in DC this past week with a different perspective, being a volunteer. As a volunteer you earn one day of the conference per volunteer day. I chose to volunteer for Tuesday and Wednesday. I only had two days of the conference to attend sessions and traipse through the expo floor.

As I review and file my notes, I’ll post about my memorable sessions and observations.

John Kotter’s town hall moderated by Kevin Oakes. I found this session outstanding observations on leadership and change. Many Q&A sessions are boring with questioners playing gotcha and see-how-smart-I-am. Kevin’s prepared questions and follow up primed better questions from the hall. From my spot in the front it appeared that the audience was primarily international attendees. That drove an interesting observation from Kotter in the increasing enrollment in international students in his Harvard classes. He worried that his western-centric business examples were “lost” on international students. He offered to stay after class and work with any student should the examples be unclear or obtuse. To date no one has taken him up on the offer. Kotter attributes that outcome that leadership is still all about human nature, leaders mobile people to achieve astonishing things.

Kotter’s core message was about creating a sense of urgency, the topic of his new book. Complacency has taken over, even in these troubling times. “Complacency capacity to remain consistent is fascinating,” he observed. Success leads to growth that leads to an inward focus (pride, arrogance, internal political battles) versus an outward market focus; his example, Rick Wagoner and GM. In a meeting many years ago, Kotter was astonished at the quiet the executive offices and complacency at GM as Toyota was on the rise. “There wasn’t a Kill Toyota sign in the place.” People were busy he noticed but was that productive activity?

As a leader, get out there, walk around, gather data and understand the real problems. Some gems, “leaders understand that everyone is not six (years old).”
When asked about business schools and finance. “I’m always suspicious of the finance department; it’s part of the system that moved us into this pattern.” I interpreted this as complacency.
When asked about women starting in leadership, Kotter gave this Zen-like response, “should do, start do , just do it.”
“Learn to lead yourself, then others.”

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