Episode 394: Defining Moments of Leadership with Marsha Acker

Episode Summary

In this episode, I’m joined by the extraordinary Marsha Acker to discuss how to identify and crack down on stuck patterns of communication that get in the way of performing at the highest level. Marsha is a Leadership and Team Coach, Author, Sought-after Speaker, Host of the Defining Moments of Leadership podcast, and the Founder and CEO of TeamCatapult.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host. I am excited for the guests that we have with us today. She is an executive and leadership team coach, author, speaker, facilitator, and host of the Defining Moments of Leadership Podcast. She is unparalleled at helping leaders identify and break through stuck patterns of communication that get in the way of high performance. She is known internationally as a facilitator of meaningful conversations, a host of dialogue, and a passionate agilest. She is the author of “Build Your Model for Leading Change: A Guided Workbook to Catalyze Clarity and Confidence in Leading Yourself and Others.” Welcome, Marsha Acker! 

Marsha Acker: I’m really excited to be here. So, thank you. 

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, good. Thank you. Before we get started, I’d like to tell you just a little bit more about Marsha. She’s the founder and CEO of TeamCatapult — a great name, way to go! — a respected and sought-after leadership development firm that equips leaders, at all levels, to facilitate and lead sustainable behavioral change. She partners with leaders and leadership teams to clarify their desired change, develop communicative competence, and think together — accessing their collective intelligence to bring about change. TeamCatapult is a partner to mid-size start-ups and global Fortune 500 companies across sectors like entertainment, game development, banking, insurance, healthcare, communications, government, information technology — that’s a lot! Well, let’s just get right into this. Marsha, tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you. 

Marsha Acker: Well, I often say — because I think it’s helpful to understand a little bit about why I’m quite so passionate as you reflect on my background — I’m a software engineer by education and first career. So, I came up into the work world in the space of technology, and I cared a lot about improving things, making things better. I think I spent a little bit of the first half of my career believing that change would happen and people’s lives would get better if we could automate things or make things better. And I think what I learned along the way is that — and this came to be over a number of years — I was really passionate about helping people get connected and have conversations, which, in my first career, I worked a lot with the Department of Defense here in the US, and I spent a lot of time, very early on, trying to help, at that time, five branches of service. I actually come together and communicate with one another and develop joint requirements for joint systems. So, that was actually how I got introduced to facilitation and facilitation competencies. But one of the defining moments of my own career was really working with a large organization — it was with another company at the time — and we were helping a leadership team bring about a huge organizational change that required a big move of the org chart boxes around. And I noticed that it wasn’t while the process and defining the process was really helpful, it was really about the personal aspects of change that were happening in that leadership team. And I watched them really grapple with different parts about how they were going to be impacted personally, how they were going to be impact the decisions, how they were going to impact the people that they were leading. It was in that moment that I really began to understand at a more DNA level, why how we were communicating with one another was really the part about whether things would move forward or whether they would get stuck. So, it was a real defining moment for me. It’s partly why I went off to coach training to become a coach. I didn’t leave my engineering skills behind, but I also started to realize that in my own leadership, I felt like I was out over my skis, because I’d learned how to define processes and move things around, but I really never had learned how to work with other humans. And I think that was some of the gaps that I started to experience. So, that’s some highlights of my own trajectory and why I’m so passionate about what I do today. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s great. That adds to the passion, doesn’t it?  

Marsha Acker: It does.  

Steve Shallenberger: And I’ve got a little side question for you, Marsha: How did you end up with this area of interest in your life? What led you to get into this field? 

Marsha Acker: I think it was that moment in my own leadership. It was not long after I started TeamCatapult. So, that happened in 2005. I started to realize that some of the things that I was trying to make happen in the company. It was a startup at the time — the highs were high, the lows were low. And I really began to realize, I’d often say, “I was out over my skis.” I could hire all the consultants that I wanted, and we could tweak all the boxes about processes and putting different things in place. But in a sense, I think we were missing the real conversation, and I was missing the part that I was playing in it. And that’s actually what sent me off to become a coach. I didn’t go to coach training to learn to be a coach; I went because I wanted some better leadership skills, and that set the trajectory of where I’m at today. I didn’t start there because I wanted to do this. It was really about how I was trying to my own leadership. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s a great place to start. For our listeners, who are so amazing, I’m always so humbled and grateful for the type of listeners that we have tuned in. They’re the type that share that kind of feeling that you just described. In other words, they’re really trying to be aware, and are aware, of saying, “Oh, I want to become my best.” And they’re aware of their potential and what their possibilities are but also search for “How can I do better? How can I become my best?” So, great going on that. Marsha, what gets in the way of change for organizations and holds them back from really reaching their fullest potential, whether it’s a team, an organization, or maybe even a family? 

Marsha Acker: Yeah, at the very simplest for me, it comes down to a challenge about how we communicate with one another. And I think it plays out in what can feel like innocuous conversations, day-to-day conversations that we talk and communicate with one another. I think a lot of times we think we’re communicating when sometimes we’re doing lots of other things. George Bernard Shaw — he’s an Irish playwright. He said, “The greatest challenge in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” And I think that a lot of times we’re trying to lead change, or we want something different to happen. And I think we’re not clear about how we’re communicating with others, and how others are trying to communicate with us. So, then it leads to a lot of talking over, talking past. And then we just default to “Well, just do it because I said so.” So, we start to pull the positional power, which doesn’t leave anybody feeling included or part of that process. So, I think a lot of times it comes down to communication. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, maybe two questions, if you don’t mind, on this one: What gets in the way of effective communication? And what are some good communication tips that you may have for us today? 

Marsha Acker: Well, I think one of the things that gets in the way is I’ve come to believe that we, as a big collective, certainly in the space of business have a lot of baggage around this idea of communication. I think we believe that we already know how to do it. I mean, sure I might buy a book on it, or I might be curious about it, but I think we have some baggage around “Well, it’s soft and fluffy,” or “I already do it. I do it all day long, Marsha. Why would I need to actually invest time, resources, or certainly any concentrated thought in it?” And I actually think that that is one of our biggest challenges with communication. So, if somewhere along the way, whenever your listeners are thinking, “I hear you, but I’m good. I actually got some feedback that I’m pretty good at it.” So, here’s my question — this is the litmus test: Have you ever had the experience, or even the frustration, of having the same conversation over and over again at work or at home? Because if you have, then I would say, that’s your indicator, that’s your canary in the coal mine, that there’s possibly a lot more to that conversation that you’re missing. 

Steve Shallenberger: By the way, we’re just sunk. I’ll just speak for Steve Shallenberger, not for anybody else. But I’m sunk if I think I’ve got this down. As much as I’ve read, as much as I’ve practiced, I feel, so many times, inadequate. And I loved your “canary in the mind” example. Are you having this discussion? How many times have you had the same discussion with the person? So, it’s pretty humbling, I think, the realization that we’ve got a ways to go. So, what are some of the best tips, Marsha, from your experience, that are helpful? 

Marsha Acker: I talk a lot about separating content, like the topic that we’re talking about. So, I’ve just left a meeting, literally a couple of hours ago, where we were talking about assignments of who was going to work on what. So, that’s the topic. And then there is how we’re talking with one another. So, we all have been in that experience to that moment where we feel like the air just got sucked out of the room, or we can’t put our finger on it or we can’t name it but something just happened and everybody got quiet, or maybe a couple of people got loud. So, I think that the first tip is can you separate the What we’re talking about from the How we’re talking? When those moments happen where the energy changes or the air gets sucked out of the room, if you can just let go of the what for a moment and then focus on how. A lot of times, for me, if I feel like the air just left the room, I’ll stop trying to move us forward on who’s going to do what, and I’ll just say, “Ah, something just happened. Can I just check in with you? What’s happening for you right now?” In doing that, I hope that I take our attention off the thing that maybe is difficult to talk about, and then we start to focus on how we’re communicating. I find that it’s a way to bring the real conversation in the room. So, that’s the second tip or strategy that I have for folks is to separate the What from the How, and then can you actually think about bringing the real conversation into the room? A lot of times, I call them Groundhog Day Conversations — those conversations that keep repeating themselves. They’re doing that because there’s a bigger topic that we just haven’t quite gotten to. So, if we find ways to bring the conversation in the room, whether that’s one-on-one or with a group, that’s the principle that we’re always working towards, it doesn’t mean it’s easy; I think it’s really hard. You made the comment a moment ago we can maybe feel like there’s an endless amount of work to do, but I think it’s a practice. It is for me too, I’m never gonna be perfect at it for sure. 

Steve Shallenberger: I love it. Thanks for separating the What from the How. When something’s going on, you feel a change in the emotion in the room, and you just talk about it and you say, “Something just happened.” Did you say, “How are you doing”? Or “Is something going on”? 

Marsha Acker: Yeah, any of those. I will often say, “What’s happening for you in this conversation right now?” And it changes. It’s inviting people to comment. The meeting that I literally just left not too long ago with some of my teammates, it was, “I’m actually feeling like things are getting pulled away from me,” or “This is what’s really going on for me and why I’m reacting.” And I’m like, “Oh, wow!” That’s real data. That’s not about the thing over here anymore that we were just talking about, but that gives us a different focus for the conversation; it changes the trajectory of the conversation; it changes the outcome, we stop trying to move the shells around on the table at a really surface level and we’re now able to create a different space. 

Steve Shallenberger: And then allows you to, as a leader and a fellow worker, and someone that cares in the relationship, maybe to hear some of the real issues and not have to feel like you’re driving down a certain pathway because you know you can always come back to the pathway. And being patient and just listening, actually may facilitate getting there much faster. 

Marsha Acker: I think sometimes it feels like we’re going slower. For those of us who have a propensity, certainly as leaders, to want to move things along or get things done. I was just working with a leadership team the other day, and I was talking to them about this tendency to look at the watch — I’m like, “So, what’s that about?” But I think that desire sometimes is to move things along. It’s not wrong. We all have it, and it certainly exists for me. But I think there are places where it costs us. To me, this is about finding range in our leadership. There are times where we do need to be the voice of moving things along or getting to task. And then there are places where that meeting that I’m referring to that literally just happened, we went over by about 45 minutes. I thankfully had a little bit of space, and I think some other folks just cleared their calendar, but I was willing to just create enough space to stay with it because I believe in my model for change and leadership — it’s crucial. I know once we hit on this subject—and I know we’ve had this kind of conversation before—I really start to prioritize the value of sticking with it just long enough to really get at the core of what’s behind some of the resistance, breakdown, or some conflict that’s happening. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, I admire your background and experience in this area. What happens if an individual, in the workplace or in your personal life, keeps coming back to the same core issue? Or maybe it’s a down-in-the-gut core issue and you’ve tried to understand it, but they can’t get off of the core issue? Have you found something helpful? It can be frustrating to them, I’m sure. But as a leader or somebody else, it’s kind of anxious to move on — you want to hit that, but maybe that’s exactly the wrong thing. I don’t want to repeat the same question, but it’s probably frustrating to them, how can you shift the discussion so it’s productive and positive? And then I have another question on leadership, we’ll move forward on. 

Marsha Acker: So, one of the things that I think you’re pointing to. Often, when we’re working with leaders and leadership teams, we have a whole technology that we give them for being able to sort out and actually make sense of the conversation that’s happening in real-time. So, without unpacking all of that, I think there are a couple of things that are happening if that keeps repeating itself: One is having those conversations; have both parties, both you as a leader and the other person, really done your best to come forward, have dialogue, engage in dialogue, and be able to name what’s really going on? And then to work through that. And sometimes, I do think there are places and instances where what’s happening for the other person or why you’re getting that resistance, maybe isn’t something where they need to feel heard or seen, or you need to engage in dialogue, or both of you need to shift perspectives and thinking like you’ve really tried it. And sometimes I think it just becomes a performance issue; there is a challenge or there’s something to be said to someone that’s about “I hear you and I need you at this place. I feel like we’ve addressed these things that I need to move on.” Or we just decide that this might not be working. So, I think, for leaders, it is about taking a systems view, what’s happening that’s creating this for someone, what part am I playing in it as a leader? What part do I own? What part do they own? And are they taking responsibility for it? And sometimes people will and sometimes people won’t. And then, I think, it’s a conversation for a leader to suss out — “Is this a thing that we need to change conversation or dialogue around? Or is this maybe a performance assurance? It’s just not working.” And so I think those two things are separate. 

Steve Shallenberger: Thank you so much for your response on that, Marsha. One of the things that you’ve talked about is something called “leadership range.” What is leadership range? And how can that be helpful to a leader? 

Marsha Acker: If we think about leadership — I hold that any of us can demonstrate leadership. There’s the ability to demonstrate leadership from anybody, and then there’s a positional leader — a CEO, VP, Director. And in any of those cases, sometimes if you ask people what they think about leadership, they’ll often say something to the effect of “it’s the person setting direction or making the final decision.” And yes, that’s an aspect of it. But I think, for me, it’s about all of us growing our range. So, our ability to step forward, to make moves, to set direction to say, “This is where we’re going.” And like I was just saying, that ability to quell the need to “check the clock” or move something forward and actually just step back. Where are the places that I actually need to create more space for others to make a move? Or for others to make a move, and for me to be able to follow or support what they’re doing. Where can I get behind the idea? Or where can I step back and create more space? So, with the belief, as I share, what’s in my model for that, I have a belief that when people are able to put their fingerprints on things or when they’re able to feel heard and seen, they’re more likely to move something forward. And it doesn’t mean that I won’t make a final decision, but I do believe in creating that space. So, for me, leadership range is always this concept of where do I need to stretch or grow in my ability to bring the behavior that’s needed the most in the moment. Versus, sometimes leaders can get caught up saying, “Well, that’s not like me.” Well, sure, we all have preferences, but we can change our behavior; we can take a different action in the moment just by starting to become more aware of the impact we’re having on others.  

Steve Shallenberger: From your point of view, your experience, and your background, what’s the number one tip? I don’t know if you could put it that way. Or the number one thing that a leader can do better or differently to facilitate sustainable change within their team or organization. 

Marsha Acker: So, one place I would point leaders is, what’s the quality of the conversation that you’re having? Do you have a way of taking the temperature? Do people push back for things that you put forward? Are you finding ways to support what others are doing? Or do you just always find yourself being the one that sets direction and you’re expecting others to follow? So, I think it’s about looking at the conversation “Am I creating places where we’re moving things forward? But am I also creating places where I get curious and stop my propensity to drive forward?” So, I think it’s about that range. And to me, the way we’re engaging in communication is the number one flag or temperature check. And for others, they might have other ways of assessing that. But I think that is, to me, the number one thing we can do. 

Steve Shallenberger: It’s the conversation they have. You talked about a model, that you have a model for change, what is the model? 

Marsha Acker: Well, I think that the important part is that we define a model. So, by that, I mean — I’ll speak for myself. So, a number of years ago, I would have said, “You lead change by mapping out a process and telling people to get on board.” And that would definitely not be — That is a model. It might be someone’s model today. I think the point of it is that I’m a real advocate for “Have you sat down, as a leader, and taken the time to really think through, what is it that you’re trying to change? And what do you believe about how that thing changes?” So, as you hear me talk today, in my model for leading change, at the core of it is a belief that no one changes until they feel seen and understood, and that communication is the mechanism. So, I’m really helping leaders affect change in terms of behavior and communication. And I’ll place that above pretty much anything else because I know I’ve watched it play out and I’ve seen the evidence of it coming forward. So, that’s a little bit of my model for how change happens. I don’t have the lock on how change happens, but I’m a real big advocate for all of us as leaders doing the work to say, “Have you sat down and thought about it?” When you’re stepping forward in an organization, you’re likely going to have a slightly different model than I do. So, I’m not advocating for one way or another, but I’m definitely advocating for having done the thought work to “What am I trying to change? What do I believe about range in my leadership? What do I believe about how leadership best happens and gets demonstrated in an organization? And what am I going to do to help bring that forward?” So, I’m just a really big advocate of doing this thought and thinking, because I think that’s where clarity and confidence come for us as leaders. And then when we step into those tacky, uncertain moments, there’s more clarity in what to do. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, being thoughtful. Let’s just talk about this. We have a few minutes left, but I’m grateful for the ideas and the thoughts that we’re talking about today because I think they’re helpful to the leaders. So, a leader helps create a vision, a direction, and a plan; “Here’s our strategy. Here’s how we’re going to get to it.” And then I love your “range of leadership,” but really the power of that is the participation of others helping engage in that vision, strategy, and plan where, ultimately, they’re going to execute. Is that what you’re saying? So, the central part of this that facilitates the communication, the types of conversations that we have that make it come alive for an organization? Is that what you’re saying? 

Marsha Acker: And that you’ve sat down and given it some thought about what that would look like for you? How would it show up in your behavior? What are some of the things that you would prompt for? What trips you up? I think one of the things I said a moment ago about when you’re looking at your conversation, do you welcome opposition? Is it okay for people to push back on things that you say? And if so, to think that intellectually is one thing; to actually practice it in the moment can be really difficult. I think that can feel pretty vulnerable to open yourself up to say, “I might have it wrong,” or “Where might I have it wrong?” Is that in your leadership model? It’s in the mind. Just because it’s in mine doesn’t mean that it has to be in yours. But I’m a huge advocate for you doing the thinking work — is it? And if not, then what is in your model? How would you go about that? So, I think spending the time just getting really clear. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, it’s been a helpful and valuable visit today. Before we sign off, and before we hear about how people can learn about you, final tips for our listeners today that you might offer them. 

Marsha Acker: I think, never underestimate the power of something that can seem so simple as communication. I think it can be a canary in the coal mine about where things are moving forward and maybe where you’re stuck. So, I think there’s a lot of value in the space of communication. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, great advice. Marsha, how can people find out about you and what you’re doing? 

Marsha Acker: Probably one of the easiest ways is to connect to me on LinkedIn: Marsha Acker. You can also find out about the book at So, there’s a free excerpt and a couple of chapters that we include as a download on that site. So, that’s probably the easiest way to check me out. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, congratulations on the work that you’re doing; you’re helping many, many people. We wish you all the best, Marsha. 

Marsha Acker: Thanks, Steve. I appreciate the conversation today.  

Steve Shallenberger: So, our listeners, we’re so grateful that you would join in today. We admire and applaud your efforts to become your best, to be thinking about “What is my best look at?” And keep trying, because in the very process of doing that, you are blessing other people every single day. So, thank you for joining us. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host, signing off and wishing you a great day. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, and Community Leader

Marsha Acker

Founder and CEO of TeamCatapult

Founder and CEO of TeamCatapult, Author, Speaker, and Podcaster 

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