Episode 438: Jim Stevenson. Creating Empowerment and Winning Cultures Leads to Growth

Episode Summary

In this episode, we learn new ways of empowering teams and creating winning cultures from the extraordinary Jim Stevenson. Throughout our conversation, Jim shares his thoughts on the challenges of assembling teams capable of dealing with today’s volatile environments, the benefits of empowering teams, and why leadership’s reaction to failure molds culture.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger, and we truly have an international podcast going on with our guest. He is known for creative, innovative solutions and strategies, turning challenges into opportunities and supporting organisations to implement these strategies to realize their ambitions and grow their businesses and organizations. His innovative approach fosters a customer-centric, data-driven, and agile culture across the entire set of organizations, leading to double-digit growth and increased business valuations. Welcome, Jim Stevenson.

Jim Stevenson: Hi, Steve. Thanks for having me.

Steve Shallenberger: I’ve been excited to have you. We’ve been introduced to one another by Ginni, who herself hails from Australia. I’ll tell you just a little bit more about Jim before we launch into our interview. He’s the founder and CEO of Bletchley Group and is a proven strategic advisor and inspirational leader who drives business growth through complex, challenging, or uncertain times. He has a career that’s 20 years plus, focused on strategy, organizational transformation, and growth, adding over $700 million in value to clients. He has a wide range of clients and a wide range of emphasis on business success. So, Jim, let’s get going today. Tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you.

Jim Stevenson: Absolutely. I’m not sure the podcast is long enough, but I’ll give you the condensed version of all of that. My journey has been quite exciting, and I’ve loved every second of it. I started out life in Scotland in construction, and I only say that because the job I had is unique to the UK. It’s a very commercial role. It involved very much the legal contracts and the finances for construction projects, and I found that I enjoyed the legal and the finance aspects. I’m not a lawyer; I’m not a CFO.

Steve Shallenberger: Can you explain why empowering teams is crucial for organizations, especially in today’s volatile and uncertain environment?

Jim Stevenson: Absolutely. I love the question because I think empowering teams is just so important, regardless. The world is really problematic at the moment. There’s so much happening. We’ve come out of the pandemic and supply chain challenges, so empowering your team, for me, is just vital. There is nothing more important than empowering your team. The reason for that is when you have an empowered team—generally, empowered teams are empowered by giving them business objectives to focus on. They understand what the business is trying to achieve. They understand what you’re trying to get to as a business—not just as a project, not just as a team, not just as a small group of Skunk Works people. That fundamental change of empowering your people means that you get the power of teams in your solution-making. It’s not just the highest-paid individual in the room who makes the decision about what the solution should be; it’s the team that’s empowered to make those decisions. That means the team is much more resilient and adaptable going forward. The resilience and adaptability of empowerment mean that when something uncertain happens, the team rolls with it. They change the process, they change the solution, they move forward—always keeping in mind the business objective that they’re trying to achieve. That’s really, really important. To be honest, that’s the single reason why most traditional projects fail. When things change, they don’t adapt to that change quickly enough. They focus on what they were trying to deliver, regardless of the fact that the environment around them has changed, so it becomes problematic. Empowering your team allows them to have that resilience, that adaptability, that flexibility. It also means that they come back to you with much more powerful solutions. If they know that your business objective is X, they can come back and say, “We can get to X—whatever that is, growing your sales, growing your conversion, whatever those metrics are that you’re working towards—in three months, but we can do this smaller thing and start making an impact on that in a few weeks,” because they know what the business is doing and what the business outcome is, and you’ve empowered them. That empowerment allows them to come back to you with those decisions, as opposed to the traditional “Can you deliver this by then with this amount of money in this scope?” It allows them to be much more flexible and to help you manage your business going forward.

Steve Shallenberger: What are the most important aspects of what you can provide a team so they can be empowered?

Jim Stevenson: There are two main things here. The big one for me is always culture. I think it was the Harvard Business Review editor who said, probably 30 years ago now, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and it is 100% true. I’ve done so many transformations within businesses, and some call it digital transformation, some call it whatever. The reality is they’re all cultural transformations. That’s what makes these things work. So, the culture of setting your business objective, the culture of creating an environment for success, the culture of trusting your team to go away and make decisions—you don’t need to spoon-feed them, you don’t need to validate everything they’re doing. You trust them to go away and do what you need. That also means they have autonomy, and because they have autonomy in what they’re doing, they feel heard, they feel valued, they feel engaged and satisfied in their jobs, and they’re inspired to come up with the next solution to move the business forward. Because of that, they’re fulfilled in their job, and it makes it great. But then, that also goes hand in hand with creating a process. Process allows you to scale, to expand, and for everyone to be on the same page. So, you need a process that enables all of this, and I’ve found an Agile process to be by far the most successful. Agile is the process and the methodology, but there’s also agile with a small “a,” which is the mindset that goes with it. So, it’s the culture of agility as a culture and the process of Agile to allow you to have a level of control, a level of monitoring as you move forward, so that you’ve got some control of the business. You know where you’re going, you’re setting objectives properly, everyone’s clear on what’s happening, but then the team is empowered to make that work.

Jim Stevenson: Something as simple as an example of the process—it’s very often people talk about RAG statuses of red, amber, green, of traffic lights, of how you’re doing. I changed that so that the RAG status shouldn’t be for your progress or issues. It should be for how the team’s coping. I’ve always said that a red status doesn’t mean to say that the team’s a bad team; it doesn’t mean to say that the team has failed. It means that the team needs some external help to allow them to overcome an issue. So, what they’re asking for is someone more senior in the organization or different to the organization to come in and help them with an issue that they don’t have the resources to handle themselves. And I’ve found even that change in mindset has helped significantly, again, to empower the team to do what you’re asking them to do.

Steve Shallenberger: One of the things that come to mind is that, of course, these things that we’re talking about—the principles and practices we’re talking about today—apply in the business world, in organizations, and teams of all sizes, but they can also apply to a soccer team. They can apply to a family. The very same things you’re talking about: you’re creating a culture that creates a winning environment. What are some of the key elements you’ve discovered and observed, Jim, that leaders can help instill within their organization to produce that culture—the culture that you want? How do you approach that? How do you set that vision, and how do people start buying into it and understanding it? What’s that process like?

Jim Stevenson: I love the fact that you’ve equated this to sports because the whole agile mindset came from a rugby approach, as opposed to a football approach, or at least a soccer approach, where it’s not linear. You’re not passing the ball down the field. The whole team is moving down as one. So, yeah, absolutely. For leaders, it’s about understanding that you’re not there to beat up your team. You’re not there to drive your team, you’re not there to push them into delivery: you’re there to encourage them, you’re there to draw the best out of them, and you’re there to coach them. So, when you see someone that is failing, it’s not a failure on them; it’s a failure on you because you didn’t give them the right support, you didn’t give them the right training, you haven’t done something. It’s about fostering that culture of building people up to be their best success—not about knocking them down because they failed to meet a delivery that wouldn’t actually move your business forward anyway. I like the quote from Einstein: “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will always be a failure.” As leaders, it is incumbent on us to find what a fish is good at, find who is good at climbing the tree, and then encourage them to do more of that. Sometimes, as leaders, that means that you actually take someone out of the job they’re in and move them to another job because that’s the job that they were meant to be doing, that’s the job that their skill set fits, that’s the job that they’re passionate about. You’ve got to do that. I remember working with The Guardian, and one of the things that I always thought was great there was we would actually encourage people to leave the organization. It wasn’t “we’re firing you” or “you’re terrible”; it was “we can no longer promote you higher than you are today, and you’re so much better than we can provide to you.” So, we’d give them all the support. They weren’t fired. They could stay there another 10 years if they chose to, but it was about building those people up to do the best that they can and then watching them flourish. To be honest, as a leader, watching someone that you’ve helped grow—and you can’t take credit for it because it’s all them—but you can give them the support, you can give them the environment to be their best self. That’s what I think leaders need to be focusing on. It’s not about this delivery or that delivery; it’s about growing the people and letting them worry about your delivery. Let them worry about the business objective that they’re trying to achieve.

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, and they have to understand it. People have to know this is where we’re going as an organization. Here are the core values we work by. It’s how we treat one another. But you’re here for a reason. You’re here to contribute and see things. So, you’ve probably observed really successful teams and organizations that are great at empowerment, that teach agility, but you’ve probably seen some that aren’t so good. What have you seen as the difference and those elements that really make a difference that we can teach and put into our organization?

Jim Stevenson: The difference is stark, and for me, personally, it comes down to culture, leadership style, who the leaders are, and what their drive is. I’ll give you two very starkly different organizations in the same industry. I used to work with News Corp and The Guardian newspaper. News Corp was very old-fashioned, very traditional. You were set a target; you had to meet the target. You were judged, pass or fail, based on whether you made that target. It was drive, drive, drive. Get it done. Do eight hours, 12 hours, 15 hours. The funny thing was that we had one engineer who worked with us in that environment, and this applies to everyone. I’m using an engineer as an example, but it could be anyone. We had one engineer who had the biggest failure rate of everyone, and it was just shocking. He failed at pretty much 90% of what he did, but he was our best engineer. He failed at almost everything because he did things that no one else could. He tried things; he experimented with things. He was the one you gave a problem that no one else could fix, and he succeeded most of the time, but he failed quite a lot. Even in his failures, he moved us forward. He succeeded at something, but technically, in that kind of toxic, struggling environment where you’re driving people, he was viewed as a failure because he didn’t meet the target. He got 90% to the target but didn’t reach it, so he failed. The opposite is exactly true of The Guardian. Again, news media, newspapers, and content—they were just wonderful because they built people up. Failure wasn’t seen as a failure; failure was seen as a learning opportunity. You would learn as an individual, you’d learn as a team, you’d learn as an organization. You would share the learning. At The Guardian, we used to have every Friday afternoon, the last hour of the week, people telling us about their successes and their failures. They were sharing that learning. It was an entirely different culture, an entirely different way of working. I can tell you which one I preferred working at, and I can also tell you which one was more successful. I don’t think you need to guess too hard to figure out which one that was.

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, that’s true. What have you learned, Jim, about organizational structure and how it impacts empowerment and productivity?

Jim Stevenson: I love that question. I worked with a company in Switzerland. I spent a good year there, flying in and out of Switzerland. It was a great company and a great experience, and the guys were fantastic. But when I joined them, they had their own building over four floors. They had one team on the ground floor, one team on the second floor, and one team on the third floor. So, whenever you wanted to organize a meeting, you were always having to formalize something: “My diary is busy today, so we can do it tomorrow.” “My diary is busy tomorrow, so let’s do it the next day.” The collaboration just took forever to organize. And please don’t tell the client this, but one of the first things I did was move people’s desks. To be honest, I could have walked away then. I genuinely could have walked away. Just putting the team that was working together in one place so that you were collaborating by turning around in your swivel chair was the biggest change ever. It genuinely was. But there’s more to it than that. Another challenge I find in organizational structures is that we organize structures by functional teams. So, you have the marketing team, the sales team, customer service, production—whatever your organization is, you’re organized in functional teams. Yet, your customer comes in and they go through all of those teams. Your customer doesn’t care whether you’re sitting in marketing, sales, or customer service. Your customer has a problem with the company, and your customer touches all of those teams at some point. I’ve always found that it’s the gap between each of those teams; it’s when the handover happens—that’s when customers get lost, that’s when the quality of customer service drops, that’s when the customer experience is an issue, and that’s when things go wrong.

Jim Stevenson: So, the more you can take away those silos and actually get into functional teams, the better. If you’re selling a product, you’re the sales for that product team, you’re the marketing for that product, and you’re the customer service for that product team. You’re taking away those silos as much as you possibly can because those silos when you’re handing off from one team to the next, are where problems occur. It’s a very simplistic thought, but you have functional teams, and then you have the way your customer thinks. Think like your customer. That allows your team to be more empowered, to build domain knowledge, and to understand the customer’s needs and wants as you’re going through. It stops these silos from happening and problems being caused by them. Generally, you find that your employees, because they’re empowered and because they feel they have the autonomy to make decisions, feel happier because they’re servicing a group of people they can see—it’s a tangible group of people. They take pride in servicing that group of people because that’s their team; that’s their goal. It’s an incredibly simple concept, yet it’s amazing how many companies haven’t done it.

Steve Shallenberger: So, as a leader, really, what we want to be thinking about is, how do we take the barriers away that keep us from being empowered, from working together easily? The other thing I was thinking of while you were speaking is making sure that people know we believe in them. They’re here for a reason. They can make a difference. So, we want to provide the direction and the guidelines. Here’s how we do things, but go for it.

Jim Stevenson: I think one of the biggest proxies for that kind of mindset, because I completely agree with you, is whether your team feels empowered to fail. The one thing is, if you’re in an organization where failure is viewed as negative and people are going to be fired or bonuses aren’t going to get paid, that dictates a culture. If you’re in an organization where someone fails, it’s viewed as “What did we learn?” It’s only a failure if we didn’t learn anything. If we learned something and we share that learning. There was a story I heard a few weeks ago, and it’s probably entirely wrong, but it’s a good story anyway. I think it was an old IBM story. An employee went to the CEO of IBM and said, “I’m sorry, but I’ve made a mistake. I’ve just cost the company $600,000 because I made this mistake. I’m obviously going to resign because I made a mistake. I’m really sorry.” And the CEO said, “Why would you resign? I’ve just spent $600,000 to teach you a lesson. Why would I want you to go away and take that lesson to some other competitor?” It’s very true; you need to learn from your lessons. We all make them. We all make mistakes. We all learn from those things. You need to share and embellish them and view them as a learning experience, nothing more than that.

Steve Shallenberger: So, Jim, as you think about setting up teams, creating cultures that can eat strategy for lunch—of course, it’s very powerful—what are some of the most important elements that allow us to do that, from your point of view?

Jim Stevenson: I think for me, the elements that allow you to do things like that are the structure that you put in place. I’m a huge fan of Agile—both the big “A” for the process and the small “a” for the mindset and the culture. I think we absolutely need those things in place to make this work. But there’s more to it than just the agility of teams and how you’re organizing them. It’s about showing teams that they are empowered, allowing them to fail, and celebrating the failure and the learning that comes from it. Those are the things that will ultimately change your culture. I also like the idea that any team should be able to question the CEO, and the CEO should not be immune from this. Someone should be able to say to the CEO, “You gave us a town hall and you explained the strategy. I missed that, but I didn’t understand why we’re doing that. Can you help me understand?” Because that’s where collaboration comes from. Collaboration can come from the board all the way down to the most junior employee and all the way back up again. So, you’ve got those types of elements throughout this whole process of how you get this to work. It’s that Agile process, which is set up to encourage people, to allow them to be empowered, and to build trust in them as they’re moving forward. Then you’ve got the culture that runs with it as well.

Steve Shallenberger: So it’s really communicating. Part of it is communicating, saying, “Listen, you are an important part of our organization. We value you. We want you to speak out. We want you to share your thoughts and to make a difference, and we’re doing this together.”

Jim Stevenson: Completely. And to go back to your earlier comment, I would like to think that that’s what we do in our families and in our sports teams and any other team that we’ve got. The principles are exactly the same. I don’t understand why, when you move into a work environment, suddenly people think it’s different. You spend too many hours in your work environment not to enjoy it, not to like who you’re working with, not to feel that you’re being heard, and not to feel that you’re being successful. You’ve got to have the autonomy to do what you know you’re good at to move forward. So, yeah, allow people to be heard. Communicate clearly. I think, specifically within that whole “how do you communicate?” I do like the notion of OKRs, which can very often be misunderstood and misinterpreted, but it’s a way of forcing you to give the objective. Don’t give a task; don’t give a job for someone to do. Give an outcome. Make it an outcome, and then tell them how you’re going to judge that success. “I want you to increase our conversion by 5%.” It’s very clear what that team is being tasked to do. It’s very clear how they’re going to be judged. It’s very clear what they need to go away and do to achieve that. So they’ve got clarity. They know what they own. They know what’s expected of them. And to be honest, even if they only change your conversion by 3.5%, that’s still a win. That’s a big win. So they might not get to your 5%, but they’ve made significant steps towards that. So, absolutely, communication and bringing all that together.

Steve Shallenberger: That’s a really important thing that you’re talking about right now, is outlining what the vision is on this project, on this thing, and we need you to go solve this problem. So, yeah, what you’re talking about is, here’s how we measure whether we did it or not. But you can do it. We want you to go do it, but here’s what the expectation is.

Jim Stevenson: I don’t know any company that did this, but it would be kind of the equivalent of saying to someone, “Go make the company better.” And they say, “Well, how do you want me to do that?” “I have no idea.” What we need to do is say, “You and your team, I want you to make conversion better by 5%. Another team, I want you to give me 10,000 more leads coming through our sales funnel. And another team, I want you to make our customers happy, so I want you to focus on improving our NPS score or whatever measure you have there.” Certainly, those are very tangible things. They’re very clear that each team can own them. They’ve got autonomy for them. It’s very clear that you trust them to go away and do that because you’re not micromanaging them, telling them to do this task, do that task, and then we’ll see what the outcome is. All of that goes together in a very succinct way. Everything we’ve spoken about builds that trust, builds teamwork, and changes leadership by setting that objective and being very clear about the metric that they’re going to be driven by. It coalesces all of that thinking into needing the right culture to make that work. You need a bit of a process in there to allow people to have the flexibility to do what they need to do, but it’s very clear what they’re trying to achieve.

Steve Shallenberger: So, Jim, you’re going to have some people that really respond to that, and they perform, they deliver time after time after time. Sometimes they’re going to fail. That’s part of business, but we learn from it and move ahead. But what happens if you have a person that just doesn’t do it, just doesn’t get it, they can’t get it, they don’t contribute, they don’t perform? What do you do about that?

Jim Stevenson: I think there are two or three things to mention in there. One is that having teams that perform is less about the team itself performing and more about your hiring practices. You need to make sure that you’re hiring the right people into the right environment with the right skill set and the right attitude to enhance the team, not to be anything else. Where you’ve got people who aren’t performing, I did a big transformation project for a big retailer in the UK called Marks and Spencer, huge by UK standards. I did a transformation process, and there were two or three hundred people in the team, and there were four of them who just thought I was mad. Everything I was saying didn’t make sense to them; it was just completely bonkers. I remember I went to a conference two years after I finished doing that transformation piece, and one of those four guys came up and gave me a hug. I’d never seen him in the two years since the project. By accident, we were at the same conference, and he just came up and gave me a hug and said, “I get it now. I understand. I see what you were trying to say.” Not everyone gets it. Not everyone gets it in the same time scale. Not everyone understands it right away, but I think it just takes time, and then people will come around. But equally, if people don’t come around, sometimes you’ve got no option. And that goes back to the idea that if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, you’re setting it up for failure. Some people don’t like that environment. Sometimes that’s not the environment for them. Sometimes they need a different job, a different role, a different career. For me, it’s more about you explaining to them why they’re not fitting in, why their skill set doesn’t work, and helping them find something that they’re going to be happy with, helping them find something where they can go away and be successful because that environment isn’t the one that’s going to make them happy.

Steve Shallenberger: Where they can really contribute.

Jim Steveson: Yeah, exactly.

Steve Shallenberger: If not, help them find someplace else where they can contribute so they’re growing and doing whatever they need to do. That’s what helps everybody.

Jim Stevenson: We all have friends, either now or in the past, who were in a job that they weren’t happy with. They weren’t feeling satisfied. Every Monday morning, they would be grumpy about going back into the office or whatever it was. The reality is I feel sorry for those people. They need to find something that they’re happy with, and then they’ll be good at it. When they’re good at it, they’ll be successful at it. Persevering with something that you’re unhappy with isn’t going to get you further down the progress in any meaningful way. It just means you’re going to be unhappy every Monday morning, and you’re going through Groundhog Day.

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, and maybe that’s part of empowerment and our job of working together as we get everybody moving in the right direction. If it can’t happen, we say, “Listen, it’s the way it goes, and we want you to be successful, and we want to be successful, so thank you, and let’s help you to get to that place.” I’m always shocked how fast things go, Jim. So, we’re at the end of our interview already. Any final tips you’d like to leave with our listeners today that can be helpful?

Jim Stevenson: If you’re a leader and you’re thinking about changing how you can lead your team to be far more successful, for me, the reality is, move forward, leave your ego behind. It’s not about you, your ego, or what you know. It’s about building your team, encouraging your team, and allowing your team to grow and be successful.

Steve Shallenberger: How can people find out about what you’re doing?

Jim Stevenson: The easiest way is my website. It’s Bletchley Group, named after Bletchley Park. So,, or you can find me on LinkedIn as Jim Stevenson. That’s a good way to find me as well.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, I’ve loved having you with us today. Fun to have an international flavor here with us. To all of our listeners, it’s been a delight to get some of these different thoughts that Jim Stevenson has brought to us. It’s a really important subject for each one of us to create winning cultures—winning cultures in our own lives, with each other, with our teams, and in our professional lives. So, thanks for the thoughts you brought to us today.

Jim Stevenson: Thanks for having me. It’s been great. Great chatting with you. I’ve enjoyed it a lot.

Steve Shallenberger: We wish you the best in all that you’re doing.  

Jim Stevenson: Thanks, Steve.

Steve Shallenberger: To all of our listeners, we are so grateful to have you with us. Thank you for your example. We wish we could be in the same room with you to get your thoughts on this as well and any questions, but it’s been really wonderful. We wish you the best in all that you’re doing. You’re making a difference, lifting and building lives, creating opportunities, and working to create that culture that brings out the best in people. So, thank you for being with us. This is Steve Shallenberger signing off. Thanks to our guest, Jim Stevenson.

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, Entrepreneur, and Community Leader

Jim Stevenson

Founder and CEO at Bletchley Group

Strategic Advisor, Consultant, Transformation and Growth Specialist

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