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Rethinking Leadership GC, Episode 2: Embracing an Infinite Mindset to Thrive During Change (TRN4-P09)


In this episode of the Rethinking Leadership GC podcast, Stephen Shedletzky, Head of Brand Experience and lead igniter at Simon Sinek Inc., shares key points behind the infinite mindset and explores what empowers individuals, teams and organizations to thrive.

Duration: 01:02:58
Published: June 10, 2021
Type: Podcast

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Rethinking Leadership GC, Episode 2: Embracing an Infinite Mindset to Thrive During Change

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Transcript: Rethinking Leadership GC, Episode 2: Embracing an Infinite Mindset to Thrive During Change

[Robert Armstrong] Hello and welcome to Rethinking Leadership, a podcast series that aims to inspire and challenge your personal leadership journey. This is Episode One: Embracing an Infinite Mindset to Thrive during Change. My name is Robert Armstrong. I'm currently a regional manager of HR programs at Public Services and Procurement Canada, and I've been a federal public servant for over 20 years with half of that time spent at the Canada School of Public Service. I get curious and pretty enthused when I see public servants learning and igniting and reigniting their passions, whether it's corner of the desk stuff or their full time gig. You've all witnessed that feeling when colleagues are engaged and motivated. And this podcast series is meant to explore what's at play there so we can help others and ourselves to thrive during change.

[Robert Armstrong] What empowers individuals, teams and organizations to thrive? The Canada School of Public Service welcomes back Stephen Shedletsky, Head of Brand Experience and Lead Ignitor from world renowned Simon Sinek Inc. Simon Sinek, optimist, author and speaker, is best known for popularizing the concept of "Starting with Why" in his first TED talk. It has become one of the top most watched TED talks on now with well over 50 million views. In this podcast, Stephen will share key points on the infinite mindset based on Simon's most recent bestselling book, The Infinite Game. Stephen will also respond to those great questions you all asked during the Canada School of Public Service, Embracing an Infinite Mindset to Thrive During Change event in November of 2020. We can't choose the game. We can't choose the rules. We can only choose how we play.

[Robert Armstrong] Stephen, welcome back. You work with so many types of organizations, the breadth of your experience is quite incredible. But let's narrow it down to where I'm sitting. If you were to be asked today your opinion on the public service, let's say I don't know at a cocktail party, maybe at the playground with the kids, what would you say?

[Stephen Shedletsky] Am I wearing a mask or I am I not wearing a mask? I mean, I haven't been to a cocktail party in some time, Robert, but I see, you know, build me up, talk nice and then boom, ask me a question that makes me say something perhaps not so accepted. But I mean, when I think about public service, the first word I think of is noble. I then think of slow bureaucratic red tape and dark, windowless offices, sort of when asked that question, the things I jotted down. But you live and breathe it every day and have people around you who live and breathe it every day. So I'm curious to know more from your perspective than mine, from the outside.

[Robert Armstrong] Nice turning of the tables. I wouldn't say you're far off. I also you know, I feel the noble thing, but yeah, slow, red tape. And I'm working in a windowless space right now, so you're not too far off. But we're going to talk about the public service, right. For the next little while. And we're going to try to bring that infinite game discussion into that sphere, because that's our audience today. For those who were really enamoured by the webcast that you did and also for those who haven't been able to listen to it, can you just go back and talk about infinite mindset for a minute and tell us what it is that we're going to be talking about today?

[Stephen Shedletsky] Yeah, so part of Simon Sinek, our founder, my mentor, friend, part of his genius is not necessarily in coming up with new ideas. It's often taking ideas that already exist, finding patterns where people haven't necessarily connected them, and then also using words that are simple to use when we use words. He has a saying that if you speak like a scientist, scientists can understand you. But if you speak like a truck driver, both scientists and truck drivers can understand you. And I think part of Simon's genius is taking complex ideas and communicating them in simple ways such that we can use them. So with his most recent book, The Infinite Game, he's built upon already existing work, that is a universal truth around game theory.

[Stephen Shedletsky] If you have two or more players, you have a game. And as it turns out, Dr. James Carse wrote a book in this name, Finite and Infinite Games. You have - if you have two more players, you have, you have a game. And there are at least two types of games: finite games and infinite games. And there are characteristics between them. Finite games have known players, agreed upon fixed rules and metrics of success, and there's a finish line, a clear end. There's clear beginnings, middles and ends of finite games. All of our games of sport, monopoly, even an election is a finite game. You can win an election. Infinite games, on the contrary, have known and unknown players. Players can come and go. There are no fixed rules. You can play however you want, and the metrics of success are arbitrary.

[Stephen Shedletsky] In business, there are many businesses that say we're number one in our industry and I might be in the very same industry and say I'm also number one because there's no standard metrics. Is it square footage above your offices? Is it number of planes in your fleet? Is it revenues? Is it your mother's opinion? Like there's no standard definition of what success means and so everyone can say, I'm number one. And the funny thing is, is, yeah, for now. But just because you're number one at the moment doesn't mean you win the game. Similarly, in geopolitics, there's no winner of geopolitics. There's ahead and behind. In infinite games there are no ends to infinite games. So players come and go, rules can change and there is no end. And though there may be mile markers, an infinite game is like running a marathon, which you can touch, taste and see and smell the finish line, but you'll never actually get there. You'll die trying and hopefully inspire the next generation of people to carry that torch ahead.

[Stephen Shedletsky] And if you think about it, we're all players in multiple infinite games. One, we have no choice in, a couple of them we have no choice in. Life. There's no winner of life. Even Charlie Sheen has to admit to that one. There's no winner in relationships. Like I can't say I'm winning marriage. No one else should get married because they're just not going to perform as well as me. I win. That's silly. There's no winner of friendship. There's no winner of career, business, geopolitics, health care, education. And so it behooves us to play with an infinite mindset in these infinite games, just as it behooves us to play with a finite mindset in a finite game.

[Robert Armstrong] I think this is what has everybody fascinated by this work is that it resonates, it makes sense, we get it. But somehow there's this nesting of the concepts, right? Because the infinite game seems to be almost like the long game. But there's a series of finite games inside all of that, right? So one of the questions that came up after you saw us a few months ago is this question of how can we lead with an infinite mindset because that seems to be more open to the possibilities and to be prepared for all of those things that happen. But sometimes the framework itself within which we are working, maybe it's leadership, maybe it's your own direct boss, maybe it's the policy of the program that you're working on. Or maybe it's just, you know, that election cycle that dictates a lot of what happens in our world. How do we bring that infinite mindset into it when we're constantly feeling boxed in by finite games?

[Stephen Shedletsky] So, I mean, it takes courage, which I know we will speak to, but it also takes a knowing "What do you stand for?" So a lot of the examples I might use will be business or career. But I'm thinking of and I know there are examples of this, of even politicians, political leaders or those in career who willingly will throw an election or say, I'm stepping out because it's actually in the best interest of what I stand for, for someone else to win and carry the torch ahead. I bow out and I endorse candidate X because it's for the benefit of the game. It's for the benefit of what we stand for as Canadians, as whatever it might be. Similarly, do I step forth and take the promotion, even if I know someone who may be less experienced, would thrive better and do far better in the role? Do I bow out or do I actually say I think you should go for that person? And it's and it's an infinite mindset that it will pay off in the long run or at least something bigger than you: your values, ethics, beliefs are advanced.

[Stephen Shedletsky] And what's fun I mean, there's brilliant research by Adam Grant on give and take that when you show up to give, people label you as a giver and people like to help givers. And so even if you do something in the short term, that may be, I mean, it's leadership. You're doing what you feel is in the best interests of the whole as opposed to your own self-interest. That's what it means to be a human being. I mean, what it means, we live a paradox as human beings. The paradox is, at any given point in time, we are an individual part of a group always. And the question is, do we do what's in the best interest of us as an individual or do we do what's in the best interests of us as we as the group. And we've survived and thrived because more often than not, we pick the group and when we pick the group, the group picks us. When we pick us as individuals, all of a sudden the group goes, wait, that's a violation of what it means to be a leader. Why would I follow you?

[Stephen Shedletsky] So, yeah, I mean, that's on a macro level. I think when it comes to elections, it's like, "Ugh, this again. I've just worked three and a half years for so long on this and now we've got to do it again?" Yeah, sorry. That's the system you're in. And if you're committed to the system, if you're committed to change, which is constant, by the way, for anyone through these COVID times, "We're living in unprecedented times of change." I'm very sorry. All times have been unprecedented times of change. It's just been more apparent and maybe a bit more rapid this time around. But change is constant.

[Robert Armstrong] Precisely. I'm fascinated by this idea of the thinking of the longer game, and I'm sure it's going to come up again. We talked about questions about performance metrics, reporting, the election cycle, for example, And in the public service, of course, our role is to give the best advice we can, right. And we have this saying, you know, fearless advice, loyal implementation. And that's something that people really have to live up to in the public service, is that we're employed to give the advice to those who govern. But then they ultimately make the decision and we implement whatever it is, even if it's not the advice we gave, right.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Yeah.

[Robert Armstrong] So it's a bit of a balance between, you know, doing something for the cause, but also doing what's just asked of us. So what about best practice then? Can you give us an example of when you think we do have to step in and say, "You know what, the finite mindset is necessary now, put aside the infinite game for the moment and just work on this for now."

[Stephen Shedletsky] I think it's fine to be aware that, hey, we're choosing a finite mindset here, but to be aware of it. In the end, though, I think you have to feel comfortable putting your head in the pillow at the end of the night that you, do you do things to get a finite win that puts your ethics in question. We see it all the time with smear campaigns. We turn on the TV and we watch an ad and we're like, really? You know, I wouldn't say that that is necessarily an infinite mindset. There's a way in which you can do it and say, this is what we stand for. Yeah. I mean, are there times in which it makes sense to choose a finite mindset? Sure. If it comes to survival. But I think you have to be mindful of the choice that you're making inside of the game that you're in. So I'm struggling, Robert to think of a more specific example, but I hope that helps.

[Robert Armstrong] It does. You work a lot with business, right? And so there's a lot of performance metrics as reporting. There's profits. There's the shareholder thing. And then it's ultimately all for increasing the value of the company, regardless of what happens to the company in the longer term. Are you getting feedback from people? Is the message resonating? Are people realizing that maybe that's not as sustainable. I've heard Simon say, you know, I'm not an anti-capitalist. And I think this is a debate that's kind of raging right now, isn't it?

[Stephen Shedletsky] Mm hmm. So there is a shift in capitalism. I mean, we believe in Adam Smith economics rather than Milton Friedman economics. So Adam Smith economics, which is slightly antiquated because it didn't factor in big industry and that didn't factor in shareholders. But Adam Smith economics is about consumer based economics, this notion of the invisible hand, that there is natural competition out there to get the best products or services available to best serve the end user. Milton Friedman economics, which was popularized, is a theory out of Harvard in the 70s. Friedman won a Nobel Prize first ever in economics for it. Rumor has it, Seth Godin told me that it was purchased, which is quite ironic. But there is a theory proposed by Milton Friedman, practiced by Jack Welch, amongst others, that said that the responsibility of business is to maximize profit and shareholder value while staying within the bounds of the law, which is awful. I mean, that's like saying the purpose of business is growth. It's like, OK, like I understand you ought to grow to stay in business, but to say the purpose of business is growth, that's silly. That's like saying the purpose of buying a car is to put fuel in it. No, you buy a car to go places. This, this theory was proposed in the late 70s and practiced in boom years. It works in the short term when markets are good and there's plenty of people to employ, but it doesn't work well in times of volatility and uncertainty. And we've seen now there's just a commonplace practice of balancing the books at the end of the year by laying off people. Or not even balancing books, hitting financial targets by using people as pawns in the game, simply so that you meet, you know, investor projections or you receive your fat executive bonus, which again, is a violation of what it means to be leader.

[Stephen Shedletsky] And so the modern form of capitalism popularized in the past 30 to 40 years is bastardized. True capitalism, our belief of the responsibility of business, is first and foremost to advance a purpose, second, to protect people, and third, to generate profit. Profit isn't dirty, but profit must be third on that list. That first and foremost, organizations for profit or for impact. We don't like to call them not for profit because it's the only industry ever that describes itself by what it isn't. I mean, who wakes up in the morning and says, let's not make profit today? Like there is a form of profit, it's just not traditional from the for profit sense. But we believe in for a purpose, for impact. And the opportunity is to use profits as a way to reinvest into advancing your purpose and cause, and to finding better and better ways to protect your people, the people who work with you, the people who buy from you in the societies, communities within which you operate.

[Robert Armstrong] So I'm loving those three things. And if we're to buy into them as a public service and we support government, where do we fit into that? Where can we plug in and actually support one of those or two of those or all three of them even?

[Stephen Shedletsky] Well, so first and foremost, I mean, our neighbours to the south did at least one thing, right? They have a document etched in 1776 called the Declaration of Independence that states very clearly, by the way, it should be the declaration of interdependence because there's a rugged individualism down south that like isn't serving. At its best, any country and society is only as strong as its ability for people to come together and form teams. And there's countless studies that show you take a high performer in one environment, put them into a different environment without their team, not a high performer. Turns out teams really matter. But the Declaration of Independence clearly states what the US stands for: that all are created equal (it says all men are created equal, but I like to say all are created equal) and are each endowed to the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They stand for, like that is a, that's a cause, that is a purpose.

[Stephen Shedletsky] So first and foremost, I think we must get on the same page with cause. We're close friends with someone by the name of Bill Ury, William Ury, who wrote a book called "Getting to Yes." It's like the Bible on effective mediation and negotiation. And Bill has been at peace talks for the past decades in Venezuela, Middle East. He's been involved with North Korea. He tells a story of sitting down with two Middle Eastern countries in the early 90s in a peace talk asking them, OK, what do you want? And one political leader listed off all the reparations, "Release this prisoner, we want this, we want this, we want this." He went "Great, great, great, what do you want?" And they went again, down the list of wants. What do you want? What do you want? Until finally one of them said, "I want my kid to wake up in the morning, be able to walk to school and for them and me not to have fear that a missile is going to land on their head." And the other leader said, "I want that too." Bill said, "OK, great. Now let's talk."

[Stephen Shedletsky] We need to get onto the same page as to what matters most. What do we care about most for Canadians, for the public? Once we're on the same page there, then we can debate on the how. When it comes to the example of the United States, again, that's the Constitution. The Constitution is highly debated. We don't all agree upon the interpretation of that. That's healthy dialog and conflict. Declaration of Independence. Got it. And we should tell stories. We ought to continue to update who we include in that as we realize more and more people are being excluded from that. No, it's about inclusion. And so I think when we get on the same page on the why, on the cause, it gives us a far more sure footed conversation to go, "OK, great, we agree upon that. How might we be able to work together, keeping in mind our own individual and shared interests to advance that."

[Robert Armstrong] Right. I love how we as Canadians often know more about the American phraseology, right. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And, you know, our Constitution, actually, and this is interesting when we talk to new public servants federally, our Constitution values peace, order and good government, which is quite reaffirming. As a career public servant, it makes me feel like I'm doing a good thing. But how does that resonate with you as a Canadian citizen? Peace, order and good government. Is it as boring as it sounds? Is that a just cause?

[Stephen Shedletsky]  It's very Canadian. Yeah. I mean, like we so often play second fiddle to the US. It's kind of funny. I mean, peace, sign me up. Order, OK? I mean, I don't think it's as inspiring as "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

[Robert Armstrong] Clearly.

[Stephen Shedletsky] You know, peace is good. Order, sometimes we need a little bit of chaos to make progress. And good governing, like, OK, you know, yeah! As a Canadian, I think I identify with peace. I don't know if I identify with the other ones as much. I think as Canadians we value more than the average bear diversity and inclusion. I think we value more than the average bear, you know, people, but conservative. You know, and even if you look at how our armed forces have showed up in history, we've been small but mighty. And we've taken stands. So yeah, I mean, I didn't know that by heart, as I know, as I know the Declaration of Independence and maybe there's a reason for that.

[Robert Armstrong] Well, and we're the quiet ones in the background just supporting things, right? That's what order is, right? It's, you know, the traffic lights work. In general, you know, you can get groceries today. And it's not the chaos that some other countries live with. Maybe that's not a bad thing that you don't know.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Yeah.

[Robert Armstrong] But I like what you said about chaos. Right. Because from chaos and change, innovation happens. And we're accused as a public service sometimes of not being as innovative as we should be. Innovation has been a buzzword for the last few years and I've struggled to talk about it with my team. I've struggled to give advice to people about what innovation is. I remember the former governor general, David Johnston, in the Manion Lecture a few years ago, finally just said, "You know what? I don't know what innovation is either. Innovation is just doing what you do, but better." And I actually wrote that down on a Post-it because I thought, "Well, finally, somebody's defined it somewhere." But how can we find the just cause inside our units, our branches or our little teams and kind of find that thing that propels us forward, especially towards innovation?

[Stephen Shedletsky] So talking about innovation, I mean, innovation ought to be an action. So I'm a big fan of using verbs. So innovate. What does it mean to innovate? I would define to innovate or innovation as looking at a problem from a different angle. So there is, a there's a story I heard from Steven Shapiro, who's a great speaker and an author, and it comes from consumer packaged goods. I think it was toothpaste, either laundry or toothpaste. One of, one of the two, I think maybe it was laundry, saying we want to get our whites whiter.

[Robert Armstrong] Yeah.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Where else do you get your whites whiter? Oh, toothpaste. To get our whites whiter. Makes sense. So laundry went over to toothpaste and said, how do you get your whites whiter? They said, we don't. We just use blue. Because when you put blue against yellow stains, the optical illusion is the stain disappears. So if you look at a lot of toothpaste, a lot of toothpastes are blue, a lot of laundry detergent now is blue. And it doesn't necessarily make your whites whiter. It just makes your yellows invisible to our human eye. And so that to me is innovation.

[Stephen Shedletsky] We can't innovate without safety. So we have these practices of what it means to live and lead with an infinite mindset. First is advance a just cause. Second is build trusting teams. Innovation is not a command because to innovate requires experimentation. Experimentation requires failure. You can't experiment without getting things wrong. And if we live in cultures in which if you get things wrong, the result is shame, humiliation, punishment or losing your job. You successfully have a culture in which very few people will have the courage to innovate. I mean, you said fearless before. I don't believe in fearless. I believe in feel the fear, find something more important than it, do it anyway.

[Stephen Shedletsky] And so I don't think we have a decline of innovation. I think we actually have a decline of feeling safe in our culture, such that we are applauded when we iterate and try something and it doesn't work well, but we learn from it.

[Robert Armstrong] So you're cutting to the core here in the public service. You've hit me deep. Because its, we do right, we're afraid as an organization sometimes to, to go out on that limb. Right. And I think sometimes it's because of the nobleness of the public service. We don't want to waste your money as taxpayers. We don't want to screw things up. We don't want to break stuff. Because if the EI cheques weren't going out, because we tried to innovate the system that produced them, that would be terrible. And so that paralyzes us sometimes. And it doesn't give us that freedom, right. So how do we make teams feel safer around that kind of approach to getting work done?

[Stephen Shedletsky] Well, I don't know if I'm going to answer this head on, because you sparked another idea with me, Robert, which is to start small. So, you know, innovation isn't necessarily saying we need to change, you know, payroll system or we need to change how those EI cheques are sent out. Let's start with that. Let's do that. We don't you know, looking at a system.

[Robert Armstrong] The payroll system might be sensitive, just so you know.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think we can take might out of that one. So but looking at innovating or improving a system or a process, you don't need to change A through Z you can start with A and B. I have a family member, a cousin of a cousin through marriage, who works federally for public service and I've had many conversations about innovation with him. And I introduced to him the distinction, the theory of the law of diffusion of innovation, which is how you adopt change across the population. Many people get it wrong because they try to preach to the masses. The masses don't want to change.

[Robert Armstrong] No.

[Stephen Shedletsky] So you have your innovators, which I believe are two point five percent of the population (I might get some of these numbers wrong, but I will get close enough). You have your early adopters, which are the next 13 and a half percent of the population. You have your early majority, late majority and your laggards. The majority makes up about sixty eight percent and then you're laggards are the last sixteen percent. Laggards are the ones that, they buy rotary phones still, except for the fact that we don't sell them, you know. And so.

[Robert Armstrong] They're hoarding them.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Right. When it comes to creating mass change, the funny thing about it is you don't change the masses. You just find the innovators and the early adopters. And there is this theory called Crossing the Chasm, which once you get the innovators and the early adopters, then the early majority buys in and then it tips.

[Robert Armstrong] Right.

[Stephen Shedletsky] So I have my cousin through marriage, is a forward thinker and he constantly gets frustrated with bureaucracy and hitting his head against the windowless wall or whatever it might be. And I said to him, just find the people who are the early adopters. You don't need to convince everyone. You just need to convince a few. And you'll find someone senior enough or not. But this is part of what it means to embrace an infinite mindset, is as long as you build your community of forward thinkers, eventually one of them is going to get a promotion. Right? And then they go, "OK, let's do it." You know, or you can influence up. And so I think there's a long tail to this thing, and I don't think we should try to change everything. You know, when it comes to that systems implementation, start small. Beta test it. Do a little one, see how it goes. Do more. It may take more time. It may take more dollars in the long run, but you'll save time and dollars in the long run because of that approach.

[Robert Armstrong] Well, that's something we need to remember, right? The long game is where we see the savings and the real investments. You're talking about teams now. So let's talk about that, that part of the infinite game where you're talking about building trusting teams.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Yes.

[Robert Armstrong] And we talk about trust a lot. I find lately when we, you know, if you go to the little HR retreat or you go to your training, your leadership stuff.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Yeah.

[Robert Armstrong] Regardless of where it is. But a lot of that's internal about building trusting teams. And I'm very taken with what you guys are talking about when you're talking about vulnerability. And Brené Brown, of course, talks about it and she's another huge kind of influence on that conversation. But vulnerability is still seen as a weakness. And I don't know if it's just us. I think it's maybe a little bit everywhere. But how do we get to knock that down, and what would you say to somebody who would actually tell you, you know what, I can't be vulnerable, I don't feel safe.

[Stephen Shedletsky] First I think it behooves us to define vulnerability. The way I define vulnerability is it, and there's a good business case for vulnerability, it's just not a nice to have. And like great that we talk about trust. What are we actually doing to build it and create safe spaces where we can care about people? Because when we care about people, they care about us and they do their best work and they bring their best self to work. That's good for operations. That's good for business. Vulnerability I would define as exposing of both our weaknesses and our strengths, which is hard to do. But it makes sense when it comes to teaming, because if I'm on a team with someone and I know their strengths and I know their weaknesses, they're vulnerable to me. They expose of me what they're good at, what they're not good at. I know how to support them. They know how to support me and vice versa.

[Stephen Shedletsky] A friend of mine, Rich Diviney, who just came out with a book called "The Attributes." He's a former Navy SEAL guy and he talks about when it comes to how great organizations work, it's not the hierarchical model. It's not the flat model. It's not the inverted pyramid of, you know, I am your leader. I work for you, which is nice, is a nice idea, but it doesn't really work in practice. He describes it as just an amoeba, a blob, which he calls dynamic subordination. Which means you know when you see it, when you see a blob, where is the leader? You go, well the leader's in the middle. No, the leader's in like that fissure over there, the leader's outside. And the answer is yes, you're right. The leader is where the leader needs to be.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Inside of organizations the person who is closest to the issue or opportunity at hand, and the person who is most qualified for the issue or the opportunity at hand is the one that steps up. Sometimes it's someone who's closest to it but isn't qualified, and they step up for the time being until the most qualified person arrives. I mean, I'll use a very simple example of this, which is a commercial airliner. You are the pilot of a commercial plane. You back out from your gate and you're taxiing out and you get a call from the maintenance officer. Maintenance officer says, Captain Armstrong, you have a maintenance issue, come back to the gate. No pilot worth his or her wings is being like, "Nah, I'm good. I'm just going to take off." You subordinate to the maintenance officer. You go back to the gate and now you deplane. Does the captain take charge of that? Absolutely not. That's flight crew. And so that's dynamic subordination. When it comes to vulnerability, the vulnerability is to wear our strengths and weaknesses on our sleeves such that we know who is the most equipped, both skill wise, technically, and human skills to lead. In that scenario, vulnerability is a strength. We can talk more about that, but I'll pause.

[Robert Armstrong] I'm loving what you're saying because we have, a lot of us have bought into that leaders at all levels talk. But I think what you're talking to me about right now is you're demonstrating what that looks like. And I love it. It's about having the expertise, the knowledge and the authority in that moment, regardless of your hierarchical position, to take charge. Right? And say now is what we, now's the time that we have to do this.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Yes. And vulnerability is contagious. It's really effective when the most senior leader says, "Here's what I know. Here's what I don't know. Here's where I'm really good. Here's where I know I need help." That's contagious. That's great. But it doesn't always happen that way. But vulnerability is saying, here's what I have on my plate. Here's what I feel really confident about. Here's where I don't. Who can help me? And then that needs to be applauded and rewarded. If it isn't, you, we get the behaviour we reward and we get the behaviour that we tolerate. So if somebody exhibits the courage and risk to say, "I need help." and they're punished for it. Well guess what? The old Stanley quote of leaders who don't listen will be surrounded by people eventually, who have nothing to say.

[Robert Armstrong] It's striking what you're saying, because it reminds me of the anti-racism work that's happening right now. Right? Which is a lot of that talk of, you know, be quiet and listen, because you don't acknowledge that you don't know enough, and go to those who do know who are having that lived experience so that you can learn from that. I think there's a lot of parallel there.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Yeah. And not just the people who are having the experience. Because the number of people of colour who are saying, you know, who are being asked to teach me.

[Robert Armstrong] It's exhausting.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Right. I think we need to find peers and colleagues who have taken themselves on and are trying to learn and apply. I mean, I'm so proud to know that I have so many friends who aren't people of colour who are so, at the front leading and learning that I can call multiple people, whether they're people of colour or not?

[Robert Armstrong] Yeah. So here's a question that came up after your last session with us, which is on this trusting teams issue. I love it. It's very practically oriented. How do you hire an infinite mindset leader who's committed to building that culture of trust? Our selection processes are burdensome and they go on forever because we, we want to do all the right things. And that takes time. Yeah, but how do we know? How do we read that person? What questions do we need to add to our toolbox in order to figure out that, that person has that?

[Stephen Shedletsky] So there's a distinction. This again, comes from my friend Rich Diviney and his book "The Attributes," is there's a difference between a skill and an attribute. A skill is something that we can learn. And it's something that it's easy to test, to measure and assess. An attribute is more innate and it more determines how we show up, particularly in times of stress, uncertainty and challenge. If you can teach someone or someone can be self-taught, it's a skill. You know, I can put you in a course on how to learn how to ride a bike. I can put you into a course on how to be a better listener. But when it comes to things like empathy, patience, resilience, adaptability, task switching. List goes on, authenticity. I can't put you in a class to learn this skill of authenticity. That you need to be self-motivated to try to take yourself on and learn that one. Skill, riding a bike. Attribute, what happens when you scrape your knee.

[Robert Armstrong] Right.

[Stephen Shedletsky] So skills can be learned, which is why we always say hire for fit, skills you can teach on the job. The issue is so many of our selection processes, both for hiring and promotion, are based on skills and experiences and aren't based on attributes. And yet people, particularly when you're a leader, attributes are really important. How you show up in times of stress, uncertainty and challenge.

[Robert Armstrong] But that frightens us, right? Because we, we want to be able to compare the candidates and we want to be able to have something measurable. And the things we can measure are those performance measures, right? So I'm going to push you. How do we get through this? How do we switch our mindset towards putting those people in because they fit, because they have those attributes to lead us into these key changes that we want to accomplish, for example.

[Stephen Shedletsky] So I'm all for skills and experiences may get you a seat at the table. When it comes down to those last two or three candidates. Who do you pick? So, you know, I'm not anti the system that gets us to sort of "OK, here's who we think are the best ones." Are there ways that we can look at that system to ensure that the people, who are getting to the end, are indeed the best qualified both from experiences, skills, but also their innate abilities? And so I'm a real big proponent of throwing stress, uncertainty and challenge into the interview process.

[Robert Armstrong] Ooooh tell me more.

[Stephen Shedletsky] So my sister interviewed for a role in which the attributes of adaptability, thinking on your feet, improvisation, keeping your cool when you're thrown new information is really important. And so she was in a panel interview with like three or four people. And out of nowhere they said, "Teach us something you're passionate about." Can't prepare for that one. Right, and they and they would switch it up because sometimes candidates would talk, "Hey, they're going to ask you this." So they would switch up the type of thing that they would ask. So she went, "Haha, OK." My sister spent her entire childhood and still to this day, dancing. She loves ballet. She loves hip hop. And she said, OK, I'm going to teach you guys a dance. I'm going to choreograph for you. And she literally had these people stand up and she taught them a dance. She got the job. Because she displayed the attributes they were looking for. We can interview people and there are people who are skilled at the interview, even the like behavioural question: "Tell me a time when?" "How would you?" You can rehearse that!

[Robert Armstrong] I've taught the workshop.

[Stephen Shedletsky] So but here's what you can't rehearse. And I don't know if this is within your HR code, but it should be. Do an interview as, part of the interview, in an escape room. Escape rooms is that game of clue inside of a room? Right. You know what I'm talking about? You show up as a team, you have to work for thirty or forty five or sixty minutes to find clues to help you get out of the room. And be transparent: "Hey, this is team building. This is part of the interview." But you can't fake that. Maybe for five minutes, but if you observe how a teammate shows up in times of stress, uncertainty and challenge, you get a sense of how it will be like to work with them. And so I'm a real big proponent of putting people into situations like taking them out for a meal, seeing how they treat people, putting them in an escape room, asking them to do something random that they aren't expecting and see how they react. That's how you get a sense of their makeup, not just their skills.

[Robert Armstrong] I love it. I love the expression you're using, "See how a person shows up." Right? And that's often something that's intangible until you can bear witness to it. I think that's lovely. I want to move on to another concept in the infinite game where we're talking about worthy rivals. We in the public service tend to think that we don't have a competitor, right. And we have no rival because let's be frank, we're kind of the monopoly in a lot of things, right. You can't go get your passport down at President's Choice or over at the Sobeys down the way. We're the only ones who are going to give it to you. And a whole lot of other things, too. So people can look at us rightly and say that we get complacent because there is no spirit of competition that you might see in the private sector, for example. But on the other hand, it's often what we'll say back to you is, "But do you really want competition in that field?" So you talk about worthy rivals and can you just kind of briefly tell us what you mean by that? Because I do think there's an application for us in the public service, but people get stuck on the idea that it's competitors, and it's not. That's the whole point of your concept.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Right. Right. So when it comes to an infinite mindset, there is a competitor. It's yourself. The goal is continuous improvement. And yet you can use other players in the game, whether they're other individuals, teams, organizations, countries, governments or even ideologies or forces, which I'll explain what I mean by that, as foils to help you improve. So give you the sort of perfect setup for this, which is a friend of mine leads a religious congregation and every year he says to his congregants at the same time of year as per a holiday that it makes sense. He says, "Next year, I hope you have a better leader and I hope that leader is still me." Like perfect. The goal is continuous improvement. And yet there are other players in the game that we can study because by studying them, they reveal to us our opportunities to improve.

[Stephen Shedletsky] So worthy rivals can come from anywhere. Anywhere. Another government service, a for profit organization, you can study Pizza Pizza. Like it doesn't matter so long as you look at one or more players and you look at the specific thing that they do that if you did it, it would help you advance your cause of peace, order and good government.

[Stephen Shedletsky] And so a couple of fun little examples. I mean, I have plenty of worthy rivals. I have one on, he used to be on our team. He isn't any more so I win. And that's an infinite game joke for those of you following at home. And he, this is actually before we had the concept of worthy rival.

[Robert Armstrong] OK.

[Stephen Shedletsky] He's very good at his job. He's smart, he's introverted. So every time he would open his mouth there would be a well thought idea. He is tall and good looking and I had an irrational hatred toward him. Like when he did well, I was kind of upset. When I did better than him, I was a bit smug. Like we had a rivalry, but it wasn't really healthy. We're on the same team. Our team has a just cause of creating a more inspired, safe and fulfilled world. And yet I have like internal competition with this guy. And he called a meeting. They call me Shed on our team. He said, "Shed, I called this meeting because I have an idea and I want your opinion because you always make my ideas better." And I'm like, well, this is hugely inconvenient because up until now, I haven't liked you much and now you're complimenting me. Go on. And he said, "You're my foil." He's like, "I'm introverted, you're extroverted. Like here's my Myers Briggs. Here's your Myers Briggs. Here's my DISC assessment. Here's your DISC assessment." Like we're total opposites. He's a thinker. I'm a speaker. I speak to think. He thinks then speaks. We just come from totally different perspectives, which is why we butt heads because I can't see what he sees and he can't see what I see. Which meant if we didn't communicate, we frustrated each other. But if we worked together on the same page, we're a lot more powerful because he saw 180 and I saw 180. And together we were really strong.

[Stephen Shedletsky] And that was a huge shift for me where someone that I thought I didn't trust, but it's not that I didn't trust, it's that we were different and we weren't spending the time to communicate. And when we did, we were unstoppable. Another fun little example, I did work with a church south of the border and they studied the beach because people were choosing the beach instead of their Sunday services. And instead of trying to beat the beach, they simply moved the services to the beach.

[Robert Armstrong] Wow, that's actually innovation right there.

[Stephen Shedletsky] There is innovation, right. So, so worthy rivals are these other players in the game that when you look at them, they do one or many things better than you and you work to improve from studying them.

[Robert Armstrong] And, to go back to your rival, you make their ideas better. I think that's beautiful, actually. Right, because it is about making your ideas better. Now, here, here in government, we tend for our rivals, there's a certain fetish for private sector corporation for private stuff. And that's OK because we need to learn from them and the efficiencies, whatever. We look at other national governments sometimes, you know New Zealand, the United States, the U.K. Sometimes it's our own neighbours internal to Canada, right. The provincial governments, some of them are doing amazing things.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Yeah, or forestry's or you can look at specific departments or units and go, that's great.

[Robert Armstrong] Yeah. And there's more cross pollination that we could always be doing. I like that church going to the beach thing. Are there other unconventional places you can recommend we go to look for finding the rival thing and improving our ideas?

[Stephen Shedletsky] So one I think is, is it always behooves you to look at, OK, what are areas we can actually improve?

[Robert Armstrong] OK.

[Stephen Shedletsky] So is it risk taking? Is it nimbleness? Is it speed? Is it courage? Like, you know, it always behooves you to go, "OK, how do we need to improve?" Sometimes, you know, sometimes you don't know. But when you know areas in which you could improve, it allows you to be more focused to finding people who do it better. I mean, this is the old what is it? The Seattle fish market. There's the Pike Place, right? They get process and efficiency and culture like amazingly well. You can go down there and watch a video from them, read the book called Fish and learn from it. Right. So I think one is building deeper relationship to what are the areas, A: what are we really strong at doing, which we can always get better at and where do we know we need to grow? And then how might we be able to look for people?


[Stephen Shedletsky] So I have a buddy, he and his wife run a dance studio, a dance school for young kids all the way to dancing adults. Loyalty is something that's really big. How do they actually keep and retain people as customers and employees for years on end? Awesome. Now they have a place of which, who gets loyalty really well. He studies the local soccer pitch. Like people show up for full days on a weekend and hang out. It's like, hey, what if we created that same sense of community and loyalty at our dance studio? So you can look to worlds far beyond yours, particularly when you know areas that you want to improve to get better at advancing your cause and doing your good, noble work.

[Robert Armstrong] I love it. I love it. I think it's identifying where you want to go first that, that might be more helpful to us.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Yeah. But also just, you know, walking down the street, searching on some websites, like it's everywhere. It really is everywhere.

[Robert Armstrong] So that brings us to another concept, right, existential flexibility. Your, we'd like to think of ourselves as flexible as a public service because governments change. After all, priorities change. We shine in the moments of crisis. COVID's a nice example. Natural disasters. You know, pieces of the machine launch into action and do amazing work really quickly. It may not be perfect, but it doesn't matter in the moment because it has to be done and we fix it later. That's us when we, we're at our best. But when things are unpredictable from a political perspective, I'm thinking south of the border, for example, and the incredibly difficult four years the public service must have gone through down there. How do we pivot with purpose? How do we actually maintain that existential flexibility without simply exhausting ourselves?

[Stephen Shedletsky] Sure. So in front of each and every one of the practices, there's a verb and the verb in front of existential flexibility is prepare. So we have advance a just cause, build trusting teams, study worthy rivals, demonstrate the courage to lead. And the fourth, prepare for existential flexibility, which is still active but more passive than the others. And the reason being is we can't predict when we need to make an existential flex. An existential flex by definition, is an extreme disruption to an operating model to, to better advance your just cause or stay in the game. An extreme disruption like I mean, I'm talking Blockbuster saying, "Oh yeah, maybe we should pay attention to this Netflix thing."

[Stephen Shedletsky] Kodak was the first company to invent digital photography in 1975, and they suppressed the technology for fear of cannibalizing traditional film sales. Ooops. And it was a finite minded, "Protect our bonuses," "I don't want to go through that hard work." And five years after their patents ran out, bankrupt. And so prepare for existential flexibility is literally ensuring that your leaders and your people have the willingness to make a flex should it become obvious that they should. And not to, to double down on old models that serve them now and more so to embrace new models that will be the future.

[Robert Armstrong] And that will advance the just cause.

[Stephen Shedletsky] And that will advance the just cause. I mean, you look at the announcement out of New Zealand just last week around miscarriages and giving people granted time off, both partners when there's a miscarriage. And like I read it and I'm like, "Duh! Of course! Of course that should be a thing." And now that, I mean, this is worthy rival as well, but now that a government has declared it, it will give reason for others to follow. But that is an extreme disruption to an operating model. It's a significant change, but it is one that aligns with their values and beliefs and turns out the values and beliefs of many others.

[Robert Armstrong] Absolutely. Yeah, it is about values, isn't it, underneath the whole thing,

[Stephen Shedletsky] So I'll give you a real example of ex flex because we've had to go through one at our company. So previous to the pandemic, so previous to March 2020, the vast majority of our revenues were from hopping on planes, going to conferences, going to organizations, doing talks, doing workshops, and literally within days it all disappeared. And so we've had an online course, we've already been exploring, doing some offerings online via Zoom and otherwise. Our leadership did a great job. So it was, I think, week two of the pandemic. So Friday the 13th of March is when, I think it was the day after Tom Hanks was diagnosed and the NBA closed, and we're like, "OK." And then it wasn't that Monday, but I think the following Monday, Simon who is our founder visionary, said, "OK, guys, I got an idea. I spoke to a friend. This is what they're doing. I think we should do this." He said, "Everyone has forty eight hours until our next full team, all hands meeting." This was a Monday. He said, "By the Wednesday afternoon, everyone must come to the table with 15, one five, new ideas of how we can better serve our end users and advance our cause for a more inspired, safe and fulfilled world. He said, "I know some of you are ideas people and some of you are more executors. So if you can't come to 15, by all means, form a smaller group of two to three people, but you have to get to 15 ideas. And he said, why 15? Because if I say 5, it's going to be the same five ideas I have and we're no further ahead. I need you to get to 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15, because that's when the wacky stuff is going to come. Also, go through your list and categorize them as green, yellow and red. Green means we can do it next week or next two weeks. The yellow means it'll take us a couple of months. Red, many months, which means not now because we run out of cash by July. But later, backburner.

[Stephen Shedletsky] And then come Wednesday, everyone have their lists and he set up some ground rules. He said this is not about ego or credit. If someone shares your idea, just cross it off your list. Unless there's a nuance or something in the idea and the way that you thought of it that would advance it. But there's no dead, dead horse beating here. If someone shared your idea, just cross it off. You don't need to say, "I also had that idea." It's not about credit. This is about progress. And we had probably one of the most effective hour and forty five minute meetings ever. And here's the fun thing. It was COVID that caused us to do it. But you could do that whenever you want. This is like the value of a hackathon is you set up this incubator, this intense experience where you think about things differently and see what happens on the other side. And it doesn't mean you need to implement it, but you have your ideas of what you can implement should you need it, or if you're like, "Oh, that's really good and that's the future. We should do it."

[Robert Armstrong] You had your just cause in mind, and that's what I'm taking away from that too. Is you've reminded yourselves as you were going through that process, that this is the reason why, right? That we want to continue to serve. We want to continue to advance our cause because we continue to believe in it. We just need a new way of doing it.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Yeah, and I've heard the word pivot 13 times today. But pivot is a valuable word. The definition of pivot is to move about a central axis. Think of a basketball player who moves one foot, but the other foot is, it can't move. It's stationary. And we can change what it is we offer, but the purpose, the reason, the why of it must remain clear and consistent. If we don't know that, then we'll just travel. We need to know the one thing that we can all come back to. Hey, if it's peace, order and good government, that's better than nothing. Let's at least make some agreement there and then figure out what are the next steps that we can do to bring that to life in whatever context we're in.

Robert [00:53:17] Peace isn't a bad thing. The last topic is courage to lead. I want you to start with the verb again, because I think it is important that you remind us that these aren't just concepts. There's verbs, there's actions. It's about doing the thing.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Yeah.

[Robert Armstrong] Which verb goes with courage to lead?

[Stephen Shedletsky] Demonstrate.

[Robert Armstrong] How does that happen?

[Stephen Shedletsky] It harkens back, Robert, to what we said around making decisions that are in your own best personal interest, selfish. Or making decisions that are values based in the best interests of who you are, and what you represent. When we make values based decisions, even if it sacrifices our short term interests, we build trust and loyalty. So I'll give you a great example of this. CVS, which is Shoppers Drug Mart to the south, they're a retail pharmacy. They woke up one morning and saw their purpose on a website. I'm over exaggerating, but there is like a dirty little secret, which was they stood for, stand for apparently inspiring people to lead healthier lifestyles. And the dirty little secret is that they sold two billion dollars' worth of tobacco products every year.

[Robert Armstrong] Sounds like the old Shoppers Drug Mart, doesn't it?

[Stephen Shedletsky] Yeah, and it's like huh? And so they made the decision to take all tobacco products off their shelves within a day. And it just, they all went away. And of course, Wall Street berated them, "You're handing away a market share. How stupid could you be?" Their stock price went down in the short term. Employees felt so proud to work there that day. There's a story of a mother who called up her daughter, who worked at CVS in tears because they had just lost their father to lung cancer. Right. That's something bigger than just a transaction. The statistic is that 70 percent of smokers in the US, and I'm sure it's similar to Canada, wish to quit. But the very places in which the remedies like Nicorette and other things are sold are literally right next to the poison. It's like putting a donut shop next to a Jenny Craig. Like, good luck with that. And so what happened is that people will go to their local CVS to buy a pack of smokes, they would say, we don't sell cigarettes anymore. Would you like a remedy? And people said yes, and they actually stuck to it.

[Stephen Shedletsky] The entire market of cigarette sales shrunk by one percent because one major player said, we're not doing it anymore. Further, vendors flocked to CVS saying, we want to do business with you, health focused vendors, products, whatever it might be. We want to do business with you because you actually are doing what you say you believe in. Other players, number two and number three by sales or whatever in the industry, Walgreens and Rite Aid also continued to sell cigarettes. And when asked why, one said, "We have a fiscal responsibility to our shareholders." And the other said, "We're looking at changing product placement in some of our stores." In other words, cowardice. But CVS willingly walked away from a lot of short term money to make a decision that they said it's not hard for us because it's just the right thing to do.

[Robert Armstrong] Sticking to our values and remembering what they are and doing the right thing.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Yeah.

[Robert Armstrong] Sounds like, sounds like public service to me.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Yeah. And the, and the antidote to ego and fear is to find something more important than it. Like we've all had times in our lives, whether it's with relationships, in our careers, wherever it might be, where we did something that in looking back on it - often because other people describe it that way, they say, "Wow, that was really courageous." And you're like, "I didn't think of it in that moment. I just did what I knew I needed to do based on my own values, integrity, whatever that might be." That's demonstrating the courage to lead and when we demonstrate the courage to lead for so many, it's the easiest, most obvious thing to do because you're putting your beliefs, your values ahead of everything else. That's integrity.

[Robert Armstrong] I love it. Often we don't see it until it's already happened, right? It's as you say, because it's just something that feels like it's the only thing to do. It's the only thing that I will be able to do and then sleep well at night.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Yeah. And it doesn't mean you don't struggle with it and ask for help or whatever it might be to get to that point where you rip off that Band-Aid or do what you know is the right thing. But yeah, I mean, courage is making the decisions that are in the best interest of us and the values ahead of your own short term interest. A willingness to take risks for the benefit of a better future, even if it is unknown.

[Robert Armstrong]  Fascinating. I have to tell you, Stephen, I've enjoyed our time together so much today. This is a discussion that is permeating different sectors of business, government. As you say, the not for profit sector is interested in talking about this as well.

[Stephen Shedletsky] For impact, for impact.

[Robert Armstrong] Right, the for impact sector. Thank you. Where do we go from here? Can you get out your crystal ball for a second and tell us where this conversation is going after all of these multiple conversations you've had with lots of players and lots of sectors? Where do you think this is going?

[Stephen Shedletsky] I don't know for sure, but I know what will make us stronger. Or at least I know a couple of things that I think will make us stronger, then I'm curious to know more of your thoughts. The two most powerful forces in humanity, are hope and accountability. Hope is optimism. Optimism is the belief that tomorrow can be better and that we have a stake in creating that. Accountability is knowing that as individuals we're junk, but together we're remarkable. And so I think if we have hope and optimism for a better and brighter tomorrow, our ability to have some stake and control in that and then working together.

[Stephen Shedletsky] I mean, we're pretty magical. I mean, I'm very good at letting myself down. I do it very well multiple times a day. Better than that, I'm better at upholding my commitments to other people that I care about. I mean, I could tell you, "Tomorrow I'm going for a run before my kids wake up. I'm going to do it." Nah, I'm good. But if my buddy, Matt, who's like my leadership parenting buddy. If he said, "I'm having, my running shorts and shoes will be on at 5:43 am and I'm giving you a call." I'm there. And I'm not there for me, I'm there for him. And so I think if we embrace optimism and we embrace accountability, we are a force to be reckoned with.

[Robert Armstrong] That's a nice future to have, and I think the public service is there to help. A lot of what we do is providing supports to people, providing services that enable people to think of a brighter future. We're quiet about a lot of the things that we provide to Canadians, but I think a lot of it is grounded, I think you're right, in that kind of hope and optimism in the sense that it's about better policy, it's about collaborating differently. It's about increasing access to justice. It's about, you know, not being perfect and we never will be. But that's why it's an infinite game and not a finite game. Right. And accountability is the hallmark for sure. We are accountable to the people via their elected representatives. But that's something we live and breathe every day. That's for certain.

[Stephen Shedletsky] And it can be daunting the sheer size of the system and the organization. I mean, it's far easier to steer a pontoon boat than it is to steer the Titanic, but it's still possible. You know, and I vote every single year because though I am one person, I must do it and must stand up for it and then even better encourage others to. Because, you know, though we are what one person, we are people who can create change for ourselves, for the people around us. So let's do it. Not at the expense of others, not to shame others, but to do what we know is right. To do what we feel is right and to inspire others to come along the journey with us. So a total treat to join you, Robert, and do this. I hope it helps many, many. An honour for me to be able to come and do this for the public service.

[Robert Armstrong] It's been a delight and a great privilege, actually, to have this time with you. Thanks, Stephen, for your generosity, for your frankness and for your wonderful sense of humour. Thank you.

[Stephen Shedletsky] Awesome. Cheers.

[Robert Armstrong] So there you have it. That's our conversation with Stephen Shedletzky from Simon Sinek Inc. A lot to think about, from innovation to rivals to fearlessness. But I think at the end of the conversation is really where we leave off with a little bit of hope and a lot of optimism. For related Canada School of Public Service content, please go visit our website. We have recently launched a virtual classroom series, of course, it's called Thrive. Thrive offers a learning journey for leaders at all levels. We invite you to explore our virtual classroom courses and job aids to empower you and your teams to better navigate and thrive within dynamic and evolving environments. The first course in the series is D050: Unleashing Resiliency during Change. It's available now for registration and stay tuned for additional Thrive courses being added over the coming months. I'm Robert Armstrong. Thanks for joining us. Looking forward already to the next time we're together.


Any views or opinions presented in this podcast are solely of the individuals themselves and do not necessarily represent those of the School or the Government of Canada.

  • Robert Armstrong, Regional manager of HR programs, Public Services and Procurement Canada
  • Stephen Shedletsky, Head of Brand Experience and Lead Ignitor, Simon Sinek Inc.

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