7 Tactics to Differentiate Your Value: ‘How I Work’ EP34 with Karan Rhodes

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Karan Ferrell-Rhodes is the founder of Shockingly Different Leadership, a global human capital professional services firm that helps organizations quickly locate trusted expertise to get their “people projects” done. She is also the best-selling author of “Lead at the Top of Your Game.”

How I Work, Episode 34 with Karan Ferrell-Rhodes

Karan joins Josh Becerra in episode 34 of How I Work to share the seven leadership tactics that drive differentiating value after researching over 10k high-potential leaders globally. She has found that the mechanics of leading are the same across all industries and explains what that looks like. Plus:

  • Challenges leaders may face: silos and constant industry changes
  • Earning the right to be heard by differentiating your value
  • A couple of pillars in company culture: A willingness to listen and to take action

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Learn more about Karan Ferrell-Rhodes and Shockingly Different Leadership: https://www.shockinglydifferent.com/

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Transcription: How I Work, Episode 34 (Karan ferrell-Rhodes, Shockingly Different Leadership)

Josh Becerra: Hi, everybody. This is Josh Becerra, welcome to this episode of How I Work. I am here today with Karan Ferrell-Rhodes Thanks for being here, Karan.

Karan Ferrel-Rhodes: Hello. Thank you for having me. I’m super excited to be here.

Josh: Yes. Karan’s the founder of Shockingly Different Leadership, a global human capital professional services firm that helps corporations execute business critical, people, learning, and culture initiatives. She’s worked with executive teams, and companies such as Coca-Cola, Microsoft, British Petroleum, Meta, Ernst & Young, Raymond James, Major League Baseball, the NFL. You’ve been doing a lot of work in a lot of cool places. You’re also the author of Lead at the Top of Your Game. You’ve created a leadership tactics, diagnostic assessment, and you’re a frequent contributor on leadership strategies with Forbes. Super excited to have you today.

Karan: Oh, thank you, Josh. Thank you. That’s a mouthful of an introduction. [laughs] Got to live up to that.

Josh: Hey. You’ve been doing some amazing work, we got to talk about it. When we’re talking about the How I Work podcasts, we’re prepping for this– I was telling you the audience is marketers, and a lot of times software as a service, marketers, and companies. I know that you’ve worked in quite a few different SaaS companies even before you were doing some of your own– Out on your own, you worked for SaaS companies, and you’re now an expert in leadership, and you’ve got a lot of different things to share about leadership.

I’m curious, based on that experience, if you think that leading a Software as a Service company is any different than any other types of companies. If so, how, and if not, then what are some of the leadership challenges that maybe you faced or you saw or maybe you’ve worked with SaaS clients to overcome?

Karan: Great question. It’s a loaded question too. I will say the mechanics of leading is not, in my opinion, different based on industry or role or what have you because the mechanics of leading, leadership is all about influencing the next course of action, or bringing others along and motivating them to take action. It’s all about trying to take that next step. That occurs no matter your industry or job role. What I will say affects your ability to lead is the environment that you’re having to operate in. Like what are the interpersonal dynamics? What’s going on in the industry and markets? What are some red tape you’re having to jump in order to take action and things like that?

I do think the environment you’re working in impacts your ability to be successful, but the way you go about leading is consistent across the board.

Josh: Yes. Any particular challenges that you might have found in Software as a Service that leaders have to face? I don’t know. I just think about my experience with Software as a Service is always super high growth, always– I don’t know. Fixated on the data and on what is our cost per acquisition and very KPI-driven. I think that sometimes that does present challenges as a leader, right?

Karan: It does.

Josh: Because you have to manage expectations in a different way when everything gets boiled down to a number and I think that there’s a– At least my kind of antidote to that is like, “Hey, let’s make sure that we’re talking about building a learning organization. If we don’t hit that KPI exactly how we said in our budget eight months ago that we projected that we at least know what we learned along the way.” Anyway, any other thoughts or ideas about those challenges?

Karan: I think you’re spot on, Josh. Yes, you’re spot on. The two things that rise top of mind for me are the industry and operating in silos, and let me just tell you really quick what I mean by those two. As you know, technology changes as a nanosecond. In a nanosecond, and keeping up with that and adjusting and pivoting to still meet those KPIs or goals is something that all leaders and SaaS organizations are finding challenges with definitely. I would also say sometimes in SaaS organizations, people are so focused on what they’re working on, their piece of the pie, if you will, that contributes to the success of the team or the company.

Sometimes I find leaders are challenged with working in silos, and not communicating as frequently or keeping others updated as much as they should because there are so many interdependencies in SaaS organizations, and not keeping the group updated causes headaches for another. I see those challenges going on in leadership quite frequently in SaaS companies.

Josh: Yes, for sure. The other thing that I see a lot of is many times, especially early-stage SaaS companies, they’re the brainchild of some amazing engineer, like the software developer who coded this thing up, and it’s just like, crazy good. At times that software engineer is really good at coding, but not necessarily good at the communication, the interpersonal, the leadership side of things, which is I think, interesting, and presents– Can present some problems.

Karan: A lot of problems. Not just a lot. You’re too spot on there.

Josh: Yes. Cool. I wanted to spend most of our time today talking about your research study.

Karan: Absolutely. Sure.

Josh: What I’ve understood in talking to you is that you’ve been able to determine some key factors, tactics, and behaviors for successful leadership. First, I’d love for you to just tell us a little bit about the study and the scope of it, and then maybe, I’ve got them listed, seven different behaviors that we talked about, intellectual horsepower, courageous agility, strategic decision-making, intrapreneurship, drive for results, executive presence, stakeholder savvy. Maybe we can get into each of those just a little bit, but first, tell us about the study in broad scope, what it was and when it was conducted.

Karan: Yes, absolutely. Just to give a little bit of context. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always been fascinated about how some people were more successful than others in general, and it really came to a head when my last major role before starting my firm. I was working with Microsoft for almost 14 years, and I was tapped on to create and help lead their Global High Potential Leadership Program, which were the top rate 3% of employees across the world. With that experience, I was able to partner with a lot of leadership, think tanks, and other peers and companies that were also focused on this super successful niche of employees, and just was extremely fascinated.

What I wanted to do is to share our learnings beyond the walls of just one organization. After leaving Microsoft, I commissioned a research study on these– The names change no matter what company you talk to. Some are key talents, some are high-potentials, some are high-performers. You keep the label, but we did a lot of research on over 10,000 employees across the globe in a variety of career functions and in a variety of industries. The problem we were trying to better understand was, what key actions or tactics and things that they did that really separated or differentiated them.

It’s not just theory, it’s what did they put into action. How do their initiatives be more successful? We came up with a laundry list of over 100, to be honest with you, but there was a large concentration in the top seven that we wrote about. We thought, “Hey if we can just double down on those seven and keep it simple, that would highly increase the probabilities out there of successful leadership efforts.” I just wanted to give your audience a little bit of context to see where that came from. The great news out of all of this is that none of the tactics are rocket science.

We all have the ability to do those, starting right now, but I did want to put it on everyone’s radar so that you know what areas you might want to double down on to be more successful. For marketing, in particular, I’ll give that spin. In marketing, you’re always trying to capture somebody’s attention. You want to do that so that they initiate a course of action that you want them to take– Buy something, sign up to something, read more about an article, whatever it is. Some of the things that your marketers can do, and we’ll go through quickly, the seven. The first is lead with what we call intellectual horsepower.

Intellectual horsepower is all about using your areas of expertise, things you already have to look and source out new opportunities that others miss. One of the quickest ways that you capture people’s attention is if you find something meaningful for them that they were unaware of before. The second tactic was about leading with courageous agility. Courageous agility is all about having the courage to do what’s right, even if you’re unsure about what the future will bring to you. For marketers standing up for the right messaging, treating everybody inclusively, being collaborative, doing the right thing for the business or whatever you’re working on, is something that’s very important for marketers.

That’s what leading with courageous agility is all about.

Josh: I love that. At [unintelligible 00:11:23] our tagline is have confidence. I think hearing you talk about courageous agility, there’s a layer in there around how I think about confidence, which is being able to try new things and have that agility, but also put it in a frame in which it’s like this is a test. We’re trying to do these things and our hope is that it’s going to work out. We believe it’s going to work out, but if it doesn’t, we’re going to be able to learn from that. Anyway, I do like intellectual horsepower, courageous agility. Now, what’s the third one?

Karan: The third one is strategic decision-making. Very easy to understand, but how we define it is either making good decisions yourself or leading a good decision-making process with the team. That’s all about being inclusive, very thoughtful about your next step, and ensuring that you’re making the next step with a calculated risk, meaning taking in data, doing your best strategy, but still making a move forward. Strategic decision-making is the third. The fourth is leading with what we call intrapreneurship. Intrapreneurship is really similar to entrepreneurship, but it’s all about improving products, processes, or services within whatever organization you’re working with.

Whether it’s within an employer or a framework of an employer or within a framework of an entrepreneurial type of company, it’s always having that mindset of being better, doing better. I know marketers are all about that communicating that value and sharing the message about the great advances that their companies have done. Am I correct?

Josh: Yes. What’s crazy to me is how I feel like all of this stuff is so interconnected. In my opinion, in order for someone to be successful at intrapreneurship and be able to do that, they have to be seen as someone that others have a belief in or a confidence in, or like, wow, that person has that intellectual horsepower as you-

Karan: That’s right.

Josh: -characterize it. To like, do this. I feel good about giving them that opportunity to make those changes, suggest those changes. Then is it strategic? Have they demonstrated that they’re strategic is — The connections between these things I think is where the real special SaaS probably is, right?

Karan: It is. You took my thunder for the end, but that’s right. They’re all interconnected and in any leadership effort that you do, and your leader, no matter your level at an organization. You use all seven of these every day. It’s just when do you pull the lever to double down. We’re going to talk about executive presence in a minute, but when you’re ready to present your position or your thoughts to those that you’re trying to influence, that’s when you leverage that executive presence muscle. You’re right. They’re all very interconnected and they’re seamlessly and sometimes you’re acting and you’re not even knowing.

Some of the top leaders really focus and make sure their acumen is sharp on all of these. Let me quickly finish you out on the last three. The tactic was leading with the drive for results. That’s all about being tenacious to get to your end goal, even if you have to pivot a course and correct along the way. The sixth is leading with executive presence, which I just told you, it’s about providing clear and convincing presentations or arguments, or positions in order to influence others. Then the last one is leading with stakeholder savvy. That’s all about your interpersonal skills, understanding who you’re talking to, their perspectives, their values so that you deepen relationships along the way.

Josh: That’s something that marketers, we are always trying to do as-

Karan: Always.

Josh: -figure out who are we talking to? What’s our message for this particular persona or audience or what have you, and how is that different from maybe this other stakeholder? If you’re trying to sell some enterprise software, you’re going to have to convince not only the CEO but also the CFO and the CTO because they’re going to have to change their workflows.

Karan: That’s Right.

Josh: That message, the savvy is, and the special sauce is in understanding that that got to shape that message a little differently. Talk to those people a little differently. Know what their–

Karan: The triggers are, what is it, is there parties? What is it that they really need to hear from you? How are you solving a problem? Yes, definitely.

Josh: In sales, we always talk about overcoming objections, and so if you already have an understanding of what the majority of those objections are and how it is that your product or solution can actually fix that you’re well on your way.

Karan: Absolutely. I’ll just say that what made the top more successful leaders more successful was their ability to use these all and interchange them as needed. Where people fell down is when they weren’t as astute in one of them and it caused issues that blocked the thing that they were trying to lead. For example, maybe they were tone deaf in their messaging, like for marketers, they were tone deaf in how they communicated, or what they said, and because of that, it might have turned or some people off, and instead of being as effective now an advertising campaign went down the drain.

Josh: Or they get canceled.

Karan: Or they get canceled, right.

Josh: If they’re really toned off you in this day and age, you’re getting canceled.

Karan: That’s true. When you’re canceled like that, you’re not considered leading at the top of your game, you’re considered a pariah. I was just trying to say, those who are most successful were able to have a good level of acumen at all of them and were able to avoid the pitfalls of being really, really bad at one of them if that makes sense.

Josh: Now, you’ve got a diagnostic or an assessment that people can take and figure out where their strong suit is and there’s always the people out there that are like, “Hey, this either comes to you naturally or you can’t do it.” What do you say to those people? Is this stuff you can learn?

Karan: Absolutely. You can learn. You can absolutely learn this. Like I said, as we went over them, none of these are rocket science, but there is a level of acumen in any of these. That’s what tactics are. Tactics are actions or behaviors, things that you’re doing. You can teach anybody how to play checkers, if you will, or how to play chess. It doesn’t have to just be any naturally, you might think about it differently or think about your strategy differently based on your own thought patterns, but the basic rules of how things are done, absolutely can be taught, and that’s the same for these tactics.

Josh: Well, and to kind of extend your metaphor, I guess it’s like, does everybody have to be a genius chess player? Does everybody have to be like the top in the world? No. If you’re even in the conversation, you’re still way better than a ton of people, right?

Karan: That’s right.

Josh: I feel like sometimes–

Karan: That what’s important. You got to be part of the conversation. I talk in the book about earning the right to be heard and you do that by providing what we call differentiating value. Meaning so much value that’s so spot on that you naturally make me stop and do a double-take because you’re speaking to me. That’s the value you’re going to need to provide in order to be an elite leader. Do you have to be an elite leader? No. You can be an absolutely extraordinary leader every day in your current role, as long as you’re earning the right to be heard and are invited to share what you’re trying to lead and how you’re trying to build followship and bring others along.

Josh: In your research or in your previous work how did the environment impact all of this? Because in the end, if you’re in a company that embraces all of this and looks for this and is trying to foster this and has it identified and says, we want our people to behave this way, these are the leadership behaviors we’re looking for, and they’re coaching like, you’re going to be successful, but there’s environments where leadership is not-

Karan: I like that. [laughs]

Josh: -it’s not healthy. What did you see in your research or in your experience– How is the environment play in this?

Karan: It plays a huge role, Josh, an absolutely huge role. That’s why I always share that I can’t guarantee that if you do all these great, you’re going to automatically be successful because there are a lot of wild cards, like environment or changes in the industry or some unforeseen thing or situations that can need to knock your blocks off if you will. When we consult with organizations around this, we talk about, we can help jumpstart the thought leadership within your organizations and uplevel your team’s acumen but if you don’t have the right environment that embraces, that will listen and that will take action on what your teams are presenting, then this is all wasted money and it’s going for not.

What culture tweaks do we need to start implementing now to create the right environment for these behaviors to work? Those are deeper, more culture and talent conversations that we do have with the organizations.

Josh: That’s amazing. Are there any pillars to the culture that you would say, here’s a few things– The pillars that cultures need to have in order for this to be effective?

Karan: Oh, there’s a lot of key things, but some that jump out at me. I always say that you don’t need to do this training or provide this type of experience to your employees if you’re not at least going to be willing to listen and take action on a certain number of them because a lot of ideas may not work within the company, but the quickest way to shut down and cause angst within an organization is to have people do work to try to think about how to best better an organization and then do nothing with it.

That really turns off employees.

Josh: It’s counterproductive.

Karan: Oh my gosh. If you’re not willing to do that and plan and ring fence time to at least evaluate and take actions and then celebrate– Thank them for what they’ve brought to the table, then this is not an effort that’s worth doing, and to be very serious about that. Also, it needs to be supported from the top down and the bottom up. I also recommend that in any of these types of efforts to have champions or ambassadors that are internal to the company, that have an eye out to make sure people aren’t overlooked, and that the processes that you all agreed upon are followed up and are in place.

Josh: That’s awesome. I think that culture, I think environment, we can work on ourselves and we can do a lot of these things and get to a lot of places, but sometimes you got to find the right environment or culture for you to be successful too.

Karan: Absolutely. [laughs]

Josh: This has been an amazing conversation. One of the last questions I’d love to ask is just who are you reading right now? Are there any authors or podcasters or people who are maybe inspiring you today?

Karan: Oh wow, great question. Let’s see. Podcasts, right now I’m not reading books. I have a curated list of magazines and forums and stories that I try to keep on top of because I’m trying to stay on top of the current megatrends that are going on in the world of work right now. I’m getting my information from a lot of areas and research sites. One of my favorite podcasts is with Guy Ross. It’s how I– I think it’s how I did this or how I– think it’s how I did this or something like that. Anyway, Guy Ross is a famous podcaster. I love the stories of top leaders, whether they’re entrepreneurs or big individuals within their companies.

I love hearing of their stories about what it took for them to be successful and what were some of the things that they had challenges with and comparing that to our research and what we’ve done. I’ve been doubling down on [laughs] listening to his guests.

Josh: I love that. Cool. This has been so much fun. I want to thank you again for your time, Karan. That’s going to do it for this episode of How I Work. Thanks so much.

Karan: Thank you. Bye.

[00:26:42] [END OF AUDIO]


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