Sheahan: “Brutal Honesty” Needed to Transform Your Company

CEO of Karrikins Group Discusses Path to His Transformation

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Peter Sheahan spends a lot of time advising other executives on how to manage corporate transformation. The recipe includes what he describes as a dose of “brutal honesty.” It sounds painful. But it’s something that Sheahan has experienced during his own growth as a company leader.

The experience also helped cement his belief that corporate change starts at the top.

“My business has evolved significantly in the last three years,” says Sheahan, CEO of Karrikins Group in Denver, Colorado. “We were finding a client could spend millions of dollars and do a large traditional change management approach and get very little outcome, or they could spend a tenth of that and focus on the senior team and their direct reports and get significantly more shift.” 

He shared his evolution in a recent interview with FlexPack VOICE®. (An extensive interview with Sheahan also can be found in the January/February 2022 edition of the magazine.)

FlexPack VOICE: How did you come to this work of leading teams through change?

Peter Sheahan: I wrote the first book in the world on the impact the millennial generation would have on brands and employment experiences. And I put my finger on things like the war for talent, the emergence of earned media, and genuine thought leadership content. It had nothing to do with young people, though. They were just the early adopters. Instead, it had everything to do with a larger disruption, mostly driven by technology and the digitization of the world. Clients would come in and say, “I’ve got a problem with my millennial population.” But they really had a problem with their single-channel path to market in an omnichannel world. So, I quickly pivoted away from this psychographic model of generations to really look at the concept of disruption and the impact it was going to have on business models and, therefore, the need for transformation in the business. But there’s only so many times you can tell an executive group what’s disrupting them before they say, “Well, shut up and tell us what to do about it.” And so, I would say, “Well, here’s how I’d approach it.” And we did a couple of really successful projects. And then people book you to do more projects. 

FPV: Were there any “eureka” moments that led to your focus on executive leadership?

PS: One was a “eureka” moment related to my own leadership. I knew theoretically that leadership impact and team behavior were critical. But as my own company was growing and we would hit plateaus, I would find myself struggling to figure out the problem. I’d be demanding innovation. I’d be throwing money at the problem. And I was getting less innovation, and my margins were getting squeezed. I just couldn’t get to the bottom of it. I had a moment at a holiday party where I noticed that my behavior radically changed the behavior of everyone else that was there. And I thought, “Wow, that’s at a holiday party at the end of the year and they’re paying that much attention to my behavior. Gosh, imagine what it’s like during the normal course of business.” So, I asked my COO for a little bit of feedback from employees on what the experience of working with me was like. She relished the opportunity and brought a whole box of pretty negative feedback. I mean, scathing stuff like, “Love the company, hate the CEO.” “I’d still work there if it wasn’t for the founder.” They pulled no punches. They were very clear that my leadership style was highly dysfunctional and very damaging to their experience in the workplace. And so, I thought, “Well, I need an empirical way to approach this. What do I have to change specifically? And is there a science to this?” And so, I had my own 360 experience that was direct in its brutality. And yet, it transformed my business. It changed the way I interacted, and it really led to things like psychological safety, acting with curiosity, and being attentive to my own style and the impact that has on people. And so, I really had a transformation of my own, to be honest. 

FPV:  Ego-wise, how do you bounce back from that? And then how do you convey that change is real to the rest of the company?

PS: If you seek change from other people, they need to viscerally experience and visibly notice yours. Everyone wants to ask everyone else to change, but no one really wants to do it themselves. So, you have to go first. But the first step, using my example, is, you must have the humility to say, “All right. I’m not showing up as the best version of myself.” Be focused on the outcome and getting to success, not holding on to your ego or your misinformed biases about what good leadership looks like. It starts with humility and then it starts with actually working on your own behavior change. And then, once you’ve done that, you’ve now got permission to ask for the same from others. But until you’re willing to go first, you can’t ask anyone else to go.

FPV: How long did it take from that moment in your own journey to see the change take hold at your company and make a difference in terms of innovation and financial performance. What really struck you as, “Hey, this is working”?

PS: It was six months. But I’m still on the journey. It never ends, and it’s not a linear path. So, I would say the work continues for me personally, as it does for any good leader, in my experience. I would say, too, that I noticed a difference immediately. I started to enjoy going in to work more. It was such a transformation of my own experience, let alone the experience of my employees. It was less adversarial, less feeling like I was putting out fires. People were just nicer. It wasn’t just performance that went up. The level of joy and connection to the work went up, as well.

FPV: The elusive engagement that everyone talks about these days.

PS: Yes. Do you know what’s a good example? Have a look at the five years prior to Satya Nadella taking over at Microsoft and have a look at the five years after, and their growth, and their performance in the market, and the value attributed to them by Wall Street. They had identical strategy, just fundamentally different leadership styles. Steve Ballmer led more traditionally and in, I would say, a more aggressive way, whereas Satya Nadella is a much more collaborative leader, in my estimate. There’s a macro example if you want to see one, of a transformation.

Joel Berg is a freelance writer and editor based in York, Pennsylvania.