People and Strategy

Ian Ziskin on Leading Transformational Change

Episode Summary

In this episode of People and Strategy, host Tony Lee speaks with Ian Ziskin, president of the EXec EXcel Group and co-founder of the Business inSITE Group, about how leaders can achieve transformational change at their own organizations.

Episode Notes

Successful leaders acknowledge while they can’t prevent adverse events (e.g. a global pandemic), what persists is leaders’ ability to choose how they and their organizations respond to those difficult situations by enacting meaningful change. In this episode of People and Strategy, host Tony Lee speaks with Ian Ziskin, president of the EXec EXcel Group and co-founder of the Business inSITE Group, about how leaders can achieve transformational change at their own organizations.

Ziskin is the author of The Secret Sauce for Leading Transformational Change.

This episode is sponsored by Greenhouse.

Episode transcript

Episode Transcription

Audio (00:00):

This episode is sponsored by Greenhouse. Greenhouse customizes, streamlines and scales the hiring process for organizations of all sizes, helping to reduce bias, source the best talent and create a more structured hiring process so you can hire for what's next. Visit or search greenhouse software to learn more.

Tony Lee (00:24):

Welcome to today's podcast. I'm Tony Lee, vice president of content for the Society for Human Resource Management and the SHRM Executive Network, which is the premier network of executives and thought leaders in the field of human resources. We advance the HR profession by engaging HR executives and top practitioners to create solutions and drive success for people and organizations. I'm very excited today to speak with Ian Ziskin. Ian is president of the EXec EXcel Group, consulting and coaching firm based in Sag Harbor, New York that's focused on building individual and organizational credibility.

He also is a co-founder of the Business Insite Group, which helps guide leaders who are making transitions to new, bigger, and more complex roles. Prior to those ventures, Ian spent more than 30 years in senior HR roles in the aerospace, automotive and communications industries as such companies, as Northrop Grumman, Qwest, and TRW, and Ian has written a new book, The Secret Sauce for Leading Transformational Change. Ian, thanks for joining us.

Ian Ziskin (01:24):

Great to be with you, Tony. Thanks for inviting me.

Tony Lee (01:27):

Oh, it's our pleasure. So let's start at the beginning. How did you become interested in HR?

Ian Ziskin (01:33):

Well, for me, takes me all the way back to undergraduate school, where I was a business major and taking all the typical courses you would take as a business major, including what they called in those days, personnel management and I found it quite fascinating even at that time, that organizations really seemed to rely heavily on talent and the capability of their people yet the profession, as it was known as personnel back in those days, wasn't necessarily all that highly valued. And for me, that incongruity really got me curious, which led me to take some more courses at the undergrad level, but perhaps even more importantly, ended up leading me to a Master's in industrial and labor relations from Cornell where I was really able to dive into the subject and found fortunately for me, that I loved it and the rest was history 40 years later, here we are.

Tony Lee (02:30):

That's great. So what's interesting to me is, you know, a lot of HR professionals move in and out of HR through their career. You know, they try other roles, other functions, but you've pretty much stuck with HR your whole career because you love it so much?

Ian Ziskin (02:44):

Yes, for me, it was kind of a combination of two things. One was the passion for the profession. The other thing was feeling like I could have a broader influence, make a bigger difference from some of the HR roles that I was able to step into over the course of my career. I was quite fortunate to have a number of mentors and other people who believed in me who tossed me into some jobs that I probably was not ready for at the time as compared to several different off-ramp opportunities. I had particularly earlier in my career where I could have gotten out of HR and did some operating roles. I'm sure I would've learned a ton and it would've been very beneficial to me as I look back on it now, but at the time felt like it was actually a narrowing of my responsibilities as opposed to broadening of my responsibilities and that's ultimately why I decided to stay within the HR profession.

Tony Lee (03:44):

Yeah, no, it makes perfect sense. So we have gone through an unprecedented period the last few years, transformational change, clearly, and senior HR leaders have had to roll with it, adapt to it. So is that the motivation behind the book, The Secret Sauce for Leading Transformational Change?

Ian Ziskin (04:02):

Yes, in large part, I mean, a lot of it came, frankly from sitting around over the last couple of years of COVID recognizing that the world and people in it were going through this huge set of transformational changes, many of which people were not only unprepared to deal with, but really didn't have much control over and trying to better understand what happens to individuals and teams and organizations and even societies during a period of turmoil like this, where you don't necessarily feel like you have a lot of control over what's happening, try to sort that out and get a better handle on what makes for successful leadership of transformational change, but also try to understand, in those circumstances, where it's unsuccessful, perhaps why and what we could learn from that and do better and differently the next time.

Tony Lee (05:02):

Right. Well, as you know, probably better than anyone, there are lots of books that deal with change and transformation so obviously you've tried to bring a message out that's different. How would you describe that?

Ian Ziskin (05:13):

For us in putting the book together, I think the distinguishing factor was trying to promote very diverse set of voices and perspectives and points of view on leading transformational change. Many of which turned out to be, in hindsight, as we pull book together to be reinforcing and consistent with one another, but there's also enough divergence in people's perspectives on leading transformational change that I feel like we brought a lot of different voices and points of view to the story rather than writing the book from the singular perspective of one author, you know, be that me or someone else without much divergence and point of view and that was really what we were shooting for and I feel quite good, frankly, that we've been able to achieve that.

Tony Lee (06:05):

So what was interesting, I thought was very early in the book. You talk about your father's illness and death. So how did that experience affect you, especially in relation to influencing your point of view in the book?

Ian Ziskin (06:16):

Yes. Well, for me, of course, this was, at the moment, you know, a traumatic experience. I was 11 years old when I first learned of my father's diagnosis of multiple sclerosis which he ultimately died from and the complications from it a couple of years later. And I even remember at that time, you know, as difficult as the circumstance was, recognizing that there wasn't a lot you could do about changing the situation, but there probably was a lot that I could do about focusing on my response to it. What I learned from it. Could I turn out to be a better person as a result of having gone through the experience? That translated very substantially to my point of view, even these many years later on leading transformational change because most of what individuals or teams or organizations, or even societies go through, we don't control.

We don't have a lot of influence over the things that happen to us, but we can in fact influence rather substantially the way we face into and deal with the difficult circumstance and that's a lesson that I take with me still to this day from 50 plus years ago, watching my father go through this circumstance. It also taught me a lot about what I describe in the book as the most fundamental important question when you think about leading transformational change, and that's the question of, from what to what? Because it turns out it's kind of important, not only you think about where you're heading with the changes that you're intending to bring about, but also understanding where you're coming from and what are the things that used to work well that you need to preserve and not mess up on the way to bringing about change, whether that's in your life or whether it's in your organization. And that was also a very valuable lesson for me that really all started with going through that experience of my father's illness and ultimately his death.

Tony Lee (08:27):

Yeah. It's amazing the things that influence us throughout our lives. In the book, you talk about a number of competing priorities and paradoxes that have to be mastered. Can you give some examples of what those are and why they matter?

Ian Ziskin (08:41):

Sure. Yeah. Here's maybe a couple. And just to build on something that you were saying, Tony, one of the things that really jumped out at me in putting the book together was this notion of reconciling, competing priorities, things that seem to be incongruous or in conflict with one another, but really have to be understood and reconciled more in terms of the beauty of and rather than in terms of how they conflict with one another. One example that I'll emphasize here for purposes or conversation is the reconciliation of facts and feelings because it turns out that organizations, in particular, even individuals, you are constantly dealing with a set of facts that they're facing that are leading them to conclude perhaps that some need exists for large scale transformational change. However, human nature being what it is, we also have this miraculous capacity to deny the data and ignore or refute facts with which we disagree or which don't necessarily promote our point of view yet we still need to deal with the reality of facing into those facts, acknowledging their existence and doing something about it.

However, as important as the facts tend to be, is my observation in talking to people for this book and the contributions that are other contributing authors made to the book, that feelings are even more important in many ways, because you know how we feel as individuals tends to stimulate not only the insights that come from the facts with which were presented, but also our willingness and ability to take action rather than being in a state of constant denial. One very simple basic example I think that most people can relate to is many of us have had the experience of stepping on the scale and recognizing perhaps we could lose 10 pounds. Well, the scale is staring back at us with data that somewhat irrefutable that says perhaps it's time to lose 10 pounds, but in reality, for most individuals, it's really the feelings that will drive our action to determine whether we do the difficult work of dieting and exercise, the things that we all know are what's required in order to boost 10 pounds and many people struggle with that reconciliation of the feelings required to take action, to deal with the facts.

So that paradox of facts and feelings turns out to be really important in dealing with transformational change. Another one that I'll point to for purposes of illustration is what I describe in the book is speed and rhythm and this one is tough to get your arms around because it's very difficult to determine when you're leading a transformational change effort, whether in fact you're moving too fast or too slowly, and actually turns out that the people leading the change generally are feeling like things are moving too slowly and the victims or the recipients of the change oftentimes feel like things are moving too fast for their comfort level and it's tough to determine whether you're moving at the right speed and pace simply based on the level of acceptance of the change or how enthusiastically people are embracing it.

But it also turns out that most large scale transformational changes, the general consensus would be that you need to move faster than feels comfortable in order to get the kind of traction that you need to make progress while at the same time, recognizing rhythm also matters and when I think about rhythm, I think about music in particular and musicians rarely would tell you that playing a song faster and getting done with a song faster simply by doing that, improves the song or quality of the music. There is this notion of rhythm and playing together at an orchestrated pace where everybody's on the same page in terms of the music and the rhythm at which we move and playing in harmony. And I think there's a great connection between the positive experience of playing music and rhythm with executing successful large scale transformational change, because not only do you have to move fast, you also have to move in a way that brings other people along with you and in a lying way. And that requires rhythm and everybody being on the same page.

So those would be a couple of S reconciling competing priorities and dealing with those paradoxes that you mentioned.

Tony Lee (13:39):

Yeah, no, it makes it makes good sense. I wonder how many CEOs step on the scale and say, I think we need to lose 10 employees. So the book includes a lot of different essays from transformational change experts and then you've got eight interviews with CEOs, other senior leaders. Was there a common theme that kind of carried through the essays, the interviews that you heard?

Ian Ziskin (14:03):

There's a couple of common themes, maybe. So let's try to address it. Couple of things came through loud and clear. In almost every effort, even though there was a primary focus on whether the change was more at the individual level or at the team level or at the organizational level, every effort that we can read about recognizes that there's an integrated set of priorities that touch individuals, teams, organizations, and even society at large, all at the same time. So it's got to be an integrated set of things that touch. A second thing that was quite common was the recognition that there's got to be a balance between understanding not only what's happening internally within your environment, but also externally. The things that you may not control, but the forces of change that are happening around your business or your industry, or with your competitors, or with rapid evolution of technological change, as well as what you might be dealing with as an individual human being.

There's this balance between having the internal attention focused on what needs to change inside of your environment that you can control a bit more, but also recognizing that everything that you're doing and trying to change your group are dramatically affected by external forces that you really need to be paying attention to and they're easy to miss if you have blinders on and your entire perspective is down and in, in the organization. I think the last one that I'll mention for purposes of our conversation is language and choice of words was different but in every essay and in every interview, there was some connection to this notion that's quite common in the change space of VUCA, you know, which is an acronym which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Every situation that was examined in the book in these essays of interviews had some element of VUCA going on.

But the thing that was probably the most instructive was that volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity are all elements that make us uncomfortable, that are part of dealing with large scale transformational change, but in almost all cases, very difficult to control or prevent, and therefore your energy ought not be placed on preventing things from happening as much as it is having the wherewithal and ability to see around corners and understand what's coming at us and then actually doing something to embrace the inevitability of all of that deal with it, address it because it's the reality that we face rather than something that we can prevent or should even try to prevent from happening. That was all very common to all of the essays and the interviews.

Tony Lee (17:07):

So Ian, we have time for one last question, I'm very curious, your, your thoughts on this. So what advice would you give to someone who's coming into an HR leadership position for the first time? You know, they were an individual contributor and now they're being asked to run a team and they're looking at change. What would be your guidance?

Ian Ziskin (17:24):

I think the first thing that I would be focusing on if I were in that kind of situation is make sure that I understood the business drivers, the things that, in essence, help the organization win, or as I like to describe it, the value chain by which the business makes money because if you do not understand those things well, you'll generally make some bad assumptions about which dials to turn and which buttons to push in order to drive successful, transformational change.

For change at that scale, particularly as a new incoming HR leader to be successful, you first have to understand, well, really what makes the business tick? What the obstacles are that are getting in the way of the business' success? What's been successful in the past that's work that you want to make sure you don't screw up or mess with as you make other changes happen in the organization.

And then the final point would be making sure as an HR leader, that you're surrounded by other talent in the HR function, that is up to the task of traveling along the journey with you, because very rarely will you be able to do it on your own.

Tony Lee (18:42):

Well, Ian, thank you. That's some great expertise. I just want to thank Ian Ziskin, our guest today and the author of the new book, The Secret Sauce for Leading Transformational Change. For more information on transformational change and for further details on the SHRM executive network, please visit Thanks so much for joining us.

Audio (19:05):

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