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TD Magazine Article

Peter Krembs

An interview with Peter Krembs, Consultant, Center for Character-based Leadership


Sun Dec 08 2013

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Center for Character-based Leadership


Minneapolis, Minnesota

Peter Krembs has nearly 40 years of experience in leadership development and change leadership. He specializes in the unique issues found in professional and expert-based cultures, including science, technology, IT, financial services, and healthcare.

He was a faculty member of GE leadership development courses in the United States, Europe, India, and Asia for more than 20 years.

What kind of work do you do with the Center for Character-based leadership?

I joined the center, which has been around for about 20 years, about five years ago. The people in the group are committed to doing a deeper level of leadership development work, and I was very attracted to that. I facilitate peer-coaching groups, do some individual executive coaching, and facilitate character-based leadership development programs with organizations committed to building leadership character as well as leadership skills.


The focus of our work at the center is to help people develop greater self-awareness of their mindsets and assumptions about people, systems, and the nature of leadership work. We address the issues of balance and effective energy management, personal responsibility, and healthy boundaries. We try to help people explore not just what they can do as leaders, or what they personally want to do as leaders, but also to answer this question: "What is the most effective use of myself in a leadership role?"

A good analogy to grasp the distinction between developing skill and developing character is that of a computer or smartphone: Think of skills as apps, and character as the operating system. If you keep adding apps, but the operating system is not robust enough to handle it, the apps do not run, at least not as intended.

By using peer-coaching groups to strengthen character "muscles," there is a common language that develops around character; and we help leaders learn from each other's experiences about the dilemmas, tensions, and challenges of character issues. We feel that people learn best from peers—once the relationships are developed. And the experience of peer coaching and peer learning itself changes mindsets.

What are a few of the challenges facing leaders today that you did not see 20 years ago?

I started doing this work straight out of graduate school in 1974, and we really focused on leadership development in terms of the immediate reporting team. Leaders would be looking at how you were building your team, how you were developing your direct reports, and how you were putting in good management processes and techniques.


Today we have nimble, constantly changing structures where leadership is about so much more than just focusing on the "up and down" vertical hierarchy. It is about understanding your sphere of influence in all directions. There is so much more awareness of interdependence and working successfully across all kinds of boundaries.

This evolving world of how we work together, and network both personally and electronically, presumes that we all can hold the increased complexity this puts in our laps. We know our own needs, but we are also very acutely aware of tensions between what my group needs and how that affects the needs of other groups. There are not simple solutions or standard practices that work, so leaders have to learn how to accurately size up situations and then make considered judgments about how to balance actions and outcomes.

I come from a generation of high achievers; we initiated, were self-motivated, and valued moving quickly to action. I also think that my generation labors under a delusion that we can control things.

The younger generation, because they grew up with social media, have come to understand that you cannot control your world, you have to swim with the currents, and channel what is there. To my generation, they may look like they are not self-motivated enough; in reality I think they have learned how to navigate complexity and interdependence better than we were able to learn from our experiences growing up.

What do you think are the necessary traits of exceptional leaders in technical organizations?

Of course there are some things that leaders/managers in technical organizations face that all leaders face. But there are some significant differences in both the challenges of technical environments and in the preparation a technical expert receives before becoming a leader.

For example, there are differences in the scope and complexity of technical work versus more routine, repetitive work. Mastery in specific specialty areas of science, engineering, legal, or finance requires years of specialty training and experience. Going deep means going very deep, and without that nuanced background to see interconnections and implications. Someone leading a technical group could underestimate what is involved in doing certain projects or the risks of certain decisions.

It is very hard to maintain an appreciation for mastery, which implies depth and detail, and also develop the big picture integration of leadership work. The technical issues, the business viability questions, and the complexity of working with other technical experts—most of whom prefer to be autonomous—this is a big leap.

I use the analogy of how leadership requires that you are able to step back and see the whole forest. Well, for most technical experts, not only can they not see the forest, but they have "bark lines on their foreheads" because their work requires them to be that close to the detail.

Couple that with the fact that most technical organizations expect technical leaders to continue to be technical experts, and quickly shift at a moments notice to be up on the balcony seeing the big picture—having broad peripheral vision, and attending to what the system needs regardless of what I might need or what my team needs. It is really a huge expectation that most technical leaders feel they cannot possibly meet.

You've taught leadership development courses around the world for more than 20 years. What common issues or stark differences are there among the regions and cultures in terms of learning?

I think there is no question that some of those differences are diminishing as we become more global, but we are also products of the environments we grew up in. In Japan where the emphasis is on very disciplined learning environments, there might be less free-flowing dialogue and learning through self-discovery, at least with the authority of the teacher in the room.

I think the American system of education produces people who are more inclined to question authority, but are not always as disciplined about getting people aligned. I think there are some cultures that shape starkly different ways to balance the importance of a focus on relationships versus achievement of goals. There are other differences about the balance between the needs of individuals versus the needs of the system.

There are a couple of things that I recognize as "blind spots" among many leaders in the United States, and I do not think I would have been able to see it so clearly if I had not done work in many other cultures. One is the value of reflection and self-awareness. The other is our ability to hold complexity and competing values.

I notice that in Europe most people have worked and lived in several different cultures by the time they are 35 or 40, and are more culturally agile. Their American counterparts are more likely to be attached to "one right way," and less likely to see beyond what is their normal way to do things.

What do you most enjoy about helping organizations in their leadership development training?

I really like working with technical and professional people because of the passion they have for their work. If I can help people accelerate their ability to navigate the challenges of complexity and the need to constantly adapt and evolve how technical organizations get things done without dampening that passion, then that is when I find my work most rewarding.

It is sort of like I am there to make good people even better. It is a privilege to be in the presence of someone who has a powerful self-insight or a breakthrough—and if I have helped create the crucible for that shift, I cannot think of anything more enjoyable than that.

In the book that you co-authored with Patricia McLagan, On the Level: Performance Communication That Works, you write about four central principles of on-the-level communication: directness, respect, shared responsibility, and purpose. Will you expound on the purpose principle?

Our lives are very transactional, and this is reinforced by the pressure to always get more done with fewer resources, including time. We get into the "how" without knowing or even asking about the "why," and we go on automatic pilot because we are feeling such pressure to move to productive activity. I think if a leader or team member is going to have a conversation about performance, it is absolutely critical to the speaker's credibility to step back and address the meaning and purpose of the work to give the tactical discussion some context.

If you look at the way most organizations operate, we probably do a pretty good job of making sure goals are clear and measurable. What most organizations are not so good at is setting a powerful, compelling frame around the work that answers the question, "Why is this a radical priority? Why does it matter so much versus all the other things we say are important?"

What projects are you currently working on?

I am trying to challenge myself around the question of how any of us in the field of helping people learn and develop can really help people not just acquire skills, but move from one developmental stage to another—to develop strong professional expert identity, and then make the transition to a leader role where it is less about what you do individually and more about how you create the conditions for others to achieve.

I am also involved in the question of how a collection of leaders can more strategically shape a performance culture—especially when the culture needs to change because of shifts caused by changing customer expectations, a changing competitive landscape, or just because of growth. I see a lot of companies struggle with the shift from being a small, nimble entrepreneurial culture, to a much larger organization that needs institutional consistency. Success and growth means you cannot do things that worked for you in the past, and these are hard changes to assimilate.

More than anything, I am attracted to projects that require attention to the deeper process of individual development necessary to spark real and sustainable individual change along with the questions about how to make the organization develop to create an environment that supports growth. It is the place where individual development insight meets organizational development insight.

What do you like to do for relaxation or fun?

I love to travel. I love to go to a place and stay long enough to get a sense of what it would be like to live there. I love observing with curiosity, and getting to know people from different places in a deeper way that can only come from rubbing elbows with them.

I think the wonderful thing about being in the business of helping others learn is that you never stop learning yourself.

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December 2013 - TD Magazine

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