Tent Talks Featuring Carmen Medina: Lead Like a Rebel: Simple Tactics, Major Changes

Tent Talks Featuring Carmen Medina: Lead Like a Rebel: Simple Tactics, Major Changes
Carmen Medina
Carmen is an organizational heretic and all-purpose troublemaker whose only real expertise is asking stupid questions and noticing odd, new things that might amount to something…or maybe not.

On Monday, October 23rd at 5:00pm Central, Carmen Medina joins us for a live Q&A session: “Lead Like a Rebel: Simple Tactics, Major Changes.”

Session Notes

Carmen Medina, a former CIA officer, shared her experiences and insights on being a ‘rebel’ within a bureaucratic setting during the Tent Talks session. Medina spent 32 years at the CIA, starting her rebellious journey in the mid-90s when the digital revolution sparked her interest. Despite facing resistance, she continued to advocate for digital adoption within the organization. Her narrative provided a wealth of advice for those keen on driving change within their organizations, emphasizing the importance of empathy, patience, and understanding organizational dynamics.

Heretical Change and Organizational Resistance:

  • Initial efforts to introduce digital adaptation at the CIA met with resistance due to the organization’s contrasting ethos around secrecy.
  • Encountering resistance led to a realization of the importance of aligning change proposals with organizational orthodoxy or finding overlapping interests.

Approaching Change through Adjacency:

  • Using adjacent areas of interest to bridge the gap between new ideas and existing organizational priorities.
  • Emphasized the importance of practical steps and new metrics to avoid getting trapped in old processes.

Importance of Allies and Bureaucratic Black Belts:

  • The necessity of gaining and keeping allies throughout the rebel journey.
  • Befriending ‘bureaucratic black belts’ who understand the organization’s workings can be crucial for successfully navigating change.

Pacing Change and Prioritizing Ideas:

  • The notion of pacing oneself to ensure the organization can tolerate the rate of change.
  • Prioritizing ideas based on various criteria including cost, practicality, and potential support.

Operationalizing Empathy:

  • Advocated for avoiding embarrassment and humiliation when interacting with others.
  • Mentioned the phrase “connection before correction” to emphasize understanding before making corrections.

Building Trust and Empowering Teams:

  • Trust was described as a muscle that needs to be strengthened by testing its limits.
  • Creating an environment where team members willingly provide discretionary energy towards excellence.

Avoiding Common Pitfalls:

  • The ‘ego trap’ where narcissism is hidden behind the language of innovation can be a common pitfall.
  • Being cognizant of one’s speed when pushing forward new ideas to ensure others can keep up.
  • Understanding one’s status within the organization and sometimes conforming to existing ways before proposing new ideas.

Notable Quotes from Carmen Medina:

  1. “Innovation is the opposite of policy.”
  2. “Avoiding the Athena complex telling stories appealing to emotions.”
  3. “Leadership involves disappointing your followers at a rate they can tolerate.”
  4. “An act of trust implies that you are not certain of the outcome if you let a particular individual handle the task.”
  5. “You need to operationalize empathy… Stop embarrassing people.”
  6. “You have to be really aware of what your status is in the organization…you have to become proficient in doing things the way they’re done before anybody will listen to you and your new ideas.”
  7. “Oftentimes narcissists, hide their narcissism in the language of innovation. Which is a sad thing. It’s their idea. They’re the one that can save the organization.”

Session Transcript

[00:00:33] Carmen Medina: As a little bit of background, I spent 32 years at CIA and I was a heretic at CIA and I basically started my career as a heretic in the mid nineties when the punctured my consciousness and I went, Whoa, this is going to change the world. Everyone is going to have to become a digital organization and it’s going to have huge implications for all knowledge organizations in particular.

[00:00:59] And that would include the CIA. So I started making this point and I was like a mid level person at the CIA at the time. And I was used to people just absolutely being floored by my brilliance. But when I would make the case for why we have to start adapting right away to the digital revolution, and we’re talking 1995, 1996 I just encountered stony silence.

[00:01:25] Why was I encountering stony silence? I didn’t figure this out until many years later. So in some ways, a lot of what I’m going to talk about are Carmen’s greatest mistakes. And then what I learned after the fact. But what I eventually came to appreciate is that at the time in the 90s, the internet was all kumbaya, transparency, open information.

[00:01:51] The world is going to be changed. No more secrets. And so what was the CIA all about? Basically secrets. And so what I was proposing for the CIA to do was completely opposite to their prevailing orthodoxy. So I might as well have been a heretic and I was proposing heretical change. And so my first lesson And it’s both practical and strategic as a change agent is, gosh darn it, you need to think about what you’re proposing.

[00:02:21] And if it is significantly different from the prevailing orthodoxy, it’s going to be that much harder to do. It doesn’t mean you don’t do it. I’m not suggesting that, but it just means you got to be a lot smarter about your tactics and you have to be ready for some difficult times trying to make theological change in an organization.

[00:02:42] So what does your organization really care about? And are your ideas so different that they would be considered heretical? I these, I am not the artist. I have a a good friend who has a talent and he believes by the way, that ideas can best be represented by little yellow post it notes.

[00:03:01] So whenever you see a little yellow post it note in the picture, that’s a new idea anyway. A couple of years into my journey, I’m at a conference with a lot of business leaders who are also, grappling about what to do with the internet. There’s a cocktail party afterwards. A woman comes up to me and says, you’re a heretic at CIA.

[00:03:18] I can tell. And I’m like, whoa. I don’t know. Do I give that off? And she has this piece of advice for me. She goes, I have some advice for you. It’s going to be really hard. It’s going to really challenge you to try to make these ideas a reality at the CIA. And so you’re going to be very uncomfortable.

[00:03:37] And for you to survive this journey, you’re going to have to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. And in fact, you have to realize that discomfort you’re feeling is also an indicator that you’re trying as hard as you can to move the ball forward. I spent a lot of years being uncomfortable and my career suffered.

[00:03:58] I think this is really hard for people who think of themselves as change agents because they tend to be maybe type A people, type A minus, maybe B plus. And they are not used to, hiccups in their career. So I spent, I don’t know, three, four years out in the wilderness and which means like a staff job instead of something, really in the heart of the mission of the CIA.

[00:04:29] And eventually this job came up and it was about redesigning the way that we communicate with senior policymakers, the way that we disseminated our intelligence. And this was about 1998, 99. And most of the job was really about making it more secure because during that period we were having all sorts of leaks.

[00:04:51] And the joke was that you could read the CIA’s secret analysis fastest by reading the Washington Post, that if you waited it for it to officially get to your desk, it would be too late. Anyway that’s not my strength. I’m not like a security minded person, but in this long list of responsibilities for the jobs was to explore digital technologies to see how they could be used to improve how we communicated our findings to policy makers. And I thought, that’s it. It’s a slim chance, but I’m willing to try again to see if I can nail this job and the more, what the organization perceives as the most important responsibilities. Maybe I’ll get a chance to do what I think really matters.

[00:05:35] And that’s exactly what happened. Adam Grant in his book Originals, How Nonconformist Moves the World, profiles this story in the story of my career in chapter two of that book, if you want to get more details. Now, of course, I didn’t realize this is what I was doing until many years later, but what I had done to try to move the idea forward rather than storm the gates of the status quo castle I had done was approach the issue through an adjacency.

[00:06:09] I had found an area where the interests of the status quo, the interest of the CIA, the mission of the CIA could overlap with my idea, and it ended up being, what did the CIA really care about? Security? Could digital technologies was? Be used to share and disseminate secrets more securely, perhaps, and that’s how I was able to move forward.

[00:06:37] Particularly if you’re trying to make that really deep and hard theological change in an organization, approaching through an adjacency can really work. I want to make a few more points while we’re talking about how to approach through an adjacency. I call them secrets of implementation. Something that…

[00:06:59] A lot of change agents don’t realize. A lot of us don’t realize is the inherent preference of all organizations for smoothness. It’s not that they don’t think your idea is good. They may or may not think your idea is good, but they have a even higher level of goodness that they care about more. And that is smooth operations.

[00:07:23] And why is that? I think organizations are established to deliver some important value proposition at scale. And the only way that you can deliver a lot of something at scale is through consistency. And the problem with change, any idea of change, it’s going to be disruptive and it’s going to be crunchy and it’s going to disrupt the smoothness.

[00:07:49] So as a change agent, always be aware of the fact That there’s a even before people consider the value of your idea, you already have several marks against you because moving forward with your idea invariably is going to disrupt the smoothness of the organization, which is why it’s really important for change agents and if you want to lead as a rebel to focus on practicalities.

[00:08:21] I, this mistake I made all the time that I see when I talk to rebels that they make all the time and that is that they keep talking about how beautiful their vision is. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if we reach this new way of doing things and everybody agrees, everyone agrees it would be wonderful.

[00:08:43] You actually find fewer people in my experience disagreeing with your goal. And more people just totally confused and fearful of how the heck we get there. I once was speaking at a California State Teachers Association. And afterwards this fairly new teacher came up to me and she said, I have two words for you, Carmen, tiny pivots.

[00:09:08] And that’s how she approach making her organization and the classroom better. By making tiny pivots and this tiny pivot approach is basically one about practical change. So focus on practicalities. And a third secret of implementation that I would offer for you all is that, metrics are always important.

[00:09:34] They’re particularly important in software development. But the status quo owns the current ruler and you as a rebel proposing a new and different idea can get caught in this trap where you’re trying to make your new way of doing something meet the metrics of the old way of doing something you need to avoid that trap as much as possible.

[00:10:02] So when you are having that conversation about metrics. You just have to in a forthright, straightforward way. Have, make this point with the people who are going to be your allies in this effort that we have to come up with new metrics. We can’t let our new ideas be prisoners of the old processes and the old measurements of the old process.

[00:10:28] This is something I didn’t do at all. I was pretty egotistical. I think when I was trying to be a rebel at CIA, but I learned in retrospect that it’s really important in your rebel journey to gain and keep allies. Now, why are the people falling off the back of the bus? Keystone cops. That’s what they were called. A whole bunch of policemen get on a police truck, and then to chase some criminal, the truck turns the corner so fast that half of the guys fall out the back of the truck.

[00:11:04] That’s a metaphor for me, that when you’re making change, you have to advance at a rate. that keeps most of your followers with you. And there’s a great line that Ron Heifetz, who was is, I think he still is a leadership professor at Harvard University, said that leadership involves disappointing your followers at a rate they can tolerate.

[00:11:30] And I think that kind of captures the nuance of what you have to do here. You have to move forward, but I think particularly early on in your rebel journey, it’s it’s a wise thing to sacrifice some of the principles of your ideas for more supporters and allies in the organization. In the end, no matter how good your idea is, or how pure your idea is, you’re not going to advance them very well if it’s basically you and a couple of your good friends.

[00:12:05] One other lesson that then this has to do with supporters is that rebels tend to be dismissive of bureaucrats. Oh, I’m not a bureaucrat. Your opponents, you tend to think of them as bureaucrats. And I was like that too. And I think that’s a mistake. I think that the people that really know the organization and know the ins and outs of the organization have a lot of wisdom.

[00:12:36] You don’t want them to be enemies. If they become your enemies, they’re particularly good at passive aggressive techniques. So what I like to say is that we call them bureaucratic black belts. You have to befriend The bureaucratic black belts and a story I can tell from when we were finally succeeding at CIA in disseminating our intelligence.

[00:13:03] This is, in the late nineties, early days of the Internet. So basically what we were doing was attaching analytic papers onto bullet classified bulletin boards that people could access. And so what we were doing was just taking the Microsoft Word document after we redacted it to make it appropriate for that particular platform and posting it on the bulletin board.

[00:13:29] And one day security darkens my door and pretty much I think that’s what is that redundant because when security approaches, it always is darkening your door. But anyway, there they were. And they said, you got a problem, Carmen. And what I didn’t realize is that with revision history by posting the Microsoft Word document, if you knew how Microsoft worked, you could find all the texts that have been redacted.

[00:13:57] Yeah, whoops. I had to fix that really fast. There was a woman, Hope, that was her name, who I had never really talked to about my ideas because I saw her as a bureaucrat and so therefore I thought that meant she didn’t have any good ideas.

[00:14:12] Come to her with the problem and she knows exactly how to fix it. She probably was aware of the early work on the PDF file format, for example. And not only did she have good ideas of how to fix my document control problem, she had lots of good ideas. And I had simply not approached her because of this perception that I had that she was a bureaucrat.

[00:14:36] So my advice to someone, if you’re a leader and you want to be a rebel leader and be a change agent in your organization make friends with bureaucrats. Don’t call them that, of course, to their face take them to lunch, interview them like have you seen successful change efforts in the organization?

[00:14:58] What made them succeed? And I think you’ll be a whole lot smarter as a result. Now a couple of other things that I’m just going to touch upon briefly as a leader, as a rebel, I talked about how I spent three years not being able to do anything meaningful in my career. And during that time, even though I wasn’t in a position to do anything, I always tried anyway to speak my truth, speak, even I’m not able to implement anything, but I can still talk hopefully in a calm and approachable way to people about my ideas.

[00:15:36] There’s a new leadership team at CIA, and we’ve had the Iraq WMD experience, fiasco, and the 9 11 failure. And so they’re looking for new leaders for the organization. And one of the people they appoint is me, and the reason why they appointed me, they said, is that we would ask around, does anybody have any ideas about how we can improve things?

[00:16:03] And your name came up as the only name people could think of that actually had a change agenda. There’s a value to speaking your truth and to not just shutting down when you meet obstacles pace yourself. You’re a rebel leader, right? This is one of my favorite things to tell you.

[00:16:22] It’s super practical. Ask yourself, how many of my brilliant ideas can my organization tolerate in a given year? I think once you ask yourself that question, you pretty quickly realize that it’s not all of them. It, your organization might be willing to tolerate one of your brilliant ideas a year or perhaps two, rarely more than that.

[00:16:47] So what that means is you’re going to have to prioritize the ideas that you try to move forward. And you’re going to have to come up with standards for choosing among your ideas. Which one costs less money? Which one do I have already in my mind? Practical things we can do to advance it. Which one will make my boss look good?

[00:17:07] And that way I’ll get even more opportunity to introduce new ideas. So I think this idea of pacing yourself is really important. And it’s amazing to me. I never thought of it. How many people never think about doing this? Thanks. Develop your emotional intelligence. So well, it’s hard to develop your emotional intelligence, how do I develop my emotional intelligence?

[00:17:33] I’m going to actually tell you a couple of things to finish off that will help you with that. But if to be a successful rebel, I think in the corporate or bureaucratic world, You’re not going to be like Spartacus. You’re not going to be running around killing people. Yeah, you have to be smarter about the context, the emotions, the organization, the social milieu.

[00:18:00] All of that will make you a better rebel. I want to say a few more things very quickly about optimizing your implementation team. Good. It’s only 6 30. Because I’m talking really fast. When I was a manager at CIA, I wasn’t well, I’m too lazy to be a micromanager. It’s pretty. That’s really true.

[00:18:23] And so I had a kind of a laissez faire approach. So I’ve got a team assembled. put this new project in place. And people weren’t rising to the situation. They were confused. They didn’t know what to do. And luckily, I went to a program management course right around the same time. And one of the things that they made clear was that there are different approaches to managing a program, but if you’re trying to implement something brand new that it’s really your idea, and very few people have any concept of how to do it, you need to be much more directive than your normal style.

[00:19:00] And I came back and I implemented that and the things did work much better. If it’s really a crazy idea, And really forward looking if you’re not this type of manager, you probably are going to have to do a little bit more of this directive approach so that you, your team can do what you want them to do.

[00:19:21] Here’s a hint about emotional intelligence. You need to operationalize empathy. Now, this applies whether you’re a rebel or not a rebel. It applies to your life. It applies to your family, but everyone talks about empathy, but nobody really talks about how do you, what do you do specifically to operationalize empathy?

[00:19:43] And so I have one idea and that is Stop embarrassing people. If you conduct yourself in a way that whenever you’re in a situation, you’re having a conversation, perhaps you have to give some difficult feedback to a person, do it in such a way that you, as much as you possibly can, avoid embarrassment, avoid humiliation. And if you conduct yourself that way, you will, the consequence will be that you are more empathetic. So that snide remark that statement what the heck happened here? There’s all these ways that we communicate that don’t take into account the emotions of the other person.

[00:20:33] And I think if you put that, if you raised a priority of that in your mind as you think before you speak, you in effect will be more empathetic. This is not me, but I heard this a couple of weeks ago at a leadership talk that I was on a panel with someone else. And Jose, that was his name, he said his philosophy was connection before correction.

[00:21:00] And I thought, ah, it’s massively good. So I’m going to steal it from now on. Trust is a muscle. It’s one of my favorite things to say.

[00:21:10] We don’t understand trust. We often say I’m going to let Becky do this because she’s done this successfully before in the past. I trust her. That’s not really a moment of trust. That’s a moment of confidence. An act of trust, I think implies that you. are not certain of the outcome of if you let a particular individual handle the task and a team that feels trusted and there’s 360 degree trust in this team is always going to be more powerful.

[00:21:44] And so by saying that it’s a muscle, I’m saying it’s like in weightlifting or any other athletic activity, no pain, no gain. You have to test its limits if you’re going to strengthen it. So find small ways to show trust in individuals by enlarging the, their area of operations. And I think you’re going to optimize your implementation team.

[00:22:15] WAIT, and for those of you who don’t know, it’s if you’re a leader is to wait.

[00:22:21] Why. Am. I. Talking?

[00:22:24] WAIT.

[00:22:25] I love that. And I find just like me right now. I’m talking a lot that one of the almost unavoidable sins of leadership is that you talk too much.

[00:22:37] So soon as you start talking, hopefully now this acronym will jump into your head. Why am I talking? And all of these things activate the discretionary energy of the team. What do I mean by discretionary energy? If everyone in an organization works to the letter of the contract, do you have excellence?

[00:23:02] And usually when I ask this question of groups, people say, no, you don’t have excellence when we just work to the letter. Of the contract. Excellence occurs when people give that something extra to the effort to each other, to the team, to the mission, and that something extra is discretionary energy. And one of the paradoxes of leadership.

[00:23:26] Is you’re hardly ever going to know what level of effort represents someone else’s discretionary energy, unless you’ve been working with Alan for 30 years. So you really know when he’s giving us all you’re just not going to know that. So here’s this weird thing where discretionary energy is what you need to invoke to have excellence and is the one thing that leaders actually don’t have a lot of control over.

[00:23:55] So you’ve just got to conduct yourself and lead the team in a way that you create an environment where people want naturally just want to provide their discretionary energy. This is real quick. I think this is my next to last slide. There’s a bunch of phrases here. Blah, blah, blah, blah. And I hear them often.

[00:24:18] Any comments or questions? Don’t bring me problems without solutions. I have an open door policy. And I think all of those phrases are suboptimal. Even though you hear leaders say them all the time. So I’m gonna bring up how I might say it different. So often, the end of a presentation, you’re the leader and you go, any comments or questions?

[00:24:40] And usually, that’s like the sign that the meeting is over. You get crickets. Nobody has any comments or questions. So you need to ask more inviting questions. What did I get wrong? What am I missing, for example, if you really want to engage your team? Bring me problems but solutions? I hate that with a passion, the person who detects the problem for some reason also has to be the person to come up with the solution. Por qué? Why? We’re a team, right? It makes no sense. I also hate I have an open door policy. I like to say that if you have to say that you have an open door policy, then you don’t actually have an open door policy.

[00:25:23] I know sometimes in a meeting, somebody will make a comment. about your new idea that’s complicated. And you have a tendency to say let’s take this offline. Don’t do that. Actually during the meeting, say that’s complicated. We need to talk about it. Open up your calendar. Let’s see if we can schedule a time to talk about it right now.

[00:25:46] You have to conduct yourself in a way that it makes it clear to people that you really care about this issue. And then let’s reach consensus. I hear this all the time. Consensus is my decision making style. No, it isn’t, because consensus… Applies implies not choosing a decision by definition means that you’re choosing among possible options.

[00:26:12] So let’s reach consensus is just a way of saying that I’m going to settle on the lowest common denominator. There’s only one thing that a team needs to have a consensus on. And that’s on how we resolve disagreements. Now that is what you need to have a consensus on. Oh, I had a couple of more slides.

[00:26:33] Sometimes people ask me for a definition of innovation. I have a very simple one, which is that innovation is the opposite of policy. So policy just means what you’ve always done. And there are many ways you could be doing things differently. So just to make it very simple, innovation is when you have an existing policy and you go.

[00:26:57] I wonder how we could do it differently. These are charts. They’re available on the internet. What rebels want from their boss. I’m not going to go through go through them now. But if you look on the internet I’ve just recently been shared one of these on LinkedIn. I think if you just Google it, you’ll find it.

[00:27:18] And then a second chart that we have are bad rebels, good rebels. Both of these are things that were created by a graphic artist Tanmay Vora, who’s from India and based on our the work we’ve done in Rebels at Work. I think we’re gonna turn it over to questions. I’m putting up this slide right here because it’s like a summary slide.

[00:27:44] I’ve talked about almost all of these things, but there are some here that are that I haven’t talked about, like avoiding the Athena complex telling stories appealing to emotions. That’s what I’ve been modeling here. I’ve told as many stories as I could get away with. Because people remember stories.

[00:28:02] If you want to lead like a rebel, you need to tell stories. And that will have a lot more emotional resonance than just facts and figures. I just want to put up this slide. It’s my friend, the artist.

[00:28:16] Chicago Camps: What are some common pitfalls when adopting a rebellious approach to leadership and how can they be avoided?

[00:28:23] Carmen Medina: One I’ve talked about a lot. And it’s actually one of the things that was in that summary slide is the ego trap. Someone read wrote on this recently the idea that oftentimes narcissists hide their narcissism in the language of innovation, which is a sad thing.

[00:28:48] But it’s their idea. They’re the one that can save the organization. So I definitely think that’s a common trap. Another one that I really refer to is going forward at a speed that people just can’t. Keep up with you. And particularly like when I think back on when I was working on the internet and trying to advance that idea at CIA, I just wasn’t really aware of how much better I understood what was going on, even though I was no real expert, then a lot of people around me, like I would say things like the middleman will be gone from all transactions and everything will be direct, and they would had no idea what I was talking about.

[00:29:37] I think that’s another one. And also, I would say one last thing. You have to be really aware of what your status is in the organization. And at sometimes you have to show your chops. On the mission, and you have to become proficient in doing things the way they’re done before anybody will listen to you and your new ideas.


Event Details
Lead Like a Rebel
October 23, 2023
5:00 pm
October 23, 2023
6:00 pm
Tent Talks Featuring Carmen Medina: Lead Like a Rebel: Simple Tactics, Major Changes On Monday, October 23rd at 5:00pm Central, Carmen Medina joins us for a live Q&A session: “Lead Like a Rebel: Simple Tactics, Major Changes.” Carmen Medina Carmen...
May 2024