ABCD Model for Leadership: Awareness

09 June, 2021 | 25 min 11 sec
Podcast Host Tania Salarvand | Podcast Guest Anita Sands
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Brief Summary

As we slowly emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, this four-part series with Dr. Anita Sands, a global technology and business leader, shares the ABCD framework to help leaders thrive in today’s ambiguous climate. The first principle is awareness – how you deal with changing environments as each day unfolds. This podcast will help guide authentic leaders feel more resourceful and better equipped to deal with other forms of ambiguity and to be yourself, skillfully. Listen to next: Part 2 | Belonging

Episode highlights

  • Acute ambiguity is an entirely different animal than change and disruption. We need a new form of resilience, because in a situation of acute ambiguity where things are changing dynamically and quickly, you can't bounce back to something that's no longer there.
  • The A-B-C-D Model: A stands for awareness, B is for belonging, C is for curiosity and D is for drive. Awareness is how you deal with change as it is unfolding. To have resilience throughout and after them, you have to start with awareness. 
  • To have resilience throughout and after them, you have to start with awareness. 
  • We need to know what effect various situations are most likely to have on us. If you know your strengths, you know your vulnerabilities, and you know what's likely to trigger you. Then you're in a much better position to effectively respond to what is happening around you rather than to react to it. 
  • It’s important for managers and leaders to recognize how this crisis has unfolded for different cohorts of employees differently and what it's meant for them. Employees want to know that leaders recognize what is going on and that they are willing to talk about it in a way that's candid and in a way where they balance reality with optimism. 
  • Self-awareness is really about knowing who it is that's dealing with these tectonic shifts that are moving under our feet. And it's about knowing who you are, what you bring to the table. But also knowing then what strengthens you? What weakens you? What depletes you? It's also – minding where your mind goes in times of ambiguity.

ABCD Model for Leadership: Part 2: Belonging | Part 3: Curiosity | Part 4: Drive

See more with Dr. Anita Sands: Evolving the culture for an agile workforce

Podcast Transcript


Hi, and welcome to Pragmatism in Practice, a podcast by Thoughtworks. Today, I'm excited to be joined by Dr. Anita Sands, who's a global technology and business leader, a public speaker, and an advocate for advancement of women. She currently serves on the board of three Silicon Valley public companies and is a board director at two private companies, including Thoughtworks. I'd like for us to discuss a topic that's really top of mind for everyone. Its about resilience and what that means when we're in a constant state of ambiguitiy. I'm excited to have Anita here because she's been working a lot on this topic recently.

Dr. Anita Sands:

Thank you, Tania. Really very honored to be here with you.


Thank you. What I'd love for us to do, if you don't mind, Anita, is to just jump right in and just introduce what it is that you've been working on and tell us a little bit about what it means to you and why it's so important to everyone right now.

Dr. Anita Sands:

Well, thanks, Tania. Well, look, I think like many leaders I think all of us had an expectation that things would return to normal and kids would go back to school and our offices would re-open and so forth. And then it seemed as the months rolled on that, wow, this may not be the regular season this may only be the pre-season that we’re in right now and it felt decidedly different. And I think Tania you would know and everyone at Thoughtworks and our listeners would know, your know, we prided ourselves on being an organization that really spear-headed disruption. 

We help our clients deal with digital disruption, transformations of all kinds, change and so forth. And I think we were pretty good at it. We are pretty good at it, but yet something felt decidedly different. This just didn't feel like change and disruption and transformation as we would kind of traditionally have thought about it in the business context. So that caused me as a board director to step back. And I think a lot of leaders did and said, "What is it about this time that feels different? What are we dealing with? And how can I better understand it? Because if I can better understand what I'm up against here, then I can better equip and prepare myself and my teams to deal with it." So when I took a step back, I was very fortunate right before the pandemic hit to have spent a month in New Zealand on a speaking tour.

And of course now we all look at New Zealand as one of those countries that has really managed to effectively... They set out with the objective of not just managing the coronavirus pandemic, but actually eradicating community transmission. So I've been working with a lot of people in New Zealand and what I've learned from them is that the context we're in right now is acute ambiguity. And ambiguity is an entirely different animal than change and disruption. And what that means is that, for me, in sort of my layman's language, Tania, I would say, "Look, as a leader, you have all these different scenario, planning, methodologies, you have ways of making decisions. And you kind of say, 'Of course, I'll figure out where to hang my hat.'" But when you're in a situation of ambiguity, there's no hooks. So therefore, where do you even begin to think about where you should hang your hat?

You can't tell cause and effect very well. There's incredible complexity. So to me, then that implied that we needed a new approach for dealing with acute ambiguity. And quite frankly, we need a new form of resilience because what I've learned from these experts in New Zealand is that the old way that we thought about resilience, which was, "I'm going to bounce back and I'm going to withstand everything that's happened and come out of it stronger and tougher, maybe, but unchanged." That's actually not a form of resilience that serves you in any way well, when you're up against ambiguity, because in a situation of acute ambiguity where things are changing dynamically and quickly, you can't bounce back because you can't bounce back to something that's no longer there.

Instead what you want to focus on is bouncing forward, bouncing upwards, not coming out of something unchanged, but actually allowing what is happening to us to happen, absorbing that change. Taking those learnings and evolving and growing and coming out of it, sort of bending the curve as they say, as an organization in terms of our performance, but also as individuals just coming out, feeling more resourceful and better equipped to deal with, whether it's a second wave of a virus or any other form of ambiguity that the future might throw at us.


And you mentioned unchanged and I think that's a really interesting way to think about it because I do believe that in general, people feel that there's a lot of change that happens around us on a regular basis. Therefore, for the most part, we're prepared for change because it's the only constant, it's the only thing that happens. But this particular instance has really flipped that on its head. What does that mean when you say coming out unchanged or how do we flip and skip to the next level? Can you dig a little deeper there?

Dr. Anita Sands:

Absolutely. And, Tania, you've hit on two really critical elements of what I was excited to talk about today. So we've developed this sort of model, this methodology for how you can deal with acute ambiguity and how you can kind of reconstruct resilience in your life. And we call it very eloquently, the ABCD Model.


Okay. Easy to remember.

Dr. Anita Sands:

Easy to remember, right? But it answers a lot of the points you just raised. So the A stands for awareness, B is for belonging, C is for curiosity and D is for drive. And that first letter, awareness, if I can start there, that actually tees up a great deal of what you just mentioned Tania, which is around how do you deal with change as it's unfolding? So the interesting thing about ambiguity and about years like this is that in order to have resilience throughout and after them, you have to start with awareness. So resilience starts with awareness. And in fact, if you don't have awareness, it's almost like the selection gate, if you don't have awareness, there's no way you're going to get resilience.

But awareness comes in two forms. There's self-awareness and there's situational awareness. So let's start with self-awareness. Self-awareness is critically important when you're dealing with change and disruption in your life, because you need to know who is it that's standing here facing this crisis? Who am I that's going into this period of ambiguity? What is it that I have? What is it that I bring to the table? And also, what is it that I need? So this is important because every situation that we encounter in life has the capacity to strengthen us or to broaden us or to deplete us. And we need to know what effect various situations are most likely to have on us. We also want to know how do we get our feedback underneath us? How do we find sort of firm ground underneath our feet? And the way we do that, as we draw on all of the things that make us, us. What my friends, that I've been working with in Propel Performance Group, they call it our own bucket of authentic wealth.

These are the things that we can draw on in moments like this. So then if you know your strengths, you know your vulnerabilities, you know what's likely to trigger you, you're in a much better position then to effectively respond to what is happening around you rather than to react to it. So that's sort of the first part of self-awareness, to sort of knowing who is at that standing here facing all of this, knowing what you come with, knowing what you need. The second element of self-awareness then is captured with this great, lovely expression called mind where your mind goes. And what this means is, if you can retain capacity and control over where you focus your attention and where your mind goes, then again, you develop a much higher capacity to cope with something and to retain a sense of control.

So we've all had those days, Tania, where we wake up and we just feel like there's nothing left in the tank. There's just no gas left in the tank. "I feel overwhelmed. I maybe feel a little depressed. I just don't feel like I can bring it today." And it's so important on days like this that we sort of invoke this idea of mind where your mind goes, because let's face it, wherever our mind goes, the rest of us follows, right?

So if we are likely to understand that it's not helpful, it doesn't serve us to kind of let those gremlins who are on our shoulders to kind of take over control, but instead to confront them. It's not helpful if all of those innate patterns of the way that we think, our self-doubt, any way in which we might question our abilities. If we can retain control over our awareness over them, then we can contain much greater control over them as well.

So this mind where your mind goes is really important. And perhaps just come back to my idea of those days when we feel depleted. It's so essential to know that, and to know what triggers you in moments like that. And also to know what replenishes you, because let's face it, you can't run on empty for long. So we need to know what it is that depletes us. And we need to know what it is that replenishes us. This is just a critical foundational element to be able to have, and it's something to be able to do in your life, but it's not just enough to know yourself and to know what triggers you or to know your strengths or weaknesses. You also have to know yourself in a context because we are showing up in a context and that context is shifting and changing as each day unfolds here.

And as the crisis unfolds, it's demanding different things of us. And it's important to know what that is. So I would maybe, I guess, you know another way to think about this is the incredible thing about a crisis is it takes you as it finds you and it takes you where it finds you. So crisis doesn't show up at your door and go, "Hey, Tania, we're going to head into six months of a brutal lockdown here, and your kids are going to be home from school, and you're going to still have to try and do your best at work and everything else. But I want you to get yourself ready, pack whatever you need, get yourself organized, get your life organized, and then we'll head off into the crisis." That's just not the way crisis works. It just takes us as it finds us.

And the truth is that some of us were in better shape going into this crisis than others and crises are notorious for surfacing whatever little vulnerabilities you had in your life, but also whatever those fault lines were, they've kind of cracked wide open. So we're really starting to see this unfolding of how crisis surfaces inequalities amongst our workforces, because this crisis is affecting different people differently and it's affecting different cohorts of employees differently. We're starting to see data emerge that black employees and particularly black women and black working moms are really struggling because they have sort of a trifecta of difficult systemic obstacles and barriers that they were up against in the first place.

Then all of the nuances and challenges of the crisis, and then layer on top within their communities, they're dealing with the disproportionate impact of COVID and also the impacts, the social toll, everything else that goes with all of the social unrest we've experienced. So you put that trifecta of challenges together, and here you have a cohort of people who are really struggling and need a different form of response. So it's incredibly important for us as people to understand what our particular situation is. But then as managers and leaders, to recognize how this crisis has unfolded for different employees and what it's meant for them.


That is really, really relevant I think for a lot of people, as we think about what is our truth. And I think, one of the things that you mentioned earlier is the mind where your mind goes, because I think that there is a lot that everyone takes on and as leaders probably take on a little bit more, whether it's professionally and personally, and sometimes that moment of self-reflection and taking a breath doesn't happen probably as often as we'd like it to, unless so in a crisis because you feel like you need to be on all the time. So I think that's very relevant. So as a leader, Anita, what do you think are some of the things that we need to be mindful of? What are the things that we need to open our eyes to? You mentioned one piece of it here around just awareness of situations. Are there other things that you would give as tips of things to think about when we think about awareness?

Dr. Anita Sands:

Yeah. I have sort of four steps for managers and leaders and this sort of actually dovetail with all of the ABCD, but just sort of to cover them here. The first step is exactly what we've just talked about, it's recognition of what has happened, confronting reality. Employees want to know that leaders recognize what is going on and that they're willing to talk about it in a way that's candid and a way where they balance reality with optimism. And that's important, Tania, because in moments of crisis and uncertainty, fears and anxieties in the minds and hearts of employees can metastasize. People are worrying if there'll be more cost reduction coming. People are worrying if their project will get canceled. People are worrying if there's going to be another round of layoffs. People are worried about whether or not they'll get that bonus at year end or the promotion that they were promised if the business is now underperforming because of the conditions we're in.

So all of these fears and anxieties are metastasizing, and it's so important, therefore, that leaders step in and recognize the problem, confront the reality. There's no point being like a donkey on a bridge, resisting the reality, you have to confront reality as it is right now. And one of the teams that we've studied in looking at teams that really know how to thrive in ambiguity are the All Blacks, the New Zealand rugby team. And they have this lovely expression of "be where your feet are", which means that if only if you can be where your feet are right now, that you can pick up the cues that tell you what you should do next and give you that forward momentum. So it's super important for leaders to recognize what it is that employees have gone through.

And then to say sort of two things, Tania. Firstly is, "What is the pebble in your shoe?" So quite often what derails us in a crisis is not this acute moment where there's one thing that breaks us. What it is, is it's like that little pebble in your shoe that kind of, you could probably walk the first 10 miles with the pebble and it'll bother you, but if you then were to stop and the leader was to, "Okay, I need you to walk another 100 miles because this pandemic's not over. We got to keep marching another 100 miles." You go, "There's no way I can walk another 100 miles with this pebble in my shoe." Because if you leave it there, that little thing that grates you every day, that little thing that wears you down and depletes you, that could become a raw open wound.

So leaders have to sort of stop, ask people what's the pebble in their shoe. Another way I think about it, Tania, is if you pull somebody out of a car wreck and they're really beaten up all over, the first thing you say to them is, "Where does it hurt the most?" So recognizing that people are going to worry about different things, that this crisis will have affected them differently. And that as a manager, you have to ask them, "What's the pebble in your shoe and where does it hurt the most and what is it that you need right now?" But most importantly, the only way for that to work effectively between us and our employees is if number one, we're willing to be vulnerable ourselves and give them the space to say, "It's okay if you're feeling challenged, it's okay if you feel under pressure." But secondly, then not to be presumptuous and thinking that we know how everybody is feeling or that the same members of the same team are all going to be feeling the same way.

That's just simply not the case. So I love this story of a friend of mine, a really close friend of mine who worked for John Chambers at Cisco for many years. And she was raising her family. She had three young kids at one point in time. And she said, "There were many times, Anita, over the years when I wanted to quit and I would go into John's office and I would tell him I wanted to quit. And John would say, 'Nope, look, here's how I think about you. Here's how I think about this team. We're like a baseball team. Sometimes you're up to bat and there's other times that you're sitting on the bench. If this is the time when you need to sit on the bench, go sit on the bench, sit this one out, the rest of the team's got your back. That's how we work.'"

And that happened on more than one occasion. So she looks back now and she said, "Look, not only did that keep me in the workforce and then led me to have a terrific career, but I was incredibly loyal to John and to Cisco as a result of the support that they offered me in those moments when I needed it the most." So I think that's sort of a really interesting story for us as managers and leaders to think about, what is it and how can we offer support to our employees right now?


I think that's a great point. And it leads me to my next question. We're always looking for leaders, teams, examples of where you've seen this work. How does it work in real life, in real practice? So when you think about building this awareness, where have you seen it work?

Dr. Anita Sands:

Well, I don't know if it's so much in a team setting, but I'll give you one that just strikes me every single time about how self-awareness and situational awareness play out, which is in the life of a golfer. So I was watching The US Open a few weeks back, Tania, and this guy, Bryson DeChambeau, won quite somewhat, I think unexpectedly. And I watched a number of his interviews afterwards because he really talked about the power of curiosity, which we're going to talk about later. But the interesting thing about a golfer, if you think about it is that they need absolute self-awareness. First of all, they need to be present and in the moment, they can't ruminate over whether the last hole went well for them or not, because that will destroy their chances of playing this hole well, or they can't worry about the fact that a really difficult and challenging hole is coming up next.

Because again, that will impact their ability to operate effectively in the moment. So they need that sort of self-awareness, they need to be present. They need to mind where their mind goes, as any golfer will tell you that it really is a game of mental ability as much as anything else. But then they also need to invoke the situational awareness, which is, "Look, I need to be conscious of exactly what is happening in this situation right now, which way is the wind blowing. How strongly is the wind blowing? Which way is the grass lying?" So I love that as an example of where self and situational awareness come together in a very meaningful way, minute by minute in the life of a champion golfer.


And on that point, do you believe... And maybe this is a theoretical question, but do you believe there is one that needs to be prioritized over another self versus situational awareness? Or can they be in parallel? Do you need to do one first for the other one to become more relevant?

Dr. Anita Sands:

They're kind of symbiotic. So if the situation changes and shifts and demands something different of you, First of all, you need to reflect on what that is, that situational awareness, and then you need to reflect how it's impacted me. And what can I rely on right now in terms of my strengths? What do I need to watch out for in terms of my triggers and my weaknesses? What are my motivators and how are they impacted by what I'm confronting right now? But equally then, you need to have that sort of, as I was saying, that you need to know what your own bucket of authentic wealth is. You'll need to think about what are you discovering about yourself in this new context that you're now operating in.

So I love this idea of we feel like we've been living in a little matchbox, but there's been abilities, incredible opportunities to discover new things about us in this little matchbox of an existence. So they're very much symbiotic, Tania, you need one and the other. Self-awareness without awareness of context is not very helpful. And situational awareness without an understanding of self is not useful at all, either. And where the two come together for us at work is I've always described authentic leadership as the ability to be yourself, to be your authentic self, skillfully. So the way that you can be yourself skillfully is when you know yourself, that self-awareness piece, but the skillful bit is knowing how is it that you do, and you should show up in a particular context.

So if you're in a challenging meeting and you feel under pressure or you feel you're being attacked, you need to be conscious of that situation. You need to be conscious of how that might trigger you, what behaviors it might trigger, what reactions it might trigger. And then you need to invoke your skillfulness in how you show up in response to that and not be reactive, but instead be responsive. So I think it's important that both go together, but when you get the two things combined together, they're really, really powerful. I could give you an example of where this is really powerful at a team level, at an organizational level. So I've been working with this incredible woman out of New Zealand. Her name is Dr. Alia Bojalova. She and I are working on a book together, very exciting, on resilience, but Alia is amazing. She is a former Special Forces operator.

She was a member of the New Zealand SAS. So they are lead kind of Special Forces team. She's a psychologist by training. She's an organizational psychologist now, and she has some incredible stories, including what actually prompted her to do her PhD on resilience was a situation that she encountered in Syria back in 2013 where she was taken hostage. So I'll tell you a little more about that story when we get to the curiosity piece of the puzzle here, Tania, but one of the things she will talk about where awareness comes to life at a team level and how it then eventually relates to belonging is if you could imagine you're a leader right now, you're standing on top of a mountain and there's chaos unfolding around you.

How helpful is it going to be if the only perspective you have, if the only read of the situation you have is your own, if the only information you're getting is your own sort of self and situational awareness? I mean, that's one perspective, right? And as you know, as a leader, quite often, you're so isolated from the cold front of the business that your perspective may not actually be very close to reality at all.

Tania: Yes.

Dr. Anita Sands:

So instead what you need is you want to have every team member invoking their self-awareness and their situational awareness and looking at what's happening from their perspective and feeding that information back in. So I always like to say, "Ice melts from the outside in." So if you're all standing on an iceberg, you really want to be getting the word from the folks who are out there on the edges of the iceberg about how quickly it's melting, right? So what that means is from a leadership standpoint is you want to be hearing from all your employees.

You want to be hearing from those who are on the cold, on the frontline with customers, telling us how is customer behavior shifting. You want to be hearing from people in operations about how the supply chain is holding up. You want everybody to be looking at the problem, at the situation, giving their read of the situation from their unique vantage point. So Alia uses this beautiful expression about Special Forces and she said, "We designed for diversity because in our world, a diverse set of skills and perspectives is actually critical for survival." So then when we're out on the battlefield, we want everybody to look at what's happening, leveraging their skills, their experiences, their biases, their reads. And she said, "Because what we certainly don't want is to have every team member looking at the problem through the same set of binoculars."

And I just really found that such a powerful kind of image to think about, you want in moments like this, to leverage the diverse perspectives and skills and experiences of each team member, because that gives you the most intricate and complex read of the situation. And at an organizational level, Tania, what's incredible then is that transforms this idea of self-awareness and situational awareness into strategic awareness, into something that is a strategic and competitive advantage. But however, it requires certain conditions in order for that to work. And that's where we kind of get into the belonging.


I think that example you gave, it's actually a really great one to reflect on self and situational awareness. This idea that you are self-aware enough to know what you know, and what you don't know, and that lens that you wear, but also recognizing what you need in that particular situation to bring from your diverse team, your colleagues, your peers, to be able to holistically look at a problem and figure out the right path forward. I think is a really, really great way to reflect on awareness, which is also a nice tie in to belonging, which will be the second part of our four-part series around thriving and ambiguity. So with that, Anita, thank you so much for talking to us about part one, awareness. And for everyone else, please look forward to episode two, which will be about belonging. Thank you, Anita. Talk to you soon.

Dr. Anita Sands: Thanks, Tania.

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