As we enter the digital age, more and more organizations are turning to artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and other forms of technology to help them navigate the ever-changing landscape. But what does this mean for leaders and organizational change? Joining Dr. Santor Nishizaki today is George Swisher, the Co-Founder and CEO at changeforce.ai. George is a former marketing entrepreneur and management consultant. With a 15-year proven track record, he has been improving company performance, shifting cultures through change management, and strategic growth for mergers and acquisitions. Hear what George has to say about the impact of AI, machine learning, and technology on leadership and organizational change.
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Leading An Organization: AI And A Big Data Approach To Leadership With George Swisher
George, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for being here.
I am keeping things going.
If you could, tell our readers a little bit about your personal journey and your story, as well as your organization’s story.
I am a little bit in a later stage than some of the audience. I started out very young going into the workforce. Some people choose a path of schools and some people choose a path of workforce. I tried school. For me, the workforce was better. I liked getting my hands dirty and trying things and making mistakes like we all do. That was a better path for me. I feel like I was very lucky to have some great mentors who encouraged me to be fearless, try things, and had open arms to sit down and let me ask many questions.
I was lucky at a young stage where I was able to get an understanding of not just my job but also understand what was going on in the organization and how I fit into that. I feel like it fast-tracked me as I worked for organizations from my late teen years in high school and then into college. I was able to go to the ranks and become a successful director-level role, managing a substantial-sized business unit for a company. I was able to do that by knowing that technology was my friend. It was not going to replace me. At that time, I felt like technology was just starting to take shape in how people could use different tools.
At that time, I felt it was more about replacing broken things instead of trying to enhance and innovate. I was right there at that stage where innovation was a big part of you can use a piece of technology or create technology that would help you make better decisions or inform you with things you could not find or automate a process.
I was always very curious and open to learning about, not the technical build, but more of understanding of what the technology could do to help me get through the ranks. I feel like you are in that stage of life when you are in your 20s and 30s, you are competing with everybody. You are competing for space in a meeting. You are competing to get promotions. You are competing with your peers to be able to hold people together and have them lead and follow you.
That became the timeframe where I felt really lucky that I was using technology to advance myself alongside people who maybe were not embracing as much. I was lucky that technology has always been a part of how I made decisions and grew as a leader inside an organization. In my mid-20s, I decided that I wanted to be my own boss. I realized I did not like being told what to do and showing up on specific schedules.
I want some freedom. I want it to be able to be a free spirit. I started my first company at 24. From there, it gave me the ability to use what I learned in being a leader and making decisions for the greater good of the company and my departments, motivating people and figuring out what we needed and did not need and objectives.
Stepping into being an entrepreneur, it was a lot scrappier. You did not have as much infrastructure and you did not have as much resources, money, and time. You had to do things much faster. We ended up building a consulting business where we developed our own in-house technology because it helped us scale significantly. It was the first time I got to build something versus use tools to make me smarter and better. We got to do both sides of using tools and technology and providing a service to customers in the professional service industry, but then have this customized inner working tool that would make us highly efficient in areas that people did not have.
As I got on that journey, I ended up in ChangeForce, exiting a couple of those professional services consulting firms. It was always tech-led, building this business of being a pure-play SaaS product and being able to provide a service to the market that is fully automated and fully run by technology and not a service arm. I feel like that is a good snapshot of entering the workforce, being eager and fearless, and getting some great people to let me talk to them and ask them questions. I think it is important to find good people who are willing to let you ask those questions in your career. I just took the risk and never looked back. Years later, I could not imagine not doing what I am doing.
I remember we originally met on a panel years ago, pre-pandemic, and I was just so impressed with your organization. ChangeForce focuses on organizational change as well as some other things. Organizational change is very complex because there are so many different pieces to the puzzle there. Can you tell us a little about what you have seen within the big organizations you consulted with and your technology? What advice would you give to folks who are just entering a leadership role to create positive organizational change?
Organizational change is complex and I feel like organizations and leaders almost over-complicate it sometimes. When you use a broader word, like organizational change, the reality is there are a lot of midsize things going on at lead up to that change. I feel like people can get overloaded or confused in one organization you may have. We talked about the different sizes. We think about the Fortune-1000 we start there. There can be 3 to 5 large transformational types of changes going on at once.
Think of digital transformation, diversity, equity, inclusion, finance transformation, or cultural transformation. There are so many things going on. I feel like the leaders have a better understanding of it than the frontline employees and the managers, especially in those size organizations. The leadership makes up such a small percentage of the bodies that are a part of that.
If you think of an average Fortune-1000, it has 35,000 employees. Less than 5% of the people are the leadership team and understand the complexity of all that is going on at once. When you deal with the other 95% of the people, they are just there to do a job. They are working and they just hear all these big things. They don’t know how that relates to them, what they care about, and how they use or participate in these activities while also doing their job. You are right that it is incredibly complex for more of the employee than for the leadership team. Each leadership team is just sitting at a level where they are tasked to figure this stuff out.If you are a leader stepping into an organization, the first part is trying to keep it as simple as possible. Get rid of as much noise as possible and figure out the true change that will kickstart you in the right direction. Click To Tweet
One of the first things to think about is if you are a leader stepping into an organization. Let’s just say you are running a department or a business unit or you are running the whole organization. The first part is trying to keep it as simple as possible. I feel like people can be too ambitious in how many things they want to happen at once.
I think it is good to dream and it is good to have a vision and say, “In the next three years, we really need to go from here to this side of the continuum on how we are revolutionizing our organization to the other side of the continuum.” What are all the big components to do that? I feel like that is a very small group of people that can comprehend that.
This is the part where you can say, “Where do you start?” I feel like that is the beginning piece. You can have a big, giant dream, but much like it works for highly scalable companies, it is about simplicity, where you start, and how you have complete rinse and repeat. If you can start with one thing, “We are doing this really well.”
Even though you may realize you need a bunch of things at once, you cannot do all of them at the same time. I think this is why organizations struggle. It takes them three to five years to transform because they are just doing so much. I feel like that is point number one. If you are coming in, the first job is to get rid of as much noise as possible and figure out what the true change is that is going to kickstart you in the right direction.
That cannot revolutionize the whole organization, department, or business unit, but it is at least giving you something that is attainable and that you can then go to step number two. I think the second component is how do you clearly communicate why it matters to everybody in the organization? There are so many ways to do that. There are technological ways you can do that.
There are high-touch ways like workshops, meetings, and training, or you can use different analysis tools of sentiment or what is going on in employee reviews. There are a lot of listening things you can use. You got to get to that place where you simplify it and get into that next step, like, “How do I make sure people understand why this matters to them?”
Organizational change becomes less about the process of managing the change and more about the emotional buy-in that you need to get. I feel like that is where on the consulting side and even within the work we are doing today, that is a big, giant hurdle. How do you really empower people to believe in what is going on and to trust and follow? It is all these big emotional things.
The more you can make that approachable for people and you can communicate that and make it clear and why it matters for them in their role, without being too diluted down and too fluffy. We can really get people to buy-in. I think the number three piece is how do you build your utility belt of people, tools, technology, and data?
How do you surround yourself with all the things that really help you move forward at scale, where you can quickly learn from your mistakes and then track and measure in incremental pieces? If you could master those three things when you are stepping in, you can create some damage quickly for that specific thing you are trying to do. If you try to do too many things and it gets muddied down, I feel like it is a good way to, whether it be the coaching that we were doing on the consultant side when we were in that business or even now where it is just pure play technology.
Keep it simple, understand how you are measuring things and make it contextual to people. All these things are great leadership skills to be able to promote if you are the CEO, the president of the business unit, or a manager or director of the department. Master those three things in your domain. If you could do that, you can get that buy-in. Simplify and you can get traction. That is what everybody is looking for. You cannot just talk about it. You need to throw up some results. I would say that is critical from an org change perspective.
I think building momentum is so important. Those are small wins, but one of the things I have seen from large organizations is the lack of showing the results or it is, all of a sudden, this change happens or, “We went through this long work session at a retreat,” and then we do not hear anything for like six months. Have you seen that as well?
I think six months is a fairly quick timeline. Most people do not hear anything for a year.
You might have already turned over by then.
I think you run into the risk. Time can work for you or against you. By the time you figure something out a year later, it is no longer relevant. Speed is so important. That is why I said, starting smaller, how do you do those smaller shifts because it is more manageable? You can iterate. You might solve what you thought was a big problem really quickly, and then you can move on to the next thing. Speed is a critical part of measuring the effectiveness and the way you get things moving. People get so focused on the strategic side of it. They forget that strategy is 20% and execution is 80%. As much as people love to think and whiteboard, at the end of the day, if you do not execute, you are not going to be successful.
I would rather see a leader or an organization focused on set times or strategic development. Whatever you can accomplish in that time is great, but keep it short, go out and execute and learn very quickly. You can just start to adjust in that more iterative way. There are a lot of methodologies within technology, building technology, and technology companies where it is about those deploying little pieces and getting direct feedback. Sometimes it turns into something you never expected.Speed is a critical part, not only in measuring the effectiveness but also in the way that you get things moving. Click To Tweet
George, what does your company do? How do they use technology within org change?
When you think about ChangeForce, it is about using our technology to analyze sentiment within the tools you already use every day, like Slack or Microsoft Teams. The idea is to give leaders a very effective and quick understanding of what the sentence looks like in achieving their company objectives. I feel like sentiment is such a loose word. What we started on, where we are, we did iterate things. We used to believe that it was important to understand what is considered positive or negative sentiment. If you think about things like employee engagement surveys or exit interviews or reviews that are out there on your company by your ex-employees, looking at positive and negative sentiments is important.
It is a nice starter, but if you can contextualize the direct context of that sentiment, it is related directly to what is considered a good or bad outcome in achieving your objective. If you can have something that solves for you, the speed at which you can make decisions around feedback is dynamically faster. It is so contextualized.
We have spent our time integrating with different software throughout the organization and being able to map the sentiment and rate it towards a good or a bad outcome related specifically to an objective. If the company has that diversity and inclusion and digital transformation going on at the same time, we can read all the Slack messages. We are able to understand, contextually, how related that Slack message is to achieving a specific objective in digital transformation or a specific objective in diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Once it understands how closely related it is, it can then rate what is considered good or a bad outcome from that objective, which usually comes from KPIs. These are things that already exist inside the organization. We realized that if the leader has these dots connected for them, they do not need to interpret employee engagement surveys or ask people questions to understand how people are feeling towards the team objective of empowering women to be successful leaders in the organization. We can do that in real-time by scrubbing all the different data sources that are going on. Think of email, CRM, and everything that is going on inside the organization. That is what we focus on.
I am going to ask this question for the readers. I know we talked about it offline, but what about privacy and ethics there?
The reality is when you go to work for a company, the company owns anything you are using inside the company. My first advice to people is don’t say things that you should not say. It is there and they own it. It is the reality of it. Our software only has access to the data that the decision-maker that is using our software has access to. Let’s go back to Slack and MS Teams. Let’s say that I am the president of a business unit and I am focused on a DEI initiative. I have access to 25 Slack channels or MS Team channels that are going on within my department of 1,000 people, but the organization has 30,000 people.
When they are analyzing the data, they only have access to analyze those channels of that 1,000 people. It does not create this big open-ended access to everything going on. It makes it very specific to that leader’s purview. If they want to expand it, they can do those things. The idea is that is we control what they have access to. There is no open-ended control and then we anonymize everything.
At the end of the day, our AI engine is bringing in what the objectives are and the outcomes that you are looking for. It is holding in all of the data from all these other softwares, stripping up the people. It is grabbing the individual pieces of content. Whether it is a review, survey, or Slack message, it is just stripping it down and saying, “That is what we found.”
What we can do to make it simpler to make decisions is depending on how your objectives are set up and what data sources that we are bringing in, you can compare by data source. Suppose I want to see the difference between a DEI initiative among my customer support team and their channel versus my marketing team versus my CRM data coming from Salesforce that are directly talking to my customers or a support system. You can see those side by side and see if there is any variance between them. It would be interesting in a snapshot to go, “It seems like we are doing well in the perception of our customers that we are really building a diverse organization and the way that we are inclusive in, in growing the organization.”
My marketing team does not think we are doing such a great job, but my customer support and tech team think they are. Depending on how you separate the data inside your software, we can allow you to compare that and pinpoint where there are problem areas before it happens. That is the magic of all this. Can you predict something is happen before it does? That is where we were trying to really hone in.
If, as a leader, you knew something was bubbling up before it happened, whether we are not meeting this month’s sales goals or we are not being inclusive in the way we are developing leadership paths. If you know that before people start quitting or suing, how great would that be? That is where we are trying to give that one resource to the leader, know where things are happening before they happen.
I think it sounds almost like you are doing qualitative research, encoding your software, taking all this qualitative data, and being able to code it.
With a lot of the AI engines and the way they are built now, with natural language processing, you can contextualize things. The emphasis is on how people type things; we are also integrating that with things like recording videos. You have tools that are doing video records and parsing all that out, as well as the transcripts. With the NLP, it can understand if someone says, “I kind of do not like it here,” versus like, “I do not like it here at all.” The difference in tone makes a huge difference.
Our engine can score that differently. I think that is the fascinating part of how advanced artificial intelligence is becoming. You can understand tone and inflection. Our job is to see how close it is towards achieving on the good side or not achieving on the bad side and relating those things together. In a short answer, you can get an incredibly sophisticated understanding of someone’s true context in most digital forms of what they do.The great thing with the AI engines and how they're built now is that with natural language processing, you can contextualize things. Click To Tweet
Hearing the tone as well is incredible. The future of leadership of being able to utilize AI to be able to predict, we have seen it in sports. Why not in leadership and business?
If I look back at the moments where I was sitting in a role, as an entrepreneur, you are sitting as a leadership role, but it is a little bit different. That is the interesting thing where a lot more happens. If you are in a specific role, that was such a big gap that everyone was trying to fill. It is understanding how people are feeling, not about the organization, but how are they feeling about us accomplishing what we need to accomplish? We spent so much time in the consulting businesses trying to map those things together.
I feel bad for a lot of HR departments where they get these large, ingested employee engagement surveys. Even though they may be asking questions by department or fine-tuning some of the ways they collect it, they have to rely on what people are saying, their responses, and how quickly they get it. The most important part is that they have to figure out how to translate all of that to the company objectives or the company transformation that is going on. That is what takes a lot of time. It is digesting it down into like, “This means that we do poor over here.”
I think that is the most needed thing right now. If I had that as a utility on my belt or one of my superpowers, I could quickly understand how people feel towards that. Whether it be my customers, suppliers, or employees, I can make more effective decisions on where I spend money or allocate resources or when I ask for a budget. It is another tool that I think we all need. That was a huge breakdown and why we started ChangeForce. It is to be able to really focus in on that one pain point.
You need real-time information, but you need specific contextual information about your goals. If you can get that quickly, you can make faster and better decisions. If you try something, you can see over time did it get better or worse with what you tried? That is the second side of what we started to execute. It was scoring low. We put all these resources into it and it went up 3X. As it went up 3X in score, we saw the net benefit, “We missed all this stuff and it went down one point. That is not good. What happened?”
I think having those indicators and tracking it over time is a big part of what we were focused on, too. It is taking these snapshots of all that data on a consistent schedule. Not only can I understand what is going on today and put it ahead, but I can also measure what I did and whether it impacted those objectives from a sentiment perspective. The soft emotional stuff that is going on is, to me, 50% of the decision-making that you need.
Looking at the Great Resignation, with all this data, what have you seen that is driving this Great Resignation?
It is hard to figure it out to me because there is so much change going on.
It will be different by the time this episode comes out, too.
If we just look at the last number of years, a lot of the headlines in the news are about this sudden burst of people resigning. I think when you look at the pandemic, you look at subsidies that are coming in as benefits to people. When you look at the natural change that has to happen in the industry, some jobs are not as fulfilling as they used to be.
There are new jobs that did not exist before. I feel like that is a big contributor as to why the data says that there are these big shifts in people leaving. It seems like it is starting to swing towards more hires than people leaving. My personal opinion is that is what is going on. From a company perspective, this has forced a lot of innovation.
It is forcing everybody to rethink their teams, tools, processes, and locations. In doing that, I think it makes people uncomfortable. When people get uncomfortable, they start looking for jobs. It is a safety and security thing. What 90% of people want from a job is safety and security. When this change is going on, the leaders are making all of these decisions of becoming better innovative. I think it makes people nervous. If another company feels that it is more stable or safe or has more job security, it is also paying a lot more money because it is a bigger company or whatever the case is. I think at least those things. I always believe that you do not look at what is going wrong.
You look at what you can do and the best you can do. That is what either retains people or attracts people. I do not spend as much time worrying about, “Am I getting people competitive packages? Is it the right environment?” I think about the way that I may want to work as a leader and what I want to feel every day. Hopefully, that is what people want to be a part of.
That is more of an entrepreneurial mindset, but even within organizations, I feel like you can carry that same thing. Some things are out of your control. If you are an organization and the packages are not good, it is what it is unless the leaders make a decision to change it. There is not any control. In terms of retaining people, I think that is a big part of it. People want to work with people they trust and they feel safe.
I see those basic emotions here are more important than money or packages. I feel like that is the imbalance is everyone is racing to increase the tangible things. They are missing this whole other safety, trust, admiring, respecting their leader, all that stuff is why people stay at jobs. I think on the employee side, if you are sitting in an organization, I would think about those things.Fear slows you down. It's not a forward-trending emotion. Click To Tweet
The grass is not always greener on the other side. When I was definitely going through the ranks, I moved jobs frequently to increase title, compensation, location, and more responsibility to learn. There is a mental dream. When you go somewhere new, it takes you a good 3 to 6 months just to get a rhythm.
There are a lot of people who are looking for financial stability. They forget about the work stability and the burn they have to bring home every day and the taxing on them of a new environment, new people, new processes, and then they get frustrated and leave. I think that also contributes to a lot of the resignations. People took on jobs that they did not really want or like or did not realize that there were other factors outside of the money or the benefits package in the other company. That is different from where they are going.
You want to balance those things on both sides of the fence. As an organization, I do not believe in over-killing and throwing everything to save everybody. It is okay that people leave. It is how they leave and how you encourage them to find the best opportunities. Sometimes they come back and then sometimes you find better people that are a better fit for this. On the employee side, if you like where you are and are happy, and it is a money conversation, think about which is more important because going somewhere else for money is not always the answer.
On that note, George, what do you think about the future of where we work? Is it remote? Is it hybrid or is it in person? I know it depends on the industry, but what are your thoughts there?
It is broad by industry. For me, I personally believe it is hard to be your most productive without the energy of other people around you. I personally believe in the physical space in working together, but I appreciate the balance of being able to do things that are focused. If I can sit at my house and turn everything off and crank through emails or If I can go sit in Lisbon and work from a cafe for three months and be productive and do Zoom calls. I still believe that the level of thinking, the speed of thinking, and the energy of people in the room are so different, even in something with a podcast.
If we were sitting in a room together, our body language and some ways that we would interact with each other are totally different just by sitting in the same room. I think they both have value. I personally like to see an 80/20 rule. I think 80% teams together and 20% flexibility for remote working and workshops. I feel like that is the right mix of productivity, ingenuity, and chemistry and then 20% of solitude, focus, get things done that do not require you to be as collaborative with other people in person.
To wrap it up, George, what advice would you give to that person who is graduating college or about to start their first leadership role? It could be an entry-level manager or supervisor.
I was sitting with a young group and they were so curious about every detail and understanding every detail of technology. I remember asking the question, “Is anybody here going to be an engineer?” They all said no. I said, “Why is it important to fully understand the tech stack of an AI engine? Isn’t it more important is what you get out of it and how it becomes a tool that makes you a better leader to be more competitive, be more knowledgeable, and make better decisions?” We have such curiosity. There is so much moving with new things that people are going too deep. They are not thinking, “What will it do for what I am trying to accomplish if I do not understand the full technical details?”
That, to me, is really critical. I think it is rooted in a little bit of fear from people. I think it has changed the emotion of being brave. The curiosity to me is so rooted as I was talking to them. It came about worrying about things replacing their jobs or a machine doing something better than they could, and would that slow them down? There was so much fear out of it.
I feel like it is more about being brave and realizing that we still are in the constant. It does not matter what is going on with technology. Our job is to plug it into what makes us better. If you go into it with a brave mindset instead of a fear mindset, I feel like you will progress faster because fear slows you down. It is a too dragging emotion. It is not a forward-trending emotion.
It’s also worrying about what you can control rather than what you can control.
You cannot control anything. That is the reality.
You can control how you react to it, though.
I think your response is such a telling sign of maturity and tenureness in the organization or seniority. It is the people who can digest things and not react and not go too deep and can be able to move with it. I am not saying everybody has to be this way because we are made up of a big box of crayons of different shapes, sizes, thinking, and personalities. It is important to have that, but I feel like, as a general rule, do not go down the rabbit holes. That is the big problem with a lot of young leaders. They go very deep into rabbit holes. It is that fear. We are going to be the constant as long as we focus on using those tools for ourselves.
If you think about that time in your life, between your 20s and 30s, it is competitive most of the time and professionally. You are trying to move usually into some direction, into a new field, into a higher position, into your own business. You are usually trying to go up instead of flat down. I think you need a grave way of looking at everything, not worrying so much, and just going in with that mindset. You are able to maneuver quickly through those hurdles. I was lucky I had a great mentor who taught me that very young.
I was eighteen years old when I was sitting with the president of this company. He is like, “Your mindset is off.” You should be smiling all the time. You should be thinking about how to be brave as you go into situations and not worry about the problem, but figure out how to turn those into opportunities.” This sounds stupid. It seems cliché-ish, but it is true. You can go into the room that way. The energy you get from other people, the things that usually shake themselves out, and how you think about making decisions is very different. They are usually faster. That is how I progressed through the ranks and I was younger.
George, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. I look forward to seeing all the other cool things you will be doing with your company.
My pleasure. We are on to some cool stuff. We will keep sharing them as they come out.
I appreciate it. Thank you so much.
- George Swisher
About George Swisher
Former marketing entrepreneur & management consultant with a 15 year track record of improving company performance, shifting cultures through change management, and strategic growth for mergers & acquisitions.
Currently co-founder and CEO of changeforce.ai, a software platform that helps leaders lead organizational change more precisely by analyzing sentiment of company objectives in real-time.