June 17

Episode 40: How Can I Hit That Reset Button and Be Me Again with Dan Pontefract


In this episode of Get Unstuck & On Target, Mike talks with Dan Pontefract about how we can help ourselves and our businesses move back to normal. 

Leaders are so anxious to move on, but life has almost just stopped for some. It just changed. And Dan offers his insights from his experiences. Is it possible then in the last year or so that we just kind of stopped in our tracks and we got stuck? And if we are stuck, what might we do to kind of hit that reset button? 

Dan Pontefract’s Biography

Dan is the founder and CEO of The Pontefract Group, a firm that improves the state of leadership and organizational culture. He is honored to be on the Thinkers50 Radar list. HR Weekly listed him as one of its 100Most Influential People in HR for 2021. And PeopleHum listed Dan on the Top 200 ThoughtLeaders to Follow in 2021.

In This Episode, You’ll Learn…

  • This pandemic has offered us a “gift” in a way.
  • Practical suggestions Dan has for leaders who are ready to hit that reset button.
  • What’s your one or two lines statement that describes, you know, who you are, what you’re about, what you respect, and what you’re here for in essence.
  • Some of the drivers that really led to success.
  • Be Real with your employees.


  • My declaration of purpose is as follows. We are not here to see through each other. We’re here to see each other through. – Dan
  • And like life is fragile, so let’s not waste a moment by being disorganized or apathetic on, on how we’re living our lives. – Dan
  • I’ve often said the only way to, to move forward is to look back and take stock on what you’ve done well, and not so well, learn from it. Hone craft, tweak, adjust, and then live your best life going forward. – Dan
  • So for leaders to pretend that they’re not human, that they don’t bleed red. That we’re not all equal. And that there’s equanimity that is called human being. – Dan

Links & Resources Mentioned…

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Read The Transcript

Episode #40

Mike O'Neill: Welcome back to the Get Unstuck & On Target Podcast. I'm Mike O'Neill with Bench Builders and we're business coaches who love to help leaders get unstuck and sleep better. In this podcast, we're talking with thought leaders to uncover tips to help you break down the barriers that may be keeping you or your business stuck. Joining me today from Victoria, Canada is Dan Pontefract. Dan is a leadership strategist, adjunct professor, author, speaker, and founder of Pontefract Group. His firm focuses on improving the state of leadership and organizational culture. Welcome Dan. 

Dan Pontefract: Mike, how good is it to be here today with you? Thank you so much for the invitation. I'm looking forward to our chat together. My friend, 

Mike O'Neill: I'm looking forward to it as well. Let me tell our listeners a little more about you. Dan is a bestselling author. He's written four books. Think he's working on his fifth already. And he is a sought out speaker. I found this hard to imagine, but he's been invited to deliver over 500 keynotes and presentations. And this is what's most noteworthy, including. Four Ted talks. So if that's not enough, he also writes for Forbes and Harvard Business Review. And so Dan, there's no question. There are a lot of things that we could talk about, but we've had an opportunity to have a conversation prior and you have shared with me kind of what. You are doing immediately prior to the quote pandemic, we're recording this in early June. And for many folks, this pandemic boy, they want to put that in their rear view mirror. And they are so anxious to move on, but life has almost, everybody would have to attest. It just stopped. It just changed. And what I really asked Dan to do is to kind of offer his insights. Is it possible then in the last 15, 18 months that we just kind of stopped in our tracks and we got stuck. And if we are stuck, what might we do to kind of hit that reset button? And I've kind of asked Dan, the kind of the working title for our time together is how in a world can I hit that reset button and be me again? So that's a setup, Dan. 

Dan Pontefract: Well, first of all, thank you for the intro, the books and the talks are really just an excuse, so Denise has me out of her hair, which is my ultimate better half. So there's that? I would say this, it's been sort of 16 months, maybe a year and a half, depending on when you read this or hear the story of a form of purgatory. And what I believe has happened with the form of purgatory is that we we've, we've seen people say, huh, do I want to go back to whatever it was? Or do I have a chance to maybe reset what it should be? And it's, it's very striking to me, Mike, that there is a certain pocket of people. Who do yearn for what it was, because it was perfectly fine and I, I'm not judging them. But we've as a society as the generation, whoever you are zero to 110, you know, none of us have experienced something together like we did with the pandemic. I mean, it's affected every single person on the planet. So this purgatory metaphor that I'm alluding to it's that, you know, it's it, the PR the pandemic story has caused us. I hope. To pause, stop and reflect as to what it was like beforehand. And what might you want from whatever the future beholds. And the, I guess, you know, in some, those that are taking the time to reset or re vector or renew their sense of purpose, their sense of society, their sense of give, you know, their sense of self to be dead honest, are the ones I believe are going to be so much more enamored and, and fulfilled.

With whatever their post pandemic, life and work life, you know, might entail. So that's the setup, the kind of pre mid pandemic, if you will, and post pandemic views. And I do, I really, I really do hope that people are adjudicating and looking in the mirror and having this gift of the tragedy of a pandemic to ultimately contemplate the reset, the re vector, and maybe the renewal.

Mike O'Neill: Yeah, I am intrigued the way you described this. And that is the gift of the tragedy. And that is the gift that this presents for us provided you, accept the gift and decide to do something about that. 

Dan Pontefract: Exactly. And, and again, you know, I love Christmas, I love getting gifts, but I also love giving gifts more so. Whether it's the three kids, Denise raising, whether it's the neighbors, family, what have you, right. I just, I just love the gift of giving. And so, as horrible, and tragic as the pandemic has been the, the shadow that casts, over all of us loomed large and still for many of us, is there, I mean, I'm, I'm still grounded by example and can't travel anywhere in my country, Canada. And so if you're not taking the gift of the pandemic, despite its horror and using that as an opportunity, then you're really just kind of going through the motions in life. I would argue. 

Mike O'Neill: Our audience is comprised of leaders, leaders that were basically thrust into having to react to and in reacting, everybody was kind of in scramble mode. Well, you can only be in scramble mode so long. One could argue this has been somewhat protracted depending on where you are. I know that you're in Canada and Canada is largely, still very much kind of shut down in portions of the country. I'm speaking to you from the Southeast of the United States. And there is kind of a, almost a mindset of what pandemic. I'm not seeing masks, I'm seeing basically let's move on. And so it's kind of interesting, depends on who you're with and where you are on, where people are on that continuum. Some folks are still mired in and some other folks really just have truly moved on. So from a practical standpoint, you have advanced training. You teach at the collegiate level, what might be some practical suggestions you have for leaders who are ready to hit that reset button? 

Dan Pontefract: Well, some of them are existential and some of them are practical. Right? I mean the existential ones, first of all, are, you know, have you been walking through life, somewhat aimlessly without a, what I call declaration of purpose? You know, what's your, pithy a one or two lines statement that describes, you know, who you are, what you're about, what you respect and what you're here for in essence. So that's existential, that's perhaps philosophical Mike, but it is also grounding. And so here's, again, a chance with the pandemic to look ahead and say, well, post pandemic, W what do I stand for? You know, it's not a mission, vision values thing. This isn't a corporate piece. This is just a, what's your declaration of how you want to show up how you want to be known each and every day. And I'll, I'll make it practical. I can, I'll give you mine, Mike, cause I think it's very helpful to see both the philosophy with the practical, which I came up with in 2008 and grounds me each and every day on, on what and how I do and behave, et cetera, is as follows. We're not here to see through each other. We're here to see each other through. And so when I work with corporate executives, corporations, public sector, academia, I got, I'm privileged to work in so many different sectors and verticals. You know, that's what gets me up every day. It's the, all right, Dan, you know, you've said that you're here to help people, get them through, see them through whatever quicksand or, or mired woods that they might be in. And that's just, that's my meat, you know, I don't believe in why per se it's me, that defines me. And so I would say there's, there's one, right? That's a, that's a real simple one for people to kind of consider, but as we, as we extrapolate or peel back the onion layer, so to say metaphorically, right? What, what drives you?

So are people having, again, discussions with their spouse, their better halfs, their family, their boss, their, you know, their unit, their team, their neighbors, like anyone that'll listen essentially and give feedback on what it is that they, you know, are they value? So what are the pluses or the, you know, what are the things they want to write down that say, I'm really good at this? And I'm not so good at this. And that's okay. Like, I don't want to get myself involved in any of that stuff because it doesn't tickle my fancy, like, have you written down your likes and dislikes is actually the question here, Mike, and then, but far too often, you know, people are just going through the motions. And so what is it that you want to do? Like what, what do you want to get out of life? And so what's your path like where do you, do you have, you know, a, I'd like to visit five countries I'd like to, you know, work in three different types of roles, you know, could be a money thing. I'd like to have X money in the bank by X date. When I, when I don't see executives or leaders or individual team members, writing down what it is that makes them tick, but also what it is that they like to achieve out of their life. There's a bit of aimlessness there. And so whether you're in the South, in the U S or in Canada, or the UK or Europe or Australia, wherever you are. The pandemic has actually exacerbated my point. And that far too many people have not written down that declaration of purpose have not paid any attention to their likes and dislikes. And you know, in this purgatory we've alluded to, they haven't really said, Oh, this is what I want to achieve in my life, because you never know when either the next pandemic or the next next hit by a bus moment might occur. And like life is fragile, so let's not waste a moment by being disorganized or apathetic on, on how we're living our lives. And that's kind of the, the ultimate point here. 

Mike O'Neill: Can you repeat the, the saying that, that you have adopted? Again, the, the through statement. Could you repeat that one more time, please?

Dan Pontefract: My declaration of purpose is as follows. We are not here to see through each other. We're here to see each other through. 

Mike O'Neill: I've been thinking about that. And reflecting on the, that in of itself is to so deep. If we, as leaders listening to this podcast, recognize that's our responsibility to see people through. Is it fair to assume it starts with ourselves? And what you're challenging us at just a very, very practical level is think about it, write it down, do it. I love your plain spoken way of doing things. I could see why you'd be a successful author writing multiple books. 

Dan Pontefract: No, that's just, you know, becoming a hack and, and in, you know, willing my way to become better at anything that I put forward. So my first book, quite frankly, I don't think was that great. But I've been working at it, you know, four books in and working on a fifth. The same thing. My first talk was probably pretty horrible. And now X number later, they're pretty good. They're both entertaining and educating. And I think that's the point. I turned 50 in three weeks time. And so I'm at what I would argue to be the, the, the tipping point of Dan. Cause I aim to live to a hundred. And so. I've often said the only way to, to move forward is to look back and take stock on what you've done well, and not so well, learn from it. Hone craft, tweak, adjust, and then live your best life going forward. Now, I didn't figure that all out, because again, I'm naive in my twenties and a bit too bullish in my thirties. And so as the decades progressed, it's kind of like, well, what, what actually is going to make a better human being for me and for Denise and my three kids and people who I serve. So, you know, getting old also provides a lens of, I'd say authentic, analysis, that I didn't have in my twenties and thirties.

Mike O'Neill: Dan, I would, I like to kind of go down a little bit of a practical path with you for a moment. And that is, we've talked about you writing books and writing for Harvard Business Review and Forbes. We've talked about you being a Ted talk, but what we have not discussed is your corporate experience. And that is, for 10 years, you were the Chief Learning Officer for a very large telecommunications company in Canada called Telus 50,000 employees. And one of the things that I was as most impressed with is that Telus was measuring employee engagement. And when you started, it was hovering in the low fifties, 53%, but within 10 years, it climbed to nearly 90%. And, I guess my question for you is, as you were thinking on that, Chief Learning Officer I'm tasked with having impact on this organization. And there are some metrics we can use. As you reflect back since you tend to do that, what do you think? Some of the drivers that really led to the success to drive it from low fifties to nearly 90%. 

Dan Pontefract: Well, number one as the old adage goes, Mike there's no, I in team, I E this is a, it wasn't a Dan show by any stretch, you know, fancy titles aside when I joined Telus in 2008, I did so knowing that the CEO and the CHRO were gung ho on trying to cultivate a culture that was open and transparent and collaborative. So, you know, I was given some runway to try several, things that, that might help that mission, but team effort. I mean, lots of folks wanting to do the right thing for the customer, for the team member and for the community. And I think, that track record is just a, is a team effort to certainly knock down. However that all being said, you know, given that runway and leeway. There's all kinds of things that we were able to try that were ahead of its time. I would argue. So in 2010, you know, as an example, we created a, a philosophy of leadership called the TLP, Telus Leadership Philosophy. Now think about telecom and you know, kind of stoic. And it's been around for 150 years, and you're actually using the word philosophy and retraining, if you will. And reeducating leaders and team members on what leadership is, it's a, it is a philosophy. And it's how you take those behaviors from within the philosophy and adapt to your own liking. So that, you know, there's a systemic level across the org, but then you can say, Oh, got to work on this, got to work on that. Oh, I see how we need to, lead through each other as opposed to just being, you know, a, of it myself. Flexible work styles. So imagine, you know, almost every one of those team members working from an office across Canada, and then using that leadership philosophy of being transparent, collaborative, open, proactive, trustworthy, et cetera, and saying, look, you know, we need and want and would like to offer, you know, upwards of 70% of the organization to be working mobile or from home a hundred percent of the time.

This is 2010, 11, 10, 10, 11 years before a pandemic. Right. And so again, like retraining leaders on distributed teaming and how to have, meetings and performance reviews and strategy sessions and brainstorming meetings, when not everyone's in the room and they're in different offices or they're at home, like I learned so much just through that transformation. It was just fantastic. We, we used, We introduced something called, virtual worlds back in 2010 as well, and virtual worlds, which now are sort of almost de rigueur with things like second life or with Verbella and other products out there. You know, again, a decade ago we were, conducting training sessions, coaching sessions, brainstorming sessions with avatars in, in, you know, worlds that were, you know, spaceships and meeting rooms and, you know, outdoor foyers. Just fun, wonderful stuff. But I'll say this, all of that was because of leadership, not necessarily mine, but because I was empowered and trusted to try things, to help build out what was eventually a, I would say a pretty, pretty darn good culture. And it remains, so that way today, 

Mike O'Neill: That's fascinating. As you know, I, I work in oftentimes closely with HR folks. And HR folks oftentimes are tasked with the things that you just described. You made several points that I think is just very critical, and that is your CEO, the Chief Human Resource Officer already had a clear vision of what they wanted. And so they could set the tone when you came in, but you were very quick to point out that it was not just you, it was as kind of a team effort. Would you reflect on a moment now? And that is, think about your career. Perhaps even your life. And that is you've experienced highs and lows, but think about a time where maybe you got stuck. And what got you stuck. And what did you do to get unstuck? 

Dan Pontefract: Good question. I think what I'll do is use an opportunity to, describe a scenario in which I thought I was able to change the tide, but mother nature had its sort of own, own plans. And as we know, tides are pretty definable. So. I was working as a Chief Learning Officer for a high-tech company at the time. Co located, headquartered in Paris and San Jose. The company's name was called Business Objects. They were about 10,000 employees, obviously worldwide. And so my job was to make sure that both employees were quote smart, but I also had the external what's called education services role, where we're making sure customers, partners, suppliers, you know, consultants knew how to use the products as well. So it was kind of a dual role and we have built up a team. Which we affectionately called UBI, University of Business Intelligence of probably 120, 130 people worldwide. And again, their job was to build a curriculum, find out what's coming with the products, help, what, people, needed to know in terms of both the product set and the strategy. But then, you know, obviously some of the more, professional and personal development pieces, you know, that go along with, you know, a university, if you will. Now, in, we, we knew, you know, business objects was probably at some point going to be acquired by one of the big high-tech companies, Microsoft IBM SAP, what have you. And, and that's okay. Right. and eventually what happened in, sort of third quarter, if you will, a 2007 SAP indeed, acquired Business Objects. And so I was a site lead for a huge office, based in Vancouver of about 15, 1600 of the employees. And so I remember with, almost shock and awe that, you know, we had to announce here's what's happened and now let's go forward with integration planning.

And so between, you know, that point in 2007, Through to mid 2008, I would argue that I was stuck. And the reason I was stuck was because I was, I was coming up against a giant, I mean, SAP at the time was probably about 70 ish thousand employees, German based, headquarters in Waldorf. And, and minnow, even though a pretty large, size with 10,000 employees of business objects. So. You know, countless efforts, Mike and trips to Waldorf in Germany over those, you know, year-ish, timeframe to explain and cajole and, inform about the culture that we had crafted, Business Objects, and indeed at the UBI team, the University of Business Intelligence. And, and so the stuck part was, I couldn't feel that, that the senior leaders at SAP at the time, were, were listening or cared or really wanted, you know, anything to reflect on, to say, Oh, like we had just bought a product. I E the company is product set, but we bought a culture. So that's maybe also think about that culture and use that going forward. And my stuckness, but is that I could never convince them. And I kept feeling like nails on a chalkboard, you know, eating metal, like just you name it, right. It just felt awful. So I eventually went to my boss and I said, this isn't working. I, I have a feeling that this UBI team is going to be broken up by SAP that they're not getting the culture piece. You know, so, you know, I put my hand up, I said, I got to get unstuck basically. And so I put my hand up for, one of those packages that were dangling about as acquisitions do come to be. And my boss looked at me and said, you know what? I'm really sorry. You're such an asset. Like, are you sure you want to do this? I'm like, no, I'm not sure. However, I have nowhere to go. And I do know that I don't want to feel like nails on a chalkboard and with me still in this organization. I just want to make sure that my team are safe.

However, we set them up. I don't want anyone to be fired or terminated. You know, I'll take the guillotine and I'll remove myself so that all of these, 120 odd people are safe. And that I'm, I'm not the guy in the way. And so it served two purposes. Mike, it served my perhaps empathy and benevolence maybe, on making sure that the team was safe and secure and all had, you know, full-time paying roles, et cetera, but that I was unhooked, unleashed, you know, and thus unstuck so I could figure out, well, what really do I want to do next? Given, I had a little bit of grace with, you know, a severance package and I could figure out what would become actually that role at Telus. 

Mike O'Neill: Fascinating. I mean, it sounds as if in that example, you also, you kind of size up what likely would be the scenario for you concluded it you're stuck, but you. We're concerned about the wellbeing of your team, but you did the reflection very much like you described this a little while ago and that is you kind of ask yourself, who am I, what direction am I going in? How can I be true to me? And it sounds, hopefully not soon thereafter, you were at Telus and we've already heard some of the success that, that resulted in with the team, kind of approach. I really appreciate you sharing that example. You know, reflecting on our time together thus far, and we've covered a pretty wide variety of, of topics. So Dan kind of reflect on the things that we've kind of covered. And if you were to offer some closing thoughts or takeaways, what might they be? 

Dan Pontefract: You know, I just enjoyed our time immensely. It's hopefully, we can do this again one day. I would say this, you know, There's a weird, fakeness. I think that, that people have where they have to be, a different self at work. And this stems from leaders probably thinking they have to be too tough, a hierarchical, sometimes even dictatorial and team members fearing that they can bring their true selves to work and love their role. Love themselves, love the team. And I think the, the, the words I want to help people see and maybe unpack. To get unstuck in life and work, is, is just that. Be real. If you're a leader stuck somewhere in a Teflon suit and thinking that you have to be, you know, this tough guy or tough gal, that, that you don't have a family or that you don't bleed when you get a nick, when you fall down off a bike, like we're all human. And so for leaders to pretend that they're not human, that they don't bleed red. That we're not all equal. And that there's an equaninity that that is called human being. I think that's really, really important. And so, it's okay to cry. It's okay to laugh. It's okay to be real. And so when we bring our real authentic selves to work and to everything we do, what we're showing is a humanity, Mike. And I really urge people given the trauma and the potential PTSD that's, emerging as a result of the pandemic. To, to remind themselves that we have one shot at life and that you just, you never know. And so just be real, be authentic, be, be of love. And when you are, I just assure you, I think good things happen, 

Mike O'Neill: Dan, the way you said that it really puts a nice bow on this conversation. And that is, the pandemic changed everything and potentially everybody. And what I'm hearing you say at its core is be real. If you're a leader, be real, be transparent. Something that I am beginning to sense through all, this is more of a sense of grace. It seems as if we are a bit more accepting of those kinds of things. And if in fact that transparency that leaders and employees alike began to demonstrate. And if we were able to extend grace, then this pandemic that we've been talking about truly does become a gift. 

Dan Pontefract: I couldn't said it better, I mean, I've often, you know, whether at a talk or whether at dinner, you know, one of my. One of my lines or I guess a summary, bose is grace. Be with you. So grace be with you Mike. 

Mike O'Neill: Well, I would also respond and also with you. And for those who want to reach out to you, what's the best way for them to do that? How can they best reach you online? 

Dan Pontefract: Failing smoke signals and Morse code, which I do love still receiving if possible. I'm pretty easy. Just my name, danpontefract.com. Or even the, the latest book is probably the easiest leadcarewin.com and it gets you all the same place. 

Mike O'Neill: We will include both the email addresses and some other contact information in the show notes. Dan, thank you. 

Dan Pontefract: My, my sincere pleasure, Mike. Honestly, I look forward to our next chat,  at some point in the near future, cause this was fantastic much appreciated. 

Mike O'Neill: Well, thank you. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us for this episode of get unstuck and on target. We upload the latest episode every Thursday. And if you haven't already please subscribe. You know, life is too short to let business problems keep you up at night. Our coaches love helping leaders solve the tough planning process and people problems so that you can sleep better. So if you've been listening to this conversation with Dan and you're realizing that something's keeping you or your business stuck, let's talk, go to our website, bench-builders.com, or just go to your browser and type unstuck.show to schedule a quick call. So I want to thank you for joining us, and I hope that you've picked up on some tips that will help you Get Unstuck & On Target. Until next time.

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