Jen Sheridan on cultivating global leaders and resilient teams
Updated: Mar 12, 2020
Managing Director, Learn More
Jen Sheridan is living the professional lifestyle most coaches and speakers dream of. Just the other week she returned from presenting on Emotional Intelligence as visiting faculty of Hawaii’s East West Center. Jen frequently travels throughout Asia to educate captains of industry to be more effective leaders, facilitates high performing teams and coaches senior executives.
Over the years I witnessed some of the hard yards she put in and yet, Jen is one of the most practical, kindest and down to earth people I’ve ever met.
She is a person with razor-sharp intelligence, an appetite for ongoing learning, matched with a “can do” attitude, that would make the Unsinkable Molly Brown pale in comparison.
Jen and I were study buddies during our Leadership MBA at Curtin Uni. We started talking about brand building and I conducted my rebrand process with her. She changed her consultancy identity and brand position to ‘Learn More’.
‘At first, I wasn’t sure about the name you suggested,’ Jen recalls.
’Now, fifteen years later, I’m still loving and living it! It really expresses what I’m passionate about: learn more, thrive more, do more’ is my mantra. Recently a close friend and colleague has started a ‘brother’ business called ‘BMore’, it’s complementing what I do.’
‘I was born in Melbourne. My father moved the family over to Perth when I was seven; you can call it my home base now. I moved around a lot since my 20’s from Malaysia to the UK and back to Perth. My partner and our two sons moved to Melbourne in the early 2000s for two years so I could take on the role of ‘Head of Customised Executive Education’ at Melbourne Business School.
It was there I got introduced, by a colleague, to Duke University’s global Corporate Education team. This operational arm purely focuses on customised Executive Education programs.
‘I truly prefer custom education programs because I don’t like to pretend, that just by changing the header and footer on paper it becomes something bespoke.’
‘By joining Duke to run customised education programs I learnt new methodologies and was backed by the reputable Duke brand. This opened a lot of doors for me in Australia, New Zealand, Asia and the USA.'
Armed with the skills and practices of the world’s foremost learning and development solutions, nowadays ‘Learn More’ trades globally. Jen’s WA work is mostly in mining, engineering and oil and gas industries and across almost all industries. She offers custom Leadership Development Programs for small and medium businesses as well as large clients like Boeing in China.
‘I’m doing a lot of research in the field of Emotional Intelligence (EI) and Neuroscience because I believe it is the core for successful leadership in the 21st century,’ says Jen.
‘Recently I attended an EI conference with the theme of ‘Emotional intelligence in the age of Artificial intelligence’ and we investigated the question of whether we can teach AI to have EI.
‘So far we found, virtual coaches can be taught to read the body language and deduct behaviour through the human body language using software. The AI can then give feedback to a human on how to read the people in the room.’
Jen eloquently questions the results. ‘Would you rely on an algorithm to read the person in front of you? If leaders struggle to read the room, then in my view they have to improve those EI skills. Awareness of self and others, empathy, resilience, emotional reasoning and inspiring performance are fundamental leadership skills.
‘If we become reliant on AI, we might miss out on the subtlety of the human condition.’
Jen estimates 70 per cent of her work is Leadership Development and 30 per cent is one-on-one Executive Coaching with high potentials, executives and company CEO and Chairs.
‘It’s really exciting to see a person’s leadership capacity and personal development grow before your eyes. Technical leaders are often promoted to management roles but rarely do they have the capability to lead people until they realise it is a fully dedicated job, not just a bolt on to their specialist skills.
‘The shift I want to see in a coachee is in behaviour from an Expert and a Knower to a Leader and a Learner.’
‘In my experience great leaders have humility. They are values-driven with reasonable compatibility between their personal values and the business goals, so they can genuinely walk the talk. Those leaders are able to create psychological safety and buy-in for their people.’
Jen cites Safe Work Australia’s research that found psychological injury claims will exceed the number of physical injury claims in professionals like Defence, Police, Firefighters, Teachers and Welfare workers in the coming years.
‘Through my facilitation, teams learn more strategies and processes to increase collaboration. Innovation only happens when people are willing to challenge the status quo, and psychological safety is key to this, so they never feel humiliated, punished or put down for their ideas.
‘I do a lot of process-driven work with teams using Design Thinking methods for practical ways to innovate. I teach this in China, Thailand and throughout Australia.
‘My job as an external facilitator is to make sure all team members take part equally in the process, regardless of their job title.’
‘Sometimes it’s messy and immersive, but I’ve learnt to trust the process. It gets you there every time if you have a flexible methodology to meet your clients where they’re at.’
‘If teams claim that they're high-performing and I see no team conflict, then they’re not on top of their game. If cognitive conflict is missing, then creativity and innovation are reduced, and productive change is more difficult to identify.
‘Managers are often considering staff cost when spending time in team meetings, so coming up with fast answers to the wrong problems seems to lead to a lot of Group Think. Jumping too early to conclusions might impact considerably on the entire business system.
‘If there are enough commitment, passion and engagement in an organisation, toxic cultures can turn around. It takes years to get there and a significant amount of time is needed to do to a sustainable turnaround.
‘In one recent case, a mature business started making losses that could not be excused solely by changing market conditions. After 15 months of engagement and turnaround work, they now make a profit again. The company culture turned out to be their biggest enemy.
‘KPI’s have a lot to answer for because we manage what we measure, and it’s often geared towards results rather than purpose. This doesn’t always lend itself to discover better ways of doing things.’
‘In my view organisations are really just big communities and we should develop them as such.
However, you need a certain maturity in your people to work self-directed without the classic top-down structures in teams and tribes. It is not for everyone.’
‘But therein lies the quest, not to lose sight of what's important as we get more sophisticated with technology and raising our awareness for more complex thinking.
‘The world needs global leadership right now and there are immense gaps in business, politics and communities.
‘My latest bandwagon is trying to put compassion and humanity back into organisations because we went down the route of metrics. Some organisations have lost that thing I’d call ‘soul’; Jen laughs, but she is serious about the intent.
She extends her view to the way urban planning has changed. ‘Think of the design of new cities now, in Asia in particular. They may function well, but relationships, a sense of belonging and cultural identity make us different from machines. AI ticks the boxes of serving the function and design follows function.
Jen smiles as she talks about her family.
‘I talk to my teenage sons about the future. Surprisingly, my 17-year-old son reckons human beings have done wrong before and he is optimistic we will fix it again. I love the hope he has because I sometimes worry about them.
‘The complaints about the self-confidence of Gen-Y’s and Millennials in the workplace are interesting. Boomers and Gen X-ers have raised Gen-Y and Millennials to have this beautiful self-confidence by making them believe they can do anything. However, we made the mistake of forgetting to teach them resilience instead of giving everyone a trophy just for participation.
‘As you know, it’s not the number of times you fall down, it’s the number of times you get back up, that defines your resilience.’
‘Thankfully, resilience can be taught and with my work, I help organisations to tap positively into this energy young workplace generations bring, rather than curbing it.’
The Common Ground:
Effective leaders can align their personal values with organisational goals, that’s why its imperative to look for this fit in your career
Design thinking supports teams to get better results; the process originated in creative industries and is now matured into a management tool employed by coaches and consultants to help achieve better team outcomes
Culture issues are not soft and fluffy problems for managers to sit out or relegate to HR; they can remake or break a mature business
Cognitive conflict is the key to innovation and it needs methodology and time
Leadership skills are needed on all levels of humanity, not just business
As AI gets closer to reading and interpreting human behaviour, how do we as creative business thinkers preserve our differentiation to machines?
Remind your self during setbacks that ‘it’s not the number of times you fall down, it’s the number of times you get back up, that defines your resilience.’