Leading Through Complexity
A conversation with Shannon Schultz, MBA, ORSCC
How does a five-star introvert come to be leading Fortune 500 organizations through conflict and change? Leadership consultant Shannon Schultz came to coaching through a back door, having discovered it midway through her career. Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC™) is one of the primary skillsets she uses to coach clients in the manufacturing, healthcare, consumer products, and transportation industries.
Shannon launched her corporate career at Delta Air Lines, eventually guiding teams driving enterprise-wide initiatives. For almost two decades, she has been at the head of her own consulting agency supporting large-scale organizational change.
In addition to being an ORSC Certified coach, Shannon is a Senior Faculty Member of CRR Global. She is also a Senior Consultant for The Full Circle Group and an Affiliate for Executive Coaching Connections. Shannon has served as program faculty for the University of Notre Dame’s Executive Programs and the University of Georgia’s Executive MBA Program. She holds a BA in journalism and advertising from the University of North Carolina, and a MBA in marketing and strategic management from the University of Georgia.
Shannon believes that the leadership imperative of the 21st century is to lead through complexity, using Relationship Systems Intelligence (RSI™) as a guide.
On Shannon's purpose
I'm most on purpose when I'm creating a culture that we all want to be in. I do that through creating the conditions for people to be more human and a better version of themselves. I'm on purpose when I see you completely – especially the best of you - even when you're showing up as a much smaller version of yourself.
Part of what we learn to do as ORSC practitioners is to model right relationship. I bring that to my client teams - modeling how to create a culture where we all can show up just as we are, while consistently looking for the best in one another and not shrinking from the messiness of that.
On her beginnings
I grew up in a family that valued entrepreneurial spirit and military service. My parents ran an advertising agency. We were the kids that got “shushed” during the commercials. I went to school and got a journalism degree with a focus in advertising and pursued marketing research in the early days of my career. I was drawn to the data aspect of it.
When I started in aviation, I was eager to apply those technical skills. The problem was that I was short on influence skills. Anything actionable at the airline was going to come through relationships.
I attended a meeting where they were revamping the training system. Training is a big deal in an airline. They train pilots, they train flight attendants, they train mechanics. It's very serious. I was in awe of the consultants leading us. In five days, they took 100 of us, from a very intentional diagonal slice of the organization, through all of the conflict involved in transforming training at an airline. Watching those leaders work gave me this full-body charge that I’ve come to recognize. It’s a moment of I need to become that.
It was bizarre. Group process consultants stand up in front of whole teams of people and invite conflict. I was and still am a five-star introvert. My natural propensity is to not do that. And yet it was this thing that had to happen, so I pursued it.
I started that role with Delta’s SAP implementation. Anybody who's been part of one of these knows how messy they are. Every week felt like six months of experience. It ended up being quite successful. Eventually I was assigned to other enterprise-wide initiatives that required the alignment of groups that didn’t all report to the leader directing the initiative. As I look back, the role I was in was mostly about bringing facilitative leadership into a culture that relied heavily on methods of more traditional hierarchical command and control leadership.
About a year after 9/11, I launched a private practice in large scale org change. I would get calls from Delta execs who had moved on to other organizations. They wanted to continue getting my support for these big change initiatives. We could move quickly to structure the team, bring in the stakeholders, and get the system on the right track.
I was thrilled with the work. Then several years later I got my reality check. I suggested to a client that I roll off the team because they were in good shape. The look on his face made my heart sink. He didn’t believe they could do it without me. This meant that the story I’d been telling myself about being a consultant who didn’t create co-dependent relationships wasn’t true. It was a tough moment, especially because I was already flirting with burnout.
On discovering coaching and ORSC
I tell people that I came into coaching through the back door. I was coaching leaders about their change initiatives, but I was really playing an expert role and it was consulting. The more I learned about coaching, the more it required me to unravel what I was doing as a consultant. I carved out time to get some professional coach training and then got certified in the Leadership Circle Profile, which is a game-changing leadership assessment. At this point in my practice, I was running two parallel offerings - leading teams through one to three-year organizational change projects, alongside a burgeoning coaching practice with a profoundly transformational leadership tool.
And then one day, I walked through the door of ORSC Fundamentals, and within the first hour of that, everything came together. I remember sitting in awe during the Third Entity demo and thinking – Wow. This is a profound experience and it supports the leader and the system. ORSC showed me this way of being in relationship that actually worked. A way of being in the world that I hadn't seen before.
Once again, I was hit with that electric charge telling me that I need to be that. So I took the courses, and immediately stepped into certification where the concepts and tools could drop into my bones. I had access to them at a much deeper level.
If Shannon had a superpower, it would be:
My superpower is making the invisible visible. That's what research was about for me, and the one-on-one executive coaching work I do. It’s about helping people get in touch with and claim their greatness, and to see the ways they get in their own way. Making the invisible visible lights me up. It’s dancing with the sacred. It never ceases to energize me or to remind me what is possible for someone, or for all of us.
On her current inspirations
Well, there are many. First is this idea that relationships exist to evolve us. In the darkest moments, when things are not going the way I really want them to, or I'm upset with myself or with people - it helps me shift from "things are happening to me" to "things are happening for me." I’m here to evolve, and my relationships are here to support that. Sometimes I can find the amusement in the situation with it - there it is again, those relationships helping me to evolve …
Another is a simple distinction between relationship and relatedness. Relationship is the structures, the agreements and the roles, the processes - all the things that we work with so beautifully with ORSC tools and skills - while relatedness is the land of the heart. It’s the realization that there’s nothing about the structures of relationship that is ever going to satisfy the heart. That's part of what we teach, part of what we look for - what is the space between? What's the truth of that? There is a saying that supports this that has helped me lighten the moment when I’m disappointed about a relationship - Stop shopping for milk at a hardware store. It reminds me to adjust my expectations in a relationship, because sometimes I want something from someone that they can't provide.
When I catch myself in that disappointment, and have a laugh about shopping for milk in a place where it isn’t on the shelves, I go back to relationship versus relatedness. What is the heart really wanting right now? Can I find it someplace else?
On her favorite ORSC tools
I still adore the Third Entity. So many aspects of our lives are changing right now, and it is hard for people to digest all this change. I find this tool to be supportive in times like these because we can explore our relationship to anything with it. There’s wisdom to uncover in these relationships. The voice of the relationship is usually wise and soothing, and I find it to be helpful to clients now, and for myself. There is so much information there when we listen for it.
I used it recently with a client who was struggling in a work relationship with a peer. He was so energized by the shift he experienced that he left our call early, because he wanted to go talk with the other person from his new perspective. The tool is simple and profound, all at the same time.
The other tool that I'm having fun with is Alignment coaching. It's the tool that we recommend using with the hottest disturbances, when there's a rock-solid impasse that is blocking progress. We involve it in situations for when there is a lot of heat in a system, but I’ve been using it with team systems in another way – more when the system is frozen and no one is willing to express how they really feel. Maybe because they are upset, but sometimes just because the culture doesn’t support emotional expression, and the leaders aren’t skillful with it. Alignment Coaching with the team creates safety and connection, and gets the team a lot clearer about what it wants as a collective. It becomes a great skill drill for individual leaders to build muscle for healthy expression of their emotional realities – to build emotional intelligence. It helps them create the culture they want, where all the voices and feelings can be heard and held in a neutral way.
I recently had a team that came into coaching in order to scale their success. They were growing and they wanted to maintain their culture while they did that. At the end of the coaching, they reported that one of the things they planned to take forward was to conduct monthly Alignment coaching sessions so they could ventilate the system and get clear about what's important - together. They saw it as a team hygiene thing.
On combining ORSC with group coaching
Group coaching is an exciting way to develop leaders, because part of what happens is they get more intentional about their culture. The engagement actually becomes a microcosm of the workplace they want to work in. It’s more cohesive, and has more trust and more connectivity than they had before.
One corporate sponsor wanted the organization to be more connected to purpose. They had run a few communication campaigns and couldn't figure out why nothing had changed. When I heard this, I wasn’t surprised because nothing changes out there until something changes in here, right? We approached it through group coaching, working with the top leadership teams to explore the organization's purpose and how each individual could contribute to that - in their department, in their role, in their own way. It was stellar. They won a prestigious employer of choice award and the head of HR attributed their #1 ranking to the purpose work we had done!
It can be applied to almost any initiative, large or small. We ask the intact team - "What's your vision for this? How do you want to be together as a team?" Then take a step back and say "Okay, what's your personal contribution going to be? What's your leadership edge in this?" We're able to get really clear about how each person will focus their development on contributing to the team vision.
The ORSC tools make it seamless and cohesive. Teams consistently report improvement in trust, team cohesion and personal ability to make conflict productive. In many cases, the team is surprised at how much progress they make. I think it is because – in the coaching conversations - we create a culture where it's safe to be real, and it's safe to make mistakes along the way.
In true ORSC form, we also invite and celebrate unpopular voices, like the skeptic. When people get a taste of this, it unleashes a lot of the energy they had tied up in thinking one thing and saying another. They learn ways to hear the dissenting or marginalized voice without reacting to it - whether that voice is coming from within, or is someone else’s voice. Their personal energy starts to go into what they want to create instead of into locking down their emotional charge or engineering their exchanges with each other.
It’s common to hear team members say at the end of these engagements that the changes they made impacted their relationships at home, with a spouse, a parent or one of their children. That is ultimate gratification for me, and it is what keeps my heart in this work.
On what's lighting her up right now
I’m a longtime student of mythology, and the hero’s journey. I’ve been exploring what’s different for women as they grow and how the heroine’s journey might be different from the hero’s journey. The terrain is different, so maybe the map is too. Piecing that map together is important to me right now, and it’s getting a lot of my attention.
When a woman steps onto her growth path, she can expect fundamental shifts in her core relationships. This means relationships like the one she has with her body. With her mother. With her spouse. What’s lighting me up right now is finding ways to support women coming into their power with these core relationships. Normalizing the shifts in a way that help her stay on course.
For the past year, I’ve been interviewing women leaders about their development journeys and how they’ve navigated important relationships. After each interview, I craft a personalized heroine’s journey and read it back to her as an epic tale. It becomes a tender exchange of witnessing and being witnessed. I think I created this role of story keeper as I realized what a pivotal role this simple act of being mirrored back by other women played in my own story. I wonder now if there are some aspects of our development that depend on this.
Another small but mighty way that I’m supporting women leaders is through group coaching. In Spiritual Warriorship for Women, a small group spends a few months together digesting the extra layer of cultural navigation and the core relationships that are shifting. We practice the art of witnessing together. It’s a way of weaving the wisdom of ORSC into the growth journey for women.
On the Relationship Matters podcast
I don’t spend a lot of time listening to podcasts, but when I have time this is where I tune in. Mostly because I get to hear more from my CRR Global colleagues, who are amazing. When I can hear one of them talk about their perspective on something - that's gold for me.
On why systems coaching is important now
We live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. Before the global pandemic, it would take a bit of explanation and context for people to wrap their heads around this concept. Now, I don't think anyone would argue that they are not experiencing VUCA in their lives right now. The image that we use to describe VUCA conditions is a group on a river, in a raft on high-intensity rapids, heading toward a large rock. Relationship Systems Intelligence is a competency that directly addresses this new world we’re navigating. Leaders need to be able to see and work with what's happening at the system level to stay afloat.
Albert Einstein said that we can't solve problems with the same thinking we used to create them. We've been creating and solving problems with the belief that the world is predictable and that certainty is possible. The reality described from a quantum perspective is that the universe is emergent. Systems are emergent. This illusion of certainty and predictability - they are like addictions we have to comfort us from the reality that we don’t really know. It is becoming clear that leaders who hold onto the need to know, instead of seeing that systems are emerging as we go, will be in trouble. RSI gives us a way to work with the uncertain and the unpredictable - not to become masterful at predicting or knowing, but as a way of being able to keep the raft on top of the whitewater.
Listening or Watching
Non-obvious perspectives from the ever-enjoyable Malcolm Gladwell | The Revisionist History podcast
Conversations about ORSC on the CRR Global podcast | Relationship Matters
Well-researched reporting on current events from the New York Times | The Daily
Martha Beck on the power and possibility of forgiveness | Leaving the Saints
Daniel Holden's essential reading for spiritual warriors | Lost Between Lives: Finding your Light when the World Goes Dark
Robert Johnson on how archetypal patterns shape us and our relationships | She: Understanding Feminine Psychology
Robert A. Johnson on right relationship with our secret selves | Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche
Carol S. Pearson on archetype in women's development journeys and leadership | Persephone Rising: Awakening the Heroine Within
Margaret J. Wheatley explores interconnectedness, quantum thinking and leadership | Leadership and the New Science
Want to connect with Shannon? Get in touch via her LinkedIn profile.
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