4 Questions with Mike Wagner, Founder, White Rabbit Group


Mike Wagner and I met a dozen years ago through a common professional interest in branding and business. We both believe in the power of questions to start conversations that can take you to unexpected places.

He is the Founder and Sr. Facilitator at White Rabbit. His work is to form leaders that unlock the wisdom and capacity of organizations. Mike is a Speaker, Trainer, and Facilitator. He is also co-host on the True Leader podcast.

I didn't ask, but if I were to say, “where does the name White Rabbit come from?”, I would be starting a conversation. A conversation to engage both parties, and likely find out something new.

Down the white rabbit hole

We underestimate curiosity and overlook conversation.

Q: You started White Rabbit Group as a brand strategy consultancy. When did you see leadership consulting as a natural evolution of your work?

Mike: Great question!

There were 3 major factors in our shift from a focus brand strategy and design:
One, we noticed a predictable pattern as a result of our client work. Leaders were struggling to execute the branded customer experience we had helped them discover and design. When we looked at it closely the issue was a specific  aspect of leadership, namely leading direct reports to own and deliver the brand in their day to day work.
Two, we had clients beginning to notice the same thing. They were asking us to help them with leaders and their departmental performance. Sales and marketing teams in particular were concerned that the brand could be marketed and sold but that the company couldn't deliver consistently on the brand promises and client experience.
Third, we saw the effect of “the talent wars” and low employee engagement on an organization's ability to consistently deliver their brand. This was a major issue that we felt had to be addressed.
So, exploring and then committing to a new focus on leaders and their followers seemed the obvious way to deliver value and do good for our clients.
Q: How did you go about making the transition?

Mike: We built on the request we were getting from existing clients to help their leaders with direct reports.  Being blessed with great clients who wanted to collaborate with us, we ran pilot programs. For almost 4 years we worked on learning exactly what leaders and followers were experiencing, what the breakdowns were and what the remedies might look like.

We also did our own “deep dive” into the current state of leadership training and the workplace. 
This research shaped our approach. We found ourselves framing the leadership problem around high impact leadership behaviors and skills. That meant that the problem was more “formation” than “information.” We joked that learning to lead others was more like learning to ride a bike than a set of propositions and theory.
We also came to view our work metaphorically like an OS (operating system) on a smart phone. We would tell clients we wanted to “install” a leadership OS that would allow their employees to flourish. That was definitely an evolution for us, learning a new way to talk about what we do as a firm and why we do it.

Q: What surprised you, so far, and what delighted you?

Mike: One surprise is a transformed sense of mission at this point in my career. I would say my “why” is now to connect leaders and followers so that everyone flourishes. I am constantly discovering more ways that calling is being fleshed out with every client interaction.

I am also delighted with the difference our Connected Leader engagements are making. One health care organization gave us their lowest scoring, lowest retention rate group of leaders as a first project. Within a year this group of leaders and their direct reports had the highest engagement scores of any department in the organization. Everyone was delighted. Especially the leaders who had once had the lowest engagement scores.
Another surprise was how well received our work has been with corporate veterans who came to us cynical and resistant to “one more training class.” We often find ourselves working with IT professionals, engineers and other analytical experts. One leader recently quipped that he had taken “Snarky Humor 101” and yet didn't have any snarky comments for the practices we were teaching him. That meant a lot!

Q: You’ve always had the finger on the pulse, what’s next for business?

Mike: Of course there is no way to know for sure but I suspect big data analytics which are being used to predict which employees will quit will be applied to individual leadership practice. Behavioral skills, direct report interactions and disciplines will be mined to tell companies which leaders are costing the business what in lower engagement scores and loss of talent.

Currently surveys are the tool of choice but why not use the power of predictive analytics to intervene and coach leaders who need to change their leadership practice? Data will displace surveys. I can see this happening widely and assume it is already emerging somewhere in the organizational world.
That's an interesting prediction for someone working on the human side of business.
Mike: I should have added that I am not at all sure that what I am predicting is a good thing. And there is always a dark side to all technology (so it seems to me).
I just believe that there is such a desire to eliminate risk and that since big data predictive analytics are sold as ways to eliminate risk, that business leaders will be eager to “buy” these kinds of solutions. 
We're favoring risk aversion over risk management. Perhaps we've forgotten the art, or maybe we're eager for shortcuts. It seems to me that we're forgetting human resilience and ingenuity. We're becoming over reliant on technology.
Professor Umberto Galimberti says utility forms a chain. You either stop in front of something that is useless, yet has value in itself, or the whole chain of utility has no meaning. By the current definition, love is useless, yet it gives life meaning.
To expand on White Rabbit’s system for forming leaders. Connected Leader was born to form leaders who can Fulfill the Mission, Connect with their People, and Make More Leaders.
Leaders that leave a lasting impact on the people and organizations they serve implement these four practices in their every day work life, say Mike and team:
  1. Connect
  2. Correct
  3. Equip
  4. Amplify

They're the essential actions that help relationships flourish. 

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