Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Agile Innovation Leaders

Jan 7, 2024


Marsha is the founder and CEO of TeamCatapult, a respected and sought-after leadership   development firm that equips leaders, at all levels, to facilitate and lead sustainable behavioural change.  She partners with leaders and leadership teams to clarify their desired change, develop communicative competence and think together - accessing their collective intelligence to bring about change. TeamCatapult is a partner to mid-size start-ups and global fortune 500 companies across sectors like entertainment, game development, banking, insurance, healthcare, communications, government, information technology, consumer goods, and retail. Clients have included Microsoft, Riot Games, Epic Games, Capital One, Blizzard Entertainment, Starbucks, Liberty Mutual, Fidelity, and Chef. Marsha Acker is an executive & leadership team coach, author, speaker, facilitator, and the host of Defining Moments of Leadership Podcast. Marsha’s unparalleled at helping leaders identify and break through stuck patterns of communication  that  get  in  their  way  of  high  performance.  She is known internationally as a facilitator of meaningful conversations, a host of dialogue and a passionate agilist. She is the author of Build Your Model for Leading Change: A guided workbook to catalyse clarity and confidence in leading yourself and others.

Interview Highlights

02:30 Background and beginnings

03:35 Reaching a cap

08:50 Working with difference

10:45 Process-centred focus vs people-centred focus

15:50 Behavioural-led change

17:25 Having effective conversations

Social Media

Books & Resources

Episode Transcript

Intro: Hello and welcome to the Agile Innovation Leaders podcast. I’m Ula Ojiaku. On this podcast I speak with world-class leaders and doers about themselves and a variety of topics spanning Agile, Lean Innovation, Business, Leadership and much more – with actionable takeaways for you the listener.

Ula Ojiaku

Hi everyone. My guest for this episode is Marsha Acker. Marsha is the Founder and CEO of TeamCatapult, and she is a respected and sought after leadership development expert, and her firm works to equip leaders at all levels to facilitate and lead sustainable behavioural change. This episode is the first of a two part series, because there were just a lot of nuggets to get from Marsha and in part one, we talked about Marsha's background and beginning, how she got to a cap and she knew that she needed to break through a certain ceiling to get to more, to achieve her potential. She also talked about process-centred versus people-centred transformation and the differences and where each one might be considered. Of course, there is a bias for, and I am biased as well towards the people-centred focus, but there is a place for process and how you might go about implementing a behavioural led change. Without further ado, Part One of my conversation with Marsha Acker. I hope you find this as insightful as I did.

I have with me the very one and only Marsha Acker, who is the founder of TeamCatapult and a coach, facilitator, much, much known in the Agile coaching discipline and beyond. Marsha, it is a big pleasure and an honour to have you on the Agile Innovation Leaders Podcast. Thank you.

Marsha Acker

Thanks a lot. I'm super excited to be here with you today, so thanks for inviting me.

Ula Ojiaku

Awesome. So, Marsha, could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Marsha Acker

Yeah, well, I often say my first career was, you know, two degrees in software engineering and I spent some time working with developers, sort of bridging the gap between end users and developers. And so that was my first start, it's actually where I learned about facilitation, was trying to bring whole groups of users together to align on what they wanted in terms of requirements. So it was back before we talked about Agile, it was back before any of those methods and processes had made their way. But that's really where I got my start in facilitation. And then, yes, towards what I call my own retooling around my career, was when I, I actually went to look for professional coaching as a way to up my leadership. I didn't have a desire originally to become a coach. I wanted to do and learn coaching because I wanted to up my leadership, I just, I had reached a point where I was really challenged in my own leadership and so the very short version of that much longer circuitous path was, I found that I did go through coactive coaching. So I started in that space. CTI (Coach Training Institute) had a huge impact on me personally, it's responsible for many life decisions that I made coming out of that program. But that was where I got my certification in professional coaching with individuals, and then I went on to do ORSC from CRR Global, and then I went on to do structural dynamics and that's where I met the work of David Kantor, where I met David Kantor. And we can talk more about that, but that's certainly changed my whole view of how we enter interpersonal relationships, how we have conversations with one another, it gave me a lens for sort of looking at even some of the previous coach training that I did. So yes, I have, I often say I sort of have two backgrounds that I think the tech side helps me just stay connected to a, you know, I have a soft spot in my heart for techies and people who have a lot of technical and scientific knowledge. And then I often say I learned a lot about process improvement and automation and making things effective and efficient, but I think one of the things that I really lacked in the first part of my career was the human skills, like how to work with other human beings. And I would say the second half of my professional career has been, yeah, how to work with others. It's a big thing.

Ula Ojiaku

Thanks for sharing that, Marsha. Something you said about the second part of your career has been focused on working with humans. Well, I have a technical background in Electronic Engineering, Bachelor's degree, a Master's in Computer Science. And at the beginning of my career, it was more of, okay, what could you do? You know, what's your technical understanding? But as you move on, it's really more about how, you know, work well with people and get people to do the best work together. Would you say that's a general trend that you've also observed apart from your own personal experience?

Marsha Acker

Yeah. I don't know if it's, sometimes I wonder, you know, it's maybe just the lens that I look through or it's the organisations and the kinds of leaders that I somehow attract into my sphere. But I do find myself working a lot with technical leaders and I think one of the things that happens, technical and scientific tracks, you know, we move forward in our careers, we get rewarded for knowledge, for having the answer, for being able to connect and do things quickly. And I think in that career progression, we get really good at knowing the answer, having the answer, you know, we're working with things that we feel like are discreet, you know, we can own them in some way, but as we move up, and I think many, you know, I've talked to many a developer, engineer who, you know, sometimes reached that cap, and then the next step is to lead people, to lead others, and to, you know, to be the senior architect, to be the senior engineer, the Vice President or the Director. And you know, it's that famous saying, what got us here won't get us to the next level, and so I think there are those moments, I certainly experienced that, that was one of the reasons I went off to coach training was I just, the metaphor I use often is that I was out over my skis. I knew something was, like I was trying to make something happen or I was trying to get things to happen, and my only model for that was because I said, so, like, please do this, because, I think this is the way. And I just, I really, I started to realise, I felt like I was running on a hamster wheel some days, and I'm like, this isn't working and I feel like I'm missing something. So I often do find myself working with leaders or leadership teams who are, it's not that they're underperforming, it's just that they've reached a cap. The place where all that they know and all that they have, have served them really well, up until this point, and then like what's required to go to that next level or to be effective and efficient in a different kind of way. It's sort of when our focus starts to come off of the very discreet task and it becomes more about how do we create an environment, a space, a container for others to be their best, so it's no longer going to be, you know, me making all the decisions or me moving something forward, it's that we need to work together. And boy that we space is tricky. Yeah, we are going to see things differently and there's going to be conflict and there's going to be difference of opinion. And then, you know, ooh, how do I work with that in a way that's, I just, you know, I think one of the biggest questions that I think we help leadership teams look at is how do we work with difference, and actually welcome it rather than try to minimise it, because I think that's the rub where if we don't have skills to work with it, we tend to minimise it or send it out of the room or suppress it. Like we say, you know, we don't have enough time for that, or, gosh, we've got this deadline. So we've become super deadline driven, and I think sometimes at the expense of having a real conversation with one another.

Ula Ojiaku

Gosh, I have so many questions. I don’t know which one to ask, but I'll just go with the last, based on what you've said, the last few sentences in terms of not having time, you suppress the conflict or the differences or the disagreements, because we're always like on a deadline or we don't have the time for this. So how would you get these leadership teams to step back and say, you know what, we have to deal with this elephant in the room, otherwise it's going to get bigger, fester, if we were to use an analogy of the wound on it, you know, if you just cover it up with a band-aid, it's not going to get better, sometimes you have to treat the wound, get the scab off so that it can heal wholesomely and you move forward. So what's your approach for this, please?

Marsha Acker

So I can tell you how I would've approached it early in my career, in a version of myself that really led with process. So at that time, I had a model for change that was very focused on ‘know the process’, like document the process, define the new process, get people to follow the process. And I definitely, I kind of laugh about it now, but I, you know, it's not wrong, I mean, it worked, but this is very early in my career, early 2000, because I just began to work with agility. I had left one space where I was a part of a small startup and I was heading up all of our programs and we had really started to use extreme programming. So I'm sort of fresh on this, on this thinking of, okay, so there's different ways we can begin to work. And I'd gone into a smaller organisation, it was a consulting firm. We were leading process led change, and we were working with a leadership team who was really charged with a huge internal transformation effort. And at that time, working directly with that leadership team, I would've said we took a very process-centred focus to that, we documented the current process, we helped them. It was  over a year of working with this one leadership team, and then we started to help them craft, okay, so what's your desired change and what would the process under that look like? And as we got towards the end of that transformation, one of the things that I started to notice is that the process-led decisions that the leadership team was being asked to really make some decisions about, had a huge impact on people, both them and the staff and the people that they were managing, they cared greatly about their culture and the people, and they reached a place where they just, to describe it, they just dug in their heels and progress wasn't moving forward. And I remember thinking, we'd been on retreats with them multiple times, and it was in that moment, that was the moment where I learned and had the insight, that there was way more to change than just the process. And what I can tell you now that I couldn't quite articulate back then was that we were missing the people part of this equation. And what was starting to happen is that as the pressure increased and the leadership team was being asked to make decisions that were truly going to impact not only them personally, like where they lived, where their children went to school, you know, family impacts, but that was also going to have an impact across all the folks that they managed. And so they were reaching a place where they just couldn't make that decision kind of collectively. I think one of the biggest mistakes in that particular process was that we were so process led. And what was missing from it was a coaching perspective and a way to help them have the real conversation because the real conversation actually started to go out of the room. And I was certainly playing a part in, potentially a little unaware at the moment that in favour of wanting to push things forward and get things done in my process-led change model, they were really needing to have a different kind of conversation that wasn't about the process at all, but that had since become the undiscussable topic and it didn't get brought into the room. So we sort of, we left it out. So that's an example of an earlier model for change that I had, and I didn't have a way of bringing that conversation on mind or really even paying attention to it. Now you asked for how would I do it today?

Ula Ojiaku

Yes, because you've said the process-led model for change, I'm excited to know what the next one is.

Marsha Acker

Well I want to be really clear, I don't think that that's a wrong model. But I think for me, I learned that it was missing something, and I can reflect back now and tell you that, but I don't want your listeners to draw any wrong conclusions. That wasn't an overnight insight, that definitely took a little bit of time. But what I would say now is I have, you know, in my model for leading change, I think process is important, but it's really not at the core of how I think about change at all. I think in my model, it's definitely a sub-task, but I would say I'm very focused on behavioural-led change at the moment. And so in that behavioural-led change, what I place at the centre of any change is, how are people communicating with one another? Are they able to actually have the real conversation? Is there enough awareness in the system that they can kind of catch sight of when the real conversation starts to go underground? And can they actually have the muscle, the range in their leadership to catch sight of it and then bring it back in the room? And so, I place conversations and behaviour kind of at the core of change, and I hold a perspective that change, that no one will change, change doesn't happen until people feel heard and understood.  And I don't know that I could find you an example of any organisation that I've worked in, including my own TeamCatapult, where something that we're trying to do or accomplish or move forward doesn't meet a roadblock when some aspect of our conversation isn't fully online or we're not fully having the conversation that we need to have. So one of the ways that I would do that today is, first, whenever I'm engaging with a leadership team or any other team that's really trying to bring about change and just noticing like they're trying to level up or there's something that they're wanting that they feel like they're kind of capped at is I just start to help them look at the way they engage in conversation, because I think in the conversation there are lots of indicators about how that conversation plays out and are people really able to say what they're thinking or do we get stuck in some common dysfunctional patterns that can show up? So one example of that would be, we use a sort of a technology for looking at conversation and there are four actions that happen in all effective conversations, a move, a follow, an oppose, and a bystand. So a move sets direction, a follow supports it, an oppose offers really clear correction. It says, no, hang on, wait a minute. A bystand offers a morally neutral perspective, so one way is to help a team onboard that, but there are common patterns and one of the common patterns that will come out, particularly in tech teams where there's pace and we need to move things forward, is that they can get into this pattern of someone makes a move, and everyone else just sort of remains silent or, says something to the effect might voice ‘sure, you know, that sounds good.’ So they start to fall into this pattern of move and lots of follow. And what's missing often is the voice of bystand, which says, hey, I'm wondering what's going on, or I'm wondering what we're not saying. And then really clear opposition. So the ability to bring pushback, constraint into the conversation. So if you go back to that original leadership team that I was telling you about, you know, way back when, I think one of the things that was going on in that team is they weren't, no one was able to say, this is an incredibly difficult decision, and I don't think I can make it unless I have these things answered. So they kept making it about the process and it wasn't really about the process at all. It was really, it had a very personal component to it that wasn't being discussed, and so the inability to discuss that really created the drag. So the way that I think about helping any team work through any change is, helping them onboard the skills of being able to have, we call it bringing, it's a principle that we hold about bringing the real conversation in the room. Can you bring the conversation online versus offline? So the other flag that you might have for when your conversations are going offline is, if you feel, I often think about if I leave a conversation with you and I, for example, if I left this conversation and I went off and I felt the need, or I was compelled to one of vent or complain about it to someone else, that's my kind hazard flag. But, there was something that I was holding back from in this conversation that I didn't say, and that's my signal to actually circle back around. And so maybe, maybe I need to check in with myself, maybe there's something that I left unsaid.  

Ula Ojiaku

So there we are, this is the end of part one of the conversation with Marsha. In part two of this conversation, which is the final one where we are going to talk about having effective conversations, what functional self awareness means, why it is important to slow down conversations in order to get results, as counter-intuitive as this might be, and many other things, so stay tuned and watch out for part two of my conversation with Marsha. That’s all we have for now. Thanks for listening. If you liked this show, do subscribe at or your favourite podcast provider. Also share with friends and do leave a review on iTunes. This would help others find this show. I’d also love to hear from you, so please drop me an email at Take care and God bless!