Edtech Insiders

From Hidden Insights to Deeper Connections: Exploring the Ask Approach™ with Jeff Wetzler

April 15, 2024 Ben Kornell Season 8
From Hidden Insights to Deeper Connections: Exploring the Ask Approach™ with Jeff Wetzler
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Edtech Insiders
From Hidden Insights to Deeper Connections: Exploring the Ask Approach™ with Jeff Wetzler
Apr 15, 2024 Season 8
Ben Kornell

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Jeff Wetzler has been on a quarter-century quest to transform learning opportunities. Blending a unique set of leadership experiences in the fields of business and education, he’s pursued this quest as a management consultant to the world’s top corporations, as a learning facilitator for leaders around the world, as Chief Learning Officer at Teach For America, and most recently, as co-CEO of Transcend, a nationally recognized innovation organization. 

Jeff earned a Doctorate in Adult Learning and Leadership from Columbia University and a Bachelor’s in Psychology from Brown University. He is a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network and is an Edmund Hillary Fellow. He lives in New York with his wife, two children, and their puppy.

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Show Notes Transcript

Send us a Text Message.

Jeff Wetzler has been on a quarter-century quest to transform learning opportunities. Blending a unique set of leadership experiences in the fields of business and education, he’s pursued this quest as a management consultant to the world’s top corporations, as a learning facilitator for leaders around the world, as Chief Learning Officer at Teach For America, and most recently, as co-CEO of Transcend, a nationally recognized innovation organization. 

Jeff earned a Doctorate in Adult Learning and Leadership from Columbia University and a Bachelor’s in Psychology from Brown University. He is a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network and is an Edmund Hillary Fellow. He lives in New York with his wife, two children, and their puppy.

Recommended Resources:

Alexander Sarlin:

Welcome to Season Eight of Edtech Insiders where we speak to educators, founders, investors, thought leaders and the industry experts who are shaping the global education technology industry. Every week we bring you the Week in Edtech, important updates from the Edtech field, including news about core technologies and issues we know will influence the sector like artificial intelligence, extended reality, education, politics and more. We also conduct in depth interviews with a wide variety of Edtech thought leaders and bring you insights and conversations from ed tech conferences all around the world. Remember to subscribe, follow and tell your ed tech friends about the podcast and to check out the Edtech Insiders substack newsletter. Thanks for being part of the Edtech Insiders community enjoy the show.

Ben Kornell:

Hi, everybody, I have a special guest, my longtime friend Jeff Wetzler, co CEO of Transcend, and also the author of a forthcoming book called Ask, tap into the hidden wisdom of people around you for unexpected breakthroughs in leadership and life. So excited to have you on the pod today. Jeff, welcome.

Jeff Wetzler:

Thanks, Ben, it's so great to be with you.

Ben Kornell:

The book is really a chance to recap your career in reimagining and designing schools. And yet it also has applications for basically anyone in leadership, but also in their personal lives. I'd love to just start with what inspired you to write the book. And was there a particular moment or experience that kind of sparked that, aha, that it really was about asking good questions.

Jeff Wetzler:

So I think two things inspired me to write the book. One is the problem that the book is tackling. And two is what I've been so fortunate to gain from many other people relate to the solution. So maybe I'll say a word about each, in terms of the problem the book is solving is so painful, and has been very painful to me at different moments in my career. And I see it with lots of other people, which is basically that each of us is surrounded by friends, colleagues, customers, bosses, managers, board members, anyone in our life. And all of those people have ideas and insights and observations and feedback that if we could know them, if we can know that and tap into that, we would be so much better off, we would make better decisions together, we'd innovate better, we'd save time, we have better relationships. But far too often, we don't actually find out so much of what they're actually thinking and feeling. And that has happened to me a number of times, whether that's with teams who are struggling with things that I didn't discover until it was too late or almost too late, or board members who had issues or, and so it's a problem that I have faced and don't want others to face. But it's also a problem I see everywhere. I honestly see when I talk to one person, they say, I left the board for this real reason. But the person doesn't actually know that's the reason or I didn't hire this person for this job. And I think it's a problem that we all suffer from. But equally, it's an opportunity. Because if we actually could discover what the people around us are thinking and feeling, we would be so much better off. And it's a solvable problem. And so that's brings me to the second reason why I wrote the book, which is that over time, I have been very fortunate to have a set of mentors, who have shared ideas and tools and resources with me. And I've had a chance to both apply them to myself and get incredible breakthroughs from it. But also to share them with my team and with other people around me. And seeing them really have enormous benefits as well. And so a few years ago, I just said to myself, I think it's time to bring it together. I have enough clarity about the problem and what these tools are, that I want to pass it forward. Yeah,

Ben Kornell:

I love that. And just for the audience to know a little bit about the methodology and the ethos that you bring to your work. Transcend is really a design partner for schools, reimagining learning, but you don't have a particular model or methodology that you require everyone to follow. In some ways it is about unlocking the collective knowledge and the community based leadership. Can you just tell me a little bit about when this works? Well, when you know, people are practicing the steps in ask in schools in an education context? What does that look like? What does that feel like? What are the takeaways that the the audience could take from that?

Jeff Wetzler:

I appreciate you being and making the connection. Because the ethos of asking, as you say, is deeply embedded in the DNA of transcends approach to community based design. And I think it starts with the assumption that we as Trump said, I don't know what the right answer is for a community. Only a community can know what the right answer is for that community. And there's enormous insight and wisdom in communities in young people and educators in families and caregivers in employers, other community leaders, administrators, etc. And so in many ways, the community based design process that trumps end users and advocates is one that tries to surface and lift up that collective genius that exists in a community. So what it looks like is a lot of listening, we will bring educators and administrators together and literally the first thing that we encourage and support them to do is to listen to young people, and to say, what are you experiencing right now? And what do you want to be experiencing? And we have guides called like conversations with kids guides, and we have student experience surveys and student voice tools and things like that. And what people tell us when they do this is that they often have never just sat with a student for 40 minutes, and deeply listened to them about their experience, and about what they want. That's the first thing they say. The second thing they say is, I cannot unhear what I just heard, when that student told me how bored they feel minute after minute, hour after hour when they feel disengaged when they feel disempowered, whatever it may be, how can I live now knowing this without doing something about it? And then the third thing that they say is, the kids have the answers. They know what they want. And they know what it looks like, and they know how to get there. And so all of that comes out of the kinds of questions that we can ask and listen to young people to get. And that doesn't mean that a school community, therefore needs to just start from scratch and reinvent everything. Because transcend also deeply believes in the importance of research and expertise, and models and codified models, but in ways that are there to serve a community's vision and help them get there faster, as opposed to be imposed on them.

Ben Kornell:

You mentioned in the book, this context, the importance of context, power and identity, and that sometimes, there's elements that get in the way of us effectively tapping into that shared or collective knowledge. Can you just elaborate a little bit on what is those barriers or opportunities, especially when it comes to diverse communities and communities of color that haven't maybe had a voice in reimagining their work learning or life context? Absolutely.

Jeff Wetzler:

I learned this the hard way. In one of my first operating roles, where I thought I was curious and asking my team the right questions about what was going on. But I failed to discover the challenges they were struggling with. Because at the time, I didn't realize that they didn't feel safe telling you the truth, given the power that I had, and the power of my position, and speaking across some lines, that difference as well, given my identity markers, and there have been lots of messages that our society has sent to marginalized groups that they shouldn't speak up, and they shouldn't tell the truth. And that there are real life and death dates for saying hard things and speaking truth to power. And that is a reality that we have to attend to when we're actually trying to do this kind of learning together. And that's a lot of what it forms the practice it that's inside the book that I called make it safe. We have to go out of our way to make it feel more safe, easy, appealing, comfortable, for people to say hard things. And the more we're operating across lines of difference whether differences in power or identity, the harder we have to work to make it safe.

Ben Kornell:

Yeah, yeah, that really resonates with me and friend and colleague of mine, Devin videos, Guy was superintendent in Vista Unified and I remember he did empathy interviews with students across the district. And when he would say what's working and what's not working at the school, he would get these very surface surface, superficial answers from learners and also from educators. But when he put together a more thoughtful protocol, with deep, pointed questions, people understood his intention, which was to really listen for understanding. And I think what is great when I read your book, then it was like, Oh my gosh, this is like actually building out that entire methodology between making it safe there's choose curiosity, there's post quality questions. Our listeners will have to read the book to get all of this. Listen to learn, reflect and reconnect. I was most struck by reflect and reconnect because often the CIO, what, after you've done deep inquiry and deep listening, it is really actually hard to follow through with the reflection. Sometimes you have to be very vulnerable in what you heard, because it's not exactly what you wanted to project maybe. And then showing follow up and follow through is really important and almost exists, like a cycle where you've got to keep doing this over and over, can you just talk a little bit about reflect and reconnect, and also share any examples where you've seen that where it's especially effective,

Jeff Wetzler:

I think it's the most powerful of the five practices to really help us grow from what we've learned. It's not enough to ask the right questions and hear what people say, if you don't actually squeeze the meaning out of it. And so reflection, I think some people think of reflection as something that monks do on a monastery on a mountain or something like that. But the truth is, we can actually break it down and make it a very concrete actionable process. And in the book, I talk about ways to turn and turn what we hear from people. The first turn is to say, what did I learn that really would help me update or reshape the story I have about this person? Or about this situation? Or about myself? Or what's going on? The second turn is, what steps will I take based on that? What am I actually going to do. And then the third is the deepest step is, how does what I heard really relate to my stuff, or their deeper biases, or assumptions or ways of being a worldviews that this can help me to grow into nuance, or elaborate or expand etc. And so it's it is a process that we can do, it's often helpful to do that process with a friend or colleague that's trusted, who can help us really reflect together on that. But what I have emphasized is equally important, is to reconnect is to not just go do that reflection on our own and walk away. But instead, to go back to the person who has shared something with us. And say, here's what I took away from what you said. And that does a few things. First of all, it lets the other person know that they didn't waste their time, or that they don't have to be guessing as to what impact that they have on you. Second is it gives them a chance to help you correct anything you might have, if you have a wrong takeaway as well in your reflection. But the third, I think that maybe it's the most important is it brings you closer, and increases the chances that there'll be more sharing over time. In terms of examples, I think there's a couple of interesting examples, I guess, could be very relevant to work in schools and innovation and tech. In the book, I tell some stories about schools that are trying to get better and use input from students. But input from students is not always taken, or is not always actionable. Like students might say, I love this edtech product, or I hate this, or whatever. And too often, schools and organizations don't take that step of closing the loop. They thank people, maybe they say thanks for the feedback. Great, we'll do something with it. But what they don't say is, here's how we made meaning of it. Here's how we processed it. Here's what we're going to act on. Here's what we are loved to act on, but can't do right now. And here's what we're not going to act on. And here's why. And ideally, that whole decision making process includes students in it, of course. But either way, that's an act of going back and reconnecting. So the next time students are asked something, they know that their their feedback is going somewhere, and they understand how it's thought about and they're much more likely to give that over time. I learned about that from an amazing researcher named Serena Elmaleh, who is a professor at University of Virginia, who is just an incredible expert at activating student voice and student research. And she's got all kinds of interesting stories like that. That's

Ben Kornell:

great. Yeah, I am on the local school board. And we were doing a facility master plan process where we did these visioning sessions with the community and we'd have 30 to 60 people at these sessions, visualizing what could our future schools look like, given our kind of shift to learner centered pedagogy and practice, and it was super energetic, super engaging, and the way a school year work, so you can launch these things in August, September, and then you publish the plan in June. And we publish the plan in June. And we thought, we've got this great facility master plan and vision for facilities to support learning. And in the fall, we're going to go out for a bond to go build the raise the money to build schools, and we heard from the community, and it was just a few people who felt safe like saying, hey, the people who are involved in all these sessions don't feel like they've gotten the readout and the feedback. There needs to be one more step to close the loop. This is where the bureaucracy was like, wait, no, we have to approve this in our August board meeting. We can't do that. And it's okay. Yes, let's push this out to it was like end of set timber, and we brought everyone back that had been participating in any element, we shared it out. And overall, it was really well received. But also they pointed out, hey, all of the environmental components around being carbon neutral. None of that was in your plan. And we're like, it's implicit because it's here. And it's California designs. And they're like, No, this was one of our big things. We want to walk the walk when it comes to being climate friendly, you need to do this. And so we basically created this, like, first of a kind climate plan in our facility master plan. And the the group that had played showed up at board meetings, and they were vocal about it, they came to that final board meeting where we voted on it. And they said, Thank you for listening to us. You've included this. And so I just, it resonates what I will say when I read the book, I almost I read it in two lenses. One is that as an individual, how do we evolve from a like, lead from the front leader to a listening leader? And also organizationally, how do you build organizational capacity to be eliciting org? Can you tell me a little bit about on the organizational level? What do listening organizations have in terms of process, but also culture that connects with your book?

Jeff Wetzler:

Yeah, first of all, to have leaders who model this. And so that is a version of leading from the front, but a very different version leaving from the front. In the book, I talk about the opportunity that everyone has to be the learner and chief to be someone who models asking questions, who models curiosity, who says here's how I've changed my mind based on what I've learned. And also, here's how I've grown as a leader and a person based on what I've learned. And I think that is one of the most powerful moves that an organization can make. To build that in culturally. There's other things that can make a big difference, including hiring practices, hiring for people who are interested in operating this kind of way. In my first job out of college, I worked for an organization called monitor group who really valued this. And at the end of our whole interview process, which was not known to me at the time, but the last step that they took, was to give us all critical feedback. Every interviewee, every candidate got critical feedback, really pointed, critical feedback. And I thought when I got my critical feedback, I guess it didn't get the job. And they're just doing me the courtesy of telling me why. But really what was going on as they were testing for was not going to get defensive, or was I going to be receptive? Was I going to push back? Or was I going to be curious and try to learn from it, etc. And so there's a whole set of practices that people who are building teams and organizations can do on the hiring front. There's also practices that one can do, of course, in terms of training and capability building, these are learnable skills. And so it's not enough to just model them or set a culture or hire for them. Just like anything we want people to know how to do. It takes time and learning experiences to build those muscles and reflect on them. But it's totally doable to do that kind of thing. And then the last thing I would just say is there are structures and routines that can elevate and reward learning. For example, Janae. Henry, what is our chief learning officer, transcend, she sets a learning agenda. She has developed a whole set of systems where people actually sit down on the table and say, what did we learn from this project? What went well? What didn't we do? How do we get smart, etc. And then we celebrate the learning as much as we celebrate the results. And that's an attempt to build this into the fabric of how we operate.

Ben Kornell:

Often I hear from executives who are in fast growing companies, or incredibly busy and complex schools and organizations. And the pushback for a methodology like this might be I don't have time, or we need to move fast. And this is just not there's not enough time for that. Do you believe that's a trade off with the ASQ methodology? Or is that a false dichotomy? How do you think about speed of action? And ask?

Jeff Wetzler:

Yeah, in the chapter on curiosity, I talked about how one of the biggest curiosity killers is speed and pressure to move fast and to grind hard and all that kind of stuff. Because it leads us to just think we got to move in Aftermath ask questions. But I would actually say if you are leading an organization, and you feel like the stakes are high, and you've got big decisions to make, and you've got tight timelines, you can't afford not to ask, because it doesn't take long. It doesn't take long for a leader for example, to say, I've considered these three options and I think this is the one we should go with. What am I missing? Or just say Where might this plan go wrong? That doesn't mean we have to spend hours and hours. But if there's five people around the table, and a leader says, I just want to hear from each of you, what's the scenario that I haven't thought of yet? Imagine how much time you save. If one of those people has an insight, that is actually going to save you from going down a totally wrong path. Or similarly, if you say to people, you know, here's, here's the direction, make it better, what ideas do you have that could actually strengthen or help us get there faster? So it doesn't have to be one of these things where it's just like, we're all stepping back and navel gazing and talking about an actionable things. They're very actionable ways to combine strong leadership, even leadership from the front with inquiry to make sure that you're tapping into that. And I would say that you're not just getting better ideas that way, but you're also getting invest better investment from people, because people feel like they're building this together. Yeah,

Ben Kornell:

it's really interesting. My time working with tech companies. A lot of the tools and practices you talk about here are actually core to user experience design, where it's really understanding your end users, their personas, their journeys, their experience, and leading with inquiry. And even when you have a product, a tech product, also understanding what are the other factors that are outside of that tech product that might be influencing their experience? It really is interesting to see how you've almost blended that user experience, best practices with human behavior, organizational behavior, and of course, applied in some educational systems contexts. How have you thought about

Jeff Wetzler:

that? Yeah, one of the people that I interviewed and quoted in the book is a woman named Sheikh Al Tshabalala, who is a user experience researcher at Google. And it was striking to me, how much of the Ask approach is literally what she does on a day to day basis, including being curious about users, making it safe for them to give real feedback, asking the right questions, listening and helping teams reflect on it. And so I like what you said, which is that the Ask approach in many ways, is to say what if we could be as curious about the people in our lives as a user experience researcher is about their users, because the stakes matter just as much? This

Ben Kornell:

is fascinating. It does feel to me like you've synthesized so much of your house, and your methodology and your approach. Let's close with a little bit of your why you've been on this journey. You've been transforming schools through transcend. When you think about what the impact is that you want to see of this book, what's your vision? And how do you think the why methodology can change our communities and our

Jeff Wetzler:

systems. So I really believe in the power of learning. And to me, when I see a miss learning opportunity, whether myself and failing to learn something or somebody else, that's like a mini tragedy. And on the flip side, when there is a possibility to unlock learning, to me that is like one of the most special sacred magical things that we can do. And so if the Ask approach and this book can open up the possibility for all of us to learn more, especially to learn more from each other, especially at a time right now, when our school communities in our society are dealing with a lot of polarization, where people are saying that someone who thinks differently is the enemy, as opposed to someone who thinks differently, is someone that I can learn from, if it can make a difference in addressing any of that's why I wrote the book.

Ben Kornell:

Amazing. Jeff wetzler is co founder, co CEO of transcend his book is asked to tap into the hidden hidden wisdom of people around you for unexpected breakthroughs in leadership in life. If people want to pick up the book, where can they go?

Jeff Wetzler:

They can go anywhere they books are sold, including Amazon. They can also learn more at the books website, which is www dot Ask approach.com. And if they want to learn more about transcend, it's transcend. education.org Wonderful.

Ben Kornell:

Thanks so much for joining a deck insiders. It's just awesome to have you here. Jeff. We'll talk soon.

Jeff Wetzler:

Thanks so much. Great to be with you.

Alexander Sarlin:

Thanks for listening to this episode of Edtech Insiders. If you liked the podcast, remember to rate it and share it with others in the tech community. For those who want even more Edtech Insider subscribe to the free Edtech Insiders newsletter on substack.