Navigating Complexity: Embracing Paradoxes For Leadership Excellence With Pam Harper

Penny ZenkerTake Back Time Podcast

TBT Pam Harper | Complexity


Embracing complexities as opportunities, not obstacles, can unleash our leadership potential.

Welcome to another episode of “Take Back Time,” where we delve deep into the world of leadership, growth, and strategic decision-making. In this episode, host Penny Zanker engages in a captivating conversation with Pam Harper, CEO of Business Advancement Inc and author of Preventing Strategic Gridlock.

Together, they unravel the complexities of leadership and how embracing paradoxes can be the key to propelling your business forward. Pam calls out the critical distinction between what “should be happening” and what is truly occurring within an organization.

Diving into the concept of complexity, Penny and Pam recognize that we live in a world of contradictions – a realm of opportunities often disguised as challenges.

They shed light on the Growth Igniters Paradoxes, three fundamental enigmas that emerge amid uncertainty and ambiguity. Pam discusses how to recognize these paradoxes and transform them into catalysts for innovation and progress.

Penny and Pam give a glimpse of the 5 Powerful Questions to ask for business advancement. Tune in now and be empowered to navigate complexity with confidence and embrace paradoxes as the stepping stones to success.

Listen to the podcast here


Navigating Complexity: Embracing Paradoxes For Leadership Excellence With Pam Harper

In this episode, I’m excited because I have Pam Harper with me. She’s a dear friend. We just went through a really fun high-level speaker’s course together. We’ve got a lot in common, a lot of ways of thinking about things. Pam is an internationally known keynote and TEDx speaker and partner and CEO of Business Advancement Inc., a strategic growth advisory firm based in the New York City metro area. She’s got a lot of different accolades. She has a critically acclaimed book Preventing Strategic Gridlock, which is read in business schools around the world. Without further ado, you can read her bio, but let’s hear her brilliance directly. Pam, welcome to the show.

Penny, it’s good to be together. We’ve been through a lot here.

I’m sure everybody feels that way with where we are now that we’ve been through a lot.

Absolutely. That’s what I hear all the time. “How are you?” We’re going through a lot.

We’ll start there. People, leaders especially, are expected to know how to get out of this, how to forge their way forward, and how to bring about great change when change is necessary. They might feel stuck. They might not know what the next steps are. How do you advise leaders when they might be in that place where there’s a lot expected of them and it’s a little overwhelming?

It is funny you should say that because I had a conversation with somebody not that long ago. I walked into his office and he just had this look of daze on his face. This is a successful, award-winning company. It was because of that very success that he was looking like, “We’ve got to move faster. Everything’s important.” He was feeling tremendous pressure from the board, his C-Suite, the employees, the industry, and from customers. There’s such a list, like investors.

That’s true for so many companies and so many CEOs that we’re all dealing with having many stakeholders. The issue is everybody has different agendas. When somebody says, “What should I do? What’s next?” we are at a point now where it’s tempting to say, as I have other people say, “We’re just going to keep going the way we were. There’s too much. We can’t focus on that. We got to focus on doing this executing.” That’s where I started to see what I call the orbit of the status quo going round and round in circles.

“We did this before, it worked before, and we got good results before. Quarterly results say this is what we should be doing.” There are pressures for the CEO to be both visionary and, at the same time, to stay with, “We always did this well. Why should we break it?” There are lots of books that say, “If it’s not broken, do not break it.” It’s another thing to be dealing with it in reality.

I want to point out what you said. Sometimes it’s that very success that gets us caught in that orbit of the status quo. It’s that very success because if you change something or you look to innovate, what if it doesn’t work? What if you are not successful anymore? That’s a big pressure in itself.

That is what a lot of companies are facing, whether they are classic innovation companies or they’re innovating just to keep on being responsive in the changing world. My whole background has been about trying to help people stay at pace with what’s going on. The world’s going way far beyond what anybody thought it would. We have to look at how we break the orbit of the status quo. A lot of people know that they should be doing something. It’s not always easy to know that you’re actually in the status quo.

How do we know if we’re stuck in that orbit? Are there questions that we can ask or something like that?

The easiest way to do it is to look at what should be happening and what is happening.

What does that mean? According to whom? According to what? Help others who are reading because it’s vague. What does that mean, should be happening?

Most of us in our hearts of hearts know what should be happening. We should be responsive to emerging markets and our customers and make certain revenue goals and profitability goals. We should have employee retention at a certain rate. We should have a lot of things that are in place. What happens is that we don’t necessarily have that really happening. We may make decisions thinking those decisions are going to enable what should happen. I think of it as the formal culture of a company, the governance. “We’re going to put together a strategy. That strategy’s going to work. That’s what should happen. We have this strategy. It should work. We have values. Those values should be taking effect. That should be what’s happening.”

On a personal level, for your audience who are not leading companies but are leading themselves, we all have personal goals, “This is what should be happening. I should be progressing in my career at a certain rate, making X amount of dollars, and getting other rewards.” There’s always something that we know we should be having happen. You then contrast that with what is happening. What may happen is we say, “That should be happening, but this keeps happening. I’m in this pattern.” If it’s a company, what we may find is that the strategy should work, but we’re missing goals.

It’s recognizing what’s not working, what goals you’re not reaching, or what elements of your strategy are not being fulfilled at the level that you’ve set out. I’m not a fan of the word should. I don’t know if anybody else is because we could talk for an hour about just that. Am I getting that right? We’re not getting the result that we set out to get. When you say pace, I really like that. It’s not growing at the pace that we need to be in the future. It’s not preparing us for where we need to be in 2 years or 5 years so that we’re at pace with the changes in the marketplace.

Those are valid things. Should also go to what we tell ourselves that we want. We should see this because it represents a milestone. For anybody out there who has performance reviews, they’re being evaluated against what should happen, unfortunately. I agree with you. Should is a word that’s complex and complexity is just part of it. Also, look at what is happening.

It is to be clear on where you are. How do you challenge where you are? Sometimes we aren’t being honest with ourselves as to where we really are.

One of the things that we need to do is you can say, “I want to be at this level in my career. We want to be at this level in our company,” and say, “It’s not happening.” You need to start looking at why and what’s not happening. There is a story where it opens with a story of a person who said, “I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know what to do. Everything’s important.” I said to him, “It sounds like you need to do some triage and start looking at what has to be at the top.” It’s hard for people to admit sometimes what they think should be happening. I use the word because I hear it from people.  I’m not saying whether it’s good or bad, but I’m saying that it is a word that people use a lot.

You need to look for evidence. When evidence is not appearing, where do you find evidence that this wonderful goal that you’ve set for yourself is or is not happening? I came up with a resource that you can have for your audience talking about 5 Questions to Ask When You Need to Move Even Faster. That’s the feeling. People need to feel like they have the momentum to be able to move even faster. What I’m getting at is that this orbit of the status quo can be very challenging to get out of unless you start asking questions about where you want to go. Is that really happening? If you want to take it out of should, where do you want to go?

 I’m giving the audience an alternative. Should is fine. Some people might resonate with that. I’m giving also some other language to it so that everybody’s not meaning it as the same thing.

I agree with you 100% that it’s whatever language we use, but it’s that idea that there is an ideal and where you want to go and there’s what’s really happening. It takes courage to confront that and say, “This is not happening.”

 In your questions, do you challenge the goal? Sometimes we say goals aren’t the right goals and there’s a reason why we’re not reaching them. A) Maybe because they’re not the right goals. B) We might not have the right metrics to reach that overarching objective. We might have some things in between that take us in the wrong direction. Talk to that for a second.

One of the big things that is different in this particular resource is the emphasis on our stakeholders, which sounds like corporate jargon. It’s people who have a stake in the outcome and you have personal stakeholders. The more people who have a stake in your success and the outcome who know where you’re trying to go is how you can begin to move forward. The goal, for instance, or the purpose, may be clear in your head, but other people don’t know it. That’s one of the ways that people either can get stuck or can break out.

Looking also at, what are we doing as an organization, for instance, that’s enabling us to take on more? If we need to move in a dramatically different direction because the world is changing, we want to take advantage of an emerging opportunity, which is a lot of the work that I deal with. You’ve got an existing company now. Do you have the bandwidth to be able to do that?

It means being honest and saying, “We can’t do things the way we always were doing it.” That orbit of the status quo, what do we need to do? All these questions, they’re just five. It has to do with looking at the evidence that you actually can or do have enough people who know what you’re looking to do, are supportive of what you’re looking to do, there’s the capability to do what you need to do, and people have the ability to make decisions.

Can we go into 1 or 2 of those questions and then they can download the rest of the resource? Before we do that, what triggered me and brought a smile to my face is I remember when I was working on the executive team at this market research company. I remember hearing people say, “We don’t have a strategy.” I’m like, “What are you talking about? We communicate that strategy all the time. It’s this.”

It’s interesting that there’s a disconnect about what you think you’re communicating because you can communicate it once or 100 times, but if people aren’t receiving it, I don’t know whether they didn’t think that what we said was our strategy was even a strategy. There’s this disconnect. People have different vernaculars. They have a different understanding of what they think a strategy should be or look like and where will come to the should.

We all have different ways of taking in the world. The actual question is everyone in our organization understands our purpose and strategic priorities enough to quickly make appropriate decisions in response to the changing business environment. It is a long way of saying what you just said. Also, do we have a strategy?

Very specifically, you put some things in there that are critical to make that very actionable and clear to determine. When you say to make quality decisions forward, that’s so critical.  You’ve got to have clarity in order to have the confidence and the courage to make those decisions. If you don’t feel that you have that clarity, you’re not going to make those decisions. You’re going to push them off, you’re going to hand them to somebody else, or something like that.

To go with this, there is a story that I was working with a company and there was a tremendous gap between where the CEO wanted to go and the rest of the organization. It was a mid-market-sized company. They were in and around the $100 million marker. They were supposed to go in one direction. They were having a tremendous morale problem and couldn’t figure out why. People weren’t making decisions. The productivity was sliding, and they were starting to miss goals, “What’s going on?” What came out was, at first, they had done a 360, the opinions, and what’s going on with people and CEO couldn’t understand what was coming back. He said, “They’re whining. I don’t understand what’s going on.”

We took another approach to getting information. What we found out was that a lot of things that were going on in the company were positioning them for growth. They were having their best year ever. People saw what was happening, but they did not have reliable communication about what was behind that. People didn’t feel good about making decisions. They did not feel like there was a strategy and that they could do anything. If I were to take this first question for evidence, the CEO would have to say, “There’s no evidence that they can do this because, in this area, they’re not making decisions. They’re taking forever to make the decisions.”

Decisions are what help us to move faster. By making those decisions in a confident way with the amount of information that we need, we can keep ourselves moving forward faster. I love that. For those of you who are reading, go click on that link and make sure that you get those 5 Questions because we can already hear from the first one that there’s a lot of value in those. I don’t want to go through them all because I want to give people that extra resource to get them through your resource. Plus, we’re coming a little bit to the end of the time and I want to talk about some other things as well. One of the things I want to ask, and I ask every guest this, is just because I get so many different answers and it’s interesting. What’s your definition of productivity and why?

That goes back again to what I was saying earlier. For me, it is what should be happening and what is happening. When you have that alignment between the two, then you have the ability to achieve goals and move forward for whatever it is you’re trying to do.

We talked a little bit about complexity, so I thought we’d take a couple of minutes to talk about complexity. We live in a complex world. Our businesses are complex. The bigger they are, the more complex the projects are, the more complex the organizational charts and activities are, and so forth. How do you help people to approach the complexity that there is within the organization’s leaders?

I look at things in terms of complexity as something not to be feared but in fact to be welcomed because it’s within the complexity that you see the paradoxes where there may be people seeing problems, but there are opportunities. When you’re trying to grow into an area that you’ve never been in before, there are particular leadership paradoxes that I found. We won’t have time for that now. The point is to help people learn and understand what those paradoxes are because they’re very predictable.

Complexity is something not to be feared. It should be welcomed because it's within the complexity that you see the paradoxes where there may be people who may be seeing problems, but there are opportunities. Share on X

Give it at a high level without digging into it.

I call them The Growth Igniters Paradoxes. The Growth Igniters Paradoxes are three particular paradoxes that show up in the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity. They have to do with moving in a new direction, pulling on the orbit of that status quo, and also dealing with the trust and developing the trust that it takes to foster relationships that give you the momentum to keep on going. They apply personally and to businesses.

TBT Pam Harper | Complexity

Complexity: Growth igniters paradoxes are three particular paradoxes that show up in the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity.


We’d just drop it in there a little bit and we can always come back and do another show just on those paradoxes. Paradoxes are very interesting for us to understand. I define a paradox as that they can both exist at the same time.

They’re contradictions.

They’re real. They’re contradictions, but we live in a world of contradictions. That’s how you see the complexity. How do you have somebody like a leader to be able to see those opportunities or have the leader influence their people so that the people see that complexity as an opportunity versus a problem?

I talk about it in my keynote for starters. Also, because we have identified those, we do work with the leadership teams especially to help them understand how that could be impacting their own particular goals and vision.

Is there a little tip or a nugget that you can share with us here?

The first is that when you are aware that there are contradictions or rather paradoxes, that’s the first step. When you know what to look for, it is predictable and you can move past it.

When you are aware that there are contradictions or rather paradoxes, that's the first step. When you know what to look for, it is predictable and you can move past it. Share on X

I love it. Thank you so much. We could go on and on, but I know that people have the attention span of a net. You’ve dropped a lot of golden nuggets here. Let’s let people cross that step back and take some notes and think about what they can take away and how they could apply it to their business.

TBT Pam Harper | Complexity

Preventing Strategic Gridlock: Leading Over, Under & Around Organizational Jams to Achieve High-Performance Results

They could also listen to Growth Igniters Radio.

I was going to ask you where they can reach you. If you want to share your website or anything, let us know where they should go.

First of all, for the keynote I mentioned, Pam Harper Speaks. You can get a little background on this whole idea of the paradoxes and orbit of the status quo. Growth Igniters Radio is a weekly podcast that we do. We hope you’re going to be a guest on Growth Igniters Radio as well. We have a lot to talk about, but we also talk about some of these issues of the paradoxes there. My book is Preventing Strategic Gridlock. You can find it on Amazon. is the website for other materials and the 5 Questions to Ask.

Pam, thank you so much for being here.

Penny, it’s been a real pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Thank you all for being here and taking in some of the nuggets. We talked about some really important aspects that a leader needs to be aware of. What Pam said is so critical is about awareness in knowing where you are and where you should be or where you want to be. It is that awareness. Understanding what’s in the gap is going to help you to be specific in closing the gap. We talked about understanding the complexity and the paradoxes that are present within our businesses, our relationships, and everything else.

What you guys get to take away, to think, and to bring is, if nothing more, that heightened awareness of some of these important parts of the business is also in your communication for the strategy we talked about. If you did one thing in each of those areas or took one of those and worked on that, you’d see an amazing change in your leadership and your business. These were golden nuggets. We’ll see you in the next episode. Thanks, everyone.


Important Links


About Pam Harper

TBT Pam Harper | ComplexityPam Harper is an internationally known keynote and TEDx speaker and Founding Partner & CEO of Business Advancement Inc., a strategic growth advisory firm based in the New York City metro area. She is a trusted resource for CEOs, boards, and C-suite executives in entrepreneurial, mid-market, and Fortune 500 companies across more than 30 industries.

Because of her track record of helping clients find the hidden opportunities in their situations and turning them into game-changing business growth, Pam’s insights have been featured in numerous global media including Business Week, Investor’s Business Daily, and Entrepreneur. You may have seen her articles if you read Chief Executive Magazine, Pharmaceutical Executive, Life Science Leader, or FEI Daily. among others.

She also hosts the widely praised podcast series Growth Igniters® Radio, launched in 2015. It has been featured in Marketplace, Seeking Alpha, MarketWatch, and other media, and was named a Top Business Podcast in the 2022 PopCon Podcast Awards and as a Top 100 podcast by Thinkers360 Thought Leaders. Her critically acclaimed book, Preventing Strategic Gridlock®, is read in business schools around the world.


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