Paul Thallner of High Peaks Group: “Know How You Get Stuck”

Know How You Get Stuck. Your company’s collective brain reacts to inputs the same way your individual one does. Being exposed to continuous stress creates fear — a highly contagious emotion in companies. Building resilience skills enables your teams to recover from and grow through stresses. At Jay Peak, for example, there was no shortage of fear […]

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Know How You Get Stuck. Your company’s collective brain reacts to inputs the same way your individual one does. Being exposed to continuous stress creates fear — a highly contagious emotion in companies. Building resilience skills enables your teams to recover from and grow through stresses. At Jay Peak, for example, there was no shortage of fear when the SEC came in to shut down operations. But, a longstanding culture where employees had deep multi-generational ties to the resort counterbalanced the shock brought about by the closure.

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Thallner.

Paul Thallner is an organizational development, team effectiveness, and resilience expert. He founded advisory firm High Peaks Group to eradicate the chronic workplace stress epidemic. High Peaks Group now creates workplace greatness in business, non-profit, and government clients across the United States. Paul has served in a number of senior-level roles including as a partner at Great Place to Work, where he advised organizations including the NBA and Carhartt. Paul co-developed a novel resilience model first tested with 200 mountain resort leaders in North America. The positive reception has led to further research and a forthcoming book that asserts we have been thinking of resilience backwards, and it’s time to reinvent resilience so we can grow through challenges.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?

Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here. I grew up in a single parent household where my mom held three jobs and raised four kids by herself. Seeing her persevere through the numerous and continuous challenges she faced every day deeply impacted me. I carried her tenacity into my career where I would seek unconventional, challenging jobs that many avoided or thought were foolish…like education reform or being an intermediary between techies and end users. I ultimately landed positions of authority like Executive Director (at a nonprofit) and Partner (at a consulting firm) where I could create deeper, longer lasting impact at scale. The impact I try to make every day is creating more workplace greatness. I don’t want people going to work feeling like my mom did: stressed, singled-out, never good enough, etc. That’s my mission, and I’m always seeking ways to help people thrive at work, and doing that at speed and scale will help the most people over the shortest period of time.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I was working at a tech startup during the initial boom in the 90s, and the company went from a few hundred employees to a few thousand in a year or two. I had a client facing role, I traveled a lot, my team was awesome, and I was very happy. However, I would hear stories that others in the company were miserable. They didn’t feel seen, heard, or appreciated. Folks were sleeping under their desks to avoid “wasting time commuting” when deadlines loomed. I took away some important learnings about “culture” that stick with me today. It’s really important to challenge our narratives. I believed the entire company was awesome because I was having an awesome experience. However, seen from another vantage point, the company wasn’t that amazing after all. We have to examine what we believe and why pretty regularly if we want to grow through challenges.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

High Peaks Group is unique in the marketplace for two reasons: 1) we don’t seek problems to solve. We believe organizations are full of inert potential, and our job is to identify and activate potential to accelerate business results. Creating workplace greatness is our shorthand for doing that; and, 2) we’re really clear about the people and organizations we work with. We close a skill gap many organizations have — they want a great workplace where employees thrive, but they don’t know how to make that happen. Or they’re frustrated by how long it’s taking. We fully invest our time and attention in our clients, tap into the collective wisdom of the whole organization, and move them forward fast.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

First of all, there are lots and lots of people that helped me along the way. I’m nothing without them. Relevant to resilience, however, I am thinking of Scott Hill one of my first bosses. While we were working together on education policy for the state of California ages ago, he introduced me to the Federalist Papers, and №10 in particular. In that work, James Madison posits that one cannot control “factions,” but we can control their effects. This lesson has helped me many times throughout my career, and is at the root of my pragmatic belief system about how/why organizational cultures can change. That is, organizations can fall victim to internal (and external) “factions,” but the role of leadership is to build sufficient organizational resilience to stay clear-headed when they flare up.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

I’m writing a book on resilience because I believe we are thinking about it backwards. Resilience is based on a “bend, don’t break” mindset. Like a palm tree in a hurricane, you just hold on until the wind subsides. When it passes, the sun will come out, and you can go back to being a palm tree. However, that’s not how life works, and our deficit-based, one-dimensional view of resilience doesn’t serve our complex, ever-changing, multi-dimensional lives. I’ve developed a new framework for resilience centered on building the confidence and courage to grow through difficult challenges — not just bounce back. Rather than closing a deficit gap, our model helps close the abundance gap. Moreover, the framework scales beyond the individual to teams, organizations, communities, and beyond.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

Steve Wright, General Manager of Jay Peak Resort, a ski area in northern Vermont. I interviewed him for my book and learned about the incredible growth he, his team, and his company experienced after the resort was raided by the SEC. The full story is here, but in a nutshell, Steve — who was Chief Marketing Officer — woke up one day thinking about his daughter’s track meet and by the end of the day was in charge of the entire resort. He had to get his bearings in a suddenly volatile situation, quickly prioritize a huge volume of challenges, and continue to move forward. His inspiring story helped me realize how resilience scales.

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

Of course, I started my own company. I won’t mention names, but when I started High Peaks Group it seemed to activate something in a lot of conversations I was having at the time. For instance, I did what a lot of people do when starting a new venture, I started sharing the news with people. So many people started projecting their fear about that situation onto me. I had hoped to start my company with a co-founder, but despite wanting to join me, she ultimately decided to stay with her salaried job. Had I waited for her to be comfortable, I never would have gotten started. So many people just need a small dose of courage, and I know it’s in them, to take a step they want to take. But, at the end of the day, you’re alone with your choices. I don’t recommend hitching your dreams to someone else unless they’re as committed as you are to achieving them.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

I have an aversion to the word “setback.” At is core is a deficit-based assumption that you start at point (a), experience a setback (x) and end up at point (a-x), and your job then becomes closing the gap to “get back to normal.” In my model, I offer an alternative to that way of thinking. We’re always moving forward, but sometimes the headwinds are stronger than other times. So, when a gust comes, our job is to use whatever resources we have to become more aerodynamic. For me, during the pandemic the winds were howling. Lost clients, lost revenue, a business model that wouldn’t work in a virtual environment, my mom’s declining health, and (woosh) my sister was diagnosed with a serious health condition. How would “bouncing back” work in that case? What would I bounce back to? There were no landing spots, so I decided to re-think and ultimately reinvent resilience in a way that worked for me. With the help of grad school classmate Tanya James, we created a new framework that takes a strength-based approach to resilience. (described in more depth here).

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

Yes, I grew up in central Pennsylvania. When I was in sixth-grade, a huge pin came along and jabbed my childhood bubble. Three Mile Island. If you don’t remember, it was the worst nuclear power plant accident (until Chernobyl) and it created havoc in our lives. In pre-internet days, we got all our news from broadcast TV, and based on what we heard, we decided to pack our things and leave. I had no idea if we would ever come back. I imagined Harrisburg becoming a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape unsuitable for human habitation. It was jarring to say the least. We didn’t feel prepared to exit our house for God knows how long…we just did it. And that’s the thing with resilience; you can’t really build it at the moment you need it. I believe we already have a lot of what we need right now to grow through tough times. It’s a matter of managing your response to a situation, accepting the situation for what it really is, using the resources you’ve got at your disposal, and — as we say in the book — dwelling in possibility.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

My five steps apply not only to individuals, but to teams, organizations, and even communities. Here we go:

  1. Reframe. Using terms like “setbacks” primes the mind for trauma. Language matters, so we prefer “headwinds.” Instead of using the “knocked down/get up” metaphor so common with resilience, think of yourself as always moving forward — like you’re riding a bike. You will always encounter headwind…that’s just life. But when it gets really windy, tuck into a more aerodynamic position. I’ve seen this in a number of successful companies, but I’ve been most impressed with how communities like Durango, Colorado move ever forward in a context of losing a disproportionate number of young people to fatal backcountry/outdoor accidents.
  2. Know How You Get Stuck. Your company’s collective brain reacts to inputs the same way your individual one does. Being exposed to continuous stress creates fear — a highly contagious emotion in companies. Building resilience skills enables your teams to recover from and grow through stresses. At Jay Peak, for example, there was no shortage of fear when the SEC came in to shut down operations. But, a longstanding culture where employees had deep multi-generational ties to the resort counterbalanced the shock brought about by the closure.
  3. Slow Down to Speed Up. You can gain more control of your collective response to threats. Practicing our “See it, Slow it, Own it” technique will strengthen your ability to put challenges in proper perspective and think more clearly. A client of mine — a publisher — had a deadline driven mindset and employees were seen in a rather binary way: they perform or they don’t. After using our resilience model, she emphasized individual and collective self-care. The company has innovated in new ways and has further raised its profile as a source of industry knowledge and healing.
  4. Accept Reality to Imagine Possibility. How we think about things impacts our ability to move forward and grow. Try creating several stories about your current situation. Then, filter out the fiction. If you’re not sure what’s fiction, look for concrete evidence. A client in New York was experiencing conflicting narratives about how it was seen to clients and stakeholders. Internally, employees would selectively use those narratives to manipulate leadership. When the whole system came together to write their own shared narrative, they began to take control of the possibilities (instead of having others dictate possibilities for them).
  5. Start by Starting. It’d be nice if resilience was a linear process, but it’s not. We have to work all areas of the resilience model (Situation, Triggers, Resources, Possibilities) at the same time. Start at a point where you’ve got some energy/optimism and move forward from there. The best way to build resilience is simply to start. A management company in Chicago was stuck. They were experiencing headwinds brought on by the pandemic, and the management team was falling apart. They didn’t know what to do. Many companies spend a lot of time deciding how, when, and where to start. But, they just started. The first few steps were awkward and uncomfortable, but they ultimately decided on a direction that included regular facilitated dialog sessions (and other strategies) to practice effective teamworking.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

There are a lot of movements and organizations out there getting things right: The Teal Team, Take Back Work, XCHANGE, and some practical solutions from books like Lead Together. Even concepts of masculinity at work are being challenged. There’s definitely a hunger to change our paradigms about work, and if we’re not careful, we’ll end up creating more stress to an already stressed workforce. So, I’d like to see these and other forward-thinking folks come together to rethink and reinvent resilience with me so that we can truly achieve workplace greatness at speed and scale.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

Zuzana Čaputová — President of Slovakia. Slovakia’s story of how it’s grown through challenges is remarkable, and I’d love to hear her tell it.

Hamdi Ulukaya — CEO of Chobani. I’ve read about him, and I’d love to hear how he thinks about resilience.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Me — LinkedIn:

My Company — LinkedIn:

Instagram: @highpeaksgroup

Facebook: @highpeaksgroup

Twitter: @highpeaksgroup

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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