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Episode 221: Helping Organizations with People and Culture Strategies—with Maheen Shafiabady

Deb Zahn: Hi. I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. So on this episode, we're going to talk about people and culture, and in particular how you can get your clients to align their people and culture with the results that you're trying to get them to achieve. So I brought on someone who does this kind of work all the time, Maheen Shafiabady, and she is going to walk us through some of her key strategies for helping her clients with exactly that. So let's get started.

I want to welcome to my show today, Maheen Shafiabady. Welcome to the show.

Maheen Shafiabady: Thank you Deborah. So glad to be here.

Deb Zahn: So let's start off. Tell my listeners what you do.

Maheen Shafiabady: Oh, I love this. How do we say it so quickly? I will start with this. I am coaching mission-based organizations with teams and leaders who aren't delivering on their goals yet to develop individual leadership skills and build structure in ever-evolving environment to boost connection, to purpose, and sustainable success. I am an independent consultant and recently launched and for the last 15 years I've been an internal consultant coming from the frame of organization development. Namely, I've been a people manager across a multitude of sectors, both here in the US and abroad, always seeking to do exactly what I just mentioned a moment ago. Develop individual leadership skills and build structure to support, drive toward connection to purpose, and sustainability.

Deb Zahn: Oh, I just love that. And I will tell you, having worked with many, many, many, many organizations over my last almost 13 years of consulting, I know how valuable what you do is because it's often that stuff that gets in the way of actually achieving results. It's not, did you have a great work plan? It's not, did you have enough meetings? It's that stuff. So that's why I was so excited to have you on because everything that you do is relevant to any type of consultant and any type of organization or company. So I appreciate you coming on and sharing some of that wisdom with us. So let's dive in. And I know that you do talk about a people-first culture. For anybody who doesn't know what that is, what is that and how would we know it if we saw it?

Maheen Shafiabady: I love this. This is my jam. So let's start here. Organizations are actually made of humans.

Deb Zahn: Go figure.

Maheen Shafiabady: Full stop. Yeah. So we forget that frequently, and as my mentor says, "Gosh, we just weren't built as humans to work in the way that organizations were set up once upon a time." So we as humans really thrive when we have co-created and aligned on some elemental guidance and agreements and all of that will support organizations actually progressing toward and achieving their goals.

And to your point about how would we know it when we see it? Oh, it looks like... From an umbrella view, it looks like structures and processes as important components to help us build together, create together, shift together, and uphold the group as it is, whether it's a team, a pair, an organization. And on the micro level, that can look like checking in with someone before we check on the work. It can look like sharing part of ourselves outside of our work to whatever degree feels comfortable. Some of us will share everything like the argument we had with our sister over the weekend, and some of us want to just maybe talk more about the hobby that brings us joy. So it can look very much about sharing pieces of ourselves. And I'll just add this side comment here that I love Edgar Schein's work. He passed away this year in 2023. He is what I would call one of the godfathers of organizational culture work and speaks deeply about the varying levels as we can think about creating people-first organizations. I highly recommend looking into that.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. I love that. And so I've seen gaps and, certainly when I was employed, and low morale was what usually got so bad that they had to do something. And then what they did is they made us go to cocktail hour, which was awkward, and we didn't really want to do it. Assuming that organizations understand that a people-first culture is important to have or to move towards, what are some of the gaps that you're seeing in organizations that they would have to address in order to get there?

Maheen Shafiabady: Yeah, the pain points. I was just having a beautiful conversation this morning with a colleague on what do we need as a new team to lighten the lift on how we work together so that we can actually do the work. So it's how we work together. Again, looking from a macro level that most teams and organizations do not spend enough time on. And when I say how we work together, I'm referring to what's the best channel to contact each other for something that's trivial, something that has urgency, something that is just, I wanted to connect, I wanted to share a picture of my dog because I know you love dogs. Do we have a communications playbook that we've designed, and all agreed that we'll use so that I can feel comfortable texting Deb a picture of my dog or my cat in this case?

Deb Zahn: Thank you. Thank you. You've obviously listened to the podcast.

Maheen Shafiabady: I'm also a cat owner, so I don't know why I leaned into dogs, but-

Deb Zahn: That's OK. That's all right. I love dogs too.

Maheen Shafiabady: So the idea is that I can feel comfortable reaching out to you in a way that feels like there's an agreement. We both agreed that this is OK for this, and we'll use the Slack channel or a text message for an emergency, meaning something is due and it's going awry and we need to touch base.

Deb Zahn: I love that. And I'm thinking years and years ago when I worked at a large organization, they brought in folks to do similar work, but it was, I mean, ages ago because I'm old. So it was a really long time ago and they taught us a phrase, which just makes me giggle to this day. And my husband was there too, so it makes us both giggle. Is where you were supposed to check something, check an assumption that you had with another person, but how you were supposed to say it is, "I want to check out a fantasy with you."

Maheen Shafiabady: Oh.

Deb Zahn: I can't stop laughing. So obviously there's good and bad versions and that not being one that should be repeated in a work setting absent a conversation with HR afterwards. But when you see some of those gaps, particularly an organization that really wants to be a people-first culture, and they have a true desire to get there, where do you often start with them? What's often a first step when they have no idea how to get there and what to do first? What do you tend to do with them?

Maheen Shafiabady: So if we're talking about the client entry point to, “Oh my gosh, how do we start building a structure that revolves around people first?” I would start with discovery, and then my contract would be discovery. So what is the client's stated problem? Or if they're not saying there's a problem, what's the story that's currently happening? What is it that's making them ask me, "How do I get to a people-first culture?" There must be a concern there. So what is it? And within that, I would say three components.

So one is I would schedule listening sessions with subject matter experts or individual contributors, whichever title we want to use there, and really hear from the people of the organization around the story that's being told to me. So asking some very explicit questions. Now I'm using the term listening sessions on purpose here instead of focus groups. Most of us have heard of these as focus groups and they're still focus groups, but that has such a marketing feel to it. And I would say in the first chapter of my career, I was in the marketing world. And so it doesn't quite sit the same with me. In a listening session, I'm literally listening for what's happening, what's going on that requires more thought. So that's number one.

Number two is interview. Interview folks who are in formal positions of power to hear how they're thinking about the people in the organization, how they're talking about it, and what structures might be in place to support what we know we want to move toward, which is the people first.

And the third and most important here is we have to dig. As a consultant, we really need to understand why having this problem solved or why building a people-first organization is important to the client. And in that we lean into appreciative inquiry. So dream together, really focus on the designed future state in all the questions. And once we have a dream state, a fantasy, if you will.

Deb Zahn: But in a good way.

Maheen Shafiabady: But in a good, appropriate way, then I would really lean into guiding the conversation to replace any vague words in our dream with more clarity. So for example, better performance really could become a real metric. So thinking along the lines of key performance indicators, KPIs within that dream state to the best of our ability. That's where I would start.

Deb Zahn: I love that because if... I've heard the dream state be we want to be the premier organization, blah, blah, blah, but that doesn't have enough nuance to really say, "OK, now let's create a map that gets us there." And so I love the digging part, and that's relevant to any type of consultant because what you hear first isn't necessarily enough for you to build a map on how to get there.

Maheen Shafiabady: That's right. And I will lean here on one of my most favorite quotes, which is, "All great changes begin in conversation." And that's by Juanita Brown, who is one of the co-creators of The World Cafe. Truly, it's a dialogue with us consultants. We don't have all of the answers. We certainly have frameworks and tools and guidance and experience to offer, but it's a dialogue. The client knows best how things have been until this moment in time. And it's up to us to guide that dialogue.

Deb Zahn: Love it, love it, love it, love it. Now we're going to hit upon another thing that I know makes your heart sing, which is related, which is also converting strategy into reality. Because often when you show up into organizations, and I've seen it certainly, there are all kinds of ideas and maybe there are even some very specific laid out strategies, but it's a different thing entirely to make it come to full fruition. And actually, I was reading a study recently. So I do strategic planning, and at this point, and this is far better than it used to be, 48% of strategic plans get implemented and I think it's 85% don't get fully implemented. And so there were strategies, and so actually making it happen is so important. So what are some of the key elements that you have to help organizations with to enable them to actually make that leap from strategy to making it real?

Maheen Shafiabady: Yeah, I absolutely have answers to that. And what I would like to do is just take a step back for a moment and define what I mean by structure. So when we're talking about moving the strategy into structure, what is it in Maheen's mind? So when we provide what people need, connection, purpose, et cetera, we create the conditions for sustainable collaboration and delivery, and that also provides mental health and wellbeing.

Deb Zahn: Nice.

Maheen Shafiabady: And I'm focusing on that specifically here because if you haven't heard already, the Surgeon General of the United States has a framework for mental health and wellbeing that focuses on five different components. And one of them is actually that we need to know we matter. And so that's woven throughout my approach. And there are two pieces here that I want to also take from that framework and we'll weave it into the conversation going forward.

There are four key components, and there are two I'll focus on. One is that we need to connect individual work with the organizational mission because sharing purpose creates this collective sense of working toward the common goal. And the second piece is that we need to engage workers in decision making. And I know that can be scary for folks who are in positions of power. There are ways to do it to be transparent about how individual contributors can engage and also where the line is drawn, what the boundaries are. So being really transparent. And this is where I will lean into Socratic principles about transparency around decision making, knowing that your voice matters and who will be making the final decision based on what you've brought to the table. So creating what we'll call the kitchen table where everybody gathers around and gets to voice what they're thinking. And there are so many tools out there to help us do that, and we can dig into those if it's interesting here.

Deb Zahn: Love it, love it, love it. Actually you made me think I have to change something I'm doing on a project. So well done. Well done you. That was really helpful. But yeah, let's dig into that a little bit because the T word, transparency gets thrown around a lot within organizations, and they often have... We as consultants help them figure out how to actually do it. What are some of the ways to make it real and not just a check the box transparency?

Maheen Shafiabady: OK, what is transparency? What does it mean? So if we're just focusing on decision making. One of my favorite tools is Fist to Five. Are you familiar with that one, Deb?

Deb Zahn: I've heard of it. Say more about that because I don't know it well enough to say anything about it.

Maheen Shafiabady: Sure. So it is a decision-making tool that allows everyone to have a voice in the conversation. And with Fist to Five, we literally mean when we're in a group, we ask a question, and we ask everyone to weigh in with their hand. So a five means love it, I'm going to champion it, I'm in. A four, I'm fine with it as it is. A three is, there's some minor issues that we could resolve later, don't need to resolve them now. So we could still move forward. A two is, there are minor issues, but we need to resolve those right now before I feel comfortable moving forward. A one is, oh, major issues here. We need to talk about it. And this is a fist, I'm blocking this. There's just no way I see this going forward.

Deb Zahn: Wow.

Maheen Shafiabady: Now this can sound scary, but when we're all understanding what this is and that it's not just a one round and done, it's actually multiple rounds, we can help to enhance the idea that's on the table and make sure that everyone gets a chance to voice. For example, I saw minor issues, or I saw major issues. "Tell us, what did we miss?" Oh, that's inviting dissent. And that is something that we often miss in organizations. Earlier we were talking about the gaps. We need to invite the voices in because it will help enhance the concept that we're trying to build and provide to the world. So this allows us to be transparent in our decision making and also gather ideas in a very productive manner.

Deb Zahn: I love that. And I would say if you don't invite dissent, you invite risk. It's one or the other.

Maheen Shafiabady: Absolutely. Oh, that's so powerful. Yeah.

Deb Zahn: Wow. OK.

Maheen Shafiabady: So in that sense, it invites you to put it on the table before it becomes an issue. Yeah, I love it.

Deb Zahn: Oh, that's just great. All right. I may be stealing that from you. That's awesome. So what are some other structure things that are absolutely critical for converting strategy into reality?

Maheen Shafiabady: So my approach always is focusing on that it involves the many. When we're thinking about strategy, one person doesn't push the rock up the hill. It involves all of us. Knowing that it involves all of us and many of us think very differently. We need to ensure as much clarity as possible, and that word, again, transparency. And in this case, I'm thinking about how do I check for alignment and recalibrate as frequently as needed as I'm implementing or inviting folks to think about implementing? What is included in this? Also, just as important, what's not included.

Deb Zahn: Thank you.

Maheen Shafiabady: When we're saying yes to something, we're also saying no to something else. And that's very crucial to help us focus our energy.

Deb Zahn: I love that. I've worked with many an organization that has a hard time saying no to anything. Now they say no, they just don't know they say no. They say no to performance. They say no to a whole bunch of other things because they're doing so many new shiny projects. So I've with the help of others, created a decision-making tool that allows them to pick the criteria by which they want to make a decision and pick those before they have to make a decision, what matters most to you. And then they can actually score it and have... It's basically red light, yellow light, green light, and it tallies it at the end. And it's organizational fit, financial sustainability, and there's culture that's built in there as well. And it lets them collectively decide what matters to us such that we would want to say yes or no to something.

Maheen Shafiabady: Oh, that's beautiful. You have that tool.

Deb Zahn: It's powerful, powerful, but the tool facilitates the conversation. The conversation is where the magic happens.

Maheen Shafiabady: Yes. A thousand percent yes. And that takes me to one of my favorite frameworks that I build into everything I do, and that is the 10-minute debrief. This comes from Scott Tannenbaum's work on the 10-minute debrief, which means we build into our meetings five to 10 minutes to revisit what just happened in this meeting. How was the meeting run? Did we have everything we needed? What have made this just a little bit better together? And really nudging for teamwork versus task work. Were we prepared? Did we feel we had enough to prepare ourselves, et cetera, and so on. And that's creating that iterative dialogue to help us nudge forward because as we know, we can't fix everything in a moment, but this 10-minute debrief or even a five-minute debrief will help you to fix just one thing every time we gather. And it makes the work more fun, more interesting and easier for all of us to move forward.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Well, and gives people the belief that things can change. You've now given them an example that change happens and you don't have to wait forever.

Maheen Shafiabady: Yeah, absolutely.

Deb Zahn: Love it, love it, love it. So I do want to dig in a little bit because I know you also do work around cross-functional collaboration, which again, we're sort of building on what we've talked about before. And in this increasingly complex world that organizations have to operate in, cross-functional work is becoming, I think, increasingly important and yet a really hard thing to do. Because it's easier to stay in your department, stay in your lane, and basically say, "This is what I can control." And anything else gets messy, but it gets in the way of results. So what do you think the keys are to helping cross-functional teams work together effectively so that they're actually structured and function in a way that feels good, but also gets the results?

Maheen Shafiabady: So when we're thinking about cross-functional collaboration, what we're often missing is what's the experience from the other team's side of things? We don't have empathy because we don't understand what they need from us, or I haven't taken an opportunity or even had an opportunity to provide what it feels like on my side. And here's where I'm going to lean into story time.

Deb Zahn: Love it.

Maheen Shafiabady: When I was an internal consultant many years ago, I was working with a team that was not quite hitting their targets yet. They were doing good work, they could do so much better. And that team was a part of a large nonprofit that was very siloed, and that team that I was a part of was actually the entry point into the organization, meaning that they then had to move any clients into-

Deb Zahn: Oh.

Maheen Shafiabady: ... another team from there. So you can imagine the importance of cross-functional collaboration. So in this case, it was starting from what does it look like on your side? What happens when we transfer a call? Or when somebody calls us and requests a specific person, what happens? So building capacity for dialogue again internally is really the best place to start. And then opening up that 10-minute debrief perhaps of like what might make this just a little bit better? So starting with building conversational capacity around what's working well, what might be missing and how might we shift this just a little bit together as a team. So really creating a feeling of being a team when you've just been siloed completely up until that time.

Deb Zahn: Love it. And how have you helped organizations normalize cross-functional teams? Because again, I've seen versions where it's like, well, this would really help if you had a cross-functional team, but it can be really hard for a place that is used to silos and in fact places that have had a great deal of success, even though they were siloed. So how do you help particular leaders understand the utility of operating in a different way?

Maheen Shafiabady: Oh, specifically helping leaders, and I'm going to define leaders. In this case, I think we're talking about folks who are in positions of formal authority. Is that right?

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Maheen Shafiabady: So helping them to understand the importance of cross-functional collaboration would be asking them what's the goal of the current work. And when we understand if it's, in this case, leading back on the story I was just telling to better serve the community, each individual community member that comes to the organization. OK, how are we doing with that? How are those handoffs within the organization's programs? How might we make that better? Oh, you don't have insight into this other program directors, processes and even regulations, the constraints. How might we enhance our understanding there? So again, it's dialogue. It's coming from a coaching aspect of asking questions and perhaps planting seeds.

I'll lean into another project I did, which was building the first orientation and onboarding program that an organization had for another siloed organization. And this was meeting individually with each person with curiosity and asking, "What might this team that I'm running need to know in order to get folks to you? And what are the problems that you've had so far and how might we work together?" So not allowing problems to be dumped on one person, but rather making it a collaborative conversation. So I would say the foundation is curiosity and also boundaries around holding all of it. Oh, that's big and that's tough, but holding boundaries around what I can own and what I need us to share.

Deb Zahn: I love that. And the curiosity, if there was ever something all consultants should carry with them, it would be curiosity because we all don't know the answers. And even if we have a lot of experience, you're still dealing with human beings, and you never know what that particular mix and that particular dynamic is. That's why I love that you have to ask questions in order to get to something that's actually going to work. That's gorgeous. Love it, love it, love it, love it.

Let me ask you this. So if you were standing in front of a consultant who had just gotten a new client, and once they were in there, they started to see some of the issues that they couldn't have necessarily known ahead of time, but they could potentially get in the way of actually accomplishing what they were hired to do. So they should be wise enough to know when to throw up the bat signal and bring in someone who does what you do. But there are even things that they might be able to do to help support some of the people first strategy into structure type of work. What would you encourage them to do in order to not panic and not say, "Oh my gosh, it's going to blow the project, blow the budget." What would you encourage them to do?

Maheen Shafiabady: So the client has come in with something else that maybe is out of scope, and-

Deb Zahn: It's actually more they start to see some of the dysfunction within the organization. So they see the silos, or they see that teams aren't collaborating or things that can make or break, whether or not they can get the result, but it's more of a function of how that organization has come to operate on a daily basis and what their culture is.

Maheen Shafiabady: Yeah. OK.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Scope creep, I guess, on that one. I love that.

Maheen Shafiabady: I know you do. Yeah. Oh, and it happens all the time. OK. I love this question. So I am framing this in my mind as this is all part of the discovery process generally and more emerges later. Ideally, we're starting with our client in a contract of a discovery process, and it covers those three components that I talked about earlier with interviews, listening sessions, and really digging in to understand and dream about the desired future state. So if we're thinking about my approach here, then in the discovery process, we do those three things. And then it comes to fruition in a meeting with the key stakeholders here. And what I mean by key stakeholders is whoever called me in to do the work and whomever else might have a voice in moving this forward. And I'm not talking about everyone but being strategic about who will be touched by this work, and do they have decision-making power in this case.

And at that meeting, I'm showing them observations, data points that came up, themes that arose throughout those interviews and those listening sessions. And as I'm showing this to them, this is a dialogue. So I'm asking, "Have you seen anything like this? And if not, why do you think you haven't seen anything like this? What might be causing that?" So this is an iterative process together where we might uncover a little bit more. And as my mentor would say, this might be where we have to put the mirror up a little bit and really use some direct language around what really might be missing. And at the end of it, I would invite them into a brainstorm of recommendations with the caveat that I have a few I'd like to share as well, but I'd love to hear from them first. What do they think could work going forward? And we might make decisions there, or we might simply put them all on the table.

And the final thing that we do here is I want to know, given what we have on the table here, do you key stakeholders have the bandwidth and the expertise in your group already to move these forward without me? If yes, amazing, we close our contract here, I'm always available, but you can carry this forward. And if not, then let's talk about what that next step could look like and we'll work into another contract.

Deb Zahn: Nice, nice, nice. And I also like the idea of, I think a lot of times consultants will do contracts and they're like, "I'm just going to come in and do my thing. And my thing is this, and I'm going to come in and do it." And they aren't necessarily looking for the people part that would tell them, "Do you need to include in the contract or do an initial contract, that is that discovery process to find out whether or not your thing is going to work in this particular circumstance, or if there are other things that you have to do to actually make it work?" And so they kind of skip that, and then they get in, they're like, "Whoa, whoa, wait a minute." And so I like that. I love that idea of thinking of those three things as possibilities to start a project or to do an initial project that tells you whether or not your thing is even the right thing, or is it some other thing? Is it their thing? And maybe it's your thing together.

So that's beautiful because I think one of the reasons, and you mentioned scope creep happens, is because they're surprised when they go in that there's stuff floating around that they hadn't anticipated. And a lot of times, that's the people stuff.

Maheen Shafiabady: Oh, it's always the people stuff.

Deb Zahn: Always the people. Bless their hearts, but it's always the people.

Maheen Shafiabady: Yeah. I think that's a great point, Deb, in that going in with the mindset of something is actually set and boxed. If whatever you can to do, fellow consultants to toss that out the window, I highly recommend. And instead try to instill the sense and the mindset of what will emerge here, what else will emerge as we navigate together?

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And it doesn't matter what it is. You might think you're coming in and doing a technology project. Well, guess who uses technology? People. And if you think they're not going to say something in healthcare, you think a doc's not going to say something or a nurse manager who doesn't like what you're doing, you will be in for a very, very, very rude surprise. So love it. So where can folks find you if they want to find out more about what you do?

Maheen Shafiabady: So you can find me at my website, it's And I appreciate you putting that in the show notes after.

Deb Zahn: You bet.

Maheen Shafiabady: That's the best place. You can also find me on LinkedIn under CMShaf.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. Wonderful. And so let me ask you my last question, which is, when you're not out there doing all this wonderful stuff for organizations, how do you bring balance to your own life, however it is you think about that?

Maheen Shafiabady: My most favorite topic to talk about.

Deb Zahn: Yay.

Maheen Shafiabady: I do several things. So nature is so incredibly grounding for me, and I am so fortunate to live in the South Bay of the San Francisco Bay region where I'm surrounded by mountains. So I solo hike, and I hike with my partner, and I hike with friends as frequently as I can. And that brings such a sense of peace as well as mindfulness and even that stuff that happens in our brain when we think we've turned it off, but it's actually reflecting and thinking through and considering what's next. Well, that's one thing I do.

Another is in my day-to-day work, I need to make sure I take breaks so I time block my breaks, and I'll shift them as needed if meetings need to happen at a specific time. But I mostly follow the idea of radical self-care, meaning our society teaches us that we should put everyone else first, but if my cup isn't full, I'm actually not able to serve those around me. So I do my best to honor that time block for myself and my cat, who also likes to join me on the patio at that time. And otherwise, I'll take even just five-to-six-minute breathing or short movement breaks during my day to boost my energy and just relieve any of the brain fog that can happen in the afternoon slump for me. And it energizes me as well.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. Well, I can't thank you enough for being on the show. As I said, you've already made me now go, "Oh, I've got to add that to what I'm doing," because I think things aren't going to move forward unless I do. So you've given me some great ideas, and hopefully anyone listening to this is like, "Ding, ding, ding, ding. That's very helpful." So I appreciate you so much coming on and sharing this with us.

Maheen Shafiabady: Oh, it's been absolutely my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Deb Zahn: Oh, definitely.

Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content, and I don't want you to miss anything. But the other two things that I'm going to ask you to do is, one is if you have any comments, so if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those.

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So as always, you can go and get more wonderful information and tools at Thanks so much. I will talk to you on the next episode. Bye-bye.

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