Jon Younger and Norm Smallwood on “Agile Talent”: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris


Jon Younger is founding partner of the Agile Talent Collaborative (and partner emeritus at the RBL Group where he established the firm’s HR transformation practice. He is well known and respected for his consulting in HR transformation, talent management, and change leadership. He is the author of 5 books including the new Agile Talent: How to Source and Manage Outside Experts (Harvard Business Review Press, February 2016), several books with Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank, including the best-selling HR From the Outside In (McGraw-Hill, 2012), and many articles. He has taught at the University of Toronto, Ross School of Business University of Michigan, the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, and the Copenhagen School of Business, among other universities. Prior to RBL he was SVP and chief talent and learning officer for one of the largest US banks.

He and his partner Carolyn divide their time between NYC and restoring a 200-year-old barn in rural Connecticut. His teaching and consulting practice has taken him to over 40 countries in the last few years.


Norm Smallwood is co-founder of The RBL Group and a recognized authority in developing businesses and their leaders to deliver results and increase value. His current work relates to increasing business value by building “outside in” organization, leadership, and people capabilities that measurably impact market value.

In 2010, the Harvard Business Review recognized Norm in an ad as doing “innovative and ground-breaking work on effective leadership.” He has co-authored eight books: Real-Time Strategy, Results-Based Leadership, How Leaders Build Value, Change Champions Field Guide, Leadership Brand, Leadership Code, Leadership Sustainability, and Agile Talent. Norm was a faculty member in executive education at the University of Michigan in the Ross School of Management between 2001 and 2003.

Prior to co-founding the RBL Group, Norm was a founding partner of Novations Group, Inc. where he led business strategy, organization design, and human resource management projects for a wide variety of clients spanning multiple industries. Before this, he was an organization development professional at Procter and Gamble in a start up business in Georgia and in Calgary, Alberta with Esso Resources Canada. Norm and his wife Tricia enjoy their children and grandchildren as well as their wide variety of pets.

Here is an excerpt from Part 1 of my interview of Jon and Norm.

* * *

Morris: Before discussing Agile Talent, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Before answering that initial question, I wanted to thank you for the invitation to talk with you about our new research and new book Agile Talent. You are a bit of a legend and we’re glad to join your orbit. The greatest influence? Personally, I suppose like many people my father, Ben Younger. He was a kind, generous and hard working man who always made time for others.

Smallwood: I’d have to say my wife Tricia. I have tendency to embellish stories and exaggerate. She is becoming an Ayurveda master at the Chopra Center in San Diego and meditates, eats healthy, and is very sensitive to hype or untruth of any kind. She has influenced me to be less impulsive and judgmental.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Smallwood: I’ve had two types of professional development relationships. The first were with seniors that mentored me and the second is collegial. I had two professors in graduate school at BYU that really shaped my personal growth — Bonner Ritchie and Gene Dalton. Bonner is an organization theorist who pushed me (and others) very hard to think independently about complex issues. Gene started as a professor and then became a business partner. He shaped my approach to consulting and really caring about clients as well as the team working with the client.

The other is Jon, my co-author on this book. We met at Esso Resources when both of us were fresh out of school. We have been both competitive and collaborative since 1979. Jon pushes me to think more deeply and work harder to keep up.

Younger: Professionally, I would have to say two people. First was Herb Shepard, the legendary consultant and author. Herb was a mentor to me for over a decade. Younger people might not know him: he was a founder of NTL, was an architect of the Yale School of Management, and a brilliant consultant and writer. I was fortunate to know him. I encourage your audience to read Rules of Thumb for Change Agents. I’m sure it can be found on the web. It is a brief and succinct masterpiece. The second is probably Norm Smallwood, my co-author. He and I have been working together in one form or another for 35 years. Its always a challenge to keep up with Norm, he is so bright and creative, and equally a pleasure.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Younger: Absolutely. Sometimes adversity is as helpful as good fortune. I graduated with a PhD in social psychology from the University of Toronto a year when academic jobs were in short supply. My wife Carolyn and I decided that, rather than take the route of multiple postdocs, I would seek a career that married teaching and business. I was able to find such a job at Imperial Oil, the Canada unit of Exxon Corp. It was a best experience I could have had. Exxon was a terrific place to develop, and they were incredibly kind and generous to me, giving me seven or eight jobs in ten years, mostly operating as an internal consultant or manager of internal consultants, and the opportunity to work all over the world on really interesting projects that were important to the business.

Smallwood: During my last semester of my undergraduate degree in English and psychology, I was on my way to a career in law. I had taken the LSAT and had been accepted into a few prominent law schools. My grandfather had started a successful firm and my uncle had built on it. So I had a career all set for me. I took a class in Organization Behavior where the professor was on visiting from a large, local company. The teaching assistant was a graduate student named Pete Sorenson who led the class resistance to the approach that this unfortunate professor was taking. I learned that leadership is not about position and that if you didn’t obey authority you actually had power. I was hooked. I was accepted into the OB program the next semester. Law school was out. Organization Behavior became my passion.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Smallwood: It has been very valuable to me. There are three elements of it that have been useful. The first element is the content that helped me to interpret and understand information as I gained experience and the encouragement to keep learning and writing. The second is the network of other students that I have stayed in touch with through the years. The third are the faculty I met there many of whom have become good friends over the years and two of whom (Gene Dalton and Paul Thompson) were partners in an earlier firm that Jon and I were part of, The Novations Group.

Younger: Extremely valuable. I can’t think of a better platform than social psychology. Why? First, it demands a rigorous approach to behavior, whether it’s the behavior of an individual, team or large organization. Second, the empirical method is a commitment to data versus impression or bias. And third, social psychology reinforces the importance of social context and culture in problem solving.

What do you know now about the business world now that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Younger: A great question, and not an easy one to answer. I suppose it would be the importance of building and maintaining a strong, broad and diverse network of relationships. For example, this week I am in Hong Kong with a group of 30 people from Maersk, the Danish based shipping and logistics giant. Among the people in this leadership development program are people from 19 different countries, from China to Cameroon to Mexico. Having the point of view of smart people from all over the world has been a huge source of knowledge and insight is a huge advantage in professional development.

Smallwood: To better balance family and work and to lean to family. It has taken my whole career to figure this out. I tend to be a workaholic and it’s no way to raise a family or have a good relationship with your spouse. I wish I had learned this earlier.

Morris: From which em>non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Younger: I’m glad you asked this question because I worry that many of my younger colleagues are not connected to the great business and organizational writers of years past. Wonderful books like Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, Alfred Chandler’s The Visible Hand, Ed Schein’s Organization Culture and Leadership, Ralph Sui’s The Master Manager, and any of the books by Peter Drucker have enriched my understanding of how to build high performing organizations.

Smallwood: The book that influenced me the most was Karl Weick’s The Social Psychology of Organizing. Weick’s notion of creating your own reality, understanding your career from the rear view mirror (post hoc rationality) and making tradeoffs around GAS through Thorndike’s theory of commensurate complexity struck a strong chord with me early on. I even wrote a letter to Karl Weick when he was teaching at Cornell and where I had a good friend, Gordon Meyer, getting a PhD at the time. Weick read the letter to his class, which was a big victory for me at the time in confirming that I could think independently and out of the box.

* * *

To read the complete Part 1, please click here.

Jon and Norm invite you to visit their website and take the agile talent EQ survey. It’s brief (10 minutes), free, and you will receive instant results as well as a comparison with survey global norms. Please click here to visit the website.

You are also invited to write to Jon Younger for more information about the Agile Talent Collaborative. Contact Jon at or Norm at

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