Celine Schillinger, CEO, We Need Social
Celine Schillinger grew up in Bordeaux, France in a family passionate about art, culture and travels. She has a master’s degree in public affairs and a post graduate degree in corporate communications and public relations. Her early career included positions in communications, public relations, sales, and management for firms in Vietnam, France, and China. She joined Sanofi Pasteur in 2001 and held roles of increasing responsibility for 17 years culminating in her appointment as head of innovation, engagement, and quality. In 2017, she was made a Knight of the French National Order of Merit for her work in diversity in the workplace. Celine founded We Need Social in 2018 and serves as an engagement leadership advisor to clients worldwide.
Engagement in change leadership
Change leadership presents challenges as Celine Schillinger, an expert on organizational change, corporate activism, and social networks, knows well. Celine discusses her experience working at pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur, where she used the Kotter change model, social media, cross-hierarchy dialogue, and other change agent concepts to create a community of people who care for each other and facilitated the change process. Our conversation includes insights on the necessity of diversity.
Listen to more: Activate World
Engagement in change leadership
Celine Schillinger, CEO, We Need Social
Season 4, Episode 1
Jon Mertz: 00:03 Welcome to the Activate World podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought.
Jon Mertz: 00:20 We’re thrilled to have our first global guest, Celine Schillinger, with us. She’s the founder and CEO of We Need Social, an organization that focuses on engagement leadership. Celine, welcome to Activate World. Give us a snapshot of your background and experiences, and what led you to focus on engagement and change leadership?
Celine Schillinger: 00:40 Well, thank you, Jon, for having me here. I’m very honored and very proud to be your first global guest. I’m sure it’s not the last one. My background is political science and communications, that’s what I studied in France, where I grew up. And I started a first job in communications, didn’t like it. Went to business, moved abroad in order to, I don’t know, find myself, maybe, and find something more exciting. Ended up in Vietnam, staying four years, and then that led me to other jobs in Asia.
Celine Schillinger: 01:16 Overall, I worked over Asia for about 10 years, then moved back to France and started to work at Sanofi, a big pharma company, and I stayed 17 years there, mostly in business operations roles, and then engagement … that has been my passion for the last almost decade, I would say. This episode came to an end last summer, the summer of 2018, where I left Sanofi and created my own business. So I’m a CEO for the first time of my life, since September, and extremely happy to be so.
Jon Mertz: 01:57 And you’re now the CEO of We Need Social.
Celine Schillinger: 01:59 Correct. It was the name of my blog that I set up in 2013 or so, and it became the name of my company.
Jon Mertz: 02:07 I know that at We Need Social you’ve embraced the Kotter Change Model. Can you tell us about that model and why the focus on it?
Celine Schillinger: 02:14 Yeah, absolutely. So, I had, I would say, a history of activism in the workplace and then outside the workplace at the service of corporate objectives. I call that, to make it short, corporate activism. Not necessarily against something or for a big social cause. To me corporate activism is about leveraging the tools and techniques of social movements at the service of corporate objectives. It’s a new management practice, I would say, in a way. New leadership, obviously.
Celine Schillinger: 02:54 So anyway, I had those first few, a couple of experiences around corporate activism and engagement and building engaged crowds, I would say, focused on a common objective, a common purpose, and acting upon that. And then that experience caught the attention of the new Chief Quality Officer, who joined Sanofi back in 2014. Together we decided to apply that, this corporate activism thing, to quality in the workplace, to industrial quality, actually, to the way people were working together to produce quality product.
Celine Schillinger: 03:38 And this man was very interested in the Kotter model that he had read of, you know, the dual operating system, where the hierarchy coexists and works with the network. We contracted Kotter. We worked with the Kotter team for about two years, and they helped us really rethink completely the way we were doing things. And that led to amazing, really amazing results.
Celine Schillinger: 04:14 So when I created my own company, and I decided to focus on engagement leadership, Kotter suggested that I become an affiliate for Kotter and help them with growing their business, in particular in Europe. So I’m very, very happy to do so. It’s not 100% of my time. I do other things as well, I would say at a lower scale, at a smaller scale. I do speeches, et cetera, so I do act also as We Need Social, focusing on engagement leadership, and I hopefully will do more and more for Kotter.
Jon Mertz: 04:54 In 2017 you were awarded the Medal of the National Order of Merit by the French government for your work in engagement for diversity. What experiences and accomplishments led to that recognition?
Celine Schillinger: 05:05 Yes, so well, in my opinion, it’s too big of an honor compared to what I did, but I really started my career in activism through a movement for diversity in the workplace. That’s really when I started discovering the power of the collective, of an engaged collective, and the tools enabling such collectives to be efficient, like social tools. And the power of purpose and all that kind of thing. I had really no idea before because I had not been exposed to that in my professional nor private life, really. And seeing the energy and the creativity of a diverse crowd … when you manage to get this diversity of thought together, focusing on a common purpose, you really move mountains.
Jon Mertz: 06:12 The pharma industry has a reputation for being relatively conservative, so when you’re trying to spark that empowerment or activist within to make those changes, what are some of the challenges?
Celine Schillinger: 06:23 Yeah. You’re right in saying that the pharma environment is conservative. I would add it’s conservative for good reasons, because any change can have dire consequences. It’s a very regulated environment and again, for good reasons. You know, the states want to protect their citizens against poor consequences of, I don’t know, research, medicine or whatever, so they inspect facilities all the time. They put extremely stringent requirements that pharma companies have to follow, et cetera. So all this stemming from really good intentions and they’re reasonable and they’re justified, but all that, I would say, drives corporate cultures that are extremely controlling, extremely adverse to change. That used to work in the past. It was still okay. Now it doesn’t.
Celine Schillinger: 07:28 And that’s where, coming back to Kotter, I think the dual operating system is extremely useful, because it’s about having the management, you know, all the structures … it’s about keeping it for what it knows best, for what it does well. But complementing it with a network approach, which brings innovation and agility and creativity.
Jon Mertz: 07:56 So, in your experience then at Sanofi, when you were working with that dual model to create a more networked approach within the organization, when did you know it was starting to work?
Celine Schillinger: 08:05 Well, that’s a great question. When did we know? We knew early on that some people, not all, some people were highly receptive. There was this energy in the early workshops, because suddenly we were not talking to people, we were talking with people, and we were creating a different kind of space that was welcoming people’s ideas, with people talking from their brain, but also engaging their heart and engaging their soul. It’s about the big opportunity, creating a vision together. What is the future we want to fight for together? So it created a very different kind of energy, and I had not seen that before.
Celine Schillinger: 08:58 But then the actual results on business took, I would say, about a year, year and a half, to materialize, so we had to be patient. At the end of the first year I was like, “Oh my god,” starting to feel the pressure, but eventually all quality indicators turned to green and it’s been a massive source of improvement.
Jon Mertz: 09:24 Describe some of the key concepts underlying the idea of how to make organizations more humane.
Celine Schillinger: 09:30 I know that, again, some people are very receptive and they welcome ways where you invite people as a whole, not just as a role, where you include more people into the decision-making. Where you operate an organization not as a machine, but as a living system. And, as a leader, it’s basically about seeing yourself no longer as the chief mechanics, the chief engineer, you know, that will replace … puts a little bit of oil in the machine or replace this cog because this doesn’t work and put another one instead, and so on.
Celine Schillinger: 10:20 Instead, it’s seeing yourself as a gardener. What conditions can you create so that your organization becomes a fertile soil for everything that wants to grow? And sometimes what grows is not what you expected, but it’s even better, because we all have a limited view on the world. We all have our own lenses. So how could you have a universal truth in yourself? It doesn’t work. So instead of that, I believe leaders need to make space and create a welcoming space for others and be at the service of this collective space, so that’s really what I call as more humane organizations.
Celine Schillinger: 11:11 But then, obviously, some leaders are not responsive. They don’t get it, or they get the concept but not the practice and they’re still too tainted by power and ego and this idea of fields. You know, “It’s my field, it’s not your field.” And this leads to crazy competition internally, inside organizations, and it’s really bad. But I haven’t found a way to really overcome that with everyone, unfortunately.
Jon Mertz: 11:48 I’m disappointed. I was hoping you’d give us the answer to that.
Celine Schillinger: 11:51 I was hoping the same from you.
Jon Mertz: 11:54 So you wrote recently that 2018 should be the Year of Courage. What role does courage play in being an agent or an activist? How do you reach someone that fears change?
Celine Schillinger: 12:05 It’s a great question. I think courage is a muscle that you can exercise, in particular by remaining a learner all the time, by connecting with different people, people with different worldviews and by surrounding yourself with diversity, by learning new stuff all the time, by retaining or exercising your humility. That hopefully balances a little bit the ego, because very often ego stands in the way of courage because you have to realize that some leaders just don’t want to appear as beginners, and that’s why they refuse to learn new things.
Celine Schillinger: 12:59 Like just one example. Using the internal social media, using the social media platform of your own company. Some leaders just don’t want to do it. They don’t want to learn because they are afraid to appear stupid. So they pretend. They give lots of excuses: they have no time, they have more important things to do, et cetera. It’s just that their ego is standing on the way. Instead of that, I have met other leaders who said, “Yes, please. I would like to learn. Can you show me how it works?” And their first messages were maybe kind of funny because they were not so great or whatever, and they learned. And they did it and they evolved. And people felt grateful because they were not trying to appear as the perfect person. They were human.
Jon Mertz: 13:55 What are your thoughts on the role of social media, both within a company, as well as external to it, and how can it be used effectively to facilitate change?
Celine Schillinger: 14:05 I agree with you that external social media has changed course a little bit over the last few years. I made amazing, really wonderful and long-lasting friendship on social media a few years ago. I don’t know if it’s still possible. The noise and the algorithms that sort of direct your conversation, I’m not sure it’s such an open field of discovery, and it tends to, I don’t know, consolidate bubbles in a way, which is not healthy. Really, social media enables to connect that scale, but it also enables to change the type of …
Celine Schillinger: 14:57 It changes the identity of an organization, because then the ecosystem sees itself differently. Conversations are happening between different countries, languages, cultures, people, et cetera much more easily than they used to in the past. To me it’s impossible to do without. I can’t believe my ears those days when I hear that some big organizations still don’t have an internal social network. It’s unbelievable.
Jon Mertz: 15:31 Were there social tools that were more effective in building that type of connection within the company?
Celine Schillinger: 15:36 I would say, I’m more like tool-agnostic. I think it doesn’t really matter, but having a tool and using it, and having everybody use it, not just like lower-level employees or whatever. Everybody’s got to use it. It’s crazy to have top leaders claiming they want to transform their organization and not transforming themselves first.
Jon Mertz: 16:01 How do you use social media within an organization to facilitate or make that mindset shift to one of a more corporate activism type?
Celine Schillinger: 16:09 What works, I have found in my own experience, is the co-creation of a community of intent that is open, welcoming, that does not focus on work alone, that welcomes other topics, pictures, smiles, where people can praise their colleagues, can show their work, can ask questions, where leaders ask questions, too. A common mistake is done when it’s used as a one-way communication platform, and really social media is not adapted at all for that.
Jon Mertz: 16:59 Yeah, so it’s kind of returning to that theme of making the workplace more humane, to help facilitate that change.
Celine Schillinger: 17:05 Yep.
Jon Mertz: 17:07 How can you be incorporating diversity and inclusion when you’re taking a side on issues? It seems like kind of a struggle, right?
Celine Schillinger: 17:14 Yeah, exactly. So what I advocate for is to, rather than changing the world outside, why don’t companies try to change the world inside first? Why don’t they try to apply those new principles of leadership with their own people, you know? Because I think changing the world starts with the way we work. People spend so much of their time, so much of their life, at work. If work was more respectful and inclusive and inviting everybody, I think that would change a lot in the frustration and the anger that people are expressing all over the world right now. So it’s a responsibility we have, but of course it’s easier to advocate for change outside than to take the very first steps to change the way we work inside.
Jon Mertz: 18:21 I think that’s a great point because essentially, if your house isn’t in order, it makes it harder to advocate change outside your organization. You need to be able to walk the talk.
Celine Schillinger: 18:31 Precisely. Yep, exactly.
Jon Mertz: 18:34 What’s your best advice for change agents or corporate activists on how they can engage their teams and people more effectively, to facilitate some of the change that you’ve talked about?
Celine Schillinger: 18:44 I would say my advice is to really pay attention to your own practice. How are you being a change agent? Are you reproducing the old approaches that you are trying to change without realizing that? Are you trying to get followers? Are you trying to, you know, embark people and be another kind of boss, but still a boss? Why are you doing that? Why are you doing the change? Are you doing it for you? Are you doing it for others? For everybody? So really challenging ourselves, I think, is a great way to become more impactful, because we sometimes can operate in the opposite direction to the one we’re trying to [inaudible 00:19:48].
Celine Schillinger: 19:47 It’s not just about pushing our own ideas. It’s about being in service to other people’s ideas, too.
Jon Mertz: 19:53 Yeah, almost back to your earlier point, where you were talking about creating space for others, but creating space for yourself to learn and be challenged and change.
Celine Schillinger: 20:02 Yeah, exactly.
Jon Mertz: 20:04 Well, Celine, thank you so much. It’s been fun to talk to you. You have just a wealth of experience and insights that are valuable, not only to our listeners, but to us as we start new projects and hopefully self-challenge ourselves to embrace some changes that we may need to make to improve the places we work, as well as our communities. So thank you very much.
Celine Schillinger: 20:23 Thank you so much, Jon. It was awesome.
Jon Mertz: 20:32 Listeners, we’d love to hear from you.
How do you use social in your company to engage in a more diverse and inclusive way?
Give your insights and perspectives in our Activate World LinkedIn group. If you have not joined, a link to the group is in the show notes. Let’s continue the conversation.
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Jon Mertz: 21:06 Activate World is a team endeavor. Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World I’m Jon Mertz.