Visionary Leadership Academy - old

Get a better sense of the depth and breadth of Seth’s work. Delve into these case studies.


How this service organization dramatically changes its recruitment approach and culture to meet the changing demographics of the United States

The Problem:

The Peace Corps had traditionally been geared to upper middle-class white undergraduate students who wanted the opportunity to work on projects in the developing world. Peace Corps recruiting efforts were entirely geared to this demographic yet missed out on the changing American population, inclusive of Latino Americans and African Americans, as well older people, retiring after building deep expertise in their careers.

The Solution:

Gaddi Vasquez, the first Hispanic director of the Peace Corps, had a vision of making the opportunity more accessible to to blacks, Hispanics, and retirees.

But how to recruit differently?

This would require retooling Peace Corps outreach and changing the mindset of the organization—the kind of expertise Seth Kahan brings to the table. To help upper management realize what they were missing in America, Seth introduced questions, ideas, and activities that got them thinking. A trash can filled with ping-pong balls, for example, of white, brown, yellow, and gray (for elderly) all mixed in to represent America’s changing demographics. How many times did they reach in and get a ping-pong ball that wasn’t white? Or if they only got white, how many were they missing?

These provocative exercises and discussions helped upper management see differently. The next step was helping them do differently.

There were questions to be considered:

  • How do we set up offices to support outreach to minority groups?
  • What do we say to people at career fairs and recruitment offices?
  • What schools do we go to?
  • What are we prepared to talk about?
  • What issues will these applicants bring to us?

And ultimately, how are we going to behave differently?

Seth’s job was to help the Peace Corps leadership conceive of it—putting themselves in the shoes of African Americans, Hispanics, and the elderly, to really imagine the whole experience for them.

The Outcome

The Peace Corps successfully began recruiting a more diverse representation of the U.S. population, addressing the unique needs of each demographic.

Seth Kahan’s Role

As a change-maker and a visionary, Seth played a vital role in upholding the vision of diversity held by the Peace Corps director and enrolling senior leadership in that vision. His work also helped them experience a “shift” in how they saw the Peace Corps volunteer pool and recognize how much of the population they were missing. This high-level change in perception allowed for a more inclusive recruitment approach that led to the “Life is calling. How far will you go?” campaign, designed to attract more diverse applicants and broader representation of the American population in life-changing work overseas.

Questions to ask of yourself and your organization:

  • What is your organization missing out on—whether it’s a segment of the population, or an alternate approach to the way things have always been done?
  • What’s changing in your market that your organization hasn’t yet responded to?
  • What resistance to new avenues have you met, and why is there resistance?
  • What are some possibilities you see in areas your senior leadership have not embraced?

Want to explore these questions with Seth?


A $20 million change initiative went from having massive resistance to receiving newfound cooperation and widespread implementation

The Problem

Royal Dutch Shell, which is headquartered in the Netherlands, has oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico region. As part of a global change initiative, the company was mandating implementation of a new technology, which when put “down hole” would better monitor oil and gas reserves underground and help assess reserves around the globe. Knowing how much was in the ground and where it was located in more detail would help determine whether to keep extracting or to dig a new well. Finding new deposits was an expensive undertaking to the tune of $30 million to find a well plus another $30 million to build a rig. Working an existing wells would save money and minimize environmental impact, a double win. Those in the Gulf, however, were not eager to implement the technology. “Who are you to tell us how to run our oil fields?” was the resounding sentiment. After all, they were the most profitable region for Shell. When headquarters proposed doing a pilot on just one well, the Royal Dutch contingent in the Gulf picked one that was most challenging, least likely to demonstrate good results. Hurricane Katrina then hit and the entire project got put on the back burner as the region focused on recovery, including the rebuilding of a rig that had fallen over. No one—except headquarters—was still interested in the initiative.

The Solution

Royal Dutch Shell brought in Seth Kahan, knowing he had broad experience with change initiatives and bringing together disparate groups to move things forward in ways that hadn’t moved before. Seth organized a meeting of about 20 leaders in New Orleans while the other half of the group came from headquarters in the Netherlands. Tensions were high and verbal accusations flew. Yet in one pivotal moment, things started to shift.
“You can’t prove to me this is going to work,” a representative from New Orleans challenged one of the representatives from headquarters. “There are too many variables! You cannot in good reason isolate this one and point to its effects.” “You’re right. There are too many things to consider. But I know in my gut it’s the right thing to do,” the other replied. The gentleman from New Orleans shifted, “I’ll buy that,” his tone and demeanor softening, “if you tell me it’s in your gut…and not just some propaganda.”

The Outcome

There was much work to be done throughout the organization, including finding out what people thought, why they thought it, and why there was such resistance. The program, Smart Fields, was implemented and a success. At the conclusion of the project, the group built a room called “The Bridge”—a nod to Star Trek—with extensive visual monitors showing oil and gas production around the world. Through multiple meetings and working sessions, the initiative gained ground in the Gulf. The new technology was implemented and successfully used in wells in the Gulf region as well as around the world.

Seth Kahan’s Role

Seth’s particular brand of diplomacy along with ingenuity, creativity, and eclectic experience working with multicultural, multidisciplinary and geographically distributed companies to get buy-in and widespread adoption of major change initiatives made him the right person to facilitate Royal Dutch Shell’s goal of implementing the new technology. Want to explore these questions with Seth?

How a zero budget and zero buy-in turned into widespread adoption of “knowledge management” and a $60 million a year budget in just 2 years.

The Problem

The World Bank is made up of 189 member countries working for sustainable solutions to reduce poverty and build shared prosperity in developing nations. It has also been prone to bureaucracy and lack of partnership between development project leaders and organizations as well as with the World Bank itself. At the time the concept of knowledge management was introduced to the World Bank, discord and frustration were pervasive, and few people understood the idea of the “knowledge worker”—the power of individual know-how as the greatest asset any company could have.

The Solution

Seth Kahan working as part of a 5-person team within the World Bank recognized the importance of knowledge management. It was recognized that professional communities - communities of practice - were the heart and soul of knowledge development and application. So the team set about building communities of people who were passionate about their projects and causes. Seth worked with the environment groups. Organizations like World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy (who were then considered adversaries of the World Bank) were invited by Seth in to World Bank headquarters to convene with like-minded professionals. It was a radical shift. Soon the groups were buzzing with dialogue and ideas, connecting with each other around topics they cared deeply about. As communities and conversations emerged, more and more people wanted to be a part of this effort. It became clear that the story to be told—about the power of knowledge management—needed to happen on a grand scale. Seth was identified as a master storyteller, his years of street theatre and professional storytelling making him the right person to identify a storyteller who worked with corporations to help spread their messages. Seth brought the storyteller in to help develop the World Bank’s program, including the facilitating of think tanks over three weekends with other organizations including Disney, Hewlett-Packard, and the International Storytelling Center to explore the power of story in organizations. The idea of knowledge management was no longer a concept that no one understood or appreciated. It took hold. The initiative succeeded because of these two main technologies: community-building and storytelling.
According to World Bank president Jim Wolfensohn, communities were “the heart and soul” of the bank’s Knowledge Management initiative.

The Outcome

As the communities grew and flourished, Seth and the team of visionaries collected stories of what the communities had accomplished and demonstrated to the World Bank that this was the best way for the bank to achieve its objectives. The board earmarked $60 million a year “to do” knowledge management. The large change initiative that began with nothing and no support had been successful.

Seth Kahan’s Role

Seth has the unique ability to gather like-minded as well as disparate organizations and individuals to spur change in dialogue and culture. Seth played a major role designing and executing the growth of 120 professional communities in less than 2 years. During Seth’s tenure with the World Bank, he went on to spearhead an information systems renewal (ISR), which involved replacing all the technology systems in the bank with one unified system. Seth also worked closely with then-president of the bank Jim Wolfensohn who understood the critical need to “make the poor our partners”—recognizing that there would be another three billion people on the planet over the next quarter of a century and all but 50 million of them would be in the developing world. Wolfensohn knew that “their” problems were ours, and co-creation of solutions was imperative. Seth’s work with Wolfensohn included identifying and bringing together people who understood this challenge and could help define how to address it throughout the organization. The work that was accomplished by Seth and this group helped empower the World Bank president to speak powerfully and effectively with heads of state about partnership with the poor.

Questions to ask of yourself and your organization:

  • How does my organization value its core asset: the knowledge worker?
  • What limitations exist among senior management? Where has dialogue stopped?
  • What new ideas and initiatives have been introduced but not widely adopted? And why?
  • Where are you effective or ineffective at telling stories that need to be told?
  • How could your organization benefit from visionary leadership?
Want to explore these questions with Seth?