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559: How to Unify, Motivate, and Direct Any Team by Picking a Fight with David Burkus

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David Burkus says: "Put to words the vision that's already in people's hearts and minds."

David Burkus discusses how crafting a compelling vision in terms of a fight can inspire your team to action.

You’ll Learn:

1) The three kinds of fights that inspire

2) A simple trick to greatly boost motivation and efficiency

3) The secret to getting along with the coworker you dislike

About David:

One of the world’s leading business thinkers, David Burkus’ forward-thinking ideas and bestselling books are changing how companies approach innovation, collaboration, and leadership.

As a skilled researcher and inspiring communicator, Burkus’ award-winning books have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and his TED Talk has been viewed over 2 million times.

A renowned expert, Burkus’ writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, USAToday, Fast Company, and more. He’s been interviewed by NPR, the BBC, CNN, and CBS This Morning. Since 2017, Burkus has been ranked as one of the world’s top business thought leaders by Thinkers50.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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David Burkus Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
David, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

David Burkus
Oh, thanks so much for having me. Great title for a show, by the way. I just need to say that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Yes, well, I like it clear. So, that’s what you’re getting here. I understand one thing that you’re awesome at is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and you got a blackbelt. What’s the story here?

David Burkus
Yeah, so I have been doing Jiu-Jitsu since probably 2016. Like a lot of people, I have that exact same story of college student, etc., go to Blockbuster when it’s still around and rent one of those old UFC DVDs and watch this guy named Royce Gracie destroy everybody. And, suddenly, you’re going, “What is this weird art from Brazil that everyone is talking about?” So, you go to the first class and get just like beaten to a pulp, but you go, “That was so much fun.” And if you keep doing it for 13 years, eventually the hand you a blackbelt. You get to be not terrible which is about what I would rate myself now.

Pete Mockaitis
Blackbelt equals not terrible.

David Burkus
Yeah, yeah. There are some people, like one of our coaches has been doing it for, let’s see, he’s probably 50 so 40 years and he’s still pretty fit. So, you’d think that you could beat up an old man, but you really can’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, David, do you have any pro tips if, let’s say, someone is at a grocery store and they’re buying the last roll of toilet paper or hand sanitizer, and then someone attacks you, what do you advise?

David Burkus
Well, the first thing would be to not get in that situation, right? Distance is your friend. So, the more that you can, I think, have situation awareness about who that guy that’s been eyeing the toilet paper awkwardly is and realize, “This is a situation I need to walk further away from,” that’s really your friend. That should be the biggest goal. I think a lot of people end up jumping. I mean, you watch it now but you also watch it during Black Friday shopping and things like that. People jump into confrontation way too quick. Keeping space from people is your friend.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Now, that’s advice for personal safety. Now, when it comes to rallying a group of folks, you advocate that people pick a fight. What do you mean by this phrase?

David Burkus
Yeah. So, pick a fight, referring to… it’s a bit of a double meaning, right? So, I believe that, fundamentally, we’ve had these conversations about purpose for probably two decades now and, yet, a lot of people are still really bad at saying what the purpose of a company is. We do mission statements or we try and start with why. We try and do all those things and it doesn’t really rally people the way it should.

And so, I believe, fundamentally, when you look at the research that one of the best ways to give a clear and concise and motivating statement, a purpose, is if you can frame it as the answer to the question, “What are we fighting for?” As a leader, if you can do that, and individually if you can do that, it just seems to, like you said, rally and motivate people a bit more.

But here’s the key, you have to choose your fight wisely. So, that’s the secondary meaning, you also have to pick the right fight which is almost never competitors. For the average employee, you’re almost never motivated by, “I work for Coke, and I want to destroy Pepsi.” “I’m probably going to go to work for Pepsi one day,” or something similar. So, you have to pick what is that higher purpose, that bigger thing that you’re striving for, that’s what the right fight looks like.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s interesting. So, we’re fighting for something as opposed to against something. I guess maybe you could fight against something if it’s like intrinsically evil, like poverty or disease.

David Burkus
Yeah. The way that I phrase it is, “What are we fighting for?” not “Who are we fighting?” right? It’s not about the other because, again, you see. I mean, we’re seeing it right now as we’re recording this. This was totally unintentional, by the way, but we’re seeing it right now. This is arguably the first time in world history that every country in the world is fighting for the same thing and we’re all fighting against the same thing, and it’s sort of that proof of concept. There’s not time and situations like this for little squabbles over which country is right and all this sort of stuff.

And the same thing happens organizationally when you have that true sort of purpose worth fighting for. Those little silos, politics, turf wars, they all get squashed to that larger purpose. So, that’s why I really emphasized, it’s, “What are we fighting for?” not “Who are we fighting?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, when you’re picking what you’re fighting for, we got some pro tips and pointers already in terms of not who we are fighting against. And so, maybe paint a picture for us with an example in terms of maybe if you’ve seen some cool transformation stories or some contrasts like, “Here’s an example of an organization that’s fighting for something and it works great. By contrast, here’s an organization that’s not quite doing that, it’s not working so great.”

David Burkus
Yeah. So, my favorite example, and one we talk about in the book, of changing that fight midstream, because it’s easy to see, “Okay, this startup has this sort of big fight-based mission,” but it’s a lot harder to do with an established organization. But in the late 1980s and throughout the entirety of the ‘90s, a gentleman by the name of Paul O’Neill took the reins at Alcoa, which is an aluminum-manufacturing plant. They make a lot of different types of aluminum. Fun fact, they make the aluminum foil that goes around Hershey’s Kisses, or they did for a really long time.

And what they were running into when Paul O’Neill took over, stock price was declining, their efficiencies were declining, I mean, it’s a normal 1980s, 1990s story of losing out to offshoring and manufacturing in developing countries and that sort of thing, and a lot of people were wondering, “What are you going to do to turn this company around?” And the way O’Neill describes it, he says, “Part of leadership is to create the crisis,” but he knows the crisis of a declining stock price isn’t going to rally anybody. The crisis of “We need to be more efficient” isn’t going to rally anybody.

So, he chooses, as his fight, safety. He gets up on the very first day of his tenure at this press conference and says instead of, “Here’s how we’re going to increase profitability or shareholder value, etc.” We’re in this era where CEOs basically go right to buy-backs and try and back stock as a cheap way to raise the stock price. He doesn’t do any of that. He says, “I’d like to talk to you about worker safety. I’d like to talk to you about the number of people that lose a day of work because of preventable accidents and I intend in my time at the leadership of Alcoa to go for a zero-accident company.”

Now that’s unheard of in manufacturing but that’s something worth fighting for. It speaks to that sacred value of who’s to the left and to the right of you. And, ironically, if you make a plant more safe, you make it more efficient anyway, so he knows that there’s still this goal, “We’re going to turn the company around,” but just turning the company around doesn’t rally anybody. He chooses to name the enemy. And in this case, the enemy is safety, because if we beat that enemy, we’ll find a lot more things that we accomplish along the way as well.

In his time, by the time he retired in the late 1990s, the stock price had increased fivefold. The company ran more efficiently. Alcoa now is like a pinnacle of safety. There are other manufacturing plants that go to Alcoa to learn how to be much more safe. But, before he came, that was never a concern. It was an acceptable cost of doing business. It hints at the first of like the three templates of fights that I outline in the book. I call it the revolutionary fight, which is when you say, “This has been a norm or a standard that the industry does, and we refuse to accept it as normal any longer. We don’t find it acceptable.” In Paul O’Neill’s case it was safety, “We don’t find some level of acceptable loss acceptable anymore. We’re going for zero.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, that’s a revolution. While we’re at it, what are the other two?

David Burkus
Yeah. So, the other two, the underdog fight, my personal favorite fight because I’m from Philadelphia and we’re the city of underdogs, is about not necessarily about what the industry is doing but how you’re perceived by the industry. Sometimes it’s by competitors, other times it’s by critics, etc. You leverage the underdog fight when you can point to a way that people are disrespecting your team, disrespecting your company, or underrating it, and you can point to why they’re wrong. And this is really key, you need two things. It’s not enough just to be criticized because they might be right. You also need a rebuttal. You need rejection but also rebuttal for this one to work.

And it turns out, I mean, this is, like I said, I’m from Philadelphia. We know the Rocky story. Our favorite sports hero is a fictional character who lost a boxing match. New England gets Tom Brady. We get a fictional character who loses a boxing match. But it turns out, more modern research has shown that that really, that desire to prove the critics wrong, even in a business context with the way people frame their careers, the way people frame whether or not going into negotiations, like salary negotiations, etc., the more that you can frame that narrative, that this is about proving the haters wrong, the more you can actually inspire and motivate somebody. So, that’s the underdog fight.

And the ally fight is, I think, one that a lot of organizations look at because if they’re really a customer-centric organization, this is an easy one for them because the ally fight is not about our fight at all. It’s not about what we’re fighting for but we can point to a customer or some other stakeholder who is engaged in a fight every day, and we exist to help them. We exist to provide them what they need to win that fight.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, so I’m picking up what you’re putting down here in terms of these are kind of visceral, emotional, maybe even primal human things here in terms of like, “No more,” for the revolution or, “We’re going to prove them wrong,” like the Rocky story, or, “We are going to help someone who’s in need of our help,” and you sort of tap into that heroic action there. So, yeah, I’m digging this. So, then can you give us some examples? So, we got Alcoa in terms of, “Hey, efficiency in plants and let’s lower costs and stuff,” doesn’t do it as the way safety does. Can you lay out a few more to make it all click into place?

David Burkus
Yeah, a few more from the revolution or from the underdog or the ally?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s take them all.

David Burkus
So, my favorite revolution story, this isn’t actually in the book, so this is new for you, is I have this around my phone, and you can see it but everyone else is just going to have to like Google it. There’s a company based out of Vancouver called Pela Case, they make cellphone cases. The difference between them and every other cellphone case is theirs don’t sit in a landfill for 10,000 years when you get a new phone. If you throw it in a compost pile, it will decompose within 10 years. It’s totally biodegradable if you compost it.

So, their revolution is there’s this whole consumer goods company that finds using petrochemicals and creating plastics totally acceptable because we need to lower cost or whatever. It’s an acceptable norm that they’re using this thing that’s destroying the environment. They refuse to accept that. You ask anyone who works for Pela, “What are you fighting for?” they’ll tell you they’re fighting for a waste-free future. They’re never going to change consumerism. We’re not going to get people to, it’s not like a plastic bag, you can’t reuse it, right? As soon as there’s a new cellphone with a different design, it’s hard to reuse that case. But we can change what’s consumed to itself be waste-free.

And what I think is really telling, they just did this about six months ago, they launched their second product which proves that their focus is on this waste-free revolution idea, because their second product has nothing to do with cellphone cases, which no strategic advisor would ever say. You have this little niche inside of electronics, inside of smartphone case, the next thing you do is make an iPad case or something else. No. Their next thing was sunglasses because that’s the next thing that’s consumable that they could tackle, right? We buy sunglasses in May. We’ve lost them by September. So, if we can trust that they’re biodegradable, somebody finds them, they get put in that landfill, they’ll decompose, they’ll biodegrade eventually, then at least we’re making it waste-free even that. We’re never going to change consumerism but we can change what’s consumed to make it waste-free. That’s my other favorite revolution story.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and that reminds me. You talk about it doesn’t seem like a strategic adjacency from the classic strategy matrices type of thinking, but from that fight, that purpose perspective, that makes total sense. And I’m reminded of Pat Lencioni who we had recently, talked about a company and their purpose, why they were founded, was to provide good work opportunities for people in the community, and so they did roofing, but they’re like, “Hey, man, if people didn’t want roofs, we could shift to landscaping or concrete, that’s fine.”

And so, that might not seem like, I don’t know, the same skillset or whatever, but it fits in from that perspective and it continues to be inspiring even when there’s a shift afoot. So, that’s pretty handy. Well, so then how do we, let’s say, I’m thinking if we zoom into maybe an individual contributor or someone who has a small team, how would you recommend…I’m just going to throw you into the fire here. Let’s just say, “Hey, you know, we’re a marketing team, and what we try to do is get a lot of impressions, and conversions, and brand awareness, and our story out there.” And so, these are the kinds of the things that we measure and so maybe that’s a little bit flat from a fight perspective. How might we go about tapping into the power of the fight?

David Burkus
Yeah. So, the first thing, like if you’re running a small team, for example, the first thing you got to do is figure out which of these fights will most resonate with your existing people. This is actually the big misconception with a lot of the leaders that I work with is that you, as the leader, get to declare and cast the vision. It doesn’t work that way and it never really has. You get to put to words the vision that’s already in people’s hearts and minds but they haven’t really thought about enough. And so, there’s that idea. What’s going to resonate the most with you?

If you’re an individual, again, I think it’s thinking about each of these in turn and figuring out which of these narratives. I know a joke that I’m from Philly, but the truth is, the way that I’m wired, that underdog fight is actually what inspires me, motivates me to get to work, etc. And then you got to choose what stories you need to be exposing yourself to, to keep that up.

So, let’s say you choose the ally fight, for example. You’re that marketing team, you find out what the ally fight, meaning it’s, “Yeah, we’re measuring progress with impressions,” but what the larger company does can be framed inside that ally fight, then you have to figure out, “How can I make sure that I’m seeing evidence of that finished product?” This is, I think, the big problem in a lot of motivational research inside of organizations is that very few people inside the organization actually get to experience what, in psychology, we call task significance. They actually get to see the end-product of their labor and get to see how it helps people.

Adam Grant sort of did a lot of research on this about 10 years ago and reframed it. It’s what he called prosocial motivation, the idea that if you’re working to help people, you’re more motivated. But even task significance, even if it’s one of the other types of fights I think is hugely important. So, I think the biggest thing you can do, once you figure out what resonates with you, is, “How do I make sure that I’m catching that material, that I’m catching success stories from clients? If it’s the ally fight, how do I catch stories about what’s going on in the industry and why we’re doing differently so that I’m seeing that on a regular basis?”

Because most of us in the day-in, day-out, especially if our performance metrics and things like that, or how many impressions we get on random websites, we lose sight of that larger thing. And so, if you’re the only one that can do it for you, do it for you. If you’re running even a small team, that becomes one of your job, it’s how do you curate those stories. It’s not your job to cast the vision. It’s your job to curate those stories.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. That’s good. Well, that reminds me of right now is, hey, we’re speaking on the podcast and all I really see is you, and then I see impressions, downloads, etc. in my platform. So, we had a 10 million downloads celebration in Chicago, which is informal, we had some folks over for dinner. And then I’ll just give a shoutout here, we had a couple from Alabama, and Andrew told me that they started listening to the show on the way back from a funeral, and they were listening to kind of a heavy audiobook, like Tom Clancy, I think terrorists and stuff, it’s like, “You know what, let’s just mix this up and change it to something,” and then heard the show, it was really upbeat and it was useful and inspiring, and it keeps coming back. And so, I thought that was super awesome that, one, they valued it enough to drive from Alabama to Chicago just to have dinner. So, that was super cool.

And to remember that, these numbers, we talk about impressions, translate into human beings who are having an experience that is empowering and worthwhile and, boy, that can resonate hugely if it’s in sort of medical care. But even in smaller matters in terms of, boy, I’m just looking around my desk, a candle that makes for a nice intimate, positive experience for someone who’s having dinner or praying or just setting a mood that’s more pleasant for everyone there. And if you’re marketing candles, I think that does connect and resonate a whole lot more than, hey, 12,400 people saw our Facebook ad about our candles.

David Burkus
Yeah. You know, I totally agree. A lot of organizations, too, will rather than even create impressions, will just label growth, “This is how we’re growing and therefore that.” But growth isn’t a sense of purpose, right? That’s like saying, “Hey, we’re driving 65 miles an hour. Now we’re driving 70. We should all be excited.” Where’s the car going? Tell me more about that. And I think that’s incumbent on if you’re in any leadership role, even if it’s a small team, but it’s also incumbent upon us.

One of the practices I’ve had, admittedly it’s easier to do when you’re an author, but one of the practices I’ve had is to develop what I used to call the win folder. I don’t know what it’s currently called. I should look on my desktop. But it’s basically when people really do send you those thank you emails. I drag them into a folder so that when I need them, I can pull them back. We get those for any of our work.

Even if our work is the impressions and somebody elsewhere in the company said, “Hey, thank you so much for this. I know this project was rough. And look at this success.” When they give you that sort of thank you email or that success email, find a way to keep that because that’s going to be the easiest way to give yourself that reminder is to keep looking back on those sort of things because those are…I mean, we like to think that an organization’s customer are just the people that spend money with them. But your customers are everyone in the organization who benefits from the work that you do. So, finding ways to capture stories from all of them is hugely important.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely, yes. Well, why don’t you go ahead and tell us about a win that keeps you inspired?

David Burkus
Yeah. So, I have a bunch of them. So, I was a full-time business school professor for seven years, and this started as a non-digital, right? We taught business, and I taught a couple of the sales classes. We taught about thank you notes, and people actually listened to me and started sending them. So, I had a little box that was full of those thank you notes. Now, it’s been electronic. Probably my favorite one in the last six months or so, and this is why it comes to the top of my mind, is my prior book was called Friend of a Friend, which is a book about how networks inside organizations but also if you’re looking for a job,  or you’re in sales and trying to find more clients, networking works as well.

And I got an email from a woman who was totally dissatisfied with her job in PR and moved to New York thinking, “I was a PR major, this is where I’m supposed to go to get into film and television and news and media and all that sort of stuff,” and just hated it, loath it. Walked through Barnes & Noble, found the book, which is great but also a little depressing because I wish people like that would already know I exist, but that’s a whole other dilemma. Found the book, read it, and sort of started to develop a plan of action for moving into that world of fashion. And now that’s the world that she’s in. I have no idea why fashion appealed to her, but if you’re already in New York, it’s not a bad place to transition from media over to because it’s also based there.

And, literally, it was two emails. She sent one, I sent one, and then I think she sent one back. I have those two emails in my computer about her job transition over time. I look at it, especially when I look at the sales numbers for Friend of a Friend and we have an off week. I go back and I pull emails like that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful. Thank you.
Okay. So, then by contrast you say that it’s not so effective for the leaders to go offsite and go figure out and cast a vision or a mission statement. You say that they’re often terrible. What’s the story here?

David Burkus
Yeah. I mean, I think they all start well-meaning. The process that we use to develop a lot of them is really flawed. So, we go off to an offsite, usually we start with sort of a draft, we start with what we do which is just not necessarily why we do it but just what we do. Like your example of the roofing company, it’s not really why we do it, it just happens to be this is the business that worked best for the people we have. But we start with that description of what we do, and then everybody turns into like college English professors or parliamentarians and starts debating the specific wording, where this comma goes.

The first thing we need to do, because we care about everybody, is we need to make sure that everybody gets represented. And so, we talk about shareholders, and customers, and stakeholders, and the community, and a ton of different people. And then it’s not enough to say what we do, we also have to say how we do it, so we throw in buzzwords like synergy and excellence and innovation and all of that sort of stuff. And the end result is a phrase that ends up, and it’s way longer than the answer to the question, “What are we fighting for?” part of the reason for the question is just cut through the crap of a mission statement and tell me what you’re fighting for. But it also becomes incredibly difficult to even remember.

I have literally been in the room with CEOs of companies, and said, “What is your mission statement?” and seen them like look under the table, at their phone, or they have to look up their investors, or About Us page of their website to find it because we’re all excited when it came out two years ago and we put it on a glass plaque. But if it doesn’t actually inspire people, using one of the three levers that we were talking about, it gets very easily forgotten.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear you. Well, now I’m intrigued. So, some people might say, “Well, you know, that’s really great for any number of those examples, safety with aluminum, candles, writing books.” Have you seen some folks do a bit of connection to a fight in maybe an industry or a set of activities that would seem like the opposite of inspiring? Like, “It’s really hard to find a purpose here but, by golly, these guys did it and it worked for them.”

David Burkus
Yeah, there’s a couple different there. One of the big things we’re seeing is, like you said, I, after I wrote the book, became aware of a company in Cincinnati called Jancoa that is very similar, they’re a janitorial company, but their whole thing is to help people get settled. Usually, folks that are trying to climb the socio-economic ladder, or immigrants, etc., trying to find and get them settled and move on, so there’s that idea that what we actually do isn’t necessarily all that important, so there’s that idea.

But then there’s other things that people do or sometimes it’s supplied to you from the business model that makes what you do not necessarily all that important. Now, if I’m getting it, something that might be behind your question, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anybody properly leverage a fight and say, “We’re going to do evil,” right? “But we’re going to call it the revolution because the rest of the industry does good.” And this actually is an example that’s coming into my head but it reminds me of we were just talking about mission statements. Sometimes if you’ve got a good fight that you’ve adopted, the mission statement isn’t actually all that important.

So, there’s a little company, you may have never heard of them, they’re called Hershey, the Hershey Company, they make this candy. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it. And for a long time, actually, they had the worst mission statement I’ve ever seen. Their mission statement was literally “undisputed marketplace leadership. That’s our mission. In this industry, we aspire to that.” And, thankfully, they changed it over time mostly because people, like me, criticized them for a really long time. But the truth is they didn’t need that mission because their fight has been a part of the company DNA for a lot longer than that. Not a lot of people know this, but if you work at Hershey you definitely do.

Milton Hershey, before he died, set up a school for biological and societal orphans, the Milton Hershey School. It’s literally almost across the street. You basically, if you go to Hershey Pennsylvania, you have the headquarters of Hershey, Hersheypark, which is an amusement park, and then on the other side of Hersheypark is the school right there, all sort of laid out. Almost along the same street. And this isn’t like a corporate social responsibility, “We give some of our profits to this school that Milton started.” When Milton was preparing his estate, when he was getting ready to die, he set up a trust for the school and willed his shares to the trust. So, the trust and the school is still the majority shareholder of the school. It’s not the profits that fund the school. The trust owns the school. Milton Hershey School owns Hershey Foods.

And so, they could get into any industry they want at this point as a company, and there’s a lot of different divisions now, they’re in entertainment, they make a lot more than just chocolate, all of that sort of thing. So, I think they’re probably my favorite example of a company that you could go into any business, and as long as the trust still owns the primary business, you could change your mission statement to whatever you want to because the sense of purpose that people are going to feel is that ally fight, “What are we fighting for? We’re fighting to give those kids an education.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, so we talked about the fight a lot. I’d love it, adjacent to that or complementary to that, do you have any other best practices that make a world of difference when it comes to motivating a team?

David Burkus
Yeah. So, the task significance piece, I think, is a huge one. I think the biggest one that we are probably in dire need of in this world of virtual work that we’re about to face is, I think, we don’t often tell people how best to interact with us. Like, if you think about the majority of research that you read on people inside of teams, how you interact with your coworkers, etc., most of it is like, and I’m guilty of this, most of is content about how to deal with that coworker that disagrees with you, how to deal with this coworker that you can’t get along with, etc.

I think we’d be a lot better if we thought about us as the problem, and we actually presented to our team, “Hey, here are my little idiosyncrasies.” So, like mine is I’m very easily distracted not by little shiny things, but you’ll say something and then I’ll think about the ramifications of it, and you’ll keep talking but I’ll be over here thinking about how that affects some downstream issue. Like, it’s just I’m a systems thinker like that, and you may have to catch me up at times. You may also find me super excited about an idea that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about but it sparked in that meeting.

So, I try and present to people, “These are the little idiosyncrasies of how I work.” I’ve sometimes heard this described as an owner’s manual for yourself. What if you created an owner’s manual for yourself and gave it out to the rest of your team, and said, “Hey, based on people that used to work with me in the past and my own introspection, these are the things you can expect, strengths and weaknesses, so that we can get a little more clear”? I think that goes a whole lot further than just reading a bunch of listicles about, “How do I deal with a coworker that we disagree with?”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And it’s so powerful in terms of that display example of vulnerability invites others to do the same and just can go so far in building trust and camaraderie and all kinds of good things.

David Burkus
Yeah. Oh, no, I totally agree. I had this situation, in the spirit of trust and vulnerability, I’ll actually share this from two days ago. I was in a back-and-forth, more chat-based debate with somebody that’s, we’ll call him a colleague. Like a lot of the work that I do now is we don’t work for the same company but we’re working for the same mission, be it getting the book out or whatever, and we’re arguing back and forth.

We’re saying something, and he said, “Sorry, this was harsh, whatever,” and I said, “No, I wasn’t offended,” and then I immediately hit him back with, “No, actually, that’s a lie. I was but then I reminded myself of this.” And I forget what the this was but it was basically like, “No, in that moment, I really was angry at you for like 45 seconds but I got over it and here’s why.” And I don’t think he had ever had somebody actually say, “Yeah, you made me angry and I got over it because I care more about this project,” right?

So, those little, I think, displays of vulnerability, I think, are hugely important. I do want to caution here around vulnerability and authenticity that it’s also not an excuse to be a jerk. Like, this owner’s manual is not, “Here’s all the things you can expect about how I tell it like it is.” Right, this is not what we’re talking about.

Pete Mockaitis
Sometimes I’m going to scream at you.

David Burkus
“Sometimes I’ll just throw things and walk off.” No, that’s not what we’re talking about. But we are talking about, “Hey, here are the things I know about what it’s like to work with me, and some ways that I found are easiest. Here are my flaws so that we can work around them.” And, hopefully, that inspires a conversation. That works a whole lot better than like, “Let’s all do a book club, or let’s all take a personality test and talk about our differences.” I don’t know that those go all that far but that vulnerability and open sharing definitely does.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I think the tools whether it’s Myers-Briggs or StrengthsFinder, any number of things out there, can be a fantastic starting point in terms of like, “Yes, this is highly resonant for me, and so I will share it.” And it’s interesting, you mentioned that that person had never had anybody admit that they were upset or offended. I think that’s a whole other ballgame. But there have been some times where people have said that they did this thing, and they said they’re sorry, and I really was kind of ticked off, and I said, “Oh, I forgive you.” It’s like people are used to hearing that, and they’re like, “Actually, that feels more intense.”

David Burkus
Right. You’re supposed to respond with, “No worries,” or, “Oh, it’s no problem,” or whatever. Like, “No, it really was a problem, but I forgive you because I care about you.” Yeah, and it’s the same deal with like I learned this from my kids and like parenting books, which is, ironically, more relevant. Most of them are more relevant to the workplace than they are to parenting. But one of the other things around emotions is it’s always okay to say your emotion. It’s never okay to blame somebody else.

So, when we work on with our kids, you can never say, “Mom, you’re making me mad.” You can say, “I’m mad.” You can say you’re mad at me as much as you want, but you got to take responsibility for your emotion. And then when you say you’re mad, I’ll help you. That might be because I have to apologize, or that might be I need to help you calm down, whatever. It’s totally cool to label your emotions. But I think we’re in this game where we only got half of that in the corporate world where we were talking about you’re not suppose to use you-statements, use I-statements. We ended up just saying nothing instead, and we just kind of mask those emotions. So, people say, “I’m sorry,” and we say, “No worries,” and that’s a lie on both counts because they’re not sorry and we’re still angry.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s true. Well, hey, man, labelling emotions when we’re working out with our two-year old who’s been doing a lot of screaming, maybe you heard some, and so we got these emotion flashcards which are really helpful in terms of the different happy, disappointed, sad, angry, and that’s been going far. We also say, “Johnny, can you please stop screaming?” And then when he does, we clap, and he likes being applauded.

David Burkus
Oh, I like that. I like that. Mine are not two but I might still steal that. For my coworkers, I mean, not for my…

Pete Mockaitis
“Will you stop screaming?” All right. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

David Burkus
No, I think to bring it all together, I think emotions, again, are a powerful thing in the workplace, and we’re just sort of realizing that. And that’s one of the reasons I think this purpose thing, like you said, it’s almost primal, this idea of a fight because it taps into that emotional level. Purpose is great but if it’s just logically apparent, we see how AB equals C, and C is a good thing in the world. That’s not as motivating as let’s tap into that actual emotion of, “Here’s an injustice I need to fix,” or, “Here’s a critic I need to prove wrong,” etc. So, ironically, we hit from both angles, that power of sort of emotions that work used properly.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

David Burkus
Yeah, one of my favorite quotes. I mean, I’m trained as an organizational psychologist, even though I always wanted to be a writer. And one of my favorite quotes from that world is W. Edwards Deming, “In God we trust, all others bring data.”

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

David Burkus
So, I talked about it a bit in the pro social motivation piece around, and some of Adam Grant’s studies. You probably heard these, because I know you and you’re smart, around the doctors and handwashing, very timely study for right now but also the call center workers and spieling the beneficiaries. But I feel like we need to shine more attention on a lot of those studies because one of the things you realize right off the bat is that organizations are pretty terrible at sharing those stories, at sharing those wins and those people who benefit from work. So, it’s a popular study already but it’s not popular enough.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And for those who have not heard it, now is your chance to popularize it. What should they know about it?

David Burkus
Oh, yes. Sorry, we’re all getting nerdy here. I apologize. I shouldn’t assume. So, Grant, while he was a Ph. D. researcher at the University of Michigan, the first study of this was a call center study looking at…especially if you’re going to a state school. I went to grad school at OU, and the very first thing I got in terms of any communication from the University of Oklahoma was a call from a student trying to raise money for scholarships. Every large school has these call centers where we’re just calling alumni asking for money all the time. And I appreciate him because they’re trying, they’re working, these are kids who were trying to pay their own way through school. Talking to them is a bit like talking to the Cat in the Hat, or the Green Eggs and Ham guy. I forget it. It’s Sam. It’s a bit like talking to Sam-I-Am because it’s like, “No, I don’t want to donate a thousand. No, I don’t want to donate in a box. No, I don’t want to donate $20 worth of fox.”

So, Grant looked at this, I mean, it’s incredibly sort of draining job, and Grant looked at it and thought, “How can we increase that task significance piece, leverage the pro social motivation?” is the term that he would use. And so, he designed this study where, basically, everybody in the call center got put into three groups. One group got an extra 10-minute break one day, another group, during that 10-minute break got to read letters from students saying how much they appreciated the scholarship that they earned because of these call center efforts, and the third group got to meet an actual student. So, they went to the breakroom for the normal break and there is a student who describes how the scholarship helped him, how he wouldn’t be able to afford to go to the University of Michigan without it, etc.

Interestingly enough, there’s no effect in group one or two. Obviously, there’s no group in group one because they just got an extra break. But group three made more phone calls afterwards for a number of weeks, raised more money per phone call. None of these groups received any training on how to be a better salesperson, anything like that. It was just the sheer motivation to, “I can put a face and a person to who I’m helping. I know what I’m fighting for at this point. I know it just feels like I’m on a phone call but I’m fighting to help keep those kids who would otherwise not have it, stay educated,” had a dramatic effect on their motivation with no other interventions.

So, Grant wrote all this up in a series of follow-up studies, too, and kind of labeled this term pro social motivation, which I think, personally, like I said, I think it needs to be more popular, talking about extrinsic motivation at all time, we’re talking about intrinsic. I think we’re going to start talking about pro social motivation like it’s a third lever of that level of motivation, that it goes alongside these other two.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thanks. And how about a favorite book?

David Burkus
One of my favorite books is by an intellectual hero of mine named Roger Martin, it’s called The Opposable Mind, and it’s about how, especially in business, but even in life, his thing was when we look at a lot of different mental models of how a business should operate, for example, it’s low cost or differentiation, or we look at how you interact with customers, either speed of service or quality of service, a lot of times those models that seem opposed are not actually opposed. And it’s the leader or even the individual contributor that can find a way to integrate those two models and leverage the strengths of both, that’s why it’s called The Opposable Mind, that can really thrive and create something new.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

David Burkus
This is going to sound super, super low-fi, my absolute favorite tool is Facebook Messenger. I don’t know why. I feel like there’s a lot of stuff you can do in iMessages or Slack, but there’s a little bit more you can do inside of Facebook Messenger, but then there’s not all the other disruptions. And what I like about it is I probably could figure out how to do this better on my computer. But what I like about it is I can get at it from just about anywhere. I’m on my tablet, it’s auto-installed there. I’m on my phone, it’s there. I’m on my desktop, it’s sort of a click away. So, I never could get messages to work the way it should. I know that seems weird but that’s probably how I interact with more colleagues and that sort of stuff. And I don’t use Facebook for anything else. I literally only have Messenger on my phone.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome?

David Burkus
So, we talked about kids already so I’ll tell you this one and yours is at the age where you could start this. My wife brought this into our daily kind of shutdown routines. So, apparently, when she was growing up, it was a common question they asked on the dinner table. Our life is such that we have more family breakfast than we have family dinners, so we didn’t ask it there. But before we go to bed, we ask both of our kids, “What was the favorite part of your day?”

And when the oldest was about three, maybe three and a half, he started asking it back to us and wouldn’t let us put him to bed until we gave him an answer too. And so, that little, now we’d call it a gratitude practice and all of this sort of fluffed-up stuff, but I really just like that question, “What was the favorite part of your day?” Let’s spend 30 seconds and go, “What was the favorite part of today? What went absolute best today?” And so, we still do it. Now, they’re eight and six, but we still do it almost every night. We probably don’t remember every night but we still do it pretty much every night.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s a particular nugget you share that you’re known for?

David Burkus
I like to say that I’m trying to make the experience of work suck a little bit less, and I do that in a variety of ways. Pick A Fight is one of them, a lot of the other books that I’ve written, but we also put out a lot of content, just like you said, about how to interact better with coworkers and show motivation. I think work, the big grand overarching theme, or my personal fight, is that work is far more important to think about work-life balance as just the number hours because toxic work will drag itself home, and positive work will make homelife better as well. So, we need to be talking about the experience of work in a way where people leave it more energized than they came.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn or get in touch, where would you point them?

David Burkus
I would point them to the show notes for this episode because you do an awesome job of writing up all those show notes with all of these little lightning-round questions. And if you’re listening to this, you already know where that is. And, let’s be honest, both of our names are a little hard to spell so no one is going to remember that. I’d send you to DavidBurkus.com but you’re already listening to the show. You know where the show notes are. Find me there.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

David Burkus
Find your fight. Look at the tasks that you do and the story that would resonate the most with you, and find a way to frame it, and remind yourself of that story all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. David, this has been a treat. Thank you and good luck in your fights.

David Burkus
Oh, thank you. Thanks so much. Thanks for fighting for people to have a more awesome job.

558: How to Escape Non-Stop Urgency and Become Visionary with Michael Hyatt

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Michael Hyatt: "Success is not about how much you accomplish, it's whether you're accomplishing the right things."

New York Times bestselling author and leadership mentor Michael Hyatt shares what it really takes to become a vision-driven leader.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why anyone can be a vision-driven leader
  2. The 4 key components of a good vision script
  3. How to turn your vision into action

About Michael:

Michael Hyatt is the founder and CEO of Michael Hyatt & Company, a leadership coaching and development firm twice listed on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing US companies. A longtime publishing executive, Michael is the former chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson, now part of HarperCollins. He is a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author of several books, including Your Best Year Ever, Living Forward, and Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World.

Michael is the creator of the Full Focus Planner, which combines quarterly goal-tracking and daily productivity in a proven system for personal and professional achievement. His blog and weekly podcast, Lead to Win, are go-to resources for hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs, executives, and aspiring leaders. He has been featured by Forbes, Inc, Entrepreneur, Fast Company and Wall Street Journal. Michael and his wife of 40 years, Gail live just outside of Nashville, Tennessee.

Items Mentioned in the Show

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Michael Hyatt Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Michael, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Michael Hyatt
Thank you, Pete. I appreciate you having me on.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Well, I’m looking forward to dig into this. We’re going to talk about visions and leaders. So, I want to kind of hear from your own experience. Tell us, who’s the greatest leader you’ve encountered firsthand and what was their vision like?

Michael Hyatt
Oh, man. Yeah, I would say probably John Maxwell. He’s well-known in corporate circles for sure but I had the privilege of being his publisher for about a decade and got to know him pretty close. And he was sort of my unofficial mentor. But, yeah, he had a tremendous amount of charisma and was always able to just be super relatable. And the thing that I loved about him the most is he led from his heart.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, we’ve had him on the show a couple of times, I’m a fan, so right on. Very cool. And I’m curious, did you have any particular moments with John that really kind of hit you, like, “Hmm, yeah, do that. Do that in my leadership”?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, there were a couple of times. When I was the CEO at Thomas Nelson Publishers, which was a pretty large publicly-held company, I remember him telling me when I first took that job, he said, “You know, you hear people say all the time it’s lonely at the top.” He said, “I just want you to know that’s a choice. You don’t have to be lonely at the top. That’s totally a choice.” And I’ve always remembered that because I thought there’s a real reason why you need friends outside of work, and why you need people that you can relate to outside of work that can kind of understand you, get you, be an encouragement to you, and support you when things are not going that great at work.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, that’s a handy tip. Excellent. So, well, let’s dig into your latest upcoming book here, “The Vision Driven Leader.” So, I’m curious, that sounds like that’s how leaders should operate. But if leaders are not driven by vision, what is driving them?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, the thing that’s driving them typically is the tyranny of the urgent.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Michael Hyatt
Most leaders I know that are leading are not driven by vision, and I think that most of them think they should be driven by vision but it’s not taught in business school, there are only about two books that I could find on the topic on Amazon, nobody’s really written about it, and because there aren’t a lot of visionary leaders in the marketplace, people just assume that it’s a special kind of charisma, or clairvoyance, or gifting, and most people just kind of go, “I don’t have the vision thing so I guess I can’t lead from vision,” so they just kind of do the next thing that comes across the plate.

And being driven from vision is a very different way to live. It’s a way to live by design, a way to run your business or your department or your division by design, because the alternative, Pete, is to drift and nobody ever drifted to a destination they would’ve chosen. And if you’re just in reactive mode all the time, then you’re really squandering resources, you have lack of focus, lack of attention, and if you can consolidate all that around a vision, it changes everything.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m intrigued by your assertion there that there’s only a couple of books on Amazon. I guess I think that, hey, a vision is one of like the main things you got to have as a leader, and you should craft and communicate and inspire through that. And so, you’re saying that is a rarity. And so then, I want to kind of zero in on the distinction here. So, I guess there’s a lot of books that kind of talk about vision. You say there’s only about two that do what exactly?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, I think the issue is that people confuse it with mission, and people think that a vision has got to be something that’s short, brief, clever, something you can slap on a coffee mug or put on a T-shirt, and that’s really not robust enough to guide you. But just to make it clear, mission and vision seems similar but I differentiate the two in the book.

A mission provides day-to-day clarity by kind of defining the identity and scope of the business. And an effective mission statement keeps on you task by answering some certain questions. But a vision is really not about now, and a mission is about now. A vision is about then. A mission is typically short, something that you can repeat almost from memory, but a vision is going to be more robust blueprint of the future that you’re trying to create. So, I think it’s important to differentiate those two things from the other.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then let’s zero in. So, the subtitle of your book, we’ve got 10 questions there that focus efforts, energize team, and enable scaling. Well, I love powerful questions. So, can you lay some of them on us here?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, like the first one is, “Are you a leader or a manager?” And this is a fundamental question, both of them are important, but they’re distinct functions. Sometimes they’re the same. Sometimes your role, they require that you have a leadership role and a management role, but let me kind of differentiate the two.

First of all, leaders create vision while managers execute vision. Think of it this way, if you’re leading, you’re leading people somewhere, otherwise you’re just taking a walk. That somewhere is your vision. If you don’t have a vision, you’re just taking a walk. Leaders inspire and motivate. Managers maintain and administer. Leaders take risks, managers control risks. Leaders stay focused on the horizon, while managers have their eye on short-term goals and objectives. Again, both are important but the essence of leadership, the foundation, the thing that’s kind of the number one priority is vision.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then I guess a couple of clarifiers. One, can a person be both a leader and a manager?

Michael Hyatt
Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
And I imagine you’re doing some activities that are more in the leader column, and some activities that are more in the manager column, depending on the hour of the day.

Michael Hyatt
Yeah. Well, let me give you an example of where we’ll separate it in two people, but I really think this is a skillset and something that anybody can develop, and this is why I wrote “The Vision Driven Leader” because it’s my conviction that anybody can be a vision-driven leader.

But Steve Jobs is probably the most iconic biggest example, somebody that was a visionary leader. His wife, at his funeral, said that the thing that Steve brought to the table was that he didn’t just see what reality lacked, but he set about to try to remedy it. So, he saw what was missing and went about to try to remedy that.

And so, you can remember when the iPhone was introduced. Steve wasn’t just a guy that said, “Hey, let’s make an incremental improvement on the phone keyboard,” which was very prevalent at the time. No, he said, “Let’s completely eliminate that. Let’s make it software-driven. Let’s let it be operated with one finger,” and he had one button on that initial iPhone. Of course, now it doesn’t even have a button. But that was an iconic kind of vision.

Meanwhile, you’ve got Tim Cook who is really the manager, who is behind the scenes optimizing the supply chain, making sure that costs could be controlled, risks could be managed, and it took both of those guys to really develop an amazing company. But here’s the thing, when Steve died, everybody, all the press, all the tech press, people on Wall Street said, “Well, I guess that’s the end of Apple. Maybe they’ll last for a while, maybe they can coast on their momentum, but the visionary is gone.” Not so fast.

Tim Cook stepped into the role of leading that company and became visionary in his own way. It’s different than Steve’s but it was still visionary. And guess what the stock price did. Basically, the market cap of that company tripled under Tim’s leadership. So, the company has gone on to amazing heights that even Steve couldn’t take it to. So, yeah, so I think these kinds of roles can be…they are roles, they’re not the essence of who you are. Anybody could be a vision-driven leader.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a good line there. They are roles and not the essence of who you are. And so then, you say that we are often kind of caught up in the urgent and the stuff that we’re handling, and the vision is bigger and it’s kind of where we’re going. So, could you just sort of lay down a few articulations of visions for us so we can get that distinction crystal clear, like, “Oh, that”?

Michael Hyatt
Let me give you a definition. So, when I’m talking about a vision, I’m not talking about a vision statement. A statement is not sufficient. I’m talking about, and the word I use in the book is a vision script. It’s a written document that’s three to five pages in length, it articulates an imagined future, at least three years into the future, maybe five years or more depending on your industry, it’s superior to the present, it motivates you, it’s written in the present tense, and it guides you and your team in day-to-day decision-making.

And it’s organized, and I talk about this in the book, around four key components: the future of your team, that’s where it’s got to start, the future of your products, the future of your marketing, and the future of your impact. And those are just sort of the objective, measurable metrics, things like financial size, or market reach, number of customers, web visits, or something like that.

But the reason it starts with your team is your team is going to be the primary means by which you realize this imagined future. They’re going to be the ones who are going to help you bring that into reality. Your team, the people you attract, the culture that you’re creating is the single biggest driver of operating results. This is why some leaders can’t seem to make any progress in their organizations. They’re fighting against this invisible wall of culture. So, you’ve got to reimagine something different and begin to create that. That’s why the team component of that goes first.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I also want to get your view, so if you’re not at the super senior, or CEO, or just a notch or two below level, how do you envision – huh, vision – these vision scripts or principles playing out for someone who has a small team or someone who does not yet have formal direct reports but is doing that influencing across functions and such?

Michael Hyatt
Well, it totally works at any level. So, I talk in the book about when I became sort of the mid-level manager at Thomas Nelson Publishers. I was given a responsibility for one of our 14 book divisions. So, I was two steps removed from the CEO, I was in charge of this division, and I discovered, much to my surprise, a few days after I took the job, that that division was number 14 out of 14 in every important metric. They had the slowest revenue growth. It was the least profitable. In fact, it had lost money. Team morale was terrible. The division was failing.

So, the CEO said to me, he said, “How long is it going to take you to turn this division around?” And so, I said to him, I said, “I’m not sure but I think probably about three years.” The first thing I did was I booked an off-site retreat. I went away for 24 hours, and I just tried to get clear on what I wanted to create for the future. This is the first time I’d ever done this but I thought, “This thing is such a mess that I’ve got to imagine something different that’s going to motivate us and something that we can build toward.”

And I’ve been heavily influenced, though I’ve never met him, by Stephen Covey, and habit number two in the seven laws is “Begin with the end in mind.” So, I began to think to myself, “Okay, what is it that I want to create here?” And I started writing down everything I could think of, and I end it up, this is like an early version of the vision script, I end it up with 10 statements or 10 bullet points about the reality that I wanted to see in the future.

So, for example, let me give you an idea. So, that division had not had any bestselling books for years, and so I wrote down, “We’re publishing five New York Times’ Business Bestsellers per year.” So, literally, I wrote that down like it was a present reality. I said, “We’re publishing 48 books a year.” Now, the interesting thing was, at the time that I wrote that, we’re publishing 120 books a year, so I was essentially proposing that we cut the list by more than half because I felt like the increased focus, the concentration of resources, would better ensure the success of each of the books. So, it was a radical thing.

Another example, I said, “All of our employees are maxing out their bonuses,” because I wanted our team, I wanted us to earn the maximum bonus because I knew that would motivate people, and people can work for that because they would have the incentive to succeed because they would directly benefit if we did.

So, after that retreat, I came back with those 10 items written down, and I got together my inner circle, a handful of direct reports, and I said, “Look, I’ve been thinking about the future, and I’ve written some things down, this is kind of the beginning of a vision, but I don’t have it perfect, and I need your help. This is a rough draft. It’s wet cement. I’m probably missing some things, there are probably some things I don’t have quite right, and I need your input.” So, I involved them, I invited them to a conversation, where over the course of the next few weeks, we collectively got clearer on what it was that we wanted to create.

Once we got that together, then we shared it with the entire team. It was so motivational, everybody was inspired by it, we got excited about it, we let that be an operating document that informed our daily actions, and we worked hard. It didn’t take us three years like I told the CEO. It only took us a year and a half. We went from number 14 to number one in revenue growth, number 14 to number one in profit margin, and that division remained the most profitable division at Thomas Nelson Publishers for 10 years, for a decade, until I left the company in 2011.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, that is quite lovely in terms of once you start to describe specifically those bits in a present reality, it just naturally stirs something inside you, like, “Yes, I want that.”

Michael Hyatt
Definitely.

Pete Mockaitis
“Let’s go get that.” And, now, a few things that leap to mind here are, one, how do you deal with the potential cynicism or lack of belief, like, “Yeah, Michael, that’d be great but, I mean, come on, you know, not in the cards. Yeah, I’d love that yet here we are”?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah. Well, cynicism is really a cancer, and it’s a really hard thing to deal with in a lot of organizations because people have dealt with a lot of disappointment, they listened to leaders that articulated a vision but not rolled up their sleeves to help. It seems so pie in the sky. People have to believe it. And I think it really starts with you as the leader. You’ve got to be sold first. If you’re not buying what you’re selling, you don’t have a chance of selling to other people. You’ve got to be able to believe it, and you’ve got make it compelling.

This is like so many things in any kind of organization. It comes down to sales. We’re all in sales. I don’t care what your role is, if you can’t sell your ideas to your boss, if you can’t sell it to the people working for you, you’re not going to be successful. So, what you go to do is you’ve got to tune in to the most popular radio station on earth that everybody listens to, and that’s WII-FM, “What in it for me?” That’s the question that everybody is asking, and so you’ve got to be able to answer that question when you’re selling the vision.

What’s in it for you? It might not just be financial compensation, although that helps, and that’s why I put the one bullet point about maximizing bonuses, but it’s also for a sense of meaning. People work because they want to be connected to a larger story. They want to feel like they’re a part of something meaningful, something that’s making a difference, something that’s making a dent in the universe. And this is particularly important for the millennial generation. Millennials often get a bad rap because people say they don’t have the work ethic, they’re entitled, whatever. I’ve got an entire company full of millennials. They’re the hardest working people I know. But the reason they are is because they’re connected to a vision they believe in.

And that’s another key too. It’s got to be their vision. It starts with you as the leader, you can’t outsource this, you can’t delegate it, it’s got to start with you, but in the process, it’s got to become ours. It’s got to become a collective vision, otherwise people are going to be disengaged, and they’re going to be cynical, and they’re not going to work towards the fulfillment of it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, once we’ve got it situated in terms of we’ve got a draft, we got some inputs, we’ve got it fleshed out and revised based upon that, what are some of the key questions and next steps to turn that into specific actions that starts bringing it closer to that vision?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, one of the things I talk about in the second part of the book, I talk about, “Is it clear? Is it inspirational? But is it practical?” This has got to translate into your daily actions. And here’s what the linkage looks like. There’s so much emphasis on most corporations on execution, “We got to execute. If we could execute better, we can accomplish more.” Well, here’s the thing, if the execution isn’t based on a vision, you’re going to create a lot of sideways energy, a lot of unproductive fake work. But the vision acts as a filter. It enables you to separate opportunities from distractions.

And so often, the more successful you become, distractions show up masquerading as opportunities, and this is why people get overwhelmed, like companies have too much to do, why people work in 70 to 80 hours a week. The vision focus is that effort. But once you’ve got a clear vision, then you can ask yourself the question, again, the three-year time horizon, “Based on that, what do our annual goals need to be for this year so that we can achieve that vision over the course of the next three years?” I recommend seven to 10 goals on an annual basis. That’s got to be further disseminated or distilled down to two to three goals per quarter.

Then, from that, we come down to the weekly priorities. And everybody’s got to have weekly priorities that are based on those goals, and I recommend no more than three. Probably you got a thousand things you could do this week, but what are the three most important? And then, finally, what are your big three daily tasks? The average person has, and we’ve done a lot of research on this, but the average person who uses a task management system has 15 tasks on any given day that they have to do. As a result of that, they wake up feeling overwhelmed. Even if they get eight of those done, more than half, they end up with seven that are unchecked, they go to bed defeated. They’re playing a game they can’t win.

Instead, if you take sort of the Pareto principle, that 20% of the effort drives 80% of the results, there’s probably 20% of those 15 tasks that are really going to move the needle, that are the high-leverage activities that really, really matter. So, 20% of 15 is 3, so identify your three big tasks for the day, declare it a victory if you get those three done, and do that day after day after day, and you’ll incrementally move toward that vision. And that’s exactly what my coaching clients do, that’s what the leaders we consult with do, and that has made all that difference, and it links that vision with daily action.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you’ve given me some fun data there, those 15, and I guess, in practice, most of the time, people do not accomplish all 15, and then you do have those carryovers that are frustrating. And so, I’ve thought a lot about the 80/20 Principle and I am…it’s funny how you talk about do those three and you get to declare a victory. Sometimes I wonder, it’s like, “Well, there’s those three things, but what about the amount of time? It’s like have I really earned a victory if I did those three things in one hour?” And so, take it.

Michael Hyatt
Yeah. Well, I was going to say, it’s not about how long it takes. Here’s the thing, success is not about how much you accomplish, it’s whether you’re accomplishing the right things. And this is the question that real leaders ask, they’re not asking, “How much could I get done?” but, “Can I get the right things done?”

And as it turns out, there’s not that many things you have to do to contribute toward the vision. Now, let me just give you a case in point. So, I have about 500 business coaching clients, many of those are business owners, some of them are entrepreneurs, some of them are just leading inside a corporation. But on average, people that are responsible for revenue in my business coaching clients, on average, in the first 12 months in the program, using this kind of vision-driven approach, their business grows by 62%. On average.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Michael Hyatt
That’s interesting all by itself. But here’s what makes it even more interesting. On average, they shaved 11 hours off their work week. They’re able to achieve more by doing less because they’re not fixated on all these stuff that doesn’t contribute to the vision. They’re focused on the stuff that contributes to the vision and to the future reality that they’re trying to create. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely, yeah. Well, that is exciting for all the overworked people experiencing that. All right. So, we’ve got the crafting the vision, breaking it down into the particular activities. I want to hear, when you are going about communicating this, what are some of your top do’s and don’ts for conveying it effectively with other people?

Michael Hyatt
Well, the first thing I would practice is something I call cascading communication, but it’s got to begin with a written vision statement. So, it’s not enough to just have this rattle around in your brain, let it be vague, or ambiguous, or just kind of floating out there. You’ve got to express it, and so that’s why I always say you’ve got to write the vision. That will force clarity. By writing it down, that forces clarity. So, you’re going to end up with a vision script, again, a document that’s three to five pages in length.

You’re going to practice cascading communication which means that you’re not just going to like go back, get your entire department together, or your entire division, or your entire company, and then just read it. No, that’s not the way you want to do it. You want to submit this, first of all, to a small, small group, your inner circle. Then you want to roll it out to the next level down, and then the next level down. This gives an opportunity for input, so if you’ve got some glaring errors, or some things that you’ve absolutely missed, or don’t have quite right, you’ve got a chance to correct those before you roll it out to a broader group.

So, each time you roll it out, there should be a little bit less change. But even when you roll it out to the entire group, and you’re standing in front of whatever organization you preside over, whether, again, that’s a department, or a division, or the entire company, you basically want to say, “Look, we’re crafting, we’ve crafted and we’ve worked on a vision of the future. This is a reality that we want to create. And we, as a leadership team, or a management team,” or whatever you call it inside your organization, “we’re committed to this future, but we can’t do it ourselves. We need your help. There may be things here that we’ve missed, and we want to invite you to contribute to that and to give us some feedback.” So, you want feedback.

And, by the way, you’ve got to reframe negative feedback as something that’s truly helpful. If somebody sees something you’re missing, I would much rather know from a teammate than to roll it out into the marketplace and figure out when the market doesn’t accept it, or you embarrass yourself, or fall flat on your face. So, you want to involve everybody in that process, so it does involve cascading communication, that’s one thing.

Second thing, it’s not a one-and-done kind of thing where you finish your vision script, you make a big announcement, “Ta-dah!” and then you put it on the shelf and forget it. No. Here’s the thing. Vision leaks. Andy Stanley talks about this in his book on vision, but vision leaks. What that means is that in a daily grind, as we’re trying to work through all the tasks, and we’re trying to deal with all the incoming stuff that we’re reacting to, it’s very easy to forget where this task you’re doing fits into the bigger story. That’s why leaders, true leaders, have to be the voice for the vision. If they’re not giving voice to that vision, the vision might as well not exist. The only thing that keeps it alive is you constantly repeating it.

Another story, 2009, I was in the teeth, the midst of the great recession. It was a horrendous time. Our sales have fallen by 20% that first year, the entire industry had fallen by about…the book publishing industry had fallen by about 20% that year, I mean, it was rough. And I remember complaining to my executive coach, I said, “I am so tired about talking about the vision. I feel like it’s kind of a lost cause at this point. We got to re-strategize, and I’m tired of hearing myself talk about it.” She said, “Well, I’ll tell you what, when you’re tired of hearing yourself talk about it, you’re half done. This is the time people need to hear the vision because people are discouraged, people are not seeing the results of their work. They need to be reminded why they’re working, what’s important, what you’re trying to create.”

So, I rolled up my sleeves, redoubled my effort, and kept preaching the vision. I had to keep it alive, and I really think that was the only thing that got us through the great recession, was the belief that we were creating a future that was bigger than the recession and would come to pass once we got through the other side of the recession, which we did.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, very cool. Well, let me follow up on your point with regard to that this applies to all folks at all levels. So, how do you recommend you apply some of these questions, or principles, or approaches when you got no direct reports whatsoever? Do you make a vision for yourself, and a plan for yourself, or how do you think about those matters?

Michael Hyatt
Absolutely, because you’re still presiding over an area where you have responsibility. And if you’re responsible for any kind of results, you can have a vision for what those results can be. So, to give you an example, our social media manager has zero direct reports, but she’s got her own vision script about what it is she’s trying to create for us in terms of our social media channels, in terms of she’s got an outside team, very small team of contractors. She’s got one contractor that she’s working with, that’s her team. What’s her product? Well, it’s the posts. What’s the marketing? How does she do this? What’s the impact she’s wanting to have?

But for her to get crystal clear on that, the alternative, again, if you don’t design the future, you’re going to get to the future. You’re just going to drift into it and you’re going to drift to a destination that you didn’t design using one that’s not desirable. So, I really believe that everybody at every level needs to have a vision for what it is they’re trying to create in their role, even if they’re just a solopreneur, even if they’re one person in a department with no direct reports, or they have a small department or a division. It doesn’t matter. You still need vision. Begin with the end in mind.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Michael, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Michael Hyatt
Well, I would say that inevitably when you’re coming up with a vision, you’re going to experience resistance, there are going to be challenges. Just because you come up with a vision, it doesn’t mean that, all of a sudden, like magic, this begins to start happening. Steven Pressfield wrote an incredible book called “The War of Art.” And one of the things he talks about in that book is the resistance. And anytime you purpose to make an improvement, I don’t care whether it’s trying to lose weight, improve your marriage, improve your business metrics, whatever it is, you’re going to encounter opposition.

And it may just be in the form of something that’s not direct or personal, just challenges in the marketplace or whatever, or maybe just people that oppose your vision. But, regardless, the value of a vision is when you get into that messy middle, when you’ve invested too much to quit, and you’re not sure you have the resources to finish, it’s that vision that gives you the tenacity to stay in the hunt, and follow through, and not quit, not bail out before you realize it. So, this has a really practical consequence for staying engaged when you want to quit.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, I would say one of my favorite quotes about writing that’s apropos to a vision is “Thoughts disentangle themselves passing over the lips and through pencil tips.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Michael Hyatt
I think the research that I’ve done in my book “Free to Focus,” which is my last book, was the importance of actually limiting the amount of time you work so you increase your focus and your productivity. One of the things I discovered in that process is that once you work more than about 50 hours a week, you actually go backwards in terms of productivity and accomplish less. So, all these people that are out there advocating what I call the hustle fallacy, you need to work 70 or 80 hours a week, or like a loan you need to work 80 to 100 hours a week, they don’t have the science on their side. People that are more productive and accomplishing bigger results are people that are putting firm boundaries around their work and have a life outside of work.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s the magic number or the range?

Michael Hyatt
Oh, 50.

Pete Mockaitis
Fifty, all right.

Michael Hyatt
Yep.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Michael Hyatt
I’m typically a fan of the last book I read, and one of the most recent ones I read that I really loved was Jason Fried’s book “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.” He advocates some of the same kind of concepts. But if I had to point to a book, one of my favorites of all time is, I’ve already mentioned, is Stephen Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Michael Hyatt
The tool I’m using the most right now is a tool called Dynalist. Have you ever heard of it?

Pete Mockaitis
I think I’ve seen it listed but I’ve never used it. Tell me more.

Michael Hyatt
It’s an outlining tool. I used to use a tool called Workflow. And I tend to think in hierarchical outlines, so whenever I’m trying to create content, that’s where I start. But Dynalist is kind of like Workflow on steroids. It’s got a lot of features that Workflow is missing. But, yeah, I love it.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And a favorite habit?

Michael Hyatt
My morning routine. That’s crucial. Having a morning ritual that sets me up to win is critically important. And of my morning ritual, there’s a number of things that I do there. I think my daily practice of exercise while listening to either podcasts or audiobooks is critical to both my physical maintenance and my intellectual growth.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget that you share, you’re really known for, people kind of quote it back to you often?

Michael Hyatt
I think the whole thing about self-care and investing in yourself, that if you want to accomplish more, you’ve got to drive the roots deep and plant the tree on firm ground. And I think a lot of leaders don’t do enough of that. They’re run rugged by their work. They’re not reinvesting in themselves. You’ve got to fill the well if you’re going to have anything to share with other people.

Pete Mockaitis
And, Michael, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Michael Hyatt
Well, first of all, to find out about the book, you can go to VisionDrivenLeader.com/awesome, we’ve created a special landing page for your listeners. And there, if you buy the book, “The Vision Driven Leader” from any outlet and bring the receipt there, you can turn it in, we’ve got a number of free bonuses there including the Audible version of the book. So, if you buy the physical book or the Kindle and come there, we’ll give you the Audible book that you can listen to as well for free.

Also, the Kindle edition of my last book, and then a tool called the vision scriptor tool which will take you by the hand and walk you through the process of creating your first draft of a vision script for your department, or your division, or whatever you preside over. So, again, that’s all at VisionDrivenLeader.com/awesome. For all other things related to me, my podcasts and my other products and tools and blog and all that, it’s in MichaelHyatt.com.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, I would say you’ve got to be, if you want to succeed, if you really want to grow, if you want your career to progress, you’ve got to be a vision-driven leader. It’s essential. I don’t care at what level you are, if you develop a vision, if you develop the habit of developing a vision, if you’re being vision-driven, that’s going to make you stand out and give you a competitive edge against everybody else that is totally in reactive mode. You’ll create bigger better results, you’ll get noticed, and you’ll get promoted faster.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Michael, thanks. This has been a treat and good luck to you.

Michael Hyatt
Thanks, Pete. Appreciate it.

557: How to Outthink Fear with Dr. Mark McLaughlin

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Mark McLaughlin says: "Fear comes when something is unknown. The more you know... the less fear or stress or anxiety one has."

Neurosurgeon and author Mark McLaughlin shares the science of fear and what to do about it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How fear affects our decision-making
  2. How to manage your fears effectively
  3. The two techniques to help you outthink your fears

About Mark:

Mark McLaughlin is a practicing board-certified neurosurgeon, a  national media commentator, author of the book Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon’s Quest to Outthink Fear, and acclaimed keynote speaker.

He is the founder of Princeton Brain and Spine Care where he practices surgery focusing on trigeminal neuralgia and cervical spine surgery. McLaughlin is also a thought leader in performance enhancement and physician hospital relations.

Items Mentioned in the Show

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Mark McLaughlin Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Mark, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Mark McLaughlin
My pleasure to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your stuff. And, first, let’s hear, so you currently work as a neurosurgeon, but before that, you wrestled so well, you made the Hall of Fame. Tell us the story here.

Mark McLaughlin
Well, I’m from northern New Jersey and I took up wrestling as a young boy, had some very influential coaches along the way who helped me, gave me the tools to succeed. Wrestling kind of let me wet my whistle in terms of concentration and intensity, and as I got older and wanted to move onto medicine, I went on to become a doctor. And I picked neurosurgery because it’s the closest thing to wrestling that I could get after wrestling.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s so intriguing. Please explain, what’s the crossover or similarities?

Mark McLaughlin
Well, it’s intense, it’s grueling, it’s extremely personal, there are high risks, and it just gave me the same pump and the same exhilaration that wrestling did, so I thought I got to go for it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so then in the midst of operating in that, literally, operating in that capacity, you made some discoveries about how to deal with fear. Can you tell us the story of how that came about?

Mark McLaughlin
About 10 years ago, I got invited up to West Point to give some talks to the cadets, and so, I began to compile stories about patients and stressful events during surgeries or during my decision-making processes in taking care of these patients. And so, as I began to compile the stories, I’d start sharing with them things that I used to keep myself out of trouble and to save lives.

And so, those would be different techniques that I had in neurosurgery but I realized that they were real-life skills that you could use in the military or you could use in your personal life or your business life. So, I began sharing some of those things with the cadets, like the rules of neurosurgery, for one. So, rules of neurosurgery are things like never cut what you can’t see, always leave a drain, never worry about a patient alone, measure millimeters in miles. These are things that are drilled into your head during your residency, but you can apply them to anything in life.

Like, never cut what you can’t see is one of those things in neurosurgery that you never want to close your scissors unless you know exactly what’s between those two blades. But, similarly, that’s an allegory for life, isn’t it? You never want to make an important decision or make a move unless you know exactly what’s up in front of you. So, that’s how it all started.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing. So, you say they keep you out of trouble in terms of these are just kind of best practices during the course of conducting a brain surgery. And then I want to know, kind of what the West Pointers wanted to know, what are you saying to yourself during the course of doing these surgeries?

Mark McLaughlin
So, those rules are ingrained in you, so you’re following steps through a surgery, but usually what I try and do is get into a mindset. So, before I start a surgery, I have a very specific routine, I call it my 5Ps. I take a pause, I think about that exact patient I’m operating on, I’ll say to myself, “This is a 42-year old accountant. He’s been suffering from severe sciatica for five weeks. He’s in excruciating pain. This is the most important day of his life. Let’s get him fixed up.”

Then I move onto my plan and that’ll be my exact step-by-step passage through the surgery mentally. Then I’ll put out a positive thought and that’s, “This is why you’re here today. This is what you trained your whole life for. You’re in the right spot. You’re ready to go.” And then, lastly, what I’ll do is I’ll say a prayer. And a prayer for me, one might say it doesn’t affect the outcome of a surgery, but it always affects me. It always calms me and it always helps me perform better.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, that’s the process and so you’re working with that and that is getting the job done for you. So, then let’s zoom into the typical professional who’s listening here, they’ve got a different job. It might be less high-stakes in terms of its immediate consequences in the moment. If you screw up, most of our jobs, if I butcher this podcast, no one’s going to die. We’ll have 20,000 people mad that we destroyed that hour or 45 minutes of their life, that’s less than a full lifetime though if you multiply it out. But, anyway, regardless, the stakes are probably, for most of us, lower hour to hour. But what is at stake with regard to us when we are dealing with fear, when the mind is on fear, what to do?

Mark McLaughlin
That’s important. Everything is important in work and in life and in your relationships, and they are life and death in some respect, they’re your life, and so they’re important. And I would just say that fear is a universal experience that we all have. I mean, we’ve all experienced fear every since we started looking under our bed before we went to bed at night, right? And it’s something that we have to manage in our lives. Some people do it better than others, but we could all improve on it.

So, it’s important to understand that fear, it’s just an alarm bell going off in your mind. So, what I see it as, it’s almost Pavlovian. We’re moving along, things are going great, nothing unexpected happens, we’re calm, we’re homeostatic, or we’re even feeling confident or assured or secure. And then something unexpected comes to us and that’s the first inkling that we might have something different or something interfering with our goal in life. And so, that unexpected event can do some type of anticipated anxiety or stress. Or let’s say it’s something real, something dangerous jumps into your way, like an intruder in your house, then it’s real fear. That’s real terror.

But fear is not the solution to the situation, it’s only the alarm bell. Figuring out what to do about the alarm bell is what you need to focus on. And that’s what I talk about in my book, is, “How do we look at fear and unpack it into its structural components and literally map it out in our minds so that we can outthink, so that we can know what the problem is, and attack the problem?” And, immediately when we start doing that, our fear level goes down. It dials itself down a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that sounds cool and appealing. And so, can you maybe let us in on perhaps the why behind that a bit? Is it okay to be afraid and to experience the fear or is it counterproductive or harmful at some level?

Mark McLaughlin
No, having fear is a good thing. You never want to be free of fear. Imagine the stupid things we would do if we didn’t have fear. It’s absolutely essential, and for survival in our earlier stages of development in life on earth, I mean, we wouldn’t have survived without it. But the thing about it, as far as the brain goes, and neurophysiology and neuroanatomy is, is that it’s almost like there’s an operating system that’s been built on an operating system, that’s been built on an operating system, and all the earlier operating systems are still running in your brain.

So, the fight or flight response is still very real in your mind and in your brain and in your neuroanatomy, the circuitry. You have to be careful about that. That’s great when someone is stalking you in a dangerous confrontation. But it’s not helpful when somebody says something that might be insulting to you in a business meeting. So, you need to know where your neocortex is working and how your executive function can override that.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, if we are not overriding that and we just sort of allow our earlier lizard operating systems to run wild and do what they want to do, what could be the consequences?

Mark McLaughlin
Well, you’re going to blurt out something that you probably would regret or you’re going to act in a way that’s not becoming of a leader, and you’re not going to have the most optimal outcome. And that’s the goal. The goal is to perform at your very best, so you have to recognize this. So, for instance, like if I’m at a business meeting with my partners, and one of my partners says something that I get very irritated about, and I can see that he’s anxious and irritated, what I try and do, one of the things I try and do is just identify.

I’ll say, “Listen, I know you’re raising your voice, and I am too, and that means that this is important and we care about this and that’s a good thing. But that’s not going to help us solve the problem that we need to solve. So, let’s talk about what the specifics are. Let’s break this down and line up possible solutions. Let’s start thinking about it.” So, identifying that is very helpful in this process.

Pete Mockaitis
So, certainly, there’s some interpersonal consequences there that you might really damage the relationship if you scream or tell them exactly what you think in that moment. And then, I guess I’m curious, even internally, what does the research have to say about how we go about thinking, processing, problem-solving, creativity, decision-making, when we’ve got the fear OS at work?

Mark McLaughlin
There’s a lot of cross-chatter among the higher functions of the brain and the lower functions, and it’s really interesting how we can map out the neurophysiology and thought patterns of fear and see what it looks like on functional MRI scan. And there’s some good studies that show that meditative mindfulness practices can decrease some of that chatter, some of that crosstalk that we have that creates anxiety and stress in our minds. So, it really is an important practice to perform and I’m a big believer in meditation for part of controlling and managing fear.

Pete Mockaitis
And is crosstalk a bad thing? Is that like concerning when you’re seeing that on the FMRIs?

Mark McLaughlin
Yes, I mean, generally it is because it means you don’t have like a focused pathway. So, the brain, when we do things, it creates connections, neural networks. So, you have a neural network for riding bike, that’s why you can jump on a bike 20 years after you’ve jumped on a bike the last time and you can still ride a bike. That neural network is that pattern of firing is all set. But if you have patterns of firing that are disrupted or they’re not clean and clear, you’re going to not think properly, you’re not going to react the way you’d like to react in a situation when you need your best.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then let’s get into the particulars of how this is done. So, you say you can deconstruct and look at the patterns and structures of fear and go after them and effectively outthink it. So, how does this work in process and practice?

Mark McLaughlin
Well, I talk about a technique of using lateral thinking. So, lateral thinking is a concept where we try to dislocate the normal thought patterns that we have when we solve problems. So, normally, people think linearly and logically about how to solve a problem. A good example of lateral thinking is the King Solomon story. When the two mothers come to King Solomon and say, “Will you please…this is my child,” “This is my child,” and he says, “Okay, we’ll solve the problem. We’ll cut the baby in half, and you’ll each get half of the baby,” because he sort of knew that the real mother would say, “No, no, no, she can have the baby.” That’s how he knew who the real mother was.

It’s like thinking differently about things. So, I’ll give you an example in medicine. So, in medicine, you may have somebody that comes in and they’ve got a pretty straightforward problem, let’s say. Let’s say they have a headache and a stiff neck and a fever, and their roommate had meningitis two days ago, and you immediately jump to the conclusion, “Ah, they’ve got meningitis.” Okay, that’s one, that’s a logical step-wise progression. But a lateral thought process would be, “What are three other things that could be causing this that I haven’t thought of?” And that’s really important to do in medicine, and I think in business too.

So, we usually jump to the first solution but the first solution isn’t always necessarily the right solution or the best solution. So, if you can sort of train your mind to think of other solutions, and even if they don’t seem the best one right away, just get them on paper, talk about it with other people. You can sometimes come up with better solutions than you initially thought of. So, lateral thinking is another technique that I talk about, and it’s very important in medicine, but I think it can also help in business.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that helps you in getting more ideas. Does it also help with the fear?

Mark McLaughlin
I think so because, again, fear comes when something is unknown. The more you know, in general, the less fear or stress or anxiety one has. So, in my opinion, that would be another way of just using your brain to sort of dial down the fear measure in your brain, definitely.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then what are your pro tips in terms of staying calm in high-pressure situations? Maybe you’ve got some fear associated with entering them or maybe just the stakes are high, whether or not you’ve got butterflies in your stomach?

Mark McLaughlin
Right. The most important thing is really to be yourself. I always try and say, “Be yourself. Don’t be anybody, try to be anybody else.” I use a technique called narrating the room. So, when I’m flummoxed with something, I’ll start with, “Okay, I need to think this through, everybody.” And I’ll speak aloud, “All right. I was expecting to see this, but I don’t see this right now, so let’s take a step back. I’d made an incision over the frontal area, I’ve got down through the skull,” and I just, literally, will talk myself through exactly where I was and where I went.

And, it’s funny, because I had a chance to interview Sanjay Gupta for this book, and when I was telling him about this, he said, “Oh, yeah, I do that all the time. That’s I narrate the room. I narrate the room.” And so, that’s his process of talking things through. Even, again, acknowledging, “Okay, a little stressful here right now, everybody. I understand we’re missing…”

Let’s say, during a surgery we oftentimes have to count for the sponges. The sponges have to be exactly correct at every moment during the surgery, and sometimes the sponge count is off, and so that needs to be checked very carefully. And people are getting worked up about it, I’m like, “Okay, we’re going to find it. I just looked through the wound, I don’t see it there. Let’s look through all the collection, the papers that we have, the collection bags. We’ll get through it. It’s standard process.” So, just talking about it, I think, is a very important part of it and being one’s self. Those two techniques are helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Mark McLaughlin
Well, it’s been interesting writing a book. It took me about four years to do this, and, gosh, it was such a huge effort, but I’m thrilled that it’s done. I feel like I’ve got a frame around a body of knowledge and I feel like being a neurosurgeon has helped me think about fear and stress in a different way. I have a lens on the world that other people don’t have, but I think the techniques to solve it are really transferable to anyone. In fact, I talk to my young wrestlers about it sometimes. I told them about sometimes when I feel overwhelmed and I feel like I’m in over my head, and I just step back and I say, “No, I’m not. Go to your basics. Just talk about it. Talk about your exact basics.” For wrestlers, that’s like risk control and control the tie-ups and things.

So, I say, “Whenever you feel like you’re out of your league, you’re wrestling somebody too good, go back to your basics. Risk control, control the tie-ups, focus on what you do, get back to your referee’s position.” And I think everybody feels it, and the better we cope with it, the better we’re going to perform.

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Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Mark McLaughlin
My favorite quote of all time is Julie Andrews’ “Some people regard discipline as a chore. For me, it’s an order which sets me free to fly.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research?

Mark McLaughlin
I talk about this in the book, the story of the invisible gorilla. When everybody’s focused on the task of counting basketballs and passing, and how they literally missed a gorilla 50% of the time that walks across the screen. I just think that’s such an interesting concept to understand that we all have blind spots. Everybody has blind spots. And when you know you have a blind spot, you’re less likely to miss something.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?
Mark McLaughlin
I love the “Traveler’s Gift.” That’s a book by Andy Andrews. It’s a story of a person that goes through time and meets a number of famous individuals: King Solomon, Abe Lincoln, Christopher Columbus, Anne Frank. And it’s just literally like getting a summation of their philosophy in a very short time. And it’s a book that I gave my father, and we shared a lot of discussions over that book, so I really love that.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Mark McLaughlin
I use an app called Ten Percent Happier which is a great meditation app. Dan Harris wrote a book called “10% Happier,” a guide to meditation for fidgety skeptics. And the only app I’ve ever purchased on my phone is Ten Percent Happier. It’s a beautiful compilation of guided meditations, and it works to help you sleep, to help you think more positively, and have more gratitude. I’m thrilled with it. I’ve been using it for over a year, and I highly recommend it.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit? Sounds that might be it, or maybe you’ve got another one.

Mark McLaughlin
My morning habit is very important to me. I do three things. And that’s I meditate, I file. I have an old-fashioned David Allen filing system with 31 files for the days of the month, and then 12 files for the months, and the one extra fie which I call my someday maybe. So, I file, I look at my file for that day. And then, lastly, I’m a Franklin Planner guy. I use a paper book because I can’t see the month and the week as well as I can on my phone so I work on my Franklin Planner, and I plan my day out. I call it my triple threat. My triple threat is if I do those three things, five to six times a week, I’m going to really do a lot of good work.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks as you’re sharing your wisdom here?

Mark McLaughlin
One of the moms and friends of mine in our wrestling club, she has a great quote which I love too, and that is, “Gentle pressure applied relentlessly.” I’ve always loved that. “Gentle pressure applied relentlessly,” and I think that’s truly how you get better. That’s how I’ve worked on myself and over the years, and that’s what works.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Mark McLaughlin
My website MarkMcLaughlinMD.com has a number of videos, talks about the book, and I have a blog that talks about a number of these topics.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Mark McLaughlin
I would say just be present, be yourself, and keep getting a little bit better every day. Gentle pressure applied relentlessly.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Mark, this has been fun. Thanks, and good luck in your adventures.

Mark McLaughlin
Thank you. It was a pleasure, Peter.

556: What Drives Your Career Growth with Korn Ferry’s Gary Burnison

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Gary Burnison shares what professionals need to start doing differently to advance in their careers.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Three mindsets to accelerate your career growth
  2. The overlooked elements that determine career fit
  3. Why most meetings are meaningless

About Gary:

Gary Burnison is the CEO and member of the board of directors for Korn Ferry, a global organization consulting firm. He is also an author, having written several books on career management. His latest book, Advance: The Ultimate How-To Guide For Your Career, is an insider’s look on everything professionals need to take control and get ahead in their careers.

He is also a regular contributor to ForbesCNBCBloombergFOX Business, and other major international news outlets. Mr. Burnison earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern California and holds an honorary doctor of laws degree from Pepperdine University.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Gary Burnison Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Gary, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Gary Burnison
Hey, great to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom once again. It’s funny, I believe it was Episode 273 you were with us, which is almost half of the podcast lifetime ago.

Gary Burnison
Not that you’re counting, huh?

Pete Mockaitis
Roughly in the bubble. So, we’re going to talk about how to advance in careers. And I thought it might be fun if you could maybe open us up with a powerful story of someone who was kind of stuck where their career was going and then used some of these tools to get unstuck and see some great results.

Gary Burnison
You know, interviewing is kind of a trip between, it’s this in-between going to Disneyland and a dentist, and we psyche ourselves up, right? And it kind of goes back to the sixth grade, “Are they going to like us? Are they going to like me? What are they going to think of me?” It’s a very natural human emotion.

I was in a Starbucks in New York City a while back, and there was a young gentleman, he had a triple Red Eye that he had ordered, and he had a portfolio in front of him, and I figured this guy is getting ready for an interview, and I see the resume, and his leg is tapping uncontrollably up and down. And I just go up to him and I say, “Hey, so what are you doing? You got an interview, huh?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s exactly right. I really need this job. My wife relocated here and I’ve just got to get this thing.” And I said, “Listen, you got to chill out because you’re not going to make it past security. The way you’re going right now is not good.”

And I said, “Look, you got to treat this like a conversation. You’re not auditioning for Annie. This is not a rehearsed deal.” And he ended up, come to find out, he got the job. And he got the job because he was authentic, he made a connection, and he gave the interviewer a taste of who he was as a person, not just what he did.

Pete Mockaitis
I think that that’s dead on, and I remember being on both sides of the career fair table, and whenever I heard someone just say, “Hello, I’m looking to combine my interests in accounting and finance in a challenging role that is like…” No human talks that way. I mean, it’s not that that’s a deal-breaker but it’s sort of like, “Oh, you’re not making a great first impression right now, and we’ll keep talking and we’ll see where we go, but I’m not enthusiastic about the rest of this conversation from the first 20 seconds.”

Gary Burnison
Well, no, because people, they make up things, they say things that they think you want to hear. Resumes, God, if I see another resume where, number one, you shouldn’t have an objective, I think that’s really bad on a resume, but a lot of people do. And how many times have you seen, “I want to be part of a collaborative team in an entrepreneurial environment where I can make a real big impact”? Oh, really? Like, you and a billion other people in the world. It’s not authentic.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, hey, we’ve got some great tips right off the bat. Chill out, keep it authentic, and it’s not an audition, it’s a conversation. So, then tell us, you’ve got a recent book called Advance. What’s the main thesis here?

Gary Burnison
It’s really to take control, to take control of your career like you would do with your health, and, really, kind of three basic ideas. Number one is it starts with you but it’s not about you, and if you want to earn more, you’ve got to learn more. So, the reality is you have to, first, be introspective about what your strengths are, where your blind spots are, what your purpose is, what makes you happy, because if you’re happy, you’re probably motivated, and if you’re motivated, you’re going to outperform.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, you said that last time. I’ve quoted you on a slide, Gary. That’s one of my faves.

Gary Burnison
It’s true. I mean, and people, “Oh, is this really possible?” Yeah, it is possible. Look, we all need to make a living, so there’s no denying that, and sometimes you just need a job, I get it. But, ultimately, you want to get something where you’re learning, because if you’re growing and learning, you’re probably going to be pretty motivated and pretty happy. And so, that kind of introspection, most people, they just ignore that stuff completely.

And then, secondly, you’re not a sculptor in a studio by yourself. And so, it starts with you but it’s not about you. And so, there’s a whole range of advice in this book around, “What do you do with a bad boss? How do you make presentations? How do you work with others? How do you work virtually? What do you do if you’re managing for the first time?”

So, as you progress in your career, you start out as a follower, and I would suggest there’s kind of six phases to a career ultimately up to a leader. But, at some point, you have to make that transition where you’re not an individual contributor, and it’s really, really hard. And, in that transition, you’ve got to work with others. So, despite all the technological advances of the past century, it still comes down to people, and not just online interaction, but actually old school, offline interaction.

And then, finally, look, if you want to earn more, you’ve got to learn more. We’ve proven that the number one predictor of executive success is learning agility. We’ve done 50 million assessments of executives all over the world, and Korn Ferry would stake its reputation that it’s the number one predictor of success. The distance between number one and number two is not constant. And the reality is, what does a great athlete do or what does a coach do after a game? Well, many times, they review the tape, they look at the video and they go practice. It’s the same for your career. If you’re not learning, you’re not growing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, hey, you don’t have to convince me. I’m right on, I’m right with you there in terms of learning. And, often, it’s a bit of do-it-yourself proposition in many environments sort of, I guess, there you go, advance, take control, much like what you do with your health.

Gary Burnison
Well, again, the do-it-yourself proposition. So, here’s the other thing why it’s critical to really target what your next career move is that the reality is, what Korn Ferry would say is that we believe in 70/20/10 when it comes to development. So, when you say do-it-yourself, so, listen, only 10%, after college, of what you learn is in classroom. Ninety percent of it is either who you’re learning it from or what your assignment is.

And so, a critical piece that people don’t think about when they’re going to go take another job, they focus on the bling. And I can understand why. They focus on the title, focus on the money, “I just to make some more money.” Well, that’s great. But they completely ignore that it’s a marathon, and, “Are you going to learn and who are you going to learn from?” Like, that is…Look, I can’t say you’re always going to have a choice, but it’s something that you have to really need to consider for the marathon.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I’m hearing you. And so, that’s a key consideration and it’s something that’s often overlooked. And I want to get some more of these gems from you here in terms of when it comes to employees who are stalling out, they’re getting stuck in ruts, they’re facing some challenges and not conquering them very often, what do you think are some of like the big things that professionals, they got to nail and they’re not nailing it so well right now?

Gary Burnison
I think there’s a left-brain aspect and there’s a right-brain aspect. So, the left brain is all around specialized skills, okay? So, that’s very, very hard to answer or it depends on what function you’re in. Is it technology? Is it finance? Are you in a services business, manufacturing? That world is clearly, that’s changed, and that’s going to vary depending on the person. I would just generally say that learning determines a worker’s earnings for life. So, those left-brain skills have to continually be worked on.

The right-brain skills get ignored all the time, and those right-brain skills are really important to your happiness. And so, they seem like little things but they’re not so little things. And it could be this little thing called coworkers. The reality is that you’re going to spend way more time at work and with your coworkers than you are maybe with your own family. So, are they getting right or are they getting wrong, the kind of right-brain things around who their boss is? Are they learning? Their coworkers?

That culture piece is, I think, today, overlooked. And it’s critical. It’s critical to just think about your day. Like, what is going to piss you off during the day, right? If you have a job, I guarantee you don’t wake up upset, right? You’re probably pretty happy going to work. And then what happens? Somebody says something, may have been an innocent comment, you get an email, didn’t have the right context, you get a text, text can’t make you laugh or cry, and you just get turned off. And, by the time you’re driving home, you’re so frustrated. And so, those things around culture, people don’t consider.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah. Absolutely. And I’d love your pro take there on what are some of the best ways on the outside looking in to get a gauge in evaluation on some of those matters?

Gary Burnison
It’s the little things. It’s, “How are people dressed? How do people interact? What’s it like at 7:00 at night there? What’s it like at 7:00 in the morning?” It’s funny, you want a new job, and so you start. I would hope you’re actually targeting, proactively targeting the companies and not being reactive, but many times people are reactive, which I think is a real problem. But you look at these job titles and these responsibilities and it’s all these words, and it’s really hard to tell, “Okay, but what’s my actual job? Like, what am I going to do Monday morning?” because you have all these lofty words, and these responsibilities, and it’s hard to separate what you’re really going to be doing.

And so, I think a great way is to, really, like when you go to buy a house. If you buy a condo or a house, I love to drive by at 11:00 o’clock at night and look at the neighbors. Or my oldest daughter was just moving apartments, and I said, “Stefy, make sure you go there a few nights a week at 11:00 o’clock before you sign that lease because you want to see it when nobody thinks you’re looking, right?” The problem with an interview is like it’s a performance, it’s a stage. People are actually looking. But you want to figure out what the place is like, what the people are like, when nobody is looking. That’s what you’re trying to get to.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a nice clear distinction right there in terms of, “Is it on display, on show, or is it the real deal?” and the 11:00 p.m. analogy. Oh, it’s sparking all kinds of things. So, then what are some of the best ways that we can get that view in terms of we’re looking and they don’t know we’re looking? How do we do that? Do we talk to former employees? Tell me more.

Gary Burnison
Yeah, you do. You’ve got to be kind of a private detective. There’s no other way to do it. So, you have to work your network, you’ve got to do the six degrees of separation. You want to find people that knows somebody, that knows somebody that works there. That’s the way you want to do it. And it really does work. I know it seems daunting but that six degrees of separation really does work. I found it to work in my own life.

And so, yeah, you want to work that network, you want to find out from people who have left. Sometimes they may be jaded. I don’t place a lot of stock in Glassdoor. I know a lot of people do. But, generally, in those kinds of reviews, you’re hearing from unhappy people that have left the organization. It could be a reference point, it’s something to triangulate, but I wouldn’t stake my whole career and reputation on it. If you can drive around, if you can get access into the office or the building, that could be something you can do. But, yeah, look, you’ve got to be a private detective.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, so then let’s say you’re in the job, away you go, and we’re up and we’re running. You’ve got a number of particular prescriptions when you’re in the midst of things. I want to get your take on the boss relationship and meetings. So, first, what’s the main thing we got to keep in mind in terms of managing a boss relationship effectively over the months and years?

Gary Burnison
Number one, it’s not them, it’s you. So, you’re never going to be able to change the boss but he or she can change you, right? They can actually fire you. So, you can try all you want but if you keep saying it’s them and it’s not you, it’s not going to get any better. So, there’s all sorts of different bosses, we’ve all had them. We’ve had those that are heroes and inspirational. And we’ve had those that are just micromanagers and autocrats.

And so, I think the first thing is you have to look in the mirror, and I know that’s really hard because you’re going to say, “It’s not me, it’s them.” But look in the mirror first, and just recognize that you’re probably not going to be able to change that person. So, then you have to take accountability for performance. And the way to do that then is the days of once-a-year reviews, those are gone. Today, people are career nomads.

So, what you need to do is take the initiative and set goals, you really do, because you can’t politic your way to the top. At the end of the day, it’s performance. Performance does matter. Not that there’s no politics because there’s obviously politics, but performance trumps politics. And so, what I would encourage people to do is to take ownership for their own goals and make sure you are continually talking with your boss about what has to get done, “What do I need to do to contribute? What are the tangible goals towards that contribution? How do we measure success? And how can I help the team win?”

Because, at the end of the day, the reality is the boss doesn’t think about you as much as you think about yourself, right? So, you may think a lot about your salary but the boss isn’t going to be thinking about your salary. It’s not that he or she doesn’t care, it’s just that’s not where their mind is going to go. We have almost 10,000 employees. I think a CEO has to care about their employees, their customers, and their shareholders. But am I thinking every second about somebody’s salary? I’m not. It’s not practical. So, start with it’s you and take ownership for performance, and get in a regular dialogue with your boss around performance.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that’s so dead on and a good reminder. It’s true. I manage and pay people, and I think about the compensation pretty rarely, maybe it’s like, “Huh, they’re doing a great job and it’s approaching the end of the year, I want to make sure they don’t leave me.” So, that’s about the extent. It’s that question, it’s like, “Hey, yeah, they’re doing great. I want to make sure they don’t leave. Here we go.”  There you have it. So, that’s a nice reality check for you.

And, yes, I totally am with you that you gotta have those regular ongoing maybe reconnections associated with what’s most important right now, what are we trying to achieve, how are we measuring it, how do we win, and not, I guess, taking anything for granted. Maybe, I guess, the alternative to that might be doing whatever lands in your inbox, just doing that as opposed to these critical goals that we’ve agreed to.

Gary Burnison
Well, you can’t teach hustle. And I will take hustle over pedigree any day. And so, what you’re alluding to is people that have hustle. And so, I would have a bias that I would much rather hire somebody who did not have the pedigree, didn’t have the family name, didn’t go to an Ivy League school, but is hungry. You just can’t teach hunger. And I love that. And I think what you’re saying is get it done. Like, just do it. Take initiative. Yeah, absolutely, that’s actually better than the whole performance goal thing. That’s absolutely the way to do it. But then you’ve got to make sure that you are getting recognized for that and that you’re not just doing somebody else’s work.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. I also want to get your take on you’ve got a chapter called “Let’s Have A Meeting – Why They’re All Meaningless.” So, a bold stance. Tell us about this.

Gary Burnison
Oh, it’s a joke. You know, so many times today, the strategic response to any question is, “Let’s have a meeting. Let’s get together and talk about it.” It seems like it’s the response to every problem. And I think, look, there’s a number of problems with meetings. Number one is that people, they’re on stage, and so they’re performances many, many times, and they’re not real, they’re not authentic. And it’s amazing how the dynamic changes when you have two people versus four people versus six people versus ten people, and also how the dynamic changes whether there’s a boss there or not.

And so, ultimately, you defer to the most senior person in that meeting. And are you really going to say what’s on your mind? Are you really going to say the truth? And so, I just find them to be a little bit make-believe. We all remember in college we had these group projects, and some of my kids are college today, everybody dreads those, right, those kind of peer-to-peer group projects, “And who’s going to take initiative? And who’s going to speak out? Who’s going to hide behind somebody else’s work?” I just think that people today, it’s not a stage. And, for me, there’s different kinds of meetings. Is it an information meeting? Is it decision-taking? Is it discovery? Is it brainstorming? Like, what is the purpose? What are you trying to get out of this thing?

And the other thing I’m a big, big believer in is whatever time you give somebody, they’re going to take up that time. And so, when it comes to a meeting, I’ve got the 45-minute rule. Anything after that, unless you’re brainstorming, unless you’re doing blue-sky thinking, it’s not productive at all.

Pete Mockaitis
I think it’s a fun coincidence that our appointment is exactly 45 minutes today.

Gary Burnison
Look, I believe in collective genius, and I think that people are smarter together than apart. I’m a huge, huge believer. So, the meeting can be absolutely incredible if the right stage is set. And so, what I mean by that is people are free to speak their mind. What I’ve found, being a CEO now for a long time, is that generally people don’t have freedom of speech unless they have economic security. And so, to create that environment where people can speak the truth and people can speak their feelings, and that constructive conflict can be turned into collective genius, I love constructive conflict. But you have to have the right orchestrator so that it turns itself into collective genius.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, well, that’s really thought-provoking, the notion that you’re not really speaking your mind unless you have the economic freedom. I guess that’s true in the sense of, well, I guess they talk about the, “F you, money.” It’s like if you’ve got that in the bank, then it’s sort of like, “I’m just going to tell you what I think. Worst-case scenario, you fire me and that’s no big deal.” So, I can hear that that resonates. So, then if you are kind of working with managing folks who they’re not quite paycheck-to-paycheck maybe but they sure do need the job, how can we facilitate that psychological safety knowing that they do still want to hold onto that job?

Gary Burnison
Well, as a boss, you can’t have retribution. If your actions don’t mirror your words, then it’s never going to happen. So, as the boss, you have to ensure that there really is a safe zone, and that that is absolutely reinforced every single day. We had a funny story recently, I mean, it’s kind of sad-funny, however you want to look at it. But we were interviewing an executive, and the company was looking for a new leader and they wanted this person. They really thought they wanted somebody who was collaborative.

And so, we were interviewing this executive, and so the interviewer asked, “So, give me an example of how you collaborate.” And he said, “Well, look, it’s easy. We have a meeting and we go around the table, and we either give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to the idea.” And the interviewer said, “So, how do you exactly do that?” And he said, “Well, it’s simple. I, first, give my view on, ‘Okay, this is a bad idea or a good idea,’ so I say thumbs down.” And the interviewer said, “So, you go first. So, how does that really work?” And the executive says, “Well, we have complete alignment.” Go figure, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Everybody agrees with you.

Gary Burnison
“Everybody agrees with me.” Needless to say, this person did not get the job. So, as the boss, you have to make it real and you have to set the tone. And, as the coworker, what you can’t do is take things so personally that you start spreading all sorts of news at the water cooler. You just can’t do that. That turns into a very cancerous environment.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Next bit, you mentioned the top 20 must haves for career development in your book, and that’s a lot. So, can you give us the top, top two?

Gary Burnison
Number one is humility and the second is self-awareness. And I say those two because those are the starters. Without those, the other hundred things will never happen, because, again, your performance is not just absolute, it’s relative. So, this distance between one and two is not constant. You have to improve yourself. Well, if you don’t have humility, then you’re never going to be self-aware, so you have to have enough humility to be able to look in the mirror and say, “What do I need to improve on?” like any great athlete does. Those are absolutely, you have to have those two, because without those two, it’ll be the exception rather than the rule in terms of making more money, getting those promotions, advancing, and all that.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Thank you. Gary, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Gary Burnison
I think that I’ve just been shocked, whether you’re in the boardroom or you’re starting out of college, you’re starting out in your career, that you don’t treat your career like your health. And what I mean by that is if I told somebody, “Listen, you’re going to have a heart attack in nine months,” I guarantee you, this afternoon you would change things. You would start juicing it, you’d start eating oats, you’d start walking, you’d start running. You would do all sorts of things. You’d go to different kinds of doctors. Like, you would hop all over that.

Well, when it comes to your career, I think people are just complacent and they’re clueless, and they have this view that they’re going to be plucked out of the seat, that somebody is going to come to them with this great opportunity. That is not going to happen. And, today, we’re in a world of career nomads where, I believe, people coming out of college, Korn Ferry would suggest you’re going to work for 25 or 30 different employers.

And so, people are staying for two, two and a half, three years, and they’re moving on. They’re parlaying. They’re taking skills and they’re parlaying. They’re parlaying for more responsibility, they’re parlaying for more money, they’re parlaying to learn more. And so, I think you’ve got to treat your career like you would your health. And I really do believe, I would look at it and say, “Hey, I think I’m going to get fired in nine months. I think the company is going to get acquired. What would I do differently today?”

And what you would do differently is not just sitting with your computer pretending you were Hemingway with your resume and trying to find the right verb. That is the wrong thing to do. What you would do is you would think about where you want to go, and you would start to network, and you would target those places where you think you can really make a difference. That’s what you would actually do. And it’s bothered me that this just-in-time networking, like, something bad happens, your company gets acquired, your boss leaves, all of this stuff happens and people aren’t prepared. And so, you’ve got to treat your career like your health, and be proactive, and don’t just wait for the heart attack to update your resume. Actually, do something before.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now, could you give us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Gary Burnison
What’s always on my mind is, “You’ve got to believe to achieve.” And I think that I’ve just found that, and I don’t know if that’s something that I came up with or I read, but that’s on my mind all the time. And there’s another one that’s on my mind all the time, and that’s, “Fail fast and learn faster.” And so, most people are scared of failure, but the reality is that’s how we learn. Whether we like it or not, we learn through failure. And you have to try things. You have to take risks in life if you want to grow.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say “You’ve got to believe to achieve,” can you unpack what that means in practice for a career?

Gary Burnison
You have to believe in yourself. You have to have that inner confidence. And so, if you’re the CEO, like myself, I think the most important thing is purpose. In other words, most CEOs, they think about the what, and the how, and the where, but they don’t think about the why. And the why is the most important thing, I think, in business. The why is, “Why are you in business?” And so, I call that purpose. For me, as a CEO, what I have to believe is I have to believe in purpose. I have to believe in our purpose.

Because if I can authentically represent that to 10,000 people, people will get behind that.

For an individual, I would say that you have to believe in yourself. Without that, it is going to be very, very hard to advance. And that’s why it’s so important that when you think about the next job and a career, who’s your mentor going to be? Because, yes, you can believe in yourself, and I tell you, it’s a lot easier to believe in yourself if others believe in you. Both have to happen.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Gary Burnison
Well, it’s a book that I think is 20 years old, but Who Moved My Cheese? It has a strange title. It’s actually a very motivational book, it’s a very simple book. And the concept, which is so appropriate for today, is around change. And so, this view of trying to make tomorrow different than today, of having this insatiable curiosity for learning and for change, and not accepting the status quo, and not falling into the den of complacency is what that book’s all about. And I think that is more important today than ever.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Gary Burnison
I spend probably an hour and a half in the morning and an hour and a half at night with nobody, around reading. And so, all the apps that I would have are all around news. And I found that it’s kind of a reflective time, and it’s a time to kind of be in the world, and to understand what’s happening around you, and to make your world bigger. And so, I do that religiously every single day.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, they quote it back to you a lot?

Gary Burnison
Make people feel better after than before. And so, I will get that, people will say that jokingly, they’ll say it seriously to me. I think you should set that as a goal. Any human being, but particularly in the workplace, and particularly if you’re a manager, and for sure if you’re a boss, that with every interaction of an employee, “Do they feel better after than before?”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Gary Burnison
Well, I’d take a look at the new book. It’s just simply called Advance, and you could get it on Amazon. And we actually have a new business Korn Ferry Advance that is all around trying to change people’s lives, trying to help them in their careers. We’ve got interviewing tools, we’ve got resume tools. It’s really the whole thing trying to change people’s lives and their professional careers for the better.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Gary Burnison
Boy, you want to wake up without the alarm clock. And if you’re not waking up without the alarm clock, you need to make a change. But that change needs to be well thought out.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Gary, this has been a treat once again. I wish you and Korn Ferry all the luck and success in your adventures.

Gary Burnison
Great hearing your voice again. And thank you very much for your time.

555: Why We Fail to Empower, Inspire, and Engage: Unmasking the The Advice Trap with Michael Bungay Stanier

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Michael Bungay Stanier explains why we need to stop giving advice and start asking questions instead.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Three reasons why advice is overrated
  2. A step-by-step process for breaking your advice-giving habit
  3. How to ask more insightful questions

About Michael:

Michael Bungay Stanier is an author and the founder of Box of Crayons, a company best known for teaching 10-minute coaching so that busy managers can build stronger teams and get better results. He was named the first Canadian Coach of the Year. He left Australia 25 years ago to be a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.

Michael has been featured in several publications such as Business Insider, Forbes, The Globe & Mail, Fast Company, and The Huffington Post. He has held senior positions in the corporate, consultancy, and agency worlds. He has lived and worked in Australia, the UK, the US, and Canada. He currently lives in Toronto.

Items Mentioned in the Show

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Michael Bungay Stanier Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Michael, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast again.

Michael Bungay Stanier
I know. Thank you for having me back, Pete. It’s really nice to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Well, I was having a lot of fun during chats because you’re not afraid, again, putting the pressure and expectation on, not afraid to get a little silly and neither am I.

Michael Bungay Stanier
I strive to be hilarious yet useful at the same time.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s a winning combo in my book. So, we’re going to talk about advice. And you’ve got a fun turn of a phrase, the advice monster. Can you tell us what is that? And can you maybe give us a wild example, like if you’ve got one or two, of the advice monster in action?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Oh, the examples are a legion. People are going to know this right away. So, when I wrote the last book, The Coaching Habit, as a throwaway line, I’m like, “You’ve got to learn how to tame your advice monster.” And people have loved that idea, they’re like, “Oh, I know what an advice monster is. I know my advice monster. I have it.” And, in fact, you all do. As soon as somebody starts talking, and even though they’re telling you about a situation you don’t really understand, involving people you haven’t properly met, with a context you don’t know at all, and technical specifications that you don’t get, after about 10 seconds in your brain, you’re like, “Oh, I’ve got some ideas here. Step aside, I’ve got something to say to you.” And that’s our advice monster. We’ve had to train for years, we spend our lifetime nurturing, feeding this insatiable part of ourselves.

And in this new book, The Advice Trap, I’m like, “You know what, the barrier to staying curious turns out not that we don’t know what a good question is, not that we don’t know the value of staying curious and being more coach-like. The barrier to actually making this behavior change is our advice monster. We’ve got to learn to tame our advice monster.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so you’ve got examples are legion. But could you give us one or two that made you go, “Wow, that is not what to do textbook”?

Michael Bungay Stanier
It’s like, do you want me to just talk about the ones that have happened over the last three hours for me or should I go back to the rest of my life? So, let’s talk about my marriage.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, this is getting good.

Michael Bungay Stanier
I have been happily married for almost 30 years. I met Marcella, my wife, when we were studying at Oxford together. It was one of the two great outcomes for me being a Rhode Scholar. But there’s nothing like a spouse just to drive you nuts. You know, somebody once said, “Your soulmate is the person who pushes all your buttons.” And Marcella does that for me. She has all the right things as well but she also has a way of me going, “Right. If I’m going to give anybody advice, it’s going to be her.”

So, she starts telling me something that she’s up against, and I’m like, “Okay, just stop talking. Just let me tell you what to do.” And if any of your listeners are married, or in a longer-term relationship, or you’ve been in a relationship, or maybe you have kids, or maybe you have parents, you will recognize that need to kind of go, “Okay, with this person I’m close to, or this person that I love, this person I actually like and I want to support, part of what I default to is this, ‘Let me rush in and try and fix it and solve it for you.’”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. So, that sort of the impulse, the inclination there, “Let me fix this and solve this for you.” And so, I can see that, hey, that’s not sort of fun on the receiving end frequently. But could you make the fuller case for how that’s really problematic and just what can be at stake if we let our advice monster roam wild?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, advice is overrated for three reasons. The first thing to say, Pete, is, look, don’t think that I’m saying never give advice because that’s obviously ridiculous. I mean, the podcast is actually this moment of advice-giving so it’d be ridiculous to say never give advice. The problem isn’t with advice, the problem is when giving advice becomes your default response, and we have this ingrained way of behavior. And it turns out that advice kind of goes bad in three ways.

So, here are the three ways. Number one, you’re often trying to solve the wrong problem. We get seduced into thinking there’s all the time that we believe that the first challenge that shows up is the real challenge. It almost never is. It’s the best guess, it’s the stab in the dark, it’s an early hypothesis. But almost never is the first challenge the real challenge.

But let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that actually you are working on the real problem, the real issue that needs to be fixed. Here’s the second issue with advice, your advice is not nearly as good as you think it is. Now, there’s all these cognitive biases that are wiring us to make us believe that we’re smarter, wiser, more able, more insightful than we actually are, and so often our advice is just our projection around, “This is what I did once or what I thought of once. This should work for you as well.” So, there’s your second issue which is not only is often solving the wrong problem but, secondly, even if you’re solving the right problem, the advice you’re offering up isn’t nearly as good as you think it is.

But let’s just say, for the sake of argument, the knowledge you have the right challenge at hand but you have this awesome piece of advice, I mean, it’s brilliant, it’s gold dust, it’s pearls of wisdom, you’re like, “This is amazing.” The third challenge with advice is, “Is this the right form of leadership? Is this the right way of showing up and supporting the person you’re in conversation with right now?” Because there’s a deep insight to say that the idea, the solution, the advice that a person gives themselves is a much more powerful intervention than the advice that you give them.

Even if their idea isn’t quite as good as your idea, and our cognitive biases will have us believe that that’s almost always the case, but there’s something really powerful as a leader, and by a leader it doesn’t mean that you’re actually literally managing a team or if you just interact with other human beings, if you show up with other people and you help people figure out their own stuff. What you’re doing is you’re empowering them to get smarter, to own the idea, to get the wisdom, rather than having it coming down from you because, honestly, when you have somebody giving you an idea, your natural reaction is just to push back against the idea even if it’s well-meant, as it so often is.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s the advice monster and what is problematic about just letting it roam. So, your book is called The Advice Trap. Is it fair to say the trap is just that you have a temptation to give advice and then you fall into it and that’s a bad thing? Okay.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, basically, again, advice, fine. The default response to going, “Look, my job here is to give advice.” That’s the advice trap, into seducing to thinking that that’s your role. In fact, it goes a little deeper than that. So, the double-click on this whole advice monster thing, it turns out the advice monster has three different personas, and each one of it kind of feeds a deeper need for us, which makes it hard for us to step into this way of behaving which is around the power of being more curious.

So, I’ll take you through the three advice monster personas because people like this. And for the folks listening in, listen up because you’ll hear the advice monster persona that resonates most for you. So, number one is tell-it, and tell-it has convinced you that the way you add value, in fact, the only way you add value is to have the answers. In fact, you need to have all the answers. In fact, you probably need to have all the answers to all the problems all the time. And if you don’t have all the answers, you fail. So, that’s the first one, that sort of sense of that weight, that obligation of, “I’ve got to know everything. I’ve got to always be providing answers or else I’m not adding value.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s a persona, “My persona is tell-it and I’m telling it.” Okay.

Michael Bungay Stanier
You’ve got it. Number two, save-it. So, save-it, a little more subtle than tell-it which is a noisy one. Save-it, you put a time around you, “Pete, your job is to keep everybody safe at all times. You can’t let anybody stumble, you can’t let them struggle, you can’t let them fail, you can’t make them sweat. Your job is to keep everybody protected, keep everybody safe, keep everybody comfortable. If they struggle, if they stumble, if they fail at all, you fail.” So, that’s that second piece, that kind of that weight of going, “I’ve got to make sure everybody is okay all the time.”

And then the third advice monster, which is the slipperiest, the sneakiest of the three, is control-it. So, control-it has convinced you that your job, the only way you win, is to maintain control, keep control at all times. Don’t give up control. Don’t let others have control because if that happens, you fail. You’ll definitely fail. So, you got those three different advice monsters: the tell-it, the save-it, and the control-it. And each one of them speaks to a deeper need that we hold onto that keeps us stuck in the advice-giving mode because we’re like, “You know what, I feel obliged to have the answer. I feel obliged to save the person. I feel obliged to control the situation.” And when you do that, you don’t let curiosity really blossom.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, certainly. And so, you call these personas because…well, I guess, I think of them as verbs, “So, I want to tell it, I want to save it, I want to control it.” So, it’s a persona in so far as there’s kind of like a personality or a character associated with the kind of person who feels the need to tell it, to save it, to control it?

Michael Bungay Stanier
That’s a really good question. On the website TheAdviceTrap.com, we’ve actually got a questionnaire which is like 20 questions or so, five minutes to do, and you can follow it through and you’ll actually end up with the advice monster that kind of is your go-to, your default, the one that you’re kind of most familiar with. When I was writing the book, I’m like, “Do we have three advice monsters, and each of them is a different advice monster? Or is it one advice monster but kind of shows up in different ways with different traits depending on who you are and depending on the situation?” In the end, I was like, “No, I think it’s better as a persona. We all have the advice monster. How it shows up, the clothes it wears, the behavior it has, is different for different people.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then let’s see, we’ve got three personas but we’ve all got an advice monster. So, I imagine you probably have some universal solutions and some particular prescriptions, given which persona you fall into. So, yeah, what do we do? So, someone is telling us something, we’ve got that urge, the impulse, to pour forth the advice, so what’s the appropriate response?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, you can guess that the easy solution here is to just stay curious a little bit longer because curiosity is the light that holds back the advice monster. I mean, questions are the kindling of curiosity. So, the easy, fast answer for people is go, “Look, just ask them good questions. Stay curious a little bit longer.” But, Pete, this is actually what took me to writing The Advice Trap because the first book, the one we talked about when we did the previous interview is called The Coaching Habit. Well, The Coaching Habit is like, “Here we go, I’m trying to unweird coaching for you. I’m trying to make curiosity feel like a useful everyday skill. Seven good questions can take you a long way down the path.”

And we’ve had a lot of people go, “These questions are fantastic. I’ve started using them with my spouse, with my kids, with the people I work with, with the team that I lead, and things are getting better.” And I’m like, “I love that.”

There’s also a lot of people out there who go, “You know, Michael, I like your questions, I like your book, I like the podcast you did with Pete, it’s all great, and I’m finding it really hard to change my behavior. I’m finding it really hard to shift from being advice-driven to being curiosity-led.” And so, there’s kind of a deeper piece of work that’s required.

In the book, this is kind of the opening part of the book, I talk about this difference between easy change and hard change. We are all good at easy change, that’s why it’s called easy change. And the metaphor I’d give you is it’s a little bit like downloading an app on your phone, it’s adding a little bit of knowledge to the current version of you. So, easy change, anytime you get a new phone, or walk into a new hotel room, like I’m in at the moment, or show up in a new place, you’re like, “Okay, I’ve just got to figure this stuff out.” And you do. You listen to a podcast, you watch a video, you read a book, you go and talk to a teenager who explains it to you, and you’re like, “Okay, I kind of get it.”

Pete Mockaitis
I go to Amazon.com and buy a little something. Well, this problem’s solved for $15. Thank you. All right.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Exactly. So, you kind of figure it out and you start off and you’re a little bit incompetent when you do it the first time, but you quickly get competent, and then you quickly get to a point where you’re like, “Yeah, I’ve got it. I’m fine with it.” So, that’s easy change. No problem with that.

Hard change, obviously, is trickier, harder, slipperier, and we all know this because we’ve all tried to take on something where you’re like, “This should be relatively straightforward,” and for some reason it’s really difficult. For some reason, it just seems to be elusive for you. You keep trying, you keep reading more books, you listen to more podcasts, you watch more videos, you buy some more stuff from Amazon, and it just isn’t enough to help you crack this dilemma, this piece around, “I’m trying to figure out how to do this.”

If you’ve ever had a New Year’s resolution where you’re like, “Okay, I’ve made this resolution for the last seven years, but I’m going to make it again this year because, damn it, I’m actually going to get it sorted out this time around.” Well, this is what hard change is. And if easy change is downloading the app on your phone, hard change is when you realize that an app won’t do it. You need a new operating system. The other way of talking about this, Pete, is like if easy change is about tweaking current you, present you, hard change is a commitment to future you. It’s like, “You know what, to do this, I need to become a bigger, different, better version of myself. So, what needs to change so that I can actually step into that way of doing it?”

And that’s a very long answer around your question around, “Okay, we notice your advice monster, what do you do about that?” Well, for some of us, it’s easy change, which is like just ask some questions, and some of us it’s hard change, which is like, “Oh, you’ve got to learn to tame your advice monster.” And that can be tricky, that can be difficult, and that’s absolutely worth the battle because you get to show up in a whole different way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, it’s going to take some hard change, and it’s not a matter of downloading the app. So, what is it a matter of doing?

Michael Bungay Stanier
So, step number one is going, “Are you up for this? Are you actually committed for actually going to do this?” Because some people are like, “Yeah, in theory, I kind of wouldn’t mind being a bit more curious, but in practice, I can’t be bothered.” So, the first step is to go, “You know what, it’s really worth it. It’s now irritating me how much I give advice. It’s irritating the people I work with how much I give advice. I want to do this change.”

Step number two is to actually say to yourself, “Look, I’ve got to start recognizing my advice monster because until I start seeing it, until I start knowing how it shows up, then it’s really hard to tame something that you’re not quite sure where and how it exists in the world.” So, there’s a way for you to actually take the time and going, “So, when does my advice monster really get loose where they go crazy? What’s the situation and with whom is the person?”

So, it might be when I have my weekly check-in with Pete, “Oh, that man drives me crazy. He starts talking and my advice monster is absolutely loose.” So, the next step is for you to identify when your advice monster is on the loose, so you’re not trying to do a generic, “I’m just trying to be more curious.” You’re like, “No, this is the moment where I’m trying to change my behavior.” And, Pete, this comes from our last conversation, actually, which this ties in with what it takes to build a new habit, which is like be specific, be singular, be focused, don’t be generic but actually pick a moment, pick a new behavior, pick a context, so that you can actually change your behavior in this way.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Michael Bungay Stanier
So, step number one, declare the battle is on. Step number two, identify the moment where your advice monster shows up. Step number three, it gets a little more personal. It’s a little deeper dive. And it’s to understand the prizes and the punishments of your current behavior. This is the thing. You give advice because you get something from it. It’s actually a win for you. So, there’s a way of actually identifying how you’re showing up, “What do I get out of that?” And it’s like, “You know what, I feel smart. I feel in control. I get them out of my office faster. I feel like I’m adding value to the conversation. I feel like I’m in control of what’s going on.” It speaks to some of those three different types of advice monsters that we talked about before.

Pete Mockaitis
Or there’s like this pressure, I feel this in my brain sometimes. It’s like if I don’t somehow capture what’s in my head, either by saying it out loud, or writing it down, or sticking it somewhere, then it’s just going to have a piece of me, and that’s uncomfortable, and it’s like I need the resolution and breadth and peace associated with knowing that it’s been captured, otherwise it might disappear forever, and it’s a treasure trove that I can’t allow to just run away, Michael.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Exactly. I love that. That’s pretty powerful insight, Pete. That sense of, “Oh, no, no. What I’ve got is essential and it’s vital, and it’s like, honestly, it’s genius, so I can’t not offer that up to the world, that would be irresponsible.” So, it’s really helpful to see that. And, actually, I love how you talked about that because you can see, in you saying it, there’s an honesty and a kind of vulnerability and a self-awareness around, “I can see how this is a little bit ego-driven, but it’s also true. It’s kind of what’s there for me.”

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s just so fun, it’s like, “Ooh, this is a really interesting idea. It’d be fun to explore it and maybe we’re going to do that right now with the person since they brought it up or maybe we’ll do it later. It’s a little uncomfortable for me to imagine. Well, maybe we’ll just never get to explore, and that fun thought is just going to run away because I put all my attention back towards listening and being curious.”

Michael Bungay Stanier
And miss that moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, understanding the benefits you get from it sets you up for the next piece, which is, “What’s the price that you and others pay for your need to share this little piece of genius?” And all parts of equation kind of can suffer as part of this. You can pay the price of being the person who feels that they have to always have the answer, or they always have to have the little genius idea, or they’ve become the bottleneck to the conversation, or they disempower the other people because they’re like, “You know what, is there a point in coming to Pete with ideas because he’s always got his own little genius idea that he always has to share with us and he’s always telling, well, that’s kind of the thing we should be doing?” So, there’s a way that both you and the other person can pay a price around that.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Michael Bungay Stanier
And having done that, you’re actually at a bit of a crossroads, which is to go, “You know what, do the prizes outweigh the punishments, or is it vice versa?” And until you get to a point where you’re like, “The punishment of my advice monster, the price I pay and the price other people pay, are now sufficiently significant enough that they outweigh the more short-term,” you know, in the book we call them winds not wins, that short term, “Oh, I get to be genius, I get to be smart, I get to have the answers.” When you see the punishment outweigh the prizes, you’re like, “Okay, I’m up for the change here because the current equation isn’t working as well as it used to.”

Then you go a little deeper. And I will say, Pete, at TheAdviceTrap.com, there’s actually a way, a little video of me facilitating people through this process. So, if people are going, “Yeah, I’m kind of following this but I would like it a bit more.” There’s a video and there’s a worksheet and stuff that people can grab at TheAdviceTrap.com.

We get to that next level down where you’re like, okay, so if what you’ve done with prizes and punishments is kind of figure out the equation for present you, let’s go down to future you and kind of go, “All right, two things to look at here. If you were to tame your advice monster, if you were to stay curious a bit longer, what would you be worried about? What would make you anxious about that?” Because you’ve got to acknowledge which is like, and you’ve got to talk about it, which is like, “I don’t feel like I’m adding value. My little bits of genius might never see the light of day and a little bit of me dies if I don’t get to be a genius every time I show up. That other person might struggle. I might lose control of the conversation. I might not get to be the smart person in the room.”

You get to see all of those kinds of anxieties that you have but then you weigh that against them. But what would future you gain from this new way of behaving? What would you find? It’s like, “Oh, I get to allow other people to be brilliant. I get other people to share their genius with me. And I’m a catalyst and a space for them to be brilliant rather than me to be brilliant. I get to not be a bottleneck. I get to have other people be more confident and more competent and more self-sufficient and more autonomous so I, honestly, I work less hard because they’re all doing their own stuff without having to come to me for their blessing or the idea or whatever it might be.”

And then when you kind of weigh that up, you’re like going, “Okay, I see the choice now.” And it’s actually only when you do that, people work, Peter, that you kind of go, “Right. Now, this is setting me up for a place where I can go. It’s worth me asking a question because I’ve actually kind of gone deeper into the kind of the complexity of the behavior change that’s required.” And you’re going, “You know what, now is the time for me to invest in this future-you state so that I can have more impact as a human being in the life that I live.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I really like that process, that framework, in terms of I think you can use that anytime you think about a behavior change or a should, “Oh, I should work out more,” or, “I should eat better.” It’s like, “Well, maybe, but I think what’s probably most appropriate is rather than just sort of have a kneejerk reaction if you’re guilty for doing or not doing all the things, to really zero in on, all right, a true sense of the cost and benefit and opportunity that is awaiting you if you embark upon that kind of a change.” And so, I think that’s super handy that a lot of things you think maybe that you should do, you can realize, “Hey, you know what, actually not worth it. Not worth the cost so I can just sort of let go of that peacefully and move onto something else.”

At the same time, let’s say maybe you do get that perfect clarity and conviction that, “Yes, this is the thing. It needs to happen. I can absolutely see it’s worth doing. The benefits massively justify that investment.” And, nonetheless, much like a diet exercise, temptations arise. What do you recommend for in the moment, you’re committed and yet, ooh, you’re feeling it? What do you do there?

Michael Bungay Stanier
I would go back to some of the stuff I talked about in the opening chapter of The Coaching Habit book. I’m like, “You know what, pick a person, pick a moment, pick a question. Don’t go, ‘Look, I’m just trying to be more coach-like. I’m committed to being more curious in every aspect of my life.’” All that does is set you up for failure.

What I’m saying instead is like, you know what, pick a question and go, “I’m going to try and ask that a few more times per day than I currently do.” And if you’re going to pick one of the seven questions I talked about in The Coaching Habit book, I might go for number two, which is the shortest and the most powerful of the seven questions, which is “And what else?” Like, “What else?” So, the acronym of that is AWE, so it’s literally an awesome question which I love.

And what I found is that what that question has is it kind of built within it is the insight that the person’s first answer is never their only answer and it’s rarely their best answer. But what happens in this is our advice monsters, you ask a question, somebody comes up with an idea, and you’re like, “Nailed it. We’ve got something. Let’s go with it. Let’s run with it. Let’s implement it. Let’s make it actionable,” or whatever it might be.

And what I would encourage people to go is like, “You know what, their first answer is almost never their only answer.” So, ask “And what else?” because it will mean that you get more, you squeeze more out of the lemon of any question that you’ve asked them, and you’ll get better and more diverse answers from the person that you’re working with. So, I think there’s my generic piece of advice on how not to give advice, which is like, “Hey, if you only got one question, make it ‘And what else?’” Because you know what, you can slip that into almost any kind conversation. People won’t even notice.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. I think that I’ve been using a lot of the questions that’s come up with a few guests, it’s comparable although you’ve got a knack, Michael, for identifying the nuances between how one question is, in fact, quite different from another given the words and the triggers that it does for people, so let me put you on the spot with this. I’ve been loving “Tell me more about that.” Let’s compare or contrast. Are those interchangeable or do those have some nuances that you’d like to discuss?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, “Tell me more about that” has some inherent landmines built into it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Michael Bungay Stanier
I’ll tell you why. So, if I go, “All right, Pete, what’s on your mind?” And you give me something, I go, “Great.”

Pete Mockaitis
This coffee, I’ve been so engaged, I have barely sipped it.

Michael Bungay Stanier
I know about that. And you go, “Okay, here, Michael, here’s a thing that’s on my mind.” And I go, “Oh, interesting. Tell me more about that.” Now, this question feels like it’s in service of me rather than you because I’m going, “I want to find out more about what’s going on secretly because the more I know about that situation, probably the better advice I can give you when it comes to actually my time to give you advice.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Michael Bungay Stanier
And one of the nuances about asking questions, and this is kind of a real step towards mastery, is to go, “In whose service is this question? Is this more for me or is it more for them?” Because if I go, “Well, tell me more about that,” you’re like, “Well, I already know a bunch about it, but sure, now I’m helping you out by telling you more.”

Pete Mockaitis
I see.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Whereas, if I go, “All right, that’s interesting. I hear what’s on your mind. Tell me what’s the real challenge here for you.” Now this question is in service of you. It’s for you to go, “Well, what is the hard thing here? What is the challenge? Where am I struggling with this?” And then I go, “What else is a challenge here for you?” You’re like, “Oh, yeah, what else?” And as you go deeper, then I go, “Great. So, Pete, of all of that stuff, what’s the real challenge here for you?” Now you’re working and you’re figuring stuff out, because the stance I hold is, look, if I’m in a conversation with you or I’m asking you questions, I don’t need to know a whole lot about what’s going on.

I mean, when we finish this conversation, I’m in Anaheim at the moment to speak at a big tech conference for a big tech company, and I’m going to coach a very senior leader on stage in front of about, I think it’s 1500 people. Now, what do I know about the impossible job of being an executive vice president of one the top three tech companies in the world? The answer is I know nothing. I know absolutely nothing. So, if I sit down with this person, and I go, “What’s on your mind?” and they tell me, and I go, “Well, tell me more about that.” Now, they’re like, “Okay. Well, you don’t know anything about this anyway, and I’m not sure that this covered under our NDA, but I’ll give you some topline stuff.” And I’m like, “Okay, tell me more about that. What else can you tell me about that?”

And now he’s explaining to me what the situation is so I can try and figure out a solution. But if I go, “Yeah, okay, I don’t even know what that means. But what’s the real challenge here for you around this?” And they’re like, “Oh, yeah, it’s this.” I’m like, “Great. What else is a challenge here for you around this?” And they’re like, “Amazing.” It’s them, they’re in the spotlight, I’m in service to them. And “Tell me more about that” is often in service to me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s a powerful distinction there in terms of who’s the question in service to. And, also, when we’re reviewing coaching contexts in terms of, hey, on stage and such, that’s really handy. I think in previous contexts, “Tell me more about that” was handy in terms of someone said something to you that made you kind of angry, like they’re volunteering some feedback or they’re about to let you know just how you’ve screwed up. “Tell me more about that” is great for disarming versus “And what else?” It’s sort of like, “Oh, really? You’re going to dismiss what I’ve just said?” So, that’s perfect in terms of the different contexts, making one versus the other a bullseye.

Michael Bungay Stanier
So, in the context of somebody said something, feedback, or aggravating, or something like that, the power of “Tell me more about that” is it’s a self-management tool to stop you leaping…

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that too, yeah.

Michael Bungay Stanier
You know, strangling, you’re like, “You’re triggering me here. I want to kill you.” Here’s a nuance then in that context, which is like, “Tell me more about that” is a pretty broad question. There’s a way that you might direct that conversation to become more useful for you. And here’s how it could look like. You could say, “What’s the data for this?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Because when people give you feedback, it tends to be a mix of a little bit of fact and a whole bunch of judgment, and a whole bunch of unspoken feeling, and an unspoken want or need, and there’s a way that “Tell me more about that” you may get a bit more of a repeat of what you’ve already heard, which is the same kind of mess of all of that stuff. But you could take it in different ways, you go, “Okay, I hear there’s something going on here. Tell me what the data is. Tell me what the facts are around this because I’m curious to know what’s making you think that.”

You could say, “I hear what’s going on. Just so I’m clear, what do you want here? What do you want from me? What do you want from this conversation? What do you want from this outcome?” Because sometimes actually everything they’ve told you is entirely separate from what they’re really trying to get out of this, and knowing what they want is a much more specific and useful question to actually figure out.

And then the third question that you could ask around that, you could ask, I mean, I love putting feelings and judgments together. In my head, I’ve got this model which is like every conversation has four parts to it: data, feelings, judgments, and the wants and the needs. And the context of like a tough conversation, I’m like, I’m trying to get clear on what falls into what bucket.  So, it’s like I’m just trying to find the right articulation of the question, Pete. It’s like, “If that’s the fact, if that’s the data, what are your assumptions based on that? What do you assume to be true about me, about you, about this situation at hand?”

And what you’re doing is you’re effectively asking the same question you’re asking, which is “Tell me more about that” but you’re being a little more direct, it’s like, “I want to find out about the data. I want to find out what you want. I want to find out what you assume to be true.” And all of those questions can be helpful but one in particular might particularly serve you in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. And so then, maybe could you give us an example of disaggregating those four components there in terms of let’s just say I’m saying…? Okay, I just looked at your hotel room, so I’ll just say, “You go up to the front desk and you tell them that your bed is unacceptable.” Can you disaggregate that for us?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah. And if they go, “I can hear you’re frustrated there, sir. What is it that you want?” “You know what, I just need a bed, a pillow.” And they’re like, “Oh, that’s easy. We’ll just send over there a pillow.” Or I’m like, “I’ve got a colony of bedbugs.” And they’re like, “Oh, okay. Well, we’ll move you to a different room.” Or, it’s a hammock and I don’t sleep in hammocks, “I thought I was getting a king-sized bed and you put me in the nautical-themed room, and there’s like pictures of pirates on the wall, and it smells of brine, and I don’t like hammocks.” So, that curiosity can help.

Now, it might be for them, they’re like, “Tell us more. What seems to be the issue, sir?” But you’re like, the bigger insight in all of this is that piece around curiosity and the power of it, because “Tell me more about that” is an invitation to stay curious. And that’s the big win around that.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, I’m thinking like a more complex situation because with the hotel and the hotel bed, it’s a transactional relationship, like, “We’re just talking about a bed and then we’re never going to talk to each other again.” If it’s somebody I have a relationship, like it’s my wife, and I go, “Well, I’m just curious. What makes you think that? What’s the data behind what you’ve just said?” And she goes, “Well, I just saw the rubbish bins, the trash cans, out on the pavement, and they were this and they were that.” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, actually those aren’t our trash cans. Our trash cans are on the back. I brought them in.” And she’s like, “Oh, all right. My mistake.” And that data diffuses the whole situation.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Michael Bungay Stanier
But if I’m like, “Tell me more about that,” she’s like, “I never liked you. You’ve never been good at household chores. You’ve been a burden to the family for 30 years,” and I’m like, “Okay, this has gone really dark really quickly.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oops.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, in that trash can example, that’s actually really handy because if we look at those four components, so the data are “I witnessed some trash cans that were askew.” Their feelings are “That’s gross and I hate looking at it and it’s very unpleasant.” The judgment is “You’re unresponsive in doing your chores, Michael, and my need is for you to fix that.”

Michael Bungay Stanier
It actually goes deeper than that, which is that, “You’re bad at your chores. You’re a roundabout lazy man. You’re a parasite. You’re sucking me dry. You never carry your weight in this relationship. You don’t love me.” That stuff can kind of escalate pretty quickly.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. And so then, Michael, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things here?

Michael Bungay Stanier
No, I think that’s it. There’s a bunch of good resources at TheAdviceTrap.com, there’s a questionnaire around which of the three advice monsters is the one that you’re most familiar with, there’s that process around going into hard change versus easy change. All that resources that people can make the most of it they’d like.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michael Bungay Stanier
I have so many good quotes. I will point to that I’m sitting with at the moment is from Muhammad Ali, and somebody once said this is the shortest poem ever written. And it is, “Me, we.” And I love the profundity of that which is to say we are all connected. There’s no me without the context of us. And what you do here for you is in service to us, and remember that connection. So, me, we. Muhammad Ali.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And could you share with us a favorite book?

Michael Bungay Stanier
The book that I keep coming to because it’s an amazing combination of science and just the kind of celebration of the miracle of this planet, being a planet that we can live on, is Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything. It’s hilarious. That man can write a metaphor better than anybody else I know. And, really, it just opens up the kind of the unlikelihood of being this life on this planet at this time where you and I are able to do a podcast together. It’s like spectacularly unlikely that this could ever happen, and yet here we are.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

 

Michael Bungay Stanier
The thing that I am enjoying most is a pen given to me by the people that are helping me publish the book, it’s by a company called Baronfig, which are a New York stationary cover. And it just is a beautiful pen.

Pete Mockaitis
Great. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch with you, where would you point them?

Michael Bungay Stanier
TheAdviceTrap.com is a place to find out about the book. But if you’re going to go to a singular place, basically, a newish website called MBS.works, and that’s kind of a collection of my works, all the stuff that I’m working on, so you can access the books I’ve written. So, MBS.works is a good place to go.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, add a question, just one question per day to your conversation. Make it “And what else?” Make it any other question but I would love you to take one small step in the direction of curiosity.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Michael, this has been fun. I wish you lots of luck with The Advice Trap and all your adventures.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Pete, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for the great conversation. I appreciate we kind of went deep and interesting, and you threw yourself in the mix there as well, so thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, thank you. It’s my pleasure.