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323: The Surprising Power of Seeing People as People with Kimberly White

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Kimberly White breaks down why seeing people as people dramatically increases productivity at work and in life.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What you miss when you see people as objects
  2. How seeing people as people turbocharges problem-solving
  3. Three ways to change the way you perceive people

About Kimberly

Kimberly White is the perpetually amused mother of some very theatrical children, and the lucky wife of the funniest person she’s ever known. Her nine months of research for The Shift included dozens of hours working alongside nursing home employees in offices, showers, vans, patient rooms, kitchens, and one very creepy basement.

Kimberly earned a degree in philosophy, studying under C. Terry Warner and serving as his longtime research assistant. She was editor of her department’s undergraduate philosophy journal and copy editor for Epoche: A Journal for the History of Philosophy. She has also worked for the Arbinger Institute as a group instructor and as a first-draft editor of Leadership and Self-Deception.

Kimberly’s family recently moved from Harlem to the village of Pawnee, Illinois, where they have gloried in mid-western sunsets and accumulated pets at an alarming rate.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

 

 

Kimberly White Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Kimberly, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Kimberly White
Thank you Pete. I am so glad to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well I think this is going to be a fascinating conversation on all sorts of levels. But first and foremost, I want to hear about your synesthesia. My wife also has it. Tell me how that works for you.

Kimberly White
For me it means that numbers and letters of the alphabet have colors in my mind. It’s consistent over time. But I also have concepts, so like days of the week and places that I’m familiar with and certain holidays appear in my mind in color and also located in space around me that they always appear whenever I think about the concept or the letter or the number. It’s kind of fun. It’s kind of interesting.

The only thing about it that’s proven to be a drawback in my life is that somehow I don’t know how these things develop, but I must have been young when I learned about east and west because the color I have in my head for west is the same color I have in my head for right, as in the right side of my body.

When I’m trying to get directions and people talking about east and west, I always confuse them because the color for west is the same as the color for right, when of course, when you’re reading a map that should be on the left. But I’ve learned that if I’m getting east and west directions, I have to stop and write it down because my brain is going to confuse that. There you go.

Pete Mockaitis
That is fascinating. With my wife, numbers seem to have a color and a gender to them.

Kimberly White
I’ve heard of that.

Pete Mockaitis
As a result, they’re so much more meaningful to her and she’s able to memorize numbers rapidly, whereas I rely on this old school technique of turning each of the numbers into a letter, turn those letters into a word, link those words. I’m thinking hard for like five minutes to memorize a sequence and she just has it in less than one minute.

Kimberly White
Yeah, because it brings in more of the brain. Yeah, mine has not really proven to be helpful, just interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s also interesting to me is you recently made a move to central Illinois, right?

Kimberly White
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s Pawnee, Illinois, not to be confused with Pawnee, Indiana, the fictitious home of Leslie Knope in Parks and Rec.

Kimberly White
No and that’s what everybody asks me. All I can say is a) I wish and b) my Pawnee is much, much smaller.

Now, what’s crazy is we moved here from Manhattan.

Pete Mockaitis
That is crazy.

Kimberly White
We actually lived in Harlem. It was the biggest city. It’s all very cosmopolitan. And everybody’s a doctor or an artist or an opera singer. Everybody has tiny, little tiny places to live, but sort of big jobs and big dreams. We moved out here to farm country and it’s like being in a different country, but it’s great. It’s a great different country. We’ve been very, very happy here.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. The motivation for the move was just to have just less distraction and to be able to do more writing?

Kimberly White
Partially that and the money.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah.

Kimberly White
I love New York, but it is so expensive to live there. Rents just go up and up and up. We just we got priced out.

Pete Mockaitis
I think beyond just the sheer income versus outgo, it would just irritate me. Writing checks that large ore paying this much for a drink or for milk or whatever you’re buying, like, “This is ridiculous,” grumble, grumble.

Kimberly White
It’s really true. I would be happy – if I saw a gallon of milk for five dollars, I’d say, “Hurray, it’s only five dollars.” This was two years ago. I’m sure milk is seven dollars now. It really did wear on you after a while, but there were lots of great things about the city too. Wonderful people.

New Yorkers get a really bad rap. It’s mostly deserved, but there are really, really good things about New Yorkers. They’re very loyal.

I’m always telling people who wanted to go visit, they always want advice from somebody who’s lived there, I tell them, “Do not be afraid to ask somebody on the street for directions. New Yorkers are really friendly that way. But don’t stop in the middle of the street and block them from walking. Then they’ll be really mad.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh right, walking too slow. That’s the cardinal sin.

Kimberly White
Don’t walk too slow. Don’t do that. Just don’t. Don’t do it. Don’t stop at the top of the subway stairs. Don’t do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh boy. Well, that’s a lot of fun. That’s the backdrop.

Kimberly White
There we are.

Pete Mockaitis
Then I’m going to get some more backdrop. You have a good bit of experience collaborating with the Arbinger Institute. Can you orient those who are not yet familiar? What’s this organization all about?

Kimberly White
The Arbinger Institute is a management consulting company. They’re a philosophy. They’re management consulting approach is based on the work of a philosopher named Terry Warner, who founded the company decades ago before I was involved with them.

Their approach is to teach leaders and managers how to see the people that they’re responsible for, and the people that they work with, and the people that report to them as real people not just as sort of cogs in the corporate machine.

They have found over the years that you can do a lot to improve productivity and avoid infighting and the sort of battles that develop between different departments and so on just by taking this approach.
I worked with them in college. They have a very popular book called Leadership and Self-Deception that was written about that time. I was involved. I didn’t write the book but I looked at the first draft, edited it. I was involved with the first couple of drafts of that book. It’s still worth reading today. Your listeners should check it out.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh absolutely. It is worth reading. I heard several guests cite this as one of their top, top books. It’s like; I’ve got to check this thing out. I actually listened to the audio version. I still hear that guy’s voice in my head sometimes, like, “You’re in the box. … going to get out of the box.”

Kimberly White
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s really powerful stuff. I was intrigued just because it’s one of the few books that I know of that doesn’t have an author listed as the person, but it’s like the entire organization.

I always try to figure out this is a great book. Who should I get to talk about it on the show? Well, it’s like I don’t know because there’s not an author I can snag. You’re sort of like behind the veil of mystery as an editor.

Kimberly White
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s something special.

Kimberly White
I know. Yes. It’s very interesting. They did that on purpose. They were very considered about that. They have a few other books out now. Usually they are primarily written by one person in the company, but they all sort of collaborate together and work on it together.

They made the decision – and this is a very Arbinger thing to do. They made the decision to have all of their books be authored by the Institute and not by the individuals so that the credit for the ideas would be shared. There wouldn’t be one person, for example, who’s doing all the podcasts. That was their point.

You’ll notice in my book that I’ve written we had the same sort of issue. It’s primarily a profile of one company and they didn’t want their name to be primary. They wanted the stories and the insights to be sort of more universal. More important, they didn’t want to feel uncomfortable offering the book to their competitors and other people in the same industry. They just wanted the ideas to stand for themselves.

That’s why there’s this veil of mystery, as you call it, is to keep it even and to keep the focus on the ideas and the work and to make it as accessible for any one person as for anybody else.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool and that’s interesting. It just really feels like it’s really based upon true values. I think it just makes it, well, I guess from a marketing perspective, all the more intriguing. It’s like I’ve got to see what this is about.

Kimberly White
You can tell that they’re really living what they preach. They have the kind of collaborative relationship that they teach other people how to have.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. You’re telling me that the name of the organization is not the real name of the organization?

Kimberly White
It is not. That just stands for Healthcare Group.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Got it. The mystery continues. Cool.

Kimberly White
Yeah, such a mystery.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s sort of the backstory. Then can you orient us a little bit. We talked about the main principle or concept is people as people. Can you give us a little bit more background on just sort of the conceptual piece and then I want to hear how it came alive for HG. I said the box a couple of times, could you maybe unpack just a couple of those foundational concepts?

Kimberly White
Yeah, let’s clarify all of those. Especially because the subtitle of my book is How Seeing People as People Changes Everything. The question I get all the time is how else am I going to see them. Obviously they’re people. It does bear talking about.

The point isn’t that Arbinger or I, anybody thinks that anyone really doesn’t know that people are people and thinks of them as subhuman or anything like that. That’s not what we’re talking about.

But the point is this, when I am focused and kind of obsessed with my own interests and my goals and the things I’m trying to accomplish and my fears and my dreams, when that’s the only thing that I’m caring about and thinking about, then the people around me only enter my thoughts in so far as they have an impact on the things I’m trying to accomplish. I don’t think about them beyond that.

If I’m trying to get a promotion at work, then my coworkers, I only even see them as far as they impact that. She might be a competitor, someone else who’s trying to get that promotion. That’s all I see. This is a person I’m competing with. How do I drag her down? How do I make myself look good in comparison to her?

He might not be in the running for the promotion. He kind of likes me and maybe he’ll say something good about me to the higher ups, so I only see him in so far as I can use him for that purpose. Now, the reason we say that seeing people like that is like seeing them as objects is because it reduces them to functional.

Pete Mockaitis
Only if you’re there.

Kimberly White
Yeah. Objects, they come from the factory. They’re supposed to perform something. If I’ve got a pen, it came from the factory. It only exists for me to be able to write with it. If I can write with it, then I’m happy with it. If my friend at work will praise me to the higher ups, then I’m happy with him. I don’t think any further about it.

If my pen is broken, then I’m mad and I’m frustrated and maybe I’ll throw it away. I might lick it, shake it, whatever, because it’s just an object. What I don’t do with a pen is think “I wonder what happened to make the pen feel bad. I wonder if I can talk it into providing-“ no, because it’s not a person. It doesn’t have feelings. It doesn’t have thoughts. It’s just an object.

But I find myself treating other people that way too because-

Pete Mockaitis
You lick them. You shake them.

Kimberly White
Yeah, you lick them, you shake them, try to get them to do it and see how – and if they don’t do what I want, then I’m just mad and I get rid of them.

But the person who’s a competitor for the promotion for me in the office, that is not why she exists. She doesn’t exist to compete with me. She has her own life. She grew up somewhere. She has perspective. She has a culture she came from. She had hurts when she was young and triumphs and all of these things have made her the person she is. She has her own goals and her own reasons.

There are just thousands of things inside her mind and in her life having her act the way she does and bringing her to this point. But when I’m only thinking about myself, I don’t see any of that in her. All I see is “I want a promotion, she might get in my way,” just like she was a pen that wasn’t producing ink.

When we see people as objects like that, the problem is obviously, that’s not fair to her. She doesn’t exist for me. He doesn’t exist for me. It’s not fair to people. They don’t like that feeling of being seen like an object, but it’s also false. When I see somebody, just a thin sliver of what they’re … me and that’s all I care about, then I’m missing a lot.

She might have a very good reason for wanting this promotion. She might … fit for the promotion than I am or maybe not, but I don’t know. As long as all I can see is that she’s a competitor, like an object competitor, I can’t see anything else and there are bound to be important things that I’m missing.

That’s why in the Arbinger materials, you’ll find them talking about being in the box because when we see other people as though they were just objects, our perspective is so limited that it’s like being locked in a box where we can only see a few things. I can only see the stuff that matters to my goals. I can’t see anything else. It’s a way of being blinkered.

In my book I talk about it as being kind of blind because we miss so many important and crucial things and it leaves us unable to solve problems and build relationships when we’re seeing others in that shallow object-like way.

Pete Mockaitis
When you talk about being blinkered and blind, what this is reminding me of is some study that I think it looked at brain scans associated with people who are looking at pornography.

What was sort of troubling there is that sort of the same parts of the brain associated with using an object or tool like a hammer or a saw or something were being activated and lit up sort of in that context when they were looking at images of people, which is really spooky that there’s some sort of physical or biochemical stuff happening just inside of us that’s there.

Blindness really does seem like an apt terminology because it’s kind of like a physical dysfunction or disability.

Kimberly White
Yes, there’s just so much we miss. Nobody has ever studied the Arbinger term specifically, but they have done studies and they’ve shown similar things when you’re part of an in group and there’s an out group that you have a conflict with, like racial groups or gang members from different affiliations that you find, again, the same thing.

You find different regions of the brain activated for the people that you’re seeing as objects and as enemies than for the ones that are part of your in group and that you care about.

Like I said, this specifically hasn’t been studied, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it would show up in a brain scan because we do, we get so blinded and so blinkered when we are self-absorbed and not seeing the people around us as people.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m right with you there that it doesn’t sound like a pleasant way to live and experience collaboration and interaction with people. But if that were enough for the hardcore achievers, what are some of the results or performance impacts associated with making this mental shift?

Kimberly White
Oh gosh, it’s so crazy because I think it’s easy to hear something like this and think, “Hm, yeah, but having to get to know people, that takes time and I’ve got to earn money and I’ve got a deadline,” as though seeing people as people is going to take more time and it yields uncertain benefits.

But it is absolutely the opposite. I have seen so many cases where seeing people as objects has led to all kinds of conflict and wasted time. In my book, it’s primarily focused on the healthcare industry.

One thing that’s very, very common in health care environments is the management – it being responsible management – will sort of look at their budget and all the things that are going in and out and notice that they spent a lot on supplies, gloves and adult briefs, and wipes and things like that and will say, “Hey, I think we’re using too many. Let’s try to restrict this a little bit and try to save money on our supplies.”

The problem is that the nurses and the nursing assistants who have to deal with the patients face-to-face, one-on-one, that’s a horrifying idea to them because what are they going to do if somebody needs  a change or they need their wound looked at or they need to be rolled over and the nurse has run out of gloves. You can’t even touch a patient without gloves. There’s so many things they wouldn’t be able to do.

The nurses become panicked and the first thing they do – and this is so common – they’ll sort of sneak the supplies out of the closet and go hide them around the patient rooms. They’ll hide them in places so that each individual nurse knows that she has enough supplies for her patients. But they all do this because they’ve all been told we’re cutting back on supplies.

Then management comes and they look at it and they go, “Wait, we’re still overusing our supplies,” and they yell at the nurses and they give them lectures. They have a big in service meeting to talk about how important it is. The nurses go, “Oh my gosh,” and they hide more stuff because they’re afraid of losing their supplies and not being able to care for their patients.

This happens so frequently and things like this happen in every business as departments feud for resources and as reports try to sneak things from their boss if they feel like budgets are being constrained.

This problem only arises because the management isn’t trusting the nurses to be responsible with the supplies and the nurses aren’t trusting the management to purchase the amount of supplies they truly need, so they’re back and forth and everybody is upset and angry.

You end up spending a lot of time, and meetings, and a lot of emotional energy trying to solve this supply problem that should be going toward your actual product, which is taking care of the patients, taking care of their rooms.

When you get leaders who are willing to back out of that conflict and say, “We’re on the same side here. Let’s work together to talk about things where we can save money. How many supplies do you realistically need? I’ll make sure you have them,” then you don’t have those problems. That hording issue completely disappears when the people trust each other.

Now, no nurse, no janitor, nobody who’s on the housekeeping staff, none of these people are going to trust leadership that doesn’t value them. If I know that my boss basically just sees me as an object, I am not going to trust him. I’m not going to trust her. I’m going to feel like those nurses and I’m going to feel like I need to hoard my resources and hoard my stuff.

When you can really see people as people as a leader, you get so much more productivity, so much more cooperation, so much more openness from the people that you’re working with because people can tell that the difference. They know. They know when you’re seeing them as an object. They know when you don’t matter to them.

You can save all kinds of energy and money, frankly, because you don’t need to spend that much on supplies if everybody is being honest about where they’re going.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. You talked about resources in different environments. I’m aware of an employee who it’s kind of challenging to type all day at a laptop, so this person wants to use speech software.

They have speech software, but the laptop is underpowered in terms of RAM or hard drive space or whatever is necessary to run the thing and making the request to get the computer you need to do the work is just nightmarish in terms of the policies and the standards.

Kimberly White
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
You can have me operating at sort of half-power, which is going to amount to 30 – 40 – 50 K a year of lost productivity.

Kimberly White
Of loss, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Or you can pay 500 bucks to get me a RAM and a hard drive update and I’ll be a happy camper.

Kimberly White
Right. I’ll be happy. I’ll be pleased. I’ll get my work done instead of gripping about my computer. I think so many, especially business leaders and managers, underestimate how much time is lost in complaining and in gripping and in just sort of being unhappy.

Here’s a little experiment for you. If you think about somebody that you don’t like, somebody that’s irritating and drives you crazy. Just think about how much time you’ve spent in your life just basically sitting and thinking how annoying that person is or complaining to somebody else about how annoying they are. Calling your mom, “Oh, did I tell you what so and so did today.”

We actually spend a lot of time on that and not nearly as much when we trust and value people. That doesn’t take away from our work. We don’t devote the same kind of energy to it. We tend to devote that kind of energy into working together.

I was in a building – this is in my book too – where I met two nurses. They’re both male. They were just so happy in their job. They were so happy where they worked. They were so happy with the way they were treated by management and they created this entire environment where all of the employees were supportive and helpful.

One of these guys actually had a second job in another facility that actually paid him more per hour, but he wouldn’t give up this job because it was so pleasant. He enjoyed it so much. Talk about productivity increase, talk about engagement, talk about motivation.

We spend so much time and energy trying to get employees to feel engaged, to be motivated, to be committed, to reduce turnover, all of these things. People will stay where they’re happy, where they feel valued, and where they know their feelings and their hopes, and their dreams, and their perspective matter, especially when they feel like they matter to the management.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful. I’m thinking of another instance in which an employee shared all sorts of input on sort of the process and the use of contractors and how they could do a better job executing a certain area of work.

Then one or two days later, they started up doing the exact same old process with the exact same problematic contractors, threw this person into a meeting and is absorbing this with not a word of acknowledgement about the exchange.

Like, “Hey, I know what you said about the contractors and we’re really working on that, but it’s … right now, so we’re going to have to go with who we’ve got because we can’t get someone else quick enough,” just 20 seconds.

Kimberly White
That’s all it would take.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, “Hey, I heard you.”

Kimberly White
Right. But here’s the thing and here’s why the Arbinger approach and the stuff I talk about in my book I think are so important, it’s because that kind of thing, just being willing to take the time to explain what’s going on kind of arises naturally when you really see the people around you as people.

When you care about your coworkers, when you care about their feelings, you would always make those clarifications. You would never just ignore them. That’s how we treat the people that we care about. That’s how we treat our friends.

It’s in this environment where we just see our coworkers as objects, as other cogs in the machine that you end up kind of either feeling awkward about it or not knowing how to bring it up, all these sort of things that people end up doing that stops them from saying what they really should say. Those sorts of things arise in an environment where we see people as objects.

When we care about people, when we know them – this is one of the things that this company HG in the shift did so well – is they trained their leaders not in some process that made employees feel valued, not in some procedure that would make people think that they mattered, but they would literally tell them.

When a manager went into a new building for the …, he or she was instructed for the first 30 days or thereabouts they weren’t allowed to do anything except get to know the staff and the people. They weren’t allowed to change processes. They weren’t allowed to make new plans. They weren’t allowed to change their suppliers. They just spent all of their time getting to know people.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s so funny. I’m imagining myself as that manager, like, “What an awesome month. This is just going to be fun.”

Kimberly White
Right?

Pete Mockaitis
“I can just get to know people. I cannot stress about lots of stuff.” It’s almost like having an extended vacation, hanging out with cool people.

Kimberly White
Right. Although, I’ll tell you. They continually had a problem that these managers couldn’t stand not to be solving problems because they’re managers. They wanted to go in and fix problems, so they had to make it so that they’d have to report on who they met that day and report on what they learned about people.

They’d also have to report on problems that they saw but didn’t fix because otherwise they’d go around fixing problems, which is I think just sort of a manager thing. But they would do this. They would legitimately do this.

Thirty days later – I mean just imagine. If you worked for a bad company – a lot of the time there would be these bad healthcare facilities that were losing money and they failed health inspections and they were not pleasant places to be in.

Then HG would come in, buy the facility, bring in a new manager and turn them around. That’s how they grow. That’s how they earn their money.

Now if somebody comes in, which is typical in the industry and in most industries, if a new boss comes in and just says, “You’re doing this wrong and that wrong, and this process is bad, and this person is bad. I’m going to fire a bunch of people, bring in all my own guys, tell you guys that you’re all doing it wrong.” The employees that stay just feel so insulted by that.

You might as well come in and say, “Everything you’re doing is wrong. You’re stupid,” because that’s how it feels. We got a new boss and he hates everything I’m doing. He thinks everything I’m doing is wrong. He’s firing my friends. It’s really demoralizing. It’s really, really difficult. It’s hard enough to get a new boss even if he’s great.

They would send these people in and they would spend 30 days just getting to know people. At the end of 30 days, you’ve got a staff that isn’t thinking, “He thinks I’m dumb. He hates me. He’s got all these new processes. We tried that last year. We already know it didn’t work.” They don’t disdain him. They are fond of him.

They know that he knows them. He can greet them by name because he spent all month getting to know people. He knows who has kids. He knows who works a second job. He knows who’s going back to school to get a nursing degree.

When you’re in an environment like that where people know each other and you know the boss cares about your job. When I say everybody, I mean everybody: the kitchen, the housekeeping staff, everybody. If you wash dishes in one of these facilities, the boss knows you.

Thirty days later, the boss would say – and this is the second important piece to the HG approach – the boss would gather all of his department heads and the leaders of the facility and ask them what they thought they needed to work on in the building.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Kimberly White
Now, instead of this new guy coming in and telling them all of the things they’re doing wrong and giving them a new process, he’s saying, “What do you think we can do better?” You know what? They always know. The people who are in this building, they know why it’s not making money. They know why it’s failed the health inspection.

They can feel perfectly free just to say, “I think our billing is inefficient. I think this process is too slow,” because they don’t have to feel defensive about it because nobody is attacking them.

I couldn’t find anybody who said there was a big problem that the leader had identified that the staff didn’t identify. They always get it.

Then the leader too. Now he’s a guy or she’s a girl who not only knows everybody on her staff, top to bottom, but also she has proven to herself that they know what they’re doing, that they know what the problems are, that they’re smart about identifying problems and solutions.

When she goes forward as a boss over the next years, she’s doing it with people that she trusts, that she values, that she knows, and people that she knows she can count on.

That kind of a work environment, where the boss isn’t pretending, doesn’t have an initiative, doesn’t have a binder that he’s looking at to try to make you feel good, but where the boss genuinely values you and can go into the kitchen and speak to the dishwasher by name and tell him he’s doing a great job.

The amount of dedication and hard work that these people put into their buildings is incredible. They work longer hours. They do more. They go out of their way. They do things that aren’t in their job description. They cover for each other when they’re on vacation.

I saw business behavior I would not have believed and I saw it all the time because people want to be friendly, people want to be helpful when they feel safe, when they feel like they matter, and when they know that they’re a real person to everyone around them. Then they treat each other that way. It kind of spreads.

That it’s not just – you bring in one boss who’s willing to make that 30-day effort to get to know people and treat them like they’re intelligent and like their input is good input, then everybody else becomes more willing to treat their coworkers that way.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s a beautiful picture that you’re painting. It’s inspiring. It’s a beautiful thing. This just sparks so many things.

When we talk about sort of efficiency, many things came up. One, people are going to work at a lower wage when they’re just feeling great about the environment around them. Two, you’re coming up with all of these solutions and I’m thinking about my management consulting days. One month of a manager’s compensation is less than one month of Bain & Company fees.

Kimberly White
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
To come up with a bunch of solutions.

Kimberly White
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
In a way it’s massively efficient if it’s like we’re looking for leveraged approaches to getting solutions, we can hire the consultants or we can hire a manger who does nothing but get to know people for a month. It sounds like odds are strong you may come away with a bigger ROI on that month there than you would with a consultant or other solution finding approach.

Kimberly White
Yeah, HG is convinced that their financial success is largely due to this willingness to invest initially.

Like I said, so many people want to come in, snap their fingers, make a bunch of changes in the first 30 days, first 100 days.

In fact, I met a woman who had worked for a different company doing exactly that, going into facilities. She had 100 days to turn them around and make them profitable. She was a powerhouse. She was so fierce. She did that and made a ton of money. But she heard about HG and their way of doing things and got hired with them. When I … that she doesn’t make as much money … fixer.

But the reason she made the switch because she would go to these big meetings with the executives at the previous company and she had made them millions of dollars. She is so good. She had made them tons of money. Not one of them knew her name, not one of them. Over at HG, they all did. Even the executives made sure to get to know people and meet them. It’s a top down all the way thing.

There you go. She was making tons of money, more money than they could afford to pay her at this other … company. She left and they got her skills because she would rather be in an environment where she was valued.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful. What you’re painting really does sound like a paradise, but you’ve got a chapter called The Paradise Delusion, so what’s the other side of this coin?

Kimberly White
Yup, yup. Oh my goodness, so yeah, we’re talking here about all of the good stuff and it behooves me to say none of this means that they didn’t have problems at HG. They still had turnover. You just always are going to have turnover in healthcare. They would still have government restrictions coming.

They dealt with things. None of this means that you’re not going to have problems, but you’re never going to have different departments needing or wanting different things. It just means that when those things happen, when you have people who really value each other, they can work it out in a way you can’t if everybody’s just an object to each other. You beat heads.

But as paradise delusion is concerned, the thing is very often when we are seeing people around us as objects and we’re unhappy and I would suggest that if we’re seeing the people around us as objects, we’re invariably going to be unhappy because objects are so stifling.

I found in my personal life as I went into HG and … these people and saw these friendly, familial work environments where people cared about each other and so on, it made me feel so much worse about my home life, which was very unhappy at the time.

I began to think, “Oh, I wish my husband would be like this person at this facility. I wish that my kids were as well-behaved as these people at this facility. I wish that my neighbors and coworkers were as … as these people.”

I called it a paradise delusion because I became convinced that what I needed to become happy in my life was to be surrounded by people who were going to be kind to …. I think that’s not at all uncommon when we’re unhappy, to feel like what I need is different people, different, nicer people who are going to value me again.

The reason that’s a delusion is because for one thing it’s never, ever, ever, ever going to happen, that there’s anybody on earth who’s completely surrounded by people who are always nice to him or her all of the time. Can’t be done. We are human beings. Nobody is nice all of the time. No group of people are all going to be nice all at the same time. It’s just never going to happen.

The second thing is when I think that paradise means everyone is going to be kind to me; I’m only thinking about myself. I’m thinking about what I want. I’m thinking about how I wish my husband would treat me, but in all of that – and maybe he is doing things that are unkind – but in thinking that way, I’m not sparing any mental energy to wonder what my husband wants.

What does he want from a spouse? What would he like for me to be doing? Does he want a nicer spouse? See that never crossed my mind. All I was thinking about is how I want other people around me to be different. I never thought about how they might want me to be different.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Thank you. Well, so let’s get zoomed in shall we in terms of an individual professional in the heat of battle, if you will, in their workplace. What are some of the real keys to making the shift?

Kimberly White
Okay, first of all you have to be present with people. You have to be around them, especially if you’re a leader. You can’t get to know people if they’re always in their offices and you’re always in your office. You have to get to know people and take effort.

Usually that will mean asking questions. Where did you go to school? How do you like your job? What are you interested in? What do you do for your spare time? You can ask questions of people and get to know them.

There’s no way a person can be a real person for you if you don’t know anything about them. You have to start there. You have to start with finding out about them so that you know what’s relevant and what bothers them in their life.

At HG, you’ll see this in the book, they train their leaders to ask people

Kimberly White
“What makes your job hard for you?” because it validates them in the fact that there are things that are going to be hard, but then as a leader you know what the difficulties are. Instead of sitting back frustrated that people aren’t getting things in on time, you can just find out why is it hard to get things in on time. Then you know. Very often you can do something about it.

This works in personal life too. Why do you always forget to bring the milk home? Instead of just being mad and yelling at the person who isn’t doing what they’re asked, “Why is that hard?” You might find out there’s something you can do about it. You might find out there’s something you didn’t know that was going on in the background.

Asking questions is absolutely the first step. You get to know people and particularly find out if there’s something that’s irritating to you or something that’s a problem from your perspective, find out from them why it’s difficult. It’s a very, very humbling thing to do.

The second thing is to pay attention. You can’t fake caring about somebody. You can’t fake that they’re valuable to you. You can try and people see through it. It’s a waste of time, so don’t bother.

Ask the questions and pay attention. Watch people. Is this a cheerful person? Is this a grumpy person? See what’s going on. Then if there’s a change, you’ll notice it. If there’s a change, you’ll see it.

None of us want to be that person who … ten years later they suddenly woke up one day and said, “Oh my goodness, I never noticed how much he changed. I never noticed how much she had changed.” We need to pay attention as we go and notice the changes as they happen.

The third thing I would say is to always be willing to consider whether I am the problem because I don’t know what the problem is, you see. It’s quite possible that it’s me.

Talking about the paradise delusion with our coworkers or spouses or neighbors, we can be very irritated by something that they’re doing and wish that they would change and wish that they would be better, but we can never solve these problems and improve these relationships until we’re willing to recognize what we are doing that’s irritating to them.

When I am willing and able to say, “What am I doing that’s a problem for you?” that opens up the possibility of truly being able to fix these relationships that can’t be fixed as long as the only problem I’m willing to recognize is the one that they’re causing me.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Well, there’s just a lot of profundity here to sit with. I think I’ll be listening to this episode multiple times and I recommend listeners do the same.

Kimberly White
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
There’s a few more pieces I want to get if you have some time.

Kimberly White
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
You say it’s possible that our worst employees can actually be the best. How does that work?

Kimberly White
Well, it goes back to the blindness we were talking about. When we see somebody as an object, we don’t really know what they’re capable of.

Some of the time, my experience has shown, that a person who is being a bad employee, who is acting out, who is resistant to instruction, all these things that make an employee difficult to deal with, very often those are people who react very … against being treated like an object. Very often these are people who are just very resistant to that feeling and can’t … that feeling.

Then when they’re treated well, when you begin to get to know them, and understand them and see where they’re coming from, there isn’t anything wrong with them as an employee. Their devotion to the work is great. Their knowledge is great. Their skills are wonderful. They just were so troubled by being treated like an object.

This is a funny story in my book. The founders of HG, their company, it became a running joke for them. When they would purchase a new facility and go in, they told me that invariably, invariably, the previous owners would tell them, “Well, watch out for so-and-so and so-and-so and so-and-so because they’re such trouble.” They’d give them like five names.

He said invariably when they went in and stated doing things this way, seeing people as people and started off by getting to know them and doing all that that most of those people on the watch-out-for list turned into their best employees.

We can’t make judgments about people while we’re seeing them as objects because there’s no way of knowing how much of their behavior is just a reaction to the very fact that I’m seeing them as an object.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. That’s powerful. I have to ask, even though it feels a little too silly from the heavy, powerful stuff we’ve had, but you’ve got a chapter that has poop in the title.

Kimberly White
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
I can’t just walk away from that. What’s the story here?

Kimberly White
No, you can’t. It’s the poop chapter. I couldn’t believe my publisher let me do that. I’ll tell you why. It’s stilly, but it’s also profound I think.

This story is in the book too, but I was in a facility early, early on, the very beginning of this research, before I understood a lot these things that we’d been talking about. I learned it from these people. But I was in this facility and I was talking to a nursing assistant who didn’t speak very good English. I remember her so clearly.

Now, nursing assistants are the ones who change beds and for people who are incontinent, they change the briefs. They’ll help people to the toilet – somebody who needs to be rolled over or helped out of bed, they do all that sort of very close and physical work.

I had developed a habit of asking everybody that I met what was the best part of their job and what was the worst part of their job. I was asking this woman, “What’s the worst part of your job?” She paused for a minute and she told me that the worst part was when her patients pass away, which was just astonishing to me. I didn’t know that the people who worked in these places cared that deeply for one thing.

But the second thing was I knew what nursing assistants did, so I knew for a fact, we all know, that it’s got to be like changing the diapers and doing the poop and the diarrhea and stuff. That’s got to be the worst part. I asked her, like maybe she’d forgotten, “What about the diapers and stuff?” She looked at me like I was crazy. She said, “No, no, that’s for their dignity.”

I realized that for me poop was just this gross thing that I didn’t want to touch and that made me not want to work in healthcare because you might have to see some of that stuff and that’s yucky.

But that’s not what it was for her. Because the people that she cared for were real people to her, she didn’t see it as yucky, gross poop. To her it was well, these people, their bodies are failing them. I can help keep them dignified if I assist them with the toilet, if I keep them clean. I’m making them clean and safe and happy.

It wasn’t remotely the worst part of the job to her because it was what real people, people that she cared for, it was what real people needed.

The point of that chapter and the point of talking about poop at all is just to show how different everything, everything about other people looks when we can see them as they really are.

An object person, yes, their diapers are gross, but a real person with a life history who chats with me about their kids and tells me stories of the past and maybe tells me jokes, with that person if their body is aging and doesn’t function for them, it’s not the same thing at all. It becomes a sense of I want to help clean them up, make sure they don’t feel embarrassed.

It’s even the feces is different when we see people as people.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. This is just so good.

Kimberly White
Thank you. Thank you, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you share a little bit when you’re in the midst of things, I think that many of us want to, we aspire to care about people regularly and then we get caught up in our own stuff and we get defensive and such. Do you have any tactical tips for when you’re in the moment, in the heat of it, what are some great ways that you can kind of quickly bring yourself back to a caring position?

Kimberly White
Oh my gosh. You’re asking the wrong person. I am so bad. But there’s a chapter about this too. It was one of the most disappointing things – one of the hardest things, but it turned out to be wonderful about learning all this stuff and this shift and seeing people as people.

It turns out I’m still just kind of me. I’m still just kind of a jerk. I can still fight. I can still see people as objects. I didn’t just magically turn into a fairy princess who scatters flowers around. It was very disappointing. I thought I was going to be better.

I actually think the first thing to do is just to remember human beings have faults. The other people around us are going to have faults. We shouldn’t condemn them for that and neither should we condemn ourselves. We can always fix the situation later. You can always apologize. There’s no sense in getting depressed when we find ourselves doing the jerky thing that we know we’re prone to do.

The second thing is when it’s a relationship that’s pivotal in your life, a spouse or a coworker or something that’s likely to come up a lot, then I would really, really recommend spending time –

We were talking before about the amount of time we spend griping about people that annoy us, try to spend an equal amount of time or even any amount of time thinking about the person that annoys you the most and what in their life, what pains and sorrows, and frustrations might be leading them to behave in a way that you find so difficult.

Then you have that place to go to. In the moment when you find yourself frustrated, you’ve already thought about that person as a person and instead of trying to generate that when you’re already upset, which I can tell you I don’t do very well, I don’t think most of us do.

But if I’ve already thought about it and already found a way to see that person as a person, and even please, taken some steps to show them, steps of kindness, to demonstrate the caring that I have, then when I find myself irritated, frustrated, grumpy, I have that mindset present to me. I can go there.

I can remind myself, “Okay, take a deep breath. Remember that she just got over being ill and she takes a medication.” “He was really disappointed last week at his performance, no wonder he’s stressed right now.” You can remind yourself of the things you know about the person that will make them seem human to you.

We do not have to just fall back into that, “He’s so annoying.” “She’s such a brat,” kind of way of thinking. We have the power because we run our own minds, we have the power to remind ourselves of the things we know about the person that are real, that are true, and that are human.

Then if you can’t do much in the moment, don’t be afraid to apologize. People love to get apologies and to make an acknowledgement of what I’ve done wrong. Nobody ever minds, ever, ever, ever will mind hearing, “I’m sorry. I messed that up.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Kimberly White
You’re quite welcome.

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

Kimberly White
Oh, we’ve had such a great conversation, Pete. I think we’ve covered everything. I just want to emphasize again how much power we have over our own lives and our own relationships.  The seeing people as people stuff, that’s not only for people who were born cheerful. It’s not only for people who were born calm. That is a decision we get to make in every moment of our lives.

Am I just going to sit back and think about myself and everybody around me gets to be an object or am I going to say, “Wait. What’s he thinking? What’s she thinking?” It doesn’t take any skills. It doesn’t take a degree. It doesn’t take a particular upbringing. That is just a choice we get to make. It’s a choice that will change everything in our lives if we’re willing to make it.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Kimberly White
Well, it was just so powerful to me. One of the founders of this company was talking to me about motivating employees. He said that he’s against trying to motivate employees. He said this, “Leadership is like a fire.  A good leader doesn’t come in and blow on the flame and take credit. He sees the flame that’s already there and clears away debris to let it grow.”

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful, thank you.

Kimberly White
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Now how about a favorite book?

Kimberly White
The Remains of the Day. Are you familiar with that one?

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t know a lot about it, but I know the title. It’s ringing a bell.

Kimberly White
Yeah, and they made a movie of it. No, it is a story about a man who devoted his whole life and made tremendous and painful personal sacrifices thinking he was on the right side of history and it turned out he was not and sort of had to confront that in his old age.

I just am so moved by the human experience and just the disappointments we all have just because we’re flawed human beings. We don’t have to have lived the perfect life. Humanity isn’t about getting it right. It’s just about being human.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite habit?

Kimberly White
I like to eat a chocolate smoothie in my bed and read with my door locked. I will read anything. Mostly I read non-fiction. But the chocolate smoothie just puts that over the edge, I’m telling you. It’s like ice cream without the guilt.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. Is there a particular nugget that you share that really seems to connect and resonate with people when you share it?

Kimberly White
You asked great questions and brought out all the good stuff.

One thing that resonates a lot with people is this little tidbit. Before I started working on this book, I was headed for divorce. I was so unhappy. I thought this was going to be the way to make the money I needed to be independent and split. Now, I am happily married to the same man.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Thank you.

Kimberly White
In case you’re wondering, does this really work? Yeah, it does actually. It really, really, really does. It’s not just pie in the sky. It’s not just quotable quotes. Life can be different. Life can be better than we tend to think. Humans are awesome. Ordinary people have so much capacity and so much greatness inside them. We’re surrounded by it. We can produce it and we can see it in others and it’s just miraculous.

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

Kimberly White
I would point them to my website, KimberlyWhiteBooks.com. That’s books plural. My book, The Shift: How Seeing People as People Changes Everything is available at all major book sellers. For leaders, I recommend 800-CEO-Read. For everybody else, go to Amazon and you probably will anyway.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Kimberly White
Yes. If you want to be awesome at your job, start by finding out where you’re not awesome. If you’re not willing to … and fix them, you can never be awesome at your job. Find what it is, fix it, and ask somebody at work. They’ll be able to tell you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Kimberly, thank you so much for taking this time and sharing the goods. It’s powerful stuff and I’m excited to see what transformations emerge from it. Please keep doing the great work that you’re doing.

Kimberly White
Thank you so much. It’s been just delightful to be with you.

322: Delivering the Most Persuasive Words with Michel Fortin

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Legendary copywriter Michel Fortin shares how to be more persuasive in any environment and situation.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The platinum rule for persuasion
  2. The OATH formula to better know the people you need to persuade
  3. The ‘so-that’ technique to bridge arguments and persuade people

About Michel

Michel is currently Director of Communications at SEO TWIST, Inc., a full-service digital marketing agency that’s also a Premier Google Partner, Facebook Partner, and Shopify Partner. He manages a portfolio of 47 client accounts ranging from small businesses to multinationals. He’s also President and co-owner of Supportibles, Inc. (formerly Workaholics4Hire), an outsourced customer support solutions and backoffice business process services provider.

He leads a team of three managers and 22 support staff, as well as over 200 part-time virtual assistants and remote workers. They handle an average volume of over 15,000 support cases daily with clients in a variety of industries and verticals. He’s also responsible for building the clientbase, developing strategic marketing plans, and implementing business growth campaigns.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Michel Fortin Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Michel, thanks so much for joining us here on the How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Michel Fortin

Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I’m so excited to have this conversation. And I wanted to start by hearing about, you are a drummer in four different bands. Tell me how this works.

Michel Fortin

[laugh] Well, I’ve been playing drums since I was… Oh my Lord, since I was nine years old. I started playing on a drum set that my uncle had whenever he was playing with his bands in my grandmother’s house. Every time I visited my grandmother – I was being babysat by my grandmother – I was jumping on the drum set. And that kind of spurred a nice little hobby, and now today I play in four different bands – a country band, a classic rock band, a jazz band, and a heavy metal band. So, you can see that there’s a wide range of music there, and I’m very, very busy with all four of them, yes.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s cool. And have they ever been at the same evening or gig, in terms of, one is opening for another so you just very conveniently schedule to be in that spot?

Michel Fortin

Yeah, we all share calendars with the bands, so they know to not book a gig when I’m with another band. So I kind of tell all four bands at the same time when I’m available or not, so it works out really well. And as you probably know, from heavy metal bands to country bands is too widely diverse ranges of music, so they don’t share some of the same gig places. It’s kind of nice, yes.

Pete Mockaitis

Can I hear the band names? Are they wildly creative?

Michel Fortin

It’s kind of funny, because one of the first bands a while back was at the time when I used to teach at a local college here. I used to teach marketing, marketing management, professional selling, copywriting and all that stuff. And we were all teachers, and some of them actually still teach there. Actually one just retired not too long ago. And we call ourselves Divided Highway, because we were all four different, eclectic types of tastes in the band. One was a 50s classic rock, or rock and roll type of person, the other one was a country guy, I was a rocker, and then another guy was more of a jazz player. So we call ourselves Divided Highway.
The other bands – well, one band is Nelson Colt – he’s a national recording artist. He’s actually local here in Ottawa, and we’re part of the Nelson Colt band, and we play at a lot of festivals – country festivals and what not. The jazz band is, we are just basically backup musicians for a singer. Her name is Mel. She is a very widely-known jazz singer here. And the other band – the heavy metal band – is named FTP, but it doesn’t mean what it says. It’s called Free The Puppies. So, make that as you wish, and we’ll leave it at that. [laugh]

Pete Mockaitis

So, it’s important work you’re doing, freeing the puppies. That’s good. So, you mentioned you were teaching copywriting, and that’s how I bumped into you, is I was kind of learning all about copywriting, and you popped up. And you have a bit of a legend associated with your name in the history of copywriting. Can you tell us a little bit about that? And if you don’t, I’ll tell them for you, of how you’re a big deal.

Michel Fortin

Well, my story in how I stumbled into copywriting is actually a nice story, because it kind of helps other people who are thinking about what they should do or how they should learn copy. And it’s an interesting story. First of all, I grew up with this immense fear of rejection. I was abused by an alcoholic father as a child and I thought that because of that fear, I didn’t like knocking on doors, I didn’t like being at social gatherings and what not. And so what I did was, I dove into sales. I wanted to fight that fear, and the best way to fight that fear is to dive into something that forces you to be rejected all the time.
And that didn’t do well, because I didn’t make any sales. I was still a complete failure. And I said to myself, “There’s got to be a way to get those people to call me instead of me knocking on doors and getting doors slammed in my face.” So I said, “You know what? I’m just going to write a letter. Why don’t I write this letter that’ll ask people if they want some kind of a free consultation, free analysis? And I’ll get people to come to me?” I remember I declared bankruptcy. I was 21 years old. I declared bankruptcy at a very young age, to becoming the number one sales person for this insurance company, a Fortune 500 insurance company. And so I realized, “There’s something to this copywriting thing.”
So, that’s how I stumbled on to copywriting. And I realized over time that I’m far better at writing persuasively than I am at the actual process of selling. But I realized at the same time when I was learning all these things… I mean I dove into books and courses, I tried to learn more about the process of selling – it actually helped me improve my sales and copy.
And this is what I’m trying to impart is, because a lot of people say, “Well, should I write better? Is it about the prose? Is it about the grammar?” It has nothing to do with that. It’s, learn how to sell, or learn the process of selling, become a better sales person, become a better persuader, and then that will translate into the written format.
And up to this day, I guess a lot of people will remember me as being the person who wrote the copy, who made the first $1 million in one day back in 2004, selling digital products. And that’s what’s meant my name as a, quote unquote, “legend”, although I hate to use that word. But that’s how I became famous. And today, now I am Director of Communications at a digital marketing agency, a Google Premier Partner, and I still do a lot of copywriting here of course. And that’s my story in a nutshell.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s cool. And as I recall, the million-dollar day was John Reese.

Michel Fortin

Yes.

Pete Mockaitis

And what was the product, and do you remember the headline?

Michel Fortin

Traffic Secrets. Well, it’s kind of funny, because John at that time did a seminar – The Traffic Secrets Seminar – and he recorded that seminar and then he digitized into a video format into courses, which I wrote the sales letter for. And that’s the one that became the million-dollar day where we sold over $1 million worth of products. In fact, we sold over a million in 18 hours, but we call it “the million-dollar day”.
And then I remember when we re-launched it, it did phenomenally well as well when we re-launched it. And all I did was, we tacked odds and testimonials at the very top. But I changed the headline. I was … over this headline. In fact, it was kind of funny, because I came up with that headline at a copywriting seminar – Yanik Silver’s Copywriting Seminar. I was right there writing copy for John while I was trying to learn copywriting.

Pete Mockaitis

Real time.

Michel Fortin

In real time. And I came up with that. What would be the best headline possible? I just said, “Proof”. That was my one-word headline. A one-word headline to a 75-page sales letter.

Pete Mockaitis

75.

Michel Fortin

Yes. When you print it out, it would be 75 pages. And it did another couple of million dollars for John. I must admit – and I’m saying this with all humility – that John is a fantastic marketer. I learned a lot from him. And if it wasn’t for him, I probably would not have done that, of course. And it was also a melding of minds, because John gave me a lot of hints and tips and ideas, but it was the one thing that’s making me as a legend, if you want to call it that.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah. That’s cool. And so, I guess we can dork out about this stuff, but our listeners are not so much online marketers who are trying to create information products and sell them and all that. There are plenty of podcasts about that, and we’re not quite one of them. But nonetheless, I believe every professional needs to be persuasive, both verbally and in print. And so, I’d love to get your take – maybe we’ll start broad, in terms of, if one wants to learn how to over the years of their career become progressively more and more persuasive and have people say “Yes” and to collaborate or help out on a project when you don’t have the authority to demand or fire or give bonuses or incentives financially – what should professionals do, if they want to sharpen their skills month after month?

Michel Fortin

I think the one thing that people have to realize is that we’re all in this game alone. And I say “alone”, not together. By that I mean, we all want the best for ourselves. However we try to help out each other, it’s still a selfish endeavor. And so when we try to persuade others, when we try to get people to come to our side, we often try to tell them why this is such a good idea, this is such a good project, this is such a good task. But we’re always thinking about ourselves, or we try to think of what the other person might like, which is often tainted by our own glasses, by our own way of seeing things.
I enjoy his work a lot – Dr. Tony Alessandra – a behavioral psychologist who actually teaches a lot about selling. And that translates a lot into copywriting, and I’ve used a lot of his teachings in my copywriting work as well. And he has a whole program called The Platinum Rule. As you know, the Golden Rule is “Do unto others”. The Platinum Rule is, “Do unto others as they would want to have done unto them”, rather than “What you want to have done unto you”.
And to do that, there’s a couple of things. And we could spend an entire 45 minutes just doing this, but the one thing that’s important is to understand what the other person really, really wants. That involves knowing the other person. It involves, in copywriting – when we talk about copy in a marketing context – market research. When I have conversations with copywriters who either have a writer’s block or they don’t know what kind of sales message, what kind of story they want to tell – I tell them, “Go back to your market. Do more market research.” The more you question, the more you probe, the more you dig deeper into your market, the more things will pop out at you almost instantaneously.
And it’s the same thing with persuasion in an office environment with coworkers, with subordinates, even with superiors, where you have to understand what makes them tick, what is keeping them up at night, what is something that they would want. Sometimes we look at things and we think that they’re looking for a specific thing, when it might be a whole other motivation, a whole other intent, a whole other behavior. And the more we know that, the more we can position the same request that we can make, but in a certain way that makes them feel like it’s their request, they own it, they possess it, but at the same time they’re doing it for their benefit and you’re making them feel like they’re the hero.
And that’s what I do. I do that at work. I work in an agency where it’s fast paced, it’s high energy here all the time, and we do have to have a lot of people on our side, and even with clients – trying to sell with clients. The more you know about who you’re trying to persuade, the more you’ll be able to position whatever request you’re making to get them to do what you want them to do. Not because you know what they want, but you found out what they really want.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, could you maybe give us some examples of perhaps an assumption that we might be making when we’re looking through our own glasses, versus a better way to make that request when you step into their shoes?

Michel Fortin

Absolutely. One of the things that I’ve done a lot in my life are seminars, and especially seminars in copywriting. And I did a seminar one time with David Garfinkel – one of the most well-known copywriting coaches – a brilliant man, a very good copywriter too. Fantastic copywriter actually. And he told a story once of a sales situation that kind of demonstrates that, where he was talking about a bunch of engineers sitting around a table, where some kind of chemistry machine… I can’t remember what it was, it’s some kind of laboratory instrument that they were trying to sell to this group of engineers.
And the person trying to sell to the group was talking about all the statistics and the data and the performance efficiency, and all those wonderful things. And he told the story where he found out when the people decided to buy the product, they said to the salesperson, “I’m not buying this because… There are so many things that we can actually do research on and find out about your product. We buy it because we like to touch it. We like to use it. We like to play with it in our laboratories, and we like to do things with it.”
We think that all engineers are all about numbers, but it comes down to I think something that is more fundamental, is that people do buy on emotion but they justify their decision with logic. And that applies to engineers as much as it applies to anybody else. And so, this person then went into more presentations afterwards, kind of positioning or repositioning the presentation. “Yes, I will talk about how neat and new and fun, and how you can geek out all over this product in your laboratory, but here are all the numbers and all the statistics and all the data that you can use to help justify this to your superior, to your purchasing committees and all that stuff.” So, that is a story that is very much applicable. I think you can apply that to any situation.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s interesting. So, we buy on emotion, and then justify that with logic. And so, I’m thinking… So many purchases I’ve made are flashing before my eyes.

Michel Fortin

Well, when you make those decisions to buy those products, your first reaction was to probably buy it for some kind of emotional reason. And sometimes that doesn’t mean it’s a childish emotion. It could be actually, “It makes me happy”, “I like buying stuff”. That’s probably just as normal and human as anybody. But then you’ll start to go into your mind. And you could do both things too. You can talk about all the wonderful reasons why you should buy this product; you’re trying to justify it.
But you know what a lot of people do? They also try to justify not buying the product, and they try to think of all the negative that can be associated with buying this product. They’re trying to talk themselves out of it. And as a copywriter, we need to do three things: A) we need to sell on emotion, B) we need to justify it with logic, but C) we need to handle and respond to objections or possible objections that they might have, that they will surely have when they’re going through that justification process.
So, in a job environment, in an office environment, whatever the case is – you might have to think about how you’re going to sell a particular idea to staff, whatever the case is. You might back it up with justifiable, logical reasons why they should go ahead, but at the same time you also have to think about, what are the things that they’ll come up with to negatively impact your decision, or what they’ll try to outsell themselves, or to sell themselves away from that product or service, or in this case, the idea, the task, the project. And you have to kind of prepare yourself, to anticipate those things and answer them.

Pete Mockaitis

It is interesting. I’m thinking about in an office environment, in terms of, there are so many projects that require collaboration across many functional areas and groups. And so, it’s like, “Hey everyone, give us your input on this” or, “Come to a meeting about that”, and they don’t want to. So I’m just imagining, if we look at the emotional angle, maybe you’re courting a project for a new software, tool or modular add-on that will help people do their jobs. And it might be something like, “Imagine a world where your Friday time and expense reporting doesn’t involve painstakingly pulling out receipt after receipt and taping it to pages and scanning them, but rather with a quick push of a button you can power through that moment.”

Michel Fortin

Yeah. You can say something like, “Hey John, I know that we’ve talked about your need for an assistant. That’s something that I’m trying to desperately find the budget for. And I know that you really need help, you’re overwhelmed right now. I would love for you to come to this meeting. We’re going to be talking about this new software that will be A, B and C and that will do one, two, three. However, it’s going to help us save some money, maybe be able to allocate some of that budget in order to help justify hiring an assistant for you. So, your input is so valuable and I would love for you to be at that meeting if you could. Could you come?”
That would be a way to position that. That’s just one example of course; I just pulled that off the top of my head. But it’s, where you can find ways to reposition something that is in their favor or somehow could be in their favor, and then maybe also look at how they come out on top if they do whatever you’re asking them to do.

Pete Mockaitis

Right. And it was interesting, when you talk about overwhelm – that’s a feeling. It’s like, “Yeah, I am, and it would be such a relief to have some help, support in that way.” So, maybe could you touch upon some other powerful emotions to get the wheels turning, associated with, if I’m going for an emotion as opposed to logic, what sort of emotions am I going after and can I stir up in an ethical and moral sort of a way to be more persuasive?

Michel Fortin

Well, I use a rule in copywriting called “the three rules of the 3s”. And that means that there are three things that people tend to look for when they, in this case, re-copy. But it could be applied in other situations. I talk about the three greatest human goals. The three greatest human goals are to either make or save time, money or energy. So, if you can find ways to position things that will make them or help them to understand that they can save or make more time, more money, more energy – then you’ve got them. You’ve got them hooked.
Now, the second, we’re going down the emotional path here. The second is, the three greatest human desires. And I have found in all copy that I’ve read, all copy that I’ve written, all copy that I’ve researched, it comes down to three essential things – greed, lust, or comfort. Greed – of course, doesn’t have to be greed about money. It could be great about life, it could be greed for possessions, it could be greed for having more time to travel, whatever the case is. Lust – of course, there is a sexual component, but it could also be lust for life, could be lust for health, could be feeling younger, feeling more active, more energetic, living longer, whatever the case is.
And of course comfort is the path of least resistance. People love convenience, they love to do things in a more efficient way. How can they get more time is important, but what they can do to be more convenient, to be more efficient so that they can have more time? Well, that’s the comfort level. And that’s the three greatest human desires.
And finally, we’re going to step up again – the three greatest human teasers – controversy, curiosity, and scarcity. So controversy of course is something that’s hot, that’s topical, that’s trendy. Putting politics and religion and all that stuff on the side, there’s always something that’s very controversial in the industry, in the news, whatever the case is. And if you can use that in your – and I call it “story-selling” – in your story-selling process, the more you can engage some of those emotions that will get people to do what you want them to do.
The second of course is curiosity. Creating curiosity is, I think, fundamental. We have this new term that wasn’t around when I first started on the Internet 20 years ago. But we call it “clickbait”. Clickbait is kind of funny, because I’m sure that people call something “clickbait” if they’re enticed into something that really doesn’t satisfy their curiosity or it makes them feel like, “Oh, you got me hooked onto something like this.”

Pete Mockaitis

Like a fake worm.

Michel Fortin

Yeah, that’s it. So I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about creating actual genuine curiosity. And I can talk a little bit more about that, but I’ll talk about the third, and I’ll come back to that. So, scarcity – people tend to want something more when there’s less available of it, or when it’s about to run out, because people love something that’s rare, that’s hard to get, that’s “only one left”, whatever the case is. So scarcity – when there’s less time to do something, or to get something, or to have something, and limited quantities, limited resources, whatever the case is.
So, all that to say that the three greatest human goals, the three greatest human desires and the three greatest human teasers are things that we can incorporate in our persuasion methods that will get people emotionally hooked onto what we’re trying to say and what we’re trying to get them to do.
Now, just to come back and finish on the curiosity thing. The reason why I love curiosity – it’s probably one of my favorite ones – is because of something psychologists call “the Zeigarnik effect”. And I say “Zee”, not “Zed”, of course. I’m Canadian. So the Zeigarnik effect is something that psychologists use to explain this kind of feeling of uneasiness, discomfort, when something is left unsaid, undone, not finished, until they get that closure.
And that Zeigarnik effect is very powerful because we can open a discussion, we can open an idea, we can open a request, and people won’t feel comfortable until they get that idea, thing – whatever – finished, completed, that thought finished. And it’s like finishing a movie halfway through.
I think one of the biggest controversial endings was The Sopranos. I don’t know if you remember that show, and it just faded to black when they were all in the restaurant. So, the Zeigarnik effect is powerful to create that controversy. If I say, for example, “You should do these three things”, and that’s the title of some kind of sales letter – and I’m being very simplistic, of course. And people will say, “Well, what are those three things?” There’s a very popular… This is a hundred years ago, title for an ad that said, “Do you make these mistakes in English?” Of course it was for an ad for teaching English.

Pete Mockaitis

Which ones? I might be.

Michel Fortin

Yeah, exactly. So it forces you to read what those mistakes are. So, curiosity is very, very powerful, and we can certainly use that in our interactions at the office and dealing with staff, because people are always intrinsically and innately curious.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s intriguing. And I guess in terms of closing the loop, it’s so true – I’m thinking now about my experience of watching the TV series Prison Break. I thought the first season was amazing. It was just some of the most thrilling television I’ve ever witnessed. The second season was okay; it was kind of fun. And then the rest of them – I think there are five – I think I watched the rest of the seasons just like, “I’ve just got to know what happens to these guys.” [laugh] I think I finally broke down and said, “Okay, I’m just not going to watch the episodes. I’m going to read the summaries and then watch the last one.” I had to know.

Michel Fortin

Right. And those are the best shows. Those are the ones that have the highest ratings. If you go back to, my gosh, the very famous Dallas show, when everybody was asking, “Who shot J.R.? Who shot J.R.?”, and then when they finally showed the person who shot J.R., the ratings just dropped like a rock. And that’s the Zeigarnik effect, right? But we can use that to our advantage. We can create a little bit of curiosity, get people a little bit enticed: “John, I really need you to come to this meeting. There’s something that I wanted to ask you that’s been bothering me; it’s on my mind.” And he says, “Well, what is it?” “Well, I can’t really tell you right now, I don’t have time. But actually just join me at 3:00 o’clock at the meeting and I’ll tell you.” [laugh]

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, absolutely. A lot of this is reminding me of Robert Cialdini’s fantastic books Influence: Science and Practice, and his latest, Pre-Suasion.

Michel Fortin

Yes.

Pete Mockaitis

And I look forward to the day we have him on the show. And in Pre-Suasion he talked about how he had cracked the code of getting students to not pack up and leave before the class was over, which was, he would paint a little bit of a picture for a case study, like, “How did so-and-so company pull off this, when A, B, C, D and E were stacked against them? You would expect with these sort of factors, that they would have a terrible time getting a marketed option for this offering.”

Michel Fortin

Yeah. I remember reading a sales letter where the headline introduced – and it was a question – and then you had the whole sales letter, and then finally, the final P.S. at the end, “Oh, by the way – you know that question I asked earlier? Here’s the answer.” So it literally forced you to read, but it got people to read the whole sales letter. So, it was interesting, and it’s a very common tactic.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s fascinating, how when you open up a question that’s interesting, and you leave out the answer, folks want to get to it. And so, that’s great. Are there any other approaches for stoking that curiosity fire within people?

Michel Fortin

Remember I told you about market research, finding out more about the market. There’s something that I teach in copywriting that we can certainly apply in an office or in a job setting, is what I call “the OATH formula”. And the OATH formula means how prepared are people to take an oath? I know I use acronyms a lot – I’m an acronym fanatic. I love mnemonics and acronyms to help me remember stuff.
And OATH is just an easy way to remember what stage of awareness are people at? Are they oblivious – which is the O, apathetic – which is A, thinking, or hurting? And that means simply this: Oblivious is, they don’t know. They just don’t know. So, you would probably need to get them a little bit more educated so that you can get them to the next level. And that may be somebody who’s not aware of a problem – some people are not aware of a situation. Maybe somebody’s asking for a raise in your company, and they don’t necessarily understand that there’s a problem that they need to solve in order to get to that level or get to the point where they can ask for it. So, they’re oblivious. And of course you can create curiosity to educate them a little bit better or get them to want to be educated a little bit better, and that’s fine, but you won’t know that until you do that kind of research.
And again, I call it “market research”, but in an office setting sometimes just sitting down with people or finding out more about who they are, what makes them tick, what are their goals, what are the goals of the company. Sometimes we say people want a raise. I found whenever we’ve done surveys within companies, especially companies that I work with, that a lot of times money is not the number one thing. Sometimes it might just be a snack machine in the corner. It could be a coffee machine. It could be more flexible hours, that they can work at home more often because Jane can be with her child, or Bob could pick up his child from school, whatever the case is. Anyways, so oblivious.
Then apathetic is, they know about the problem, they’re educated about it, but they just don’t care. So now you probably have to create curiosity, not about the situation, but about why the situation is important, and especially why it’s important to them.
The next level up is then thinking. So, they’re no longer oblivious; they know about the problem, and now they sort of care about the problem, now they’re looking for a solution. It might be any kind of solution, but they’re thinking about it. They’re thinking about possibly getting to the next level, or going ahead with it. And that’s where you need to create more urgency – why it’s important to get that issue resolved now. So now you might have to think about things that will help persuade them, not just to get them to do whatever the case is, but to why they should do it as soon as possible, why it’s important to get it done soon, sooner rather than later.
And of course, hurting is the lowest hanging fruit. They know about the problem, they know there’s a solution. They’re not just thinking about getting it; they want it now. They need it now, they’re hurting. And that’s where your lowest hanging fruit is in any situation in the market, or whatever the case is. So, it’s going to be pretty easy to create curiosity in this particular case. But at any rate, the OATH formula is something to remember.
And when you have a situation where you’re sitting down with a coworker or a staff member, and there’s a situation that you want to bring up to them – try to think about, where are they at in their level of awareness about the situation? Are they oblivious, are they apathetic, are they thinking, or are they hurting? And that will kind of frame the whole situation, the whole conversation, and help you to position in a much better way so that you can get them to do whatever you want them to do, or to get the results that you want to get out of the staff, out of the business, out of the office environment.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s excellent, because I think I’ve often seen the mismatch, in terms of, I think I saw some email that told me that I could play with better predictions and win ETH in the process. It was like, “I don’t even know what you’re saying.”

Michel Fortin

Exactly, yes.

Pete Mockaitis

I was oblivious. I think it was a tool to help you choose Fantasy Football teams and win Ethereum –  a cryptocurrency, along the way. But it took me a while just to know what are we even talking about here. I don’t know why I didn’t delete it; maybe it was curiosity at work. It was like, “I have no idea what you’re even saying to me. Am I supposed to know? I feel out of the loop. … double-check this stuff.”
So, that’s really cool, to avoid those mismatches and not just assume, “Oh, of course they’re thinking about it because I’m thinking about it non-stop.” Well, maybe they’re not. They’re not you. Sort of that Platinum Rule again. And I’m thinking I’d like to zero in on the apathetic part, because I think in a professional setting that will be a large segment of your audience that you’re trying to persuade. It’s like, “Not my job, not my prob. I’m pretty apathetic as to what you’re asking me for.” So, what are some approaches to specifically get those folks engaged?

Michel Fortin

Well, there’s a trick in copywriting called the “so that” technique. When you’re trying to explain a feature, of course a lot of people say, “Explain benefits rather than features.” And I say, “A lot of people will think a benefit is a benefit, but it’s not. It’s more like an advantage, because it doesn’t really apply to the person specifically.” So I call them “features to advantages” and then “advantages to benefits”.
I’ll give you an example. There’s an old saying; I think it was from Theodore Levitt that said that people don’t buy quarter-inch drills, they buy quarter-inch holes. And I would say that’s kind of a benefit, but it’s more of an advantage. Why would people need a hole in the first place? It could be because they want to build something faster, or it could be because they want to get whatever they’re building faster, whatever the case is.
So, in the case when we use the “so that” – “so that” is a question that you would ask at every time you try to explain something. And of course you need to be educated beforehand. You need to do your research, whether it’s knowing about the person you’re trying to persuade, or the environment that you’re in, or what that person’s aspirations are, what’s keeping them up at night, what makes them tick, what makes them excited. So when you come to explain a particular job request or task or project, whatever the case is – when you say… Actually I’ll kind of back up a little bit.
One of the things that my son, whenever he grew up, drove me nuts, was, “Why? Why? Why?” He kept asking me, “Why, Dad?” “Son, I need you to do your room.” “Why?” “Well, because it’s really dirty.” “But why?” And then I realized if I say, “Well, if you clean it up, you’ll either get a reward” or I say, “If you clean it up, you’ll have more space that you can sit on the floor and play your other toys with.” “Oh, okay. Great.”
So that technique says, if you’re saying to John or Jane in the office, “I need you to do this, so that…” And then go on, and then do another “so that”. So, “I want you to look at this new piece of accounting software, so that we can see if we can implement it in our office, so that we will have a way to save money in our accounting processes, so that we might be able to actually look at extra money in the budget, so that we can hire you an assistant you’re desperately needing right now because you’re so overwhelmed.” So that, so that, so that.

Pete Mockaitis

I dig it, because you have an understanding of where they’re coming from, and then you can link sometimes multiple – three, four, five “so that’s” to get them where they need to go. And it’s funny, as you talk about drills, I’m thinking about my wife. It’s like, “What would my wife really be into for a drill?” And I’m thinking it would be, “This drill has a shroud and vacuum around it, so that there will be no dust, so that there will be no lead particles whatsoever into the air, so that precious baby Jonathan will be completely safe of any risk whatsoever.”

Michel Fortin

Exactly. [laugh] My wife loves… First of all we call our house “the magazine house”, because she loves decorating and all that, although she’s not a decorator; she’s a nurse. And if you were to try to sell her on doing something that is, I don’t know, something that’s not related to that, you can say – the drill, “So that you’ll be able to hang up those wall pieces.” First of all, I know that she wants the house to look great because she likes to impress especially our friends and our guests.
So I’ll say, “Buy that drill so that you’ll be able to hang up those pictures that you really wanted at the store that you saw the other day at Target”, or whatever the case is. “So that it really makes the room stand out, so that when Tracy comes along, she’s going to fall in love with your living room over again, so that you’ll be the talk of the town”, and so on and so forth.

Pete Mockaitis

Certainly. And that just brings it all right back to the market research again. It’s like, there could be a hundred different ways to position into “so that” bridge for what matters, from what you want to what they want. And that’s very handy, just to make that very clear and direct there.

Michel Fortin

And one of the powerful tools that psychologists and psychiatrists have – whenever they try to, quote unquote, “shrink your head”, as they say – they don’t often ask questions to be answered. They’re asking questions you to find out how you feel. For example, if you say, “I really hate my mother!” “Well, how does that make you feel?” Or, “I hate it when she does this!” “Well, how does that make you feel?”
Well, guess what? That technique is a powerful technique that you can easily use in an office environment. We often tend to do research by just trying to meet and have meetings, and then surveys or focus groups. You don’t need to do all that stuff. You just sit down with the person and say, “How does that make you feel? How do you feel about that? How do you feel about this accounting software?” Or in this case, “How do you feel about being overwhelmed without an assistant? How would that make you feel if we finally found somebody to actually take a lot of the load off of your desk and off your lap?” Or, “How would it make you feel if we found a tool that can actually save us money so it allowed you to do that?” “Oh, great.”
So, probe further, ask questions. Again, people love to talk about themselves. People love to talk about what’s ailing them as much as what makes them happy. And we don’t often listen. We kind of put our fingers in our ears because all we care about is what we feel or how we think the other person feels. And that’s where we have to go into what Tony Alessandra calls “dynamic listening” or “active listening”, where we actually do listen to what they say, and then we can use that. That’s fodder that you can use in your persuasion attempts later on, and it’s a great skill to actually learn too.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s great, thank you. Well, tell me, Michel – is there anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear a few of your favorite things?

Michel Fortin

Sure. Let me tell you a little bit about… Sometimes people say, “When I write a sales letter or a memo in the office, or a letter to my superiors” – whatever the case is, or even just a project brief – they say, “How can I make that more persuasive?” And one thing that I teach in copywriting that I found when I read other people’s copy is that it’s very cold, very data-driven, very corporate-y, corporate language. And I can understand how that is important when you’re appealing to a group – maybe C-level executives, maybe stakeholders, whatever the case is, but when you’re talking one-on-one with the person, or when you’re writing something to get one particular person involved or persuaded, even a small group of people – keep in mind that people will try to write in a corporate-y type of language, but people, like I said, buy on emotion, they justify their decision with logic.
So when you hit them upfront with the logic, even the style, the language that you use, can be seen as, quote unquote, “logical”, in this case cold, too highfalutin. So I say, be more conversational, write like you talk. You don’t have to say things that are crass or you don’t have to use street language, but you can have a conversation. And I tell people this – first of all, I’m a drummer, and I play in different bands and that forces me to learn different styles of music. But at the same time we often record ourselves at almost every practice – band practice, band rehearsal.
And the reason that we do that is not because we’re trying to have a recording of what we’re doing; it’s because I like to listen to myself. I can see where I stumble, I can see where I missed a particular drum roll, I can see where I slowed down, my tempo was not right, or I can see where I wasn’t, in drumming we call it “in the pocket”. I was not in the pocket, it didn’t feel right – the style of music, whatever the case is.
Well, it’s no different than when you’re trying to write copy, or even when you’re trying to do a presentation. A lot of people will write a presentation and they’ll expect to do a presentation, no problem. Well, guess what? It’s the same idea. Write down your thoughts, or write your sales letter or your memo, but then speak out load and maybe even record yourself while you’re doing it. And if you stumble at any point, if you hit any snag, even if you stutter – you might say to yourself that that part is not clear, or you said it in such a way where it’s not going to drive the point home, because if you’ve stuttered or you had a point where you hit a snag or you stumbled while you were reading it yourself, you know that the person reading it will even be in a worse position, because they’re not the person who wrote it.
And here’s another thing: If you have somebody else read it out loud in front of you – not necessarily the person who you intended to send it to, the recipient, but somebody else – and if they stutter or they stop or they’re asking you questions; if you have to stop in order to explain to them something, then you know that, “Maybe I have to re-write that part”, whatever the case is.
Same thing as in a presentation. If you’re doing a sales presentation in your team, at the office, in front of your group – you might want to record yourself doing that presentation. We often look at ourselves in the mirror, and that’s perfectly fine because you’re doing it live, but here’s the thing: People will try to do a presentation when they look at themselves in the mirror. You can see yourself doing the presentation, you could probably see the immediate stuff, but you’ll probably miss out on a lot of the nuances and the innuendos, or the slight, subtle stuff that you cannot catch, because you’re so focused on giving a good presentation. So, record yourself, don’t be shy. Nobody has to see it. So, when I write sales letters, I always re-read my sales letters and I record myself saying them out loud. And I will listen to them and I can see where I stumble, I can see where I need to have parts re-written or rearranged in certain ways so that the flow is better.
And so, it’s a long way to explain this, but here’s the bottom line – always record yourself in some way, whether it’s a video, whether it’s an audio, and then you can go back and fix things and change things, because at the same time you will notice things as an observer or as an audience member yourself of what you’re saying, rather than not just how you’re saying it. Sometimes I listen to myself saying it twice, because I’ll focus on what I’m saying the first time, then I’ll focus on how I said it the second time. And I’ll change things around.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s excellent. Yes, wise words. And I think I’ve felt that with my own writing and then with writing and reviewing from others. It’s like, “Have you read that yourself, because there are some flubs here?” So, lovely. Thank you for that. Now, can you tell us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michel Fortin

There are so many. I am a quote fanatic. I tend to love quotes. It’s not just because they’re quotes and it could be nice and sometimes they’re platitudes, whatever the case is. That’s not the point. The point is, how you can look at it and apply it to yourself, to your life. That’s what’s important to me.
Benjamin Franklin said, “Write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” And I think it’s great because at the same time it applies to copy, it also applies to life in general.
So, that’s a quote that I love, because when I tend to write copy and I feel it’s not really getting the point home – again, write something worth reading. Is it worth reading, in this particular case? And sometimes it needs a little “Oomph”, it needs to be jazzed up. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the “How” you say it; it could be the “What”. It could be changing the whole idea, the premise, the story that you’re trying to sell.

Pete Mockaitis

Excellent, thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or a bit of research?

Michel Fortin

I think that anything from Tony Alessandra is. It probably resonated throughout our entire call today. I would highly recommend anything from him. He’s one of my favorite motivational speakers, as well as a sales psychologist, sales trainer. The Platinum Rule is by far my favorite one. Of course he’s come out with so many different ones throughout the years. But if you were to get your hands on any one course, that would be the one.
I learned about personality styles and bio personality styles when I was writing copy, teaching it to my classes. It helped me a lot to understand how some people are more numbers-driven, versus some people are more relationship-driven, versus other people who are more emotion-driven, and other people are more bottom line results-driven.

Pete Mockaitis

And how about a favorite book?

Michel Fortin

Oh, favorite book. I think a really good one, if you want to learn about copywriting especially, is Breakthrough Advertising by Eugene Schwartz. It’s probably a little bit outdated.

Pete Mockaitis

It’s hard to get too.

Michel Fortin

Yes, it is.

Pete Mockaitis

Way out of print.

Michel Fortin

Yeah. But there are copies floating around here and there. I believe there are some digital copies made, I cannot tell you where. I’ve had my copy for, my Lord, maybe 25 years now. But it’s my favorite book, in terms of copywriting, learning persuasion in print. And I recommend it highly.

Pete Mockaitis

And how about a favorite tool?

Michel Fortin

A favorite tool. I told you a little bit earlier about recording yourself, and I’ll finish with this. This is kind of my little inside tip. This is something that I do a lot when I write copy, especially when I’m stuck, when I really don’t have a lot to go on, or if I feel I’m not really getting, to use a drumming term or a musical term, in the pocket of what I’m trying to say. I will try to find somebody who can sell me on that idea. And what I do is, I record them. I get them to sell me on this idea, or something similar, if I want to use that.
And here’s the point: I will record the conversation, and then I’ll get it transcribed. I’ll pretty much get my copy written for me, or at least in large chunks of it, that I can use in my own persuasion, in my own writing attempts. So, sometimes when I do market research for example, I will actually call some of the happiest clients that my client has sold to, that are very happy with the product or service that they bought. And I’ll get them to explain to me why they’re so happy. I’ll try to get them to be excited and tell me what they like about the product. They’re basically trying to sell it to me. And I’ll record that conversation, transcribe it, and I pretty much have my copy written for myself.
And in order to apply this to, let’s say, a job environment, if you’re trying to sell, let’s say, some kind of accounting software to your staff or coworkers – look at other piece of software that you probably had success in selling the idea to your staff in the past, and maybe interview those people and find out what they liked about it or why they liked it. How it helped them, how it advanced their careers, or how it helped simplify their jobs or made things easier. And then try to record those conversations; not necessarily in an audio format, because sometimes people don’t like to be recorded, but take notes, find out what makes them tick. And then you can certainly look at how you can apply that to your current situation or your current attempts at persuading your coworkers.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Michel Fortin

Well, I work at a digital marketing agency. I’m Director of Communications at SEOTwist.com. That’s where you can reach me, certainly. And of course if you are looking at some of the companies that I own, I own a company called Supportibles.com. And that’s a company that offers customer service and customer support, outsourced customer support. So, Supportibles.com or especially where I work right now, SEOTwist.com.

Pete Mockaitis

And do you have a final challenge or call to action for those seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Michel Fortin

A lot of people say, “Think about a famous quote”, and I always like to regurgitate sometimes, since it’s so often said – think different, as Steve Jobs often said. In this particular case, I would say, do different. Not just think different, but do different. Look at how something is being done or how something has always been done, and try to do it differently. Or think about ways you can do it differently. Do different.

Pete Mockaitis

Awesome, thank you. Well, Michel, you don’t like being called a legend, but it has been legendary chatting with you.

Michel Fortin

[laugh] Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis

Thank you so much for generously sharing these goodies. And I wish you and SEOTwist and Supportibles and all you’re up to lots and lots of luck!

Michel Fortin

Thank you.

321: Making Meetings Meaningful with Mamie Kanfer Stewart

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Mamie Stewart shares her expertise in planning (and declining!) meetings, substitutes to the traditional meetings, and making meetings more beneficial and productive for everyone.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to decline a meeting so well, that they may just thank you for doing so
  2. Ideal alternatives to meetings
  3. Best practices for achieving your expected outcome in meetings

About Mamie

Mamie Kanfer Stewart is the author of Momentum: Creating Effective, Engaging, and Enjoyable Meetings. Her company, Meeteor, helps teams and organizations build healthy meeting culture. As a coach, speaker, writer, and trainer, Mamie has helped thousands of people improve their meetings and how they collaborate. Mamie has been featured in Forbes, Inc, and Fast Company. She is a regular contributor on The Price of Business and is the host of The Modern Manager podcast.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Mamie Stewart Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Mamie, thanks so much for joining us here on the How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Mamie Stewart

Thank you so much for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I want to hear first and foremost about, you do piano sing-alongs on a regular basis. What is the story here?

Mamie Stewart

Yeah, I love piano sing-alongs. I grew up playing piano, and I kind of played on and off, but in total probably about 13 years of lessons. But I never quite got into classical music, and even jazz wasn’t quite the thing for me, although I studied both for many years. And then about 10 years ago we were on a family business trip and we were in a bar, and one of our customers was playing the piano and everyone was singing along. And I was just watching the scene – I was in my mid 20s at the time – and I was like, “I want to be that person at the piano. I want to create this environment for other people. That looks like so much fun.”
So, I went home from that trip and I started playing again, and I play using guitar chords. So I use lyrics with guitar chords and I can figure out the melody in my right hand – I took enough lessons that the piano’s a really intuitive instrument for me. And now I basically only play pop songs and the whole family gets together. And we do it for parties, we’ll do it just hanging around the house with my kids and my cousins and my nieces and nephews. And we just went on another family business trip a couple of weeks ago and we did it on the business trip. And it was really fun watching my dad, because he was so proud of me. And it was really fun to be there with all of our customers again and I was actually that person at the piano, making the music happen.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, that’s great. It just sounds so wholesome, in terms of family fun, as opposed to everyone’s on their iPad, zoning out in their own little worlds.

Mamie Stewart

Yeah, it’s really incredible when people come together like that. And I used to hate the piano because it felt like such as solo instrument to me. It’s always tucked in the corner and you can’t take it with you and sit around a bonfire. And so for a long time I didn’t like it as the instrument that I was good at. And I really wanted to learn guitar, which I since have, but actually play a lot more piano than guitar, because the power of the piano to bring people together to sing like that is just amazing. And it’s so fun when everybody’s crowded around and leaning over my shoulder and screaming out what songs they want next. It’s a lot of fun, and fun for all ages.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, it sounds like an effective meeting, if I may. How’s that for a segway?

Mamie Stewart

Nice.

Pete Mockaitis

So you’ve got a company Meeteor – clever name, like meteor with two Es before the first E. So, what’s it all about?

Mamie Stewart

So, Meeteor is all about meetings, obviously. And we used to be a technology company, and now we are more of a training and coaching and consulting company. So, we focus primarily on helping organizations and teams build effective meeting practices. And we do that by offering trainings and courses and workshops, and through coaching. So we work with a lot of teams to help them think about their collaboration practices from a broader perspective, of which meetings is one of them. But then really thinking about, what are the kinds of meetings that you’re having and how do you implement those effective meeting practices?

Pete Mockaitis

Excellent, thank you. Okay, so I want to touch on that point right there. You said you were a technology company and so you were doing software. Now you’re not. So maybe we could just quickly hit that point. What’s your take on the pros, cons, limitations of, and what’s available when it comes to meeting apps?

Mamie Stewart

So, I love technology. I’m not a technologist, I don’t know how to code. I tried it once and it was not for me. But I really believe in the power of technology to help us do our best work. And when it comes to meetings, when you have to plan an agenda, and you need to take notes, and you want that information to be available in lots of different places to all the different stakeholders that need to be informed of meetings’ outcomes, technology is wonderful. So, it can simplify and streamline your process, do wonderful things.
And there are quite a few good meeting apps that exist right now. So, a couple of them, if people are interested – BeNote is a great one, Instant Agenda, Lucid Meetings, Wisembly Jam. There’s a whole bunch out there and they’re all different. They all have a unique kind of perspective. Some of them feel a bit more corporate, some of them feel a little bit more cool and hip, some of them have more structure where they help you build an agenda using the different buckets that you need to think through, some of them are more free-flow. So they’re kind of all over the place, but it’s really about what you need to integrate with your own technology and what you need as a meeting planner or participant to get the most out of your meetings.

Pete Mockaitis

Right. I was just imagining – and this maybe exists, so you tell me – that it would be interesting in a meeting… Because I’ve been there – it’s just like, “This particular content is not at all relevant to me in any way, shape or form.” And so in a way it’s as though this segment of the meeting I could just not be at. And so I thought it would be interesting if there was maybe a live slider on an app that you could just move from 0% to 100%, like, “This is relevant and I’m into this” versus, “Not at all.” And so I guess you’d need to maybe have that in a dedicated device or something, not full of other distractions, which would cause its own set of problems. But tell me, Mamie, does that exist?

Mamie Stewart

Not that I know of, although I’m wondering if the reason it doesn’t exist is because everybody would always be on, “This isn’t relevant for me.”

Pete Mockaitis

Well, but I think that’s valuable information, especially if you’re taking seriously the cost of your meetings and saying, “Oh, okay. Duly noted. Let’s have fewer people in these meetings.” So yeah, I guess they don’t want to hear the hard truth: “I’m a boring presenter and / or I have convened a meeting that is wasting everybody’s time.”

Mamie Stewart

Yeah, and unfortunately that’s often how we see it – it’s never my meeting that’s the terrible one; it’s the meeting I have to go to that’s so bad. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis

There we go. Look in the mirror.

Mamie Stewart

Exactly. It’s the reason we work with teams, because it’s really everybody’s responsibility to have an effective meeting. So if you go to a meeting that you shouldn’t be at, that’s on you too. It’s not just, “Oh well, I was invited to a meeting. I have to show up.” And if you’re planning a meeting, you’ve got to be on it too. You’ve got to be thinking a lot about who are the right people. And there are many practices. I know this isn’t rocket science, but there are clear steps you can walk through to figure out, is a meeting the right next step, and who should be there?

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, now your book Momentum covers a number of these principles. Maybe first and foremost we’ll set a little bit of the “Why” or the stage, in terms of, to what extent are poor meetings just terribly destructive and sabotaging companies’ and organizations’ efficiencies? My hunch is, the answer’s “A lot”, but if you could maybe contextualize that and see, is it just a little bit a lot, or a lot a lot a lot?

Mamie Stewart

Well, the problems with meetings are quite vast and really varied. So, they are costing people their energy, right? Everybody has been to a meeting and you walk out of it and you’re feeling so drained and frustrated. It was a waste of time. You have so many other things to do, now you’re going to have to work late. That is a real cost on people, and it’s a cost for the company.
And we can’t always quantify that but I’d say it’s a cost in lost productivity, and it’s definitely a cost in engagement, which companies are thinking a lot about: “How do we increase employee engagement?” And the number of engagement right now is very low. It’s something in the 20% or 30% of employees who report being engaged at work. And when you’re going to 5, 10, 20, 30 meetings a week, that has a big impact on how you feel about the company and the work that you’re doing. So that’s one form.
Another form is around the finances. So if you’re thinking about it from the value that you’re paying your people to be there – if you have a 5-person meeting and each person is being paid $50 an hour – that’s a $250 meeting. And most of us don’t think about meetings that way, but every hour you spend, it’s not just one hour. It’s actually five man hours if there are five people. And that can trickle down to the bottom line and it can be quantified in finance. And there are some online tools – if you just search “cost of meetings”, you’ll find different calculators to help you figure out how much are meetings actually costing you financially.

Pete Mockaitis

Yes. And I guess owning my own business I think about every hour of myself in this way. And so, if I’m in a terrible meeting, I try to be a nice guy, but I feel it – it’s like, “You are stealing money from me right now.” [laugh] In terms of, there are so many value-creating things I could be doing in these minutes, other than this. And so, I don’t know, I’ve yet to just exit, abort mission, like ejector seat, “I’m out of here.” But maybe that’s the right answer. So tell us a little bit of that, when it comes to, you say there are a number of tools when it comes to determining who should be at the meeting and should you be at the meeting. To begin with maybe, is the meeting even the appropriate choice for what we’re trying to accomplish here?

Mamie Stewart

Alright, so we’ll start at the beginning. So, if you’re planning a meeting, the first thing you want to do is figure out the desired outcome for that meeting. And we call it “desired outcome” because it really is the outcome or the result that the meeting is going to achieve, not the activity the meeting is going to be doing. So we often think about meetings by asking ourselves the question, “Why are we having this meeting?” And it’s kind of natural to answer, “To discuss, to brainstorm, to consider, to problem-solve.”
And those are all wonderful things to do in the meeting, but they’re not outcomes. So at the end of the meeting, if you ask yourself, “Did we achieve our brainstorm? Did we achieve some problem-solving? – yeah, you could say that we had a great discussion and yeah, we dug in and we thought about solutions and we problem-solved, but that doesn’t tell you if it was a productive meeting. It doesn’t actually tell you what the meeting achieved, and whether or not that helped move work forward. So, we focus on a desired outcome and we ask the question, “At the end of this meeting, what will you have achieved? What will be there?”
It’ll be something like a list of potential ideas for further investigation, or a decision that’s made and agreed upon, or a plan for the next three months with clear metrics for success, or alignment on this complicated information that we need to have a shared agreement on how to move forward. It can be written in millions of different ways, depending on what the meeting needs to accomplish, but you’re focusing on that outcome.

Pete Mockaitis

I think my least favorite outcome that I’ve heard for a meeting is, “To just kind of see where we’re at.” And I suppose maybe there’s a kernel of something that’s workable into a valid outcome there, in terms of, like you said – we truly do need to have an understanding of who is doing what and where it stands, in order to come up with, I guess, the true outcome would be, the plan going forward, or an elimination of redundant efforts, would be the success for that meeting.

Mamie Stewart

Yes, and that does happen on occasion. We say meetings that are about sharing information usually aren’t meant to be meetings. So there are lots of different ways and alternatives to meetings, so we can talk about those for a minute. You can send an email if it’s just, “Here’s some information you all need to know. Here’s an email that explains it.”
If you need people’s input on something but you don’t actually need them to interact together, you can write up a memo or have a shared document of some sort, put it online and ask for people to give input. And they can leave comments and edits and ask questions, but they can do it on their own time and you don’t have to bring them together in a room to do that.
You can also use chatting tools or other different forums, and even an alternative to a group meeting is lots of small one-on-one meetings. So, instead of me bringing five people together and taking an hour for the six of us to meet, I could go around and have a one-on-one with each of those people and spend 10 minutes with five people. I’m still spending 50 minutes of my time, but they’re only dedicating 10 minutes to me.
So I’ve saved them 50 minutes, because I went one-on-one, because I didn’t really need them all to be in the room together. I just needed to get their input on something. And it was maybe too complicated to send in a document, or maybe it’s too important and I really want to make sure that they understand what it is I’m sending and I want to talk to them face-to-face. So there are lots of ways to communicate besides meetings.

Pete Mockaitis

So I love that – those many alternatives to meetings. Another one I’m thinking about is just a survey, in terms of, “I need your input.” Maybe you’re commenting on the document or maybe you’re just filling out a survey with SurveyMonkey or Google Forms or Typeform, which I think is so cool. These are handy ways to collect that.
But what really blew my mind there is that one-on-one approach. Not only mathematically is that saving huge cost, in terms of everyone together versus one at a time, but it’s also in many circumstances likely to improve the input that you’re collecting, because people are not sort of censoring themselves like, “Uh-oh, I don’t want to offend these other four people in the room by stepping on their toes or making them think that I thought that their work was lame or that I’m questioning their judgement or their smarts”, or whatever. So you could not only save time, but even get superior input and build better relationships all in one fell swoop by having multiple one-on-one meetings versus the longer group meeting. That’s huge.

Mamie Stewart

Absolutely. Many times it’s even easier to schedule, because finding an hour for everyone to overlap can be really hard, but finding 10 minutes with each person, especially if you’re using a tool like Mixmax or Calendly or a couple of other scheduling tools, where you just send them your link and they grab 10 or 15 minutes on your calendar – it is so much easier to get those 10 or 15 minutes with people individually than trying to find an hour where you all overlap.

Pete Mockaitis

I love it. So then, we talked about when a meeting is appropriate and the alternatives to the meeting to achieve those aims. I’d love to get your take, if we’re on the receiving end of a meeting request and you’re having a heck of a time seeing how that is helpful for you to be there, or even it’s maybe slightly helpful but kind of way down low on your priority list, compared to the other, much more compelling things for adding value for the organization or achieving the key goals, etcetera. How do you do that dance in which you are declining a meeting, particularly if it comes from someone with higher power or authority or title in the organization? It seems like it may not be the right answer to say, “Nah, I’m out.” [laugh]

Mamie Stewart

I wish we could do that, but no, most of us can’t do that. There are there a bunch of different ways you can approach it. So first is, if you don’t know what the meeting is about and what the meeting is meant to achieve or why you were asked to be there, you should absolutely ask.
And it is totally okay to say, “I would really like to make sure that I’m prepared for this meeting. I’m not 100% sure what I can do to be ready, or what value, or why you’ve asked me to attend, or what perspective you want me to bring. I really want to be ready for this meeting. Can you tell me what the meeting is going to achieve, so that I can make sure I have all the information ahead of time or anything else I need to be prepared for?” So basically making yourself look like a wonderful employees who’s saying, “I want to make sure that this is a good use of your time as the meeting leader. What can I do to prepare? Can you give me more information about this meeting?” So that’s one approach.
On the same token you can also offer, “This is my understanding of what this meeting is about. Am I understanding this correctly?” So, “It’s my understanding that this meeting is going to be planning for the next quarter and making some decisions about budget allocation. Is that correct? And if yes, is there anything I need to be doing to prepare for that?” So if you want to offer something up, you can say, “Here’s an idea of what this meeting might be about. Is that correct?” So that’s one way.
If you’re not comfortable going directly to the meeting leader for any reason, especially if it’s not your boss – if it’s maybe from a different department or another colleague and you just don’t feel like they’re going to be receptive to that – if you can go to your manager… And again, even if it is the manager’s meeting, you can still go to them with this perspective, which is, “I was invited to this meeting and I have these other priorities that I know are really important to the team or the organization. Can you help me prioritize here? I’m not sure what is most important. Do you really need me to be in this meeting or do you think that this meeting is important, or can you talk to the meeting leader because I’m really trying to balance all these things and I don’t want to drop any balls?”
So again, now you’re asking for help from your manager, but you’re saying, “I want to do this all. It’s not that I’m trying to get out of work; it’s that I want to keep the quality of work high. I want to make sure that my priorities are aligned with the team of the organization’s priorities as well.”

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, that’s great. You say, “Hey, what’s the goal? How can we be prepared? What can I do to be in great shape for this?”

Mamie Stewart

I have yet to have anyone come back and tell me that it didn’t work. I think most of the experiences I’ve had is hearing from people saying, “Once I came and I asked and I said, ‘What is this meeting all about?’, most managers who are calling meetings, or most meeting leaders actually know what they want to accomplish.
It’s already in their head; it’s why they called the meeting. It’s just that they didn’t communicate it. So it’s not that they are being thoughtless and like, “Oh, let’s just have a meeting for the sake of it.” They have something in their head they want to do. They just haven’t explained it or put it in writing or told anybody else. So, they’re most likely going to come back and say, “This meeting we’re going to talk about this customer and our strategy for how to handle them.” And then you can have another conversation.
If you realize if you’re thinking, “I don’t know that I need to be in this conversation”, that’s a different conversation, because you can say, “Now I know what this meeting is about and I’m not 100% sure that you need me for this meeting. I have a lot on my plate. Is there something I can provide ahead of time, any information I can share ahead of time about this client?”, or whatever the meeting’s about. And you can also let them know, “If I don’t attend, I am aligned with whatever outcomes you guys decide on and I accept any tasks that you allocate to me.” Now you have to be willing to go with that if you’re going to say it, but you’re basically trying to get out of the meeting by saying, “I’m willing to go with the group and I’m willing to take on responsibility for whatever decisions are made.”

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, that’s a nice one. I like it. Okay, so then I’m wondering about large meetings, in terms of the whole department or the whole company or the whole team, in terms of, I think some folks have some bad habits when it comes to enjoying having everybody around when it may not particularly be value-added. Sometimes I think there’s some sort of emotional, familial dimensions to the game. What are your thoughts on those?

Mamie Stewart

There’s definitely a thing about inviting lots of people to meetings as a way to build relationships, and I’ve seen this multiple times. A lot of teams use their standing weekly meeting or their all-department or all-hands meetings as ways to build relationships and connection with each other and with the company, rather than for whatever said purpose they’re actually trying to achieve. They’ll say, “This is our weekly meeting. We’re going to go over what everybody’s up to” or, “We’re going to report out the numbers.” But really they’re only doing that because they’re subconsciously trying to create a sense of connection between people or between the organization.
And there are wonderful ways to make connection that don’t involve bringing a bunch of people together to sit through really boring report outs. So, I’ve talked to a number of different team who’ve tackled this in different ways. Some of them have started after-work get-togethers, some of them will go on a one-day team building retreat and just have fun, some will do lunch and learns.
I love this one story about a company – they started a book club that was an opt-in. So you didn’t have to read the book, but if you wanted to, you could. But anybody would show up for one lunch every month, and whoever had read however much, and then they just talked about it. And it was a chance for them to talk about something that wasn’t work-related, and get to know people in a different way. And they chose all kinds of books – fiction books, business books, books on the future of work – all kinds of cool stuff. And sometimes only one person had read it and sometimes they all did. But it didn’t matter because it wasn’t about the book; it was just about getting together and enjoying lunch and being humans.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s great. It’s to provide superior alternatives that meet that objective all the better, in a more fun, energizing sort of a way. I dig it. Okay, so enough about getting out of meetings. Let’s say when a meeting is occurring – what are the key steps after you’ve identified the outcome you’re after, to really have some best practices and productive meetings flowing?

Mamie Stewart

Alright, so you’ve identified the desired outcome, and now you want to think about the structure of the meeting and who needs to be there. So, for the structure of the meeting, there are a lot of different flows. What activities are you going to do? How much time do you need to allocate? Are you going to break people into small groups or is it always going to be one big discussion? Are you going to have any pre-material for people to consume so that when they come in they’re ready to jump into the content and you don’t have to spend the first 20 minutes getting them up to speed?
So there’s a whole bunch of things you can do around structuring an agenda that will help you make sure that the meeting achieves the desired outcome. But again, if you don’t know the outcome, you can’t really design an agenda to achieve it. So you’ve got to start with that outcome.
And then in terms of the people, it’s the same thing. If you know what you’re trying to achieve, you can think through, who needs to be in this meeting to get to that outcome? And I’ve heard from multiple people that they’ll have a wonderful conversation and they’ll get to the end of the meeting, and then they realize that the key decision-maker isn’t there. And so then they have to have another meeting with the key decision-maker, in which the key decision-maker asks all the same questions and wants to go through all the same options that the group already discussed. So they basically have to have a repeat of that meeting.
And it’s really unfortunate, because if the meeting leader had been really thoughtful about who needs to be in this meeting to get to that outcome… If you know that the outcome is a decision and not a recommendation, then you want to make sure that you’ve invited the right people. And sometimes you do invite them and they decline – then you need to reschedule. If that key decision-maker says, “I can’t make it to this meeting”, because usually they’re upper management and their schedules change and they get busy – don’t have the meeting without them. It’s okay to have a meeting without some people, and there are other people who are critical who need to be there.

Pete Mockaitis

Yes. I’m thinking back to someone I know who mentioned in his career he had a rule for his meetings attendance, which was that he always insisted that there be a clear outcome and a decision-maker present, and he would walk out of meetings if those two criteria were not met, which is bold. But point well taken, that if that’s your objective, it is impossible to achieve some objectives without certain people there. So yeah, don’t go there if you don’t have the key people in the room.

Mamie Stewart

Yeah. And I’ve actually seen people walk out of meetings before because they’ve realized it’s not a good use of their time. And In some cultures that really will not fly, and in other cultures it’s totally acceptable. Even if it’s never been done before, you have to know the vibe of your people, you have to know the culture of your company and the style of your team. But I’ve seen people say, “This discussion’s really interesting, but I’m realizing it’s not actually very relevant to my work. So if this is the only topic we’re going to cover for the remainder of the meeting, I’d actually just like to get back to my other work, because I don’t really think you need me.”
And teams will be like, “Okay, that sounds fine.” And sometimes they’ll say, “Actually no, there’s another topic. Maybe we should flip the order and talk about that one now, because you need to be here.” And I’ve actually done that in meetings where I’ve looked at the agenda and I’ve said, “The thing they really need me for isn’t till the end of the meeting. So is it okay if I show up halfway through instead of starting at the beginning and sitting through the first half of the agenda that they don’t need me for?”

Pete Mockaitis

That’s good, absolutely. Well, I’d love to get your take then, when you’re in the heat of the meeting, what are some pro tips for keeping that conversation moving toward the outcome that you’re trying to hit?

Mamie Stewart

This has got to be one of the hardest things, is being in a meeting and watching it go off tracks and feeling like there’s nothing I can do about it. We actually just wrote an article about this on our media blog, so you can check it out there. But there are a couple of approaches, and I want to reiterate – this isn’t easy stuff. I was actually just in a meeting with about 20 people; I was not leading it.
And I was watching this debate unfold and it was really souring the energy of the room and it was painful to watch. And I was sending vibes to this one person being like, “Please stop talking. Please stop hammering on this. We really need to move on.” And afterwards I was like, “Oh my gosh, I was totally that person who saw this meeting crashing and I didn’t do anything.” And this is my business; I should be the first one to jump in.
So I want to reiterate – this is not easy stuff, but there are things you can do. So, some of the things that we recommend – and coaches have to coach themselves too – so some of the things I recommend are, one, asking a question. So questions open up thinking in a way that statements don’t. So if you’re interrupting and saying, “It seems like this conversation has gone off track” – you’re kind of asserting a judgment in a way that other people might respond with like, “Stop interrupting us; we’re having a conversation here.”
But if instead you ask a question, like, “I’m listening to what you’re all saying and I’m trying to connect how this train of thought is going to help us achieve our outcome. So I’m not suggesting we stop; I’m just trying to understand the connection.” Now you’re actually asking people to respond and say, “Oh, how is this helping us achieve our outcome? Oh, maybe it’s not. Maybe we could table this for later.” So you can use questions to guide a conversation.
Another approach is to just suggest that it gets taken off the table right away. So this is what I wish I would have done. I wish I would have said in that meeting, “This is a really important conversation that we’re having right now. I don’t think it’s the most important conversation for this whole group to be having. I’m wondering if we could have a subgroup tackle this topic after the meeting ends, or maybe next week when we can find time to get together. But I feel like we have a bunch of people in this room that this conversation isn’t relevant for.”
And that’s also what happens, is when conversations go off track, it’s maybe a few people who are interested in the topic and you start getting into the weeds, but it’s actually not relevant for the whole group, or it’s not going to help you get to that outcome. And that conversation doesn’t need to stop; it just doesn’t need to happen right then. It needs to be taken offline for a different meeting or a different conversation.

Pete Mockaitis

Lovely, thank you. Well, now, any thoughts when it comes to doing the capturing of the notes and the actions and the follow-up activities?

Mamie Stewart

Oh yes. So nobody loves taking notes. At least I haven’t met anybody who says they love taking notes. It’s not a fun job, it often can feel very administrative, but taking good notes in a meeting is a really wonderful skill. And you can develop this skill by practicing. But it’s hard to get engage and take notes and maybe help facilitate and keep things on track, so it can be a lot one person to do. So, if you’re not in that boat of, “I want to learn to take good notes and it’s going to be a thing that I do all the time, is take meeting notes”, another approach that we recommend for teams is to take notes as a team.
So during the course of the meeting, everybody is responsible for writing down key information. If you hear a decision that’s made, write it down. If you hear a next step that’s called out, write it down. If you hear a big idea or important information or something that’s relevant for you, write it down. And at the end of the meeting, you reserve the last five minutes to do a wrap-up. And one person pulls up some sort of digital document – could be an email, could be a meeting tool that you’re using, could be a Google Doc. It doesn’t really matter; we just suggest that it be digital so it can be shared easily. And you type up the notes together.
So you do a little round robin and you say, “Okay, who captured a decision?” Or ask the group, “What decisions did we make today?” And people will call it out, and one person types it up. And you build the notes together so that at the end of that five minutes, at the end of the meeting, you have now notes that everybody’s agreed upon, because they all sat there and built them together.
And it’s instantly shareable, so even people who weren’t in the meeting can be informed of the meeting’s outcomes. So if you were that person who opted out of the meeting because you didn’t feel like it was important for you to be there, but you actually do need to know what came out of the meeting – if there was a decision made that affects your work – it can be instantly shared.

Pete Mockaitis

I dig it, thank you. Well, tell me, Mamie – any other key things you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Mamie Stewart

Just that meetings can be really fun. Meetings have such a bad rap and it’s not their fault. Meetings are really a wonderful way to come together and be with your peers and your people and build culture and move work forward. And it does take some effort, it does take some thinking, but that’s why I wrote the book and that’s why my business exists, because we can help people do it. It’s not rocket science. It takes a little bit of knowledge, a little bit of skill, and mostly a lot of effort, a willingness to say, “I’m going to do something about this. I’m not going to let meetings get in my way anymore. I’m not going to let them be this big distraction. They’re not a necessary evil of business”, and putting forth the effort to say, “I’m going to change this.”

Pete Mockaitis

Excellent, thank you. Alright, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something that you find inspiring?

Mamie Stewart

Yeah, so I have a piece of artwork that hangs in my office by a fantastic artist, Shannon Finnegan. And it’s double-sided. And one side says, “Change is impossible”, and the other side says, “Change is inevitable.” And I love it. As soon as I saw it in the gallery I was like, “I have to have that”, because I find that that is kind of the constant state of being of feeling like, “Oh my gosh, changing people’s behavior, trying to impact how people work, all of those things – it just feels impossible sometimes.”
Our habits and our behaviors are so ingrained to who we are and how we think that it’s impossible to change. And yet, we’re always changing. We’re never really static people; we’re constantly learning and growing and evolving. And so this dynamic tension that exists within change is just something I love and think about a lot.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Mamie Stewart

So I’ve been thinking a lot about this when you sent that question, and I kind of came to two conclusions because I listen to a lot of audio books and I read a lot. And I love the Center for Creative Leadership – they do a lot of different research, but I just love their work. And it’s not a particular study, but the research that’s been done on the impact of sleep on productivity and how important it is to get healthy sleep, and the diminishing returns that come from working long hours.
As an entrepreneur I started in the mindset of, “You have to work crazy hours and do everything you can to make this business succeed, and you need to drive your employees to get the most out of them.” And that just wasn’t me, and it didn’t really work for me. And when I started reading some of the research about the importance of sleep and work / life balance and all these things, like, “Yeah, that makes a lot more sense. I don’t want to work 15 hours a day. I have two little kids and a husband who I love and I want to be with. And I’m not going to do that.” And if I’m not doing it, I’m definitely not making my employees do it.

Pete Mockaitis

Alright. And how about a favorite book?

Mamie Stewart

For managers I love the book Radical Candor. I’m sure you’ve heard this one before.

Pete Mockaitis

We had Kim on the show.

Mamie Stewart

Yeah, and she’s wonderful. It’s just a great book. I really love it. And for non-work-related stuff, I love the book Zero: The History of a Dangerous Idea. It’s about the concept “zero” and the history of this idea within mathematics and in life, that there could be nothingness. And there was a time where in math there wasn’t a concept of zero because you couldn’t have zero. Zero was not a tangible thing that you could have. You could have one, but you couldn’t have zero. And once zero became part of the world, it opened up math in a phenomenal way. It allowed for negative numbers and imaginary numbers and all kinds of cool stuff that we didn’t always have before that.

Pete Mockaitis

Thank you. And how about a favorite tool?

Mamie Stewart

Well, I already said that I love technology, and I love apps. So a couple of my favorites are Mixmax – I use it for my email and I use it for scheduling, and just it’s a great tool. And I have an app on my phone called Forest, which allows me to grow a tree to keep me from using my phone. Now at work I almost never use it because I don’t get distracted by my phone at work, but when I’m at home with my kids, it’s this horrible thing that I do because it’s like, “I’m so bored playing dolls, I think I’m just going to get my phone up.”
So, my kids now know and they will tell me, “Mommy, let’s play. Can you grow a tree?” And I’ll open up my phone and I will set a timer for the tree to grow in 30 minutes. And basically every time I open up my phone, it asks me if I want to kill my tree, and I say, “No, I don’t want to kill my tree. I want to play with my kids.” And so I will put my phone back down. So, it’s a great tool to keep you from being distracted by your phone.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh wow. And how about a favorite habit?

Mamie Stewart

I love habits. So, one of my favorites is to make a checklist of what you want to get done every day. So, sitting down every morning, and whether you have a to-do list that you’re pulling from or it’s just all kept in your brain – however you keep yourself organized – being really intentional, just like with a meeting, know what is it that you want to achieve in that day, and make a little checklist for yourself. It helps you stay focused, and that sense of satisfaction when you check everything off feels really good. And if you didn’t get to everything, you could even do a little mini reflection. So, I’ll often look and say, “Where did I get distracted?” or, “How did I either underestimate or overestimate how much time something was going to take?”

Pete Mockaitis

And tell me, is there a particular number of things you have on this to-do list? Some people say, “The five most important things, the three most important things, the two most important things”, or “No more than two hours’ worth.” How do you gauge that?

Mamie Stewart

I’m not a fan of arbitrary rules. The same thing happens with meetings – people say, “I like the ‘two pizza rule’. You should never have more than X number of people” or, “Meetings should never be more than 20 minutes”, or whatever. I don’t know, I don’t subscribe to those things. I feel like arbitrary rules maybe are general rules of thumb that can help, but they don’t actually get to the underlying problem.
And so, if you’re being really intentional, it’s not about how many things are on your to-do list; it’s about what you have the capacity to do that day. So when I look at my calendar and I see I only have an hour of time today where I’m not in scheduled meetings – what am I going to do in that one hour? What’s the biggest priority?
And it might only be one thing – it might be writing the outline for my next episode of The Modern Manager, or it might be working on the proposal for the client that I’m courting. If I have six hours available in a day, it’s a totally different list. So it really just depends, and each activity takes a different amount of time. So you have to be thoughtful. I don’t think it’s helpful to just say, “I’m going to pick three things to do”, because that might not be enough and it might be too many.

Pete Mockaitis

Got it. And Mamie, tell me – is there a particular thing that when you’re sharing your wisdom, really seems to connect and resonate and get folks nodding and re-tweeting and quoting yourself back to you?

Mamie Stewart

Well, we talked about it a lot today, which was the desired outcome. That is definitely the number one thing that I talk about, it’s the number one thing I suggest people do. So, if you’re only going to do one thing after listening to this podcast, look at your calendar and for any meetings that you’re planning, write a desired outcome, or for any meetings that you’re attending, ask yourself, “What do I think the desired outcome is of this meeting?” And if you’re not clear, go ask someone about it.

Pete Mockaitis

And Mamie, tell me – if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Mamie Stewart

So you can find all my information on my website, which is MamieKS.com. So you can get my email there, you can find information on my book, you can find my Facebook and Twitter accounts, all that good stuff.

Pete Mockaitis

Alright. And do you have a final parting challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Mamie Stewart

Yeah. So, definitely do that desired outcome thing I just talked about. And secondly – it’s kind of broad, but take ownership of your meetings. Whether you’re planning them or attending them, you have the responsibility and you have the capability to make them productive. So, stop looking at meetings as this necessary evil, as this horrible thing that’s going to waste your time, and start looking at them as an opportunity to get work done.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, I love it. Mamie, thank you so much for taking this time and sharing the goods. I wish you and Momentum and Meeteor all the success in the world!

Mamie Stewart

Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

320: How to Exude Gravitas and Executive Presence with Anne Sugar

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Anne Sugar shares how she’s helped high potential individuals command executive presence.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The two key components of building trust
  2. Ninja tactics that help you read a room
  3. Power questions that provoke solutions

About Anne

Anne Sugar is an executive coach and speaker who has advised top leaders at companies including TripAdvisor, Sanofi Genzyme, and Havas. Anne serves as an executive coach for Harvard Business School Executive Education and has guest lectured at MIT.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Anne Sugar Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Anne, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Anne Sugar
Oh, thanks so much Pete for having me today. I’m excited to chat with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Me too, me too. But first I’d like to go back in time a little bit if I could.

Anne Sugar
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
In your Texas childhood, you enjoyed visiting the stockyards. What is the backstory here?

Anne Sugar
I grew up outside of Fort Worth, Texas. I think – why did I bring that up? It’s just one of those interesting kind of memories that I have. It’s not so much about the animals in the stockyard; it’s watching all of the businessmen negotiate and yell, and negotiate with each other. That’s kind of the big memory that I have of that is all of the people interacting and how it was working.

My dad and I used to just walk around and listen and look. Just kind of – I think it’s a short way of saying this is exactly where I should be in terms of coaching people today is just that interesting thing of watching people and how you influence and get what you want, right? I do that today.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. You mean negotiate like, “200 dollars for this pig.” “No way. That’s a ridiculous price.”

Anne Sugar
Well they – it was like a Sotheby’s auction. The guy would be up there. But there would be all of these side conversations before the auction started, which was really interesting to me as a kid. Listening to those side conversations before the auctioneer went up and started the bidding process. It was kind of the backstory that was happening before he started auctioning. That was always just interesting to me.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Yes, every superhero has an origin story. Here’s yours. That’s fun.

Anne Sugar
It’s just an interesting kind of random memory that you have growing up. It’s kind of interesting why do we have these memories and things that are impactful to us.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a whole other podcast.

Anne Sugar
Sure

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a big one. Speaking of impact, it seems you’re making a world of impact with your executive coaching. Can you maybe just give us the quick overview picture of sort of what is your area of expertise when you’re coaching folks?

Anne Sugar
The interesting kind of piece is that I have a business background. I worked in advertising agencies for about 20 years and so I worked on large pieces of business like Apple computer and American Express. I coach broadly across HiPo executives from director, C-Suite level. I coach in companies like TripAdvisor, Sanofi, Genzyme, Havas.

I like the interesting dynamic of lots of different verticals, lots of different levels because it just helps me in terms of how I ask a good question and keeps me learning as well, which helps other organizations. I also coach in the Harvard Business School Executive Ed program, which are C-suite folks, director folks that come in for intensive three-month, six-month programs.

Pete Mockaitis
Just to be clear, when you say HiPo, you mean high potential and not an abbreviation for sodium thiosulfate, the photographic fixer?

Anne Sugar
Exactly, high potential individuals. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Anne Sugar
Who either have something that they need to work on. Pete, a lot of it has to do with the small details and those little things that we all need to tweak. Are people moving to the next level and have some areas to work on from that perspective?

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I love it when we dig into some of the small details that make a big difference. It’s such a leveraged way to learn. Maybe let’s dig into some of these areas.

I guess I’m really interested in the notion of executive presence or gravitas, which is an area that pops up a lot for you in the coaching. Could you maybe orient us to make it all the more real in terms of hearing a little bit about a client like, where they were, and what was sort of holding them back, and what was the intervention, and the result?

Anne Sugar
Sure. I think we all start at this level playing field of we’re all smart, we all have these very unique strengths that we all have that we bring to the business. But here’s an interesting story.

I was working with a gentleman, who’s a director in R&D. He was having – he had so many great insights and ideas he was needing to sell to senior leadership, sell his ideas so that he could garner budget for his team.

He was having this issue for himself that – when we think about executive presence, let me take a step back Pete, there’s so many different components of executive presence, but for him, … saw that gravitas and people listening, that’s where we fell short. One time we – part of the coaching process for him was to dissect the process of how he sold.

He was telling me this story that he was in a senior leadership meeting and was presenting his large in-depth document. He said to me, “On page five, we got to page five and the senior leadership team said, ‘That’s great. We’re ready to go,’” but he kept presenting the rest of the 20 pages.

He lost his “executive presence and gravitas” because he wasn’t listening. He’d already gotten “the sale.” He didn’t need to present the last 20 pages. He delivered on the first five.

For him, one piece about executive presence for him was really listening to the room and how did he influence. Now for him when he goes in to present his budgets and what he needs, he really sets forth in two ways. He presells before he goes in and he sits and listens to the room in terms of what they need and flexes from that perspective.

That’s how he just learned over time how to kind of to manage and watch the room. That’s one small piece of executive presence, but for him it was really impactful.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. I’m curious what – I guess there would be all sorts of things under the surface that leads one to want to proceed through all 25 pages when-

Anne Sugar
There is.

Pete Mockaitis
-it’s not there in terms of “I worked really hard on these pages. I want to show them to you,” or “I don’t think you really understand how critical this is,” or yeah, well, now I’m just so curious and wrapped up in the story. What was going on there?

Anne Sugar
Well, from his perspective – you’re absolutely right, from his perspective, I’m just going to make an example here. On page 30, he thought it was something that was very important that he needed to communicate, but for his leadership team it wasn’t important in terms of making the decision.

You don’t – I think … sometimes for leaders is they have a picture in their head of how the meeting has to progress. They have a linear way from where they start to finish.

Part – I learned this in advertising too, part of executive presence is kind of the theater of it. It’s not just a linear process of I’m going to start on page one of my PowerPoint presentation and hit to 50. It’s the theater and the story of how you sold. He sold his story on page five. He didn’t need to go further.

Two, I think that something that’s important an executive presence perspective is trust. He had the trust. He had built trust from an executive presence perspective, so they didn’t need to say see page 30 because he had built – when I think about trust too, it’s not just about walking the talk and that cliché phrase. It’s about competence as well.

There’s so many – we could talk forever, Pete, about the many different layers that go into executive presence, but it’s trust, understanding the room, reading the room, influencing the room, flexing, and not looking at this as just a linear – it’s just leadership is not linear in many cases.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I think that you outlined a nice little bit there in terms of the trust, the understanding, the listening, and the flexing. Could you maybe give us a couple pointers when it comes to – trust, it sounds like you’re going to build that over time by having great competence and such, but are there any maybe little ways that we fritter away trust even if we’re excellent?

Anne Sugar
That’s a really good point. I think the one area that I would say – that’s two areas actually. I was actually just coaching a senior executive on this. It has to do with relatability. Are you able – trust is about being able to relate and understand – and it gets to empathy – that person’s point of view.

I think too it’s about just a simple piece of caring. Do people believe that you care? I think that those are two really key components.

This is an interesting story. It’s not about actually a client of mine. It has to do with my daughter and her lacrosse coach. It’s interesting. She came home to me one day and she said – she has a very tough lacrosse coach. This lacrosse coach was trying in her way to flex and be sort of caring.

But my daughter said to me, “You know mom, she was trying to be really nice, but something felt really weird. I did-“ I’m talking about a 13 year old here. But it actually relates to everybody. For you as a leader, it’s just this authentic piece to it. What she was feeling, which she couldn’t articulate, but it was it didn’t feel authentic to her. It felt weird.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, in terms of – all sorts of examples come to mind in terms of if you’ve been told a behavior, smile, make contact, nod your head, ask, “Does anybody else have a perspective on this matter?” If it’s not – if you clearly don’t actually care, they pick up on that.

Anne Sugar
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
And thusly, it feels weird, inauthentic.

Anne Sugar
Absolutely. You have to decide at what point do you care. We think about I like to say that business is a team sport. Leadership is a team sport. We do need people. We do need to think in some way how can we be empathetic.

Here Pete, I’m going to contradict myself for a second when I think about coaching some individuals on this building trust. When people are working, when I’m working with people on a specific strategy or tactic that will help them from a leadership perspective, in the beginning it is a bit clunky.

It might feel a little bit inauthentic some of the things you might be working on, whether it’s “I’m going to test a new way to influence this person.” It’s almost like you’re writing with your non-dominant hand. Over time you see the change and evolution, but there’s that subtle difference of being inauthentic and working on a skill.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. Understood. It can feel weird to you as you’re doing it and it may even look weird as others are picking up on that.

Well, next I want to kind of dig into the understanding and listening a little bit. Are there any particular kind of telltale signs or indicators that we should be particularly clued in on? In your example, the “Okay, we got it,” feels like a real gift in terms of that’s very explicit and clear in terms of what you think about things.

But often there’s the subtext, there’s the subtleties, there’s the tone, there’s the wincing or body language. What are some top things you recommend people look out for as indicators as to what’s going on in the room?

Anne Sugar
I think you bring up a fantastic point. I coach people on this all the time is that body language never lies. We can’t – in many instances, we can’t hide those subtleties. One way that I coach individuals to work on understanding and starting to pick up on the physicality and the nuances in the room is called turn down the sound.

When you’re in a meeting, almost turn down the sound and not listen to everybody, but watch everybody’s boy language. In many cases you can tell how the meeting is going. You don’t even need the words. That’s one specific way that I coach individuals to practice on that.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that.

Anne Sugar
Listening is practice. It’s just truly about practice. It’s the subtleties of the other very important point, I learned this as a coach, is slowing down and not formulating your answer before somebody is finished. If you truly relax into just listening to that person speak, then you have a much better chance of picking up on the subtleties, number one.

Many times you miss the last part of what they’re saying or what that question is because you’re already formulating. You can’t do two things at once.

I liken it to this person that used to work for me. I would speak and he would almost pause for a second and then talk and have these great nuggets and insights. It’s interesting, Pete. I would be – after a while I’d get so annoyed, “Just talk,” but actually really he was being very thoughtful in listening. I was a very naïve manager back then. Now that I think about it, he truly was listening.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. I think that people have a bit of a maybe a fear or concern. It’s like, “If I’m silent, then I’ll look dumb or slow.”

Anne Sugar
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Like I’m not with it and sharp and engaged and on top of the exchange. I’m thinking about the West Wing in which they’re always talking so fast back and forth.

Anne Sugar
It’s true.

Pete Mockaitis
And striding.

Anne Sugar
It’s true. It’s true. Very symptomatic when we’re in meetings, when leaders are in meetings, they fear of not being the smartest guy in the room. I was listening to somebody and he was speaking about that actually the smarter people are the ones that ask the most questions. That’s where you get the good listening and the learning. It’s not always about having the best point of view, frankly.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yes. I like that a lot. I’m intrigued when you say turning down the sound that I can’t recall the movie, but I know I’ve seen it before in terms of people are talking and then there’s the dolly push shot zoom in and the chatter blends together, that effect. Then you can really sort of observe what’s unfolding. Do you have scene in mind? I know I’ve seen this before.

Anne Sugar
I don’t know.

Pete Mockaitis
The listeners will serve us here. Tell us. See we’re asking questions. We’re listening. We don’t have all the answers. That’s good.

Anne Sugar
Exactly. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. We talked about some broad concepts, but I’d love it if you could maybe even zoom in to a couple of tactical things in terms of some big dos and don’ts that are these little details that can make a world of difference.

Anne Sugar
Let’s see here. Some very tactical, impactful ideas for everybody. I think one is about asking a good question.

This individual that I was coaching, he was the director of sales, had a difficult time and unmotivated team. When we really drilled down into a lot of different areas, the one piece that he found was that people didn’t really think he cared about what they had to say.

He was really smart and he already knew the answer, but what he learned is asking just – this question is so impactful that really helps to motivate a team is it’s crazy simple, “So what do you think? “Just asking that person, “So what do you think?” opens up first, you might get an idea that you didn’t think of and frankly, people want to be heard, their point of view, whether right or wrong.

Maslow’s hierarchy of what we need, people want to be heard. I think that that’s one thing that is very tactical and specific.

I think something that I was just coaching a senior leader in HR today on is about the tactical piece of positive intent and that how when we’re working with somebody how do we look at it from a positive intent perspective.

Indra Nooyi from the CEO of Pepsi, she has a great quote on it. She looks at everything from a positive intent … and not looking of the problems all the time. How can you look at it from a positive intent perspective?

Pete Mockaitis
Positive intent means that we’re assuming that the person we’re talking to is doing their best, trying to support the team and make results happen, as opposed to – could you maybe sort of contrast real clearly, “Hey, this would be a negative intent versus a positive intent way to approach something?”

Anne Sugar
It might be for example this person was talking about they were all on instant chat and somebody was sending these terrible flaming remarks across. She really was trying to take a step back and assume that okay, maybe this person was upset because of X. When she pulled them into the office, she found that actually it was that way. But not assuming the worst in all cases.

Pete Mockaitis
Like this person’s a jerk, they’re a troublemaker, they’re selfish.

Anne Sugar
Right. Like “Why are you sending this flaming over the public domain to me? How can you be doing that?”

Then lastly, this is a tried and true, I just did a training on this, is actually taking the strength finder assessment. It was really impactful for this team to understand each other’s strengths. You can get the book the Gallup Cliff Finder StrengthsFinder 2.0 on Amazon. I think it’s for 18 dollars. You get your secret code and you take it.

I feel like a lot of times lately we’ve kind of moved away from the strengths piece but I think it’s important. You think about it too from almost a cross training perspective. How can I use this strength and this strength to help me here? Not so much of a blunt object, but how do I mold it into great together strengths.

Pete Mockaitis
Very nice. When it comes to doing some of these things with the trust, the understanding, the listening, the positive intent, the questions, how do we then sort of take this enhanced understanding to be more influential?

Anne Sugar
I think … but at the end of the day it’s how do you flex. Simply, how do you flex in delivering the information to the person that is the decision maker or that I need to – it’s my peers. How do I do that?

At the beginning when you and I were talking about the director of R&D. He wasn’t flexing. He wanted to go through all the details, but the senior leadership team just wanted the bottom line. It’s really understanding your audience and how they want the information served up.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you maybe unpack a couple continuums, continua, associated with how they’d like information presented? One could be the details versus bottom line. Another could be story versus data. What are a few more?

Anne Sugar
Another one might be process. I’m somebody that wants to see who went through the entire process. That might be another one.

Another way might be more from a people-oriented perspective. I want to hear about the impact of the people, how this will affect the people, not so much the process or the data in the details.

Two, think about that person sometimes when you go into a meeting they first want to hear about your weekend. You actually don’t want to talk about it at all. You’d rather just get to the bottom line details. That’s the disconnect and that’s where the conflict starts because they say, “Oh, you don’t care. You don’t care about the people.” They shut down and they’re not going to listen to what you have to say.

I’m not saying that people have to completely change who they are. It’s just about sharing of different modes and methods of delivering information and how you relate to people.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Excellent. I also want to get your take since you’ve done a whole lot of coaching, we had Michael Bungay Stanier on the show a couple of times talk about how professionals can be more coach-like. I’d love to hear what are some of your favorite go-to questions that really seem to have a nice track record of yielding good stuff, insights, conviction, brilliant ideas, it’s just power questions.

Anne Sugar
Sure. I think one of the biggest power questions that I use is people say to me, “Well, tell me what you think?” I say to them, “I will tell you what I think, but you first have to tell me three ideas,” so that I’m not clouding their interesting point of view with what I might think.

Another key question that I use is, “So I’m curious, tell me a time,” that works. Another key question I ask is, “So tell me a story of when it went right or when it went well,” because you can use that to diagnose. I think too what we’re talking about here is coaching people so that they come to you with solutions, that you’re not the leader who is force-feeding your ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
For the, “I’m curious, tell me a time,” is that in response to “No one ever listens to me,” or like a sweeping statement? That’s how you dig in or what’s the context for that?

Anne Sugar
It’s more. I think when I say, “I’m curious,” it could be I’m curious about that or I’m curious. When I say I’m curious, it lowers the intensity of the conversation because I’m just curious. “I just want to learn” is what I’m saying to you. It lowers the – sometimes it lowers the level of anxiety in a meeting. It’s just a – it’s almost like a door opener from a sales perspective.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, as opposed to I’m asking this question because you need to prove yourself or-

Anne Sugar
Exactly, exactly. One question that I caution people on is “So why did you do that?” If I said to you Pete, “So why did you ask me that question?” that almost implies a feeling of “Well, what did I do wrong?” I’m not saying that why is not a good question. I’m just saying that sometimes it can put people on the defensive as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, right.

Anne Sugar
It’s those little subtleties. That’s what we started talking about. It’s the small little details.

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

Anne Sugar
I think that one thing that we – I want to stress and I coach a lot on this is conflict. The piece that I’d like to kind of convey for everybody is it doesn’t always – we want to be polite and kind in meetings, but actually conflict is good.

How do you look at conflict from a non-personal perspective and use the data and the facts. The piece about if I’m having a conflict and a debate, it’s actually that I care because I want to hear this different point of view. I think that’s one point that I want to stress to everybody because a lot of us shy away from conflict, but how can we use it and change our mindset that conflict is good.

Pete Mockaitis
And I just think all of the emotional stuff that’s wrapped into it.

Anne Sugar
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Any pro tips for just navigating those waters?

Anne Sugar
Yes. In fact, I was coaching a director of an oil refinery. He had 700 people underneath him. He dealt with a lot of conflict and crisis. If you think about it, there’s a lot of stress in the fact of damage and fires and all that.

I said to him, “Well, how do you deal with conflict? How do you deal with this crisis, the crises that happen?” He said to me, “It all comes down to dealing with the facts and not letting all the emotions get in the way, but … and really focus on the data and the details.”

I think another specific tactic that I would coach everybody on is when you’re debating an idea, don’t just debate one idea, but how can you as a team think about three different ideas that you debate.

Because when you’re only debating and having conflict on one idea, that’s where teams get competitive and that’s where the personal kind of piece comes in, “You didn’t like my idea.” But if you have multiple ideas, then there’s a less personal piece to it, so it’s about facts and many different points of view to debate.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. Now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Anne Sugar
I really think it goes back to the Pepsi CEO quote about really just focusing on positive intent.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Anne Sugar
Strengths in terms of it really has popped up more and more lately for me in terms of “How do I focus on my strengths?” We all have these areas that we need to be focusing on.

But it’s interesting that this one gentleman was telling me in frustration, he had somebody working for him that he just wished he could be more strategic, but he was never going to be that strategic, visionary, but he had so many other different great strengths.

Sometimes it’s okay. We all want to be strategic, but it’s okay. That researcher saying leveraging your strengths and not having to worry about that one area as much maybe and trying to force fit that from research from that perspective.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite book?

Anne Sugar
I have so many. But I think one that I really like is the Heath brothers, The Power of Moments. It’s really about how as when you’re a leader, how do you create these moments that are impactful for your team because it really gets down to at the beginning of the conversation, Pete, that we were talking about sincerity and caring and relatability. It’s really about those people moments.

I like everything that the Heath brothers have written.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Anne Sugar
I think actually I coach this with a lot of folks and I think it’s reading. Whatever – it’s not the sexy kind of habit, but many executives that I see that are successful are the ones that are continually learning and reading.

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

Anne Sugar
I would direct them to my website at AnneSugar.com. It’s A-N-N-E Sugar, just like sugar .com. They can also follow me on LinkedIn. I send out many … a day and ideas to help everybody.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for those seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Anne Sugar
I think that the most important thing is to continue learning. How do you continue to learn? How do you listen? Lastly, just try. Leadership is about testing all different kinds of strategies and figuring out what the best ways. It’s all about experimentation.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful.

Anne Sugar
Leadership strategies.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Anne, thanks so much for taking this time and sharing your wisdom. I wish you lots and lots of luck with the coaching the speaking and that you’re up to.

Anne Sugar
Thank you so much, Pete. It’s been great speaking to you as well.

319: How to Never Stop Learning with Bradley R. Staats

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Bradley R. Staats discusses the essentials of dynamic learning, the best practices of a compelling learner, and the value of mistakes and asking questions.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The 4 elements of dynamic learning
  2. How we are our own worst enemy when learning
  3. How to reframe how you think about mistakes

About Bradley

Bradley R. Staats is the author of Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself, and Thrive, and is an associate professor of operations at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Flagler Business School. His research examines how individuals, teams, and organizations can learn to improve their operational performance to build a competitive advantage, integrating work in operations management and organizational behavior to clarify how and under what conditions individuals, teams, and organizations can learn at their best.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Bradley R. Staats Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Brad, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Brad R. Staats
Awesome. Thanks so much for having me as well. Excited to be here today.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I am too. I am too. I wanted to start by hearing a little bit about learning in a different environment. I understand that you spend a good bit of time coaching baseball teams for your kids and others, so how’s that and what’s that teach you about learning?

Brad R. Staats
Yeah, it’s been a great experience. I have three sons who are 13, 11, and 9 now. A good way to spend time with them is out on the baseball field. I think baseball is a game, and probably coaching even more fundamentally, is an action that are both fantastic for learning.

The biggest thing for me is really around the process. Actually the book opened with a story from one of my son’s games, where he was facing a really hard pitcher, did everything right, and was a few years younger and unfortunately hit to a double play and came back kind of extraordinarily upset despite the fact that he did hit the ball incredibly hard. It all worked out. Yet, he was looking at it as failure.

I see so many things like that on the field of when we focus on the outcome, as an example, instead of what we actually did, the process, we fail to learn. There are those chances in working with the kids and helping them see kind of what’s going on around them that then import nicely over to other learning contexts.

I think the other big thing for me is that while I certainly played baseball as a kid, I’m by no means an expert, but thankfully surrounded by some head coaches that did a lot more than I did.

It’s a great reminder to me of the power of ‘I don’t know.’ Of getting asked questions that I could speculate as a coach, I could give them an answer, that they might nod their heads and believe that, but I realized there are other people that are more qualified.

It’s almost freeing that I don’t feel the need in that context to claim this is what you always do, but “I don’t know. Let’s talk to Coach John. Let’s talk to Coach Jim, Coach Tyler,” whomever and trying then to import that over to organizational contexts.

Pete Mockaitis
That is great. Particularly I think there could be some I don’t know if it’s context thing or an expectation thing or a macho thing in terms of “I’m a man and I’m a dad. These are my kids. I have the answers.” I think that that’s sort of an easy rut to fall into for some.

Brad R. Staats
I think you’re absolutely right. You certainly see it out in the field of people who playing games try to do that. The ironic thing of course is that eventually people catch on. Eventually you undercut your credibility in an attempt to stay important.

People are willing to accept. We don’t need to know all the answers. It’s a hard world. It’s uncertain. There’s a lot going on. You should know the basics. You know four balls get you a walk, that sort of thing.

But if there’s some nuance you don’t get, the same thing with umpires. It’s a great way to walk out, “I don’t know this,” and then having a really productive discussion around it, learning and moving forward to the next step.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. Then let’s hear about some of this that you unpack and synthesize in your book, Never Stop Learning. What’s it all about?

Brad R. Staats
Yeah, it’s getting at in many ways these sorts of behaviors. It’s a recognition that I think with learning we know a lot of the things we should do. We know the processes we should follow, that should we fail fast, we should ask questions, we should follow the process, learn from others, etcetera and yet we don’t.

It’s a question that’s really bugged me for a lot of years. Why don’t we learn? What I’ve come to appreciate is that learning is a science but in a lot of ways it’s a behavioral science that when it comes to learning, we are in fact our own worst enemy. That’s the challenge.

The good news is research from diverse fields, whether it’s operations, psychology, economics, neuroscience shows that we can be the problem, but we also can be the solution.

In the book, what I try to do is look at some of those practices that we should be following, explore why we don’t, why do we have those behavioral issues, and then importantly, how can we overcome it, what can we do in order to get to a better spot.

Pete Mockaitis
Then let’s dig into this. You use the term dynamic learner frequently. First, can you define that for us and well, we’ll start there?

Brad R. Staats
Yeah, absolutely. When I think about dynamic learning, it’s in part a recognition that I would argue we live very much in a learning economy now, that I kind of grew up thinking of a knowledge economy, an information economy, this recognition of all that’s out there.

I think the shift to learning as the motivator there is important because recognition, it’s not what we know right now that will determine future success. It’s how quickly we ….

Dynamic learning is getting to that. It’s an appreciation that we need to be really four things with our learning. We need to be focused. We need to be able to pick the right topics, right as best we can define it at the moment. We need to be fast. Our acceleration matters. How quickly can we get up to speed on those chosen areas? We need to be frequent that it really is an ongoing process, not learn a little, stop.

It’s kind of a … of lifelong learning, but nevertheless it is a truth. It’s fact I would argue. Then finally we have to be flexible, that just because we picked an idea, we accelerated, we’ve learned it, it doesn’t mean that’s where we stay. We have to be able to adjust off of that.

As I think about dynamic learning, it’s capturing those four elements of how do we be focused, how do we be fast, how do we be frequent and how do we be flexible.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, lovely. I want to dig into that. What – I want to get your sense for a dynamic learner, sounds like a great thing to be, desirable. If you had to guesstimate or maybe you have some hard studies here, what proportion of people would say qualify as dynamic learners?

Brad R. Staats
Yeah, it’s a great question. I don’t have hard numbers around that. I think – I would probably twist the question around a little bit and highlight what I think the literature shows us is that effectively none of us are dynamic learners all of the time, but basically all of us have the potential to do it.

That is part of the premise of the book and certainly it’s somewhat introspective for myself with the book of as a quote/unquote learning expert, I still feel and see myself fall short on these dimensions. I’ve yet to kind of see someone who always does these things right.

At the same time, research is really compelling in that you can teach an old dog new tricks. The dog just has to want to learn. I think that’s kind of the encouraging message of broader research and certainly the book as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Then along those lines, you’ve said elsewhere – I saw it on your Twitter – that most of us are actually pretty bad at learning. Can you unpack that a little bit and share what’s the big evidence that points to that assertion?

Brad R. Staats
Yeah. I think it gets back to this behavioral challenge that so often we feel the need to go down a certain path when it’s actually fairly problematic. Lots of examples jump to mind. I think the sport’s world often provides an easy one that folks would know.

You can think about something like if you follow the NBA, Sam Hinkie from the Philadelphia 76ers and the idea of ‘trust the process’ has been pounded over again and again with this idea that it’s hard to win in the NBA, so you take an approach, you make measured bets, you play the probabilities and in the long run it will work out.

As part of that it was a bunch of losing upfront in order to get high draft picks and trade away talent to assemble future resources. If you look from 2013 when he was hired to 2018, this year, the 6ers made a playoff run. They’re kind of rated number four I think by ESPN on their power rankings looking to the future.

But a couple years ago he was effectively pushed out of the organization. While he took this process focus, thinking about or getting to that future outcomes, at the end of the day ownership decided enough was enough and got rid of him more or less. Even though, thankfully, the model he put in place is largely been followed with a few missteps and played out directionally the way he’d expect.

I think we see that sort of thing.

There was another research study looking at on the process point right there, NBA coaches and looked at a couple thousand NBA games over multiple years.

You can think about when you play a game, the final score gives you some information about how the team did, but if you won a game by one point, lose a game by one point, it doesn’t really provide dramatically different information. That was an incredibly close game either way.

The study shows that if we look at changing the starting line up, so kind of this belief that something’s wrong, you’re much more likely to change it if you lose by a lot than if you win by a lot. Big shock there.

But if you get down to that plus or minute one point difference, the coaches that lost by one point were far more likely to change their starting lineup than the ones that won by a point. Back to this challenge of we obsess about the outcome.

The coaches were likely to do that even when they were expected to lose. The results carried through even when they just got lucky, their team shot a remarkably high free-throw percentage that day. But on average this plays out kind of across the entire NBA.

In study after study where we can pick a given practice and a whole lot of the time kind of we play it out the wrong way. If we’re going to do better, yes we have to know the practice, but we also have to have some idea of kind of what goes wrong.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really intriguing.

I’m wondering if that is purely self-imposed, like the head coaches have the autonomy and flexibility and authority to say, “I have considered all of the parameters and our goals and this is what I truly believe is the answer to make this happen,” versus, do you think that it’s more a matter of sort of outside influences saying, “You’ve got to change things up,” and they’re kind of reacting to external pressures.

Brad R. Staats
Yeah, I think it’s some of both. I think you’re right that the outside both pressure and impression management that we just feel like well, we need to be seen doing something.

There’s kind of a related study that I love looking at soccer goalies. Looks at soccer goalies on penalty kicks. I might get the numbers slightly wrong, but basically about – in this study these were professional goalies. 94% of the time the goalies dove to the left or the right. Player gets ready to kick it, they make their decision, they dive one way and then most of the time don’t stop it, but occasionally do.

The data suggested that if they were to stay in the middle, it would dramatically increase their likelihood of stopping the ball. About 30% of the time, the … kicks it back right up the middle. Yet, the goalie … to dive, 94% of the time.

The researchers went back and they asked the goalies, kind of, “Hey, here’s this information. Why don’t you stay in the middle?” Their response was basically along the lines of, “Well, I’d really regret it if I stayed in the middle and a goal was scored, but if I dive the wrong way, I have a face full of dirt. I can feel like I have done everything.”

I think there are times that even when it’s counterproductive, we want to be seen doing something just so we can feel good about it even if it turns out, stepping back and looking at the big picture, it was the wrong thing.

Pete Mockaitis
That is interesting. The same thing with the fans too. If you stay in the middle then a goal is scored, it’s like that lazy goalkeeper.

Brad R. Staats
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
What is he doing?

Brad R. Staats
I know. What the hell? Why didn’t he try something? I can stand in the middle.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, that’s really – that’s worth chewing on for a little while in terms of my own life, business, work. What are those instances in which we’re metaphorically diving instead of staying in the middle when that’s appropriate? I imagine you already have some ideas, so I’ll let you unpack a few of them.

Brad R. Staats
Yeah, no, absolutely. I think a lot of it is sometimes slowing down to go fast, that maybe we can look at some of the different things.

Take just the last one of not diving. Are we actually taking some time to think? Are we taking time to reflect? That if we look at research on learning, it turns out kind of we activate different parts of the brain when we learn by doing, kind of engaging in an activity versus learn by thinking about it.

As you would expect then, if we do the two of those together, we’re likely to learn more than anyone. But we’re so on, we’re so feeling a need to do things, that we don’t, in many cases, think enough about it.

We’ve done some research. We did a big field experiment with a technology company on their services organization. They were training workers, six-week training program. The end of it they took an exam to join kind of the firm fully, get off of provisional status and go start to serve customers.

In the middle two weeks of that program we did a 15- minute intervention every day of just at the end write about two things you’ve learned. Scribble down kind of two things you’ve learned that day. Then we had a control group. We randomly assigned participants to one versus the other.

What we found at the end of that six weeks that the group that reflected scored about 25% higher on that test that qualified them for the job. The first month on the job, they performed about 10% higher on their customer satisfaction scores. We’ve done a bunch of lab studies to follow up. Others have done work around this.

But actually blocking some time out for thinking, as simple as that sounds, somebody at the end of the day today take ten minutes, think about what you’ve learned that day, think about how you’re going to take it to deploy tomorrow. Getting in a regular habit of that, of slowing down just a little bit can be incredibly powerful.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. You have the ten minutes, what a return on investment there. That’s huge. When it says, “Write about what you’ve learned,” is that sort of the entirety of the prompt or do you have some sort of juicy follow-up to help spark and provoke the good stuff to come forward?

Brad R. Staats
I think keeping it simple is a great place to start. In that experiment it was just write about two things you’ve learned. I think if we look we can see some ways, as you’re pointing out, to dig a little bit deeper.

One of those ways that’s important is thinking about when we failed, thinking about when we’ve tried something that didn’t work, thinking about how we need to push ourselves, taking more risk. That prompt can do two things.

One is it can open us up to the possibility of where we’ve already gone wrong but we sort of pretended it didn’t happen.

Back to the behavior getting in the way, one of those challenges is around failure, that sometimes we try something, it doesn’t work, but we just deny the failure. “Oh, that’s what I wanted all along,” or “No one would have been successful there.” That prompt to, “Hey, why might you have been responsible? What do you need to learn out of that?”

I think the other piece is sometimes for fear of failure, we end up holding back. We don’t actually try enough. If you’re forcing yourself to think about kind of when have you tried and not had it work out and you can’t come up with any examples, it’s a pretty good indication we need to elevate our failure rate a little bit.

That’s not saying take it to an extreme, but for most people pushing a little bit more on the risk front is likely to be productive, not everyone of course.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. I guess it’s interesting in terms of like the stakes of the failure.

Brad R. Staats
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Crashing a commercial airliner is terrible.

Brad R. Staats
Yes, yes. Don’t do that. Yes, no, definitely not.

Pete Mockaitis
Never aim for a higher failure rate there.

Brad R. Staats
No.

Pete Mockaitis
But I guess maybe speaking up at a meeting in which you share an idea that might be dumb or wrong or bad in some way is probably a prime time to amp up a little bit of risk and see what happens because you might say, “Wow, Brad, we’ve been waiting for this brilliance from you.” Thank you so much. It’s well worth doing with low down side.

Brad R. Staats
Yeah, I think you’re exactly right that we need to define kind of the space that we have to play in. Your comment about you’re flying an airplane, you’re working in the control room of a nuclear reactor, by all means we’re not going to experiment there.

But most of us in the bulk of our lives have plenty of room where we can try some slightly different things. We can speak up to someone. We can introduce ourselves to someone. We can ask a question is one of the key elements that often we think we kind of need to keep our head down, we don’t understand something.

But it turns out, research tells us that when we ask other people questions, it’s not that they thing we’re dumb, “I can’t believe Brad had to ask me a question,” they actually like it. It shows engagement with them and it also allows us to turn to who we all think the expert is going to be, which is ourselves. We engage that other person in the conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Sometimes the questions just make you seem way smarter, in terms of, “Wow, that’s really insightful,” or it’s like, “I’ve never actually articulated my thinking on this matter now that you ask and I probably really should have a while ago for you and everybody else who’s doing this task many times over. Thank you. I’ll write that up,” or here is the response.

Yes, I think I would love it if folks, I’m thinking about sort of in management context, if people would ask me more often. It really isn’t a hassle.

Brad R. Staats
No, it’s not.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s kind of fun and it brings about good things. That’s a great tidbit in terms of in that moment when you’re sort of worried, “Oh, I wonder about this, but I don’t want to look dumb,” so go there.

Brad R. Staats
Absolutely. I throw out one of the most powerful questions that I stumbled into kind of early on by accident and now as I watch I see great question askers will throw it out there, which is, “Is there anything I have not asked you about that I should have?”

What’s so powerful about that, frequently … conversation is we’re kind of giving the other person free reign of please teach me almost based on whatever the conversation has been about.

I’ve been stunned in all sorts of different contexts as an academic, before when I … as a student, on and on, of what comes out of people’s mouths when you kind of take the barrier down and it’s no longer transactional around these particular items, but let’s open it up. What should I know about this topic that I haven’t asked? Keep that one in our back pocket as we interact with others.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so good. I learned that in consulting with interviews of customers or for clients or employees or competitors. It really is amazing how often it’s toward the end that you get the goods. I have a variation of that Brad. I won’t spoil the fun, but one is coming your way.

Brad R. Staats
Okay, nice.

Pete Mockaitis
Build the suspense there.

Brad R. Staats
I like it. That’s good. Now I’m on the edge of my seat.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. You lay out a pretty comprehensive framework in terms of what one should do to become a more effective lifelong learner. We’ve already covered some good tidbits there. Maybe you could walk us through that in a quick overview pace and then maybe dig into a little bit more detail for some of the parts we haven’t gotten to touch upon yet.

Brad R. Staats
Yeah, absolutely. As we kind of already pointed out in the book I lay out kind of eight different elements of things we should do for learning but we don’t and so kind of why is that. We’ve hit on a number of them. Things like value and failure.

That’s kind of learning 101 advice and yet I’ve really yet to work with a company that when we talk about that kind of … “Oh yeah, we’ve got that one covered here. No need to discuss. Move along.” There’s some real challenges there.

The second one is around focusing on the process as we kind of were discussing around the baseball coaching example, that we get so obsessed about the outcome that we don’t really dig into the process and keep our attention there.

Third is this point around asking questions that we end up being kind of so active. We feel the need to check a box, to do something when often that pull back, ask a question, and then get going, going slow to go fast is incredibly valuable.

The fourth is around the need for reflection and recharging, kind of contemplation that we live in a world of action. There’s been interesting research highlighting about kind of in the US at least, doing things that show you’re busy, that … you kind of on a Bluetooth headset suggesting you’re rushing around versus a corded phone or that you order groceries online versus at a store that give you higher status and some interesting experiments.

Pete Mockaitis
I didn’t know that gave you higher status, ordering groceries.

Brad R. Staats
Yeah, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I thought that made me lazy that I order groceries.

Brad R. Staats
Well, I did too. Interestingly, the study looked at Italy and you did not get the same status there.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I bet.

Brad R. Staats
There are differences in some of these factors around the world.

But that rushing, that kind of need for activity rather than real progress gets in the way of learning, so we have to take that time to step back, to reflect, and think about things.

A couple that we haven’t talked as much about are around really being ourselves, kind of to a pair of being yourself as opposed to fitting in and really playing the strengths not weaknesses.

I think, especially if we look at the latter one, so much of learning is built around in our minds what we’re doing wrong. If we think about kind of standard organizational feedback, advice is you give a feedback sandwich.

Thin veneer of positives, both to break the person down as they come in and kind of butter them up, get them ready to go, and then hopefully send them on their way, so they don’t feel as bad about themselves, but the bulk in the middle is laying out all the things that we did wrong and that need addressing.

The challenge with that approach is we’re not going to be good at anything, that every minute that we spend on a weakness is one that we’re not spending on building out our strengths.

As we work with organizations, as we think about how companies compete, lots of advice is given around play to your strengths, be focused, compete around those dimensions that you can win on, yet we often don’t do the same thing as individuals.

I would suggest for really compelling learning, we have to first identify those strengths, which is hard, and then really play to them, going back and filling in weaknesses as appropriate where there are critical weakness that would prevent us from succeeding at what we’re trying to do.

That’s a bit of a reorientation I think. While strengths are talked a lot about kind of on that learning side, appreciating why they’re so fundamental.

The last two are just around first how we build experience, that we often think about it as either become specialized, become an expert, very deep, or we think about kind of this value of variety as we switch moving across different elements. While each of those can be powerful tools for learning, they can work against us to.

I would suggest, what we find is that we really learn our best when we are both specialized and varied, so kind of a T shape in our portfolio of experiences, getting deep in something, but making sure we have enough breadth that we don’t end up missing the point.

That we’re so narrow in our approach that we have that problem of where the expert who’s got a hammer, so everything looks like a nail and we’re not able to deal with more complex problems.

The last one is appreciating that while individual learning, there are lots of things about us that matter and we need to dig into those, as I’ve been saying, that it’s not just an individual exercise, that others are incredibly important. Some of that is the value of the knowledge they bring and what we can learn from them.

But also, you hit on this earlier, the value for us of teaching others, when we get that question that makes us explain something, that makes us codify it, the real value that arises there.

We’ve done some research in a couple of different contexts looking at the power of learning from teaching. That when you teach someone else, hopefully you help them, but you actually help yourself interestingly enough. Really kind of seriously thinking about how others can help you in addition to how you can help them.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s a nice lineup. Thank you.

Brad R. Staats
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
You can dig into a lot of things there. I guess I want to get your take on okay, value in failure is something that you say just about no organization says, “Got it. Yup. Covered.” I’d love to hear from you in terms of what are some of the best practices or what does it really look like in practice when a team or an organization truly does value failure? Because in some ways it’s just so hard to imagine.

What is that famous example? Is it – I think it was IBM. I’m so – I don’t have the details, but someone made a huge investment in a technology or business plan course of action that absolutely did not work and it may have cost a huge sum, like a billion dollars.

The executive is ready to tender his resignation, and the CEO famously said, “I refuse to accept this. We just invested a billion dollars in your education and we’re not about to let go of you.” That’s a nice little reframe, like, oh how kind and how sensible to think about it in that way. In smaller stakes situations, how does that unfold in real life?

Brad R. Staats
Yeah. I’ve always heard that story told around I think it’s Thomas Watson Junior. It’s one of the Thomas Watsons in IBM and the threat of getting fired for that.

I think what’s important in the organizations that seem to have some more success with this is kind of two-fold. There’s one defining where is it a safe space to play. We’re back to avoiding that airplane problem or nuclear reactor problem. But also being open about it.

Ed Catmull, cofounder of Pixar talks about this in his book about we have to reframe how we think about mistakes, that mistakes aren’t unexpected, mistakes aren’t something rare. Mistakes are just a part of a process and that we have to sort of grow comfortable with them.

There’s a fast food company that I find really interesting called Pal’s Sudden Service. Pal’s is in the southeast, primarily Tennessee. The first restaurant to win the Malcolm Baldrige Quality award, a bunch of interesting kind of elements of the company.

But the CEO likes to tell people he’s very much out in front saying, “Look, as long as it’s not illegal, immoral or unethical, you’re allowed to make any mistake once, but you need to make sure your next mistake is a new one.”

I think in my mind that’s just so extraordinarily powerful that he is out there sharing what’s happening, how he’s trying things. It’s not, “Hey, be careless,” “Do whatever the hell you want,” but rather be comfortable that if you’re taking the right actions, where right actions is about the process, not about getting everything correct, that “I’m okay with that and I know in the long run the organization is going to be much better off for that as a result.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Thank you. Brad tell me, is there anything else you really think is important to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of you favorite things?

Brad R. Staats
No, I think we’ve dug into the elements. Obviously these are things that I think we’re both pretty excited about. I can spend lots of time talking about each one.

I think that the – probably if I were encouraging folks what would you do right now, part of it would be take that time to think about wherever you are, what you’ve learned. I’m sure there are a lot of folks that listen to your podcast as they’re commuting to or from work.

We did a field experiment around commuters. We were interested in a couple things. We were interested in how to help them learn, but we were also interested in how to help them enjoy their commute a little bit more. It turns out kind of our morning commute tends to be our least favorite part of the day.

What we did across a few studies, but the biggest one was we randomized folks into three conditions. We had a control group. We had a group that was kind of the fun treatment and then a group that was the reflection.

We tracked them for a while. We sent them texts to take some surveys from them. But in the middle over a stretch of time, we texted the fun group and just said, “Hey, engage in some fun right now please.” We texted that reflection group and we asked them, “Think about your day. Think about what you have to do today and how you can tackle those tasks.”

Again, we followed them over an extended period of time. What we found is those folks that we nudged to think about their day, to think about learning, that interestingly they were happier, they were more engaged at work, they reported higher performance, and they reported enjoying their commute more.

I think some of these processes are hard to get us going in the right direction sometimes, but as we can build out those habits, we really can help ourselves in some neat ways.

Pete Mockaitis
That is intriguing. The text nudge occurred during the commute time?

Brad R. Staats
It did. Yup. They shared with us kind of when they were commuting, so then we would text them at the start of the commute or early on in their commute.

Pete Mockaitis
So you’ve engaged in texting while driving?

Brad R. Staats
We’re using a third-party provider and yes, this was much more about public transportation to be clear, not hopefully catching people behind the wheel of a car and running into trouble that way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, very good. Just had to give you a hard time there.

Brad R. Staats
Yeah, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. Again, with reflection, were there any particular prompts?

Brad R. Staats
It was think about your day and what you have going on. I think what’s interesting is there’s no one magic word. It really is forcing the discipline on yourself to take a few minutes and to focus, that our minds can easily wander to other things, so see what happens if you spend even five minutes.

Whether it’s in the morning, “Okay, what am I going to do today? How will today be a great learning day?” or at the end of the day, “What did I learn? What did I try that didn’t work that I can learn from?” that sort of thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. Well to do a little bit of reflection and to go meta here right now. The question I asked you earlier that was a variant of what’s something I should have asked but didn’t ask was is there anything else you think is important to mention before we shift gears and hear about your favorite things?
I would value your feedback on that question that I sort of have routinely in the interviews prior to shifting gears to the next segment and say are there pros and cons to asking it the way I asked versus are there any things that I should have asked but didn’t ask?

Brad R. Staats
No. I think I like that question a lot. As a general rule with questions, and you know this as a great interviewer, less is more. Once we get into the follow up after the follow up, there comes a point where you need to narrow someone in. But on that one, keeping it like you did as simple and open as possible, “Hey, what else,” is almost the best way, but I like it a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so true when it comes – I think I’m learning that myself. It takes about 300 episodes to get-

Brad R. Staats
Learning curves matter, right? We see it in all contexts.

Pete Mockaitis
Is that – I am because sometimes, and maybe it’s just the fear of dead air or whatever, even though we can edit it.

Brad R. Staats
Yeah, exactly. ….

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, Hm, I need to be speaking, although I’m not yet done formulating what my question is.”

Brad R. Staats
Yeah, it’s true. It’s funny, I hate to give away one of my favorite jokes, which isn’t necessarily all that funny, but it works exceptionally well when I teach.

That I’ll have dead time in class early on in a day perhaps. I’ve grown more comfortable because I’ve come to appreciate, like you were saying, sometimes we’re formulating whether it’s me asking a question or them.

I’ll typically when that happens, I’m looking at them and I’ll tell them, “Hey look, you need to know at my core I am an operations professor, so staring awkwardly at people in silence describes every cocktail party I’ve ever been to, so I’m quite comfortable here. Take your time thinking.”

It breaks the ice and lets people appreciate, “Hey, I don’t have to always be talking.” Talking and saying nothing isn’t actually helping the conversation here. But let’s pause, think about what’s going on, and then get moving to the next thing.

Pete Mockaitis
That reminds me. One of my favorite work moments, it was so short, but I remember I was working on a consulting engagement and then someone said something. I don’t remember what they said. Then the manager said, “Hm,” and then there was just like silence for about ten seconds. Then they prompted her like, “Steph?” She’s like, “I’m thinking.”

I thought it was awesome because it just created permission for everybody to slow down and think. It made me think that she was more brilliant as a leader than less brilliant.

Brad R. Staats
Absolutely. That’s the Franklin quote. Isn’t it Franklin about “Better to stay silent rather than reveal our ignorance,” basically? Staying silent gives us a chance to think and the often avoid ignorance in the first place.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Brad R. Staats
Yeah. One that jumped out at me from a young age and has stuck with me. It’s actually the quote I use in the conclusion. It’s a long one, but it’s from Merlin in The Once and Future King. It’s basically him kind of reflecting on the power of learning. I apologize for the length, but I think it’s worth it.

He says that, “The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds, there’s only one thing for it then, to learn.

Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you.

Brad R. Staats
Absolutely. Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
We talked about a couple studies and experiments, but any other pieces of research that are among your faves?

Brad R. Staats
Yeah. One, I think it was the one that was probably the most pleasantly surprising to me that it worked frankly. I joke about this with Francesca Gino at Harvard and Dan Cable, who is at London Business School now, although all three of us were at University of North Carolina at the time.

I had been spending the day in India, where I did for a bit of research, with a chief quality officer, a gentleman by the name of …. At the end of the day we had been talking about learning and this and that, asked him the same question, did he have any questions for me.

He said, “Well, Brad, do you know what could reduce our attrition, reduce our turnover?” and kind of went on a little bit about how he was interested in keeping people around, helping them learn more.

At the time a bunch of my work had been kind of learning by doing, experimental learning. It was clear that that wasn’t going to move the needle enough, so I kind of gave a, “Well, hold on. Let me think about it. We’ll go back.” I spent that 20 hour flight back reflecting. Dan and Fran and I kind of came together to brainstorm.

This is what led to the work for us around the power of the individual because we came back to them with an idea where we said, “Let’s come up with something that we don’t think they’ll do. We think would be really impactful, but is a big enough change that they’ll tell us no and see what happens.” We said “What we want to do is have you all give us an hour on day one for employee.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah. We had Dan Cable. Keep going.

Brad R. Staats
Yup, yup. “With that hour, we’re going to change the onboarding process.”

We had kind of three approaches. We had a control group. We had an organizational intervention and an individual one.

With the individual one we did things like think about when you’ve been at your best, hear from a star employee about how they can be their best self at work, and then introduce yourself to everyone around this highlight reel that you’ve created for yourself.

For the organizational group it was how great this employer is, which it was highly ranked in India, great stats, employee coming in talking about how great the organization was, introducing yourself around kind of why you were excited to be here.

Then we gave the individual folks a fleece sweatshirt with their name on it and the organizational folks a fleece sweatshirt with the company name. Basically, the idea of promoting the individual versus prompting the organization.

What was so cool about that one we then tracked them for six months. Dan was back in town. Fran hadn’t moved yet, so the three of us kind of gathered in my office. Often we run these studies that take a long time to analyze. It’s kind of anti-climactic at the end bit the time you finally work your way through it. But this one was pretty straight forward.

We collected the data, kind of we gathered around my desk and there was finally that moment of hitting the enter button and seeing what popped up on the computer. We did that and the numbers popped up and it was one of those that all three of us were just in stunned silence because we saw folks who were in that individual condition were dramatically less likely to leave the firm, about 25% less.

They had learned more. They were about 10% higher in terms of their customer satisfaction scores early on in the job. It was literally that hour of the first day is all we changed and gave them that fleece with their name on it. Then everything else was the same.

But I think what was so exciting to all three of us was unlocking the individual is such an incredible opportunity. It really becomes a win/win both for the employee, but also for the organization as each can get more out of it.

Pete Mockaitis
I love that story. That is how an award winning academic paper is made. Kudos again for-

Brad R. Staats
Yeah, thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
-it’s one of my favorites. So cool. How about a favorite book?

Brad R. Staats
That’s a good question. The – let’s see, what – as I was quoting from it earlier, I really enjoy Ed Catmull book. I think he does a great job in Creativity Inc. as he tells his experiences of kind of moving through computer graphics and eventually Pixar and hitting on a lot of these themes of learning in an innovative environment.

Bringing up this role of failure, mistakes, talking about the importance of how do you have discussions with people and kind of data as a great equalizer as something that’s neutral that then we can really have a discussion around in my mind kind of translating to the process. That’s one that I certainly really enjoy.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Brad R. Staats
I think for me there’s probably two I would highlight. One is the reflection point of trying to do it, I do it a little bit more at the end of the day than at the beginning, but carving out just a few minutes at the beginning to think about what’s going on.

Often it’s on the move. It’s not kind of sitting there with a tomb, but rather five minutes of, “Okay, what’s happening today? What’s my priority? How do I get this done?” At the end of the day, “What did I learn?”

Ideally that’s around the dinner table with family as we go around with our kids and we all talk about what made us happy today, what made us sad, what we learn, what we fail at, those sorts of things, incredibly powerful.

The other one that I’ve certainly known the research for a long time. I’ve done a lousy job of practicing it. I think unfortunately, certainly in the US we often do a lousy job of practicing it, is taking a real vacation. That ability to disconnect and do whatever it is individually you need to recharge.

It likely looks different at various stages of life. What recharging meant pre-kids was far more active than post-kids, but has been, over the last few years as my wife and I have done a better job of incorporating in life, has definitely made a big difference.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget that you share in your work with teams and folks that really seems to connect and resonate and gets them sort of quoting yourself back to you?

Brad R. Staats
Yeah. The one that I probably get quoted the most back is something that Dave Upton told me. Dave was a great mentor. One day I was going to meet with him. We had 30 minutes. Time was tight. I probably had an hour and a half of material that I wanted to cover with him. As an operations scholar I could do the math there. Clearly the way to solve that problem was just to talk three times as fast.

I was trying to fly through things, doing pretty well about ten minutes in before Dave put his hand on my shoulder as I was taking a rare breath, looked me in the eye and said, “Brad, don’t avoid thinking by being busy.”

I think kind of advice has really stuck with me, that it’s easy for us to avoid hard problems. It’s easy for us to avoid some of that discipline by being busy, but it’s certainly not productive in the long run.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good stuff. Brad, tell me, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Brad R. Staats
Yeah, my email, excuse me, my website is www.BradleyStaats.com or just check out Never Stop Learning. Hit me up as well on LinkedIn or whatever. I love to engage with folks.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Brad R. Staats
Yeah, I think it’s to take this mantra of never stop learning seriously. We’ve known that it’s out there. We appreciate at a high level that we need to do it, but asking yourself what’s getting in the way of me learning on a daily basis.

I would say just odds are it’s us. The enemy is us. How can we pick one thing out of the eight I discussed or if something else resonates more strongly with you, how do you pick that one thing to start working on today.

Pete Mockaitis
Brad, thank you for this. This has been so fun and interesting. I wish you and Never Stop Learning and your work all the success and luck in the world.

Brad R. Staats
Well, thanks so much. I really appreciate you making the time for me. Thanks again.