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805: How to Boost Your Confidence and Advocate for Yourself with Kelli Thompson

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Kelli Thompson shares strategies for overcoming impostor syndrome and asking for what you need.

You’ll Learn:

  1. When self-doubt can be helpful 
  2. The exercises to boost your confidence
  3. What not do when advocating for yourself 

About Kelli

Kelli Thompson is a women’s leadership coach and speaker who helps women advance to the rooms where decisions are made. She has coached and trained hundreds of women to trust themselves, lead with more confidence, and create a career they love. She is the founder of the Clarity & Confidence Women’s Leadership Program, and a Stevie Award winner for Women in Business—Coach of the Year. She is the author of Closing The Confidence Gap: Boost Your Peace, Your Potential & Your Paycheck, releasing fall of 2022.

 Resources Mentioned

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Kelli Thompson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Kelli, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Kelli Thompson
Thank you so much for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to chat with you and hear your wisdom. And I thought, for starters, could you share with us a wild tale of salary negotiation, something that was funny or dramatic? You’ve seen a lot of this stuff and so I just imagine you’ve got some cool stories here.

Kelli Thompson
Oh, my gosh, I have to just pick one? I think sometimes the wildest tales of salary negotiations was when I was sitting on the other side as an HR person, and people would come in and they would put down this salary that was just wildly above the range for the job. Like, a quick Google search could’ve told you, “Hey, this is kind of the range for this job.”

And lots of times they would get defensive on why they wanted that number, and they would give you really un-work-related reasons, like, “I want my partner to stay home, and so I need to make this much money,” or, “I have plans to buy this house, and so I need to make this much money.” And just keeping a straight face in those moments, and I get it, lots of times we want to make a certain salary so that we can have things in life that we want.

But to use it as a negotiating tool of saying, “You need to pay me this much so that I can do that,” without even having any reference of, “Hey, this is kind of the range,” those were always really entertaining, and just moments where I really just had to stay cool and calm and just practice that poker face.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, it’s really interesting. And we had a great chat with Steve Dalton about negotiation sorts of matters, and he said sometimes if you share those things…I’m thinking about sort of when you’re starting a new job. When you share some of those things that could be helpful in terms of understanding your goals and how they might be able to say, “Well, you know what, we don’t actually have the ability to meet that salary number but we do have some cool benefits associated with interest-free loan for a down payment or whatever.” But saying, “I need this money because of this now, so make it happen, Buster,” ain’t going to cut it.

Kelli Thompson
No, no, not going to cut it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, good to know. Well, so we’re going to talk a lot about confidence, particularly within your book Closing the Confidence Gap, confidence and advocacy in particular, as well in the zone of asking for more money. So, could you kick us off by sharing perhaps one of the most surprising and fascinating discoveries you’ve made when it comes to professionals and getting more confident?

Kelli Thompson
Yeah, I think one of the most fascinating things I’d found about really helping with confidence, and maybe it’s one of the simplest, is actually how I open the book. I think, a lot of times, we think that we will get more confident if we follow a certain set of rules. So, for instance, in my own life, my rules were, “Okay, you need to go to college. You should get this type of degree. You should find this type of job because, you know, it’s stable, it’s going to pay well, and you have promotion opportunity, and you have benefits.”

And my family origin was, “Hey, get married young so that you can have kids when you’re young and you have energy, and then you should go get a graduate degree,” like, there’s all these rules. That’s just my family’s rules. And when I talked with, especially women, that’s the majority of my clientele, they come to me saying, “Why do I not feel more confident because I literally followed all the rules, I took all the career advice I was supposed to? I followed this path but why do I feel so blech?”

And I think one of the things and one of the most surprising discoveries that they have is there’s no “Happy when…”, there’s no “I’ll feel confident when…” They think it’s going to be on the other side of a promotion or a title or a salary boost, and what they find is there’s just nothing there. And so, a lot of the things, what they actually find helped them close the confidence gap and become more confident is to live a life that’s actually aligned with their values, and stopping and asking, “What do I really want? What do I truly enjoy? And how do I say no to everything that isn’t that?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, interesting. So, there’s almost an invisible script or an implied assumption, implicit and are operating mental frames, to say, “If I follow these rules, the result will be confidence, success, money,” any number of things. And people seem to discover again and again, that just doesn’t quite come to pass that way.

Kelli Thompson
Absolutely. And I think that’s just common because in the world of work, there’s just so much advice. There are so many well-intentioned, “Hey, you should do this, you should try this.” I know, even as an entrepreneur, I still get a lot of well-intentioned advice. And so, one of the things I really encourage my clients to do is really to stop, check in with your gut, “Do I even agree with that advice? Is this someone I should be taking advice from? Does this even align with my values? Does this even support what I want to do with my life? Does this even make me happy?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you for that. And now could you share the main message or thesis or core idea behind your book Closing the Confidence Gap?

Kelli Thompson
The central question behind the book is, “What would you do if you had a little more confidence?” And it really encourages to ask the readers to slow down and think about that, “What would I do if I had a little more confidence? Would I run for office? Would I ask for a raise? Would I try to set stronger boundaries at home? Would I go for the promotion? Would I quit my job?”

I’ve asked over 500 women this question, and the answers are just all over the board. But the central question of the book is, “What would you do if you had a little more confidence?” And then the book just unravels some tools, stories, lots of stories, strategies, frameworks to help you put into place some things, some actual tips that you can do, and do that thing that you said you would do if you had a little more confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And this might be a basic question, but how would we define confidence and the opposite of confidence? Because, in a way, it’s a big word that can encompass a lot of stuff.

Kelli Thompson
I have a line in the book that says, “A confident woman trusts herself. Her body is trustworthy.” And so, I really define confidence as trusting myself, like trusting my gut, my inner knowing, my nudges, and taking action on that because the actions of confidence come first, the feelings come second. And I think we can all put ourselves there where we felt nervous about doing something.

Maybe we’re going to hop on a podcast, or we’re going to give a presentation and you feel all the butterflies and got the splotchy neck and the sweaty palms, and you get into action, and when you’re done, you have the feelings of confidence. So, it’s getting into action that produces it. The opposite of confidence, a lot of people think that it’s doubt, but I think that there’s always a healthy level of doubt that comes along with confidence. And so, I like to think of confidence as a verb, and so to me the opposite of confidence would be stalling, inaction, and just being frozen.

Pete Mockaitis
When you said confidence is a verb, I was thinking of a confidence man, a con man, a flimflammer.

Kelli Thompson
That’s awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
Not that kind of confidence verb. Okay, that’s cool. As opposed to just sort of hanging back, which makes sense. It’s not so much that we’re terrified necessarily, though we might be. It could just be, “Nah, I don’t quite know about that. Maybe a little later.” So, stalling, being in a state of not doing action. Okay. Well, so let’s say we want more confidence, how do we go get it?

Kelli Thompson
So, the first place I like to have my clients start is, especially when they come to me…I work with primarily women in my private coaching practice, and when they come to me and their confidence is totally shot, they’re also usually dealing with a lot of burnout. They’re overworked, they’re exhausted, they’re not even doing work they love. They may be doing work that was delegated to them, and they just said yes because it was the “right” thing to do – and I’m putting right in quotation marks – and they just don’t feel good about themselves and their abilities anymore.

And this might seem overly simple but sometimes when someone has come to me in that sort of state, I know I’ve been there in my personal life, the first place I have them start is to write down everything they don’t want. You might be surprised on how long that list of things becomes of everything that people don’t want because they said yes to it four years ago and we just keep doing it because we don’t want to go, we don’t want to set a boundary, we don’t want to say no.

Or, we said yes to be nice, we said yes to keep a relationship that maybe isn’t serving us any longer because a lot of times when women come to me, and I say, if I would try to work on confidence and build their confidence, they are just so overwhelmed, they don’t even know what they do want. So, we always start with, “Let’s make a list of everything you don’t want, and start saying no to some of those things.” Because when we can start to clear out the things we don’t want, it removes all that noise and that interference to help us get more clear about what we actually do want, what do we value, and how we say yes to the right things in alignment with those values.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s handy. And then, I’m curious, when you’re in sort of the heat of things, like a big presentation is coming up, you’re about to ask for more money, or a high-stakes something, and you’re feeling all sorts of doubt, anxiety, do you have any tips for what you do acutely then and there?

Kelli Thompson
In the moment. Great. Yes, so all the time, I am speaking, and I’ve been a corporate trainer, I’ve been a public speaker for almost 15 years, and I still get nervous, so I just want to normalize that. But what I have them do in the moment, is I like to just encourage them to not only just use their thoughts, but I want them to use their body.

So, some things that they can do in their body. If you ever see me before a presentation, I will be standing in the corridor, doing four-count breathing. Breathing in for four counts, breathing out for four counts, and doing that over and over again because what that does is it can calm down our nervous system, get more oxygen to the brain, and kind of get us out of that fight or flight mode that likes to hijack us. Actually, the Navy Seals use that when they need to calm themselves down.

Another tip in the moment that I always encourage my clients to do, and I always do, is to always have ice water. Ice water can also just calm down the body. So, I really encourage clients to prepare, like, “Let’s have a plan for breathing, let’s have a plan for ice water. Let’s get our body regulated because then my next tips are going to help you a lot more.”

The next one is just to notice it. I think sometimes we get nervous and we get flushed, and we feel all this doubt, and then we start to shame ourselves, and, “Oh, I shouldn’t feel this way,” but I have yet to meet a person who has shamed themselves into a higher level of confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
“Stop feeling that way.” “Oh, okay. That worked.”

Kelli Thompson
I know, right? Because if you say, “Stop it. Stop it,” like, it just gets worse. So, let’s just notice it, and just notice it with a ton of compassion, and then let’s just give it a name, “You know what, this is doubt. This is doubt that comes with speaking up. This is imposter syndrome. This is nerves. This is anxiety.” Naming our emotions doesn’t give them power. It actually clarifies our language so we can have more resilience in the moment, and go, “Oh, yeah, this is just that doubt that comes.”

Then I want you to normalize it. Like, I think the statistic is 90% of people are scared of public speaking, 70% of people have experienced imposter syndrome. It is just so normal to feel doubt and nerves. In fact, I always joke with my clients that, “If you never felt doubt, we would probably be having a conversation about you being on the sociopathic spectrum.”

Like, doubt is a normal and healthy human emotion. It keeps us humble. It keeps us curious. It keeps us connected. So, let’s get back into our bodies. Let’s notice it with a ton of compassion. Let’s give it a name. Let’s just normalize it. This is normal. It’s normal. It’s normal. You can do great things while also feeling doubt. And then just reframe it.

One of my favorite reframes is, “I feel a lot of doubt, and this is good because it means I’m stretching my comfort zone today. I’m getting out of my comfort zone. This is where the learning is happening right now. This means I’m taking a brave next step, doing something that was on my goal sheet two weeks ago.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Kelli, there’s so much good stuff here I want to dig into. And I was really connecting with the notion of not shaming the emotion, and when you said, “This is normal, this is normal, this is normal,” that actually felt soothing as you were saying it, as opposed to, “I shouldn’t feel this way. I should be stronger.” The should statements – I’ve been listening to a lot of Dr. David Burns lately, hope we get him on the show later – in terms of they really do contribute to not the feelings that you’re going for.

Either the world should be different and you feel angry and frustrated that it’s not, or you should be different and then you feel sort of smaller or lame or inadequate because not only are you feeling the thing you don’t want to feel, but you are doubly cursing yourself because you shouldn’t feel that way, versus “This is normal, this is normal, this is normal” just has a calming effect right there.

Kelli Thompson
Yes, I’ve nothing to say to that than yes, it does.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, then I want to talk about ice water. No joke, I was dorking out and reading all about the mammalian dive reflex which is so wild that if you put your face in cold water, you will literally have a bodily reflex that lowers your heart rate. I have tested this in my office with a heart rate monitor, because that’s what I do for fun, and it’s handy. So, that’s one approach is dunking your face in cold water. I have a feeling you have a different view when you said ice water. What’s your ice water approach?

Kelli Thompson
So, my ice water approach is, and if you are watching us on video right now, you would see me holding up ice water. Like, I always have ice water every time. I’m even talking to you on a podcast because, again, I want to normalize, normalize, normalize. I get nervous and I feel doubt even before I hop on podcasts, I have ice water. As you said, it feels like it slows the heart rate down because I get warm, I get flushed. I’ll just be honest. I start pitting out in my clothes.

And so, when I have ice water, whether I’m going on stage to speak, whether I’m going to be doing a webinar or a podcast, or speaking in front of a room, I always have ice water because it just helps bring that body temperature down a little bit and just slows everything down. And you have the proof, I’ve never done this on my iWatch, but now I’m going to try. I’m going to actually watch my heart rate on my iWatch and have a little fun with your experiment.

Pete Mockaitis
That is good. And, in addition to the cooling, I think it also – is the word somatic awareness – it’s just a sensation that it’s a little jolt, like, “Oh,” and just sort of brings you into your body in terms of, “Oh, this is a thing that I’m feeling now,” as oppose to, you’re projecting all these worst-case scenarios or whatever that could be unfolding from your mind.

Kelli Thompson
Absolutely. And you used the word somatic awareness, so I’m going to go there because I actually talk a lot about somatic awareness in my book. In fact, one of the things that I talk about when it relates to confidence is I say that a lot of leadership development is what I call neck-up leadership development. And I know this because I design and develop leadership training programs for decades, and everything is, “How do we build more confidence?” And it’s all in our brains and our thoughts and thinking differently.

And when we teach leadership, it’s like, “How do we teach how to give feedback, performance reviews, ROI, look at the PowerPoint deck, the financial statement?” But one of the things that we don’t pay enough attention to that I talk about a lot in the book, and I talk about a lot with my clients because it’s worked for me too, is dropping below our neck and asking ourselves, “How am I feeling in my body? What is my body doing? What can I do with my body to…?” sometimes rev ourselves up.

I’m taking this podcast standing up because I know I sound different. I feel different when I’m talking and presenting when I’m standing up versus sitting down. How do those emotions actually feel in my body? And how can I just feel them, just as you’ve said, instead of constantly ruminating around what I’m making this feeling mean? Like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m not qualified. I’m going to fail, blah, blah, blah.”

No, I can just feel that in my body. I can breathe through that emotion. I can name that emotion. I can drink my ice water. I can change my posture to make me feel a different way. So, thank you for bringing that up because really getting in tune with our bodies is not something we talk about in the workplace, and it is so important when it comes to just changing our level of awareness and, I think, ultimately, boosting our confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. You also mentioned imposter syndrome a couple times. Tell us, what precisely is imposter syndrome? Is that any different than regular old doubt? Is there a different approach we should take when we’ve got it? Can you unpack that?

Kelli Thompson
Yeah. So, I was speaking at a women’s leadership conference, and I actually asked that question of the audience, and one of the women just blew everyone away. She said, and I think she defines it best, she said, “You know what, doubt is just kind of an emotion that we feel. An imposter syndrome is self-sabotage.”

And how it’s actually defined, it was coined in 1978 by two researchers, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, and this study was done on women. It is a belief that despite a woman’s accomplishments, her credentials, her success, her accolades, she still feels like she’s going to be found out at any moment, or that she doesn’t belong in the room, or that she wasn’t worthy of what she’s accomplished, and all of this has been a source of luck.

And so, that causes women, and now the most recent studies, I think, have really broadened that to say, actually, 70% of people feel imposter syndrome, especially if you’ve experienced racial discrimination, if you work in a very gender-dominated industry where there are certain gender norms, or you work in a field like academia where brilliance is prized, that levels of imposter syndrome are really high.

And just because of this belief of being found out, or that “I’m not qualified,” or, “All my success has been luck,” it this consistent kind of self-sabotage to say, “Well, I’m not going to apply for the promotion. I’m not going to ask for what I deserve. I’m going to hold back,” and sometimes it can cause individuals to play small.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if we find ourselves doing some of that sabotage, entertaining some of those beliefs, what should we do?

Kelli Thompson
A lot of the techniques that I use are very similar to what I just already described in terms of let’s just notice it with a ton of compassion, “You know what, this is imposter syndrome. This is just what this is. It’s just I’m not going to shame myself out of this,” and giving it a name. But what I really encourage my clients to do is I like to think of imposter syndrome as like kind of an umbrella emotion.

Underneath imposter syndrome you might feel doubt, worry, insecurity, overwhelm, excitement, and really getting granular about that. But I want to normalize it but one of the things that I also talk about is I believe that I don’t even like to use the word fix imposter syndrome because I don’t think people need to be fixed.

But one of the things that I want folks to be aware of is that let’s also make sure that we are not working for an organization who does not have diversity in the room because imposter syndrome is more prevalent when people have not seen themselves in the highest levels of leadership. So, if you’re working for an organization that continues to have all white men in the senior leadership team, notice that maybe that imposter syndrome is not your fault, and it could be because, gosh, I literally cannot see myself in those rooms where the decisions are made.

So, I really encourage a both-and approach for imposter syndrome. One, if you are a leader of an organization, how are you creating a diverse workforce and psychologically safe environments where people feel seen? They watch people like themselves get promoted, speak up, make decisions while also knowing that imposter syndrome is a very real feeling. And I can also use some of the same techniques I provided earlier in the podcast to help me move through those feelings – because that’s what it is, it’s a feeling – and take action.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, let’s shift gears a little bit and say that we’ve done a lot of the internal work in terms of the breathing, the ice water, thinking this is normal, this is normal, getting clear on what you want and what you don’t want, and these sorts of things. And then the time comes, we are about to advocate for ourselves. What are the best practices in executing that well?

Kelli Thompson
So, in advocating for yourself, I think it really depends on what you are advocating for. So, let’s just use the example of a salary ask. And so, if we are advocating for ourselves in terms of a salary ask, I really like for folks to, and this is coming from my HR perspective, come with the data. There is so much available data out there right now so that you can look at your job, and say, “Hey, what are the ranges that this should pay?”

So many states are requiring now jobs to put the salary ranges on the job posting so that we can kind of get a sense of what it’s paid. So, Glassdoor.com, PayScale.com, you can Google your state, BLS Wage System, and that will actually give you…

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I’ve spent a lot of fun time there, actually, the website.

Kelli Thompson
That’ll give you hard data. So, find your data. And so, I think if you’re going to advocate for yourself, finding the data is always a great place to start. And then I think when we’re going to advocate for ourselves, I think step two, it’s really important to own what’s unique about you. Like, own your unique talents.

So, if you’re advocating for a raise, you’re advocating for a salary, maybe you’re advocating for a promotion, or you should be the person they pick for that project, own what is unique about you. Like, what is the thing that only you can bring to the table? Because I think that really helps reduce some compare and despair.

And then list that out to say, “Because I am able to do these things, here are the results I’ve been able to accomplish for the organization.” I can’t stress enough, as someone who’s been an HR leader in excellent times and has been an HR leader in the 2008 recession in banking, nothing is more important than to be able to communicate your talents and how that has correlated into results for the organization. Organizations and leaders love results.

And I think the third step really is working through that doubt, the imposter syndrome, just noticing that those feelings are normal, “This is normal, this is normal, this is normal,” and just reframing your mindset, like, “I am worthy of making this ask. This feels uncomfortable because I’m stretching my comfort zone.”

And then I just really encourage folks, when they’re advocating, I love to write things down first. In fact, there’s some neuroscience that shows that when we kind of go to the act of writing, it’s like pre-gaming. It’s like imagining in our heads so that way we can actually get to the thing, our brain is like, “Oh, we’ve done this before. I know my script. I have it written down. I’ve practiced it,” and then make your ask with confidence.

So, I think just to sum that all up, it’s really knowing your data, knowing the facts, owning who you are and how your unique talents have contributed towards results, and then taking action, knowing that the actions of confidence will probably come first and the feelings will come second, but being clear about your ask, practicing it, so you can make that clear ask, and ask for what you want.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And when making the actual ask, are there any key words, phrases, choice gems of verbiage you’d recommend we do or don’t say?

Kelli Thompson
Oh, I love how you said don’t say because lots of times, and, again, I’m talking with women who may have been conditioned, through no fault of their own, that they shouldn’t ask, it looks greedy, “You shouldn’t talk about money,” there can be messages. So, what I hear sometimes is tentative thinking, like, “I was kind of thinking that…” or, “Would you be able to blank? But if you can’t, that’s okay.” So, I would avoid that, “So, if you can’t, that’s okay.”

I even really encourage them to notice, like when you go in and say, “Hey, I’ve been taking a look at the salary data. And based on my unique skills of X and Y, I’ve been able to deliver A, B, and C this year, so I’d like us to take a look at my salary, and I think a salary of $100,000 is fair.” And what they do is there’s that silence that happens, and a lot of us aren’t okay with the silence.

So, what they shouldn’t do is jump to fill that silence because I think sometimes what happens is they fill the silence, and like, “But if you can’t, that’s okay.” So, I really encourage them to avoid doing that and just allow the silence to be, because lots of times the other person just needs time to process that. So, make the clear ask and allow for the silence.

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

Kelli Thompson
I think the biggest thing when it comes to advocating, boosting your confidence, all the salary-ask conversation, it’s just to be clear. People are horrible guessers and so I think it’s really important to be clear about what you don’t want when it comes to building your confidence, and then ultimately clear on what you do want. I think it’s important to be clear on what you’re advocating for and making clear asks. So, I often say that success loves clarity because our world is noisy. So, the more clear you can be, I think the more successful you can be.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, Kelli, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Kelli Thompson
So, there are so many but the one I think I absolutely have to go with is the Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote. It informs really my entire business mission, and that is, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.”

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

Kelli Thompson
Well, right now, it should definitely be the confidence gap. That is a real study that was done by Wharton who studied the gender-based differences in confidence and how well people performed versus how well they advocated. And, as it showed, men tended to advocate a little better even though women tended to perform a little better. So, that’s the research right now that I’m obsessed with and it’s featured in my book.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Kelli Thompson
My favorite book, the one that I have read three times, I’ve taken the online course, and I give it away to everybody I can, is The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown.

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

Kelli Thompson
Calendly. I literally cannot live without Calendly. I don’t know where it was for the early majority of my life.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Kelli Thompson
I love getting up and working out in the morning. If I don’t get up and work out, especially lift weights in the morning, like, I am just unfit for human consumption.

Pete Mockaitis
We’ve all consumed you.

Kelli Thompson
It just makes me a nicer person, right? It goes back to the whole body thing you talked about, the somatic awareness. When I get into my body, I just feel better, I have more confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you frequently?

Kelli Thompson
One of the things that has been highlighted in my book, because there’s been a group of readers who’ve had early access to it, and it’s a quote that I didn’t even think of when I wrote it, but it’s the number one highlight in my book. And it says, “A woman does not need to have a title to be a leader. She is any woman who wields influence.”

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

Kelli Thompson
Come visit me at KelliRaeThompson.com. You can learn more about my book and there’s lots of free downloads on my site, including a salary negotiation tool.

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

Kelli Thompson
Yeah, let’s just practice some compassion. I love the tip that you said, in your next moment where you’re feeling doubt, let’s just all, together, say, “This is normal, this is normal, this is normal, this is normal.” And then, remember, take your bravest next step, the actions of confidence come first, the feelings will come second.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Kelli, this has been a treat. I wish you much confidence and success in the weeks ahead.

Kelli Thompson
Thank you so much for having me.

804: A Recruiter’s Insider Tips for Acing the Job Search with Zeinab Kahera

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Zeinab Kahera shares the best job search practices learned from her decade of experience in recruiting, interviewing, and hiring in multiple industries.

You’ll Learn:

  1. A behind-the-scenes look into what recruiters want to see 
  2. Powerful questions to identify your unique expertise
  3. The most important thing to communicate in your resume 

About Zeinab

Zeinab Kahera is a career specialist, who specializes in working with people to amplify their voice while utilizing expert techniques to build a cover letter and resume that is professional, strong, and best represents them.  

Her professional expertise comes from a decade of experience in recruitment, interviewing, and hiring in multiple industries. She has also served in Human Resources and various management roles including for a Fortune 500 company.   

Zeinab earned her Bachelor in Business Management from Georgia State University and a Master of Education in Counseling with a concentration in Student Affairs from the University of West Georgia.   

 Resources Mentioned

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Zeinab Kahera Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Zeinab, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Zeinab Kahera
Hello, Pete. How are you?

Pete Mockaitis
I’m doing well. I’m doing well.

Zeinab Kahera
Very good. Thank you for having me. I’m excited to speak to your audience and to speak to you and, hopefully, drop some gems this afternoon.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we love gems.

Zeinab Kahera
Or this morning or whenever they’re listening, the evening.

Pete Mockaitis
We love gems. Well, first, I was curious to hear about you’ve lived in four different countries. Whoa! What are they and what have you learned from that?

Zeinab Kahera
Yes, I have. So, I started off in Saudi Arabia. My parents actually started off in Sudan. That was their first country but I was born in…or I moved to Saudi Arabia as an infant. And then, after that, came back to the States, did Egypt, lived in Egypt for a couple of years. I was older then so I remember that. I don’t remember Saudi too much. And then, obviously, the US, is one of the countries because I’m from the States. Now, I live in Canada.

So, what I will say in terms of what it taught me was I have such an appreciation for just the human experience and that I’ve seen so many levels. I’ve seen an excess of wealth, I’ve seen an excess of poverty, but the thing that kind of stayed the same was that people just really wanted to have a good life and do right things. So, I appreciate that perspective from living in those different countries.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, very cool. Yes. And I also want to get your perspective on, so you’ve been on both sides of the hiring table: hiring, being hired, negotiating, being negotiated. And in so doing, I want to hear any interesting or surprising things that you’ve picked up along the way that you just found really striking, like, “Huh, never would’ve guessed, but now that I know, that’s super powerful.”

Zeinab Kahera
Yes. So, what’s interesting is that I recently went through an interview process again, and this time was so different for me because, in the past when I had been looking for jobs, I was unemployed either through layoffs, the last time was COVID, this time I was working now.

I think if I could pinpoint, the biggest lesson that I share with people a lot is that there is a space for you to feel empowered in your job search. I think a lot of times people feel like we have to cater to or at the beckoning call of the hiring manager. And at the end of the day, or a colleague said to me that managers really just want to hire nice people who are knowledgeable and skilled. But that nice people part is really important.

And so, leaning into for myself and embracing, “Hey, I am a nice person. Let me show it more,” and not be caught up in my fear and my anxiety of the interview process really helped me to feel empowered in my job search. So, yeah, that’s, I think, a perspective that I recently garnered.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I do buy that in terms of just like showing you’re a normal real human being as opposed to sometimes it feels like we enter into this, like, professional mode. Like, I remember being at career fairs when I was recruiting, and folks will say things like, “Hello, I’m looking to combine my interest in finance and accounting, and find a rewarding career in which I can dah, dah, dah synergy,” I don’t know. And it’s like, “Really, is that what you’re looking for?” I mean, it feels a little too, I don’t know, PR’d. It just doesn’t feel real and authentic.

And that might be true, like, “Yeah, I like accounting, I like finance, and I want to put them together and do some things,” and yet the presentation just felt a little bit like, “Oh, I’m not quite talking to a person so much as I am talking to talking points.”

Zeinab Kahera
Yeah. What came up when you were sharing was it lacks authenticity, and I think that’s a thing that sacrifices a lot in people’s job searches is that they don’t feel like they can be their genuine selves. They have to be an image of what they feel this professional should look like. I’ve hired in various roles, and the most recent one was for a web developer bootcamp, and I was part of the hiring process for our career coaches.

And I just remembered the biggest thing for me was, one, obviously, how they articulated their skills, that they have good examples of workplace experiences. Were they reflective in their experiences? But also, were they allowing themselves to just be themselves, and maybe make a quirky joke? I had a colleague who we interviewed, and he had technical issues with Zoom, and most people would just kind of like freak out, and he just laughed. He’s like, “Did you all do this to me on purpose?” and that was like such a seller for us because he allowed himself to just be in the moment. But then what sealed the deal was that he knew his stuff, he had the experience, he showed great examples.

Pete Mockaitis
That reminds of that viral video of the judge and the lawyer and the filter, it was like, “I’m right here, judge. I’m not a cat.” “I am not a cat.”

Zeinab Kahera
Yes, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I also want to get a take on, okay, here we are, summer 2022, there are murmurs of recession upon us, how quickly the times changed. Can you tell us, okay, given that, anything we should be doing differently, thinking about differently, staying, looking around, negotiating?

Zeinab Kahera
Yeah. So, when I hear people say the word recession, obviously, there is like an anxiety or like a discomfort that come from that word, but I remember the recession of 2008. And I just remember I actually got a job during that time. And so, there are people who are still getting jobs. I think that we don’t stop believing that we can get jobs. We just make adjustments to our strategy.

So, regardless of the times that we’re in in terms of recession, we should always be having the job search that allows you to have human contact first. So, everything is online now, we’re all applying online, so there is an influx of applications that are coming in. And companies are like, “Well, we don’t want to pay somebody to look at 350 applications,” so they’re using these softwares, these applicant-tracking systems, and so people are getting filtered out.

And so, your goal is, “How do I bypass that wall, that technical wall, and I get an opportunity to talk to people?” And in a time of a recession, that’s even more important because of the fact that you are going to have more people who potentially will be laid off. So, how do you differentiate yourself from those other 200, 300 people who are applying for the same job? So, are you sending a cold email? We also call them intro emails. Are you utilizing your personal network, not being afraid to ask for help? Those are the things that help, especially in rough times in the market.

And, yes, it’s okay to look for another job if you have a job. If there are jobs posted in your industry that could be potential growth opportunities for you, go for it. Obviously, we’ve seen some companies that have decided to freeze their hiring. But I do think that there are still jobs being created every day that are not going to be eliminated.

But I think, on a personal note, just to end on this, you have to assess where you are in your personal life. If you feel like, “You know what, I just want to just kind of ride this wave, not make any moves until things kind of quiet down,” that’s perfectly okay as well. It’s not a very black and white decision-making process. There’s a lot of gray with it. So, some people are like, “You know what, I’m not in love with my job but things seem to be okay with my company. I’m not hearing any hints of layoffs. Let me just stick this out for a little bit and see what opportunities are created in the future.”

Pete Mockaitis
And when you talk about assessing kind of your personal situation, how do you think broadly about assessing what is your next best career move?

Zeinab Kahera
So, as a career coach, I’m really big on the self-awareness piece, and I’m really big on assessing what your needs and your values are. With my clients, that’s one of the first things that I challenge them to do, is to look at, “What is it that you currently need and you value?” And so, I think that when it comes to assessing your situation, you have to have that reflection piece. You can’t be making decisions based on external factors, what everybody else is doing, because now you’re allowing other people to dictate your life journey, in a nutshell.

So, to give an example, I had a client who was doing pretty well in their job, didn’t really need to go anywhere else. They worked in nonprofit so they were in an ED role but they kept seeing these opportunities come up. And so, for them, I asked them, “Okay, so where is the challenge for you?” And they’re like, “Well, I like what I do and nothing is broken. Why fix it?” And I said, “Okay, so then why are you contemplating leaving?” And they said, “I believe in the potential of the future, and if other people want to work with me, I feel like why don’t I see what’s possible.”

And I said, “Well, what’s most important to you?” And they said, “I really like growth. I like learning more. I like not feeling stagnant. I like the risk of trying something new.” And I said, “Well, that sounds like something that you value enough that it’s worth it to you.” And so, that’s kind of the conversations that we have in terms of internally assessing where your situation is.

Now, the other external factors are your financial situation, your security. What potential debt do you have or currently have? Are you trying to position yourself with a house or a family or all of those factors involved? But it always starts with self. It always starts with fulfilling what your needs and your values are.

Pete Mockaitis
So, in needs and values, you talked about learning growth, you’ve talked about financial. What are some of the other big items that pop up frequently that we’d want to assess?

Zeinab Kahera
Yes. So, the idea of needs and values came up because I actually did an assessment by, I think her name is Carolyn Weir. W-E-I-R, is definitely her last name, and she created the needs and values assessment. And so, some of the things that are evaluated are “Do you have a need for having a sense for accomplishments, certainty?” I’m looking at my list that I have for myself. “How much do you value safety, order?”

Then also, “Are you someone that likes to teach? Are you someone who likes to be supportive, an educator, spirituality?” So, you see how it’s very specific interpersonal elements that are defining the needs and values. Those are the things that I would have my clients assess in terms of assessing where you are in your life and your decision-making process.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then, let’s say, we’ve got some clarity on that and there is an opportunity that piques our interests, generally speaking, what are the things that make you interested in a candidate versus you just sort of pass right on by them?

Zeinab Kahera
I personally value someone who has a good career story. I think that a good career story shows growth, it shows adversity, it shows resilience, it shows courage. And those can define a holistic experience for someone. And so, when I’m interviewing candidates, I’m not just looking for check-off the box, “Can you do skill one, two, and three?” It’s like, “Okay, in your journey to get to where you are right now, what were some things that you had to overcome to get here? Or, in your last role, like where were you challenged? And what were the tools or resources or people that helped you, supported you to overcome those challenges?”

Another thing that I think is valuable, not to sound like a broken record, but it’s really important, is just someone who allows themselves to be themselves and show their genuine side and laugh and show their kindness or their character. Maybe even show a little bit of vulnerability. Why are those important? Because that’s who you’re going to be working with every day. You’re not going to be working with just the resume paper, words on the resume. Like, there’s a human being behind that, and that’s who you’re going to have to problem-solve with, maybe even manage crises with, come up with creative innovative ideas with.

And so, specifically, in the interview process, I’m looking for the best expression of your personality. And one thing, I want to mention this, because this is really important to me working in tech, I’ve had the opportunity to really have good conversations about neurodiversity, especially individuals specifically who are on the spectrum.

And so, the communication of personality may present a different way as someone who is not on the spectrum. But I’ve found, even with the clients that I’ve worked with, who self-disclosed that they were on the spectrum, it was almost like a puzzle and we just had to move some pieces around, and, boom, they were able to find themselves and their voice and be who they are and feel comfortable with who they are.

So, I’m saying that to say that the advice that I’m giving, it does exist for everyone. It’s not going to necessarily look as cookie-cutter as we want but it does exist. And then one more thing because I talked a bit about the interviews, but specifically on paper with the resumes, I’m really someone, and even LinkedIn, I’m really someone who values individuals who, you can tell, that they’ve put the work in. And not the work necessarily just in their career but just how they present themselves.

I tell the clients I work with all the time, “If your resume is mediocre, like it doesn’t show accomplishment-focused language, it’s not even showing keywords, it’s not celebrating your achievements, that, to me, is an articulation of how you feel about yourself. So, why would I want to hire someone who’s presenting that they don’t really feel that confident in themselves?”

It’s not faking it till you make it because you have to actually believe what you’re saying, but it is like challenging how your truth about yourself and your perspective of yourself, and allowing yourself to celebrate the accomplishments, how far you’ve come, the skills and the knowledge that you’ve gained, and then taking that, putting that on paper, putting that on your LinkedIn profile.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, that’s where I was going to go next, is you talked a bit about one’s unique expertise. How do you recommend we figure that out for ourselves and showcase it well?

Zeinab Kahera
Yeah. My litmus test for that is, “What can you teach other people to do really well?” And the word expertise makes people feel very uncomfortable because they feel like it has to be somebody in a suit and they look very prim and proper, Just like this sensationalized image of an expert. But it’s like, “What is the thing that people depend on you to get done? What is the thing that if someone had to be trained on it they would go to you? You are the point of contact, the subject matter expert.”

So, if you’re trying to evaluate that, I would sit down and look at the work that you do, “What is the thing that just clicks for you, it comes very naturally, you could do it with your eyes closed?” And here’s an extra thing, that there is a space for it, “What do you enjoy doing, too?” because most likely, the thing that you are really good at is the thing that you enjoy doing, so much that you’re willing to invest the time and the energy to get better at it. So, that’s a way of evaluating what your expertise is.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, there’s a beautiful sort of a feedback loop cycle going on there, like work-fun-good. It’s like, “Ooh, I’m working on this thing and it’s fun, so I’m going to keep doing it. And then, hey, I’ve done it for a while, so now I’m good.” And then it just kind of snowballs in a good way.

Zeinab Kahera
Yeah, there are sometimes debates about like, “Does this dream job or this ultimate career exist?” and I’m the person who believes that it does. And one of the books that I read is called The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks, and he talks about this idea of your zone of genius. So, below your zone of genius is your zone of excellence. So, your zone of excellence, you do it really well but it doesn’t really bring you any fulfillment. Your zone of genius, you do it really well, it brings you fulfillment so much that if you do it for free, meaning like you didn’t have to worry about other things, you would just do it.

So, to give an example. For me, I discovered that coaching is in my zone of genius, like I am a very empathetic person, I communicate well, I can really leverage and maximize one-on-one conversations with people, and I get such a sense of fulfillment from being able to help people, specifically with their careers, and help them navigate an aspect of their lives that can be overwhelming. And I did it for free before I even started getting paid. I just started helping people for free. So, in terms of making that connection back to your expertise, it can also be something that that’s in your zone of genius, that you’re a genius at.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And you mentioned a mediocre resume. Can you dig in a little bit and tell us what makes the difference between mediocre and exceptional? Or, what are the key mistakes that show up again and again that we should put the kibosh on?

Zeinab Kahera
So, I’m not going to reinvent the wheel because there is definitely very good advice about resumes that I think people should listen to, but the first thing is just language. How are you speaking about yourself? I’m very much someone who believes in being bold and almost audacious in some aspects in terms of how you talk about yourself, “So, I’m qualified to do this.” Like, we’re talking about their profile. “I’m qualified to do this. I have a proven record of doing this. I’m an expert at this.” You’d be surprised so many people feel uncomfortable using that language.

Then when you start getting into your actual work experience, task list. If you’re writing a task list, that’s not demonstrating the impact that you’ve made. The language that you use has to demonstrate impact. So, for an example, as a career coach, if I’m writing a task list, I could say, “Meet with clients one on one for 30 minutes.” Or, “Provide feedback upon request,” or, “Schedule appointments on a weekly basis.”

You see how it just falls flat. So, if I want to be impactful though, I’ll use language like, “Responsible for supporting the career development and growth of web developers and data analysts by providing one-on-one coaching, interview prep, as well as,” “feedback that is attainable,” or something like that. It’s always rough when I try to get it off the head, but my point is to say, I told you what I did and how I did it.

If there’s a basic thing that you want to demonstrate in your resume bullet, “What did you do and what was the impact that you made? How did you make that impact that you said you did?” So, if you were like number five out of ten in sales for your division, what were a couple of things that you did to help you get to that point? And that language also tells a story. So, it’s not just, “I did A, B, C, and D.” It’s like, “A, B, C, and D helped this company do this,” because companies that are looking to hire you, they want to know, “How are you going to make a change? How are you going to solve a problem that they have?” and they can’t do that if you just tell them what your to-do list was.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And I heard some great advice associated with put the achievement or impact results number at the first part of your bullet, and then the “by coaching, developing, mentoring,” and how you did it at the second part because…and it’s so funny because, in my own resume, I said, “Oh, okay, I guess I can give that a try. Does it really matter? I’m just changing a little bit of the…” and it really did it because, as a reader of that resume, it’s very easy, like, “Okay, you did a bunch of stuff. All right,” versus, “Oh, you achieved that? Like, I’m intrigued. How did you pull that off?” “Oh, well, let me tell you.”

It’s sort of like this sequence follows my attention, like, “Ooh, that’s awesome. How did you do that?” “Oh, now I know,” versus, “Okay, you did a bunch of things.” It’s like, “Oh, and, by the way, that resulted in $3 million of savings.” It’s like, “I might miss it because it’s at the end of the bullet.” And do you have the stats on like how long a human looks at a resume?

Zeinab Kahera
Yeah. If you’re lucky, you’ll get them for 60 seconds but it’s really like less and they skim. So, you mentioned creating interest. So, a good resume from the beginning, creates curiosity, which entices the reader to keep going and going and going. So, I’m a big fan of profile, sometimes the word is a summary, but I like to use the language profile. So, that’s a small paragraph, two to three sentences, introducing yourself to the reader.

And then you go in and you’re like, “Here are my skills that are very industry-specific.” Don’t go really strong with the, soft skills where I tell people, “A soft skill is like, if you told me what it was, I can’t tell you what job you did.” So, like, “I’m a good communicator. I have a strong attention to detail,” okay, but what job are you doing? It’s not to say that soft skills aren’t important, it’s just that the reader is looking for, “Are you checking off the list in terms of industry-relevant skills that I need you to do?”

So just with those two you’re already telling the reader, “Here’s my synopsis of what you’re going to see as you read my experience from the profile. Here are the skills that I can do, which you’re also going to read when you read my experience.” So, when they go to the experience, now you’re just reinforcing what you’ve already told them, and that’s what captivates their interest is the story.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. the profile is handy in terms of orienting, it’s like, “Okay, how do you see yourself and sort of, generally, how might you fit in here? What are the high points?” I think, for me, when I hear someone say they’re a good communicator, it’s like I guess I’m just a skeptic.

Zeinab Kahera
No, I feel you.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m just like, “Prove it. Prove it.” It’s like, “I received the highest evaluations out of 20 speakers at this conference.” It’s like, “Okay.” that’s sort of unfudgeable in terms of, “You’ve got to be like a straight up con artist who’s lying to me, or that really happened and you’re good at communication. Well, I have some context. Like, oh, okay, to groups which is very different than one on one, and so maybe we’ve got something else there in terms of your coaching clients have scored X percent, increased, I don’t know, salary, or interview rate, or placement percent,” I don’t know, whatever the most relevant metrics.

Zeinab Kahera
Or hired within 180 days or something like that of working with me.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

Zeinab Kahera
Right, exactly. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. All right. And then, cover letters, do they matter?

Zeinab Kahera
I hate them.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Zeinab Kahera
I hate cover letters. I do not feel any shame about saying it. And I will say, as someone who follows a lot of people in the career coaching industry, I’m not alone, but I think that the cover letter is important because, so your resume demonstrates your qualifications and your accomplishments. Your cover letter tells the reader why they should hire you.

And I think the thing that people miss out a lot on is you get the opportunity to make a personal connection between you and the company, especially in that first paragraph. People kind of skim through it, “I’m really interested in working in this role. I’m qualified to do this, this, and this,” and they ignore the company. They don’t mention anything that they admire about the company or any research that they’ve done. If you’re interested, it’s okay to tell them, like, “I researched you all, and this is what I found, and I love it, and this is how I feel. Like, I connect with the thing that I love about your company.” And your cover letter really genuinely allows you to do that.

And then when you get into your more industry-specific or your relevant skills, then you can kind of talk more about your accomplishments and so on and so forth but don’t miss out on the opportunity to make that personal connection with you and the company.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And then when it comes to interviews, any top do’s and don’ts there?

Zeinab Kahera
My biggest thing is you have leverage in the interview. A lot of times, people think that…I think I said that you’re beckoning call of the interviewer, and obviously you want to make a good impression, but it’s not about being someone that you’re not. It’s being the best expression of your best self. The best expression of yourself.

So, the best way to help you with that is to practice, honestly. You can hire a coach or you can grab a friend, say, “Hey, ask me these questions. I want you to look for this, this, and this. I want you to look for the quality of my answer, the timing of my answer. Do I give a good example? And do I sound confident? Look for those four things.” And then you practice with that person. Or, I did this before multiple times, I recorded myself on my computer, and I went back and listened to my answers, “Okay, I need to trim that down a little bit. Oh, that’s not necessary. I don’t need to mention that as much.”

Also, do your homework. Research the company. Research the people you’re interviewing with. When I would coach my students at my previous job, I can’t tell you the amount of time people would come to the mock interview and not research a company at all, and I’m like, “You are trying to convince these people to hire you, and you don’t even know anything about…like, go to LinkedIn and see if the person that is interviewing has a LinkedIn profile, and look up some things about it, and bring it up in the interview. It shows that you care. It shows that you’re willing to put the effort forward.”

So, to recap, practice, practice, practice, do your research, practice the timing of your answers, the quality. Make sure you have good examples of your work experience. Make sure you research the job description again so that your examples are aligning with what they’re looking for. And, also, research and look up the people who you’re going to be having these conversations with.

Pete Mockaitis
And what do you think about the STAR framework or is there an approach you recommend to interview stories?

Zeinab Kahera
Yes, the STAR method is very, very helpful. The other one that I like is CAR, which is context, action, result. I find that the extra letter can be a little bit…the S and the T can get a little bit intertwined. But, yes, when I was coming up through TARGET, we would use a model of what you did, how you did it, and the impact that it made. Or, who was involved, what you did, and what was the impact that was made.

So, this is something that I love sharing, you have to have a point system. The STAR method is a point system, there’s four points. Situation is point one, task is point two, action is point three, result is point four. Let’s say that you’re asked like an open-ended question that’s not really behavioral in structure or competency-based, how do you answer those, like, “Why do you want to work here?”

So, you can still follow the point system, “I’m going to give three reasons why I want to work here,” or, “I’m going to give two reasons why I want to work here.” Two to three is usually my sweet spot. Why does that help? Because it allows your answer to be more memorable from the interviewer’s perspective. It also keeps you from rambling and it also keeps you from under-answering.

That’s a great technique that I like to recommend to individuals who may be ADHD because they sometimes struggle with the organization of their thoughts or they lose their place. So, I say, “When they ask you a question, obviously, give yourself a few seconds to think about it. It’s okay to think about it. And then while you’re thinking about it, figure out your number, what’s your number going to be? ‘Okay, my number is going to be three and I’m going to give three reasons why I want to work here’ and then you start answering.”

Pete Mockaitis
And talking about ADHD and whether it’s clinically diagnosed or just that we’re all distracted, is the interviewer themselves is also a human being whose attention is subject to wander, and it’s just magical. I’ve noticed this in my keynotes, it’s like when you say, “There are three key things,” it just sort of like the pens click, “Oh, one, two, three,” it’s like they’re just primed. And so, why not galvanize attention that way?

Zeinab Kahera
That’s right. And when you say it through points and then you summarize really quickly, again, it makes it more easier for them to remember because you’ve organized it in a way where they don’t have to go through and search for what you said.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Zeinab Kahera
Very true.

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

Zeinab Kahera
Yeah, I was thinking about what are some things that I have found to be really helpful in a successful job search, and I identified like five things that I wanted to share. The first one was that you have to have a plan that is manageable but flexible. And you can use the SMART goal setup if you want to for your plan but the reason why the plan is important is because it allows you to track and measure your progress. So, that’s number one.

Another one, though, is that, in your measurements of success, there has to be an existence of grace because I find that people are very hard on themselves or they set these expectations that can be somewhat unrealistic. So, is your measurement of success graceful? Then you have to also be willing to be uncomfortable because we live in a time that we get things instantly a lot or we have a perception that we’re getting it instantly because time is still time.

I think that we feel like when we start applying, we should instantly start hearing something, there’s not going to be any waiting time, and that’s just a lie. It’s going to be very uncomfortable and you’re going to sometimes question your decision-making process, but if that’s coming up for you, the discomfort, that’s a normal thing, so embrace it.

I mentioned before about connecting with the best parts of yourself. You have to trust that person. I think sometimes we default to the worst parts of ourselves, and that’s what causes us to question our decisions a lot more. But you did something to get you to where you are right now. You didn’t just show up. So, what were those things that you did? What were those things the best parts of you that helps you to get to where you are right now? And lean into those, channel those.

And the very last one is you got to allow other people to help you. and this really comes up, especially in that networking piece because I think that people feel like, “Well, I don’t have a big network.” If you even just found four names, three names, and you write an email, and you say, “Hey, I’m making a career change, I’m getting into this industry, I’m just looking for some potential opportunities. I’ve attached my resume. I’d love for you to look at it. If you know anyone who may be interested in hiring me, please send them my way.” Done.

And it’s okay. Why? Because if you were challenged with the opportunity to help someone, most likely you’re going to do it. You’re not going to say no. So, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think what’s fun about that one is because when it comes to helping, that’s one of the easiest things you can do. It’s like, “Oh, I can send an email that might take three minutes. Like, hey, you people know each other now,” and it could very well result in they get a job there, and then both people are grateful. You’ve scored brownie points with both people, the hirer and the hiree. And it took you only a few minutes, and it’s almost like you get a sliver of the credit. So, just in terms of like impact per minute, I think it’s just huge and a fun to help that way.

Zeinab Kahera
Yeah, best investment in time you can put in for yourself. And I mentioned just recently coming out of a job search, and one of the things that I did differently was I was like, “I’m going to use my network this time because in the past I didn’t do that.” That’s how I got a job literally. A friend had a friend that worked at the company that I’m going to, and I set up a coffee chat because I was like, “Okay, well, I want this person to actually know that I’m qualified to do it, and I want to…” so, we did an informational interview, is another way you can call it.

And when I spoke to her, there wasn’t a job available but the conversation that we had was so impactful for her that when a job became available that I applied to, she went from just a reference to an advocate, emailing the hiring manager, having a chat with the recruiter. And so, for me, I was like, “Wow, this is so much rewarding,” and it felt weird asking for help but I’m glad that I did it because my job search went so much more smoother and quicker than I had anticipated.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. All right. Well, now can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Zeinab Kahera
Yeah. I’m not a Christian but I love this quote from the Bible, it says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” And I love that because it talks about being able to be yourself and evolve through educating and learning and transforming yourself, not necessarily just falling into place and doing what everybody else is doing.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Zeinab Kahera
The Four Agreements. I love that book. I love that book.

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

Zeinab Kahera
I have two, and these are big because I give them my money two use them. One is Grammarly. I love Grammarly. And then the other one is Calendly. And what took hold of Calendly is just a story behind it because I remember using it before the CEO started really getting a lot of funding, and just to see it evolve. I love Calendly.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too. Did you schedule this meeting with Calendly?

Zeinab Kahera
I surely did.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Zeinab Kahera
Be kind to yourself and show yourself grace. People tell me that when I tell them that it helps them a lot.

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

Zeinab Kahera
Yes. So, once again, thank you so much for having me here. This is a great conversation. I love talking about this stuff, so much that I turned a career into it, so I appreciate it. My website is ZeinabKahera.com. So, that is Z, E as in elephant, I, N as in Nancy, A as in apple, B as in boy. Kahera, K-A-H-E-R-A.com. Email is zeinab@zeinabkahera.com. And you can hit me up at LinkedIn. LinkedIn is like that is my boo. I love me some LinkedIn. I’m on there all the time, so definitely reach out to me there. Let’s make a connection. If you ever want to practice an informational or an interview or a coffee chat, holler at me. Yeah, that’s it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Zeinab, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun in your career adventures.

Zeinab Kahera
Thank you so much, Pete. I appreciate you having me today.

803: How to Write Like the Greatest Masters of Persuasion with Carmine Gallo

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Carmine Gallo uncovers the communication secrets of masters like Jeff Bezos that help you write more clearly and concisely.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The basic grammar lesson that makes all the difference
  2. The easiest way to simplify complexity
  3. How a single sentence makes your data more impactful

About Carmine

Carmine Gallo is a Harvard instructor and program leader in executive education at the prestigious Harvard Graduate School of Design. A “communications guru,” according to Publishers Weekly, Carmine coaches CEOs and leaders for the world’s most admired brands.

Carmine’s bestselling books, including Talk Like TED, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, and The Bezos Blueprint, have been translated into more than 40 languages. 

His latest, The Bezos Blueprint reveals the communication strategies that fueled Amazon’s success and that help people build their careers.

Carmine is one of the most influential voices in communication, business, and leadership and has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Success Magazine and on MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, and ABC’s 20/20. He has built a global reputation for transforming leaders into powerful storytellers and communicators.

 Resources Mentioned

Carmine Gallo Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Carmine, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Carmine Gallo
Thanks, Pete. Nice to see you again and thank you for inviting me back. Now, did I read or hear that you have now recorded over 800 episodes?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true.

Carmine Gallo
That couldn’t be right. I thought that was a typo. I thought somebody had said maybe 80 and had accidentally added a zero.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, 800. It adds up.

Carmine Gallo
Congratulations.

Pete Mockaitis
We had three a week then two a week for six plus years. Mathematically, that’ll get you there.

Carmine Gallo
Congratulations. That’s excellent.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Carmine Gallo
Good to hear.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, I’m stoked to talk about your latest The Bezos Blueprint: Communication Secrets of the World’s Greatest Salesman. And what I’m intrigued, Carmine, hey, we love lifelong learning here at How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Carmine Gallo
I know you do.

Pete Mockaitis
You’ve written some books and you’re an expert at communication but my understanding is you went back to writing class prior to writing this book despite having written other books already. What’s the story here?

Carmine Gallo
I’ve written books on how to deliver better presentations, like Talk Like TED, which was a book about how to deliver TED-style presentations, one of my earlier books was The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. A lot of what I’ve written is on communication with a lens on presenting. So, this was the first time that I took a deep dive into the art of writing because Amazon, one of the big things I learned, is that Amazon and Jeff Bezos have created a real writing culture. In order to advance at Amazon as a professional in your career, you have to be a good writer.

Well, in order for me to write about the art of writing, I’d better learn a little bit more about this frustrating art that just scares so many people, and it scares me when I’m looking at an empty page in trying to start a book, and I know it scares a lot of other people. So, I did kind of go back to class. I not only took writing classes again, I’ve been working on this for about three years, but I also interviewed a lot of experts and professionals who have written some of the best writing books so that I can just not write a writing book but distill the essence of what you need to know to be a better writer and a better communicator.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Got you. And so, I’m curious, if some of us want to sharpen those skills, any particular books, courses, resources, that were really awesome for you?

Carmine Gallo
Believe it or not, there is a YouTube sensation, her name is Gill, “English with Gill.” And Gill is a British grandmother who has like a million subscribers on YouTube, which is just unbelievable to me, and she teaches English as a second language but she takes a deep dive into why some words are more powerful than others or why some writing is more effective than others. So, if you just look at Gill, Gill teaches English on YouTube, you’ll be able to find her.

So, I went back to school and I talked to her and I’ve talked to other language and English experts, and it’s interesting because they do tend to come back to the same strategies, and they’re strategies that we’ve all heard before and maybe it brings back some bad memories of English grammar class, but they’re very effective when it comes to writing and communicating in the workplace.

And one of those in particular, if you don’t mind, I’ll dive right into something actionable that people can take away, and that is the focusing on the active voice versus passive. Almost every single – even Stephen King – every single great communication writer, everyone who writes about communication, always goes back to this idea of writing in the active voice, and it makes sense from a business perspective as well.

So, just to remind people, subject-verb-object is the active voice. “The girl kicked the ball,” that’s active where the subject performs the action, not “The ball was kicked by the girl.” So, now, if you look at…start looking at headlines. Look at, like, newspaper headlines in print where they only have a certain amount of space, it’s all active voice.

“Last week, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates.” The subject is the Fed, and what did they do? They raised interest rates. That is so much more simple, understandable, concise than saying, “Interest rates went up today because of action taken by the Fed in yesterday’s meeting.” There’s not enough space for that.

So, if you just think about writing more in the active voice than in the passive, your writing will improve substantially in emails, in memos. And when I reviewed 24 years of Jeff Bezos’ shareholder letters, which are apparently, among business professionals’ models of clarity, 94% of the writing and the sentences fell into the active voice. Out of 50,000 words, 94% are active, “Amazon achieves record revenue,” “AWS does this.” So, if you just stick to the active voice, it’ll make writing a lot easier, and your reader will find it more understandable.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I totally agree that active voice is strong. And I recall an assignment I had in high school in which we – I always use the passive voice right there – we were forbidden, our teacher, Judy Feddemeier, forbade us, not we were forbidden, there is a subject. Judy Feddemeier forbade us to use any form of to be verb. No is, are, was, were.Just none. It was hard. It stretched your brain. It’s not like, “The glass was on the table”; “The glass sat on the table.”

Carmine Gallo
But, Pete, we forget these things because I remember that as well from the classes that I took. But we forget that these are basic writing strategies and tools that will make us far more persuasive as communicators in the workplace. Imagine if your emails stuck to a more active type of sentence, everything would be so much more clear and understandable, and people appreciate it when you get to the point.

I was just thinking of some examples the other day when it comes to emails. I would rather see an email with a subject line, if I’m an employee, that says, “New hybrid work policy requires three days in the office.” In one sentence, I get it. I may not even have to read the rest of the email or I can file it away for later. I know that the subject of this email is the new hybrid work policy and what does it require.

So, at Amazon, they call it BLOT, which is bottom line on top, which they sort of copied from the US military. The US military has a writing code called BLUF, bottom line up front. The point is, and I think this applies to every business professional listening, is that if you want to come across as more understandable and concise and clear when you’re writing emails especially, start with the bottom line.

Give me the big picture, like you always ask. Give me the big idea, you ask guests all the time. Give me the big idea. Give me the big picture up front and then fill in the details. That’s called bottom line on top at Amazon. Again, they’re teaching people how to be more effective communicators through the written word.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And it’s funny, as I think about the copy I see on Amazon pages, copy meaning the words for sales, they’re excellent and it really stands out when you’ve got some sketchy overseas supplier of a thing and their English isn’t on point, like it stands out even more against the backdrop of other Amazon writing, and it’s tricky.

And, for me, it’s like, “Well, if I can’t trust your writing to be good, and you’re highly financially motivated to have the writing on your sales page be as excellent as possible, I don’t know how much I can trust that you’ve gone through other quality control steps in producing your product.”

Carmine Gallo
Good point.

Pete Mockaitis
But, then, I think, “Well, Pete, maybe it’s just not fair. Like, English is not their first language but maybe engineering is, and so it’s just fine.” But it does, emotionally, make me a little skeptical, like, “I don’t know if I can trust this product if their English is askew here.”

Carmine Gallo
Pete, you brought up a good point, and this is not necessarily something I was going to mention but it really was a catalyst for the book. I wrote an article about three years ago for Forbes, which is one of the platforms I write for, and it had to do with Jeff Bezos banning PowerPoint, and that turned out to be a very popular article, and now a lot of people, some of your listeners may already know or have heard that, that he banned PowerPoint within Amazon.

He replaced PowerPoint with the written word. In other words, when he has a meeting, now he’s no longer at Amazon, but let’s say he’s at Blue Origin, his space company, when he has a meeting, he doesn’t want people to come in with a PowerPoint because he says, “PowerPoint doesn’t really teach me anything. It doesn’t tell me that you’ve really thought through this idea. Anyone can throw bullet points on a slide. I want to see full-written narratives that have sentences with nouns and verbs and subjects and paragraphs.”

And when I talked to a few people, one person in particular who had to tell the team that they no longer can use PowerPoint in the next meeting, and he said a lot of the engineers came back to him and they were very frustrated and upset, they said, “Well, I’m an engineer, that’s what we know is PowerPoint, and now you expect me to be a writer?” And Jeff Bezos said, “Yes, I expect you to be a writer. And if you want to succeed in this company, don’t pitch me with PowerPoint, pitch me with the written word,” a writing narrative is what he called it.

So, again, it kind of comes back to this idea, Pete, that people are not necessarily going to tell you that your writing needs improvement – I don’t think a lot of people will say that – but it makes an impression, and it leaves an impression. Every time you send an email or write a memo, anything in the written word, if it’s not clear and concise and understandable and gets to the point quickly and is easy to read, it leaves an impression, and it’s not always a positive impression.

Pete Mockaitis
It absolutely does. Well, it’s funny, and I come from a strategy consulting background so PowerPoint really is like our means of expressing ourselves. And I think it’s true that it’s easier to…well, I guess both artforms or communication media can be done well and they can be done poorly, but I think it’s more glaringly obvious to people if the written words alone are bad than the PowerPoint is bad because I think a lot of people don’t even know what a good PowerPoint looks like in terms of, “I have an action headline that says what the slide says.”

Instead of saying, “Sales over time,” it says, “Sales have declined dramatically since we introduced this product.” It’s like, “Oh, okay, that’s the point. And then I see a picture of data which shows me that point,” as opposed to, “Here’s a bunch of data pictures. Yup, that’s my business update.” It’s easier to maybe, I don’t know, stay by there.

Carmine Gallo
I would also argue that everything starts with the written word even when you’re creating a PowerPoint slide. I write my texts into the note section of PowerPoint and then I practice it, and I reduce it, and I cut it down, but almost everything is going to start from the written word somewhere. So, if you can be a stronger writer, it’s going to dramatically improve everything you do when it comes to communication.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely.

Carmine Gallo
But writing is hard. Writing is hard. I’ve written ten books, and you’re staring at these blank pages, I know it’s tough, I know it’s hard, and I think people are intimidated by it as well. That’s why I try to make it understandable and, at least, approachable.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, you did mention that I do ask for the big idea. So, lay it on us, what is the big idea for The Bezos Blueprint: Communication Secrets of the World’s Greatest Salesman?

Carmine Gallo
Well, Jeff Bezos turned an idea that most people said could not be done. People forget that. But in 1994, most people said, “What’s the internet? Oh, and you’re not going to be able to sell books on it.” So, he turned this bold idea into one of the world’s most influential companies. And we could argue, I can make the point that it touches your life each and every day.

So, the big idea, Pete, is that the communication and leadership strategies that Bezos pioneered at Amazon to turn that vision into a reality is something that any one of our listeners can adopt today in their career to move from where they are today to that next level or that next step in their career, the step that they imagine themselves to be.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you, that’s clearly stated, and it’s like you’ve been practicing, Carmine.

Carmine Gallo
You know where that came from, Pete? I’ll be honest with you. I’ll tell you exactly where that came from. I like to read The New York Times’ book reviews, and when they talk to an author, there’s a great exercise. This is a fantastic exercise. They want that author to be able to identify the book’s big idea, like you say, in 50 words or less, and that’s one of their first questions, “Tell us about this book in 50 words or less.” So, they place a limit on it.

And I have found that what a great exercise that people can do even in a professional setting. Before you walk into your CEO’s office to talk about this idea, before you send out that next email, can you express your idea in 50 words or less? That’s hard to do so you have to think through this. What is the most important element of that idea that you need to get across?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s fun. Arbitrary limits and constraints certainly can help with clarity and concision.

Carmine Gallo
Hey, with TED Talks, 18 minutes. That’s an arbitrary limit. 18 minutes. When I wrote my book Talk Like TED, the most common question I get is, “Well, how can anyone say everything they know in 18 minutes?” And the answer is exactly what the TED conference organizers tell people, “You don’t. You can’t. You have to select.” So, good communication is an act of selecting your best ideas and not compressing everything you know in a short amount of time.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely agree there. Well, so we’re going to talk a lot about great things that Jeff Bezos did in terms of strategy, tactics, principles, processes, practices that cascaded on through the organization. But just in case we got some Jeff Bezos haters amongst the listeners, I’ve got Marshall Goldsmith in my ear right now. I’m thinking everyone who’s successful, they succeed because of something, and they succeed in spite of some things.

So, I’m just curious, before we jump to conclusion that everything Jeff Bezos said or did was brilliantly perfect, are there any things that we should watch out for and not be so keen to model?

Carmine Gallo
That is a good question. When I decided to focus on Bezos, it wasn’t so much everything he did, every perspective from a management perspective, it wasn’t that at all. It was actually something that Walter Isaacson had said a few years ago. And Walter Isaacson, the great biographer, was asked, “Who of today’s contemporary leaders would you put in the same category as some of the people who you’ve profiled, whether it’s Ada Lovelace or Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs?”

And without hesitation, he said, “Well, Jeff Bezos. He’s like the visionary of all time.” And it’s interesting, when you ask people, if you ask ten people about their opinion on Jeff Bezos, you will get ten very different reactions. Some people are very critical, some people want to learn more about him, some people are fascinated by him, but you get ten very different reactions.

When you speak to people who works side by side with Jeff Bezos, I believe you had somebody on your show, Ann Hiatt. When you talk to people who actually worked side by side with Bezos, they all say exactly the same thing, they use almost the same words, which is demanding, yes.

but also someone who raised the bar on excellence. So, he had a commitment to excellence, demanding excellence. And almost every single person I spoke to ended with the same thing, “I never would’ve traded it for the world.” And those people took what they learned from Bezos and started their own companies using many of those methods, especially when it comes to communication, that they took away from Bezos and Amazon. That’s what I’m focused on.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, Carmine. So, lay it on us, what are some of the most killer practices that we should adopt or abandon when it comes to our communication? And I’d say, ideally, I’d love things that are surprising, lesser known, counterintuitive, and generate a huge return on our investment in terms of, with a little bit of effort, we have huge impact. So, no pressure, Carmine, but give me your greatest hits, succinctly.

Carmine Gallo
Yeah. The first part, and we’ve already touched on it, so I won’t go further into depth, but that’s the writing. Because Amazon is a writing culture, go back to class, understand that the written word is foundational to your success and to your career’s success. Communication itself is foundational, and that’s a big lesson that we learned from Jeff Bezos.

Jeff Bezos, when he first started Amazon, before he had hired one employee, put out a job posting ad, and it was for a coder. He needed a software coder, which would make sense, he’s starting an e-commerce startup. And in that ad, he said one of the most required skills, other than the basic coding knowledge, is top-notch communication because he understood early on that in order to communicate something that had never been done, or something that people felt uncomfortable with, that it would have to be communicated simply, very simply.

So, this whole idea, my first chapter in the book is “Simple is the new superpower.” I’m fascinated by people, not just Bezos, but a lot of other professionals as well, who can simplify complexity. Bezos did it well, and I think that it is a foundational skill now for anybody, how to get your point across in a complex environment in a way that is clear but also understandable.

If can give you one example, Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, is now on the board of Amazon, and she said that her ability to simplify complexity was her go-to skill, which is really interesting to me because she’s crediting communication skills as one of the foundations and the pillars for her success, of rising through her career at PepsiCo, because people would say, “Wow, this is really complex and it’s really hard to explain and understand. Oh, send it to Indra. She’ll be able to analyze it and then explain it to us.”

And she said, “Be known for a go-to skill. Find that ability to communicate things in a way that is simple and understandable.” So, the biggest takeaway, I’ll give you one huge takeaway from the book and from the research that I think is counterintuitive, that the more complex information that you have to get across, use simpler words. Remember, I mentioned Gill teaches English? She took me back to 1066 when, during the Norman invasion, when the English language began to change from simple words to more complex Latin-based words.

When you want to get your point across, you have to go back to the ancient words, which are simple, one-syllable words for the most part. The more complex your topic, the simpler you need to keep your word choice. To me, that was so fascinating, and once I heard that, it made sense. And I was writing part of this book during the COVID pandemic, during the shutdowns, and I’ll never forget reading about healthcare communication.

Healthcare communicators learned that when there’s an urgent message to get out, you go back to simpler words. So, for example, “Wear a mask.” One syllable, “Wear. A. Mask.” Three words, all one syllable. Not, “In order to increase protection against COVID, the recommendation is that you wear appropriate facial coverings to reduce the transmission or airborne viruses.” No, it’s, “Wear a mask.” And what I learned is that, in healthcare communication, that’s what they’re taught.

Now, of course, there’s endless debates on that, but the point is when you have an urgent message to get across, simplify the message. And you simplify it by using simple, short words. And Grammarly is a perfect example of this. I’m sure a lot of your listeners, maybe you, have used Grammarly.

Grammarly will study your writing and make it better. That’s the whole point of the software, they make it better. And they try to strip out words, or they rearrange sentences, that’s what the software tells you to do, but it also gives you a rating. And that rating is based on what level or grade level that language is appropriate for. So, what do you think is the ideal grade level for good writing?

Pete Mockaitis
If we mean good, like it’s understandable such that folks can take action on it, it’s pretty low as a whole. And salespeople see this all the time with copywriting, like straight up, easier words make more sales. So, it might be like seventh grade or even easier, you tell me.

Carmine Gallo
It’s eighth grade.

Pete Mockaitis
Eighth grade, okay.

Carmine Gallo
It’s eighth-grade language. And here’s something fascinating that I learned. I was analyzing all of Jeff Bezos’ 24 shareholder letters. The first ones had a lot of great wisdom in them but they were…they didn’t register an eighth-grade level. They were a little higher than that, some were even college level. As he wrote more complex information in the years that followed, the grade level got lower. It got lower.

So, pretty soon, in the last part of his tenure as CEO, they were most eighth and ninth-grade level language if you run it through a software program like Grammarly. And that, from what I learned, was intentional. He got better over time. He was aware that the more complex and bigger Amazon got, he had to become a better writer and simplify it more for the audience.

So, the conclusion I came away with is that by simplifying language, you’re not exposing yourself as someone who’s not competent. It’s actually just the opposite. You’re not dumbing down the content, you’re outsmarting your competition. Simple. That’s why I call it simple is the new superpower, and that’s very counterintuitive, but I think it’s an important concept to get across.

Pete Mockaitis
I totally connect and resonate with that. That’s huge. And Grammarly is a cool tool for that as well as Hemingway. I also like the writing.

Carmine Gallo
I use Hemingway as well.

Pete Mockaitis
To me, interrupting phrases or too long the sentence length, that’s tricky. So, those are some easy ways we can get some more simplicity. Any other pro tips for boosting our simplicity?

Carmine Gallo
Speak in metaphors. Use metaphorical language and analogies as much as possible. Two people in particular, Jeff Bezos uses metaphors constantly, as does Warren Buffett use metaphors. So, when you have complex information or information that’s new or maybe unfamiliar to your audience, great communicators tend to rely on metaphorical language more often than not, and that’s an advanced skill.

You really have to think through the metaphors that you use. But what I’ve noticed is that I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are in the startup community or in Silicon Valley where I live, and they use a lot of, in conversation, they use a lot of metaphors that they don’t even realize came from Jeff Bezos and Amazon. One in particular is called two-pizza teams. And you may have heard of that, the two-pizza team.

The two-pizza team means, “Let’s break down these projects into smaller teams of people who can…” And they say, “Well, how big should a team be?” Jeff, many years ago, and he said, “Well, when we started at Amazon, we could feed an entire team on two large pizzas, so let’s call them two-pizza teams.” And that stuck, it stuck and it pervaded the organization, so there’s two-pizza teams. And people who I’ve talked to who have left Amazon, who now are in higher positions or even CEOs of other companies, still use those. They use the metaphors that they learned from Bezos and other communicators.

Pete Mockaitis
So, sixteen tiny people are two large pizza is what I’m getting. Is that right?

Carmine Gallo
The other one is day one, the day-one mentality. Jeff Bezos is famous for calling everything day one, which is simply a metaphor, it’s a shortcut, which is exactly what metaphors are. And it’s a shortcut for thinking like an entrepreneur, “If this were day one of the startup, how would we be looking at this project?”

You can write an entire book on what it means to have a day-one mindset, that’s kind of a growth mindset, well, there’s a whole book written, like Carol Dweck on the growth mindset. But this whole idea of just day one, have a day-one mindset kind of took hold, and people understood intuitively what it meant.

And then it became a symbol, and that’s another fascinating area that I studied as well – symbolism as communication. So, day one not only became a mantra but it became a symbol. So, now there’s the Day 1 building, or the Day One Awards at places like Amazon. So, you can turn metaphors into symbols as well, again, which I think is a very fascinating aspect of communication, but those are advanced skills.

You really have to think through metaphors and the stories you use ahead of time. It’s not as easy as just putting up a slide and throwing up some bullet points on a PowerPoint slide. These are advanced skills but it makes a difference if you want to advance and flourish in your career.

Pete Mockaitis
And I hear you that a metaphor can simplify something complex. Although, if what you’re saying is already simple, metaphor might actually get in your way, “Customers are mad because they have to wait too long to get stuff.”

Carmine Gallo
That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
“The customer is a pot on the oven, boiling over.”

Carmine Gallo
The kind of metaphors, though, has got to be Warren Buffett. Jeff Bezos is good, he’s pretty good, but Warren Buffett is the king of metaphors because I watch CNBC, like in the background. Every single day, I hear a stock analyst say, “Well, we like this company because it has a moat around it.” Yeah, where did they get that?

Well, that was years ago, about 40 years ago, Warren Buffett said, “I look at investments as economic castles. And if they have a moat around them, which means it’s hard for competitors to enter the industry, that’s a great investment.” So, this whole idea of, “Oh, yeah, economic moat. Does it have a moat?” it catches on.

Pete Mockaitis
It does.

Carmine Gallo
So, that’s the fascinating thing about metaphors is you start looking at language and what catches on and what resonates with people, more often than not, it’s a metaphor or it’s some kind of an analogy that allows people to think very differently about a particular topic but it also cuts through everything and gets right to the point.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, totally. A moat is much clearer to internalize than a proprietary competitive differentiator that gives us a strategic advantage likely to preserve long-term profitability.

Carmine Gallo
Did you just come up with that because that sounds like pretty much every press release I hear?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I mean, that’s what a moat is. It’s like you’ve got a patent, you’ve got huge market share, you’ve got screaming loyal fans, you’ve got a novel design that you just can’t copy, you’ve got the best lawyers who are going to sit in defense of, there’s something but moat sort of captures all that, like, “Yeah, it’d be harder to take over a castle if there’s a big body of water around them,” and so that’s cool. So, metaphors, simplify, low-grade levels. Beautiful. Tell me, any other top takeaways you want to make sure to gather here?

Carmine Gallo
Humanize data. Again, I spent years getting into data. Your listeners probably know about data visualization. They’ve heard of data visualization before. But this whole idea of taking data and making it simple to understand, how do you do that? Not just in the animation, but how do you do that when you explain it? And it’s actually a very easy technique, which is simply add one sentence that puts the data into context. People will remember you for it.

But let me give you a very quick example. True story, I was working with a country manager, this was several years ago before I started researching this book. But I was working with a country manager for a big company that every one of our listeners knows and probably consumes their products daily. Big company, one of the biggest in the world.

So, he’s in the middle of the totem pole, maybe upper level, and he had aspirations to grow within the company. He was preparing a yearly presentation to the rest of the managers, which was simply an update. They’re just a simple update, “Here’s what we’ve been doing this year.” One of the big things was they launched a big tree-planting campaign for environmental reasons. Obviously, everyone has to talk about, “What role are you taking to solve environmental issues?”

So, on a bullet point on one of his slides, like the last slide, “And we launched a tree-planting campaign this year, and our employees loved it. They found it very satisfying.” A little bullet point, I said, “Wow, okay, that must not have been much but you probably just threw that in.” And he goes, “Oh, no, no. This was a major thing. We planted like 200,000 trees.” I’m like, “Well, hold on. That sounds like a lot. Now, I don’t know. Is that a seed? Is that a seedling? Maybe it’s more than I think but it sounds like a lot. How can we put that in perspective?”

So, we started brainstorming, we started being a little bit more creative rather than just putting up a bullet point, and we came up with a solution that, or the idea, because the presentation was being given in New York near Central Park, we did some quick calculation, and he said, “We planted the equivalent of one Central Park every month in my region. That was all because of the employees. Because Central Park is 18,000 trees, we did the math.”

“Hey, take a look outside. After you leave the conference, after you leave the event, take a look at Central Park when you walk back to the hotel. We planted the equivalent of one Central Park every month this last year, and we’re really proud of that,” and then show a PowerPoint. Then you can show a PowerPoint with faces and people planting trees.

That particular country manager was recognized for delivering a great presentation. He is now second in line to become the CEO of one of the biggest companies in the world, and I’ve kept in touch with him for years. So, he gives me some credit, which is interesting, because he realizes that you can be really good at your job, and this is the big takeaway for everybody now, you could be really good at your job, you can be very competent, but it’s your communication and your presentation and your storytelling skills that will get you noticed. That’s the takeaway.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now let’s hear about a few of your favorite things. Can we hear a favorite quote?

Carmine Gallo
I’m going to go to a Daniel Kahneman quote and one that I used in this book that applies completely to what we’ve been talking about. So, Daniel Kahneman, a great behavioral psychologist, Nobel Prize winner, “If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Got it. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Carmine Gallo
Anything Daniel Kahneman. Go back to the book Thinking, Fast and Slow which is the great behavioral psychology book. But one piece of research that I think really applies today, you can look this up, it’s a scholarly research paper, and it’s got a fun title called “Bad is Stronger than Good.” And it’s one of the most quoted and cited research papers of the last decade.

And “Bad is Stronger than Good,” by a guy named Baumeister – Baumeister is an Australian scholar – explains almost everything that’s going on today. And it simply talks about the negativity bias that we all have. So, we do tend to skew toward the negative, which explains why, in our social media feeds, we tend to get things that make us angry or frustrated or anxious. It explains why, before you give a presentation, you get nervous because you’re focusing on the bad outcome rather than the good, because, as we evolved, it was more important for us to focus on threats than the positive, as a species, so it makes sense.

But now, those very same things are used by social media companies to keep us in a constant state of anger. They put a lot of pressure on you, they make you nervous when it’s public speaking. So, just understanding that bias that we have toward the negative is actually very empowering if you can learn to kind of reverse-engineer that and start focusing on positive. It’s hard to do but you got to start somewhere.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Carmine Gallo
My favorite book. The other day I did a TikTok. Believe it or not, Pete, I’m doing TikToks. I love TikTok. I’ve become a monster on it. I love it. But I talked about a book, I love history books. So, this is called Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. And the reason why I like it, it’s one of my favorite public-speaking books, and it doesn’t have public speaking in the title.

Because she looks at great leaders throughout history, obviously, it’s a US history book, but she looks at all these great leaders, mostly US presidents, and she talks about them through the lens of mostly communication and leadership. So, you learn why Lincoln was a great storyteller, or why Franklin Roosevelt was a great simplifier. So, it’s my favorite public speaking book that’s not a public speaking book, if that makes sense.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. I got you. And a favorite tool?

Carmine Gallo
I’ve got several but, recently…I love Canva now. Canva makes design so much simpler. And I’ve interviewed Melanie Perkins. She has an amazing story, an entrepreneur behind Canva. So, I like Canva. And, recently, I’ve been using Vid Studio which kind of makes video editing easy. It’s kind of like the Canva of video editing. It makes it very easy for anybody to quickly edit things that then you can send out via email or other platforms.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Carmine Gallo
Because I have ADHD, diagnosed ADHD, which is a blessing and a curse. Blessing because I have so many ideas. Curse because it’s hard for me to stay focused, even during these interviews, you probably have noticed. But the habit is a lot of ADHD people know the Pomodoro technique, and I found that, I think, a lot of business professionals use it, which is if you’re having a hard time getting started on something, set aside 20 or 25 minutes. Pomodoro technique, technically, is 25 minutes which is too long for me, so I start with 20 because you can do anything for 20 minutes.

And, as a writer, when you’re staring at a blank sheet of paper, that really helped. I’m just going to set aside 20 minutes today as that task. And before you know it, you’re writing for more than 20 minutes. But if that’s all you do is just write 20 minutes that day, that’s success. So, it kind of breaks down bigger projects into these smaller timeframes.

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

Carmine Gallo
There is. I wrote a line in a previous book called Talk Like TED, and I started that book by saying ideas are the currency of the 21st century. And I get that requoted a lot, and I think it’s more relevant now than ever because you’re only as valuable as your ideas. So, you need to become the best and the most persuasive person you can because you can have a great idea, but if you can’t get it across in a way that’s actionable and convinces people to join you on whatever your initiative is, then it doesn’t really matter that much that you have a great idea.

You have to be able to communicate it as well. And so, I think this whole idea of ideas are the currency of the 21st century, use that currency and become a more powerful communicator, I think, it’s an important subject.

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

Carmine Gallo
CarmineGallo.com. Just go to my website. But if you’re on LinkedIn, look for a good Italian name, like Carmine Gallo. I think I might be the only one in California. So, LinkedIn has been a very engaging platform, and if you contact me, connect with me and send me a message. I get back to everybody. I like LinkedIn. But CarmineGallo.com if you’d like to learn more about my books or get in touch with me.

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

Carmine Gallo
Communication, public speaking is a skill. And like any skill, you can get better at it if you apply yourself to it and you practice it. So, I get a little frustrated when I hear, especially clients say, “Well, I’m not good at public speaking.” Okay. Well, I can show you people like I’ve written about – Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and many others – who, early in their career, were not very good at public speaking either.

Public speaking is a skill, and like any skill, you can improve, and you can become one of the top speakers in your company and in your field if you apply yourself to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you, Carmine. This is good stuff. I wish you much luck in all your communications.

Carmine Gallo
Thank you. Thanks for inviting me back, Pete. Appreciate it.

802: How to Level Up Your Career and Find a Job You Love with Brandi Nicole Johnson

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Brandi Nicole Johnson shares simple and practical tips for streamlining your job search.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to get really clear on what you want  
  2. The best salary database I’ve ever seen
  3. The tiny mistake that can ruin your entire resume

About Brandi

Brandi Nicole Johnson is an award winning international speaker, facilitator and coach. Currently, Brandi remains focused on her passion for developing the world’s next generation of leaders and creating experiences that transform lives. 

Brandi spent most of her career at the Center for Creative Leadership, a globally ranked, internationally known provider of leadership development, research, and executive education. 

Brandi has a Master of Science Degree in Management and Leadership and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and Communication Studies. She loves consuming food that is life changing and asking provocative questions that inspire action.  

 

 Resources Mentioned

Brandi Nicole Johnson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Brandi, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Brandi Nicole Johnson
Thank you so much, Pete. I’m so excited to be here today. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. Me, too. Well, I’m excited to dig into your pro tips on how one levels up one’s career. But, first, I want to hear a bit about you and the Girl Scouts. You’re a lifetime member, you’ve been awarded the Girl Scout Gold Award. What’s the story here and why do you love them so much?

Brandi Nicole Johnson
Ooh, I’ve been a Girl Scout since 1995, so I actually got involved because I was transitioning school systems, and I wanted to stay connected to my previous friend group. And so, a friend, a childhood friend’s mom actually reached out to my mom, and my mom was like, “Well, this is a way for you to stay involved.”

So, I started as a junior, so those were the green uniforms back in the day. I’m not really sure what color they are now. And then stayed in until I graduated from high school. I got my Girl Scout Gold Award at my last year of high school. I created a project that was really focused on helping high school seniors really think through their options, and whether or not college was the right thing for them to pursue. And if so, like how do they pick the right college?

That was something that I really struggled with when I was a senior, so I really wanted to create a playbook that made those things easier. And then since graduating, I have continued to be involved in the movement at all levels of the organization, so global, national, and local. I love it.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m curious, is there a particular vibe or ethos that captures you emotionally there?

Brandi Nicole Johnson
I would say making the world a better place. So, that’s embedded in the Girl Scout promise and law, and when I think about how I framed my career, when I think about pivotal decisions I’ve made in my life, I always think about what’s going to have the greatest impact.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, you’re also making an impact in your Level Up Your Career program. Tell us, what’s this program and what’s the big idea here?

Brandi Nicole Johnson
I started the Level Up Your Career program because I wanted to scale my impact. So, rather than meeting with coaching clients one on one, Level Up Your Career is a group live training opportunity where you can quickly learn everything that you need to learn in order to be set up for success in your job search.

So, typically, we would take four weeks over the period of a month to walk through my signature career coaching framework. And that’s rooted in, first, creating a strong job search strategy, then crafting resumes and brand that get results, then taking an opportunity to think through, “How do you maximize your interview performance?” And then, finally, getting prepared to actually level up your offer once you get an offer that you’re really excited about.

So, in a couple of weeks, at the end of September, we’re actually going to offer the program again in a Masterclass format. So, over a period of two evenings that start at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, we’re going to take an opportunity to walk through that same framework in an accelerated fashion. So, I’m really excited about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now, I’ve got to know. Can you share with us some of the juiciest gems in each of these four phases in terms of I see in my mind’s eye that silly ad about one weird trick to eliminate belly fat? Brandi, can you give us at least one weird trick, or it doesn’t have to be that weird, inside each of these that is super handy to leveling them up?

Brandi Nicole Johnson
Yup, absolutely. So, I’d say in that first phase, especially when you want to really focus on creating a strong job search strategy, I see so many people today on LinkedIn talking about how much time they’re spending on job applications, and I highly recommend not doing that. And I recommend not doing that by getting really clear around what it is that you’re searching for.

So, there are a multitude of resources that we can pursue to help us learn more about what criteria we want to set so that we’re really clear about what it is that we’re looking for in terms of our next professional opportunity, and then letting technology do the work for you.

So, one of the magic things, or one of the wonderful things really about LinkedIn right now is that LinkedIn allows you to set up job search alerts. So, once you’re clear about that criteria, LinkedIn will actually notify you when something that aligns with your criteria becomes available. And so then, you’re streamlining your job search in terms of the amount that time you’re spending actually on applications.

In that second phase where we’re thinking through how to craft resumes and brands that really gets results in a way that really want and keeps recruiters in your inbox, this really comes down to helping other people understand what you can do for them. And the best way that one can illustrate that is by taking an opportunity to quantify every single contribution and accomplishment that you have achieved in your past.

So, if there was an increase, actually talking about the percentage. If there was a revenue goal that you met, actually talking about that dollar amount. If there was a portfolio that you managed, actually talking about the depth of that portfolio and the size. When we get to maximizing your interview performance, and this is where I see a lot of candidates go wrong because the reality is, if you’ve taken the time to apply, you have submitted your application, you’ve then been invited for an interview, interview experiences can make or break your candidacy.

And so, it’s really important to make sure you’re investing the amount of proper time to set yourself up for success. So, that often means that you have to practice beforehand, and that you’re also really clear from your previous conversations with the recruiter, from your research about what that company is looking for, and what problems that role will actually have an opportunity to solve.

And when you get to that final phase, which is my favorite because it’s all about the money, this is when we don’t want to leave any money on the table. And so, in order to be best prepared for any salary negotiation conversation, it’s going to require that you do your research upfront. I don’t recommend going to check out Glassdoor. I actually recommend taking it a step further and going to look at trusted resources of information. So, one of the best ways to do that is through salary databases that are open source.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, Glassdoor, not the trusted source. What are the open source for salary databases that are trusted?

Brandi Nicole Johnson
Yup. So, if you look at H1B data, for example, that’ll give you a really good pulse as to what the base salary is. Now, the reality is compensation varies based on industry. So, if you’re in tech, you’re likely looking at a compensation package that may also include a bonus or equity of some kind. Another trusted salary resource, I love 81cents. They just got acquired not too long ago, but their mission is still very much the same, and that is they can help you understand your market value and what kinds of compensation expectations you should have going into that job search, and especially as you’re preparing to get an offer. So, that’s another wonderful resource.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, we’ll zoom in a little bit on the first piece with job search strategy. Are there any particular approaches you recommend we go about doing to for our own soul-searching, or identifying, “All right, these are the things that make all the difference when it comes to finding a fit you love versus hate”?

Brandi Nicole Johnson
Yeah, for sure. One, I think in today’s time, being really honest about the reality of what’s not working for you and your current role, if you are working, or, if you’re not working, what you’re more excited about. I think, over the last two and three years, especially as we journeyed throughout the pandemic and all the other things that have been happening around the world, the reality is work is different. And because work is different, we have an opportunity to really think strategically about what it is that we want so that we’re making sure we’re pursuing opportunities that align with our strengths and with our preferences.

So, the first thing is honor yourself. The second thing that I’d say that’s really important is take some time to do some introspection. So, whether you hire a career coach, whether you talk with a trusted friend, whether you take some time, spend half a day reflecting on questions like, “What kinds of problems do I want to solve?”

For me, when I was in the same situation and job searching, it was when I had taken my first sabbatical. I remember thinking about, “How did I want to spend my energy?” because the reality is that, in today’s time in 2022, most of us are spending most of our awake hours at work, if we’re working. And so, for me, I really wanted to spend my awake hours doing something that gave me great joy, but that also gave me an opportunity to learn and earn.

And so, I returned to coaching, I returned to learning and development. And so, I invite and encourage everyone to think through that same lens of “What are you excited about? What gives you great energy? What kinds of problems do you want to solve?” Take that one step further, and also think through, “What brands do you really admire? Who has a strategy that you’re really excited about helping them build, and helping them execute?” Those are some of the guiding things and principles that I often encourage clients to really think through and to think about.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. Well, I’m also curious, when it comes to this personal brand business, can you speak to that and give us some examples of what does an okay personal brand sound like versus an excellent one?

Brandi Nicole Johnson
Yeah, I would say we have to remember what age and time we live in, which is that everything is searchable in today’s time. And because it’s searchable, that means we really need to be mindful, especially digitally, of what we’re showing. It doesn’t really matter whether or not your Instagram profile is public or whether or not you have an unlisted video on YouTube. The reality is the power of meme and screenshots is still very real.

And so, the first thing I always recommend when it comes to thinking about your brand is making sure you have done an audit. So, for example, is what I’m posting, is what I’m sharing, is what I’m commenting on something that’s helpful to me getting my next career opportunity or is it not? Does it detract away from the opportunities that I want?

And so, if there are things that detract away from it, I encourage you to delete it and remove it. And then, also, really thinking about how you brand yourself starting with your name. So, I know from a previous private coaching client I had, we did a quick Google search on their name, and we realized that there was someone with the same name that had an open warrant out.

And so, I was like, “You probably want to put your middle initial in your name from now on professionally just to make sure it’s abundantly clear that you are not this person, should a hiring manager ever do a search.”

The other thing I really encourage is to take an opportunity to really invest and creating a really robust LinkedIn profile. So, not only thinking thoughtfully about your picture and using every character of your headline, but making sure you’ve captured your experience in a really meaningful way throughout your profile, and that you have at least 50 connections so that you’re able to still grow and build your network.

I also highly recommend commenting on posts that you find intriguing and engaging with others across the LinkedIn network community. LinkedIn is very powerful in that in today’s time, if there is a new opportunity, especially if it’s a new job opportunity, it goes there first. Hundreds of thousands of roles are posted there week over week, and so it’s a great place not only to build and increase your professional network, but to also find out about new opportunities as they become available.

Pete Mockaitis
And you said something that made my ears perk up, when you said things that you can do that are detracting from your online presence from a career professional perspective. Well, I imagine there are some things that are obvious and maybe juicy and funny, so tell us about those. But what are some things that are maybe more subtle, like, “Oh, it didn’t occur to me that I should perhaps not do that”?

Brandi Nicole Johnson
Yeah, I would think thoughtfully through that lens because this is going to be very contextual, right? So, through the lens of I always say that if you wouldn’t want to testify about it in a court of law, you probably should not post it. If you wouldn’t want to be called to HR because you posted it, you probably shouldn’t post it.

Pete Mockaitis
Or in an interview, “Brandi, I noticed this on your Instagram.”

Brandi Nicole Johnson
That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
“Oh, well, you don’t think that’s kind of funny?”

Brandi Nicole Johnson
You’re right.

Pete Mockaitis
“Oh, no? Uh-oh. Okay.”

Brandi Nicole Johnson
Yeah. So, if you don’t want to be asked about it in an interview, which is always fair game if you posted it, again, it’s probably something that you would want to remove in that season. In today’s time, some companies now even have social media policies so they’ve been very specific about what you can and cannot post on social media, or they even have a disclaimer to say, “Hey, my posts are my own.” So, I just always encourage all of my clients to be really mindful of what they’re posting, whether or not they’re job searching or not. Like, your brand always matters.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s good. Well, now let’s talk a bit about resumes. Any top do’s or don’ts, mistakes you see all the time in terms of things that people should stop doing or start doing right away?

Brandi Nicole Johnson
Yes, absolutely. So, I see typos in resumes all the time, and that’s got to stop. So, get somebody else to proofread your resume. A typo, for me, is an automatic no. I’m going to move your resume to the bottom of the pile. I think it’s also really important to acknowledge again that resumes yield a short attention span.

So, the research says that recruiters and hiring managers typically spend about six seconds reviewing your resume before they move on to the next. So, you have a very small finite amount of time to get their attention. So, again, make sure your resume is aligned with not only representing your experience in a quantifiable way, but really painting a picture of what you want them to know about you, and giving them an opportunity to think through what it might be like to have a conversation with you in real time because it’s often the interview that comes next.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you’re bringing back fond memories of resume typos back when I was doing hundreds of consulting resumes. There were several people who were looking for a challenging role in a world-class “consulting” firm, and I was like, “Oh, well, I don’t think this is the place that you’re looking for, actually.”

Brandi Nicole Johnson
See what I mean? Use Grammarly, use spell check, get a friend to proofread. Like, it really does make a difference. It really does.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, Brandi, this is fun. Tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Brandi Nicole Johnson
I would just say, if there’s anything I can do to support any of you, just reach out and let me know. You can always reach me at BrandiNicoleJohnson.com.

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

Brandi Nicole Johnson
“Be who you needed when you were younger.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you.
Well, now, could you share a favorite study or experiment or a piece of research?

Brandi Nicole Johnson
Right now, I’m reading a lot about toxic work cultures, and the impact that they can have not only on our careers and our lives, but also our health. And so, for me, I’ve become ever more vigilant and passionate about making sure everyone that I’m connected to is pursuing opportunities that they’re really excited about and where they know they can truly grow and advance their careers.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Brandi Nicole Johnson
Becoming by Michelle Obama.

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

Brandi Nicole Johnson
I’m going to say it’s a tool that makes me better, my prayer journal.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great, yeah.

Brandi Nicole Johnson
So, I take an opportunity every morning to write down and capture at least three things I’m grateful for, and then three things that are top of mind for me that I likely am worried or concerned about, and then I let them go.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right. Well, my next question is a favorite habit, so it sounds like we’ve already heard of one.

Brandi Nicole Johnson
I’m working on a new habit, which is I try to see my trainer every week day. So, not only does it give me an opportunity to invest more in my own wellness, but also in movement. And so, that’s going really well. It’s a habit I’m trying to build.

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

Brandi Nicole Johnson
“Consider it done.”

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

Brandi Nicole Johnson
Yup, absolutely. You can go to BrandiNicoleJohson.com.

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

Brandi Nicole Johnson
Yeah, absolutely.
So, if you are finding yourself in a place where you’re overwhelmed by your job search, where you are looking to transition and level up in your career, I invite you to join us for the next Level Up Your Career Masterclass a little bit later on this month. You can find out more at CareerGold.co.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Brandi, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun as you level up.

Brandi Nicole Johnson
Thank you. It’s been an honor. Thank you so much, Pete. Take care.

801: How to Find the Upside amid Uncertainty with Nathan Furr

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Nathan Furr discusses how to reframe your relationship with uncertainty to open up to new possibilities.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to turn the fear of the unknown into an excitement for possibilities
  2. The six types of risk and how to manage them
  3. How to deal with the frustrations of failure 

About Nathan

Nathan Furr is a professor of strategy and innovation at INSEAD in Paris and an expert in the fields of innovation and technology strategy. His bestselling books include The Innovator’s Method and Innovation Capital. Published regularly in Harvard Business ReviewMIT Sloan Management ReviewForbes and Inc., he is an Innosight Fellow, has been nominated for the Thinkers50 Innovation Award, and works with leading companies including Google, Microsoft, Citi, ING, and Philips.

 Resources Mentioned

Nathan Furr Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Nathan, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Nathan Furr
Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to chat about your book The Upside of Uncertainty: A Guide to Finding Possibility in the Unknown. But, first, I was a bit intrigued about you’ve got a Master’s in Later British Literature, you’ve written some novels and some screenplays, and you’re a professor of innovation and technology strategy. That’s a fun combo and I’m just curious how your love of literature fuels insights into uncertainty and innovation.

Nathan Furr
Interesting. Well, first off, I think it’s a great example that, of uncertainty itself, that life is full of curveballs because there’s other things in there. I worked in strategy consulting, I went and did a PhD at Stanford in strategy in entrepreneurship, so very different than literature. But I think, really, what is literature about? It’s really about big ideas that teach us how to live.

And so, maybe, in a way, nobody’s asked me that question before. Not many people know that part of my history. But, really, I think what you put your finger on is my interest in big questions.

And, for me, uncertainty is like the biggest question of all because, in the field that I’m currently in, I’ve been in for more than two decades, yeah, we talk about management. Where did management come from? What problem was it built to solve? It was really something we created during the industrial revolution when the landscape shifted from this ecosystem of tiny firms, craftspeople doing their work, to this landscape of giant firms, textiles, and automobiles, and oil, and steel, and suddenly you needed somebody to coordinate and organize all that.

And so, management, really, has been so focused on this question of, “How do we coordinate, organize, and control, and optimize?” It really hasn’t spent very much time on this other equally important question, which is, “Well, what about when the world changes? What about when we need to create? What about when something disrupts? And what are the tools for a world of uncertainty?” And so, that’s kind of like really the question I’ve been obsessed with in my management and academic careers, has been, “What are the theories, tools, and frameworks for a world of uncertainty?”

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Well, I’d love to dig into a few of those in particular. I’m thinking about the book, The Upside of Uncertainty. What’s sort of behind the title there? There’s some upside we should be enjoying?

Nathan Furr
Yeah. Listen, we’re all wired to be afraid of uncertainty. So, for example, my co-authors, who are neuroscientists, will point you to these studies that show how our brains light up in the face of uncertainty. So, that’s an evolutionary wiring we can’t help. But, as I mentioned, I’ve been studying these kinds of questions for a while and, in particular, I’ve gotten to interview innovators. So, over the last 20 plus years, some of the biggest names that you’ve heard of and some of the most interesting people who you haven’t heard of.

But what I noticed in interviewing those innovators is that to do anything new, they all had to go through uncertainty first. And I was so curious about that because I wouldn’t say that I’m like naturally good at that, that that’s where I’m oriented, so I wanted to learn from them, “So, wait, how did you get the courage to do that? How did you get the courage to leave your job? How did you go through the obstacles when it looked like everything was going to fall apart?” So, really, the genesis of this book was that question.

I’ve been interviewing people for about 10 years on this topic, about, “Well, so, how did you fit and learn to face uncertainty? And what are you doing? How do you navigate it? How do you manage it? And what happens when something goes wrong?”

And so, really, what we did is compiled those interviews and the existing research to come up with some practical things that can help.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’m excited to dig into some of this how. But, first, I’d love to touch upon a why. What’s really at stake for professionals looking to be awesome at their job if they maintain their current level of skill and discomfort with uncertainty versus gain as much mastery as we humans with our brain hardware and biochemistry can do?

Nathan Furr
Yeah, that’s a great question because here’s the dilemma. Whether you try to avoid uncertainty or not, it’s going to happen to you. So, by many, many measures, it appears that the world is becoming more dynamic and more uncertain. So, a very rough proxy, the World Uncertainty Index put together by some economists at Stanford and IMF shows steady increase of uncertainty over the last several decades. And, yeah, there are many other measures of this that point to greater dynamism and greater change, and I think it’s best summarized by the former CEO of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Jostein Solheim.

He, basically, said, “The world is ambiguity and paradox, it’s everywhere. The world is getting harder and harder for people who like the linear route forward in any field.” And what I think he’s putting his finger on is what I was feeling, which is, yeah, maybe they had better parents and schools than I did, but I certainly wasn’t taught, “How do I deal with uncertainty?”

And here’s the thing, when we have low skills, we tend to fall into these maladaptive behaviors, which are also, by the way, well-documented in the literature, like threat rigidity and rumination and so forth. So, if we have tools, then we can approach it with greater calm, greater courage and resolve, but I’d say the stake is even bigger than that. Because the thing I learned in kind of going through this, I was so obsessed with uncertainty, but what really became clear to me is that, again, like those innovators I told you about, they only got to new and different things, to the possibilities, by going through the uncertainty.

And so, uncertainty and possibility are really two sides of the same coin. And so, if we’re to spend our lives avoiding uncertainty or dealing with it poorly, what we’re really doing is shortchanging ourselves on possibility. Now, some of you might be saying, “Oh, that’s real nice, Nathan, but I just lived through the pandemic, and that stunk. And I didn’t choose that.” Well, you’re right, so I want to separate.

There’s planned uncertainty. When you, say, go start a new job or make a geographic move. There’s also unplanned uncertainty that happens to you. But my thesis, my proposal would be that is if we had better tools, even that unplanned uncertainty, we can make more out of it, we can suffer less in the situation, and we can discover, or at least unpack, the possibilities that might still be there, acknowledging, of course, there’s downsides. I want to acknowledge that but we tend to get focused on that and not on the upside.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now, before we delve into those skill-builders, we’re saying the word uncertainty a lot, and I have a view of what that might mean and it’s broad and inclusive of much. What is your definition and some places where you think the everyday professional sees a lot of uncertainty?

Nathan Furr
So, yeah, there’s a lot of definitions out there. So, most folks probably have heard of VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity. So, yeah, if you allow me a nerdy moment, complexity is where you have many nodes and many connections between those nodes. And so, the complexity is because if you changed one variable, you don’t know how it’s going to affect other variables.

And risk is more…there was an economist in the 20th century, very important economist, Frank Knight, who described risk as when you know the variables and you know the probability distribution, you just don’t know the outcome. So, think about like rolling dice. But uncertainty is where you maybe don’t know the variables, you don’t know the probability distribution, for sure, and if you want to get even a little bit higher-stakes uncertainty, what we might call ambiguity, it’s where you don’t even maybe have the mental model to make sense of it.

And so, here’s the thing about uncertainty and ambiguity, it requires different tools. Frank Knight, the economist, was very clear about that, but it happens to us a lot more than we realize. So, think about people talking about disruption all the time, disruptive technologies. Well, that is not risk, friends. That is total uncertainty. There are so many things we don’t understand about that, so many variables we don’t know, so much lack of information, new mental models, how to think about it.

Or, we don’t know what’s coming down the pipe in terms of recession, or rebound, or what’s next. All of those things are uncertain. And so, the challenge, I think, is that we’re wired almost because it’s frightening to us and we haven’t been given the tools to kind of avoid the uncertainty, but I kind of feel like if you tried to make your life as certain as possible, what you would certainly discover is how boring it is.

And, in fact, one of my favorite interviews was with the head of a big gambling organization, and he said, “What we do is we call it among ourselves reverse insurance because it’s for people whose lives have gotten so predictable and they want to actually introduce some uncertainty back into their lives.” So, for me, uncertainty is really a lack of information or think of it like fog in the landscape. You can’t see what’s ahead, so what do you do? Do you stay safe and wait?

And what I would encourage people to think about, I think about it for myself, think about the things you’re proud of, that you’ve done in your life. It could be a career move you made, it could be a relationship, it could be that you went away to school when nobody else was doing that, whatever it is. Think of what you’re proud of and look back, and I am sure there was a great deal of uncertainty in that journey to that possibility.

So, for me, it’s just if those are the things we’re proud of, and they took on uncertainty, we had to go through uncertainty, then I want to get better at it so I can get more of those things.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I’m sold. So, Nathan, tell us, how do we get better at it?

Nathan Furr
Oh, man, so that’s a big question because we interviewed so many fun people, we interviewed entrepreneurs, scientists, people who won the Nobel Prize, but also many professions have a lot of uncertainty in them, like, say, for example, paramedics and so forth. But to be fair, we came up with 30 plus tools. Now, that’s a lot to remember.

So, what we decided to do was to organize these tools, kind of grouped them roughly around a metaphor of a First Aid cross, but a First Aid cross for uncertainty, so you can get help. And the First Aid cross has four arms or four categories of things to remember. Number one, to reframe the uncertainty from something that is going to cause you a loss to looking at the possibility instead.

Number two, there’s ways you can prime, like, think prime the wall so that the paint sticks to it or prime the pumps so the water comes out. There are things you can do to prime or prepare so that when uncertainty happens, you’re calmer and you’re ready for it. Number three, there’s ways to do or to take action. The number one thing to resolve uncertainty is to take action. But we learn from a robust body of literature and innovation entrepreneurship, there’s ways to take action that are better than others in circumstances of the unknown.

And then, lastly, the fourth category is to sustain, this idea that we will face setbacks, there will be anxiety that’s part of uncertainty, so how do we sustain ourselves through that so we can get to the possibility?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then, let’s hear some tools. Like, maybe let’s perhaps drop into a scenario that professionals might find themselves faced with, like, “Hey, do I take on a new job?” “Do I take on a new project, or role, or responsibility?” So, in the midst of that, there’s some uncertainty, there’s some discomfort. How do we, say, use some reframing tools to get better?

Nathan Furr
So, reframing really sounds simple. It really is this idea that the way we describe something changes how we think, decide, and act. Now, it sounds kind of fluffy but there’s actually a very robust body of research in psychology and behavioral economics that shows that we have different reactions. So, there’s a very famous study by Kahneman and Tversky, won the Nobel Prize, which showed that.. in the experiment there was a disease and they offered people two treatments. I’m simplifying it but it basically was one treatment has a 5% chance of failure and the other treatment has a 95% chance of success.

And what they find, people vastly prefer the 95% chance of success, even though they’re statistically identical. Why? Well, because we are wired to be loss averse and gain seeking, so we’re afraid of losses, and that’s a real problem with uncertainty because, for most of us, uncertainty feels like, “Ooh, I might lose something.” And so, if we can reframe it in terms of the possibility, then it’s much easier to take action to face the unknown.

So, you asked, facing a new job. I faced this myself. I was at a university in the US and I was on track for what we call tenure, which is the job for life. So, you heard professors “Publish or perish.” This is the moment where you perish, or you publish enough and you survive. So, I was kind of making it, we’re living in the US, we’re comfortable, and everything was good, and then we got invited to do this visiting professor thing in France, and we just fell in love with it.

Anyway, over a course of years, eventually, the university I’m at made me an offer, but it was a hard offer to take because I had kids in high school, I was making a good living, everything was stable and safe, we had in-laws up the street, five houses, I was going to get tenure for sure versus going to France, where, oh, my gosh, the standard was like about double my current university, so I might perish. I was going to actually make less money, my kids were going to have to go to a different culture, a different language. One of them at a high school, actually, so there was a lot of uncertainties there.

And I found that when I compared the knowns of my current situation, all the good things of my current situation, to the unknowns of this other situation, this big move, it was very scary, but that was totally unfair because I was comparing my gains to my potential losses. When, instead, I compared my gains to my gains. So, yes, I have these good things here at home now, but what about what could happen, what could be the gains of taking the risk of this new situation?

And when I did that, it became much clearer, in fact, the greatest moment of clarity was when I shared it with my grandmother, who said to me very simply, she said, “Nathan, parents teach their children to live their dreams by living their own dreams.” And, for me, that really clicked. Now, if none of that resonates for you, I guess I’ll just share with you one of the interviews we did with Jeff Bezos way back in the era when he was not one of the wealthiest people on the planet, and he was kind of reflecting on Amazon.com, which was a modest success at that time. It wasn’t what it was now.

But he was reflecting on how he made the decision back in the 1990s, a time when the internet was the wild west, we would never put our credit cards in on an online site back in 1995. And he had this idea for selling books online but it was just such a crazy and different thing, and people were like, “Oh, that seems really scary.”

And at the time, Bezos was working on Wall Street at DE Shaw, like one of the best, most prestigious jobs you could ever have, if he left his job, he was going to leave his bonus on the table. He went to his boss and told his boss about the idea. And after like a two-hour discussion and walking around Central Park, the boss said, “Jeff, this could be a good idea but it’s probably a better idea for somebody who doesn’t already have a really good job, so why don’t you think about it.”

And what Jeff Bezos told us at the end of that, he said he thought for a while and then the framework he came up with was he called it a regret-minimization framework, which was, “I want to project myself out to age 80 and look back on my life and ask ‘What would I regret?’” And he said, “I wouldn’t regret trying this thing, participating in this thing called the internet, and failing. But the one thing I would regret is never having tried.” And so, I think that’s another lens.

So, in summary, what I’ve said is two tools here, is one is to compare the gains to the gains, or the opportunities to the opportunities. We tend to compare the uncertainties of the new thing to the known of the existing thing. And then, number two, to ask ourselves about regret, “What will we regret when we’re age 80?” And, to be totally fair, there are times in our life when we would regret trying and failing, and then that’s a good answer, that’s just as legitimate of an answer.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. And that provides a fresh perspective when you zoom out at that level and it’s really handy. And I like what you said right there at the end, is there could be times where it’s like, “Oh, yes, I do regret removing my children from, I don’t know, their best friends, an excellent environment, family, whatever.”

Like, that could, when considering a move to a totally new continent, that could be something that pops up when you take that lens, or it could be just the opposite, “I regret not exposing my children to this really cool new different culture and way of life and perspective and language that can broaden their horizons and views in so many healthy ways.” You could fairly come out on either side of that question and they’re both valid.

Nathan Furr
Yeah, Pete. And I want to be clear, it was hard. Like, we got to France, the kids at school were total bullies. I mean, it was awful. We had to move the kids, like there were all kinds of hard things, but we are so grateful we did it. Why? Because part of it was we saw the education here isn’t just what they learn in math class. The education is what you learn from doing something different and persisting. And the biggest education, which, now it’s been long enough.

The biggest education point was, “Go live your dreams.” And now when I say it’s been long enough, the kids are starting to come back and show that they can be bold, and that they do want to live their dreams. And so, for me, if they walk away with that experience, then maybe I’ve given them the best lesson I can.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, let’s talk about the prime set of tools now.

Nathan Furr
Yeah, and especially with keeping in mind, people who want to be awesome at their job, maybe I could tell another…I didn’t mean to tell a lot of personal stories here, but maybe I could tell another personal story, which was when I was doing my PhD at Stanford, remember I’d worked before and so I felt a little bit uncomfortable sometimes not working for several years to go do a PhD.

Anyway, I was in Silicon Valley, and in Silicon Valley, the heroes are not us nerdy professors, they are the entrepreneurs who create things. So, I started to feel bad about myself, like, “Wow, if I had any courage, I would go become an entrepreneur. I would quit the program and just jump out and do something.” And, finally, it was just boiling over and I remember reaching out to one of my mentors there, Professor Tina Seelig.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, she’s been on the show.

Nathan Furr
Oh, yeah. Okay, great. Yeah, Tina is amazing. I love Tina. Okay. So, Tina, yeah, you can look her up. She’s a really lovely person. So, we went to lunch together, and I confessed to Tina, like, “Tina, if I had any courage, I’d quit this program and go be an entrepreneur, but I’m just not a risk-taker.” And she said to me, “What do you mean you’re not a risk-taker?” I said, “Yeah, just I don’t have the courage to just jump off the cliff.”

And she said, “Do you really think there’s only one kind of risk?” And I was like, “Well, what do you mean, Tina?” She said, “In my mind, there’s financial risk, there’s intellectual risk, there’s social risk, there’s emotional risk, we can go on and on. You seem like somebody who is comfortable taking on intellectual risk, let’s say, talk about something like uncertainty, but you have four kids.” At the time, my wife and co-author was starting a clothing line so it wasn’t generating any money. We’re just living off the student loans, basically.

She said, “You have four kids, you’re living off on student loans so you don’t want to take a financial risk. Well, that makes a lot of sense.” And what she was trying to teach me is that we can actually do a little bit of self-reflection to ask, “What are the risks we’re comfortable with and we have an aversion with? And where you have an affinity, you want to play to your strengths. And where you have an aversion, you just want to be aware.”

So, for me, being a professor, actually made an immense amount of sense because I could kind of pad down that financial risk but I could take intellectual and social risks. And so, again, number one lesson, “Where do you have an affinity? Where do you have an aversion?” But the second lesson I learned from another mentor at Stanford, Professor Bob Sutton, and what he taught me was, “Be careful that you don’t let your risk aversions hold you back from the things you most want.”

And the story was, at the time again, things are super tight, we’re packing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from home just to save a couple bucks on lunch. And I’m in class with him and a bunch of other PhD students, and he just tells us, “Oh, yeah, when I was a PhD, I borrowed the equivalent of $30,000 to get my research done.” And I’m like the top of my head blew off, I was like, “While I’m packing this peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you like dropped 30 grand. Like, what? Why would you do that?”

And he just said, “It was simple. I knew that the most important thing for me getting a good job and keeping it, in that context, was the quality of my research, so why not put some money into it?” And it was one of those moments where I had this aha of like, “Oh, so if you just let your aversions be aversions, it can hold you back from the things you most care about. And the good news is you can actually build up your risk tolerances by taking smaller risks, little small risks, and that will get you more comfortable so you can take bigger and bigger risks.” And so, I’ve done that around financial risk aversion.

Another way to think about it, one of my favorite interviews was with a guy, David Heinemeier Hansson. He’s like the guy behind Ruby on Rails and Basecamp. He’s a startup legend. He is very clear – he hates financial risk. So, how do you hate financial risk and be an eight-time serial entrepreneur? Well, he always has something on the side that’s paying the bills. First, it was a consulting gig, and then later when he had some software that was selling, it was that. But he always had something to pay the bills on the side and then he can do a project and not feel so stressed about the financial risk he’s taking.

So, I would say it can do a lot of good for an individual. And, by the way, I sometimes coach organizations through this as well because their risk affinities and aversions hold them back as well. But know your risks, map them out, ask, “Where am I strong? Where am I weak? Where is maybe an aversion holding me back? And how could I kind of build up some comfort with that so I can act well when that moment comes, where I have to face some uncertainty? And where are my strengths and how do I play to those?”

It’s a very practical thing. Maybe you’re somebody who thinks up a lot of ideas and you just don’t speak up about it in, say, a meeting or somewhere. This might be a moment of reflection to say, “Hey, maybe I should step out there a little bit and speak up about these things,” or whatever it may be. Anyway, that would be one of the ideas we drew from the book is to know your risks.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. And I’m thinking now, so Tina highlighted a number of categories of risk there: financial, intellectual, relational. Can you maybe name a few more to prime the pump of ideas for listeners?

Nathan Furr
Yeah, for sure. And let me give a little brief explanation. So, obviously, there are many kinds, so I would encourage you to do what makes sense to you. But the ones we used are intellectual, so your willingness to kind of come up with new ideas. Obviously, financial is your willingness to take a financial risk. Social risk is, say, with acquaintances, so you go to a party or a networking event, your willingness to go out and speak to people, or, say, stand up in front of a crowd and talk.

Emotional risk would be for your more intimate relationships, so that may be like being willing to say the thing that needs to be said.

Physical risks, so maybe like it’s getting out, doing action sports. One of my executive students said, “I hated physical risks but then when I was kind of entering the executive ranks, my job was shifting from kind of tamping down risks and uncertainty, to actually having to take some uncertainty and risk, and so I knew I needed to get better at it but I didn’t know how. But I knew I really was scared of physical risks, so I said, ‘I’m going to take a kickboxing class, which is a super physical confrontational sport.’” So, he takes a kickboxing course, and he said, “It was fun, it was energizing, and it made me more comfortable taking other kinds of risks.” So, that would be physical.

And then I would maybe just add political, which is your willingness to stand up for change, speak up for change, whether that be in an organizational setting, or, say, in a citizenship setting. So, it’s financial, intellectual, social, emotional, physical, and political.

Nathan Furr
You could, of course, substitute something else, but, yeah, it’s up to you.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, consultants love their categorization systems and arguing over them, so I’ll just roll with yours.

Nathan Furr
So do academics. It turns out so do academics, so, yeah, just having those arguments.

Pete Mockaitis
So, let’s talk about some of the tools within the do category.

Nathan Furr
Yes. So, the do category is very interesting because it’s really one of the sections that draws most heavily on the research in the fields of innovation and entrepreneurship. And if I were to summarize it very briefly, it would be taking action is one of the best ways to resolve uncertainty. And one of the best ways to take action is to break the thing down into small steps and run a series of experiments.

And we see that over and over in the entrepreneurship literature, “How do you learn quickly under uncertainty?” So, for example, if you look at the research on startup accelerators, so startup accelerator, essentially, accepts in a class of entrepreneurs for three months and they coach them into, hopefully, a successful startup. So, what are the best practices of the best startup accelerators?

Well, let me pose it to you as a puzzle. Let me turn it over to you. How would you make a great startup accelerator? So, for example, you know that in the startup accelerator that you want your entrepreneurs to talk to people. So, should you force them to talk to as many people as fast as possible up front, like just drink out of the fire hydrant? Or, should you spread out those interactions with customers, mentors, investors, executives, over the space of the three months that they have time to absorb all that information?

And, oh, by the way, these startups, some of them might be doing slightly competitive things. So, should you allow the startups to keep what they’re doing secret or should you force them to talk to each other and present to each other? Oh, and then, finally, these startups are doing different things. And so, should you customize the schedule of who they talk to, like what they’re doing, “They should only talk to people who seem to be relevant to them”? Or, should you make them talk to people who maybe seem irrelevant to them? Those are some interesting puzzles, right? Well, what does the research suggest?

What it suggests, and I’m going to draw the parallel to everyone who’s listening about uncertainty, is it’s better actually to talk to as many people as fast as possible. In fact, the great startup accelerators sometimes make people talk to 100, 200 people in the first month. Why? Because the major trap that they fall into is what we call premature certainty, which is they settle on what they think is the right way to do it too early, and talking to all those folks as fast as possible shakes them out of that and makes them realize, “Oh, I could make progress but I kind of need to change it a little bit.”

Oh, and, by the way, it’s also good to make those folks who seem competitive talk to each other because, it turns out, they can share how they solve similar problems. So, if you and I were both publishing a book tomorrow, even though we might feel competitive, it’s better for us to share information with each other and learn from each other. Oh, and then, lastly, even though I might think I should only talk to people who are like me, it’s actually incredibly useful to not customize. In other words, talk to everybody because sometimes your most valuable insights come from a place you wouldn’t think it would come from.

And one of the funniest stories was an entrepreneur who was creating this kind of funding platform, really for social initiatives and even like churches, and on his schedule was like the worst thing he could imagine, it was the VP of marketing from Playboy, and he was like, “Oh, this is like everything I hate. I’m not going to talk to this person.” But they forced him to talk to this person, and it turns out, like one of his best conversations. The VP was like, “Yeah, I want to get out of here, too. I’m actually a churchgoer, too. Like, here’s what you could do,” and gave him all these ideas, and this entrepreneur walked out, saying, “This was the best meeting I’d had.”

And so, how do I translate that for you? When you’re under uncertainty, it’s like you’re in a landscape with fog, and your task is to blow away that fog. And what we learned from startup accelerators is, A, talk to as many people as you can; B, talk to people who you even think are your competitors because they will reveal new ways of doing things and how to solve familiar problems; and number three, talk to people who are actually kind of a little bit different. You may not think they have much to offer because they might have something to offer.

And one of my favorites of this is the woman who was the founder behind GoldieBlox. This is engineering toys for girls, and she was being nice to this guy at the restaurant who was her waiter and was kind of telling this waiter about engineering toys for girls, “Why would this waiter care?” And the waiter was like, “Oh, that’s really cool. You know what, my aunt is actually one of the editors at,” I think it was like The Atlantic or The New York Times or something, “and she would really love this. Let me introduce you to her.” So, that, to me, is, again, as we think about taking action, one of the many tools about kind of learning quickly through the unknown.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Now, many of these actions that we talked about are talking to people and/or running small experiments. Can you share with us, beyond talking to folks, what are some great actions that help us gather wisdom in a jiffy?

Nathan Furr
So, maybe I’ll go a little bit different direction and share something a little more counterintuitive. So, before I do that, I’ll say some of the other tools are things like a term we use called bricolage, which is make do with what you have. And one of my favorite interviews with the gentleman who was responsible for turning around the city of Melbourne in Australia from being one of the most decrepit downtown courses, really, like zombie apocalypse-looking to being one of the most livable cities in the world. In fact, voted that way seven years in a row, even though he was given no budget and, essentially, no resources. So, how do you turn around such a dire situation?

And one of the things he did is say, “Well, what do I have a lot of that nobody’s valuing because we have so much of it?” And Melbourne, just because how it was laid out in the gold rush, had all these little they call them laneways, they’re like little alleys that end in a dead end, and they’re usually used for parking during the day, trash and social problems at night.

And he said, “Well, we’ve got so many of these laneways. What if I just put a pile on there so cars can’t go in there and tell the restaurants that are nearby, ‘You can use this space, put up some lights, keep it clean, but you can double the square footage of your restaurant if you keep this space clean’?” And he tried it on one laneway first, and it worked. People kind of ended up staying around at night and the laneway became a place where people wanted to be. And, by the way, today, Melbourne’s laneways are one of its major tourist attractions. But he kept doing, like making do with very little.

For example, there was a big property collapse, and he saw that as an opportunity. He said, “Great. Now, all these buildings downtown, the space I’m trying to revitalize, have no value, so I’m going to go to one of the owners of one of these old kinds of Victorian buildings and I’m going to make him a proposition. Your building, essentially, has no value to you. Let me renovate it into a mixed-use space, so businesses on the bottom, residents up above.”

Well, the owner of the building had no other alternative, and so he said, “Okay.” And it worked. Like, people moved into the apartments, he paid it off in half the time he expected, and then he rolled and did that to the next apartment, and the next building, and the next building. At the start of Rob Adam’s tenure, he’s the gentleman who renovated Melbourne, there were 650 occupied apartments in downtown Melbourne, 650, that’s it. By the end of his tenure, I think there was over 40,000 occupied apartments in downtown Melbourne.

And so, the whole principle there was often we say, “I don’t have the resources I need to get started,” but it’s really about asking sometimes, “What can I do with what I have? Or, what do I have so much of that nobody is really, maybe not even I am, realizing that it’s valuable?” If that feels too common sense to you, do we have time for me to tell you about one of the other tools from do?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Nathan Furr
Yeah, okay. So, how do you set yourself up so you can’t fail? That’s an interesting one. You’re going into uncertainty. You don’t know what you’re going to face. Is it possible to set yourself up so you can’t fail? Well, one of the ideas that was really counterintuitive to me, at least, because I was raised on the dogma of goals, like, you set a goal and you go do it.

But, remember, I told you about David Heinemeier Hansson, he’s a real contrarian. I loved that he was like, “Listen, if you’re doing something new, something doesn’t happen because you set a goal. The goal is total bull crap. Under uncertainty, you really don’t have control over whether that’s going to happen or not. Sure, set a goal. Sure, work hard and all that, but whether the market accepts what you’re doing or not is really not in your control directly. So, instead, act upon your values rather than your goals because that’s what you have control over.”

So, for example, for him, his value is, “I want to write great software, I want to treat my employees well, and I want to act ethically with the marketplace,” and he’s very clear. He just launched his big email platform Hey.com. he’s like, “At the end of that two years, if it failed, if that was a success in the market or not, sure, I’d do the growth hacking, I’d do all that stuff, but, really, whether the market accepts it or not, it’s not truly in my control. So, if that fails, but I have lived true to my values then I’ll be happy. I wrote great software. I learned tons of stuff. I treated people well, and I was ethical. I feel good about it.”

It sounds really soft and fluffy but, again, personal experience. So, think of me, I’m an academic, I’ve been working on this for like a decade, nobody’s talking about uncertainty, a pandemic happens. Suddenly, every thought leader in the universe is grounded, has nowhere to go, and all they’re talking about was uncertainty. I was freaking out, I’m like, “I’m going to get totally scooped here.” And my co-author said to me, “Well, what’s your values? Operate on your values because the world needs lots of perspectives but go out there, act according to your values, write the very best thing you can possibly write, and that you have control over. You don’t have control over if guru X or guru Y comes out and says what you already said.”

My co-author said, “If you really do that, according to your values, then what you say will be different and unique and a contribution.” And she was absolutely right, and I felt much, much calmer in that uncertainty of somebody’s going to beat me to it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Thank you. And how about some sustain tools?

Nathan Furr
Yeah, sustain is a good one it’s really important because whether you choose uncertainty or uncertainty happens to you, it is going to make you anxious, nervous. There’s nothing wrong with you. That’s called being a human being. You’re wired to be that way, so you need to sustain yourself when there’s a setback.

So, we talked about a couple important ideas in there. One of them is known as emotional hygiene. So, it sounds sort of soft and fluffy but we forget that physical hygiene is a 20th century revolution. If you grew up before the 20th century, you would not know naturally that it made sense when you got a cut, you need to wash it up and keep it clean. And when we figured that stuff out that you’ve got to do physical hygiene for your body, it increased the life expectancy 50%.

And I think we’re in the midst of a similar revolution where we realize that our emotions are real, too, and we have an emotional body. The problem is that when many of us try something new, and then there’s a setback, which, by the way, was inevitable – it was going to be different than you expected – then we beat ourselves up, and that’s like the worst kind of sustaining. So, you’ve got to sustain yourself, you’ve got to treat yourself with kindness, and also there’s ways you can be rational about it.

So, I did an interview with Ben Faringa. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016. He won it for this idea called molecular machines. So, if you’ve read those sci-fi articles about little robots running around your blood, curing diseases and things, it would be based on his invention. So, I asked him, “On the way to this breakthrough of this fundamentally new discovery, did you face uncertainty?” And he like laughed at my face as if that was like the silliest question I could ask. He’s like, “Of course.” And I said, “So, how did you deal with it?” And he said, “Listen, if you deal with uncertainty, you will have setbacks, you will fail. You just have to get good at it.”

And he said, “Allow yourself to feel the frustration for a few days, and then ask yourself, ‘What can I learn from it?’” And it turns out that “What can I learn from it?” question is just one in a set of different ways to approach a setback, “What can I learn from it?” is one, another is to focus on what you still have rather than what you’ve lost. Maybe one of my other personal favorites came from a gentleman named Ben Gilmore, who is a paramedic in Australia but he also writes books and makes films. So, that’s a full-time job, paramedic, and, by the way, has a lot of uncertainty. You never know when you break down the door, what you’re going to find on the other side.

But I think the story he told me that really inspired me is he wanted his life to be interesting and adventurous, and he’d always dreamed of riding his motorcycle through the Khyber Pass. And so, he saves up his money, and he goes out there, and he’s got his motorcycle, and while he’s like staying in the hotel, his motorcycle gets impounded, and he’s like, “What do I do now?” And he says, “Well, I’m going to go on foot. I’m going to go anyway.”

So, he was walking on foot through the Khyber Pass, and he meets this family, they’re residents of the region and they’ve had this generational business of making weapons, so guns. But the son, he doesn’t want to grow up to be a weapons maker. He wants to go to school. He wants to be a poet but he doesn’t have the money to go to school. So, Ben Gilmore goes back, and he said, “I want to make a film about this family,” and he goes back and he makes a film about this family, called Son of a Lion, which is, by the way, featured in the Cannes Film Festival, and does generate the funds to allow their son to go to school and follow his dream of being a poet.

But Ben faced so many obstacles on this journey, including the motorcycle getting impounded, but he went on to make other films, and he had experiences like he’d be in country with the film crew, and the budget would get pulled, and everybody flies home except the lead actor, and they’d rewrote the script and filmed that, and that became Australia’s entry into the Oscars.

And I asked Ben, “How do you keep going through these obstacles when you face these setbacks?” And he said, “Listen, my father read to me as a boy every night growing up. I love stories. I love to hear them.” He said, “Everybody loves the hero but the only way to become the hero is to go through the obstacles.” So, that’s what I always remember.

So, anyway, again, just to summarize. Feeling anxiety, feeling frustration, having setbacks is totally normal. So, there’s a way you can actually frame them so that you respond differently. Ben Faringa, the guy who was the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, he gets frustrated but he says, “What can I learn from it?” Ben Gilmore, this kind of wild and interesting character says, “Hey, the only way to become the hero is to go through the obstacles,” so many ways to address that and sustain yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s beautiful. Thank you, Nathan. I remember when I was in the early stages of my business and times were lean. I remember thinking, ‘Hopefully, years from now, when I’m rolling in it, I’ll look back and say, ‘Ah, yes, that was the heroic struggle period.’”

Nathan Furr
So, what happened? Did you make it through?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I did make it through. Yes, I have sufficient revenue to provide for the family, so mission accomplished.

Nathan Furr
And you know what, yeah, and even when we don’t make it through. Listen, hey, I try to tell my kids because my kids see me, they’re like, “Oh, dad got a PhD at Stanford. Now, he’s a professor at one of the top five strategy schools, and blah, blah, blah.” And I tell them, “What? Are you kidding me? Like, I got rejected from every graduate school I applied to at one time,” and I tell them about all of my failures along the way.

And I think when you dig into people’s stories, what you really discover is that there’s actually a lot of failure and setback and self-doubt. It’s just incredible. We discovered some really moving and interesting stories of self-doubt of people who are very, very successful and just to normalize that. That’s part of the journey.

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

Nathan Furr
I think the one big takeaway I hope people have is that when they face uncertainty, whether it’s happened to them or they’ve chosen it, but something is going a little different than expected, is to ask the question, “How could this make me stronger? How could I turn this or flip this so that it can make me stronger?”

I think that’s a question I try to ask myself because, again, I get stuck, too, friends. I get stuck, too. But when I can do that, I actually wrote about it. We use this old term from the technology strategy literature called transilience, which is this kind of leaping from one state to another. And that, to me, is like the image, when like boiling water gets set free as steam in this moment of like you’re feeling stressed, you’re feeling anxious, and you say, “How do I turn this?” and you are able to see the possibility and be transilient, kind of leap to that state. That would be my hope. I think it’s a real powerful question to ask yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Nathan Furr
One of my favorite books in the world is by Henry Miller, it’s called The Colossus of Maroussi, and he said something really strange. He said, “Magic can never be destroyed.” Well, what do you mean magic? Come on, I’m an empiricist, I’m a rationalist, what do you mean magic?

But we actually wrote in the book about magic. And what we mean by that is those leaps of insight, those moments of connection, that serendipity that you just can’t quite explain, and we saw so many of those as well. And so, what I would encourage people to do is to make some room for that. Put yourself in positions where you could have that. You don’t know in advance. But if you don’t get out there, you don’t talk, you don’t try, you don’t talk to the waiter, you won’t have those magical moments.

But I like that magic can never be destroyed because it’s there. We don’t understand how everything in the universe works but things can happen at just the right time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Nathan Furr
So, one of my favorite studies or papers is called “Drop Your Tools.” It’s by a very famous organization theorist called Karl Weick. And what he looked at is the Mann Gulch fire disaster, which happened in Montana in 1949.

So, they established this program where smoke jumpers would jump out of the plane to where a big fire was and put it out. And it was a very successful program, and everything was going great when this fire starts in Mann Gulch in August, it’s really hot. And when the smoke jumpers land, they’re like, “Oh, we’ll put this fire out by 10:00 a.m. the next morning.” They’re so calm and assured, they stop and have dinner, and the fire is on one side of the ridge and kind of start heading downhill towards where there’s a river in the valley, so they have an escape route when the wind kicks up.

And this fire suddenly becomes really intense. It leaps the ridge and blocks their escape exits, so the trees by the river are on fire, and they start to run back up the hill. It’s this incredibly 70-degree slope. It’s incredibly steep and they’re racing and the fire is chasing them, 30-foot-high flames moving at this incredible speed. And the head of the fire crew does something that, today we understand, but that time didn’t make any sense. He said, “Drop your tools.” Now, they’d all been told, “Don’t ever drop your tools. That’s your lifeline,” and he said, “Drop your tools.” And he lights this escape fire, so he lights the grass around them on fire, and says, “Lay down here.”

Well, that didn’t make sense to them, so they kept running, and the foreman lies down the fire, covers himself up in a blanket, fire just rushes over him, and it goes on and it kills the rest of the team. And it became this moment, this kind of symbolic moment because it was this idea that we go around acting as if the world was stable and certain and makes lots of sense, when, in reality, it’s actually changing all the time. It’s very uncertain. It’s only these kinds of distinctive moments, like this fire crisis, where we really recognize it.

And what Karl Weick recommended coming out of that was that we need in life, and this is true on uncertainty, to adapt to what he calls an attitude of wisdom. What that means is you have just enough trust in yourself, in the idea, in your instinct that, “I should do something about this,” to take a step forward, and you doubt yourself just enough to listen to the voices that signal when it’s time to change course. Not every voice is the right voice but some of them signal that, “Yeah, you should change course when you hear that chorus enough times.”

And I think that’s a good metaphor for leaders under uncertainty because where leaders get themselves in trouble is they just doggedly pursue a path, try to plan their way to success and execute it, rather than what’s the attitude of wisdom in getting there.

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

Nathan Furr
So, one of the tools we wrote about is called finite versus infinite games. So, James Carse was a modern philosopher at NYU, and in his book, he argued there’s really two ways of looking at life. There’s the finite view, which is we look at the game of life as the goal is to win, and the rules, the roles, the boundaries are all fixed, but we’re trying to win, we’re trying to be the best.

And infinite players, what do they do instead? They look at, instead, the joy of playing the game and they view the roles and rules and boundaries as being flexible or we can play with that. And maybe my favorite example of that comes from the Tour de France, which is happening right now where I live. And a very famous race between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor. Jacque Anquetil was the favorite, he’d already won four Tour de Frances. Raymond Poulidor is kind of this…they call him the wholehearted son of the soil, and he didn’t really win much at all. In fact, he hadn’t won any races so far.

But there was this moment in this very rough, rugged terrain called The Puy de Dome. People described it like the teeth of a saw, just 10 kilometers of up and down. And instead of doing that thing where they draft behind each other, they raced neck and neck, shoulders, literally, like smash into each other, neither of them wanting to give an inch to the other one for 10 kilometers. And, finally, at the end, Pullidor, the wholehearted son of the soil, pulls ahead, and he wins that leg but he loses the race.

In fact, he races 14 times and he never wins, but everybody loved Pullidor. In fact, no racer was more beloved than Pullidor, and people tried to figure it out, they wrote dissertations about it, but I think the best way to summarize it is he was an infinite player. And at the end of his career, he reflected, somebody had said to him, “Raymond, you always had your head in the clouds. You didn’t take it seriously enough.”

And he said, “Maybe I didn’t because I never got up in the morning thinking, ‘How do I win?’ I’ve always thought, ‘This is so fun that I get to race. I can’t wait to race. How do I have fun racing?’” And so, for me, the tool I use is when I approach a situation that’s hard, and I have hard things, things I don’t want to do, tough things. I say, “What’s the infinite game I can play here? How could I play a little bit with the goal, with the rules, with the roles, with the boundaries?” That makes me curious.

Yeah, sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t, but I’d say I have a much more interesting career than I might have because I’ve tried to play that infinite game.

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

Nathan Furr
Well, we wanted to make the tools in the book The Upside of Uncertainty available to everybody, so we made a website called UncertaintyPossibility.com. So, remember my thesis, uncertainty and possibility are two sides of the same coin. So, you just type that out, dot com. And we actually described all the tools there so that they’re available and accessible.

Of course, I’d be super grateful if people went and bought the book or left a review, like on Amazon or something like that, because it is tough as an author getting the word out there. Writing a book is a little bit like a tree falling in the forest for nobody to hear unless people take action. So, thank you, though, for asking.

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

Nathan Furr
Well, I would say this, there is no doubt that we live in a world of increasing uncertainty, and I think if you can develop that ability early on, you’re going to have a huge leg up. And we talked about reframing at the beginning. Reframe any challenge in terms of the possibility. Even when we looked at empirical studies of a company facing disruption, the ones that succeed are the ones who, instead of focusing on the loss or the threat, they’re the ones who focused on the possibility.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Nathan, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you much fun and adventure and possibility.

Nathan Furr
Yeah, thank you so much. It was fun.