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Each week, I grill thought-leaders and results-getters to discover specific, actionable insights that boost work performance.

774: How to Make Yourself Promotable with Amii Barnard-Bahn

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Amii Barnard-Bahn shows you how to assess your unique strengths and opportunities to advance your career with her Promotability Index.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The five elements of the promotability index 
  2. The 4 steps to developing strategic thinking
  3. The one question to get the feedback that you need

About Amii

Amii is a former Fortune Global 50 executive and a current C-Suite consultant to global companies like Bank of the West, Adobe and The Gap. She’s been recognized by Forbes as one of the top coaches for legal and compliance executives. Amii also contributes to the Harvard Business Review, guest lectures at Stanford and UC Berkeley, and is a Fellow at the Harvard Institute of Coaching. She speaks regularly on workplace culture, leadership effectiveness and corporate governance. She is the creator of The Promotability Index® and author of the companion PI Guidebook. 

Amii earned her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center and her BA from Tufts. Amii is a lifelong diversity advocate who  testified for the successful passage of first laws in the U.S. requiring corporate boards to include women. 

Resources Mentioned

Amii Barnard-Bahn Interview Transcript

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

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Thank you. Thanks for inviting me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about the promotability index but, first, I think we need to hear about your passion for opera.

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Yeah, I love it and it’s been something I’ve missed quite a bit, as you can imagine, over the last two years, and I think it’s kind of like heavy metal for grownups. So, I describe it for people who haven’t maybe been exposed. It’s a little bit of symphony. It’s a little bit of ballet. There’s a lot of singing. It’s costumes. It’s crazy plots and drama. It’s got a little bit of everything, and it’s usually over the top and has remarkable history for some of the older pieces but there’s a lot of new works that are being done. I’m on a board that specifically does a lot of really challenging, interesting cool stuff in really unusual locations. So, it’s bringing opera to the masses, so that’s been fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, fun. And I’ve always wondered, when it comes to opera, when they’re in other languages, you still love it? Or how does that work for you?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Two ways. One is supertitles has changed everything. They came in in the ‘80s. and so, I was just talking to a friend of mine who works at the San Francisco Opera, I stayed with him this weekend, and he reminded me that when supertitles, which were fought vociferously by all true artists, or in the early days, and then fought equally by people who said, “No, people don’t understand what they’re saying. This is impacting the performance. We need to make this accessible.”

Supertitles won out at least in the United States, and it changed everything for the performers. People started laughing at jokes. People started crying when people died. It was an entirely…the singers were just blown away because they’ve been used to performing and then polite clapping at the end. So, it was remarkable in that sense.

Some small houses may not always be able to afford them all over the world, so that’s where I keep the caveat. Sometimes I’ve gone to the opera, or some opera houses who are purists, they don’t believe in them. And, for me, that’s almost like going to a foreign film and kind of checking one part of my brain out for a little while, and watching visually and just enjoying and figuring out what’s happening without words, and understanding you don’t actually always need words to know what’s going on.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now let’s talk about the promotability index. You are the creator. Tell us, what is it, who should use it, and how does it make things better?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Well, one of the healthiest things I think anybody can do for their career is to work on what’s under your control. And so, I created the promotability index based on all of my work as a former Fortune Global 50 executive, chief human resources executive, and attorney, and personally just kind of worked my way up to the top, and saw how people got promoted or fired or stuck or let go, and reverse-engineered it into five key elements, which I’m happy to talk about.

And so, I created an assessment first, which anybody can take, and I made it free on my website. Accessibility to moving up the ladder is one of my values, and it’s an 82-question assessment that can let you know how you’re doing on the five key elements. And then the five key elements are things that decision-makers use when they look at promoting or elevating people to higher levels in the company, or who they’re going to invest in as potential leaders.

And so, in my experience, the five key elements are self-awareness, external awareness, strategic thinking, executive presence, and thought leadership.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m excited to dig into each of these five. Maybe to start though, could you share is there a particular finding in your work and putting this together that has been particularly surprising to folks in terms of, “Huh, so that’s a big deal, eh?”

Amii Barnard-Bahn
I think people underestimate external awareness the most. I wrote a Harvard Business Review article on it, titled “Promotions Are Not Just About Your Credentials — They’re About Your Relationships,” because there comes a point in time in everyone’s career where their credentials, to a certain extent, become irrelevant, and I don’t think we’re told that very early on, certainly not when we’re paying grad student loans, potentially.

And it’s really a ticket to the game and it becomes about, “Can you work with people? Do they want to work with you?” You may ace your job but in terms of getting to the C suite, it’s going to depend on the mix of people, whether they trust and like and know you. And that can come as a real shock to some people around mid-career, and that’s often where people get stuck.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, yeah, I want to hear about this. Okay. So, can you share with us an example of someone who worked through some of the pieces of the promotability index and saw some really cool results from doing so?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Sure. Well, we know that promotions aren’t always fair or rational. I’m sure you can think of a couple of examples in your own life and anyone on the call. And so, of course, you need to be good at what you do but it’s relationships and working with other people that are going to get you that promotion. So, one client that I had about a year ago was an absolute rock star in terms of their performance in sales, and they were the number one salesperson of the year, which is a pretty objective criteria, selling stuff. You can measure that. Some jobs are harder to measure in terms of what you accomplish and your goals but sales are pretty straightforward.

This person was not getting promoted and they had been there several years, and was getting very frustrated at this. And then after working together for about six months in coaching, part of what I found out was that, two levels up, my client was being blocked for promotion because of a perception that he was a lone wolf and that he needed to be the star.

And so, all of his hard work that he was always putting in every day, day after day just going out there getting the client, hitting the numbers, but that actually was getting to a point where it was working against him because he wasn’t demonstrating in terms of external awareness. People were not seeing the other side of him, that he was a good mentor, that he cared about people, that he could lead a team, that he could achieve through others.

So, once I found out that that was the perception of him, we started working on those things, and he showed up very, very differently. And it wasn’t easy for him because he’d worked really hard to get where he’d gotten. To quote Marshall here, “What got you here won’t get you there.” So, the same behaviors that made him fairly successful as an independent contributor were holding him back from moving forward.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And I’m curious then, how does one get that gem of insight that, “Hey, a couple of levels above you, this is the perception of you”? I mean, did you just sort of go ask around? And what do you recommend for individuals who don’t have a coach to do that work for them?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
That’s a great question because I think he would’ve left. He’s very close to leaving and he was a superstar so that would’ve been a loss for the company. Three-sixty reviews are what they’re commonly called and it is going and asking around, is the casual way to put it. It’s confidential and coaches, or your internal HR department, may do it, and you get perceptions and themes together, and that is how I found that out for him, or he would not have known.

People don’t, unfortunately, feel comfortable giving people the feedback they need to improve most of the time. It’s very easy to say, “Oh, you did a great job, Pete, on that. That was awesome,” but it’s harder if it’s like, “Well, Pete, can I talk to you for a minute about how that meeting went? Got some feedback for you. You may or may not be open to that.”

If they may not want an argument, they may not have the time, they may fear conflict, they may not be very talented at giving feedback in a way that others can hear it. They may be too blunt. You may not trust them even if it’s true. There are so many things that can go wrong with feedback. So, having a trained coach or HR person can be great.

But I’ll tell you my number one tip if you don’t have a coach that you can get feedback that can help you if you think you’re stuck or if you just want to get better at your job. My number one tip is to ask your boss and/or a couple of other colleagues that are close to you that you trust, that will be direct with you, especially people that will be direct. Ask them, “What’s one thing I can do to be more effective in my job?” and just wait. The trick is to stay silent and not to say anything.

And 99% of the time, people will say, “Well, thank you for asking. Let me think for a minute.” They’ll say, “Well, one thing could be this.” You’re being very specific and you’re not asking them for the moon. That’s where people get in trouble, is they say, “Hey, how can I be better?” It’s too vague. So, if you’re really, really specific, usually people will pick one thing.

It might be a little thing, like, “In that meeting, you could’ve talked louder. I couldn’t hear you sometimes,” or, “You seem to not like X person and it’s stressful for the rest of us in the meeting. we don’t even know if it’s true that you don’t, but I don’t know if you’re aware, but you act a certain way with this,” and that can be helpful feedback.

The trick is not to get defensive, to thank the person for the feedback so that you can get it again, and then to act on it and circle back ideally, and say, “Hey, thanks so much for that feedback. I’ve been working on it, and I’d love to know if you’ve noticed. So, if you could catch me doing good, that’s great. If you catch me slipping back, privately tell me. That could really help me. I’d appreciate it.” So, that’s a great example if you’re a leader for your direct reports.

When my leaders have started doing this, it’s opened up more of a speak-up atmosphere where people feel more comfortable being vulnerable and getting better together. It could be a real bonding experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. That brings back memories at Bain. I remember we all had our professional development plans, and I go, “Hey, here’s what I’m working on, dah, dah, dah,” and I shared that with them. And then the manager said, “Okay, cool. And here’s what I’m working on,” and it was like, “What? This is eye-opening. Okay, cool. Thank you.” And it really does, it sets that vibe in a real positive way.

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so then can you tell us the genesis of the promotability index? And when I hear the word index, I started thinking about research and validity. Do you have any of that stuff to share as well?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
I wanted to engage the creative and the positive side of development. Having been forced to you, there’s many, many types of instruments as an HR person and an employee, I found that most of them sucked all the joy out of career development, which should be an exciting thing, “What do I want to create? Who do I want to be? What do I want to learn?”

Think of yourself as a five-year-old kid and getting excited about learning new skills, and, “Okay, I’m not so good at this but that’s okay. I’m not going to hang my entire ego on that. I’m going to work on this kind of thing.” So, I did not make it a psychometric Harvard-validated assessment because I think there are plenty out there and I use those in my practice.

I wanted something that was easy for anybody to use and that, simultaneously, simply by considering or contemplating the question, raise the consciousness of people reading it, that, “Oh, that’s something that should be on my radar.” That’s something that people grade you on even if they’re not telling you that.

A lot of promotions, and having been in the room where it happens, it’s not obvious always who and what, who gets promoted and why. And so, I wanted to create greater access. I wanted to create a language that managers who otherwise might have difficulty actually pinpointing what it is that’s holding the person back. Sometimes managers just don’t…they know it when they see it but they don’t know how to articulate it. And so, I wanted to help with that as well.

Pete Mockaitis
I find that’s often true when I’m looking at writing, it’s like, “This is good. This is bad. But why?” And I’d really have to think for a while, and say, “Oh, okay. Okay. Structure, elements of style. These sentences are just kind of too long. They don’t need to be like that. Just kind of clunky and less clear,” or, “We’re using some vague language. I’d like to make that a little bit more real in terms of…” or, “That’s not interesting or exciting. I don’t think anyone cares about that thing. We need to hook it into what people are really after, what they value.”

But you’re right, it takes a lot of time sometimes for me to articulate why is something good or bad, or why is someone promotable or not promotable. And I got a kick out of doing it, the five categories, and then up to 82-sort of yes or no responses. It’s like, “Oh, maybe I don’t actually read news associated with my industry all that regularly. Huh, how about that?”

I mean, I learn a lot of stuff from a lot of people but it’s somewhat rare that I pull out the Association of Talent Development’s report on such and such, and that’d probably be a good thing to do, and we’re free to be promoted. Although, I guess if I’m the owner, promotion more so looks like my listeners and customers say, “This guy is super awesome. We should pay him more or hire more, refer more,” or whatever.

Amii Barnard-Bahn
It’s written around Fortune 500 companies since that’s where I’ve cut my teeth, and I’ve heard in my pilot testing and thousands of people have taken it now, even independent contractors or people who don’t manage others, that’s another thing that’s assumed in there. Just ignore those questions. My whole point is don’t get caught up in the score, and that’s why I made it 82 and not 100.

I didn’t want our little weird brains from college to be like, “Is that an A? Is that a letter B?” Like, no, no, no. I did a little scoring just to hijack the part of ourselves that is competitive with ourselves, but the whole idea is to be competitive with yourself. And the guidebook, the companion guidebook to the assessment, which I only wrote after clients asked me to, they said, “This is great. Now what? What else do you have?”

And I said, “What do you mean? Just work on the stuff that you didn’t check, whatever. Move towards what brings you joy, like what’s exciting to you that you didn’t check, that you’re like, ‘Oh, maybe I should be doing others. Maybe I should speak at my professional association events. Maybe I have something to say or write about.’” And some people wanted a book, so I wrote the book and that’s been out now for exactly one year, and that’s been fun and that’s generated a number of conversations, and given a lot of companies and groups that have adopted it a common language for this.

The ideal way to do it, I think, because in the performance review process can be really painful because most of it is a backward look. Most of it is, “Do you get a raise? Am I getting a promotion? How much money are you giving me? And what did you think of the work that I did?” Well, that’s all backwards. This is all intended to be, again, the creative look forward around, “Who do I want to be? Where do I wish I was better? What jobs are exciting to me now?” I believe in a growth mindset and that we can continually be learning, and continually are changing in terms of what our priorities, desires, needs might be.

And so, this is designed to kind of be a choose your own adventure kind of a book with your managers as a powerful way to do it because you can sit down and say, “Hey, these are the five things I think I could work on.” They might say, “Actually, I think you’re really good at that.” That’s happened too. There’d been some amazing conversations I had.

A colleague who adapted her case study is on my website, for her credit union, and the young woman had taken it, and said, “I don’t want to get promoted.” And about a third of the people that have taken it so far don’t want to be promoted, which is another great thing to know because then you just need to say, “Okay, how do I give them lateral assignments? How do I keep them engaged?” As a manager, it’s really helpful to know that, as opposed to people who do want to get promoted and might leave if they don’t feel like they’re moving forward. Different needs, different people.

And this young woman came back a week later, and said, “You know, I thought about it and I decided, after taking the promotability index, that I never thought about it before. I’m the first one in my family to go to college, like I just already felt like I’ve made it. I’m so lucky to have this job. But if you think I can do better, I’d be interested.” And they got into this wonderful, beautiful conversation, and I said, “Yeah, we’d completely support you. You need to do this. You need to work on this. And let’s do it together. Let’s take off and bite off a chunk every year.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Beautiful. All right. Well, let’s cover a big more depth here, the five elements. And could you give us perhaps a definition and maybe a top tip for boosting it? So, let’s roll through them.

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Yeah, okay. Well, so for self-awareness, it’s around knowing your why, knowing your how, knowing your what, really why you do what you do, how you show up, and what makes you special in terms of what you bring to the party in the organization. And so, it means knowing your values, motivators, and preferences would be a more technical way to describe it.

Usually, when a tip I would give you for self-awareness is if you’re unhappy or unsettled in your work, it’s often because your values are being challenged or are under stress. Now, big picture, that could mean a mismatch with the organization. Smaller picture, it could mean a conversation you had recently, a decision that’s been made by the company that you don’t agree with, but it’s helpful to know your values and think about it, in that way you can say, “Oh, okay, this is why I’m feeling the way I do,” and that’s just helpful because you may have the power to change it. You may realize it’s a really big deal, and it actually is a deal-breaker for you, and you might need to make some changes. So, that’s one on self-awareness, Pete, that I would share.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, any perspectives on the finest ways to zero in on what’s one’s core values are?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Well, I use deep assessments that get to it really quickly. If you don’t have that, I would think about what brings you joy, what brings you pain, how do you make your decisions. There are plenty of lists actually on the internet around these things, which is about 33. StrengthFinders is a very common one that’s used by some companies. It can be very helpful, and I believe they have a free version where you can get your top 10, and that can be a really good start.

Pete Mockaitis
And tell us, if we do have the access or the budget, what are the deep assessments you love?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
The one that I like best is the Hogan assessment, and it’s work-related and it’s been around for a very, very long time, and we leverage it in coaching to, let’s say, there’s something we find that your boss is saying, “You need to work on this,” and it’s not something that you’re really that motivated to do, like public speaking. Let’s say, he says, “I want you to present the next board report,” and that’s just something you’d rather kill yourself than do that.

We would look at your motivators, and, for example, let’s say you had a motivator for great performance and you’re a high achiever, we’d say, “Okay, Pete, I know you don’t like this but this is something that you need to do to achieve high performance. Your boss just basically said that. Let’s leverage your value there, high performance, that you’re high performing, high achieving, and then we’ll figure out how we’re going to get there.” But that would be your motivator to get around “I don’t want to.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, how about executive presence?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Executive presence has been thrown around a lot and I love a definition by Coqual that they created based on a study actually that divides executive presence up into three elements. The first element is gravitas, which is grace under pressure is one way of defining that. The second is presentation skills and communication. And the third is appearance. And they found that 70% of executive presence could be attributed to gravitas, meaning that you have some backbone, you take a stand when you need to, you’re calm in an emergency, people come to you for guidance and advice.

For presentation and communication skills, that was about 20%. So, being able to present well, to speak well, and enunciate, good eye contact, all those good things, no quirks or tics when you’re presenting, that kind of thing, ideally getting rid of those depending on your abilities. And then the last being appearance.

Appearances surprises people at being only 10%, and I would say appearance has a dwindling impact. I think when you first meet someone, appearance can be very impactful. It can either make or break a first impression. But as we know, appearances can also be deceiving. And so, over time, it fades, and I think gravitas and presentation skills and communication come to the forefront much more so.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a favorite approach to improving one’s gravitas?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Well, we find out the triggers that are preventing people from staying calm and centered in the times that they need them to be. There’s usually a pattern, and so we keep an acknowledgement journal of what’s happened over the prior week or two weeks, what’s triggering it. Is it a person? Is it an issue?  There’s usually circumstances or things that are happening around that time that are making you stress that then trigger you to act a certain way, which could be withdrawal, could be aggression, could be a number of reactions, could be caving when you really need to be taking a stand, things that may not serve you in the long run as a leader, depending on what the situation is.

So, once we figure out what the triggers are and you’re aware of them, then you can start making an active choice to choose differently and to choose what you know is the right thing to do, and it just takes practice.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I’m thinking about gravitas. If someone, so caving or freaking out, could you maybe give us a demonstration of a high gravitas and low gravitas response to, let’s say, that I am requesting budget for an important initiative, and they told me no, and I want it bad and it’s genuinely important, and I’m going to take a stand for it? So, low gravitas, that sounds like you’re craving, like, “Oh, okay,” or flipping out, like, “This is ridiculous. What are you thinking?” So, what would be a high gravitas response?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
You have your facts together because you already have your business case to begin with to make the request but you would say, “I appreciate costs are at an all-time high. I appreciate that we’re looking at everything. I’d like to reiterate that the reason for this request is X, and the benefits to the organization are Y. And it’s very important, because if we don’t do this, then the costs will be Z, and we’ll be actually paying more next year for the same thing if we don’t make that choice now.”

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

Amii Barnard-Bahn
That would be an example. You stay in your rational brain. You’ve done your homework, I’m assuming that already, which wasn’t in this hypo, and you go back to your facts and, especially for a cost, an ask of a cost for money or raise. I have some videos on this. It’s very important how you ask, and you need to have your ducks in a row, and you need to have your data. You need to have thought it through and you need to have thought it through from the perspective of the person that you’re asking if you want the highest likelihood of getting a yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, then the thinking then is, in terms of promotability, that sort of persistence is not an annoyance; that would be a knock on promotability, like, “Oh, Amii is just not a team player. She just won’t let it go,” but rather it is a pro in terms of, “Hmm, Amii has really got this gravitas.”

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Right. And you just don’t make it a no, but you just hit on exactly you want to be thinking about what feeling…I always tell people this. For critical conversation, start with, the meeting is over, you’re walking out of the room, what do people think of you, what perception are you leaving behind because that’s what’s critical as a leader and will determine your future success as much as anything. And there’s a perception as, “Ugh, what a hothead!” or, “Oh, they don’t understand how this business works. They have no idea how we are just losing money hand-over-fist right now. Have they heard of the war? Have they heard of COVID?”

There are so many things that can go on in the room after you leave. You want them to say, “Okay. Well, that was a well-measured request. They did their research. They understand the financial situation and the crunch that we’re in. I’ll give them some snaps because they still went for it even though we said no, and they handled it with grace, and I won’t mind having that conversation with them the next time.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now let’s hear about the next area – strategic thinking.

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Strategic thinking is an interesting one because I found, through my career, that it’s the hardest one to get without getting experience. It’s like when I first tried to get my first retail job, and they said, “Well, you’d have to have experience in retail,” and I was like, “But no one will give me that first job.” Strategic thinking is the same way. You need to have a certain amount of responsibility before an access to all the pieces of the puzzle in the business, to be able to think strategically, to understand how if you take this piece out, how that affects these other pieces, almost like a puzzle.

So, what I advise people for promotability is to, what’s really critical and what I’ve seen, is you need to be able to demonstrate to decision-makers that you are a strategic thinker. And the ways that you do that are visibly asking questions that are smart but not obnoxious questions. No one wants a show-off. But show that you’ve done your research.

There’s a way to ask a question, and there’s a way to ask a question that demonstrates that you’ve been thinking, that you’ve been reading up on your industry, that you have been maybe talking to others in your field, and that you know what is important and kind what’s hot now. That’s why I always advise people, as well as it gets into thought leadership, or some of the other ones, but thought leadership can help you with strategic thinking.

And I don’t know if you want to jump to that one, too, but strategic thinking, some people ask questions and they’re face-palm questions in a room. We used to all be in a room together, and they’d ask a question that, just by asking the question on its own, you could tell they’ve not done their research.

Pete Mockaitis
“Why don’t we just go viral?”

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you give us some examples?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Yeah, that they haven’t been talking to their peers, that they only care about their little silo, that they’re asking for X, and it’s clear it’s going to affect IT or HR or supply chain, and they didn’t have the meeting before the meeting to say, “Hey, is this cool with you? I’m going to propose this. I know this impacts you guys. Do you have the resources to help us? Or, what are you seeing? Is this a good idea? This is what we’d like to do in marketing. We’d like to market this. Is this okay? Have you checked it with legal before bringing it to the board?” That’s a classic one for like a new drug or clinical trial stuff, that kind of thing in some of the bio firms that I worked with.

So, checking in and demonstrating that you have seen the whole system, you’ve talked to the system, or you’re aware of the system and anything that could go sideways or impact it or that needs to be considered before you make a proposal or make a comment, question a colleague. That can make or break also not only how you’re viewed as a strategic thinker but relationships, which overly everything that you and I have been talking about today.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, then I guess if you’re just getting started with strategic thinking, what do you recommend as some of the first steps? Like, “I don’t even know what I don’t know. Like, it would not have occurred to me…”

Amii Barnard-Bahn
And that is where everybody starts.

Pete Mockaitis
“It would not have occurred to me to ask about the legal stuff.” And so, I don’t know, is there like a book, like Strategy 101, or just sort of like a process, like, “Okay, here’s the org chart, let’s think about finance, let’s think about marketing, let’s think about legal”? Or, how do you recommend we get started?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
There are books. There are ten million books on every business topic out there. But in terms of just how to start in a grassroots way, number one, just know how you make your money, how your business makes you money. Number two, understand how your function fits into that greater whole so that you know what piece of that makes the engine run. Third, read up on your industry. Fourth, join professional associations, get involved, educate yourself, steep yourself in the issues of the day for your business, for your organization.

Be ahead of the curve in terms of what’s coming down. Many businesses are being impacted by AI. If yours is one of them, you should know that and you should know whether that’s a positive or negative, and what chain reaction that’s expected to have five, ten years from now. Talk to your boss, find out what they read, how do they stay up to date.

Reach your 10-K if you’re a publicly traded company. 10-Ks have amazing information in there. If you’re required to disclose to the SEC in terms of the litigation that is pending, in terms of any other disclosures that are required, super helpful. Before I joined a company, that was always proud of my due diligence and I’m amazed at employees and execs that don’t necessarily always do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Or listen to the earnings calls if they’re publicly traded.

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Right. Oh, yeah, amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
Sometimes, even when I’m an investor, sometimes there is a unique level of boredom that I’d get from listening to earnings calls, and I think maybe it’s because that’s just the medium in terms of it’s not flashy TED Talks.

Amii Barnard-Bahn
They try. I think that they’re quite dry, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Nonetheless, dry but informative, like, “Okay, this is what’s really on the CEO’s mind and the CFO’s mind, and the stuff that they’re worried about, and that the investors are caring about, so now you know.” All right. And so, then we talked a bit about the external awareness. Anything else you want to add there?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Gosh, the question I gave earlier is a good one for external awareness, that “What one thing could I do that would make me more effective in my job?” Because when you’re asking someone else that, then you’re getting their perception of what would make you more effective at your job. You may not agree. You may think, “That’s a terrible idea,” but you don’t show it. There’s your opportunity to show gravitas and executive presence, and you say, “Thank you.”

And at least you know that that’s the perception they have of you. You may get some really great information from that, Pete. You might get information like, “Oh, my gosh, they think my job is this, but it’s really this. I need to step it up. And how am I going to do that? What data do I give to them? Where could they have gotten that impression? How often do I see them? Do I have enough time with them? Was it just one event? Did they hear it from someone else?”

The advantage to a lot of this is if you understand perceptions and, as one of my heroes, Carla Harris, says, “Perception is the co-pilot to reality.” If you know perception, you have an opportunity to change it. If you don’t know, it’s sitting out there as a potential blind spot, and those could be landmines that can kill your career over the long term if there are enough of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Let’s hear about thought leadership now.

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Thought leadership is usually the last. If I had to put them in order, they’re overlapping and they’re each of the five key elements. But I would say that when people are the most senior in their careers is when they have, number one, the most to say, that’s particularly unique and interesting, and they have a little bit more time and more pressure to be unique, especially if they want to, say, go to a corporate board, do a lot of work with corporate boards and board governance. And often, after you finish an executive career, a great way to leverage your expertise is to serve on corporate boards after there’s no conflict of interests potentially for your industry.

So, thought leadership, you can start with baby steps. So, you can start again by being involved in your associations, your organizations. They always need content, Pete, so writing for a journal, I’ve got five of them back here that I write for on various legal and compliance and ethics and HR spheres. You can speak, they always need free content and speakers. You make great relationships that way, which are beneficial in terms of having a powerful network on so many levels. You can gain a mentor, you can gain a sponsor, you might find your next job, you might just find a great friend that loves what you do. So, thought leadership is around being known for your expertise both inside and outside your organization.

Some organizations are restrictive and conservative with how much they will let you share outside the organizations. If you’re in one of them, and those tend to be highly regulated organizations, like healthcare, pharma companies, things like that, then look for opportunities inside to lead a project that’s maybe outside your area, or to write for the intranet, or to be part of a white paper project on a potential initiative that’s being proposed. Those are ways.

But outside, if you don’t have a lot of restrictions, there are so much you can do. As you know, it’s never been easier to publish content. It costs nothing. You publish for free on the internet. And many, many people have become famous and known for that, and that increases your promotability because others know of you. You build an audience. You build a following. More information comes to you. It’s a generous terrarium, basically, that you’re creating of information. If you’re giving, inevitably you’re also getting. That’s what I found with contributing to organizations like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great. And we had a podcast guest, Kirstin Berndt, who, she was in a completely different industry but she had a passion for airline baggage, which is a unique passion. And she just started a blog and I don’t think there were very many on the subject. And so, sure enough, she’s like, “Hey, here’s the latest lost baggage statistics from the airlines. This airline has really made some improvements probably based on their initiatives with X, Y, Z, dah, dah, dah.”

And so, sure enough, that made her very distinctive when the opportunity finally arose for her to interview for such a role, they’re like, “Okay. Well, nobody has this. Okay, yeah, you got the job.” So, it’s powerful.

Amii Barnard-Bahn
That’s great. That’s a great story.

Pete Mockaitis
Even for more junior levels. Okay. Cool. Well, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Just that I think everyone has the potential, if they’re willing to put in the work, to learn a new role, to get better at their existing role, to move ahead, and I hope that the promotability index has, in some small way, helped that, and there are a lot of other great resources out there as well. Not everyone has a mentor. Not everyone has a coach. Not everyone has a great boss or someone that’s helped them along the way.

And so, I would just encourage people to go for it regardless and to never assume that simply because you don’t have a strong start, that you can’t get there. We can think of many, many amazing entrepreneurs and successful people out there who have done it with nothing. And so, I would just want to be really positive and optimistic for all of your listeners out there.

Pete Mockaitis
And not to squash positivity and your optimism, but this does trigger something. If we’re in an environment where it seems like our manager is toxic or severely dislikes us, or the forces of meritocracy aren’t really operational, and that might be perception, that might be reality as their co-pilots, what do you recommend then? It’s like, “Hey, I’m doing the work. I’m making progress. No one seems to care or notice,” how do you think about when it’s time to exit versus persevere?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
I think that’s a great question and I’ve talked about it on several shows as well recently with the Great Resignation, and I think that’s when you decide whether you have the talk. And the talk, to me, depends on how financially comfortable you are with either taking a big risk or what your savings looks like. But having the talk is going to your manager and saying, or your leader and saying, “Hey, I’d really like this promotion. What are the chances? Or, what do I need to do? This is what I’ve been doing. I feel like I’m in sync but I’m still not there yet. What would the timeline be?”

And if they can’t really give you a committed answer, then you have to decide whether it’s time to leave. Now, sometimes people may say, “Okay, I don’t have quite so much money in the bank so I’m going to eat crow for a year, and I’m going to job search while I’m doing this.” Right now, over the past year at least, I don’t know if the window is closing a bit with return to work, but there has been an unprecedented opportunity to have those conversations and to negotiate with the powers that be around what the timeline looks like, what the job looks like.

If you love half your job and you don’t love the other half, can you trade? Can you morph it? There’s been a lot of great conversations that have been going on over the past year, I would say.

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

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Sure. My favorite quote would be from Peter Drucker, which is, “You should not change yourself but create yourself.” That means build around your strengths and remove your bad habits.

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

Amii Barnard-Bahn
One recently, I’m always getting caught up in stuff that I then enjoy writing about, and one that I’ve been focused on lately is a study that we don’t like people who deliver bad news. We all know it as just “Shoot the messenger” implicitly. But for someone like me who works in corporate governance, corporate ethics, healthy workplace cultures, the implications of that are pretty severe.

And so, I’m fascinated how to reverse-engineer delivering bad news so to equip people who frequently have to deliver it so that they can be heard, that better decisions can be made so that people aren’t afraid of speaking up because, unfortunately, the universe is rife with situations and huge costs when people don’t speak up when they need to, when they know something important. And so, I’d like to try to help change that dynamic.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
The two that I’m sticking with right now are, one called BS Leadership by my friend and colleague and Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, which is just fascinating. I wished I had read it 20 years ago. And my fiction, I’m reading my favorite, one I think is by the greatest living author, Joyce Carol Oates, it’s The Accursed, based in Princeton at the turn of the 19th century.

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

Amii Barnard-Bahn
I dictate constantly both on my Mac and on my iPhone, and I have probably a thousand draft emails right now sitting in my computer. They’re snippets of ideas, ideas for articles, conversations, things I need to do, prep for you, for your podcast, prep for clients next week, or a really cool article I read that I want to share. I love that. And then in terms of literally a tool-tool, I use ClickUp with my assistant and my team to manage all the different projects and things that we have going on all the time in the cloud, so that’s been super helpful. That’s been a game changer.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say dictation, is there a software you’re using?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
No, it’s literally Apple. I’m just pushing the button on the Mac. It’s the control button. You hit it twice, it starts typing out everything you say.

Pete Mockaitis
And is that sufficiently accurate?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Enough. I go back and I have to watch sometimes. I can’t speak too fast. It’s forced me to slow down a little. I can talk really fast, so it’s punished me for that. So, I’ve had to slow down and be like, “Okay, I’m dictating now. I need to speak more slowly so it gets handled correctly.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Let’s see. Work or life?

Pete Mockaitis
Work.

Amii Barnard-Bahn
For work, I would say, at the end of each day, writing down my intention for the following morning, and then closing my door and having the ritual of being finished with work.

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

Amii Barnard-Bahn
The one that we talked about already a little bit was that at a certain point your credentials are irrelevant, and that it’s all about your relationships. That’s been a gamechanger for a lot of people. And then the other one that I’ll tell people that I think is important to keep in mind is that every job is temporary. And that if you think about it that way, you’ll think about your career. It really opens up a different way of thinking, I think, about what you’re doing day to day and what you want to be doing and where you want to be getting better and where you want to be focusing your precious attention.

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

Amii Barnard-Bahn
They are welcome to find me on my website, which is BarnardBahn.com. And also, to connect with me on LinkedIn, and I’m on Twitter @amiibb.

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

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Yeah, I’d say get really good at receiving, giving, and acting on feedback.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Amii, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun.

Amii Barnard-Bahn
Thank you. You, too, Pete.

773: How to Amplify Your Message Through Powerful Framing and Storytelling with Rene Rodriguez

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Rene Rodriguez reveals a powerful three-step formula for amplifying your influence and getting your message heard.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The surprising reason why your audience isn’t listening
  2. The most powerful communication skill in your arsenal
  3. How to craft a narrative and message that sticks 

About Rene

For over two decades, René has been researching and applying behavioral neuroscience as a dynamic keynote speaker, leadership advisor, world-class sales expert, and renowned speaker coach. He has also trained more than 100,000 people in applying behavioral psychology and neurology methodologies to solve some of the toughest challenges in leadership, sales, and change. 

Resources Mentioned

Rene Rodriguez Interview Transcript

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

Rene Rodriguez
Thanks for having me, Pete. I appreciate it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. And I’d love to kick us off right at the beginning with hearing one of the most surprising and fascinating discoveries you’ve made about humans and influence over the course of your career, researching and teaching about this stuff.

Rene Rodriguez
One of the most surprising and fascinating discoveries, I love that question. I would say that one thing that everybody here has in common is that we all are trying to create change. Influence, leadership, selling, parenting, being a police officer, it’s all about trying to somehow create change. If you’re selling something, you want people to change what they’re purchasing, to buy you. If you’re parenting, don’t change, change this behavior to better behave, brush your teeth if you weren’t brushing your teeth. And leadership is about, most often, and management, is about changing behavior.

And a lot of times behavior change will most often is resisted. And a lot of times, if you’re getting people to want to change, the one thing that is probably the biggest is to help people save face in the process. That is probably the oddest discovery.

Pete Mockaitis
Save face. So, like they don’t need to be humiliated and beaten down, say, “I am so wrong.” It’s like, “Oh, okay, I guess this makes sense and it’s kind of like something else I’ve done before. All right. Cool.”

Rene Rodriguez
Well, if they don’t have to admit they’re wrong, you are much more likely to get massive change, and it’s kind of a deeper topic on how to get there but it’s really…I mean, think of what it requires though to get a leader to be okay with that, that they don’t have to get the people to admit they’re wrong. It’s a big requirement. It shows a lot of self-assurance and it shows a bigger view of a bigger picture that doesn’t matter who is right or who’s wrong. It’s a search for truth. And as long as we’re on that path, it’s okay.

And people, if you create a safe space for people to do that, most people will opt into it but very few will say, “Hey, I was wrong.” And what’s ironic is if you create a safe space for people to save face, later on they’ll say, “You know, before I used to look at it this way.” They’ll come to you. So, that’s my answer to the random question. I love it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, can you give us an example of how someone can make a change and not admit that they’re wrong, just like in practice? Like, what’s the example of how that unfolds?

Rene Rodriguez
I think it applies to kids, I think it applies in relationships, I think it applies in management leadership. So, I’d say an example would be a lot of times if, let’s say somebody just had a poor attitude, and they came to work. Trying to get somebody to admit, “Hey, you really have a poor attitude,” is a big sell. It’s a big sell. But if you both, let’s say, watched a movie, or a TED Talk, we had a couple of concepts that we share. One of them called the courage scale. But let’s just say to accomplish the same thing, a movie that really pinpointed in a third-party view that the effects of a negative attitude, and everybody watched it equally together.

And watching that creates sort of a self-diagnosis or self-assessment, and it’s much easier to get somebody to opt in the new behavior if they don’t have to admit they’re wrong. Like, most people will say, “Wow, that’s kind of how I’ve been. And nobody told me that but I watched a third-party kind of talk about it,” and they can safely do it. And it comes down to psychological safety. It’s really what it comes down to.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then they can just sort of watch that and say, “Oh, okay, that’s cool. These people are sort of smiling and asking about each other’s day, or whatever those particular behaviors are associated with better attitude.” It’s like, “No, that seems to be working well for them, and my colleagues want to do that, and it seems worthwhile, I guess I’ll go ahead and do that too. Cool.”

Rene Rodriguez
Well, it’s moreover, if you watched the negative impact, like, “Wow, what a jerk that guy was, and look at the impact it had on the team,” and if it was presented in a way that goes, “Well, who am I?” If it caused self-reflection in a safe way, so usually the positive, unfortunately, I wish it was more persuasive, but if we looked at the negative impact of it from…so, we have this thing called the courage scale and it’s a really simple way of defining where you are from an attitude influence sort of energy perspective. Below the line would be, the bottom would be zero, that you got zero’s death, then you got guilt, shame, fear, apathy, anger, and then courage.

And so, all those things are sort of below this line that we call the taking side of life. And so, if you were to say if you met somebody below the line that usually lives their life in fear, anger, guilt, apathy, all those things, do they give you energy or do they take it away? And what most people would say, “Well, they take it away.” Well, how long does it take them to take it away? It’s seconds. You can be having a great day, and that person, you see their name on a caller ID, and instantly you’re like, “Oh, God.” Like, we all know that person.

And so, it becomes humorous, like we all know that person, we could see it in someone else. And then we see above the line, things like openness, willingness, reason, logic, joy, peace, enlightenment, which we all want to get to. But just those other things, can you think of somebody who lives the majority of their life above that line? And they go, “Yeah.” And so, when that person calls, how are you feeling? Immediately great. You can be having a horrible day, but that person calls and it puts a smile on your face.

And so, we talk about the difference between above the line and below the line as a simple example. In fact, my first TED Talk was on that. And then you watch that, and you watch people who typically are below the line, they self-reflect, they go, “Wow, I’ve really been below the line,” and they see the impact, and they just slowly start acting differently. But if you were to say, “Well, who’s been below the line? So, you were below the line, you were below the line, and now you’re going to change.” Well, now, the whole psychology has changed.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. Okay, that’s good stuff. And then I also want to hear a story perhaps of someone that you’ve seen, maybe a client, or audience member or reader, who’s really had quite a transformation. They didn’t have the influence they wanted, they made some changes, and then they got it and saw some cool results.

Rene Rodriguez
Yes. So, the journey of influence is really, I think, really cool. And people ask, “Why influence?” And so, I always look at the opposite of it. So, look at a life without influence. You tell a joke, no one laughs. You sell a product, no one buys. You set a vision, and no one follows. The feeling that follows that is usually ones of insignificance. Some people might even fall into depression, high anxiety, questioning themselves, “Why am I here?” No purpose.

And the reason is because everything you’re doing seems to have no impact on the world. And so, then I go, “Okay. So, what’s the opposite of that? What does influence feel like?” You tell a joke, people laugh. You sell a product, people are buying. You cast a vision, and people follow. And now you realize that when you put something out into the world, it has an impact of some sort.

Now, we can use that impact in selling, you can use that impact in being a teacher, you can use that in leadership. Influence is that ability to influence an outcome of some sort. And so, when you look at the transformation of those that never knew the skill and never knew the sequence involved, or the science of it, there are a lot of people that sort of naturally picked it up over the years. They realize that you could act a certain way, speak in a certain sequence, and you’d get better results.

There are whole tons of reasons why that’s the case. My mission has always been, “How do you get those skills into the hands of people that are good but maybe have never been taught how to communicate?” Because in business, a lot of times, it’s the louder person that processes, maybe even half-baked ideas, but authoritatively they get listened to.

And then you have sort of the smarter introverted folks that maybe process silently what’s going on and fully bake an idea, but if they never speak up or communicate it in a way that people want to listen to, those ideas go by the wayside. And the benefit of the business isn’t achieved or felt, and the person doesn’t feel any sort of movement in their career, and so everybody loses.

So, I could tell you, we’ve got hundreds of stories. One of my favorites is Julia. So, one of my good friends and clients is a company by the name of PURIS. So, we’ve just named the number one most innovative food company in the world. So, Tesla was the innovative car company; they were food. So, they revolutionized pea protein. And what it’s doing is they make it taste good. The company is amazing. The research behind it was amazing. It’s incredible.

So, the CEO came to me, and said, “One of our content managers has got a TED Talk, and she’s 25 and has never given a talk.” I said, “Okay, so she’s going from never to her first talk, giving a TED Talk.” I said, “That’s great.” “Can you get her ready?” “Yes.” So, she came to our first session with 85 pages of research that she wanted to cover, and she was an amazing incredible nerd, and I loved it.

And I said, “Okay, Julia, you realize you have 13 to 17 minutes and you got 85 pages.” “I know. I don’t know how to get it all in.” I’m like, “Well, you’re not going to get it all in.” And we fought, arm-wrestled, back and forth on how to tell the story, what research to share, what not to share. And I finally found out that she was a basketball player and she got into a really bad accident and had traumatic brain injury. And that story began a whole journey of what it felt like to sort of make the comeback, but it was such an incredible story that it was what immediately captured attention, but she didn’t want to tell the story because it wasn’t about pea protein.

And I said, “Well, you have to understand if you want your audience to listen, because a lot of influence is about ‘What do I say?’ with very few, very little work is done as to ‘How do I prepare the audience to listen?’” And so, I gave the analogy, “Would you ever plant a seed on cement?” And, of course, we’d never do that. You’d till the soil first, get rid of the cement, find good soil. I said, “Well, there’s a sequence there. But most people plant their seeds of ideas in cement, in audiences that aren’t ready to listen.

And so, how do you get them ready? Well, a story like that than you can tell in just a couple minutes, people watching you go through this traumatic brain injury,” and she’s getting ready to play basketball, listening to her favorite song, and then, smack, she pauses, “And I was blinded by a car, traumatic big brain injury,” and she tells her whole story, but instantly you’re captivated by the story and sort of her journey through on her love for not being able to play basketball, but going back in to school and the comeback that the little pea made.

And this made this amazing story. In fact, I have the whole sort of video transformation on my website. And watching her tell that story, she came back, I said, “Okay, you tell the pea story with all the research, or you tell the basketball story to ten people, come back to me, and you tell me which one people liked.” And she came back, and she said, “Nobody wants to hear about peas. They want to hear about my car accident and basketball.”

I said, “Okay, so we’re going to use that as an opening to capture people’s attention, and then we can transition into the story.” And then that transitioned into some amazing stories that she told. And if you watched the two different people, it’s something that’s very, very inspiring to see once people learn how to tell the story.

Pete Mockaitis
And I want to talk to you about storytelling in particular. And so, right now I’m wondering, that does seem like a captivating powerful story, “Whoa, how did you feel? What happened?” So, then how does one then make the connection to pea protein?

Rene Rodriguez
So, with her, it was literally using the journey of saying, “What that got me now back into what were my passions at school.” And those passions at school led her to her passion for health, and what gave her brain health, or what were the things that really led to a search internally for, which transitioned into the benefits of peas.

So, without going through the whole piece, they’re everything that we do comes from the past events that we’ve been through. All of our past events shaped what we’re attracted to and what we’re repelled by. And so, in one of the exercises, if people want to learn how to tell their story, is we’ll ask a very simple question of what makes you unique.

And so, well, we can do it together. So, like, what makes you unique?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure. Well, we here are on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast, it’s like I’m a total dork with the stuff. I was reading books about success, goal-setting, leadership, communication, psychology, influence, whatever, as a teenager, and this was my thing. And I remember other folks had like basketball player posters on their walls, and I was like, “They don’t really make Tony Robbins or Stephen Covey posters, so I don’t know what to put on my wall. I guess I’ll just have more books on the shelf.”

Rene Rodriguez
I love it. So, you were a fan or personal development, leadership, all that stuff. So, what would you round that off as a uniqueness? Is it about learning? Would you say that that’s the value behind it? Where would you put that?

Pete Mockaitis
I do like learning and I’m really into it. And I guess it was happening. I got good grades, and I remember that someone asked me, “Oh, Pete, do you study a lot?” I was like, “Hmm, studying.” And it was funny, it sounds like a straightforward question but I thought, “Well, I guess I don’t even think about it as studying. I guess I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know, and then I feel like an attention, a curiosity, an uneasiness about that, and so I need to go ahead and close that gap.”

And I guess what one does when closing that gap is what you call studying, but it doesn’t really feel like, “Oh, got to crack the books and study.” It was like, “Okay, well, this transcription business is clear but the translation is not. What’s that about? Okay, what’s the page on the translation? Okay, okay.” And so, for biology or whatever. So, yeah, I guess it’s about curiosity and learning and stuff.

Rene Rodriguez
So, curiosity and learning, okay. So, let’s just pretend that those two are the ones we’ll focus on. And so, would you say that those are two personal values, that learning and being curious in life are very important words to you?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Rene Rodriguez
So, then the research says, the neuroscience says that those are personal values, or at least reflect your personal values, they were formed between the ages of nine and 13. And so, then the next logical question is, “So, who’s around during that time period?” And that you’re looking for one of two kinds of stories, either we call a lighthouse story or a foghorn story.

And a lighthouse story is somebody that was there that really was the guiding light. They were always wanting to learn. They were the perfect example, the guiding light of this value. Or, the foghorn story. Maybe it was somebody that you needed and didn’t show up, somebody that didn’t value school, and you watched what happened to them. They weren’t curious. They thought they were a know-it-all. And you watch where that led their life.

And so, instead of saying, “Well, the world didn’t give it to me,” you say, “Then I’m going to be that for the world.” So, you became it. And so, it’s one of those two stories. So, what it would be for you? Who was around and what happened, age nine or 13, that really led to learning and curiosity?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think it’s more of a lighthouse story. That’s my dad, and I remember I could always escape the house by asking to go to the library. He would comply just about always with that request. And we were curious about all kinds of things from photography to chess or whatever, and would read books and do stuff together.

Rene Rodriguez
And so, you enjoyed those conversations with dad?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Rene Rodriguez
So, how did it make you feel when you did that? So, what we’re looking for is what we call pathos. What was the feeling associated with that?

Pete Mockaitis
It felt really powerful. I remember it just like, “Holy crap, books make you better. Like, you can become better at anything by learning the stuff.” And there’s vast arrays of books and resources and people that can help you. So, it just felt like, in a way, anything is possible.

Rene Rodriguez
Love it. So, now, give me a little creative freedom. So, if I were to hear that story and I were to craft the message is saying, “So, what is this podcast about?” And so, you’re saying, “Well, here’s what it is. Here’s the ethos. Here’s the research. Here’s all these things,” which are what we call logos, very intellectually driven. You might start with, “Well, as a kid growing up, I was always really curious. My father was one of the most influential people in my life, and he really nurtured that curiosity. If I ever needed to go out of the house, my escape was a library.”

“And if I ever wanted to go to the library, he was always behind it, whether it was me learning about photograph, or learning about astronomy, or whatever it was, I always knew that he could do that. And every time he did that, I was overwhelmed with this feeling of power. I felt powerful. Like, knowledge really did equate to power because I could see the world differently. And now that, as I was growing up, my friends had basketball posters of Michael Jordan and Lebron James, I was looking for posters of Stephen Covey and Tony Robbins, and all of the people that were really sharing more of that knowledge.”

“And so, when I decided to do a podcast, I decided to do it around the theme of giving people the same gift that my father gave me, was finding those same knowledge sources to empower people to be better. And so, now that’s why we created the podcast.” So, now you see how the sequence sort of formed based on understanding those two words, tracing that back to a story, which we would call your origin story, and we did it very quickly, but it hits the brain in a very different way when it’s heard in that sequence.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s well put, hits the brain differently. It’s like I’m trying to articulate how it’s hit my brain because it’s like, I mean, it’s my story, I know it, it’s true. And yet I don’t think I’ve quite articulated it that way. There have been bits and pieces, but it’s got a…the hitting of the brain, it’s like a feeling of openness, or it’s kind of like a, “Oh, okay. So, that’s what this is.” It has a little bit more of emotional resonance, as opposed to…

Rene Rodriguez
Resistance.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Rene Rodriguez
Or cliché, right? Well, I like to help people learn, so we start with a message and it hits the brain differently, hits the part of the brain we call Broca’s area. And Broca’s area is a very tiny little speck in the brain that deciphers language. And we go, “So, yeah, I like to help people learn through my podcast,” and we go, “Okay, cool. So, every podcast does the same thing? Cool. Really unique, bro.”

But then when you start with a story, what it does is it triggers your entire sensory cortex. It triggers your limbic system, which triggers emotions. All those past things light your brain up. If you like a functional MRI scanner or a SPECT span, it lights your brain up like a Christmas tree. But what it also does is it lights up the brain of the listener because storytelling is involved.

And so, because our brains light up in the same way, it begins a process of neuro-coupling. And when neuro-coupling happens, there’s a coherence that happens between the two brains and safety is created, what we call psychological safety, “So, I know I’m not going to be judged. There seems to be an alignment of values. If I agree with the story or I like it, I’m attracted to the story and the values it represents at a deeper level,” and it bypasses the parts of the brain that resists, that don’t feel safe.

And so, that sequence is what we call the beginnings of the amplify formula to be able to begin to till the soil of the audience, meaning prep them to hear the message, which is, “Now I want to hear all about what your podcast is about because I have the backstory to what the frame is.” And so, that’s creating a frame or frame of reference. And that frame of reference, frames act as constructs of reality so I can understand reality in front of me.

Like, you have a podcast. Well, I understand the podcast based on what are the frame of reference I choose. But if you don’t provide a frame of reference, I’ll choose one. In fact, if I have a negative…let’s say I have a negative experience of podcasts, and I go, “Oh, gosh, another podcast.” Maybe that’s my frame of reference.

So, I hear your podcast through that filter. But if you provide the frame first, because that’s how the brain works, it needs a frame, and you provide it, the story with dad and what it did for you and your passions for learning and curiosity, and giving a gift back, I don’t pull from my negative frame. I pull from your origin story as the frame, and I hear the message completely different, totally different narrative.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you. So, you said there’s amplify sequence, and it starts with some story and framing. Can you sort of give us the overview of the whole process sequence?

Rene Rodriguez
Yeah. So, the science behind it is pretty in depth in terms of understanding what I just said, which is part of influence, and it sounds crazy, it’s about understanding how we construct reality. And so, either I construct a reality that your product is valuable or not, or maybe I construct a value that my product and my time is more valuable than yours, so then why would I meet?

And so, how does it do that? It does that by choosing a frame of reference or the narrative around it. The narrative creates meaning, and then I understand it through that. Now, I’m not talking about a physical reality, like my table here is wood, this mic stand is metal. Those are physical realities, proven to physics and science. But the social reality of how I interpret the meaning behind something is created through narratives and frames.

And so, my brain, to understand it, I’ve got to pull a frame first that is a neurological sequence of understanding how I process information. And so, for example, I’m going to say a profession and you tell me what word comes to mind. Used car salesman.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it might not be fair to great professionals in the field.

Rene Rodriguez
Of course not.

Pete Mockaitis
But, you know, sleazy, dishonest.

Rene Rodriguez
Right. So, every time it’s usually something along that. So, what happened is you accessed your frames of reference which are societal frames of reference. That is pretty predictable that we get that because of the stigma that’s been created, that people say sleazy, dishonest, all those such of things. So, that frame of reference comes in front and acts as a filter to really filter out and create meaning around what’s said.

So, if I were to say, “Don’t worry, you can trust me. I’m a used car salesman,” most people will giggle, they’ll say, “Hahaha,” because it’s an incongruent message. And incongruency translates, typically, into lack of trust, when I’m saying one thing but I mean another, or my body is saying one thing and my words are saying something else. Like, “I’m really excited to be here today.” So, my tone is saying not but my words are saying I am. That’s an incongruency.

Sometimes we want to stand with power and authority and influence, but we stand with insecurity and submission. Those are body language cues that are being incongruent. And so, my grandfather was in Cuba, and he was watching the Cuban Revolution just begin, and so he wanted to get his family out of Cuba. So, he wrote a letter to the President of the United States, and said, “If you can get me and my family out of this country, I will come and fight for yours.”

So, somehow that letter made it to the right person and they pulled my grandfather out, along with my mother, her sister, and my grandmother. And so, he went and served in the American Armed Forces for eight years. After his time, he landed at Patrick Airforce Base in southern Florida, in Homestead, Florida, and realized very quickly that his American dream was really limited to how far he could walk because he didn’t have a car.

And so, there was somebody, though, that believed in my grandfather. He saw what he did for this country and got him into an older vehicle. And that older vehicle allowed him to stretch his reach by 25, 50, even 100 miles finding better employment, better pay, changing the trajectory of his life, my mother’s life, and, ultimately, my life. And that person who believed in my grandfather was a used car salesman.

And so, now, if you noticed, the brain didn’t have any of a chance to pull sleazy or dishonest because I did the work for you. I gave you a frame first, and so now you’re hearing that in the context of that frame.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good.

Pete Mockaitis
When you talked about that reframing of the used car salesperson, I’m thinking now about this goofy movie, Cedar Rapids. It’s got Ed Helms and John C. Reilly and Anne Heche. And the idea is Ed Helms is going to the big city of Cedar Rapids because he’s been in a small-town environment for a long time, and it’s all about insurance.

And my frame for an insurance salesperson is, “Oh, geez, what a boring job. Insurance is a boring thing, and selling, not a lot of fun.” But then he tells a story about how his dad passed away, and it was an insurance person who was… I’m actually tearing up a little bit. An insurance person was like the hero for his family because they didn’t know what they were going to do. But when they had that insurance money come in suddenly, their worries associated with, if they could still go to school or whatever, were put to rest.

And so, life insurance salespeople are heroes to him, and doing this is like a dream. And it was a very powerful and a goofy fun movie. And so, there you have it. We have a story and we have a frame, and it totally…you’re right. It doesn’t give me an opportunity to grasp onto, “Yeah, life insurance sales is boring.”t

Rene Rodriguez
And so, if you think about if it changed the frame, frames dictate perception, and perception equals reality. And so, the superpower here is understanding storytelling. So, look at what just happened. You recalled the story and you got emotional.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, a ten-year-old movie that’s a comedy.

Rene Rodriguez
A ten-year-old movie. And so, what’s the science of storytelling? Well, think about it this way. The research says that upwards of 33%, sometimes even 50% of our waking hours, we spend daydreaming. And daydreaming is really scenario-planning. Like, “If I do this, then that. What color shirt shall I wear on the podcast? Well, should I be ready for that? Headphones or not? How do I get ready for this? Did I leave the stove on? Well, I better call this client.” We’re constantly running scenarios. That’s a prefrontal lobe activity. It’s a future simulator.

And a future simulator, for example, it’s powerful. Like, if I were to tell you I’ve got this new ice cream that’s from Ben & Jerry’s. It’s called Liver and Onions. Do you want some?

Pete Mockaitis
Not yet. I want to hear the magic you work on this, Rene.

Rene Rodriguez
Yeah, exactly. Now you’re expecting that. But, no, typically, you’d probably have a visceral response of saying, “Ugh, gross.” Even though you’ve never tried it, your brain went from a past experience, went out into the future, concocted liver and onions as an ice cream, and you taste it hypothetically as a scenario, and sends a signal back, saying, “Nah, we don’t like it.” And it happens in a split second.

And so, we’re constantly running these future simulations, and there’s only two situations that we stop doing that throughout the day. One is life and death situations. Somebody is in trouble, I’m in trouble, somebody’s got a gun on my head. I’ll stop and be very present. The other is through story. When somebody tells a story, the reason we stop daydreaming is because a storyteller is daydreaming for us, and we use daydreams, we use stories to create narratives, which create a simplified model of reality so we can understand what’s going on.

I’m here in my studio, I’m on a podcast. The reason I’m on a podcast is to grow my brand and awareness. And, hopefully, that will translate into access. We run these stories and scenarios. And so, if I’m listening to this as a listener, ask yourself and your business, “What things and stories are you a part of?” And when that story doesn’t match, how difficult it feels.

But think about this. If the stories create the narratives, and the narratives construct reality, and somebody tells me a good story, I’m allowing them into my brain to take a real estate and set whatever narrative they want. And the crazy thing is that we…the brain doesn’t know the difference between my story and reality.

Literally, you just cried recalling a movie that was done based on fake actors. A story bypasses all of that, and we take on the role of the protagonist, our empathy is triggered, sensory cortex is triggered, emotions are triggered, and we experience it as real. And we get into this process where we, over time, we take on even the belief systems and the decision-making process if we hear someone’s story or the thought process over and over and over and over again. We start acting as like, “Okay. Well, what would this person do?” And we forget that that’s their thinking and we take it on as our own.

And so, we can install narratives of love, narratives of hate, of racism, of giving back, of strong value proposition, of buying into a vision, the thoughts of new possibilities, new relationships, dating someone. You name it. It’s all done through story.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Rene, these implications are vast not just for getting someone to follow you or to buy. I’m thinking about just like in terms of just your emotional states and the stories you tell yourself associated with what’s going on around you. It’s like, “Am I a victim to this thing? Am I trapped here forever? Or, am I a hero or whatever.” We can construct it to story and feel completely different about the circumstances we’re presented with.

Rene Rodriguez
You nailed it. And the stories that we tell ourselves are the most powerful. The narratives that we choose, and so many people choose the narrative of victim. And there’s a term that I love to use called amor fati. And so, when we go through our program, we help people identify their story and then tie it to their business value proposition, which becomes a really powerful combination.

But some people go through…you want to help them sell more, or you want to help them be a better leader but they have these inner narratives that are either of a victim, they got a chip on their shoulder. Who knows what it is? It isn’t serving them in a way. Some people, me being Rodriguez, I grew up with a narrative that being Hispanic was people were against me. If it’s maybe a female growing up, that women are trying to be held back by men, or bald men don’t have it as easy as others. Whatever it is, whatever the narrative you’re running.

And what I always tell people, saying, “So, how do we set ourselves up in the best strategic position possible?” Part of that is we have to achieve amor fati. And amor fati is, literal transition is lover of fate. It’s a lover of your story. And I’ll give you one example of this. We had one woman come through our class, and she had a lazy eye. And you could tell right away, at first, she’s not looking at me, she’s bored. Ah, she’s got a lazy eye. So, no big deal. It’s really not that big of a deal, very common.

And halfway through day two, or actually at the beginning of day two, she said, I was in front of the room, talking, she goes, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed it but I do have a lazy eye. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed.” I’m like, “Yeah, noticed it right away.” And she like looked at me with a smile, like surprised that I would just say it, I’m like, “Of course, yeah, big deal.” I said, “So, tell me about your lazy eye.” And she’s like, “Well, it’s been an insecurity. I’ve tried to hide it. I don’t like looking at people in the eye because it just makes it obvious.”

And then she said, “But it helps me read 800 words a minute.” I’m like, “What?” She goes, “Yeah. This eye right here reads 800 words a minute.” I’m like, “Somebody Google the average…” somebody Googled it. It was 250 words a minute is the average, and a really good reader is 400. Well, this one reads 800. And so, I looked at her, and I said, “So, you’re saying you have a bionic eye?” And she looks at me and she goes, “What?” I’m like, “I want an eye that reads 800 words a minute.”

We looked at the audience, and they’re like, “I want that eye, too.” And she kind of smiles, I’m like, “You have a bionic eye, don’t you?” And she goes, “I never thought about it that way. I wish my other eye sees this and so I can look at people and read, and it’s kind of cool, and sometimes they don’t cooperate.” We all started laughing. And I said, “So, here’s your new narrative. Now for those of you who had real eyes…”

And she starts all her talks this way, “I was given the gift of a bionic eye. I got an eye over here, this baby right here,” she points to it, “reads 800 word a minute. Average reader reads 250, a really good, 400. I’m twice that. In fact, I read a 500-page book on the plane right over here. It’s fantastic. I’m going to read another one tomorrow, and the next day probably. With my left eye, it’s for distance so I can see all of you. Well, the challenge of the bionic eye is it has a mind of its own. Sometimes it doesn’t cooperate, kind of like my personality and probably a lot of you in this room here.”

“And so, if you’re wondering which eye to look at, just keep your eye on this one. That’s the one that’s looking at you.” And everybody just dies laughing. She’s standing there with this pride, a new narrative, something that used to be a story she told herself of insecurity. Now, she came up to me at this event, literally last week, ran up and hugged me, she goes, “That narrative, that story has changed my career and my life. I tell it at every event, I tell it at every meeting, and I stand differently. I’m just happy.” But to your point, the narratives we tell ourselves.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Rene, this is so powerful. I feel like we could, and could and maybe should, dig into this for hours. You’re invited back, Rene, already.

Rene Rodriguez
I’d love to.

Pete Mockaitis
So, all right, stories are powerful, they establish frame, which impact how we interpret stuff and how others we’re trying to influence interpret stuff. So, then what are the best practices associated with forming these stories? And maybe what are some watchouts? So, you walked through a bit of the process with me moments ago. Is that the primary pathway you recommend? Or, are there a few flavors on the menu to choose from?

Rene Rodriguez
So, there’s a real simple exercise, I can give it to you. I’ll try to do it auditorily. Is that a word?

Pete Mockaitis
I think so.

Rene Rodriguez
That’s a word. We just made it up, if not. And it’s a way to what we’re trying to uncover is what we call a signature story. And a signature story is a story as unique to you as your own signature. And so, what I do is I create a matrix. It’s basically a four by four, so four, one, two, three, four, by four lines. And at the top, on the far-left column, there’s going to be four phrases that we go down.

The first phrase is, “I believe.” The next phrase is, “I remember.” The next phrase is, “I was taught.” And the last one is, “I’m passionate about…” And so, those four phrases are what I call entry ramps into stories. And what I’ve come to learn over, gosh, we’ve trained tens of thousands of people on this, is that people know how to tell stories but sometimes they need the entry ramp.

And the entry ramp is what helps trigger the memory. And so, the first thing we start with is three beliefs, “I believe…” and we’ll just use three. For example, you chose “I believe in curiosity and learning.” And if you had a third, what would it be?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh.

Rene Rodriguez
First one that comes to mind.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, spirituality. God stuff.

Rene Rodriguez
Spirituality. Faith, spirituality, right? So, across the top says, “I believe in…” the first column, second column says “learning,” third column says, “curiosity,” and the last is “faith.” And so, now we go down the matrix to the next question, which says, “I was taught…” and we go to the first belief. And then we want a story, something you were taught as a kid about learning. And in that little box, we read a little story. And you have to remember what you were taught as a kid about learning.

And then you go down one. What do you remember about…? Remember something you remember about learning, a story, and then something you were taught about learning. And the last one, something you’re passionate about when it comes to learning. And then we go back to the question of curiosity, “Something I remember as a kid about learning,” or curiosity, “Something I was taught about curiosity and something I’m passionate about when it comes to curiosity.”

Then the last column would be something “I remember about faith or spirituality, something I was taught about faith or spirituality, and something I’m passionate about.” And now you have nine signature stories to be able to draw from. But here’s the thing. What do you do with them, those stories? They’re nothing without a message to follow, and the third part of what we call the amplify formula, which is a tie-down.

And a tie-down answers the question of what this means to you is. Like, I can give you a story about all three worked together if you’d like.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it.

Rene Rodriguez
So, my second TED Talk actually has this story in it but it’s a story of Janice. Now, Janice was an executive of a very large organization. They wanted me to help her get ready for an interview to take on the CEO position of a billion-dollar organization within the larger conglomerate. And the interview is very intense, seven, eight, nine, ten hours sometimes with ten people in the room, all focused on her, drilling her with questions.

So, we started with a mock interview of three people in front of her, and asked her a question. First second, I sit off to the side, I look at facial expressions, sequencing, timing, storytelling, framing. I look at all the things that I look at. And the first question was, “Tell us something you’re proud of.” And she looks at us and answers very presidential – short, concise, and to the point.

“I got straight A’s my last year in school, one of my proudest moments,” was her answer. So, now, one thing we know about frames is that when we talk, if we don’t provide one, the listener will create one for us. They have to, that’s how they construct reality. So, they look at me, and said, “Rene…”

Pete Mockaitis
You’re right. Right there is like, “Okay, you worked really hard,” or, I mean, “You worked really hard or your parents were smart, or you had a good tutor.” It’s weird, I’m just making stuff up.

Rene Rodriguez
And immediately, right? And the brain can’t handle it. It’s like one of the things that…

Pete Mockaitis
Excuse me. Something fell off the shelf but we’re fine.

Rene Rodriguez
So, now you saw my reaction there, right? And so, I’m looking off, I paused, and so the listeners might say, “Hold on a second. Did we lose something?” I’ll sometimes get up and walk off the camera in the middle of a podcast, and the interviewer is looking at me like, “What happened?” and I’ll do this little training.

Pete Mockaitis
“Is he mad at me?”

Rene Rodriguez
Yeah, is he mad at me? I did it on stage in front of 600 CEOs. I stopped in the middle, I’m like, I looked at them, I turned around and walked off stage. And then from behind stage, I said, “Now, I want you all to pay attention on how you feel and what’s going through your minds.” And I came back out, and I said, “What do you think happened?”

And I got five or six, ten responses, and all of them were different, “I thought you’re having a heart attack,” “I thought you might’ve forgotten your lines,” “It looked like you’re crying.” And they were all assumptions. And I do that to illustrate the point that your brain does not deal in narrative gaps. It has to fill it even if it’s false. And our world is full of narrative gaps right now.

And so, when she says, “I got straight A’s my last year in school,” there’s a huge narrative gap there. And I’m going to fill it based on my own past experience. So, they looked at me, “What do you think?” I said, “Oh, so straight A’s your last year in school? So, you’re a procrastinator? Are you going to procrastinate for us as well?” She looks at me like I’m crazy, and I said, “Oh, I’m sorry. Did mommy and daddy pay for school so you didn’t have to work that hard?”

Or, even yours, “So, your mom and dad must’ve been really smart, rich, probably had good tutors. Lucky you.” So, who knows what these unfair narratives are? But the brain doesn’t have a choice. It has to fill it. And so, now pay attention to this. I said to her, and she’s got a tear in her eye when I said that to her, I said, “Look, I didn’t mean those things but you didn’t fill it for us. You didn’t tell us the frame or the narrative but I know it’s important to you, wasn’t it?”

She just nodded her head. And I said, “Why?” And then when she told them the story behind it, it changed everything. She looks at me and she said, “When you’ve been told you’re stupid your entire life by adults, you tend to believe them. And something happened my last year in school, where I looked myself in the mirror, and I said either I’m going to believe them forever or I’m going to do something about it. And I did something about it.”

So, now that frame completely shifts the message. And the message, now understood differently, changes the reality of the relationship between how I perceive her. And so, now I’m emotionally moved, I’m probably more connected with her. I mean, if you’re listening to this, you probably felt some sort of shift internally, maybe protective of her. Who knows what it is? But this pathos is an emotional connection there.

And so, then the next question is, “So, what do I do with that?” because that’s powerful. There’s a lot of emotion in the air but for what purpose? Most speakers, most leaders that learn how storytelling will stop at that but it doesn’t create influence. It creates emotional connection but influence is about affecting a behavior.
And so, the last part, the tie-down would be adding the step next, which is having a clear influence. Objective, to get the job. A tie-down answers a question of what this means to you is. So, I might share that story instead of saying, “Hey, tell us something you’re proud of,” and starting with, “Oh, I got straight A’s last year in school,” frames and narratives gone wild. Who knows what they’re going to believe?

Or, if I just go with a little contextualization, “Well, I was told I was dumb but then I decided to turn it around, and now I got straight A’s.” Everyone was like, “Wow, that’s great. Who’s next?” No action taken. But if you do all three, it sounds like this. “Tell us something you’re proud of.”

“Well, unfortunately,” start with the frame, “I was surrounded by a lot of adults who told me I wasn’t really smart. And when adults speak to you that way, you tend to act that way, and I didn’t do well in school. But something happened my last year in school, where I looked myself in the mirror, and I said either I’m going to believe them forever, or I’m going to do something about it. So, I went on and get the help that I needed, put my nose to the grindstone, and I’m proud to tell you that I got straight A’s my last year in school.”

Tie-down. “Now, I’m assuming if I do get a chance to work with you and your team, that there’s going to be times where we’re going to be facing some pretty big challenges, and maybe some insurmountable obstacles, or seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But I promise you this, if I get to be on your team, I’ll be out there next to you, if not in front, overcoming those challenges in the same way I overcame them in my own personal life, but this time for you and for your team.” Frame, message, tie-down. That’s the sequencing that creates influence.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, that’s powerful. There’s so much gravitas, conviction, oomph, power there. It’s hard not to believe such a person as opposed to…and interviews are stomping grounds for BS, and you’re like, “Okay, all right. You believe that and I believe you. Let’s see if you can check the other boxes. Determination, conviction, totally covered. Let’s see. How about financial skill?” I don’t know, whatever is next on the checklist.

Rene Rodriguez
Yeah, all those things sort of come second nature. Once you believe the person, who they are, you start saying, “Okay. Well, let’s just make sure they check all the boxes so we can move forward.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, Rene, tell me, anything important you want to make sure to put out there before I ask about a couple of your favorite things?

Rene Rodriguez
We wrote a book, it just landed number two Wall Street Journal bestseller.

Pete Mockaitis
Amplify Your Influence.

Rene Rodriguez
Yeah, and I think with MeetRene.com, follow me on social media, Instagram @seerenespeak right there.

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

Rene Rodriguez
Probably one of my favorites is from Stanley Kubrick, and he said that, “Our ability to eloquently talk about a subject matter can create the consoling illusion that we’ve mastered it.” To me, that keeps me humble because I can talk about all these things eloquently, and yet I can still struggle with every single one of them.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Rene Rodriguez
One of my favorite books is Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play. It’s from Mahan Khalsa. He’s a Harvard guy that talks about how to really sell difficult complex technology solutions but his mentality behind the concept of let’s get real, let’s have real conversations, let’s deal in the reality here, let’s not just play. And, to me, it was one of my favorite books I’ve ever read.

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

Rene Rodriguez
Yeah, I would say this, that the challenge that we face in growing up, most of us here, was that the things that now are most important, we were told weren’t. They were called soft skills, the things that, like, “Oh,” the interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, all of those things, and we valued all the “hard skills” that school taught us.

Well, we know with the research right now that those hard skills aren’t the determining factor for success. They’re needed. Trust me, they are needed but they aren’t the differentiator. Your ability to deal with people, connect with people, build trust, and that is mostly done through vulnerability, through your story. When you can share your story, where you’ve been through, and where you come from, that creates the ground for trust, empathy, and most importantly, somewhere to move forward together.

Pete Mockaitis
Rene, thank you. This has been powerful and beautiful. I wish you much luck and that your book Amplify Your Influence is a huge success.

Rene Rodriguez
Thank you. Appreciate being on here. Thank you so much.

772: How to Build Resilience to Thrive in Uncertainty with Gemma Leigh Roberts

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Gemma Leigh Roberts shares recent science behind resilience and how to bounce back from whatever the world throws at you.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why you shouldn’t confuse grit with resilience 
  2. The challenges worth seeking out to build your resilience
  3. How to build resilience into daily routines 

About Gemma

Gemma Roberts is a chartered psychologist who has spent most of her working life teaching, writing, and speaking about what it takes to navigate challenges successfully, build resilience in the face of adversity, and create environments where each individual can thrive and perform at their peak, in their unique way. 

Her book, Mindset Matters: Developing Mental Agility and Resilience to Thrive in Uncertainty, which will be released in May 2022, came from her Mindset Matters newsletter on LinkedIn, which now has 500,000 subscribers. 

She is also a LinkedIn Learning instructor, with her courses garnering over 3 million learners. She also hosts the We Got This: Work+Life audio series on LinkedIn.

Resources Mentioned

Gemma Roberts Interview Transcript

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

Gemma Roberts
Hello. Thanks for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to hear your wisdom. And I’d like to start in March 2020 and hear your story right at the beginning of pandemic times, you start your Mindset Matters LinkedIn newsletter and things really take off. Can I hear the story?

Gemma Roberts
Yes. Well, I guess a lot changed in life around then. So, we had literally just gone into lockdown in the UK, the first lockdown that we went into following the outbreak of COVID-19, so it was a really scary time for lots of us, really challenging, I think, for most of us, it ended up being. And my research area is resilience, so that’s the area that I’ve worked in for the last decade but it was the area where I’ve been doing doctorate research.

So, I thought at that time that, actually, there’s so much that I could be sharing to help people navigate uncertainty, and I had access, kind of early access to LinkedIn newsletters because I’m a LinkedIn Learning instructor. It’s kind of the perfect time to share some of that advice, some of the edited space stuff that we know works, because what I was seeing is, actually, there was a lot being published or lots of people talking about resilience but it wasn’t necessarily accurate and it wasn’t necessarily that helpful because if we think about psychology, if we’re not careful, sometimes we can do more harm than good.

So, I actually thought of it as an obligation to put some helpful evidence-based useful information out there that, hopefully, would help people navigate uncertainty. I mean, at that point, we had no idea what we’re about to go through in the world, either the following two years. So, I had no idea how that was going to pan out. So, the newsletter grew quite quickly on LinkedIn Learning and I think, within 11 months, there were 250,000 subscribers.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Gemma Roberts
Yeah. And today, kind of two years on, it’s like 550,000 subscribers maybe. So, it really gained momentum quite quickly. And I honestly think that’s because of the topic because I talk…the newsletter is called Mindset Matters. And I think, at that point in time, myself included, we were all looking for advice about what to do in this new working world, what do we need to think about what’s going to help us thrive, or even just sometimes survive some of these challenges and changes that were going on.

So, the newsletter took off, which was amazing, and it actually turned into a book, which had literally just been released, which is very exciting. So, the book is also called Mindset Matters and I wrote that thinking about those people that were reading the newsletter. So, thinking about people who want advice on these key areas of psychology, or think about how we think about things, how we process information, how we can use that to our advantage in the working world, and kind of built out the five key topics that I talk about.

I guess I got it in the book, I got to go into a bit more detail, really, around what those topics are. I explore a bit more in terms of research and case studies but, ultimately, it’s a coaching manual. So, for each topic I talk about, there are coaching exercises in that, and I want it to feel, like for people who read it, I want it to feel like as close it can to having a coaching conversation with someone, and sitting down and testing out some strategies, seeing what works, tweaking things.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you for the story, and that sets things up nicely. I’m curious, when you said information going around is not accurate, well, can you bust a couple myths for us right off the bat here?

Gemma Roberts
Yeah. So, a lot of how we traditionally think about resilience is kind of pushing through. So, perseverance or grit or mental toughness, whereby we face a challenge and we need to kind of push through, get to the other side, make it through, get past it, but actually that’s not really what resilience is at all. It can be sometimes but that’s not entirely what resilience is.

So, resilience is positive adaptation following adversity. That’s the kind of broad definition, and sometimes we do need to push through, sometimes we do need to kind of figure out how we can take those next steps and just keep going. But, also, sometimes we need to stop, sometimes we need to accept what’s going on and we can’t change it, sometimes we need to rest, we need to build our resilience reserves up again, and sometimes we need to kind of break down to be able to build ourselves back up again as well. But that’s not really the bit of resilience that we hear about.

The other thing about resilience is we have been told, I guess, that it’s up to us, as individuals, to work on ourselves to become more resilient, and some of us have it and some of us don’t. Again, that’s not accurate. There is so much, in terms of context, that goes into resilience. There are things like support systems around you, or organizational context where you work, the business culture, line managers support, policies, processes, big changes going on in the world, like COVID, for example, changing a lot of our lives.

So, again, yes, I focus a lot on helping people to become more resilient themselves to things that they can do, but it’s also very important to take into account kind of what’s going on around you as well, and try and think about kind of the broader picture, which is not something that we were hearing a lot about at the start of the pandemic. And I think partly that’s because that’s where research is going. We’re still kind of getting there with resilience research. So, it’s not grit, resilience is not grit. It’s not pushing through. Sometimes it could be, but other times it could be something completely differently you need.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you for that clarification, that distinction there. So, positive adaptation following diversity. Yeah, lay it on us, how do we get more of that going?

Gemma Roberts
Well, there’s another little myth with resilience. So, not a myth necessarily but it’s kind of something that’s a bit unfortunate but it comes to building resilience. So, when I work with people, strictly to coaching context, quite often people want to build their resilience but they don’t want to face challenges because, ultimately, who does? Who wants to wake up in the morning and think, “Oh, I can’t wait for this great big challenge that’s going to come my way, and I’m not going to know what to do with it”?

Most of us, we might appreciate some more challenges but big ones can sometimes feel overwhelming. But the truth of it is that we need that adversity, we need challenges if we’re going to build our resilience muscles, if we’re going to learn the skills that we need to get through challenges. In a way, that’s very healthy for us. So, if we’re going to learn from the situation, so learn what we’re capable of, learn how it works for us when we react in different ways, and would we do that again, what different tools or strategies can we use in the future.

So, if you want to become more resilient, and I do recommend that for all of us because, I’m going to be honest, challenge, change, complexity, none of that’s going away in our lives. We will have to deal with that at one point or another. So, if we want to be resilient, which means we can deal with those situations more effectively and in a way that’s healthy for us, then we need to face challenges, we need adversity.

The key thing is if we had a choice, which we don’t, but if we had a choice, it’s we want challenges that stretch us, they stretch our abilities, they can be really uncomfortable, take us outside of our comfort zone, but aren’t necessarily overwhelming. Because once we get to that overwhelming phase, it’s quite difficult to focus on building those kinds of personal tools that we need to be resilient and, actually, we get thrown a bit more into survival mode.

But the key is looking out for those, I guess, stretching challenges in our lives that are going to help us to develop, help us to grow, help us to learn something about ourselves and the environment around us as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we’re on the lookout for the stretching challenges and, ideally, that’s the nature of the challenges we get. This reminds of that Stephen Covey chart, in terms of the comfort zone, growth zone, panic zone. So, got that in my mind’s eye. And so, I’m curious, like sometimes in my own experience, sometimes even the same challenge in, I guess, a different context, I don’t know, in terms of there’s more stuff going on, I’m kind of sick – I’m a little sick right now – it can be like overwhelming, exhausting, it doesn’t feel like a positive adaptation has happened afterwards.

Just like, “Aargh, I barely made it through that thing, and I just want to sleep for days now,” versus, “Okay, victory. I’m stronger now.” So, can you zero in on what are some of the, I don’t know, levers or adjustments we can make so that we more often find ourselves in the, “Yes, that was a positive adaptation following the adversity zone,” as opposed to, “Aargh, that almost killed me, and I just need to sleep forever now”?

Gemma Roberts
That, Pete, is a really key point because this all comes back to that context part and resilience changing over time. And resilience is a process. It’s not a thing we have or don’t have necessarily. We can have skills that help us but the resilience process is dealing with that challenge or dealing with that adversity, and it doesn’t always happen quickly. Sometimes we look back years down the line, I think, actually, “Yeah, I guess I kind of learned something from that.” We don’t necessarily do learning, if at all, but if we’re consciously trying to learn from the situation, we don’t always necessarily do it straight away.

So, there’s kind of two things that you mentioned. So, one of them is, “Why is it that some days we feel like we can deal with challenges, and, on other days, the exact same challenge will feel like the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and it’s the thing that sends us over the edge?” And the answer to that is that, again, it’s contextual.

So, some of it has to do with us as individuals, so what’s going on with us. How many other challenges are you dealing with at once? Are they big challenges? Are they reoccurring? Have you got lots and lots of little things going on that you’re struggling to kind of switch your attention between? Or is there one huge thing going on in your life which is taking over everything else?

Because when we’ve got lots of things going in our lives, and we’ve got one big challenge going on in our life, it can make other smaller things, sometimes, feel a lot bigger, or we’ve might’ve used all of our resilience reserves, all of our energy that we’ve got dealing with those things, and we just haven’t got any left when other things strike. So, that’s why we respond to challenges, the exact same challenge, in a different way on a different day. So, that’s something to keep in mind.

But also, the situations around us are changing all the time as well, so, yes, there could be stuff going on with us, our energy, our mood, our health, things like our physical health, like you might be finding at the moment. So, sometimes when our physical health is impacted, or things like we haven’t had enough sleep, or our nutrition is not so great at the moment, we might find that kind of psychologically responding to things, we just haven’t got that resource. You kind of feel like you’ve got an empty tank, you’re running on empty so that can happen. But this is why it’s so important.

So, when I talk about resilience, it is a complex topic because it’s a process. It’s how we do the thing, it’s how we overcome adversity, and turn that into a positive adaptation, either now or the future. It’s not a thing you have inside you where you can tick off the list, and say, “Yes, I’m resilient 100% of the time.”

And I often say to people that thinking about resilience, that the goal really shouldn’t be wanting to be more resilient or wanting to be resilient because, firstly, how do you measure that? I don’t know because I’ve not faced every challenge I’m going to face in my life. I don’t know if something, it comes my way. Think about the pandemic, for example. I don’t know how I’m necessarily going to react to that.

But, also, it’s never done. You’re never…it’s not like, I don’t know, having…I’ve got brown eyes, for example. Yup, frankly, I’ve got brown eyes, that’s done. That’s probably not going to change my life now unless I wear contact lenses. The goal really should be learning about yourself, so learning about how resilience works for you because, again, it works differently for all of us.

So, what I need today to be resilient, even if I had exactly the same situation as you, will be different to what you need today to do that. So, it’s first about we learn what we need but it’s, secondly, about learning tools, strategies, techniques that we can use at different points in time when we need them. So, the goal really should be learning about your own resilience and learning tools and strategies and keeping them in your back pocket for when you need them to cope with different challenges.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, let’s cover those tools, strategies, and techniques both in the moment as well as preparatory, like you mentioned sleep and nutrition. Like, if I wanted to be maximally equipped to take on a big old challenge, what are some of the things I should do in advance? Like, I’m thinking of a training montage or key practices and habits. So, it’s like, when that thing comes up, “Oh, what do you know? I have built a deep reserve and capability to not be just sort of wiped out by that.” What are some of those key levers there?

Gemma Roberts
Of course, there are things like sleep and nutrition, for example, which I know I’ve already mentioned. But I’ve got two young children, so telling me that I need more sleep to be resilient, I know that. I cognitively am aware of that. Equally, I may not be able to prescribe that for myself every day because it’s not always in my control.

So, it’s having a bank of things to think about. So, sleep, nutrition, exercise, they’re good for any kind of health we’re talking about, whether it’s physical, whether it’s psychological, for sure. When it comes to building resilience and the actual act of dealing with challenges or overcoming challenges, it’s really important that you have taken some time to think about the challenges that you have faced in the past, so this is a little bit of building self-awareness and also some reflection as well.

So, either at the time where that challenge is happening, or you can even think back to where challenges have happened before, think about how you dealt with it, what was helpful for you, what wasn’t helpful for you. Ask yourself questions, like, “Would I do the same thing again? Would I change anything? Like, if I was in exactly the same situation again, what would I do differently?” And that’s not about regret. It’s not about regretting, necessarily, how you handled that situation. It’s about saying, “What did I learn from that? And what would I take with me? And what would I leave behind when it comes to facing challenges again?”

So, this reflection is really important. And, again, like I said earlier about resilience, that reflection is never done. We have to keep doing this. But when it comes to our minds and how they work and mindset, we have to keep doing the work. But there’s also some really handy tools that you could use, some coaching techniques. Things like gratitude, for example, has been shown to help to boost resilience.

Because if you imagine that whether facing a huge challenge or lots of little challenges, sometimes that becomes overwhelming, and sometimes it takes our thinking and we can’t rethink outside of that. But even doing something really simple, like reflecting, either talking about, writing down something or three things that you’re grateful for that day can help you to shift that mindset. So, it shifts you just for a moment away from looking at what’s not going so well, towards actually something that could be going well in your life.

And these could be super simple things. It could be a phone conversation with someone you care about, or great coffee on the way to work, or a walk out in nature, or watching some TV program that you want to watch. They don’t have to be huge. Or, bedtime story with your children. So, there’s techniques like that that can help. And, also, another thing that I always recommend people focus on if you want to think about, “How do I equip myself to face future challenges?” there is a really underrated part of resilience which we rarely hear about that comes out of research and it’s part of my research as well and it’s in other published research, and that’s support, so people around you.

And I think, today more than ever, after going through a period of time where lots of us haven’t been out be around people we care about, necessarily, kind of face to face, and there has been some distance at times, I think we’re craving that even more so than ever. And, actually, in my book, some of the coaching strategies that I go through, I talk about support.

So, a really simple one, for example, is thinking about creating your own board of supporters. So, this means, imagine you’re running a company and you’ve got a board of directors that advise you on different parts of that business, they’ve got different areas of expertise. In the resilience world, we want a board of supporters, so you want to imagine your own table and you’ve got so many seats, whether that’s five seats, 10 seats, you can choose. I tend to work with ten. And you want people on that table that you trust and they support you in different ways.

So, for example, you might have someone who has expertise in something that you’re doing in life, whether that be starting a business or the industry you’re in, and they can advise on that. You might want people on there who are great at listening. So, they don’t necessarily offer advice but they listen to what you’re saying and they make you feel heard and validated. You might have people on there who are really good fun and they’re the people you go to when you kind of what to forget the challenge a little bit sometimes, and just go and concentrate on something else. And you’ve got people on there that care about you, that will offer some kind of support, and it’s very different for all of us.

But ultimately, when it comes to building our resilience, and getting us in a position where we feel like we could deal with challenges that come our way, to give yourself a better chance of being able to do that, having this group of people, whether it’s explicit and they know who they are, when you have that special, or whether it’s not, and you just know who they are…

Pete Mockaitis
You get to have quarterly meetings.

Gemma Roberts
Yeah, you could have quarterly meetings if you want to. I’m sure if you offered up a nice…some beverages and snacks, I’m sure people will come along, but it’s kind of just knowing as well yourself that you’ve got that support, and also identify in us. Because how often do we sit down and think, “I’m so grateful for that person, the advice they give or the support they give”? And on the flipside, think about who you are a support for as well because that also helps to build resilience when we are supporting someone else through their challenges.

Pete Mockaitis
And it gets me thinking about, you know, dig the well before you’re thirsty, like the basis sort of networking relationship principles. Like, you would be more capable of tackling big things if your board of supporters, if those relationships were in a good spot, as opposed to, “Oh, the last time I talked with this guy was three years ago when I was struggling with another business issue, and I’ve been doing a lot of taking and not a lot of giving.”

And so, that’s just sort of what’s leaping to my mind here, is to just go ahead and proactively, just as we would do some sleep…ideally, sleeping well, eating well, exercising well to build up a physical wealth to be ready to handle stuff, so, too, we would like to build up a relational wealth to be able to deal with stuff so that you do feel fully comfortable reaching out, as opposed to, “Oh, maybe I should…maybe that’s not appropriate, maybe I’ve been all take, take, take with this person over the last couple of years, and I don’t feel as good about reaching out now.”

Plus, I think there’s some research about loneliness stuff. It’s like when you most need to reach out to somebody, often it’s when you least feel like it, so you got those things to contend with. So, anyway, it’s what’s leaping to mind for me here, Gemma.

Gemma Roberts
And I think it’s quite like maybe we do need an audit. Maybe sometimes we do need to sit down and think, “Actually, have I checked in with that person lately, sent a message, or had a quick chat?” I think we’re all guilty of that sometimes, of some those things slip a little bit, or it’s very difficult to keep on to of it, but it is important. It’s important to check in and to make sure that we’re keeping that board of supporters there that’s going to help us, those are genuinely, because, again, I talk about this in the book as well, because connection is really important for us.

It’s really, really important that when we hit a challenge or when we go through a period of adversity in our life that we are connected to someone or people or a community that we feel like they’re going to help us. It’s very important for us to be connected to help other people as well because, again, there’s research that shows that if we’re supporting others, we generally feel better about it in our lives and we often feel better about the challenges that we’re facing as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so, when it comes to gratitude, there is a number of different approaches to a gratitude practice, and I’m thinking of Shawn Achor and Dr. Andrew Huberman here in terms of different flavors and approaches. Could you maybe list a few of them or identify your favorite in terms of, “Ooh, this has a great research base or a tremendous ROI in terms of a resilience per minute required of us”?

Gemma Roberts
The truth of it is we don’t entirely know exactly like the best full map for gratitude. So, Andrew Huberman, for example, in his podcast, has talked about gratitude from a neuroscience perspective, the most effective way to practice gratitude is actually not to think about the things you’re grateful for but think about stories where someone has thanked you for something, or think about stories where they thanked someone else. From a neuroscience perspective, that has shown the most promising results.

From a psychology perspective, there is research that shows that, actually, just everyday gratitude, so you actually being thankful to other people, can also provide great results for you as well. So, my advice for this is find what works for you and do it in a way that works for you. What we know across various studies, whether that be the new science world or in the psychology world, is that consistency is key. Like, that’s quite important, the consistency part. So, it could be that you do this every day or every evening at dinner, or every night before bed, or every morning, for a period of time.

I’m not saying you have to do this the rest of your life necessarily, although it’s quite a nice habit to get into, but it’s doing it for a good chunk of time. So, give yourself a month, for example, to do this. What’s really important is that you are very focused on the process of practicing gratitude when you’re doing it. So, you’re not thinking about something else at the same time and it has to be genuine as well.

Like, our brains know if we’re not being genuine. We can’t trick ourselves. You can’t just think, “Oh, I’m going to make a note of it. I’m just going to have a nice cup of coffee today, I’m not going to be bothered but, yeah, I’ll just jot that down.” It’s not going to work. You’ve got to be in the process and you’ve got to be really thinking about that interaction with someone or the thing that was really important to you.

So, the way that I tend to do it is I’ll pick a time of day, so whether it’s first thing in the morning, kind of set myself up for the day, or just before I go to bed, I’ll think about it. I’m actually starting to try and do this a bit with my children as well even though they’re quite small but they don’t really know what gratitude is yet, so they’re two and four. So, we’re just focusing on one fun thing that happened today, or one thing that was good today, that you mean somebody, ours is a very random, especially from the two-year-old.

But the point is we’re starting to focus on…because they do a lot of talking about some of the things that haven’t gone so well, like scrapes and cups and bangs and sisters fighting, and who did what. Actually, I’m trying to shift that focus a little bit to focus on, “Okay, yes, we have to…” And the other thing with gratitude is it’s not saying the challenges aren’t happening and it’s not ignoring them or not acknowledging them. It’s saying, “Yes, those things are happening but this stuff is also happening as well.” So, it’s kind of providing a bit more of a balanced view, even just for a moment. That’s often all it takes.

So, the truth is there is no one way of doing this. My advice is, and my advice, actually, most of the coaching strategies that I talk about in the book, is that test it, see what works for you, see how it works for you. Does it work jotting this down? Does it work doing this on a Friday as you’re wrapping up for the week? Does it work doing it on a Monday morning? Does it work doing every morning for you? Does it work at certain points in time? So, when you might start to feel that stress in your chest or you know sometimes that anxious feeling that you might get. Is that the time where it works for you?

It’s testing this stuff and, again, reflecting on “Has that been helpful? Has it changed my thinking process? Has it changed how I interact with the world or others in a more positive way?” and tweaking it where you need to, and kind of keep reflecting on that, making that reflection part of your kind of at least weekly life, I’d say.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s fun. And I guess, as I’ve been doing so, that reflection, one little nuance I’ve discovered is that when I re-read the list of gratitude bits, it’s a lot more powerful on the reflection if those pieces are somewhat unique. Like, in the same day, for example, I might feel gratitude that my wife made a sandwich, like, “Oh, good. I was hungry and here’s a sandwich. That’s great. Thank you.” So, I do have gratitude there.

But if I write that down, and then later I read it, I don’t as much feel a resurrection of the gratitude vibes, like, “Oh, yes,” because it’s not that novel. It’s like, “Yes, I was hungry and then I ate. It happened. It’s happened thousands of times over my lifetime,” versus, on the same day, maybe I did a puzzle with my kids. They’re three and four, so also young. And then Mary immediately says, “Dance party.” She just wants to celebrate having finished the last piece of the puzzle, and just immediately says, “Dance party,” and start doing her thing.

So, I’m very grateful that that occurred, that I had that moment and that memory. And I guess that’s sort of my distinction, I guess, in terms of I’m grateful for this thing and it’s like it “qualifies” as a memory. And in subsequent reflection, I go, “Oh, yeah, that thing was really lovely. And, oh, yeah, that thing was really lovely.” And it gives me more of a jolt than if it’s just a very ordinary, like, “Had a great coffee. Had another great coffee.” So, that’s my experience. I don’t know if there’s research on it or maybe that’s your whole point, reflect on what works for you.

Gemma Roberts
Hundred percent, that’s the point, I reflect. And the novelty part, so I talk a little bit in the book about novelty as well. That’s how our brains remember things, and, also, we really seek novelty. That’s interesting for us, that keeps life ingesting. It keeps us learning. We learn these things through novelty. So, we’re kind of hardwired for curiosity and novelty, so we want to embrace that as much as possible. So, I think most people will find that if there’s something to be grateful for that is kind of out of the ordinary, that’s the stuff we’re going to remember, that’s the stuff that’s going to make a big impact.

However, we’re not going to have that every day potentially. And it’s also really important sometimes, again, talking about mindset perspective, because perspective is a huge part of resilience, sometimes we kind of need to remind ourselves about those little things as well. And even though making a sandwich, for example, or my husband making me a nice cup…he’s like the chief coffee-maker in our house. And sometimes I have to really think, because sometimes I’m like, “Oh, thanks. That’s really lovely.” And I do appreciate it. Sometimes I have to really sit down and think, “Actually, that’s really kind that he does that all the time, like way more than I do. And, actually, maybe I should be a bit kinder in one way or another.”

But sometimes we can miss those kind of everyday normal things to be thankful for. So, I definitely think there’s a place or room in our lives to reflect on some of those things as well. But I know that’s hard because it feels so normal, it feels so every day, that sometimes we don’t appreciate some of those things until they’re not there anymore.

Pete Mockaitis
Exactly. And that’s where I was going to go, is when you reflect upon the absence, or, “Hey, there was a time in my life when this did not exist. Remember that? See how this is so much better? Huh? Yeah, that is cool having a chief coffee-maker right there.” Well, your book is called Mindset Matters: Developing Mental Agility and Resilience to Thrive in Uncertainty. We talked about resilience. What’s mental agility and how do we get more of it?

Gemma Roberts
So, mental agility has a lot do with kind of being flexible in how we look at the world and how we process information. And, I guess at the heart of it, it’s not being wedded to one way of doing things or one way of thinking. So, there’s a lot in there about, I talk a little bit about curiosity. So, being curious, nurturing curiosity, remaining curious even when things are really challenging, and there are some things you can do around that. Like, pretty simple things.

For example, let’s say that you commute every day and you get to board a train into the city and you walk the same way every day to work, pick up your coffee from the nice coffee shop you always go to, or pick up breakfast from the place that you love. That’s amazing but sometimes you can force yourself to go a different route and stumble across a completely different street or another little coffee shop that you haven’t seen before. Especially, I used to do a lot of work in London, for example, less so kind of commuting since the pandemic. But, especially in the city, there are little tiny windy streets, you could get to the same place in a completely different way at different times.

Or, it could be things like going to an art gallery. Like, I’m not really into art galleries, if I’m honest. I’m not really into museums, particularly, unless it’s about a topic that I love. But sometimes it’s about kind of forcing ourselves to go and experience these things just because you might learn something, you might pick up something over here, an idea that later on down the line connects to something completely different to what you’re doing. So, that’s part of mental agility, this idea of being curious, but also being able to challenge your perspective and also broaden your perspective.

So, I guess, when I first started out as a psychologist, when I was doing my undergraduate degree, I thought I was going to university to learn how people think and be able to help people think in the best way for them. And I thought I was going to go and do my undergraduate degree and find out the best way to think about challenges, or the best way to think to create success, and I had a complete shock when I found out that doesn’t exist.

And, actually, I remember the feeling. I remember coming away from a lecture one day, and thinking, “I feel like my world is like crashing down here,” because everything I thought, there was a right way. I thought there was a right way of thinking, I thought there was a right way of doing things, and I’ve just been told that, actually, there are a whole bunch of completely opposing theories, ideas, ways of doing things that can all work for certain people at certain points in time, potentially, and there’s no answer.

And I remember my perspective of the world being a little bit shattered. It sounds very dramatic but it did take me a while to kind of get my head around what being a psychologist was going to mean. But that’s the key point, is that I come to a situation with a perspective, I’ve got one perspective; there are hundreds of other ways to see that situation. So, mental agility, part of that, is training ourselves, firstly, to acknowledge that you got one perspective and there are loads of other perspectives out there. And, secondly, to seek out those other perspectives. Like, you, ideally, want to.

And it’s not that diagnosing other people, or how they look at the world, or being able to put them in a box and you’re in a different box. It’s not that. But it’s about thinking how else could you look at this situation, how else could you look at this problem or this challenge, how do other people look. Ask them. Find out those questions. It’s things like consuming your news from different sources, not just one source. Or, if you’re a fiction reader, generally, read a nonfiction book, or vice versa.

And also, particularly in those heated situations with someone where you’re coming in strong with a perspective. Where you can is taking that time to take a step back and remember that you’re not necessarily right. You might be. Or there could be lots of rights. There could be ten different right ways to look at this. So, that’s part of mental agility is, first, being able to kind of move between ideas quickly, so you’re broadening that perspective, so you’re keeping that curious mindset, but also being able to see other perspectives as well, and training yourself to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, that sounds handy, both in terms of problem-solving in the context of, “Hey, here’s a big tricky thing. Oh, because I have multiple perspectives, I have a greater chance of being able to crack it,” as well as, I’m imagining just like emotionally realizing that when you’re in a moment of, “This sucks. I hate this. I’m suffering. I want to stop immediately,” if you’ve got some great mental agility, you can say, “Well, actually, this might sort of be helpful in some ways, like, A, B, C. I’d still rather not deal with it but it’s not totally worthless.”

Gemma Roberts
Yup, hundred percent. It changes the way you look at challenges and the situations. And, honestly, let’s be honest, some of the big challenges we have to deal with in life, we would never want to face those, we would never wish them upon people, and we’ve got to be a little bit careful in the resilience world in that, I don’t want to be like, “Oh, it’s amazing. The more challenges, the better for all of us,” because obviously, challenges can bring pain, and they can bring discomfort, and they can bring upset, and you can feel unsettled or overwhelmed or anxious.

And that exists. We can’t deny that. But we can’t change that, so the only thing that we can do is find ways to look after ourselves and to deal with those situations in the best way that we can. And, by the way, it is completely acceptable to fall apart when things are not going well. It is completely acceptable to feel overwhelmed, anxious, stressed, depressed, all the things. That is okay. It’s not necessarily about denying that or changing that straight away. It’s about moving things in the direction that works for you over time. You don’t have to do that straight away.

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

Gemma Roberts
I understand the concept of resilience is complicated. I do understand. Like, there’s a reason I’m doing doctoral research in the area because there’s still a lot of stuff that we’re still learning as well as psychologists. But my biggest hit, if you’re thinking about yourself and how you cope with challenges and uncertainty is, firstly, get to know yourself, get to know what’s happening to you, reflect on that, build your self-awareness.

Again, it’s never done. I still have to do that always. I still sometimes have to sit back and think, “Why did I react like that? That was completely like not appropriate response considering the challenge.” Like, in my head, it does not really matter but that’s how I feel about it. So, get to know yourself. And, also, just keep testing. Just keep testing what works for you. All we can do is try. And my intention is always to get better at this stuff, to grow, to develop, to learn. And I think that’s all we can have in these situations.

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

Gemma Roberts
So, one of my favorite quotes is “You can’t stop the waves from crashing but you can learn to surf.” And lots of people have used this, and so it can’t be attributed to one person but, basically, that’s what resilience is. We can’t stop the waves. We don’t know how big they’re going to be, but we can learn to use it in one way or another. You may not want to be surfing. You might rather be out in the water. I don’t really want to be surfing. I’m not a natural but, equally, I know that I can learn to do that if I need to.

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

Gemma Roberts
Well, this might be a bit of a strange answer, I guess, but probably my research. Essentially, my piece of research is looking at the factors that impact resilience for leaders. So, how much of it is down to the individual? How much of it is down to the environment? How much of it is down to the teams they work with?

it’s been a real kind of privilege to delve deep into that, to understand a bit more about how resilience changes for each of us at each moment in time, and why, and what we can do about that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Gemma Roberts
A favorite book, well, my most gifted book, it must be one of my favorites is The Chimp Paradox by Professor Steve Peters. So, the whole point of the book is that it focuses on how our minds work, how we talk to ourselves in our minds. And it uses kind of quite a comical tone in some places. It talks about some complex psychology. So, it’s easy-ish, I’d say it’s quite easy to understand. It’s quite accessible but also quite amusing as well.

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

Gemma Roberts
I’m not sure I am awesome at my job. Certainly not every day, that’s for sure. My favorite tool is probably getting help where I need it, and that’s taken quite a long time to get in place. So, I have various people that support different parts of my business and different parts of my work because I’m not an expert in everything.

And I think, over time, I’ve got to know the bits that I’m good at – so explaining complicated things, turning into tools that are very accessible, like research, making it practical. But I’m not so great at marketing, or, I don’t know, I’m trying to think of something else I’m not great at, managing my diary, it’s like that, so I’ve got people around me. Over time, I’ve built that out. I guess it’s a little bit like my board of supporters but it’s in a work context, but it’s getting the support where I need it.

And, also, sometimes I find that quite overwhelming because I think to myself, “I’ve got to do this new thing,” or, “I need to outsource something,” and I just don’t know where to start. And I’ve slowly started to get into the process of thinking actually, I always find that support when the time is right and when it’s the right person. Sometimes you’ve just got to wait for the right person to kind of show up to help with that. So, that’s got a little bit easy. I also find it very hard to let go of some of this stuff as well.

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

Gemma Roberts
the point that resilience changes over time and it’s different on different days, that’s the stuff that I hear time and time again, whether working with individuals or when working with groups of people. I think it’s quite comforting that there is no…the end goal is not to be resilient. I think that’s probably one of the key things that I talk about. It is giving yourself the tools to be able to deal with challenges that can help you to be resilient but it doesn’t make you resilient.

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

Gemma Roberts
Probably my website, so GemmaLeighRoberts.com because everything I kind of do is on this. Like, courses and books and all of that jazz is on the website.

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

Gemma Roberts
Yes, I do. So, challenge yourself, at least this week, and try and build this into every week if you can. Take 20 minutes at the end of each week to just do a little bit of reflection. I know I keep talking about it, but this honestly helps you to get better and better. So, think about that continuous improvement over time. If you can get 1%, even half a percent better at what you do each week over time, you’re going to see big results.

So, there’s three things that I would focus on. First of all, you review how that week has gone for you. So, you literally, “What’s gone well? What hasn’t gone well?” That’s it. And then you think about refine, “Okay, so how can I refine some of that stuff that didn’t go so well? What could I do a little tiny bit better, just a tiny bit better?” And the third step is repeat. You just keep doing this over time. It comes back to that reflection so you’re very conscious of what’s going on, you’re very aware. Tiny, tiny, tiny tweaks to make things slightly better, and just keep repeating. That’s the consistency.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Gemma, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and mental agility and resilience.

Gemma Roberts
Thanks very much.

771: How to Own Your Career and Build Your Dream Job with Ann Hiatt

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Ann Hiatt shares valuable lessons learned on career development from her 15 years working alongside Silicon Valley’s top CEOs.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The top three things you can do to develop your career 
  2. How to deal with the pressures of big-impact opportunities
  3. How to carve out your path to promotion when there is none 

About Ann

Ann Hiatt is a best selling author, executive consultant, speaker, and investor. She is a Silicon Valley veteran with 15 years experience reporting directly to CEOs Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Eric Schmidt (Google/Alphabet). 

She has published articles in publications such as Harvard Business Review, Fast Company and CNBC. She has also contributed to articles in The New York Times, Economic Times, The Financial Times and Forbes. Her first book, Bet On Yourself, was published by HarperCollins in 2021. 

Resources Mentioned

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Ann Hiatt Interview Transcript

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

Ann Hiatt
Thanks very much. I’m excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m excited to hear your wisdom. And I’d love it if you could kick us off by sharing a story or two that was particularly instructive for you and career and being awesome at your job working with Jeff Bezos, Eric Schmidt, Marissa Mayer. Give us something that’s inside scoop.

Ann Hiatt
Absolutely it’s been the greatest privilege of my life to have been able to work so intimately and closely with some of the greatest business minds of our generation. I would say that that story actually started a little bit before my very first job working for Jeff Bezos.

So, my very first job at 16 years old, when my friends were working at Burger King and the library, I worked at a five-person startup founded by two brothers who had just graduated from Harvard Business School. So, that was my first taste of entrepreneurism and gave me some of my instincts. I made all of my very novice mistakes with them. And, yeah, my very first job after university was working directly for Jeff Bezos.

And we could talk literally for days and days and I wouldn’t run out of stories of the stories of these entrepreneurs. But I think the foundation really was set there in the beginning. Each of these environments taught me to be a bold risk-taker. Even though my nature is not bold and fearless, I was nurtured into that very much by this entrepreneurial environment that I found myself in.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, yeah, I bet there’s many, many stories but I’m going to put you on the spot for one. Are there words that reverberate in your head frequently as you’re making decisions, navigating your career, wondering which way to go, and you hear Jeff or Marissa or Eric in your mind’s ear, and say, “You know what, okay, yeah, we’ll do this thing”?

Ann Hiatt
That happens constantly, actually. Even though I left Google, let’s see, almost four years ago and Amazon much longer than that, more than a decade ago, but I can still very much hear them in my head. I think from Jeff, if I had to pick a single word, it is relentless. He is relentless in the pursuit of his passions. He’s relentless in his enthusiasm for his vision of where he wants to take the company. And, in fact, this is a little-known fact, if you go to Relentless.com, it redirects to Amazon. That is how much of a core value that is for the way he approaches his work and what he is doing or was doing at Amazon.

From Marissa, I really learned to focus on the people. It’s much more about the who than the what and the how. You need to be laser focused on exactly who your clients or your customers or users are, and understand not only the needs under their feet today but really anticipate the needs of the future. And understanding those needs of the people you’re trying to serve is important, but, equally, if not more important, is the people you have on the team. I really learned to hire the best possible talented team that you can find.

And from Eric, I really learned the value of insatiable curiosity. He is somebody who will ask about a hundred more questions than a normal person would about any given topic. And so that relentless pursuit of curiosity in new information and expanding his knowledge, those are key attributes that I call upon now as an entrepreneur myself and trying to instill in my CEO clients as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s beautiful. And so then, I imagine there are times when something seems harder than it should be.

Ann Hiatt
So many.

Pete Mockaitis
Can I just get a real-time cortisol monitor? Apparently, there is but they’re not commercially available for the public, so I’m going to have to hunt down some people who wrote some papers. So be it. There’s some relentlessness and curiosity at work as opposed to, “Oh, I guess I’ll just wait three years. Maybe it’ll be around them. Okay.”

Well, then let’s hear about your book. What’s the big idea or main message here Bet on Yourself: Recognize, Own, and Implement Breakthrough Opportunities? What’s the core idea here?

Ann Hiatt
So, this book is my attempt at creating a playlist, taking the best practices of these seemingly super performers that I’ve worked for and translating it for us “normal people.” I have felt such a privilege of working with these incredible minds and not only learning their best practices but experiencing things, moments in time that probably will never happen again.

The dawn of the internet will never happen again, Jeff inventing the gold standard of e-commerce will never happen again, the constant innovation cycles of Google. I really saw some things that were very privileged to experience and I felt a responsibility to pay that forward. So, my book Bet on Yourself is my attempt to give you that playbook of best practices that I think are applicable regardless of your growth stage, whether you’re an intrapreneur or an entrepreneur, regardless of industry, these are some of those gold standard best practices that everyone can benefit from.

And I use my career as a case study in the book to show you that anyone with some ambition and clear goals in their mind can engineer serendipity and create opportunities for themselves. So, I kind of walked through some of these crazy moments in time and reverse-engineer a little bit of some of the luck and very, very hard work that went into those moments.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s cool. Well, I’m excited to dig into the particulars. But maybe to inspire the ordinary people like myself, is there a cool story you could share of maybe a client or a reader who took action on a particular principle and saw a pretty amazing breakthrough from it?

Ann Hiatt
I have a client now who’s working in the food tech space, he is incredibly talented. He was doing a PhD in chemistry and material sciences and discovered mycelium-based protein structure and learned to manipulate in a really unique way, so he’s creating this alternative meat product.

So, when I first met him and worked with him, it was a referral from a common friend of ours, and it was a very, very early growth-stage company of about 30 people. And now, today, he’s just close to Series C, and he’s got contracts literally all over the world for this incredible product that he’s invented. I think he is among my star examples of doing some big, bold risk-taking. He’s doing something that no one’s ever done before.

So, when you’re doing that, you don’t even have the dashboards or the metrics, you don’t even know what you should be measuring quite yet. He’d never produced a product like that before but he really has adopted these principles of insatiable curiosity, of humble leadership, of not only tolerating the demanding pushback and peer review from his employees, and he’s really been very focused on not only hiring the best talent he can find but hiring for passion and mission alignment above all else.

If you get really smart people in the door who are driven and determined to see your vision through, you can teach those people to do anything. And so, I think hiring for that value and mission alignment has been essential. I’m just incredibly proud of what he’s doing.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, I like that there. You can teach them to do anything. I think that resonates. And I guess, there’s just a little bit of what you said in terms of like aptitude and different…I would not be the guy you want to hire to be your contractor even if I’m super fired up about building your dream home, Ann. I was like, “I’ll just learn drywall and plumbing and electrical. No problem, I’ll just learn it.”

Ann Hiatt
I don’t know, I believe you know. I think you can figure it out.

Pete Mockaitis
I would need maybe four draft homes before I did the real one. But that said, people generally have strengths with, I don’t know, people or things or, what’s that world of work, or data or ideas. But within that, sure, that totally resonates. Okay. Well, let’s dig in then. So, us ordinary folks, can you lay it on us a few do’s and don’ts in terms of, as we’re kind of maybe in the middle of, say, medium to large organization, not at the top and not at the bottom, we’re just sort of making our way in terms of career, what are the top things you recommend people do and don’t do to really develop and move quickly?

Ann Hiatt
I love this question. I think three things come to mind. If you’re mid in your organization, there can be a really important mindset shift that you can make, and this is the way that you put yourself back in the driver seat of your career. A lot of us feel very disrupted coming out of the pandemic, opportunities might seem to have disappeared, everything got turned upside down, so these steps are particularly relevant for this moment in time.

And the first is to be very clear with yourself. What do you want out of this next stage in your career? What do you want to learn? What expertise do you want to become known for? What teams do you want to learn how to lead, or projects? What is your specialization? How are people going to recommend you for jobs in the future? And so, first, you have to have that conversation with yourself and be very clear on that.

And then, second is then share that with your mentors and sponsors within work. So, have that conversation with your manager, of, “This is where my skillset lies. My interests, my goals, my talents are here. I would love your idea of ways that I can utilize that or expand my influence on this team.” The way you get a yes to that is, one, expressing your interests and helping them know how you’re trying to evolve. And second is what I call creating a win-win-win.

The first part of that conversation you have with yourself of what you want in exchange for your very hard work every day. Two is look at your manager’s responsibilities and see what she or he has been tasked to do within the team on the big bet of the company. If you can allow her to delegate something to you, that frees her up to have bigger impact and look good in front of her boss, and that gives you an opportunity to grow into that area.

And the third element of that win-win-win is understanding “What are the primary goals and objectives of the company right now? And how can I align myself with where the company, the skillset, the reputation, the energy, the relentlessness that they might need? And how can I exemplify that?” When those three things are in place, you’re going to get yes every time. Even if the project you want to work on is outside your job description or your current seniority, that’s a great way to open the door for yourself.

So, that’s, I think, element number one for my fellow intrapreneurs out there. Number two, I think is seeking out leaders that you not only like but you want to become like. Now, not every manager is worthy of this. I can appreciate it, especially in your career, you might be working for someone whose leadership style you don’t want to emulate in the future. If that’s true, maybe look for an opportunity to have a cross-functional project or work on something outside your team.

Or, if that’s not even available to you within your organization, maybe volunteering in the community and seeking out a leader who is exemplifying the way you want to manage a team, or is really good under pressure, or is able to exemplify some of those habits that you hope to have in the future. So, surrounding yourself with the best people possible, especially among the leaders you’re working for.

And then I would say the third that comes to mind is proactively disrupting yourself. Now, this probably is not something that many people are seeking out right now because we feel like we’ve had enough disruption, and I can definitely sympathize with that feeling. But what I mean by this is create a checklist for yourself where you’re expanding your skills, your expertise, and you’re up-leveling very consistently before the market or your team or your manager can do it for you.

And that goes back to point number one, which is knowing exactly what you want out of this phase in your career, and finding a place where your team, your company’s goals are in aligned with that. If you think of those three things are in place, intrapreneurs can feel extremely empowered rather than passive and reactive to these items I’ve given, and that feels really, really good, especially in this moment in time when we’re all craving that feeling again.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’d love it if you could give us some example articulations of being precise with what you want because I’m imagining, “I want to kind of be better at Excel,” may not be quite what you’re imagining or suggesting when you say, “Be really clear on what you want.” Can we hear some sample articulations?

Ann Hiatt
So true. So, I actually did this exercise for myself when I left Google after 12 years, and decided to found my own company. I sat down to write my mission, vision, and value statements, as many do, as part of your business planning. And I found that exercise to be a little bit exhausting. In fact, I created a free download on my website, on the book’s website BetonYourselfBook.com, to download it because I found it so hard to do myself. I think it’s a 14-page download but I walk you through how to create meaningful value statements.

I learned this from Jeff Bezos, actually. I started working for Jeff in 2002 in the very early years of the company. He’d officially founded it in 1994 but he was just getting traction right about the time that I started. If you can imagine a time when Amazon was not yet profitable, they had had a single profitable quarter but not yet a profitable year, so that’s the moment in time I’m talking about. I know it feels like a wild money-printing machine right now.

But Jeff really doubled down on creating very clear leadership principles for his entire team because really important decisions were being made in rooms that he no longer could be in. He just had to replicate his thought process across the company as fast as possible. So, I saw him work with three of his SVPs to draft the now-famous Amazon leadership principles. At the time there were 10, then it became 14, and now there are 16 with Andy Jassy as the CEO.

And I encourage you to do that even as an intrapreneur. You don’t have to be in your garage starting something with your computer or going to Silicon Valley and looking for venture capital funds. I really encourage you to do this for your own life and career. And first, it starts with that mission statement, “What is the reputation or the living legacy I want to be leaving right now?” Now, whenever I propose that to a client, they feel a little overwhelmed, especially if they’re early in their career, thinking about legacy, but I think it’s a nice clarifying question, to be like, “What do I want in exchange for this?”

My career in tech has been intense. I’ve definitely worked really long days. There were periods of time I was working 18 hours a day and every weekend, and I didn’t burn out because one thing was true. I knew exactly what I wanted in exchange for my very hard work. I was willing to have that be a very high bar. I worked incredibly hard but I knew what I wanted in return. So, that’s what I wanted to learn, who I wanted to become, and the stages on which I wanted to stand in the future.

And so, I think, in writing your mission statement, think about that. Who do you want to be serving? Why is that you? What about your background, your talents, your desires, your drive makes you uniquely qualified to get there? And then surround yourself with the very best people who can supplement any weaknesses or lack of experience that you might have. Does that answer it?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear the importance, like, “Yeah, that makes sense.” If you got that kind of clarity there, then you can have that sense of purpose, that mojo, that motivation, that inspiration to persist in those intense times. So, that totally checks out. I guess, so the articulation then is not merely one sentence but rather pretty detailed in terms of we got a mission, we got a vision, we got some values. Can you give us some examples of what those could sound like?

Ann Hiatt
Sure. So, mine has taken me quite a while to put together, and I am allowing to be a living, breathing thing that will evolve with me and my work. So, at the moment, my mission statement is that I am here to discover and empower underrepresented entrepreneurs through actionable education and mentorship.

Now, the first word in that statement was the last one I added because, at first, it was just to empower underrepresented entrepreneurs through actionable education and mentorship. But I realized that a lot of people were not yet self-identifying as an entrepreneur. They’re like, “Well, I’m early in my career,” or, “I’m a mid-level manager,” and so I really wanted to wake that up in people and help them discover it. I wanted to seek them out where they were right now as someone trying to get that big first promotion or own the dream client. I wanted to wake that up in them.

Now, the reason that mission statement was important for me to evolve, it really took quite a lot of like heads-down work and testing it, but it’s important because it helps me know what projects to say yes to now. It helps me if I have a limited number of time. I know I’m going to prioritize an underrepresented entrepreneur over someone that I feel is already well served. If it’s an opportunity to help someone discover their inner entrepreneur, I’m going to say yes to that, for example. Maybe university that has a lower-speaking fee than somewhere else, I’m going to prioritize that over maybe people who are already in a privileged position as an entrepreneur, for example.

So, what you really want is your mission statement to be specific and time-bound, like, “What do I want to deliver right now?” And I think that’s really helped me show up in the right way. When I first started my company, I had to try on a bunch of things and learned the hard way of what I was and wasn’t good at, what excited me, who I was best suited to serve, what did that look like, what stage in their growth are they. So, it took a lot of experimentation.

So, don’t think that just sitting down for 30 minutes is going to be one and done with this mission statement. But you know you have an effective one when it allows you to make much clearer decisions and show up in the right way that is rewarding and exciting to you rather than draining and diminishing.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s the mission piece. How about vision?

Ann Hiatt
So, my vision is more about “What am I putting into the world? Am I going to say yes to just the highest-paying project?” For me, I really want to be mission-aligned with you. I want to be working with, for me and my consulting business, I want to work for entrepreneurs who are making a change, I, too, want to see in the world. I’m very attracted to anything around climate change, anything about empowering new generations of entrepreneurs, or expanding education opportunities.

So, that gives me kind of a checklist in my head. There’s just a lot of places you can show up in the world, and I really am value-aligned with that, and I find it if I’m working on a project. For example, I have a friend who started an incredible SaaS company, software-as-a-service company, and I think he’s amazing, and I’ve done a little bit of like helpful advice and coffee chats with him, but it doesn’t wake me up. I’m much more excited to be working on mycelium-based protein alternatives because I think that’s important for the future world that I want to create.

So, it’s often the decisions choosing between good and good are, I think, a lot harder than the good and bad, and having a really clear purpose statement helps me show up in ways that are most meaningful to me.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And let’s hear some values.

Ann Hiatt
So, my values are who I want to be and who I want to surround myself with. So, for me, especially coming out of Silicon Valley, I really drank the Kool-Aid. I am excited by people who are big thinkers and big dreamers. My values are people who want to live up to what is now a cliché of Silicon Valley, of making the world a better place.

I value being around people who are insatiably curious and smart and collaborative and kind, who aren’t competitive in the negative sense but showing up in a very resilient passionate way. And so, my values really come around…circle around the types of people I want to surround myself with through my work and through my consulting.

Pete Mockaitis
You said the word resilient, and I did want to zoom in on this a little bit. I had a podcast guest, I love it, Liz Fosslien is her name. She had a few great posts about “Just be resilient.” It’s really a cop-out when organizations throw that your way. But I guess, as I’m imagining a world in which you are zeroing in on sort of big-impact opportunities and going after them, there’s a lot of fun and excitement associated with that but then there’s also going to be a lot of pressure and expectation that comes with that, and potentially long hours and some exhaustion.

So, tell us, is there anything in the realm of resilience or self-care or support systems that you recommend that can make all the difference when you’re playing a bigger game with bigger set of pressures on you?

Ann Hiatt
I’m going to answer that in two different ways but I promise they’re connected. So, in order for me, as a, by nature, a timid, cautious, perfectionist person, that is the nature with which I was born, I am a perfectionist, all the negative definitions of that. Like, I’m afraid of starting something without being 100% sure that I can do it perfectly. That would’ve led to a very small life had I not been nurtured out of that by this crazy environment I found myself in in tech.

One of the most pivotal moments in my life, a sliding door moment for me was discovering Carol Dweck’s book called Mindset, and even if you only read the introduction, I think it could change a lot of people’s lives. In the introduction, she introduces the premise that there are two different mindsets. There’s the learning mindset and there’s the performance mindset.

As a perfectionist, I was in the performance mindset. I was not consciously thinking this but I was assuming that I was born with a certain set of skills and abilities, and anything that went beyond that would just discover and out me for all my imperfections. That’s a performance mindset. You want to know you can get a 100% on everything you tried.

Now, if you’re in a learning mindset, you have the mindset that you, with extra effort and time and practice, can increase your abilities, that if you try something, the first time you get 80 out of a 100, then the next time you’ll be better informed and learned from your mistakes, you’ll get 85 and progressively can increase your skills.

I don’t know, that was such a lightbulb moment for me, to be like, “Oh, if I am uncovered…” this is where impostor syndrome comes from, and you hold yourself back if you’re aware that, “If they discovered that I can’t yet do this, that means I never can and they won’t trust me anymore.” So, being nurtured out of that, really helped me with that resilience of, because I failed now, I am equipped with tools that I did not have in my toolbelt before and I want to be able to show up smarter, stronger, and better for it after that.

And so, I think resilience is much more is first about your internal mindset. And then the second way I’m going to answer this is in seeking out those teams. I was very privileged to work in companies that not only rewarded that behavior; they demanded it. So, I want to acknowledge that not all families, not all communities, not all companies are embracing of this. But if you can seek out a community of like-minded people where you have that psychological safety to experiment and to try some things and learn to trust yourself, that’s when work gets really, really fun.

In fact, I’m training for a half marathon right now. I’ve ran a few before but that was pre-pandemic and I’m not the same person I was then. So, I’ve got this Peloton trainer I listen to while I’m running, and she just said on my run yesterday something that super resonates around this resilience. She said, “You can’t push yourself until you trust yourself.”

So, start with that internal work first and know, like, “I can do that one more step. I will be stronger tomorrow than I was today because I showed up in this way.” And so, I think those two elements need to be there. Trusting yourself and then being in an environment that rewards, supports, and encourages that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And then, it sounds like a lot of the work is kind of just foundational in establishing, okay, the mission, the vision, the values, what strengths, what am I good at, what am I going for, what specifically do I want in this role. And then, thinking about some of like the daily habits and practices, what do you recommend when we zoom in at that level to be some key do’s and don’ts for professionals?

Ann Hiatt
I think my first thought is around this element of curiosity. So, all of the incredible super performing CEOs I worked for displayed this in kind of Olympic levels of curiosity. For Jeff Bezos, he did a quarterly thinking retreat. Not all of us have the freedom to do what I’m about to describe but I will translate this for us normal people.

But what he did was, for one week every single quarter, he would lock himself into a hotel room away from his family, from work, from everything, and removed all external stimulus – no newspapers, no phone, no conversations, no nothing – and he would just starve himself of external influences. And then the second half of the week, the only thing he brought with him was a blank Moleskine notebook, and those notebooks are full of ideas. I literally see them launching today. That’s how forward-thinking he was in those moments.

Now, most of us don’t have the freedom to take an entire week off just to think and sit in a room and dream of the future. So, the way that I’ve tried to adapt that for myself is, in the middle of my career, when I was already working very, very long days, I realized that I needed to take good care of my mental and my physical health, to be able to not only survive. But thrive in those very intense environments, it was important to prioritize that.

So, I started having non-negotiables with my teams or with my boss. And so, for example, I started working out with a trainer for the first time in my whole life. It was so hard in the beginning but I had this protected hour from 7:00 to 8:00 a.m. every single day, my phone was not with me. Now, I was working at Google at the time so my gym was literally in the first floor of the building that I worked in.

And so, I said, “Okay, if you actually need me, send my assistant down to get me.” And in the nine years that I kept that practice of taking care of my physical health first before I got to my desk, there were only three times when my assistant had to come down and ask me to come up. So, that really showed me that I can give myself permission to do this hour. The world is not going to fall apart if I take care of myself first.

And I think building in that type of resilience and prioritizing, and especially now, as an entrepreneur, I’m really trying to focus also on my mental health, of giving myself that space to think. And that’s another way I’ve translated what Jeff’s practice of this thinking retreats and being really curious, is now I have these protected hours every day where I’m just reading, reflecting, writing, consuming, because so much of consulting is give, give, giving and I need to replenish my expertise and my knowledge, and just give my brain that space to be creative and to be a connector. So, that’s one of many, many, like Olympic practices that I’ve tried to translate into my work and life.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, whether we are spending an hour or a week in this rampant ideation – this sounds like a blast to me, I like it – creative zone, well, one practice is blocking out stuff, although it sounds like, in your world, you are letting in particular things. So, maybe zoom in a little bit, like what are we doing? Are we just sort of sitting there, like, “Hmm” write, write, write? Are there any key question prompts or initial fodder or reading materials that get things going here?

Ann Hiatt
I think your instinct is right. This absolutely needs to be dialed in for each individual. So, the way in which you kind of fill yourself back up in order to give, give, and give, what’s required at home and like your family and at work, I think that’s unique to the individual. So, for me, because my work is in giving advice, and also having this international breadth of understanding of where tech is moving in the world right now, my clients really need me to have that kind of global perspective.

I can’t do that without having time to consume all the information. So, one for me is just, personally, I love to read, I love to listen to podcasts, I love hearing and being exposed to some of the greatest thinkers in the world. So, in and of itself, even if that wasn’t directly demanded of me for my job, I would be doing that anyway.

So, that’s something that fills me up. Even if I’m not reading something for work, I just know that makes me happy. The second thing is I know I need sunshine.

I grew up in Seattle. Most of my life, I did not have that daily dose of sunshine. The second I moved to California for grad school, and now I live in Spain, I know that it’s just like instant happiness for me. So, if I get outside in fresh air and get some sunshine on my face, that’s an instant mood boost for me. Each person is going to be a little bit different. I know I’ll have a good day if I’ve moved my body, if I filled my mind, and if I go outside in nature.

For each person, that’s different. Like, maybe it’s playing with your kids or your dog. Maybe it is in a creative pursuit. You need to paint or create something with your hands. So, ask yourself, “What, for me, even when I am working on it really, really hard and I remain far away from the finish line of whatever goal it is I’m working on, I finish the day feeling like I have been filled up rather than drained?”

So, I think those types of pursuits are always things you want to be seeking out. Like, even if you’re not perfect at it, maybe you’re training for a marathon like I am right now, and trust me, I’m horrible. I’m not doing this because I have any hope of winning anything. Hopefully, maybe hope you are. But just think about that, of what fills you up and fills you with joy regardless of the outcome, that you don’t want to be measuring those rejuvenation periods on the same scale as you are with your work or performance.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then I’m curious, so let’s say you’re doing all these things and you’re just rocking and rolling, delivering value all over the place, and it seems like, unfortunately, the meritocratic forces in your organization are broken. It’s like, “Oh, you can’t be promoted until someone dies or moves to another role, and they’re probably not going to do that for six years.” How do you think about that when you’re there?

Ann Hiatt
Been there, done that. I absolutely know that struggle intimately. As I mentioned, I worked at Google for 12 years so it was really on me to have to reinvent myself, and I tended to do it in kind of three-year cycles. I would be challenged in the beginning and learning a lot, then I get into my zone of genius and start doing it really well, and then, after that, I would start to get the itch of like, “What’s next?”

And nobody, even at a company as innovative and driven as Google, nobody ever came to me once and said, “Oh, Ann, I’ve noticed you’ve had this untapped talent or interest, and I’ve been thinking about how to apply it.” That just doesn’t happen. That’s your job. So, I think it comes back to having that conversation with yourself and knowing exactly what you want to go for.

So, after about, let’s see, six years at Google, so halfway through my tenure there, I had this idea for a role that I think would really elevate not only my work but the work of my manager who, at the time, was Eric Schmidt, the CEO. And I had seen, we were doing a lot of policy work at the time, and I had seen this role of chief of staff in government, at the White House, in military, for example, and I thought, “That is what he needs.”

I had been this business partner for him, I’d been kind of a thought leader with him, I was kind of that safe space for him to debate ideas, and I thought, “If I could take my job to the next level, it would look like chief of staff.” Eric thought it was a good idea, had me brainstorm, write the job description. I took it to HR and it literally took me three years to fully realize what I wanted in that job.

And so, in the end, I was the very first chief of staff at Google ever, and now it’s pervasive throughout tech and now moving beyond that. But I can tell you right now, I had a conversation, in fact, with my HR rep the day I left for Christmas holidays and it made cry because she, basically, just squashed it and said, “If you want that type of thing, you might want to consider looking elsewhere,” and I wasn’t ready to do that yet but then, eventually, I moved on.

So, I’ve had those really hard conversations but I think it comes back to that knowing what you want, seeing how that solves a problem for your manager, and proving how that’s best for the company. In the end, either you’re going to get it, which I did after a couple of year’s fight, and then, eventually, I needed to move on in order to have the kind of growth that I wanted. So, you can feel both of that. Sometimes it’s wait and work really and prove yourself, and then eventually, sometimes, the answer is that growth opportunity might lay elsewhere.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And not to dig too much into the minutiae of your story, but I think it will be resonant for folks who encounter resistance. Okay, so the CEO wants it, you want it, what’s HR’s problem?

Ann Hiatt
Thank you. I literally said that to him after I got the “No, no, no,” and he kind of…he shrugged, and he’s like, “Gosh, we’re truly a big company now.” But what it was, the part that made sense to me, a lot of it did not, but the part that made sense to me was Google, by then, had had to operationalize, stream-wise, and make sure everything was done with ultimate efficiency. That means that everything was done now on a specific job ladder.

I was trying to create a brand-new job ladder. So, I was trying to kind of merge a lot of this support structure, this skillset in communications and policy and project management, and create this hybrid role, and HR did not want to create a whole new job ladder or this hybrid role that they thought would be really nebulous, hard to write job descriptions, how do you measure for that, how would I be evaluated, how would you be compensated for that.

And so, it took years, and, rightfully, probably in the first year, I didn’t have a clear enough understanding of what the delegated authority level of that job would be, what are the delegated tasks, how would we measure and quantify the success and impact of that work. It’s a very, very data-driven company I did need to dig into the hard work and really make the case. And, eventually, I did but much slower than I had anticipated.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s a nice perspective. It may take some time or it may be hopeless. Any tips on how we can tell the difference sooner rather than later?

Ann Hiatt
I think I pursued it for three years because I did see progress and I became more and more convinced of the value of it. What I ended up doing that sealed the deal in the end was I said, “How about we do an experiment? Let’s not make it official but of the job description that I’d outlined, with this delegated authority level, with this type of responsibilities, with this skillset, I’m going to act like I already have this title and this job,” which took a bit of buy-in from my peers because a big part of being chief of staff is acting as a surrogate, as a delegate of your executive.

And for me to represent Eric Schmidt in rooms he wasn’t in is a big deal and I needed his senior reports to kind of treat me accordingly even without formal title authority. Luckily, I had worked with all of them for more than a decade and I had that trust factor with them already. They knew that time with me would make their jobs better, and so I got that kind of peer buy-in that was essential. Had I not had that, those relationships of trust already established, I don’t think I could’ve converted on it.

But agreeing to do that six-month trial and then inviting extreme critique from all of those people I had worked for and got a 360-performance evaluation from them was the proof that they needed that this actually did, I think one of them described, 10x-ing our output by having me be able to represent him in more rooms.

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

Ann Hiatt
No, I am so excited for your listeners to really create this playlist for themselves, and then to be brave enough to say it out loud. Honestly, I think that’s the hardest part is just the first time you have that conversation with your manager, it’s awkward. I remember trying to expand the confines of my job description when I was working with Marissa Mayer, who was my first manager at Google.

She was employee number 20, first female engineer ever hired at Google, tough as nails, insanely smart. And I remember suggesting a couple of projects that were far outside the confines of my job description, and it was met with awkward silence at first. She literally did not respond. She didn’t even acknowledge she’d heard the words coming out of my mouth. But it was processing, that was kind of her thing.

So, I just wanted to put it out there. Sometimes it does, at first, be met with that silence because you’re trying to teach people to treat you and think of you in a different way so don’t let that deter you but be very clear and show the value of not only for yourself but for your manager and your team as a whole. I found it works pretty consistently.

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

Ann Hiatt
So, there’s two that come to mind, if I can cheat and choose two. One is from Maya Angelou. It is very apropos to what we were just discussing, where she says, “People may forget what you said, they might forget what you did, but they’ll never forget the way you made them feel.” And I think that absolutely resonates for me in my life, in general, and definitely in my career. I have worked for very driven dedicated sometimes terrifying people but they made me feel valued, they made me feel like they wanted to invest in me, and I’ve really tried to pay that forward now in this next part of my career.

And that leads into the second quote that I really liked that’s by Diane von Furstenberg, one of the first self-made female billionaires. And Diane said, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew the woman I wanted to become.” And I think a lot of people who have natural ambition and just feel like they were made for more sometimes can opt out because they don’t know what that looks like yet.

And I don’t want people to be deterred. That quote has inspired me because the woman I want to be has always been very clear to me. How I accomplished that came in very unexpected packages, and so I find that very inspiring.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Ann Hiatt
There’s two I find myself constantly quoting to my clients and to just my friends that we talk about careers is. There’s one by Ben Horowitz called The Hard Thing About Hard Things. My favorite line in that book is full of so much wisdom. My favorite line is saying that, “As an entrepreneur, there are only two emotions: terror and euphoria.” And I find that to be very true in my work.

And another one that I find myself recommending nearly on a daily basis is one that’s written by John Doerr called Measure What Matters. It’s about the goal-setting moonshot system that is used both at Amazon and at Google for innovative thinking, and it’s very applicable to individual careers, not just those trying to become the next Amazon and Google, but it’s really about leading an ambitious life and pushing through the boundaries of your capabilities.

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

Ann Hiatt
Well, the first response that comes to mind is just all the things I’ve used to stay connected across the pandemic, especially since I moved to Spain and started my own company just before the pandemic happened, so I’d already set myself up for a bit of a learning curve. To be connected with global entrepreneurs while not face to face with them is tricky.

So, if I really had to choose something, it’ll probably be this little green light here on my laptop, like being able to be connected on these different platforms, these video platforms is 100% how I do my job now. So, if I had to pick one, it would be Zoom or Zoom-like features is how I’ve really stayed connected.

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

Ann Hiatt
Probably the most quoted line from my book that people send me on Twitter or Instagram or otherwise, is “No life is too small and no dream is too big to be worthy of investment.” I really believe in that.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, thank you. I’m going to chew on that for a while. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Ann Hiatt
So, the best single stop is the book’s website, which is BetonYourselfBook.com. There you got links to all my social media and all the places you can buy it. I’ve got some nice free downloads there. And very active on LinkedIn. I post articles three or four times a week, and so you get little bite-size pieces of the wisdom from the book and things that I’m sharing consistently with my clients there, so you can find me there.

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

Ann Hiatt
My call to action is start today. As you’ve been listening to this episode, an idea that you’ve been afraid to say out loud has come to mind. Take one little baby step towards that today. And if I could pick one for you, it would be say it out loud to somebody that is a nice sponsor for you that will keep you accountable and support you in taking those first brave baby steps forward. So, start today.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Ann, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck in all your bets.

Ann Hiatt
Thank you very much to you, too.

770: How to Become the Manager that Your Team Wants with Russ Laraway

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Russ Laraway reveals how being a great manager is simpler than you think.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The key to sharing feedback that actually works
  2. How to get your manager to manage well
  3. Why you need to “prioritize prioritization” and how to do it

About Russ

Russ has had a diverse 28 year operational management career. He was a Company Commander in the Marine Corps before starting his first company, Pathfinders. From there, Russ went to the Wharton School, and then onto management roles at Google and Twitter. He then co-founded Candor, Inc., along with bestselling author Kim Scott.

Over the last several years, Russ served as the Chief People Officer at Qualtrics, and is now the Chief People Officer for the fast-growing venture capital firm, Goodwater Capital, where he is helping Goodwater and its portfolio companies to empower their people to do great work and be totally psyched while doing it. 

Over his career, Russ has managed 700 person teams and $700M businesses — facing a vast array of leadership challenges along the way. He’s the author of the book When They Win, You Win: Being a Great Manager Is Simpler Than You Think.

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, Sponsors!

Russ Laraway Interview Transcript

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

Russ Laraway
Thanks a lot for having me, Pete. How are you?

Pete Mockaitis
I’m doing well. How are you?

Russ Laraway
Great. Great. No complaints.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, I’m eager to get into your wisdom. But, first, I think we need to hear a story of a fifth-grade Russ winning a big prize. What’s the story here?

Russ Laraway
Yeah, I was watching cartoons after school one day on one of the UHF channels, which, for those that don’t know, your television, when it didn’t have cable or Roku or Netflix, your television had maybe seven channels. So, I was watching Channel 48 and they said that, “If you could answer the following riddle, you could win a shopping spree at Toys ‘R’ Us.”

And the riddle showed a picture of The Pink Panther. I don’t know if you remember The Pink Panther, and he was ice skating. And the riddle was, “The Pink Panther is skating on a pink blank.” And I was in fifth grade and I figured out that he was skating on a pink rink. I wrote that down, sent it into the TV station. And out of a couple hundred thousand entries, I was one of three kids who won a shopping spree at Toys “R” Us.

Pete Mockaitis
Hundreds of thousands of people got ranked and it didn’t occur to me immediately.

Russ Laraway
Well, I promise you, if you saw the picture, it would’ve been pretty clear, yeah. A couple hundred thousand entries, I don’t know how many of them were correct but there were a couple hundred thousand entries, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, congratulations. And that was, apparently, pretty memorable for you. Anything that you got there that was a really treasured item in your youth?

Russ Laraway
Oh, yeah, Atari 400. Yeah, I’m super dating myself with this story. But an Atari 400, I was able to get a bunch of games. It was a little weird. You couldn’t just run down an aisle. I think people imagine you can run down an aisle, just have your arm out and just scoop things into a cart. So, I won a one-minute shopping spree. There were two one-minutes and a two-minute. I won one of the one-minutes.

And I actually had to go around beforehand and pre-staged the items that I wanted. And so, we sort of identified an Atari 400 and then I just pulled it off the shelf a little bit, and some of the games and different things. So, I just kind of focused. And you had to get an item and then run back to the starting line with each item. So, you’re doing line win sprints.

And so, that’s how they, I guess, managed the cost a little bit because, in the end, the way I left Toys “R” Us that day was they rang us up, and then Channel 48 paid for the bill. It was like 500 bucks. So, you couldn’t just…the instincts everyone has to optimize a shopping spree, they figured them all out and made sure that I had to identify the things I wanted beforehand.

But the Atari 400, I mean, hours and hours of fun with my friends playing all the games, and that’s when the games were first starting to become higher quality at home, and so it was awesome. It was awesome. Atari was a big part. A big part of my youth.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, knowing what you want in advance is going to be one of our themes here on sort of both sides of the management equation with your latest book here When They Win, You Win: Being a Great Manager Is Simpler Than You Think, and we’re going to talk about how that’s handy for more than just managers, so thank you for that. So, lay it on us, for starters, what’s a particularly surprising or fascinating discovery you’ve made about being a great manager?

Russ Laraway
Yeah, it’s actually that managers are systematically failing and, despite the mountains of content, books, podcasts, articles, they’re not getting any better. And I defend this pretty heavily in the book. And, by the way, I’m confident that your listeners aren’t going to have a lot of disagreement with that idea. Most of them are having actually quite a bad experience with their managers, almost guaranteed.

And so, I had this idea, Pete, hopefully, you’ll indulge me. I have a little fantasy. And the fantasy goes like this. Don’t worry, it’s G-rated. The fantasy goes like this. I get to sit down a few of the luminaries who create content designed to help managers be better at their jobs. I get to sit them down each, one on one, and I ask them a simple question, I say, “How does your stuff, whether it’s your book or your podcast, your article, how does your stuff contribute to making each manager in the world great?’

And then the fantasy continues. They’re going to use a bunch of different words but I suspect they’re going to…

Pete Mockaitis
Synergy, engagement, dah, dah, dah.

Russ Laraway
Yeah. Well, engagement is a really big deal. We can talk about that. It has a very strong relationship with business results, not attrition or retention stuff. That’s a symptom. But, actually, like quota attainment, or earnings per share, or operating margin. All these things have a very strong relationship with the psychological measurements, employee engagement but let’s come to that in a sec.

But you’re right, what I think they’ll say is something like this, “It’s akin to going through a buffet-style lunch line, and you’re at a leisurely pace, you have your tray on the rails there, and you’re moving from left to right, let’s say, and you take a little from one section, maybe we’ll call that the Simon section, and then you move to the next section, maybe the Brene section, I don’t know. And then we go to the next section, and maybe it’s the Kim section and kind of off you go. And then you have on your plate, ideally, a nutritious meal that allows you to solve all of your leadership problems.

The problem I think, though, is for the typical manager, it doesn’t feel at all like a leisurely trip through a buffet-style lunch line. Instead, it feels like they’re hogtied in the center of a middle school cafeteria while a multi-thousand-person food fight is transpiring, like broccoli hits them on the head, mashed potato sliding down their cheek. By the way, worse, even if they are going through that lunch line at a leisurely pace, they’re not choosing the chicken breast and broccoli they need. They’re choosing the cheesecake and cream puffs and chicken fried steak that they want. It’s a process heavily fraught with bias.

And so, I think, practically, the proliferation of content about how to be a great manager is actually confusing managers, and what is missing from the entire corpus, in my opinion, is really the willingness to put the leadership standard you are prescribing, whatever author, podcaster, whatever, up to measurable account. Good leadership should measurably and predictably deliver happier employees at work and better business results. And, ultimately, that’s kind of the book that I wrote, what’s exactly the book that I wrote. Does that help, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Got you, yes. Okay, happy employees and better business results. And so, when you say managers are failing, what are the sort of core evidence or proof points that we’re looking to say, “That’s not happening”?

Russ Laraway
Yes. So, I’ll use a little bit of research to make this point. First is that Gallup, this is actually a 2013 study from Gallup. It’s called the State of Global Engagements, and I get to talk to the guy that did this study. His name is Larry Emond. And they found that managers explain 70% of engagement. And what that means is, in very large datasets, when you observe a positive variance from the average in employee engagement, 70% of that variance is explained uniquely by commensurate variance in manager quality.

So, if engagement is higher, managers are better. If engagement is lower, then the average in that spot, managers are worse. And so, even if you want to arbitrarily discount that to 50%, not that we have the credentials to do that, but that still means everything else you’re doing to try to affect employee engagement, this magical measurement from IO psychology that predicts results, everything else is worth less than half of the investments you make in your managers, 70%, less than half is 30%, the remainder.

If we arbitrarily discount it to 50%, I don’t know why, but we just do that, it’s everything else you’re doing is worth half of your investments in your manager. It’s pretty clear, managers are holding the keys. So, in either case, the research finding or our arbitrary discount. But here’s the thing that will kind of blow you away. Global employee engagement is 15%, that’s 15% out of a hundred. In the US, by the way, it’s twice as good and still terrible at 33%.

And so, you just have to put these two data points together. The manager drives employee engagement, and employee engagement is terrible around the world, and it’s pretty obvious that managers are systematically failing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah. I hear you. From that data picture, there you have it. So, then what are the primary drivers of the disappointing manager performance?

Russ Laraway
That’s a great question. What, ultimately, we uncovered, and this was sort of a, call it a four-year long project while I was working at a company called Qualtrics. We were able to take a theoretical leadership standard, and really what I mean by that is a set of behaviors, and we were able to determine the degree to which those behaviors affect employee engagement.

And so, how we did that was every quarter, when we measured employee engagement at our company, we also measured something called manager effectiveness. And we did that by asking employees only, not 360, just the employees, the people who do the real work, the people we’re all fighting to attract, develop, and retain, the people who are being led, we asked them if they observed these behaviors from their manager in the last quarter, a specific set of behaviors. It’s about 12 questions we would ask them.

And it turns out, when you ask questions like that in a certain way, you can actually measure, basically, how frequently the managers, and individual managers, are exhibiting the right behaviors. And then once we have that measurement, we can actually just drop it into like a statistical package and correlate it with both engagement and hardcore results, like quota attainment, contract renewal, all these things. So, that’s what we did.

So, a couple of the behaviors that are highly correlated with employee engagement, the mostly highly correlated behavior is actually specific praise for good work. And so, the question might be, “How often does your manager give you specific praise for good work? Very often, often, etc.” And so, we give the manager credit for either one of those top two choices – very often or often – is kind of how you do it.

And so, the reason why that’s a big deal, though, is from a management perspective, it’s not being a cheerleader. A cheerleader is on the sideline, cheerleaders are pompoms, and they say, “Good job.” And I think to people that sounds like praise. It’s actually about coaching. Coaches are on the field or at least on the sidelines. It’s energetic. They’re right there and their entire job is to help people be more successful.

And in the book, I call it continue coaching, which is being very specific and sincere about what people should continue doing so that they have the best chance of repeating the things that are working. So, whether it’s the work products they’re producing, the customer service ticket, or the marketing copy, or the code they’re writing as a software development engineer, that’s the work. And the behaviors, our core values that our companies often define, the behavioral standards. And it turns out, it’s actually really important to be very explicit and clear about what people are doing well because it gives them the best chance to repeat it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that sounds sensible. And then when we say very often or often, are those defined in the eyes of the employee being managed?

Russ Laraway
Yes, eyes of the employee being managed.

Pete Mockaitis
They say, “I say that often, not very often, and that’s what we’re running with.”

Russ Laraway
Yeah. Yeah, that’s the most important perspective. And it’s irrelevant if the manager disagrees with the employee. If the manager is like, “Well, I do this all the time.” If you’re not doing it in a way your employees are hearing, then you’re actually not achieving. That’s why it’s so important to only evaluate the manager along these lines from the perspective of the employee.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and the employees, I assume, are genuinely reasonable, like, “Well, no, I mean, I went four hours without you giving me specific praise for my good work. That’s not very often.” Okay, well, that makes sense. Can you share with us a couple more sort of big drivers here?

Russ Laraway
Yeah. The next biggest one is about soliciting feedback from the team. So, it turns out nobody wants to go to work and not be heard. And the idea here is have you ever heard of the HIPPO?

Pete Mockaitis
The highly paid important person?

Russ Laraway
Yeah, highest paid most important person or what I call the most dangerous person in the room. Good companies are trying very hard to limit the degree to which the HIPPO, the highest paid person in the room, the degree to which their perspective ultimately drives the decision or the outcome that we’re trying to get to because that person is usually actually pretty meaningfully disconnected from the facts on the ground, and they’re not usually in any real sense more likely to come up with the best idea. It’s a very wisdom of the crowd kind of idea here.

And so, it turns out that a couple things become true when the manager regularly asks for input from people on the team. First is people feel heard. A big topic today is inclusion. If you want to talk about everyday inclusion, it’s this one sentence, “Every voice is heard including my own.” So, the first thing we do is we now give…this is their team too. It’s not just your team. It’s their team too. So, the first thing we do is give the folks on the team a voice in where we’re headed, what we’re trying to do.

The second practical outcome is the results are better. The research is crystal clear. Diverse perspectives deliver better outcomes. And diverse has a lot of lenses, one of which is making sure every single employee’s voice on the team is heard before we do something important, every single voice is heard when developing our team’s direction. And this gives people a degree of ownership over what the team is trying to do.

And so, Peter Drucker said, I can’t quote it exactly, but one of his landmark kind of insights was that people are far more likely to pursue a course of action enthusiastically when they have had a say in creating it. And so, that’s the idea here, is managers that do a good job of inviting diverse perspectives, inviting challenges to the current state, challenges to their own perspective, challenges to the leadership standard, challenges to how they’re behaving, those teams thrive and those employees tend to be significantly more engaged than the teams where the managers don’t do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s good. Can we hear a third key driver here?

Russ Laraway
Yeah. I’m trying to pick the best one. So, another one that has a very strong relationship with engagement is actually the other side of the first one I mentioned – praise – which is actually improvement coaching. So, praise is about coaching people on what to continue. Improvement coaching is about what to change with one simple idea. It’s not to kick you in the shins, it’s to help you be more successful.

Pete, if you’re the guy like me who starts off this conversation talking about this lunch line metaphor as a way to express the complexity being thrown at the average manager, then you have to be the guy who tries to simplify the job. And I’ve kind of done that work and I’ve come up with a job description that I believe fits every manager in the world from the CEO of Google or IBM, all the way down to the frontline manager at Jersey Mike’s for the sandwich line.

And that is your first obligation is to deliver an aligned result. The word aligned does a ton of work there. But aligned result, meaning the results your team delivers are aligned with what the company is trying to get done. And the second is to enable the success of the people on your team. And success is short term and long term. In the short term, your best tool for enabling their success is coaching, both continue coaching so that they know what to repeat, but also improvement coaching so they know where they can be better.

And, again, you coach on work products, “How could this code have been a little tighter?” “How could the copy have been a little clearer?” “How could you have more efficiently or effectively solved that customer’s problem?” That’s the work. And then the behaviors tend to be things like core values, like transparency, or justice, or one team, “How well did you behave in alignment with our standards?”

And people are always running a little bit afoul of our standards, and it’s okay. Like, we’re not perfect. We’re all humans. And the best managers know that they need to not only offer continue coaching but they also need to offer improvement coaching. And these two things together kind of round out our top three drivers of engagement, and it makes sense because they’re your two best tools for enabling people’s success: coaching them to be better and coaching them to continue the things they’re doing well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so, within this coaching, I would love to hear what are some best and worst practices on both sides of that conversation? I guess one worst practice is just forgetting and not doing anything, but, additionally, what are some top do’s and don’ts to be on the lookout for there?

Russ Laraway
Yeah, let’s start on the continue side. If it’s okay, I want to tell you a little story. Cool. So, I used to coach little league baseball. By the way, if anybody wants to become a better manager in the span of about four months, go coach youth sports. And before our season kicked off, we were impelled actually to go to a seminar by the Positive Coaching Alliance. This is a nonprofit, really good organization, works at the professional, college, high school youth levels.

And this seminar lasted all day. It turned out to be a great use of a Saturday. The Positive Coaching Alliance prescribed five-to-one praise to criticism. Five to one. Now, it’s important, so that’ll be five-to-one continue to improve. What’s important to realize is they didn’t say infinity to one, which is what a lot of people hear when you say five to one, and they didn’t say five to zero, like everyone gets a trophy. It’s five to one.

And so, practically, what I did with this was I started something called the book. It’s a very clever name because it was literally a book, it was a lab book with graph paper, where I would just write down the things the kids did well. It started with being on time to practice. We all know if kids are late to practice, it wasn’t probably the kids’ fault. They don’t have a driver’s license. It’s their parents’ fault. So, we didn’t get on the kids’ too hard for that but we certainly recognized the kids that were on time. It included counting loudly during stretching.

And, by the way, when that gave way to the kids like not really doing their stretches well, we got clear on the standard for a good hamstring stretch, and we wrote that down. And this carries all the way through to fielding a ground ball correctly, “Move your feet. Center the ball on your stance. Get your glove in the dirt. Cover the ball with your throwing hand. Move both hands the fastest line possible to your shoulder. Step with your back foot. Step with your front foot. Fire over to first base. That’s how you field a ground ball and then throw somebody out.”

And so, what I would do is, halfway through practice, or at the time, if I thought the kids were kind of lagging, or they were losing focus, or they weren’t hustling as much, we’d call them in and we’d read from the book. And I’d hold it up like Simba, and sometimes I’d even sing, like, “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba sithi uhm ingonyama,” and they loved it. They were nine, ten, and 11-year-olds. And I would just start reading off what they did well.

Pete Mockaitis
By name.

Russ Laraway
By name, yeah. On time to practice, and then boom, “Miles, Starks, Caden, Jimmy, Tara,” and we’d just kind of go all the way down. And then we do it again at the end, and sometimes I’d reinforce it with a little article on the team website that night. And what’s most interesting about this, I think, is that it’s tempting to think, “Well, that’s just something that works on kids.” But they’re not. They’re just small people. They’re not some unique other thing. They’re just small people.

And the big insight here is for the workplace, to translate this to the workplace, is in order for us…here’s the mistake people make on continue coaching. They say, “Good job.” That is not helpful. That’s what you say to your dog, that’s not what you say to the people you work with. Being specific about what was good is what really counts. That’s what helps people know what is working. And in order to be specific, Pete, you have to be very clear about what the standards are around here. I couldn’t have been specific about fielding the ground ball correctly if I couldn’t communicate the actual standards for fielding a ground ball.

So, that’s the biggest thing people get wrong, and after a while, people just tune you out. You sound like a cheerleader. You don’t sound like a coach when you just say, “Good job. Well done. Way to go, team.” Enthusiasm is fine. It must be accompanied by specifics about exactly what was done well and why it matters.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very good. And so then, it’s interesting, you talk about little people. A question I’m having here is what is too small a thing to provide for continue coaching? Like, you showed up to work. I mean, I love praise and enthusiasm but I just want to make sure how small is too small? Or, like when is it veering into insincere or patronizing? Or, like, “Okay, dude, yes. I’m going to show up to work and I’m going to check my email. I feel weird that you are praising me for this.” I don’t know, where’s the line?

Russ Laraway
Yeah, totally. The answer lies in this five-to-one prescription. I think if we were to start offering continue coaching or praise in the way you just described, I think we very quickly get to like 500-to-one. And so, that’s your guideline and it gives you a feel for what’s too big or too small. But here’s a really simple prescription, and, by the way, you don’t even need to be a manager to use this.

There’s a phrase that is perfect for all of this, “Do you know what I love about…?” That’s the phrase. So, what does that sound like? “Do you know what I love about the way you ran that team meeting?”

Pete Mockaitis
“Do tell, Russ. I’m all ears.”

Russ Laraway
Or, “Do you know what I love about the way you showed up in that team meeting?” “Do you know what I love about the way you created that analysis? I loved the way you put in sensitivity in all the key variables because we don’t know what the future will look like, and that allows us to have an understanding of what the boundaries might be.”

“Do you know what I love about the way you ran that customer meeting today? It was carefully how you listened to their needs and made sure to tailor our message to it.” These are the kinds of things that reinforce for people what they should be doing.

Showing up for work, like things that are table stakes like you described, the kinds of things that if you don’t do, you just sort of get canned. Yeah, let’s stir clear of those. You’re exactly right. They become patronizing. But the thing you have to remember is the people on your teams are doing a lot more well than they’re doing poorly. And my evidence is you’re not walking around firing everybody.

And so, start calling those things out. And if you do things in general terms or unthoughtfully, you’ll run into the risk you just described. If you do things carefully and thoughtfully, you not only help people reinforce what they’re supposed to be doing, but you actually demonstrate that you recognize what they’re doing.

Like, how many times have you heard people say that their boss has no idea what they do? It’s like it’s an illness. But if you are regularly feeding back to people that you saw what they did, liked what they did, and why it matters, they can never hold the perspective that their manager doesn’t know what they do. So, it’s more of those kinds of things.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, so you’re a buffoon but you know what they’re doing.

Russ Laraway
Yeah, you can still be a buffoon, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so now you got me thinking about I like how that five-to-one grounds us there in terms of the goods. And I’m sure this is going to vary quite a lot based upon the nature of your relationship with the employees and the work and various spans and layers. But if I’m thinking five-to-one, do you have a sense of the range of like, I don’t know, the daily or weekly volume or monthly volume of coaching? Like, is there an amount that’s too little or too much?

Russ Laraway
Yes, probably the both. And too little is easy. Here comes your sixth month review and you’ve received no coaching at all. That’s too little. I actually think I get this question about too much a lot, and I think it’s actually a phantom problem. I think almost nobody’s at risk of over-praising. I really don’t. I know that in theory or conceptually or before they get into it, like as they listen to this prescription, because I get this question all the time, they believe there’s this big risk of over-praising, and it’s just very unlikely.

But the mental model I’d use, Pete, is so I mentioned six months, it’s perfect. Sixth month reviews happen. How often do you get your teeth cleaned, out of curiosity?

Pete Mockaitis
Not quite every six months but my wife once tweeted, “Getting my husband to go to the dentist is like pulling teeth.”

Russ Laraway
That’s a great tweet.

Pete Mockaitis
So, once or twice a year-ish.

Russ Laraway
Okay. It should be, I think, ideally, it should be four times a year.

Pete Mockaitis
Is that true?

Russ Laraway
That’s how often I go, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. Well, the insurance only covers two in the US.

Russ Laraway
Oh, then maybe I’ve got that wrong. Let’s just call it two since that seems to be what we’re both settling in on.

Pete Mockaitis
Gee, Russ.

Russ Laraway
Well, I’m a hyper…I create plaque very, very well. I’m talented at making plaques so I got to go a little more often. But besides the point, it’s a long period of time. How often do you brush and floss, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, every day. Well, flossing is not every day but brushing definitely is, and flossing happens…I don’t actually have a good number for you.

Russ Laraway
It’s okay.

Pete Mockaitis
More than I go to the dentist. I floss more than I go to the dentist but not every day, yeah.

Russ Laraway
Yeah, all good. And so, let’s see what happens. That trip that you hate making to the dentist, does it go better or worse if you haven’t brushed and flossed the previous time period?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it’s definitely better when you do it. You get less disappointment, judgment, time scraping.

Russ Laraway
Time scraping, which is, we agree, the worst. So, this is the mental model for coaching. You want to be way more on the brushing and flossing cadence, which might be a few times a week. Sometimes if the situation calls for it, we could be in for a couple of days but you’re on the field. Just imagine an athletic coach, if you can. If you watch sports, or if you’ve played sports, or if you’re at least a little familiar with sports, hopefully that covers everybody. The coach, it’s energetic and it’s constant, and it’s both things. It’s how you can be better, what you should continue, that was well done, here’s why.

So, it’s more like brushing and flossing and less like going to get a root canal, which, by the way, the root canal is a practical…it’s on the same evolutionary path if you don’t coach every day. If you don’t brush or floss a day, a root canal…

Pete Mockaitis
It’s coming your way.

Russ Laraway
It’s coming your way. That’s right. PIPS is coming your way.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, got you. Thank you. So, I like that. So, there is a wide range but this is the ballpark we’re talking about. And I don’t know if you know, it sounds like you do from Qualtrics and your research, like do we know roughly what proportion of managers fall into the camp of near-zero coaching or don’t know what their employees are doing?

Russ Laraway
Yeah, I think at Qualtrics, our managers were very good because, first, we selected them for their leadership disposition not because of their tenure or because they were good individual contributors. So, we had a really positive selection bias that they were at least mentally aligned, if not skillfully aligned, with how we wanted them to lead.

Then we explicitly taught them the leadership standard. So, select, teach. Then we assess them from the perspective of their employees, and then we coach them. So, that’s STAC, select, teach, assess, coach, so we could stack up a bunch of great managers. Our managers actually got measurably better over the four years I was there and we added 500 managers.

So, our managers were, because of a very intentional approach, we knew that they were holding the keys. And we knew as a group of humans at the company, they were holding the keys. And we knew that if they led our people better, they would be more likely to create the circumstances under which people could do great work rather than destroy them.

And so, our data is heavily biased towards strong management, and the company’s engagement was always high 80s, like extremely high. And the company is now, by the way, sixth straight beaten Rays, as a publicly held company. Our managers are creating the circumstances under which people do incredible work that shows up in the company’s results. So, that was Qualtrics and it’s biased in a very positive direction.

Yeah, if global engagement is 15% and in the US it’s 33, still really, really bad, this strongly suggests that the overwhelming majority of managers out there, they’re not actively coaching their teams, they’re not giving praise for good work, they’re not engaged in people’s long-term career aspirations, they’re not crystal clear on exactly what is expected of the people on their team.

They don’t co-develop the team’s direction with the team members. Remember, it’s their team too. And so, I don’t have a number for you, Pete, but I can tell you that the evidence, the engagement evidence strongly suggests most managers aren’t even doing the basics.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then I guess if listeners who are managers, you start doing that, that’d be great. And those who are not yet managers, and they say, “Hey, you’re right, Russ. My manager doesn’t know what I’m doing. I’d like for that to start.” Any pro tips or how to broach that conversation or what could be done for the individual contributor who’s in that spot?

Russ Laraway
Yeah. So, I have a little, a couple prescriptions in the book that I think would work well here. The first one I have is called…I call it coaching the boss. And so, for managers that, for example, don’t proactively ask for input from their teams, recognizing this isn’t really sustainable for anyone, most people don’t like to be in a team where their manager won’t hear them, I created a little prescription for how to proactively surface some feedback to the boss. And, again, usually more.

It’s not hard to tell the boss when they’re doing well. It’s much harder to tell the boss when something on the team, or the boss themselves, is doing poorly. And so, that four-step process is, first is manage your risk. And what I mean by that is if you work for a retaliator, just end of process. You’re done. Like, if they don’t like to hear, if they tend to behave poorly after someone tells them, “Things could be better around here,” just polish up your resume, find a new boss. Life is too short.

But most managers actually aren’t retaliators. And so, the first thing to do is what I call gather your boss’ unique contexts. So, a lot of times an employee is really sure they’re right; and they’re not. They have a valuable perspective that’s actually likely closer to the facts on the ground but being right, possessing truth in the workplace is like a really high bar. Like, my truth is not the truth. It’s the sort of the idea.

And so, instead of going in being sure you’re right, the first step is actually to gather your boss’ unique contexts, which means don’t assume your boss doesn’t know anything about the topic at hand. Instead, assume they know something and then try to pull that out of them. And what you might learn is your boss is not paying attention to this for really good reasons. You might learn that your boss is like really blind to the problem and their sort of lack of attention is unintentional.

And you might learn that they know exactly the nature of the problem and they’re just specifically deprioritizing it for following reasons. You could learn any of those things. But before you go in there, guns a-blazing, sure you’re right, actually go in and find out what your manager knows and how important they think this thing is.

And so, that’s kind of the first step. Well, first step was manage your risk, second is gather your boss’ unique contexts. Now, with their contexts, if you still think it makes sense to share what you see, which is a reasonable thing to conclude, that’s the evaluation you have to make. And so, now you have to make a decision, “Okay, I think I want to share this.”

And I think the third step is ask permission, which might sound like this, “Okay, boss, I think I see things a little bit differently than you do. Are you open to hearing that?” A very large percentage of the time, when presented that way, they will say yes. If they say no, go back to the polish-up-your-resume step and go find another boss because who wants to work for that person? That person is an ass-clown manager, for sure, and our mission here is to rid the world of ass-clown managers. But most managers will say yes and actually mean it.

And now that they’ve said yes, I believe step four is it’s Nike, you just do it. You got to do it. Now, you’ve got an obligation. The team will be better, the manager will be more successful, you are likely to be more successful, and so now you have, I think at this point, you’ve gone through the steps carefully. Now, you have an obligation, I think, to deliver the hard feedback to the manager. But you’ve gone about it in a very high-quality way. You haven’t assumed you’re right, you asked permission, and now it’s time to give the feedback.

So, that’s a way to start a positive cycle with the boss, where maybe your voice will get heard more often. Do that once or twice, maybe the manager starts to come ask you because they know you’ll shoot them straight. Maybe they start to ask other people on the team. You could actually jumpstart a culture of a manager listening to their people by running this process a few times with your manager.

Pete Mockaitis
Inspiring. Thank you. You’ve got a turn-of-a-phrase I must dig into, that’s a bit of a swift transition here, “Ruthless prioritization.” Where does this fit in to being a great contributor and manager? And how do we do it well?

Russ Laraway
Yeah. So, I’m going to guess that a lot of your listeners are kind of high-performing types. And if I may, I’m going to say your listeners are a bunch of Lisa Simpsons.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah, plays saxophone.

Russ Laraway
Do you know who that is?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, The Simpsons. She’s a high achiever in school and her activities.

Russ Laraway
Boom. Lisa Simpson, as you correctly indicated, is bright. She’s polymathic. She’s got a lot of interests. Plays saxophone, like you mentioned, and she’s ambitious. And so, I’m guessing you know your listeners well. You allowed me to know them well before I interviewed. I walked away saying, “That’s a bunch of Lisa Simpsons.” So, that’s one part of this prioritization problem. And I’ll get to the problem in a moment.

The second part is the environments we find ourselves in. I’ve been at large companies and small companies, hyper growth, not that, and what is common in almost every workplace I’ve been in is there’s some chaos. The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing all the time, things are moving very quickly.

Pete, it turns out, when you put Lisa Simpsons into those environments, it creates a prioritization problem. And what I mean by that is you have the kind of people who are interested and capable of doing a lot of things, and an environment that has ostensibly a lot of things to do, and then those Lisa Simpsons might just try to do it all.

And that is a very, very…that’s a fast-track to mediocrity. So, prioritization is an exercise in subtraction, not addition. It is about learning how to say no politely, which I offer a prescription for in the book. You have to say no politely, that’s the key. And I have this little inequality that I offer, which is three is greater than two is greater than four. Now, does that sound right to you?

Pete Mockaitis
Not from a strictly mathematical perspective, but I’m hearing you when it comes to prioritization. Keep going.

Russ Laraway
If you have more than three priorities, you have none, and that’s how I can say three is greater than two is greater than four, and that’s for a day. And for a week, it might be five. I’ll allow five. And so, here’s what this looks like, practically. On Monday, the first thing you should do, before you look at email, before you get involved in any projects, write down the five most important things you need to get done that week given the goals that your OKRs or the goals you have for yourself that quarter.

And then each day, ideally, including Monday, write down the three things you’ve got to get done that day. Three things you’ve got to get done that day. and these things can adjust a little bit. But, again, given the goals you have for yourself that quarter, try to be specific and use that to hold yourself accountable. Your priority list is not a task list. Those are really different ideas. Task lists are not prioritized nearly exclusively.

Constrain to the three most important things you’ve got to get done that day. And it’s okay to check those, “Hey, boss, these are the things I think are most important for me to get done this week. Do you agree?” And then even give your boss maybe a chance to affect that list. Sometimes it’s things, because they’ll change it quite a bit, and maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong, but you can negotiate. It’s better to have their buy-in than not.

But that’s what ruthless prioritization is. It’s remembering that if you have more than three, you have none. Prioritization is an exercise in subtraction, not addition. And, ultimately, it’s about learning how to say no politely.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And these three things, it’s so funny, I can bundle…I’m a master of bundling things big and small, so if I don’t want to do the hard decision-making of ruthless prioritization, I’d be like, “Oh, podcast stuff is one of my three important things today,” but that’s actually six things underneath there. So, any guidelines in terms of what constitutes a thing or how big or small a thing can or should be in a day?

Russ Laraway
Yeah, actually a really good insight. So, what you just talked about is something that I cover a bit in the book but I pull from another source. A guy named Dr. David Rock who wrote a book called Your Brain at Work. And this guy has got a PhD but what he does is he consumes a lot of research about the brain, and then he smartly applies it to the workplace.

And so, he has a funny phrase called “prioritize prioritizing,” and that sounds silly but it’s actually quite useful. And the reason is because, as you suggested, prioritization is a very prefrontal cortex intensive process, meaning it is very hard work. And if you don’t know, your brain consists of obviously a number of parts, but two main ones. It’s your sort of hindbrain, which is literally in the back. It’s your brain stem, your amygdala, the part that controls emotion and fight-or-flight type responses. It’s strong, it’s old, and it’s efficient at processing glucose and oxygen.

Your prefrontal cortex, really what makes us human, that’s your problem-solving, logic, reason. It’s really small, sadly, for us. It’s weak and it’s relatively new. And it’s weak in terms of processing glucose and oxygen. By the way, they don’t work together. So, if you’ve ever said, “I was so scared I couldn’t think,” that’s a true statement. That’s your hindbrain overwhelming your prefrontal cortex. But, nonetheless, we only have so many repetitions for our prefrontal cortex in a day.

People like Mark Zuckerberg, for example, wears literally the same outfit every day because he takes one decision off the table, and he knows he’s only got so many good decisions, which come from your prefrontal cortex, available to him. Kim Scott who wrote Radical Candor does the same thing. She wears these coral-colored sweaters and blue jeans every single day, with a white T-shirt, to take one decision off the table.

And so, people are inclined to avoid the hard work of thinking about their priorities for a day. And so, David Rocks says, “You actually have to prioritize prioritizing.” So, the first thing to do, before we get into what’s good or what’s bad, is you have to carve…like, I used to carve out time, do not schedule time. I’m an early bird, so I would carve out from 7:00 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. every day to make sure I did this well, and on Mondays for the week and each day.

And, in fact, when we hit the pandemic, my team and I, we set up a process in the Slack bot where at midnight, whatever time zone you’re in, the Slack bot prompted you for your top three priorities for that day. And we would each add them in so we could observe each other’s priorities.

These are meaningful chunks of work. So, podcast stuff, you’re right, would be a bad one but a better example would be maybe last week, on Monday, maybe one of the things you needed to get done was, at least, skim my book in preparation for the interview. That’s a very tangible example. By the way, you know the interview is coming next week, “Russ is going to be on next Thursday, and so I’ve got to, at least, get through this book conceptually, if not in detail.” I’m letting you off the hook because I’m the slowest reader on the planet and I know I couldn’t pull it out in a week.

So, that might be a very specific example. You know you’ve got to interview me. You know you’ve got to prepare. And your number one sort of tool to prepare would be the book. And so, that’s a very specific example, contemplates sort of what you’re trying to get done in the future, and that’s much more tangible. And, by the way, it answers two really important questions, “What?” and “By when?” The “Who?” is implied. An action item in life always answers those three questions, “Who will do what by when?”

If you’re writing your own priorities down, or thinking about your own priorities, the who is implied because it’s you. But what and when should be very clearly implied. And so, this can be a catchall, like podcast stuff is not particularly useful but the specific stuff you got to get done, given the interviews you got coming up the following week or the following month, whatever it is, those specific items, those are the things that you have to prioritize, and don’t do another thing until you’ve knocked those most important things out.

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

Russ Laraway
Yeah, I think we covered it. That was a really good interview, Pete. Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. All right. Well, how about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Russ Laraway
Yeah, “Success comes when opportunity meets preparation.” And the reason I like this quote is because you’ve heard people that are a little too self-assured, a little too “I’m self-made,” and not really accounting for the advantages they might’ve had in life. On the flipside, you hear people that are excessively humble, like, “Oh, I just got lucky.”

Neither of those people is accurate, I think. I think that, for all of us, it’s important to be aware that our success is really a function of a little bit of luck and a little bit of skill. And you put in the work, you try to develop your skills, you try to be ready, and when those lucky opportunities emerge, you’re a little more ready to seize them. And I think it presents a virtuous cycle.

But this sort of what I hammer with my kids, actually. It’s not your innate smarts. Calvin Coolidge has an incredible long quote on this, “It’s not your innate smarts, it’s not just your talent, it’s not your station in life; it’s your grit, your resilience, and your willingness to put in the work.” And then, in turns out, the more work you put in, sometimes the luckier you get but, still, there’s a lot of luck involved. So, success comes when opportunity meets preparation.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Russ Laraway
Yeah, my favorite book for a long time has been A Separate Peace by Jonathan Knowles. I had to read it in high school, and it really moved me. It’s a dark story set at a private school, and the characters are really phenomenally well-developed archetypes. But, for me, the book, I can’t give it away, but the book shows very clearly consequences for small actions. There’s a moment in the book where there’s a very small action. It’s well-known in literature, it’s when character A jounces the limb, that’s the phrase used, and everything that happens from that point after is really dark and bad.

And I always loved that book because I think it’s important for many reasons. It’s taught in many high schools for a reason. But this notion of the kinds of consequences and accountability that can be huge for even some of the smallest actions, I think, is an important thing to take away. So, yeah, I’ve loved that book for a lot of years. And, I guess, now that I think about it, it’s still my favorite.

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

Russ Laraway
Yeah, pretty easy, Pete, www.WhenTheyWinYouWin.com, probably the easiest way to get in touch.

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

Russ Laraway
So, when I was at Google back in 2005, I noticed pretty quickly that we had a lot of really new, really young managers who were, nearly by definition, unskilled because they were new, there wasn’t really a training program, and they were young. We were growing so fast and giving people huge amounts of responsibilities.

And I noticed that even when the managers would fail to exhibit some of the most basic behaviors, that their teams still often delivered. And it occurred to me that the reason for that was that our average talent level at the company was so incredibly strong that they would actually often cover up for the inadequacies of many of the managers.

And I wondered, “Is that replicable? How valuable is it to know what to expect from a manager, or what is expected of your manager, by their manager, and to drive your behaviors even when the manager is not giving you everything you need or want, can you, nonetheless, figure out what is probably expected and deliver in alignment with those things, and almost cover up for your manager’s own inadequacies?”

I think it’s a really interesting framing and there’s lots of places you could go to learn what the kinds of things that might be expected of a manager, like, for example, When They Win, You Win, is a great place I recommend to start. But I think you’re not a victim; you’re a player. Victims are powerless; players are powerful.

And if you’re not getting everything you need from your manager, and you’re feeling like they’re not invested in your success, you can actually kind of take the bull by the horns and change your trajectory with that manager. So, that’s my last call to action.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Russ, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and many wins.

Russ Laraway
Thanks. I really appreciate it, Pete. Back at you.