Tag

Advancement

346: Seizing Career Opportunities with AstroLabs’ Muhammed Mekki

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Muhammed Mekki lays out how to optimize your career opportunities.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why NOT to over-plan your career
  2. How to identify and capitalize on each career opportunity
  3. The nobility of management

About Muhammed

Muhammed is a Founding Partner at AstroLabs, a startup hub and training academy for tech entrepreneurs in the Middle East. AstroLabs Dubai is a specialized coworking space that hosts high potential digital technology companies, assisting founders to establish their startups and providing them with a platform to scale globally. AstroLabs Academy delivers a variety of practical training courses on topics related to digital business.

Prior to AstroLabs, Muhammed co-founded Dubai-based Namshi, now one of the largest ecommerce companies in the MENA region. He built and led the operations teams and helped raise venture capital funding to fuel the company’s growth. Muhammed is a former McKinsey & Company strategy consultant with clients across the GCC.

Muhammed received an MBA from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. He was selected for a full academic scholarship as a Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Fellow based on professional achievements as well as a demonstrated commitment to the development of the Arab World. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Economics from the Wharton School and a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies and Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania as a member of the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Muhammed Mekki Interview Transcript

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

Muhammed Mekki
Thanks for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s so fun. We’re doing this in person, which happens very rarely, but it’s awesome to have you here.

Muhammed Mekki
It’s great to be here and see where it all happens.

Pete Mockaitis
The magic enclosed porch in Chicago. It’s really fun because, so we’ve known each other for a good long time. I think you’ve known me longer than almost every other guest, maybe Kate Roche is in the running as I also knew her in high school. But if I can put you on the spot a bit, can you share a fun Muhammed/Pete memory or anecdote.

Muhammed Mekki
Yes, so many. I guess we’ve been through quite a bit. You’re right, since high school I’ve had the pleasure of knowing you. Pete’s the kind of guy, when he puts his mind to something, he just makes it happen. That’s one of the things that I really admire about Pete.

Let me think back actually one that’s not too far away. It’s a road trip that we took together down to Olney, Illinois. We packed our car and took a four and a half hour trip/drive down to southern Illinois in pursuit of a business that we were trying to get off the ground together in tutoring. We found a first potential customer. We were excited.

We got in the car, drove all the way down for a meeting basically, to sit down with that school and figure things out, and then drove all the way back all in one day. We spent over, I think it was about nine hours in the car that day.

During that time we had a lot of fun. We were joking about things. But in the end it was about both of our passion for getting that company off the ground and trying to make things happen. In the end we weren’t really able to.

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Muhammed Mekki
We learned a lot from the experience I think. Both of us have started different ventures and tried things ourselves and this is one that we can chalk up in the category of experiences that we learned a lot from, where we just didn’t – we didn’t understand our target market enough. We didn’t understand how the product that we were building connected to the consumer.

But I’ll always remember that trip and our passion to kind of go out there and find a customer and get the thing going and what that took and rolling up our sleeves to do it.

Pete Mockaitis
That was fun. I was thinking, man, I remember telling people, “Yeah, I think we’re going to sort of eliminate the Tutor Trail,” it was called, “business after all.” And they said, “Oh, why is that?” I said, “Well, we didn’t get any revenue.”

Muhammed Mekki
Yes, exactly. Oops.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Oh, you mean profits?” Like, “No, I mean revenue.”

Muhammed Mekki
No. But we tried really hard. We even drove all the way down to the other side of the state to try to find a paying customer, but in the end it was a sign I guess. Yeah. We were smart enough at least at that point to just heed that sign and move on.

Pete Mockaitis
One of my favorite moments from that trip actually was when you were driving. It was getting kind of toasty and you wanted to take off your jacket. I don’t know if you remember this. It cracked me up. I still think about this sometimes.

You’re like, “Okay, could you hold the steering wheel?” I was like, “Okay,” so I’m in the passenger seat kind of reaching over for the steering wheel. I’m kind of uncomfortable. It’s sort of 65-ish miles per hour and a little bit of curviness. I was like, “I don’t really feel like I’ve got the best angle or control here,” and so I’m sweating a little and I think you perceived that. After you finished removing your jacket, you just said to me, “Continue.”

Muhammed Mekki
This was before the days of driverless cars. Yeah, I was on that-

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s right. It’s going to be dated in five years.

Muhammed Mekki
Indeed. Indeed.

Pete Mockaitis
They were driving themselves, huh? I think one of the first things that drew me to you was that when we were in high school and I was kind of a weird kid who read business books and all of that stuff.

Then when I encountered you, I was like whoa, here’s a guy who’s putting some proactive thought into his life, his career, his goals right up front. You were like the only person who I think I knew who was doing that as much as I was. I was like, I like him and I’m just going to clamp on to him.

Maybe you could give us some perspective in terms of how do you think about just general goal setting or life and career planning because it seems like it’s worked out for you in terms of your path here?

Muhammed Mekki
I think one of the things that I’ve learned over time from my own personal experience has been trying actually not to over plan. I see that coming up with people that I talk to all the time like try to lay out a five-, six-step path and trying to follow that path.

For me at least, I’ve always tried to optimize for the next step. If I think back on all of the steps that I’ve taken, never have I been able to see two steps ahead. Always the next step had just a core affect on what would happen in the step that followed.

Let me give you some examples. When I – for instance, in thinking about where I wanted to go to college and what I wanted to study, I had a feeling that something called business and international business, specifically, was something that really was interesting to me. This was before the day I even knew what consulting was or what being an entrepreneur really was, back in the days of high school.

But I just decided to take that leap and just went and tried to find what’s the best international business program that I can find and just put all my effort toward applying for that and trying to get into the program. While there, I was able to figure out a lot of things that kind of led to me setting the next step, setting the next goal.

In fact, it wasn’t even jumping into the job market. I ended up learning about something called the Fulbright, which is a research fellowship that I had no idea existed at the time that I did the step prior, but once I learned about that, I thought wow, it’s a great opportunity to spend a year off of the career track and actually just doing research in another country and expanding my skillsets in ways that I never thought about.

I suddenly made that into my passion, my next goal. In that kind of a way I found that even in a career standpoint, now if you fast forward, in making some of the steps that I did, I would have never imagined for instance, jumping out to the – I jumped out to the Middle East. I started consulting there. I never thought that that would then lead to me going into an entrepreneurial venture.

But one step always led to the other in ways that I could have never predicted is my point. Trying to think too much about two steps ahead, has never been useful for me. It’s always, if I just channel that energy into the next step and just really try to put everything, my presence, and all that I have into the next step, then the next door will open.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a pretty cool reframe there or distinction. If you’re thinking just about the very next step, what are kind of the criteria or rules of thumb or values you’re using to kind of evaluate a given opportunity and say, “Yup, that is good stuff?”

Muhammed Mekki
Yeah, I think that’s changed over time. I used to be optimizing for what’s the most outside perceived highest-

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you’ve done that well. It’s your impressive looking resume bio.

Muhammed Mekki
Well, that used to be an obsession, so I’m trying to figure out what’s the – how can I place myself in a position to be successful and try to get the right stamps, if you will, on the resume. That does have its benefits in terms of opening up some doors and maybe even in retrospect, most importantly, just giving myself confidence to just eventually step out.

But eventually, okay, so you go to a great school and then you get a great first job and then you get these accolades and you do all this stuff and you get promoted and you do all the right things, but then what? There comes a point at which there’s no next most impressive step to take unless you’re just going up a corporate ladder specifically within the same company going up one step after the other, after the other.

In our day and age a lot of people are shifting around to different jobs, different paths, all these types of things. At a certain point you’re like well, should I – when do I jump, when do I actually say, “I’m just going to try to think about what will make me happy and what I’d like to just do given all this stuff from before.”

Yeah, there was phase one, which yes, I was definitely unabashedly chasing after a lot of those stamps, if you will, which gave me the cushion and the background and the experience. Then phase two I would say started from when I cofounded an ecommerce company, was when I jumped off of a very stable and reputable job as a consultant at McKinsey. It was a fantastic job actually. I was enjoying it.

But at a certain point I decided, you know what, I’m going to go ahead and jump off and just take a big risk and try to start something.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a really cool perspective there in terms of stopping to think okay, so rather than perusing the next cool big prestigious thing, at some point you’re going to run out of it. It’s like, “I guess I’m going to run for Senate. Is that what I should do next? I guess that would be about-“ You sort of say it’s cool in terms of being pro-active, like, “Well, now is the time I’m going to choose to prioritize this.”

I think I even experienced that in college a bit in terms of I was always trying to do the impressive thing and then once I got my job offer, early on in senior year for a great job at Bain, I was like “Okay, well, now I’ve got this time here. I guess I’ll just do what I want to do.” I wrote a book just because I wanted to write a book. That was really fun.

Muhammed Mekki
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool to think about when to jump. We had an author who wrote that book called When to Jump.

Muhammed Mekki
When to Jump. Yeah, I mean it’s not even just about going off and doing an entrepreneurial adventure or whatever the case might be, but it’s jumping off of the tried and trodden path of just going from one step to the next step to the next step. Say okay, I’m going to take a left turn and it’s going to be a risk, but let’s see what happens.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. Well, if we could just stop for a moment at the stamps collection phase. I’m curious to hear, you’ve done a fine job with your stamp collecting. We talk about Penn Huntsman, Stanford, McKinsey, Fulbright. That is all the things a VC or a hiring manager might like to see in a compact little presentation.

Any pro tips when it comes to the applications or the interviews or how you manage to nail those again and again?

Muhammed Mekki
I think that for a lot of different prestigious programs or schools, they’re blessed with actually having way more applicants that actually qualify than they have space for. The challenge always is that even if you are qualified for a particular program or for entry into an opportunity, differentiating yourself and distinguishing yourself from the rest of the applicant pool is the challenge.

I think the aspect of these applications that I spent a lot of time on and almost obsessed about was actually the essays and the story behind why I wanted to do something. It comes back to your first question about kind of taking the step – how to decide on what is the next step.

Once I had decided, for instance, that I really wanted to after university go and do some research as a Fulbright fellow, I spent a lot of time in introspection actually and thinking about why is that and how will I apply it. I channeled a lot of that into the application and into the process. I think the challenge is differentiating yourself from the pool based on your personal story.

Similarly, when I was applying for an MBA, there are a lot of very well qualified consultants that apply to go to the top MBA programs. You risk being just put into the pool of, “Oh, another consultant that’s applying to go to a top MBA program.”

I tried to choose my stories based on one, my own personal experience and background of what can I bring to the table given my background that’s a bit different from everybody else. Kind of thinking about what distinguishes you outside of work.

For me, I have my cultural and religious background that kind of played a role as well in how I think about and how I interact with the world. I wasn’t shy in bringing that kind of stuff up in the application saying, “Yes, I am a Muslim and I have these – this is how it informs who I am. This is how I can make the class actually a richer class,” and bringing in examples of that.

Whereas some people might shy away from some of these types of topics, I feel like why not bring them to the table and show what makes you a full person that’s going to really distinguish you from just the pool of everybody else that’s there. I think that’s probably if I were to extract one learning from these different applications, that’s what I’ve tried to make happen throughout.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool, but it’s funny. I’m looking at the study Quran that you recommend that I get and it is ample with its notations. This is maybe sort of random, but I remember you had an award for reciting or having memorized is it the whole Quran or large portions of it?

Muhammed Mekki
Yeah, that was something that I did when I was actually out in – on the Fulbright. It was again, something I would have never predicted would have happened, but while I was out there I found a classical teacher. I was able to explore this other side and learn things that I hadn’t expected I would do when I first went out there.

But I just – if you keep yourself open to what you might – who you might intersect with. That was an example where I started something. I’m like, “I’m going to take this all the way to the conclusion,” and actually try to get basically a – what’s equivalent to kind of a diploma or certification actually the recitation. It became something really important to me. I did take that on.

Pete Mockaitis
How does one – those are huge chunks-

Muhammed Mekki
It’s not memorization. It’s actually recitation of the – yeah, yeah, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, so it’s sort of like pronouncing it perfectly.

Muhammed Mekki
Yeah, exactly, exactly. Much easier, much easier.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well now I’m clear there. Thank you.

Muhammed Mekki
No worries.

Pete Mockaitis
I have so much I want to hear from you in terms of generally, it seems that you kind of think and operate a little bit differently than others, in the best possible way. Not that you’re a freak or a weirdo.

I think that a couple of things that come to mind there is at one point I recall you were at a workplace and you earned a triple bump, not a single or double bump as one might get at the end of year or a review cycle, but a triple bump, which happens I guess maybe never or super rarely there. How is that done?

Muhammed Mekki
It was actually the context was that – it was early on in my career. I decided to just really just pour myself into this job and try to find – what was a slower start basically in the first projects that I was doing, I ended up finding an opportunity where I’d be working on a really small team.

The exposure – it was a combination, as a lot of things are in life, between luck and being prepared and rolling up your sleeves. The luck element of this experience was actually getting assigned to a project where I did have a chance to shine in front of a senior client.

I think as a very junior member kind of out of under grad, you don’t usually get the opportunity to be the client-facing person on the ground, but just because our team was – it was smaller than perhaps it should have been, and there was just too much work to get done, and I had built up some rapport and trust with the partner. He just sent me off. It was kind of scary, but also exciting.

I was like “Oh wow, I’m the one who’s representing this firm in front of the client in a couple of the different locations or the offices.” Once I had that – I think that’s the luck element. You have that sort of window or that opportunity.

Then it’s like “Okay, well, if I hit this one out of the park and I really show that I’m able to do much more, this is my chance.”

I think this one experience was actually what led to – it was probably the most important factor in that review cycle when we’re looking back at how I perform is actually the fact that the feedback from the client being that “Wow, Muhammed was somebody that I felt like I could – that was really adding a lot of value and was representing the firm.”

I got a lot of good feedback from the client side, so that made the partners happy. We were able to actually make a demonstrative positive impact on their business.

These things I think when you see those openings, that’s – a lot of times you’re just in a job and you’re just kind of doing the day-to-day, but every once in a while you get that chance. When that chance comes, you’ve just got to have your eagle eyes open and just read to just jump on it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah. I love that – see here we go talking about you thinking differently. I hope you’d find some gold here of perusing this line of inquiry.

Yeah, when it comes to the opportunity because you might view that opportunity in a completely different mindset in terms of “Oh my gosh, I’m already overworked. There’s no way I can take on this extra thing. I’m exhausted,” or it’s like, “Oh crap, I’m in over my head. I’m just going to try to not screw anything up, so what are the key things that could go very badly. I’m just going to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

As opposed to “How can I just super knock it out of the park?” and identifying that opportunity when it emerges. This … is I remember I guess it was – again, hey, I’ve known you since high school, so high school memories are coming back.

Muhammed Mekki
That was a long time ago.

Pete Mockaitis
I remember I was in National Honor Society. We did very little in National Honor Society because we were being honored. We were at a meeting. They said, “Okay, so, oh yeah, a clothing drive is a great service idea. Yeah.” There was a little bit of agreement behind that, like, “Yeah, yeah, that should be the thing we should do.”

Muhammed Mekki
Somebody should do that. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Then the advisor asked, “Okay, so who would like to head up the clothing drive?” I thought, well, I’m just a sophomore or junior. I don’t know. It seemed like it should be something a senior does, but I was like a sophomore or maybe a junior. There was a pause for a couple seconds and then no one raised their hand.

I thought that was really funny because what I heard her say was, “Who wants to be the National Honor Society president next year?”

Muhammed Mekki
Exactly. It’s like-

Pete Mockaitis
We do just about nothing, so if this is the one thing we do and you do it-

Muhammed Mekki
That’s basically-

Pete Mockaitis
Then we say who should lead us, it should be that person.

Muhammed Mekki
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Again, I guess I was in some of that prestige stamp collecting phase myself in high school and in college a bit. But yeah, I think that’s cool. It’s like how do you view that in terms of “Oh, that seems like a burden and exhausting,” versus “Oh, this is my window to really make some things happen.”

Muhammed Mekki
And I think the point that you brought up about risk limiting is also an important one. It’s not just the burden, it’s also like “Oh wow, I’m – things could go wrong. What if I just do the – cover the basics, I’ll be okay.” Versus going in there, what I tried to do consciously in this example, I was like, “Let’s just go and just try to just go with this. Let’s see what we can do here.”

Going in and having senior meetings with people and sitting down and really trying to uncover, we’re trying to figure out in this particular project how to really optimize a loan process, how to make it much more efficient and how to remove a lot of the problems out of the process. It involved a lot of interviewing and figuring out what people are currently doing and really doing some research into best practices.

But I took all of that on and just said I’m going to talk to everybody and really kind of uncovered a lot. Then just went into a cave and just kind of wrote a lot of that stuff out, did a lot of research, came back, presented, got the blessing of the partner, and then went to some senior people on the client side and gave them my recommendations. They liked them and they were interested and they started implementing them.

Even that was an example of just saying, you got that chance, so just go for – go all in. What’s the worst case scenario what’s going to happen? Something might go wrong. You’re a junior anyway, whatever. It’s not going to be the end of the world. I think that’s the end of the story is that it will be a learning experience. It’s fine. It’s not a big deal. But the upside is potentially really big because you’re proving yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. That’s good. Well, hey, let’s keep going in terms of you thinking differently and digging into some of your early career moments.

You were at another workplace and you spotted some inappropriate behavior, kind of just really meanness on the part of a somewhat senior leader. Tell us a little bit about what was going on and trying to preserve as much confidentiality and integrity as possible. Kind of what was going on and how were people reacting? How did you react a little bit differently?

Muhammed Mekki
Yeah, it’s surprising sometimes you find yourself in an environment that purports to be a really positive one and of high caliber and you still have these bad apples that are inside. They’ve somehow survived and even thrived within this environment. You just don’t know how that happened.

For me it was stark because I started on day one on this team that had just been assembled and it was like from the very beginning I felt something was off of this manager and the team dynamic. Something was a bit off. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was, but it didn’t take very long.

It was within that same day, hours later, you had a manager basically hurling personal insults, kind of telling this more junior member of the team that they’re just – they’re not worth as much as he is, this is why they pay him less. Things that you just – really horrible things to say, especially to a junior person. It wasn’t done in a jest or joking kind of way. This was kind of like I’m trying to get you.

It was – I remember the feeling – I remember feeling awful that I didn’t immediately stand up to this person as it happened. But then I was playing back excuses in my – oh, I just started that day and it kind of took me by surprise and blah, blah, blah. I would hope that now if that happened and I was around I would just take that person to task immediately, but I was a bit junior and it was a bit just jarring and sort of surprising.

I kind of just was – I just sort of took that in. I thought about it and decided after seeing more behavior from him in a similar way, I think none of it was directed directly at me, but I saw it happening. I decided somebody’s got to say something, so I just said, okay, I’m just going to go in and report this guy to HR, to the senior manager.

I started with a trusted senior manager within the company, telling him the story, being like, “Listen, this is what’s happening and I don’t feel comfortable working in that environment, so I’d either like to get off of this project or to figure what can we do basically.”

He opened up the door then to an inquiry that ended up happening, HR-led. It turned out the really sad thing about it was that – and this was just a lesson to learn – is that this person – they interviewed a bunch of people he had managed over the last couple of years and the stories came out at that stage where he was just repeatedly doing this over – and abusing basically his people on his team.

Nobody had stood up to him. Nobody had said anything. He had just kind of continued. That’s how people like that just kind of continue along. But I think the conclusion was a very – actually it ended on a positive note. I think I gained a lot of respect for this company because based on these findings, even though this was a very strategic project with a – and one that he was leading.

Pete Mockaitis
Plenty of dollars.

Muhammed Mekki
Exactly. That they pulled him off the project. He was basically reprimanded. They reconfigured the team very soon thereafter. I think it also shows that even a junior member of the team can have that kind of an impact and somebody’s got to stand up.

That was kind of a scary moment for me because it was just like – even though I hadn’t done anything wrong or anything, but it’s just always difficult to be the person kind of the whistleblower if you will to kind of stand up and say, “This shouldn’t be happening here. This is against our values. This is not the kind of place that I want to be working in.”

Pete Mockaitis
You see it on the news all the time, these scandals, whether it’s molestation or harassment or verbal abuse. It can persist for many, many victims and many years. It does take some courage to go there.

I think it’s awesome that you did do that and a cool reminder that the first step doesn’t necessarily need to be crazy, “I’m going to get on CNN and I’m going to shout to the mountain tops,” like, “This seems pretty off to me. I’m going to see if there’s a leader that I trust. I’m going to run it by him and we’re going to see how that goes.”

Muhammed Mekki
That’s exactly it. I didn’t know what to do, so I said let’s start there and then test that out and then when it really – thankfully, for that person it really resonated and said “Okay, we need to do something.” That support from a senior manager I think makes all the difference in the world. Had he shut it down, I think it would have been really hard for me to go and escalate. It reinforced the fact that this off. This is not the way things should be.

Pete Mockaitis
Think a little bit now in terms of how things should be. You’ve learned some lessons and now you’re co-owning a business and managing folks and being all grown up. What are some of the best practices that you’re seeing and implementing when you get to run things your way?

Muhammed Mekki
It’s interesting because I come from a family – my parents are both physicians. We have a lot of doctors in the family. There’s a lot of – maybe that immigrant generation coming in with high degrees and have a passion for doing good also, really wanting to – you can’t argue with a doctor healing people. That’s just good.

Sometimes when you look at – you look at somebody who’s in management or somebody’s who’s in business. It’s like, okay, this guy’s – person’s out to kind of make more money or it’s – it doesn’t seem like-

Pete Mockaitis
Cash is king. Greed is good.

Muhammed Mekki
Exactly. It’s not the most noble of callings on the surface when you look at it. I think this is something that I’ve thought about. What I found over time is that actually management can be quite a noble calling. It depends a lot about how the perspective that you bring to the table.

This is particularly for those who are embarking on the path of managing your first employee or starting on a small team or later on when you have a bunch of people that report into you, to think about just the impact that you can have as a manager on that person, not just their career, but their life.

It really puts a different perspective on the table because the small things that you do to develop and to help push and develop your team really can have a huge impact.

I was managing a team in a previous role and then seeing some of the team members actually go off and get amazing opportunities in other jobs and really upgrading and going –

We pulled in somebody from a completely different industry who took a leap of faith and jumped into tech and ecommerce. Then she ended up kind of continuing along that path and jumping into a couple of other companies that are well-regarded and continuing to improve her position and getting a lot more opportunities.

You kind of think like wow, that interview and convincing her to kind of actually jump off from the hospitality industry into sort of the tech and ecommerce industry actually did have a big impact on her life in the end because that ended up changing the way – changing her path.

That’s a responsibility for sure, but also it’s exciting because then it opened up a lot more doors and hopefully the skills and lessons learned from the experience being on the team. It will be something to be able to take with you for the rest of your life. That’s something I – that’s the element of management that is I think something which makes it a really important and meaningful path.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. I’m curious then – that’s a great reframe in terms of its – your responsibility is big in terms of where you kind of end up leading people in the lives that they get to have as well as sort of the day in/day out sort of skills development, and coaching, and growing that can either happen or not happen based upon your willingness to invest time and candor into your relationship.

Any other kind of things that you swear by in terms of effective teaming or productivity or making it happen?

Muhammed Mekki
Yeah, that was big picture stuff. Then if we get down into the more smaller details, I think a few things that we at AstroLabs now, the company that I’m currently managing, are quite passionate about.

I think one is always closing the loop. We’re always – whether – if you’ve opened up something with somebody or somebody’s expecting something from you to make sure that you’re getting back to that person as quickly and as kind of comprehensively as possible. It makes a big difference.

I think whether that’s within your own team or with outside partners or people that you’re dealing with, I think that’s something that distinguishes our organization.

We on a very tactical path, we’re big proponents of inbox zero, zero inbox basically, which is to make sure that you’re on top of everything that’s coming into your email, into your inbox. Once you’ve cleared something out, once you’ve dealt with it, you’re archiving it, you’re getting it out of your inbox.

The things that are in your inbox, and now even in Gmail there’s a new snooze feature, which used to be something that was a plugin called Boomerang. But you could just say “I don’t need to deal with this right now. I’m going to get back to it in another couple weeks or in another week or so.”

You can have it leave your inbox and have it come back in after a week just to make sure you’re not letting things fall off of your radar. We – that’s one of the things that we’re quite – we value a lot within the context of our company.

At the same time we’re against face time and just being there for the sake of being there and doing things – but I think there is an importance to actually making sure that you’re following through on your commitments and you’re closing the loop with people and you’re on top and not letting things just fall through the cracks and being proactive. These are some of the ways in which we achieve that.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. It’s funny. We’ve had some guests who say, “Don’t look at your email first thing in the morning. You’re being reactive. Are you really productive if you just answered all of your emails? Is that what it’s about?” How do you kind of balance the perspective associated with, “Oh, you’ve got to have that deep work, that quiet focused time, the maker time,” versus crushing every email.

Muhammed Mekki
It’s a really good point. I think you can get into this trap of just letting other people put a bunch of stuff on your to-do list if you’re just reactive and that’s all you do.

I think closing the loop only applies, in my perspective, on things that you’ve started or where there is already a relationship. I’m not saying that any message that comes into your inbox you have to reply to or deal with. You get inbound that you just decide I never asked for this. This person reached out to me out of nowhere. I’m just going to archive it.

That was a change for me because I’m so – I need to deal with everything. It’s like, well no, actually I don’t need to deal with this because I don’t have time and this person’s taking my time. But if it’s something where I’ve opened up that thread or there is an expectation of getting back, I sure make sure – I do make sure that I do that.

What balances it out is making sure that there is a weekly and maybe longer term sort of goals for juicy things to achieve and actually blocking off some time on a calendar to say “I’m going to go dive deep into drafting X, Y, or Z,” or “I’m going to make sure that I’m getting the brain time in order to structure this project that I want to do” versus just being on the email and just replying to everything in lightning speed.

I think it – yes, there is a balance. I’m just passionate about making sure that you are – that things don’t fall through the cracks as my – that’s a pet peeve of mine, if you will.

But the way we balance it out is saying, “Okay, as a team what is everybody planning to achieve besides the day-to-day stuff?” Everybody knows, okay, you’ve got to do your day-to-day job, but what are the bigger, juicier things that as a team we want to achieve this week. When we set those – we have those discussions. From there we can see if there’s ways that the team can collaborate and work together on some of the points.

Then we can keep each other honest, like “Okay, which of these bigger projects have we gotten done? If we haven’t, why? If we have, what else can we do?” That’s a good mechanism that we use internally to make sure that we’re not just running through the hamster wheel of answering emails.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. As we discuss this, it reminded me that I owe you an email about the lead generation thing we talked about, so I’m ashamed.

Muhammed Mekki
It’s good brainstorming and working together. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell me anything else you want to make sure to mention or highlight before we shift gears into talk about some of your favorite things?

Muhammed Mekki
Yeah, I think the – I’d say that one of the things that I try to do – took the opportunity in a transition point, which was business school, was to really shift things up a bit. In my case I wanted to jump into the tech sector and I wanted to jump to a new geography.

I decided that I couldn’t do both at one time so that was one thing that I thought about. I was like well, I tried but I couldn’t really figure out this new sector that I never worked in and all this and in a new geography.

I went ahead and just decided to – that actually going to business school is a great chance to do – to change something big and it’s a good post or sign post. I went ahead and jumped out to Dubai, to the Middle East, and continued doing the kind of work that I was doing in the past.

That wasn’t as big of a change, but I had my eye open to the new sector that I was hoping to get into and eventually was able to make that jump.

Didn’t know exactly how it was going to happen, so, again, going back to the earlier point about not over planning. I did have an idea of where I wanted to go, but I let that opportunity kind of emerge as I had kind of – as I was settling in as I was understanding the landscape. Then the chance to be able to get some funding and actually start a company happened in a way that I couldn’t have predicted.

I think that’s one of the other learnings that I’ve had is just taking that risk and jumping out, whether it’s an international assignment within company or a chance just to experience something different. Earlier on in the career, it’s a lot easier to do. You kind of just jump on those opportunities would be a piece of advice is just whatever sounds a little bit crazy, a little bit different, just try it.

It will just – a) it will give you those stories that we talked about it in the past. We go back to the applications and being able to distinguish yourself. If you’re just in the same job, doing the same thing, kind of going up, it’s harder to distinguish yourself. You’re going to have to dig deeper.

But if you really had a – even a short term experience that’s a bit different, but you kind of took a leap, took a risk, it’s something that you can anchor a really cool story about and really distinguish yourself when you’re trying to get to the next step or the step after that.

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

Muhammed Mekki
The one that I use often is “You don’t get what you don’t ask for.” I think it’s something that I’ve learned that it doesn’t hurt to ask in any context. It just doesn’t hurt to ask. Nobody’s going to give you something unless you’re going to ask for it.

If – whether it’s in a professional environment and you’re thinking about taking on more responsibility or you want to do something a bit different or you want to stretch yourself, yes, an excellent manager will say – will see the potential and place you perfectly, but a lot of times you’re not going to get that chance without asking for it.

Or even in a much more mundane situation. If you’re travelling somewhere and you’re trying to get an extra perk or you’re trying to – you just – nobody’s going to give you something unless you actually make that request.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome, thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or a bit of research?

Muhammed Mekki
I think Clay Christensen from Harvard Business School did – there was a study – it’s like an article on how will you measure your life basically. It kind of comes back to the point that we talked about earlier about management being a higher calling.

You’re not going to measure your life based on how many widgets you sell. “I’m going to sell 5% more widgets, then I’ve got 15% week-on-week growth” or “I was able to get this project approved by senior management.”

These are not the things that you’re going to remember or that will make an impact on your life long term, but making an impact on people and the people around you, your team, and all these types, … and they’re more meaningful. He delves into that. I believe it even turned into a book. But that’s an interesting one to kind of take a look at.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, thank you. How about a favorite book?

Muhammed Mekki
In this theme, in this spirit, I think, there’s a book called Rework. It’s a little bit more entrepreneurial sort of focused, but it does have lessons across the board on just how to be efficient and productive in a work environment. They kind of challenge some of the traditional assumptions about what is an effective work environment.

It’s done by founders of 37signals, which is a distributed tech company that everybody was working at a different environment, wherever they wanted to work from, that they bootstrapped, they didn’t take funding. It was kind of a unique context and had some really interesting juicy insights to take you there.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. How about a favorite tool?

Muhammed Mekki
Probably LinkedIn. I find myself using LinkedIn a lot. I think it’s – as I’ve used social media less and less, I think the utility of and the power of that tool in a business context has been quite powerful.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Muhammed Mekki
I don’t know if it’s a habit, but it’s something that my wife and I have been talking more purposefully about. Being out in Dubai, I think making a habit out of – it’s not easy with two little kids now – but spending some quality time out in – out here in the US or making sure that we are staying connected with our friends and our family and everything.

I think – we just spent a couple weeks out actually in the Bay Area, where I went to school and have a lot of classmates and everything. Keeping in touch in a face-to-face kind of a way, beyond the emails, beyond this, but actually just meeting up, seeing the kids and keeping those relationships.

Even though we’re a 16-hour plane ride away from San Francisco and it does take an extra effort, I think it’s something that’s well worth it and it’s something that is important to us.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Speaking of kids, Jonathan has probably woken up since we’ve been speaking.

Muhammed Mekki
I can’t wait.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell me, is there a particular nugget that you find that you share it often and people kind of quote it back to you, like, “Oh yeah, Muhammed says this.”

Muhammed Mekki
I don’t know if I’ve reached this kind of level of – but I think probably the joke internally at AstroLabs is definitely – even this – the quote that I mentioned is “You don’t get what you don’t ask for,” is sometimes “You don’t get,” dot, dot, dot. You kind of – that’s probably the one that I would bring up.

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

Muhammed Mekki
They can reach out on LinkedIn actually. I’d be happy to connect. Just drop me a little note and connect.

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

Muhammed Mekki
Yeah, I think if we just tie together a few of the things we were talking about. Keep your eye open for these opportunities to outperform and to do something fantastic. That’s kind of like your lucky opening. Just jump on it and outperform and go above and beyond.

Look for chances to distinguish yourself from the rest of the pack. That might mean taking an international assignment or jumping on – doing something a bit different with your career that’s outside – taking that left turn as opposed to everybody else going up a ladder.

Think about chances to be able to do that, which will position you really well whether you’re trying to apply for something or you’re looking for your next opportunity. You have something a little bit different and deeper to be able to talk about and to show that you’re willing to take a risk and willing to do something new and different.

Then yeah, I would love to connect and challenge people to come on over to Dubai and see what’s happening in the tech sector. We’ve got lots of companies now that are from all over the world actually setting up their presence in Dubai and scaling up there to emerging markets around the region. Happy to connect with your listeners who might be passing through and are interested in technology and in the region.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome. That’s a fun – I would just encourage folks to take Muhammed up on that. He’s a gracious host, sliced watermelon and more, often-

Muhammed Mekki
Watermelon is key. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Muhammed, I’m glad we finally got to do this. It’s been a blast.

Muhammed Mekki
Thanks for having me. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Keep on rocking.

Muhammed Mekki
This was great.

335: Become a High Performer in Eight (Scientifically Proven) Steps with Marc Effron

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

Marc Effron shares his extensive research on the eight essential steps to becoming a high performer at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The eight steps to high performance
  2. The difference between goals and promises
  3. How to estimate and achieve your theoretical maximum of effort

About Marc

Marc Effron is the founder and President of the Talent Strategy Group and founder and publisher of Talent Quarterly magazine. He is coauthor of the book One-Page Talent Management and has been recognized as one of the Top 100 Influencers in HR.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Marc Effron Interview Transcript

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

Marc Effron
My pleasure Pete. Happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m happy to have you as well. The first thing I need to hear all about is you and Thai boxing. How did this come about and what’s the story here?

Marc Effron
Yeah, Pete. Muay Thai boxing, I fell into this probably no more than about five years ago. Short story is I’ve always been a gym rat and was in the gym one day and saw these guys doing boxing training over in the corner. I said, “Hey, that looks like fun.” Talked to the trainer, turned out that he’s actually a Muay Thai master.

I had no idea what Muay Thai was, turns out it is a boxing style that the Thais came up with when the Burmese were trying to invade them hundreds of years ago. It was actually kind of a creative way that they discovered to repel the invaders, but now it’s essentially a form of mixed martial arts and turned out to be a heck of a workout.

But also turned out, I found, to be a really good parallel for life and business in that – a very short story – the first three months or so that you train at this, you’re just – you’re kicking, you’re hitting and it’s pretty fun. Like all beginners you think you’re getting pretty good. Then about three months in your trainer takes a swing at you and hits you. You quickly realize, hey, all that kicking and hitting, that’s all theory. When they swing back, that’s practice.

This reminds me of the Mike Tyson quote, “Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the face.” It feels like that’s a really good metaphor for high performance. It’s all theory until you have to go out there and actually compete. But love it. It’s the best workout I’ve ever had.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. Does it also enable you to repel attackers? Have you had a cause to use it under intense circumstances?

Marc Effron
If I find hoards of marauding Thais in my office I will – or marauding Burmese I will use it as best I can.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, you’re all set. Let’s talk about your office for a bit. Your company is called the Talent Strategy Group. What are you about? What do you do there?

Marc Effron
Sure. This is firm I formed eight years ago when my last book came out, One-Page Talent Management. We help large global companies, the Google’s, the Starbucks, the McDonalds of the world help their teams and their leaders to be higher performers. We work all around the globe. We do a lot of performance management work and training work and all great stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, fun. I want to hear about your latest here, your book, 8 Steps to High Performance. What’s the big idea here?

Marc Effron
The big idea is helping individuals to understand that the path to high performance is actually pretty well proven and that there’s a lot of noise out there that distracts folks, but if we go back to the core science about performance, there’s a pretty clear set of steps. If they follow it, anyone can be a higher performer.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well could you in rapid fire format unveil to us what are these eight steps?

Marc Effron
Sure. First one, step one, set big goals. Just what it sounds like, a few really challenging goals. The most powerful science out there says that bigger goals stretch our performance.

Second step, behave to perform. We all want to behave like good citizens, but there a few ways of behaving that are actually going to elevate your performance faster than others.

Step three is grow yourself faster. It’s great to be a high performer, but if you’re going to move forward, you need to become better at what you do and better at the things that you want to do going forward. There are some scientifically proven ways of getting there faster than the techniques that you might normally try.

Step four is connect. This is actually the step that I personally have the most challenge with. Connect is forming great relationships inside and outside your company. Again, the science is really clear. People who do that better are going to be higher performers and move further in their careers.

Step five, maximize your fit. Keep this saying in mind. Companies change faster than people change. Companies change faster than people change. That means that your company’s going to evolve very quickly and the needs that the company have from you are going to change over time. You’re going to need to pay really close attention to where’s my company going and what are the different needs it requires for me to be a high performer going forward.

Step six, and this is the one where we hear a lot of noise is fake it. Fake it means that the genuine you, the authentic you, might not always be the you that your company needs to see and that sometimes you might actually need to fake some behaviors you don’t fully feel comfortable with in order to be successful.

Step seven, commit your body. There is great science behind a few things that we can do around sleep primarily, but also we’ll talk a bit about exercise to make sure that you are primed for a high performance.

The final step, step eight, avoid distractions. What we mean by avoid distractions is there is a lot of noise, a lot of fads out there, think of them as the get rich quick schemes for high performance that sound too good to be true. They are. We call out in the book some of the most common ones you should avoid.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, thank you. Now that’s – so many of these are so intriguing and it’s – I’m thinking about prioritization. Maybe I’ll give you the first crack at it. Which of these steps do you think provides kind of an extra leverage or disproportionate bang for your buck or return on the effort you put into trying to take the step?

Marc Effron
Sure. It really is step one: set big goals. Now as fundamental as that may seem, there are a few things that are helpful to know.

One is there is incredibly strong science that says things like bigger goals deliver bigger results, meaning we’re hard wired to respond to more challenge with more effort. Pete, if you say, “Marc, jump a foot in the air. I’ll give you a dollar.” I’m going to try and jump a foot in the air. If you say, “Marc, try and jump two feet. I’ll give you two dollars,” I’m going to try that. If you say, “Three feet, three dollars,”

I’m going to keep trying to do more as long as the reward seems to equal the challenge, so If you say, “Jump four feet, but you still only get three dollars,” I probably won’t do it or I’m too physically exhausted to respond to the challenge. Bigger goals actually do motivate us to perform at a higher level. That’s step one.

But then focus those goals. You can’t have 20 big goals. You’ll kill yourself. But you certainly can have three. Especially at work, the key thing is to understand what are the few things that really, really matter to my boss, not to me, to my boss. What are the three big things that he or she really wants to see me deliver this year and align your goals with his or her priorities.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great. I think some bosses would have a hard time limiting themselves to three. They’d say, “I want 15 things from you, Marc. They’re all super important.”  Then some, I’m thinking about our previous guest, Bruce Tulgan, with the crisis of under management, I think some might not really know in terms of “Well, we’ve got to keep things moving and going and operational.”

Any pro tips in terms of having those conversations effectively with your boss to really land upon the big three?

Marc Effron
Sure. Well, let’s say your boss goes too high, meaning “Hey, Pete, you have ten things to do, why are you asking me about three?” “Well, boss, I’m going to get all ten done. Don’t you worry about that. But if there were three that you think I should really, really get done to the highest level possible, which would be the three that you think are most important this year?”

Any type of prioritization at all, reassuring your boss, “Hey, I got it. I’m going to make sure everything gets done.” But your boss very likely has a few things that she or he wants you to ace this year, mainly because it’s going to make them look better. Reassure them that you’ll get them all done but ask them for some prioritization.

If they go too low meaning they say, “Well, Pete, show up and do a good job and work hard,” then ask questions like, “Hey, I’m absolutely going to do that, Marc, but what are you working on this year? What are the few big projects that are on your goal list?” “Cool. Are there any things that I’m doing right now that I can align better with the big goals that you have to achieve?”

Now this also gets into a bit of step four, which is connecting well with your boss. There’s nothing wrong with making your boss look good and goals are a great way to do that. “Boss, what are you working on? Hey, I want to make sure you ace those few things, how can I best help you to do that.”

If they go too high, ask them to help you to prioritize. If they go too low, maybe start with what’s most important to them given what they’re working on.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s helpful there. You talk about making promises in this section of the book. Is there a distinction between a goal and a promise and how to think about that?

Marc Effron
Yeah. It’s easy to dismiss that as kind of a cute word trick, but I do think there’s a different emotional component between the two. I can say “Hey Pete, yeah, I’ve got a goal for this year. I’m going to try and do X.” That’s much different than saying, “Pete, I promise you by the end of 2018, I will have achieved this.”

One sounds a lot more serious. Hey, we try to achieve goals, but how many people like to break their promises? Part of it might be a bit of a Jedi mind trick, but it really is just kind of increasing the emotional component of what you’re saying around those goals.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. It’s interesting it almost sort of – yeah, there’s definitely more sort of commitment or intensity, almost anxiety. It’s like, “Oh crap, what if I don’t do deliver. Ah.” It’s kind of spooky when you use the word promises.

Marc Effron
Exactly. You don’t want to disappoint someone by not delivering on a promise, but goals, we almost think, well, yeah, of course you make some goals, you don’t make some goals. Well, hopefully you deliver on most of the promises that you make.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so then your suggestion is that you articulate that verbally or do you write it in the performance management system or a document or review between boss and direct report or how do you recommend these get kind of captured and worked upon.

Marc Effron
Yeah. First of all, if your company has a way of doing it, start there. A lot of those ways are bureaucratic and annoying. If your company doesn’t have a way of doing it, then write them wherever you’re going to see them. Write them on the front of your desk, put them in your phone, wherever it’s going to stay in front of you that there are three big things that I’m trying to get done.

Again, you’re going to have many, many distractions. You have 100 things to get done during the year, and you’re going to need something that helps to reinforce for you, “Hey, these are the three big things that I promised and that are likely going to differentiate whether I’m seen as a high performer at work or not.”

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious then, yeah, when it comes to selecting them, we talked about making the boss looked good, aligns to what’s most important to them, and then makes you look great in terms of it distinguishes you in terms of you being perceived as a high performer.

Any other pro tips in terms of dos and don’ts for selecting these goals? I guess one of the tricky things with goals or promises here is that often there’s – your control is somewhat limited. You have to rely upon other collaborators internally or consumers/customers/clients responding favorably in a marketplace. How do you think about that angle of the promises?

Marc Effron
Sure, I think there’s a fine line between challenges and excuses. Customers come and go, economies get better and worse, people cooperate and don’t cooperate. I think part of it is when you’re setting that goal, identify what are the few key things I’m depending on – that I depend on will happen to allow me to achieve that goal.

It might mean that Suzie needs to deliver on project X in order for me to complete that. Okay, cool. Then you’d better help Suzie get project X done. It could be just a big assumption. “Hey boss, I’m assuming that client Y is going to continue buying our product as they always have. If they don’t, we’ll need to come back and renegotiate that goal.”

Part of it is just understanding what are the variables that are going to either allow you to make that goal or to make that goal challenging. The ones that you can control, put a plan in place to control them. The ones you can’t control, then it’s fair if they change to go back to your boss and say, “Hey boss, I was supposed to sell a hundred widgets to that company. That company doesn’t exist anymore. Let’s talk about what my new goal should be.”

I think it’s a line of saying, yeah, there are lots of bad things that can happen, probably best to identify those things that you can control in advance and work hard to control them and just be aware of the other ones as early as you can.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, excellent. Thank you. I’d like to get your take then on behaviors. What are some of the – real quick, some of the best and the worst?

Marc Effron
Sure, well I think that there’s a challenge for a lot of leaders who hear either through books or through their HR group that great leadership behaviors are what makes somebody successful.

Well, the scientists claim great leadership behavior makes somebody a great leader and that’s cool. But there’s also really good science that says there’s a set of performance driving behaviors that doesn’t mean that you act like a jerk, but it means you don’t necessarily spend as much time kind of engaging with your team. It’s all about how do I get higher performance.

Each of those styles might be appropriate at different times. If you are with a company owned by a private equity firm, they have extremely high demands for how your company is going to grow and perform, you might just need to drive high performance. Many people respond very positively to that.

On the other hand, if you’re maybe with a more long service organization, has a more gentle culture, you might really need to spend a lot of time in the care and feeding of your staff.

Either of those are perfectly fine ways of behaving but each of those is more appropriate for one situation than another.

The first step would simply be look at the situation that I’m in, what is the company valuing most from me? Do they value that I get things done the most? Do they value that I am a great leader, grow my teams, support the culture most. First step is really understanding what does my company need from me.

Ideally, your company can tell you, “Hey, we either have a leadership model or a behavior model that give you some guidance.” The challenge with those is they tend to be eight or 10 or 12 things that are all lovely behaviors, but don’t give you a lot of focus.

If your company does have one of those models, I really think it’s helpful to go to your boss or talk to high performers in your company and say, “Yeah, these are eight or 10, 12 really cool things, but what are the two that really, really matter around here? What am I going to get noticed for if I do or in trouble for if I don’t do?”

Again, focus is going to be a key theme on high performers, that’s focus on the big promises, but also focus on the few behaviors that matter most.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re saying then that this really varies organization by organization. Have you zeroed in on some universal best practices associated with driving performance and results?

Marc Effron
There are a few things that are going to make you successful in every environment. One is building the quality and performance of your team. Quality meaning are you increasing the capabilities of the people on your team. Are they more skilled and more capable at the end of the year, than they were at the beginning of the year due to the assignments and the experiences and the challenge that you’ve given them?

You can certainly have people deliver great results and learn nothing. That doesn’t add a lot of value to the company.

Step one is are you building the quality of those leaders by giving them big, juicy challenges that are a bit scary, that stretch their skills that cause them learn so at the end of the year, you have a team that is higher quality than others. Developmental behaviors are going to be ones that are going to be valued everywhere.

To the theme we’re talking about, just classic performance driving behaviors. All of the things that we talk about in the book applying to yourself, are you applying those to others, especially starting with those big goals. Are you challenging your team members to do more, but in a focused way?

So not simply I need ten percent more than last year, but what are the few most important things and how can I stretch you to what we call your maximum theoretical performance.

We introduce this concept in a book. It actually comes from weightlifting. Very simple concept. If you go to the gym and you’re going to lift some weights, what would be the theoretical maximum amount of weight that you can lift if everything was perfectly aligned, meaning if you had been actively training, if your diet was great, if you felt good that day, the gym was the right temperature, if everything was perfect, what would your theoretical maximum performance be?

Now average Joe or Jill goes into a gym, they can lift about 60% of theoretical maximum performance. If you’re a bit of a gym rat, you’re there all the time, you’d probably do about 80% of your maximum performance. Science says that Olympic athletes typically do 93 – 94% of their theoretical maximum performance.

Apply that same concept to work. Most of us show up, we do a really good job, we put in a lot of effort, but what would your theoretical maximum performance be. What would you have to do to perform at that level that is just optimum, that you know that you are giving everything that you have in both performance and behavior standpoint?

A good manager is going to work with their team members to say, “Hey, I know you’ve got more in you. Let’s figure out how we can help you be an even higher performer and have a very clear plan around that.” All the way back to the beginning, more quality, more performance.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious to know both for weightlifting and for professionals doing knowledge work, how does one establish what the theoretical maximum is?

Marc Effron
Well, I – I think there are a few ways of doing that. One is if you follow the eight steps that we talked about earlier, you’re certainly going to be going in the right directions because each of those is scientifically proven to make you a higher performer.

But I’m also a fan of simply saying double your standard. Whatever that standard is for great, what would double that standard look like? Doubling that standard probably takes you from about the 50th percentile to closer to the 100th percentile.

That means looking at things like “Hey, I had a great year last year, what would it actually take for me to double that performance? What would it take for me to double what I’ve delivered? What would it take for me to double how quickly or how much I develop? What would it take for me to double the engagement of my team members?”

It feels like a very unreasonable standard, but back to the science around setting big goals, it is amazing how much clarity you will get and how much you will stretch your mind around your own performance if you simply ask yourself that fundamental question. What would it take to deliver twice as much as I do today? The answer can’t be work twice as hard because that probably actually won’t get you there.

But thinking across between my goals, my behaviors, my network, even my sleep, what else could I do differently that would actually allow me to get to that point?

Pete Mockaitis
You’re saying that doubling is a pretty good benchmark rule of thumb for that is likely in the ballpark of possible and the maximum theoretical there?

Marc Effron
Yeah. I think what it’s going to do is it’s going to – if you say double, you’re probably defining your theoretical maximum performance. Is it possible that most of us can double in a year what we did the last year?

It’s going to be a pretty stiff challenge, but it’s going to really clarify your thinking around “Well, what would I have to do to move my performance most aggressively in a better direction,” because you’re not going to think about incremental solutions like, “Oh, I could take a class or maybe I’ll meet a few more people and network.” But really what would the big steps be that are going to have a meaningful difference on your performance?

Pete Mockaitis
I like it. I find it – I guess in a way it’s somewhat arbitrary, but if you think about it, a 5% boost, that’s like “Oh, I’ll just work an extra 23 minutes or whatever in a day,” versus I hear people talk about 10x’ing it, which sounds really cool and exciting, but it just sort of often just leaves me frozen, like, “Wow, I have no idea how I would 10x it.”

But doubling, I don’t know, it’s working for me because I think it sparks ideas for me, like, “Oh, well, I’ve got to stop wasting all this time with this,” or “I’ve got to find a way to automate or outsource or delegate that particular thing which is low value, but to free up more time for this other thing.” Then suddenly it’s like, “Oh, well, that’s not so impossible. That just requires X dollars and a great person and away we go.”

Marc Effron
Yeah. Focus drives performance. It is amazing. I think you really seized on a great point. If I’m going to double what I do, there’s a bunch of stuff I really enjoy doing that I might need to stop doing. That’s part of the tradeoff of being a high performer. I have stuff here at work that I love doing and my team looks at me and says, “You really shouldn’t be spending your time on that.” I guarantee you, I would be a higher performer if I stopped doing some of those things.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you tell us what are some of those things?

Marc Effron
Oh, I like to think I have a sense of graphic style and I annoyingly provide helpful advice to my team about how email should look and graphics should look and decks should look. They’re so appreciative of my constant advice to them, but they’ve told me that maybe I could dial that back just a bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh sure. Yeah, I …. Cool. Talk to us a little bit about the faking it notion, presenting a different version of yourself deliberately and what that’s all about.

Marc Effron
Sure. Here is the challenge. People respond very negatively when you say, “Hey, you need to kind of fake things at work,” especially because there’s been such a trend over the past five years or so to be our authentic selves and our genuine selves.

That’s lovely, but the science says that showing up as your genuine self all the time is probably not going to be the right strategy for high performance because the people around us actually need to see different you’s at different times. If your primary concern is how can the genuine me show up 24/7, you’re likely going to miss a lot of opportunities to interact with people in the way that they actually need you to interact with them.

Plus, what we find is that if you say, “Hey, I’m always going to be my authentic self and never change,” there are actually opportunities, there are times in our life when we’re going to need to show fundamentally different behaviors that we just might not feel comfortable with and faking those behaviors until either you become comfortable or just faking them to be successful are going to be critical.

An example, leaders tend to exist in one of two states meaning we start to off by being what we call an emerging leader. An emerging leader is somebody who needs to really show that they are there. They need to wave their hand around a bit. They need to call attention to their work because if they don’t do that, no one is ever going to understand that they’re a high performer or a potential high performer.

Some people are decidedly uncomfortable calling attention to themselves. They believe good work stands for itself. I’ll get noticed eventually. Well, no, good work doesn’t automatically get noticed and people don’t know people who quietly do good work.

If you are uncomfortable doing that, it’s important to recognize science is really clear if you don’t call attention to yourself, you’re not going to get noticed. Fake it for a while. Again, you don’t need to be an arrogant jerk, not that extent of faking it, but there’s nothing wrong with raising your hand in a meeting and offering a suggestion. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out to your boss the high quality work that you’re turning in. You might need to fake that behavior.

The other side of being an emerging leader is being an effective leader. Effective leaders are more established. They are – they have their team. They are a little bit more mature in their career. Effective leaders are going to empower their team, they’re going to be good managers, a bit more humble.

If you’re someone who loves calling attention to yourself, you might need to fake that. You might need to sit on your hands instead of always raising them in the meeting. You might need to cover your mouth instead of being the first person to respond to every question.

Being – faking things a bit allows you to be the ideal person to show up in each situation, to show up as you’re needed, not as who you think you should be. Faking might sound bad because we think, “Well, I’m authentic and that would be being inauthentic.” Well, no, what it means is you’re going to behave in a way that is most appropriate to be a high performer in that particular situation.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. The examples that you’re using there for faking it really don’t feel so frighteningly inauthentic. I guess adapting to circumstances and challenges as they emerge and doing what’s necessary is just kind of part of the game. It didn’t even occur to me that that would be being inauthentic.

I think I’ve had to fire someone before and that was very uncomfortable. I don’t like that. I like to believe in people and their possibilities and their growth and development. Then at some point it’s like this really isn’t the right fit and okay, here we go.

I guess I didn’t think of that as violating myself or being inauthentic. It was just more like, “Hm, what is required now is not something fun and comfortable for me.”

I guess – I think other people think about authenticity in terms of like if they want to have purple hair or a huge beard or almost like fashion expression sensibilities. Yeah, could you maybe unpack some extra examples of things that we might need to let go of when you’re expressing our genuineness or common places where it’s needed – it’s necessary to adapt?

Marc Effron
Sure. I would say on the look and how you present yourself, my view is that’s a great place to be authentic because I think that shows your personality.

But let’s take an example of oftentimes I’ll speak with people who will need to be up on stage in a presentation and they’re nervous. “I’m just not that person who gets up on stage and does that. I just can’t turn on being” – so their genuine you is very afraid being kind of a public speaker.

I tell those folks, “Look, I am a massive introvert, but you know what no one wants to see up on stage? Someone staring at their shoes.” I have to fake it up on stage and I’ve got a lot of good people that are in my mind when I’m faking being an extrovert. Is it the genuine me? No, it is not the genuine me, but guess what? I fake it pretty well.

For a lot of folks it’s simply recognizing that you don’t have to restrain or constrain what you do because there is some authentic you that sets boundaries around how you can behave.

You can say, “Hey, you know what I’m going to do at that next party even though I’m a massive introvert? I’m going to fake extrovert. I’m going to walk into that room saying, ‘I’m the biggest extrovert in the world.’ What would a big extrovert do in this room right now?”

Either you’re going to be at least moderately successful, if not maybe a bit more, and you actually might get a really good round of practice in at being more of an extrovert and find that you’re building some skills around it.

Part of authenticity is stop putting boundaries on your own success by saying, “Oh, that’s just who I am.” No, who you are is whoever you feel like being at that moment. Learn how to fake it. It’s amazing how much progress you can make.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot in terms of rejecting the constraint of “That’s just not who I am,” and being able to adapt there. And I liked the instance of you imagining what being extrovert is like.

We had Srini Pillay talk about what he called psychological Halloweenism, which is quite a turn of a phrase, which is just that, like “Hey, I’ll just put on a costume. I’m going to be this person and see how that goes because it will be very helpful to be this person in this context.”

Marc Effron
Part of is just our fear of risk, our fear of embarrassment, but again, most of us really overestimate how much people pay attention to us. We write about that in the book. Most of think that everyone is always looking at us and always judging us, but actually  we’re noticed far less than we think.

The odds that if we go to a party and we have one awkward conversation with one person, that that’s somehow going to spread like wildfire through our social community, probably not the case. You can probably take a risk.

The science is also very conclusive that people are pretty tolerant of us failing in social situations in ways that others have failed in social situations, so people essentially empathize.

Yeah, it’s tough to walk up to somebody new and have a flawless and fluent conversation. If that person isn’t doing that perfectly with me, I’m not going to think “What an idiot.” I’m going to think, “Hey, they’re kind of getting used to being a bit more of an extrovert.” People are actually largely forgiving in those situations.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. Well, now I saved the most controversial for last. I want to get your take on your final step there was avoiding the distractions of what you call unproven fads and in that category you put grit, power poses, emotional intelligence and strengths. Now, a lot of people love this stuff. What’s your take on this overall?

Marc Effron
Well, here’s the challenge. There are – and we outline in the book – there are really clear scientifically proven steps that will make you a higher performer.

The challenge is that as consumers of information, which I’m sure the folks on the podcast are, you get information thrown at you every day that says you can be a higher performer if only you do this. Because most folks aren’t industrial or … psychologists, they probably aren’t sorting those marketing claims through a very skeptical lens and so something that sounds pretty easy and pretty straightforward, they may be likely to do.

The challenge is some of those things will kind of do no harm, but most of them are going to really waste your time and distract you from doing the things that actually will drive higher performance.

Some of my favorites are focusing on your strengths. Don’t focus on your strengths. Here’s the challenge. Gallup has sold millions and millions of books. They have sold I think 18 million strength finder assessments.

Focusing on your strengths is a great way to continue to be good at things that you’re already good at. If you say, “Hey, I’m in my job, I just want to be really, really good at this job. I don’t want a different job. I don’t want to move up,” in that case, cool, focus on your strengths. You’re going to be great.

But the challenge is that the strengths that we need over time will change in our career, so if all you do is focus on today’s strengths, you are never going to have the strengths necessary for the next job and that there’s really great science that says things like we don’t have as many strengths as we think we do.

If you define strengths as being in the top ten percent of something, actually most of us don’t have that many strengths and a lot of science that says the strengths that we do have don’t necessarily align with what our company needs.

Something like focusing on your strengths sounds really easy, “Well, yeah, why wouldn’t I do that? I’m good at some stuff and the stuff I’m not good at, it’s really annoying to work on, so wow, it feels like there’s a really easy path to success. I’ll just focus on my strengths.”

Unfortunately, the science is clear that the people – people who advance most quickly in organizations, are the ones who actually trim the negative tails. “Here are the things that are actually holding me back. My strengths will take care of themselves. It’s the things that I don’t do well that are going to drag down my career.”

The challenge is we have things like that that sound really attractive, that are presented in a compelling way, and there’s a bestselling book, but there’s just no science that says that it works and there’s lots of science that it probably won’t work as well as other techniques.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. When it comes to the strength stuff, I think this kind of reminds me of maybe any number of sort of health and fitness claims in terms of you can broadly declare something as good or bad, but really I think there’s more sort of nuance to it.

You look to the strengths approach in terms of trying to find how that compares to or correlates to rapidly accelerating, climbing, being promoted, and rocking and rolling in an organization. You say that the data just aren’t there to support the strengths.

However, Gallup will say – I’ve got it up here – people who use their strengths every day are three times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life, six times more likely to be engaged at work, 8% more productive, and 15% less likely to quit their jobs. None of those results are climbing rapidly into bigger realms of responsibility. 8% more productive is nice.

That’s intriguing. I’m kind of putting together what you’re saying with what they’re saying and it seems like strengths have some value, but it ain’t necessarily getting you to the top of the pyramid quicker.

Marc Effron
Absolutely. I guarantee you and completely agree with Gallup that if you focus on your strengths, you will be happy at work. Absolutely. If your goal is to be happy at work, focus on your strengths. Great solution. If you want to be a high performer at work, then it’s probably not the right way to go. You probably want to focus on big goals, changing your behaviors, and the other eight steps that we outline.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool, thank you. Tell me, Marc, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Marc Effron
I think we’re on a roll. Let’s keep going.

{Insert Sponsor here}

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. Well tell me about a favorite quote, something that inspires you?

Marc Effron
Let me go high and let me go low. I’ll give you two. One, we’ll start with Wolfgang Goethe, the German philosopher. He had a quote, “Doubt grows with knowledge.” “Doubt grows with knowledge.”

I think that we should all become more skeptical the more we know about something because you’ll probably find that a few things in whatever area are true and to what we’re just talking about, when things come along that sound too good to be true, they probably are. The high end quote would be “Doubt grows with knowledge,” Wolfgang Goethe.

The low end quote would be from the famous philosopher Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who said, “The wolf is always at the door.” I think that is a high performer’s mindset, “The wolf is always at the door.” You have to have this mindset that everything could hit the skids tomorrow, so what am I going go to do today to make sure that I’m extremely well prepared for success.

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

Marc Effron
Not to bore the listeners too much, but I’m a big fan of setting big goals. There’s great research out there, classic stuff by two really brilliant professors, Gary Latham and Ed Locke, about how goals drive performance that we talked about earlier. Just really kind of rock solid science, not light reading, but rock solid science.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Marc Effron
Marshall Goldsmith. Many of your listeners probably know him. You might have even had him on a podcast. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Bestseller New York Times, Wall Street Journal.

Just a great book to help all of us understand that we’re going to need to evolve and change through life and at the moment we rest on our laurels we’re dead. What Marshall does wonderfully is just kind of pick apart all of our wonderful excuses for why we behave, how we behave, and really convince us that it’s probably smart to let go of those excuses and figure out a more successful way to behave across your life.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Marc Effron
I had trouble thinking of this. One – a big fan of all my hardware and software, but I probably use – this is not a plug – the Delta airlines app more than anything else. I’m on the road 70% of my time and that app is open almost every single day, so they do a good job for me and that’s probably my favorite tool.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite habit?

Marc Effron
Favorite habit. I found out many years ago that working Sundays is very productive for me. It started off because I was in business school and doing worse than 98% of people and realized I needed to put in some extra effort and so started hanging out in the library from 9 AM to 9 PM on Sundays and realized you can get a lot done when nobody else is around.

Since that time I have worked not every, but three-quarters of Sundays in the year. One because it’s really quiet and my brain needs that to get stuff done, but also, if I’m working six hours a week more than other folks, that’s probably going to add up over time into something good.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with listeners?

Marc Effron
Probably two things. In fact I was looking at on the Kindle copy of the book things that have been underlined the most. Two things seem to stand out.

One was just the definition of a high performer because that’s probably never been put out there before. I define that as “a high performer is somebody who’s performance and behaviors are sustained at the 75th percentile over time against your peers,” meaning you are always better than 75% of other smart people doing the exact same thing that you do. That’s one.

The other is just this concept we talked about earlier of theoretical maximum performance. How good could you be if everything was working in perfect concert?

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

Marc Effron
I would send them to our website. They can start with The8Steps, that’s The8Steps.com. It talks all about the book. Or if they want to learn more about our organization, TalentStrategyGroup.com, tons of articles, videos, lots of other cool resources.

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

Marc Effron
I would go back to what we talked about earlier. Just think about what would it take to double your own standard for great performance. A know a lot of your folks listening right now think, “Hey, I’m a pretty good performer.” I’m sure that’s true. What would it take to be twice as good as you are now? I guarantee you that will give you focus and motivation to do much more than you do today.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, Marc, thanks so much for taking this time. It’s been a lot of fun. I wish you all the best and much success and high performance as you do what you do.

Marc Effron
Thanks Pete. I enjoyed the conversation.

313: Closing the Gap between Potential and Results with Thom Singer

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Thom Singer breaks open the Paradox of Potential to highlight where potential doesn’t equal results and what to do about it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to identify the unique things holding you back
  2. The three things that always help achieve better results
  3. How to bring back purpose when it’s most needed

About Thom

As the host of the popular “Cool Things Entrepreneurs Do” podcast, Thom interviews business leaders, entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, and others who possess an extra dose of the entrepreneurial spirit. The information compiled from these compelling interviews is shared with his clients, as he challenges people to be more engaged and enthusiastic in all their actions. He has authored twelve books on the power of business relationships, sales, networking, presentation skills and entrepreneurship, and regularly speaks to corporate, law firm and convention audiences. He sets the tone for better engagement at industry events as the opening keynote speaker or the Master of Ceremonies. His Conference Catalyst Program has become a “meeting planners” favorite in how it transforms the conference attendee experience.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Thom Singer Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Thom, thanks so much for joining us here again on How To Be Awesome At Your Job.

Thom Singer

God, I’m so excited to be back. It’s been like three years.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, yeah, time really flies. And thanks so much for saying “Yes”. Back in Episode 17, before I had much of a show, I had to pick people who seemed to like me, instead of anybody.

Thom Singer

Now people don’t have to like you.

Pete Mockaitis

No. They resent me, but they grin and bear it for the publicity.

Thom Singer

Awesome.

Pete Mockaitis

So I want to hear a little bit, you did some stand-up comedy for the first time at the age of 51. What’s the story here?

Thom Singer

You’ve done your homework on me. So, I made a pledge to myself when I turned 50 almost two years ago that I was going to have the most fun ever from 50 to 75 years old. Not that I had a bad time before; I was in a fraternity in college, I had a really good time. And I’ve had a good time in between. But I just decided that I wasn’t going to talk myself out of things. And when I was younger, when I was about your age, I was in my 20s, I wanted to try my hand at just open mic night. I didn’t want to go be a full-time comic. But I always found a reason, like I wasn’t going to be good enough, or “What if I sucked?”, or “What if my friends saw me?” And so I always found a way not to do it. I had a friend who was pushing me to try it, and I just never did.
And recently I had a situation where I was going to be in New York and a professional speaker friend of mine is also a professional comic, and he said, “When you’re in New York I’ll take you to open mic night.” And I said, “Oh, how cool. I’d love to see you work on new material.” And the other friend who was with us started shaking his head going, “That’s not what he means. He’ll take you to open mic night, but he’ll make you sign up and do a five-minute set.” And I was like, “Oh, I can’t do that.” And he said, “Why?” And all of my reasons were false. And he said, “Have you ever wanted to try it?” And I said, “Yeah, I used to when I was younger, I really wanted to.”
So, he didn’t really talk me into it, but he made the offer that he would help me. And so when I was in New York City, we signed up, I got my name drawn and I did a five-minute set. And what was fascinating was, I wasn’t the best one. There were maybe 17 comics that went. But I was probably in the top seven. And so I was like, “Huh.” So I’ve now done it five more times.

Pete Mockaitis

No kidding! That’s so great. Well, so to put you on the spot, could you share one or two of your jokes that got the best response?

Thom Singer

Yeah. So you are putting me on the spot. I’m turning 52 years old really soon, and I just realized that my dad was 52 years old when I was born. I had sort of an older dad. In fact, growing up with an older dad there were a couple of things. One was that I thought things were normal, I thought you were supposed to go to restaurants for the discounted dinner at 4:30. And I thought every time you got out of a chair you were supposed to make a noise like, “Ugggghhhh”. I thought it’s just what people did when they got out of the chair. And then I was the only kid on the block who wasn’t allowed to play on his own lawn.

But seriously, my dad was 52 when I was born, and I realized I’m about to turn 52. So I went to my wife and I said, “Oh my gosh, honey, we could have another kid!” And she said, “No. No, we can’t, for so many reasons.” She said, “You can’t keep track of your car keys; how are you going to be able to keep track of a toddler?” So, that’s just a little bit of what I did.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s good. And kudos for having them to be kind of connected in that theme, because sometimes I understand the comedians, they test a lot of material, and they just push together all the stuff that works great, with little segway, and that’s sort of the way of the world. But call me – I don’t know what the word is – someone who likes themes and structure and organization. I appreciate multiple jokes within the same category.

Thom Singer

Well, I only had to do five minutes, so the whole theme of the whole thing was just stories about my dad, about him dating when he was widowed and different stuff like that. So, that was my two cents, and like I said, I wasn’t the funniest guy. Seinfeld is not worried about job security because I did stand-up. But it definitely was a great experience, and I learned that it’s probably one of the hardest things about standing up in front of an audience. It’s way harder than being a professional speaker, because the expectations of a stand-up comic, even a guy at open mic night, are way higher than some keynote speakers. So, I’ve learned a lot from doing it.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s true. Often they sort of expect the speakers to be boring, and when you just sort of provide a modicum of engagement and jokes and enthusiasm and thought provocation, it’s like, “Alright!”

Thom Singer

Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis

So speaking of keynote speaking, you’ve got a newer program

Thom Singer

The Paradox of Potential.

Pete Mockaitis

I really liked the blurb that was on your site and I think that there’s a whole lot of thoughts, concerns, questions when it comes to our potential. And How To Be Awesome At Your Job listeners are into developing potential. So what’s it all about?
Thom Singer
Yeah, I would imagine if you’re listening to a podcast called Be Awesome At Your Job, that you definitely have this interest in being awesome at your job. And yet when I talk to people, and I’ve interviewed 300 or 400 people now through a survey, and then I’ve talked to about 10% of them on the phone and done personal interviews – most of the people who I’ve interviewed say that they’re not doing everything they could do in their career. They could be achieving more in their jobs.
And when I talk to managers I say, “Even if my numbers are wrong, even if it’s not 70% to 75%, what if just half your people could be having better performance and doing more, and being more successful? Wouldn’t you want to know about that, about how to get across that gap between potential and results?” And so that’s what I talk about, is what’s holding people back, and then what are some of the ways to get farther across the gap between potential and results.
Because here’s the deal: Potential does not equal results, no matter how much we want it to, no matter how excited we get about having potential or our team having potential, or our new hire being a high potential employee. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to achieve anything, and yet everybody wants to build a bridge. They want to build a bridge for their whole team between potential and results, put everybody on one bus and drive them across.
The problem is not everybody has the same things holding them back, therefore not one solution is going to help everybody. And the bigger thing is that as you move across that gap from potential to results, what happens is that your potential is going to shift, because you’re meeting new people, you’re listening to a new podcast, you’re reading a new book, you’re having a new experience. So, if you build a bridge and your potential shifts, you drive the bus across, everyone’s going to fall into the ravine. So I tell people that you do not want to build your path across in advance and then go across; instead you want to build a scaffolding, you want to build a modular thing so that you can go across at an angle, diagonal, up, down sideways. And then when your potential shifts further out, you can just add a new module.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, I like that. And I even want to start at the very beginning, which was just that you did so much research in crafting a keynote. I think that’s awesome to start with. Other folks are like, “Hey, here’s an idea I think is good.” And you went deep into seeing, “What’s a real problem folks are having and what’s some insightful stuff I can bring to it?” So kudos from the get-go in developing your speaker potential by doing that.

Thom Singer

I feel I’m one year into about a five-year survey of people. My intent is to interview thousands of people, and I’m in the process of trying to see if maybe I could get a real researcher, like a PhD level researcher to help me, because I haven’t set the questions up right. I’m not a researcher, I’m not an academic. So, my information I found is still somewhat anecdotal, but there’s a lot of stuff going on here. And people get really excited.
When I go into a company and they have me come into their team, once we get through the presentation point and we get it to that interactive piece where everybody gets to start talking about what holds them back, or others on their team… Sometimes nobody wants to talk about themselves, but hypothetically, “My friend is held back because of XYZ” – people get really into sharing the fears and the mistakes they’ve made along the way, and the team gets really excited about figuring out, “How can we support each other?” So it’s kind of a fun job to be able to do working with actual teams inside a company.

Pete Mockaitis

That is fun. And so I want to dig into a number of these gaps that are popping up frequently, and some of the prescriptions for remedying them. And it’s funny – the first gap that I thought of – and you’ll tell me how prominent this is and if people fess up to it – is just, “Yeah, I could be doing better at my job, but that sounds like a lot of extra hours that I don’t want to spend there because I want to spend more time with my family or doing other cool outside-of-work things.” Is that one of the top gaps?

Thom Singer

Yeah, it’s sometimes as simple as that, that “Hey, this just isn’t my priority.” And you know what? That’s okay. Even if they don’t want to, sometimes people have a new baby, or sometimes… One lady told me after hearing my speech – she came up almost in tears and she said, “Thank you”, because she had an aunt who had no children, and she was caring for her aunt in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. And her boss was really supportive of it, but she felt that when she was at work she was cheating her aunt, and when she was with her aunt she was cheating work.
And the reality of what I said is, sometimes work isn’t your priority. Just be honest with yourself, it’s okay. I gave a fictitious example about caring for somebody, but it hit home with this woman. And she wanted to put more time into work, but she had another commitment. So yeah, sometimes there’s either “I just don’t want to do it” or sometimes “I can’t do it, because I have this other commitment.” And that’s a legitimate reason and people can’t beat themselves up for it. We live in a society where we talk a lot about work, work, work, work, work. It’s not always your priority, and if it’s not your priority, that’s okay. But also don’t have expectations if you’re not putting all that work in that you are going to become CEO.

Pete Mockaitis

Right, that’s well said. And boy, that angst there associated with, “When I’m at work I’m cheating my aunt and when I’m with my aunt I’m cheating my work” – I think that really connects and resonates with lots of people with their outside work obligations and concerns. And so, any pro tips on just coming to peace with that? I think in a way just the sheer anxiety is going to diminish your ability to realize your potential. So, any pro tips on how to take that breath and to become okay with that?

Thom Singer

One of the things I talk about is I think we’ve been done a disservice by all these speakers and trainers who’ve come in and tried to teach work-life balance, because I actually don’t believe you’re ever in balance. If you’re at home with your kids, you’re not at work, so work is out of balance. If you’re at work, you’re not home caring for your kids, so that’s out of balance. So we focus on wanting everything to be in perfect balance, but nothing in the universe is in perfect balance. Something’s always going on that’s throwing something out of balance. So, you just have to get okay with that fact, that just do the best you can with what you’ve got in front of you.
A friend of mine wrote a book called Good Enough Now – her name’s Jessica Pettitt. You know Jessica. One of the things she talks about is, everybody is waiting for perfection before they’re going to go do the things they have to do, but really you’re good enough now. Just go do what you have to do. And that’s sort of what I try to teach people.
But here’s the thing – no matter what you look at in this paradox of potential, it all comes down to three things that help you. There are a lot of things that are holding people back – a lot of different fears, a lot of things where people feel they don’t have the right degree or they don’t have the right training or they don’t have the support of their spouse or their boss, or their company is out-of-sync for a lot of reasons. The list is really, really long of what the problems are.
But the answers all fall into three buckets, and those buckets are your plan, your purpose, and people. So your plan is really just goal-setting. And I know you teach goal-setting in some of the seminars that you do. I’ve never understood why people go, “I don’t believe in goal-setting.” I hear this all the time because it’s part of what I teach. People say, “Oh well, I don’t believe in goal-setting.” I had one person tell me, “Setting goals just sets you up to feel bad when you don’t reach them.” And I’m like, “No, because if you strive for something and you come close, don’t feel bad about the 10% you missed. Look at the 90% of the way you came.”
I have a daughter who is a high achiever, and she always sets her goals really high. And then when she lands at something that other people just think is excellent that might have been shy of that goal, she’s thrilled that she landed at the excellent level that she is. And it’s a really good example – she’s always pushing herself and setting expectations, and I’m always worried that she’s going to be disappointed. And then she’s always thrilled because she’s still coming out in the top 90 percentile. And she said if she had just shot for the 90 percentile, she might have ended up in the 80 percentile.
So, I’ve never understood why people think, “I’m going to feel bad if I don’t hit my goal.” If my goal for sales – and I’m just making this up – is $500,000 and I sell $400,000, that’s better than selling $300,000. So if I had no goal, I have no idea where I would have landed, plus I can’t benchmark myself against my own performance if I don’t have some sort of goal. So the first thing is having that plan and knowing what success looks like, and then taking the actions to get there.
The second bucket is purpose, and that just goes back to what Simon Sinek has taught for years, of knowing your “Why”. Everybody on your team at work has different reasons that they have a job. Some people want to pay their mortgage and have a fancy house and things like that. Other people want to feel part of a team. Other people want to contribute to the greater good. Each person has to come to terms with why they do the work that they do. And in some cases it’s, “I have to pay the bills.” Well, okay, as long as you understand what that is. And it’s really coming to terms as an individual about what your purpose is.
And then the third bucket is people, and that is having the right mentors, being part of the right team, knowing who to turn to, having support at home. Being a mentor is one of the best things that you can do if you really want to grow. So it’s all interactions that you have with people. It’s your network, it’s your brand, it’s how you engage. And so those are the three ways across. No matter what’s holding you back you can always find the answer in your plans, your purpose, and your people.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, thank you. It’s nice to have three things and to be alliterative along the way. Really cool. So then, I’d be curious when it comes to executing on each of these. What are some of, I guess the best practices versus the worst practices? I guess in some ways with a plan, just like having no plan is not optimal, as you were laying out here. But what are some other pointers there?

Thom Singer

Well, as I said earlier, potential does not equal results. You have to take action. So, I’ve seen people make plans and make lists and do all these things, but if you’re not checking things off, if you’re not actually moving towards the goal, then nothing’s going to happen. So you really have to be somebody who tries to do something, and I’m a big believer that momentum builds stuff. So a lot of people overthink; they don’t take action because they’re trying to weigh all 10 options against each other.
Yet if you look at really successful entrepreneurs, they know that they have to start their business. They’re really smart in the tech industry in Silicon Valley – the term is “pivot”. Start your business, start building, launch something, and then see where it’s working and where it’s not, and pivot. There are so many companies that started to be one thing and pivoted to something else. Twitter is a perfect example. It wasn’t started to be what it became, but they pivoted it and all of a sudden it went crazy 10 years ago.
So, you just need to be able to start doing something, because if you have momentum it’s easier to change course than to start from an absolute dead stop. And too many people don’t take action until they know that the action they take is going to be perfect. I worked for a person one time – it was in a marketing department – and we were talking about something we were going to do in marketing. And it wasn’t a big spin, I mean it wasn’t $50,000; it was like $6,000, $5,000, something like that. And she said, “What’s the guaranteed ROI?”
And I said, “From marketing, from having an event and doing sponsorship and things like that, you’re not going to have a total guarantee. Here’s what we assume will happen and here’s what we’re hoping for, but I can’t give you a perfect guarantee that we’re going to have 100 people come to our booth and we’re going to meet 10 people and we’re convert three of them. I can’t promise you that.” I go, “Sometimes you may have to throw a little spaghetti against the wall.” And she looked at me and said, “In my company we throw no spaghetti against the wall. Most spaghetti hits the floor.” And I’m like, “Well, then you can do stuff but you’re never going to be able to take the type of actions that are going to lead to the big success.”
Because when you look at people as individuals in their job or companies who have big success, there’s some risk, there’s some trial and error that goes into being awesome at your job. And if you’re not willing to take that trial and error and take some actions without the guarantee, then you’re just going to be mediocre at your job, and that’s not what your podcast is about.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, that’s dead on. And yeah, marketing in particular, that’s hard for anyone to guarantee. And you really don’t know until you start for sure. And so, I think that is compelling, in the sense that if folks do something, or don’t do something because they’re so terrified of the potential for a failure, then you’re pretty limited to a very narrow space of actions you might take.

Thom Singer

Yeah, and therefore you might succeed… But I’ve been doing this in my career for nine years. I throw some Hail Mary passes and sometimes they get intercepted, and that’s just the way it goes.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, so that’s the “plan” side of things. And how about purpose?

Thom Singer

Well, we all are motivated for different reasons. And sometimes we forget why we get out of bed. What are we trying to accomplish? What is it that we want for our family? What’s our purpose of what we do? You have a new child. When you have a kid, that changes your purpose. You may have noticed some things in the past five or six months have changed in the way you look at the world, and that is because you’re now responsible for somebody else.
So I have two kids of my own, and then I mentor two young gentleman who are both in their late 20s, who call me their “fake dad”. They’ve been around about four years; I don’t think they’re ever going away. And my kids are like, “What’s the deal there?” My one daughter is like, “Are they in the will?” And I said, “No, they’re not real kids. They’re not in the will.” And she said, “Okay, then I support your friendship with them, as long as they’re not taking my inheritance.” No, she didn’t say that.
But the thing is that I tell them all the time, because they’re young and they’re both single – I tell them all the time I have a different outlook on the world because there are other humans I’m responsible for. I have a wife and I have two kids. And I said, “When you’re responsible for three other people, that changes the purpose of why you do things and the decisions that you make in your career, in your personal life, what you do on Friday night, etcetera.”
And so, I think that that’s something we have to realize, that our purpose and our plans and our people – they’re going to change from time to time, and that’s okay. But you have to understand, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?” So, one of my main motivations of why I pursue the business I pursue is, I want to be that person who’s educating people. I could go be a teacher or a professor or a newscaster. I like being in that role, where I’m sharing information with people. And because I like being in that role, part of my purpose is, I want to be the best I can at that.
Another one of my purposes is money. I’m not ashamed of it – I want to have nice things. I don’t have to make a million dollars a year. So many people focus on giant numbers, but I have to have decent numbers because there’s certain things I’ve chosen to do. Plus I have kids, who one goes to a very expensive college, one’s in high school with her eyes set on very expensive colleges. And the problem is when you have kids who are straight-A students in high school, they get accepted to those colleges, so then you have to figure out, how do we pay for them.
And the problem is that unless you’re making… If you make a million dollars a year, it doesn’t matter. And if you make a smaller amount, there’s often need-based scholarships. But if you’re in the middle, you’ve got to pay for them. And so I’m motivated to make sure that I can make those tuition payments on top of our mortgage payments and still be able to, as a family, take some trips and have clothes and things like that, eat nice meals. So that’s part of that purpose piece is, I have to know why I’m doing it, because it makes me get out of bed in the morning.

Pete Mockaitis

Very good. And so I think it’s often quite common to forget or lose sight of the purpose when you’re in the urgent stuff.

Thom Singer

Absolutely, yes.

Pete Mockaitis

And so any thoughts on how to bring it back, fresh in our mind?

Thom Singer

Well, out of sight is always out of mind, so I encourage people to write their goals down, going back to the plan. The old saying is, “A goal not written down is a wish.” So, you’ve got to write down your goals. Part of that is you’ve got to write down your purpose. And this is more than your company’s mission statement that hangs in the lobby. This is individual to the person. Everyone on the team needs to be clear about why do they work there, and what do they want to contribute.
And you’ve got to review it because otherwise, when things get busy and when things get bad, and it always gets bad… I mean none of us have a perfect career, whether there are problems with the economy, problems with bosses or co-workers, or just caught up in the moment, there’s some problem with the client, it’s just bad – it’s easy to forget why you get out of bed in the morning. So write it down and have it in front of you.

Pete Mockaitis

Beautiful, thank you. And how about on the people side?

Thom Singer

Well, I started my speaking career teaching people how to network better, how to connect with people in a gadget-crazy world. It’s something that I’ve talked about for 10 years. I started my speaking career just as the iPhone and the smartphone started showing up in everybody’s hands. And everybody thought, “It’s going to be so much easier to connect.” And yet, I ask everybody who is over 35 years old, “Do you feel now that you have more friends? And I mean friends who are going to invite you to Thanksgiving. Do you have more friends than you had a decade ago?” And I rarely – there’re sometimes people – but I rarely had a hand go up in the audience.
And then I flip it around to business and I say, “How many people feel that you have more business, like it’s so much easier for you to sell” – because I speak to a lot of sales teams – “than it was 10 years ago?” Now, if somebody is 28, they don’t remember life without a smartphone. But if they’re 38, they sure do. And rarely, again, does a hand go up. Every now and then, there’s somebody who, they do a real good job at Internet marketing and use of social and stuff like that, but in most cases, people shake their heads.
And I say, “Okay, so we can have a room up several hundred people, nobody or very few people raise their hands.” I’m like, “But let’s think back to the last 10 years. Every conference that you went to, not so much now, but certainly 3 years ago to 10 years ago, had entire tracks on social media and mobile and digital. And yet, nobody feels that they’re better connected.” And in fact, there was an article in the Harvard Business Review last fall, written by the former Surgeon General of the United States under Obama, and it was called… I don’t know what the title of the article was, but it was about the epidemic of loneliness that’s going on.
And there are a lot of articles written about how the Millennials feel very lonely, like they don’t feel they have a lot of friends. One of these guys I mentor sent me a funny – I don’t know if it’s called a meme or whatever, because I’m old – but he sent me a thing at Easter time, and it said, “The real miracle is, how did Jesus make it to his thirties and have 12 friends?” So they talk a lot about younger people not feeling like they have close friendships, but this article in Harvard Business Review said it’s not just the Millennials, it’s all the generations. People feel that they’re invisible, people feel lonely, more so than at any time in history. And yet, for the last decade, we’ve put all these connection tools into place.
So one of the things I talk about is we have to step back, we have to see people, we have to get back. The saying in India when you greet somebody is “Namaste.” And if you translate that – and there are a lot of ways I’ve heard it translated – but the simplest one is, “I see you” or, “I see your soul” or, “My soul sees your soul.” Well, that’s what we have to get back to because people are feeling like they don’t see them.
So I talk about this at conferences and I tell people it’s not just the introverts. Sometimes people think, “Oh well, this is a conference of all sales people. Everyone’s an extrovert.” That doesn’t apply. Even the extroverts who are life of the party – a lot of them feel invisible. And I’ll have people come up to me and nod their head and go, “That’s me. I’m right in the middle of the crowd. I can hold my own, but I don’t feel anybody knows who I am or knows what I care about.”
So, we’re living in this age, and for 10 years I’ve been teaching it, about how do we connect with people in this gadget-crazy digital world. And a lot of it comes down to stopping and seeing people and having real conversations. I mean how often have you been in a restaurant and you look over and there’s a whole family – a mom, a dad, and three kids – and everyone’s on their phone at the table?

Pete Mockaitis

Right, yeah.

Thom Singer

It happens all the time. Or you’re in a business meeting, sitting around the conference table, and a couple of the partners in the firm or even lower-level people in the firm are doing what I call “the iPhone prayer”. Looks like they have their head down and they’re praying. But in reality, they’re just tapping away on their screen down in their lap, or they’re looking at the screen by their hip – I call it “the one-hip sneak”. They’re thinking nobody will notice they’re looking at their phone. So, I think we have to get to where we put that stuff down from time to time. I love my phone; it’s always in my hand. It’s in my hand right now while I’m talking to you, but I’m not looking at it. I’m just still holding it. It’s on my lap.

Pete Mockaitis

It’s so soothing, like a comfort blanket. [laugh]

Thom Singer

Right. And I’m going to be 52 right around the corner, so it’s not just the Millennials who are that way. But I think the point that I’m trying to make here, and I’m going around the long way, is we have to realize that the connections to people are so important. I mean the old saying, “People do business with people they know, they like, and they trust” – that’s not a cliché, that’s true. The difference is it’s harder to get to know people, I mean to really get to know. A like, a link, a share and a follow is not a friendship. We have to go back to getting to know people.
There used to be a process to get to know them. You had to go to a few networking events, maybe you had lunch, maybe you played golf, maybe you went to a few social events with them. And then you got to know them, and then like and trust came along, or it didn’t. But nowadays, everybody thinks they know everybody.
They listen to this show – I bet there are people listening right now who are like, “Oh, I know Pete.” Well, no. They know Pete based on the one side of Pete as the podcast host. So, they don’t know how you are one-on-one, they don’t know your soul, per se. And so people think, “I’m connected to them on Twitter. I listen to their podcast. I know them.” So know, K-N-O-W, has gotten misinterpreted to “know of them” or “know about them.” And so like and trust are harder to get to.
And so I encourage people, if to go back to the old school ways of face-to-face spending time with people with no digital interaction in the moment while you’re there, you’re going to get to like and trust a lot faster, and I think it’s more important than ever. And I talk a lot about this whole idea of seeing people. When’s the last time you went into Starbucks? And if people tell me, “This morning”, I go, “Can you tell me what color eyes the barista had?”

Pete Mockaitis

That’s good.

Thom Singer

Know. Even if I’m going to have a two-second interaction with them, I try to just register, look them right in the eye, and I think “Blue eyes.” And I smile, and they smile back. They don’t know why, they just know that I just saw something about them.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s awesome, thank you. So we hit the plan, the purpose, the people. You’ve also got some perspectives when it comes to limiting beliefs and how those could be problematic for realizing potential.

Thom Singer

Well, let’s go back to where we were talking about me doing stand-up comedy. When I was 25 years old, my wife and I used to like to go to comedy clubs. We had another couple we did a lot of things with. And he and I used to drink a lot of beer together and we would talk about it. And he goes, “You’re kind of funny. You could do this.” But I had a ton of limiting beliefs. I overthought the entire process. And now that I’ve done this a few times, I’m like, “Well, that was stupid. So what if I went and I sucked? I still would have done it.”
And so this whole concept of “I’m going to make 50 to 75 the best years of my life”, is all based around the fact that I’m not going to have limiting beliefs. So I’ve done other stuff besides the stand-up. I jumped off the Stratosphere in their SkyJump in Las Vegas. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but the sky tower, like Seattle or whatever – they have one at the Stratosphere Hotel. And they have, I guess it’s called a ride or an attraction, where you go out on a platform and leap off the 108th floor in a harness. It’s not a bungee, it’s like a tension thing, and you land on the ground without any impact, because just before you get to the ground, the tension between the three wires gets strong enough where you just kind of go “Bling!” and you land.
But I’ll tell you, it’s really scary. If you watch the video, the guy counts you down. You go through a class, they tell you how to do it, it’s supposed to be a perfect swan dive. And the guy goes, “One, two, three, jump!” And I just stood there. And on the video it’s funny, because I’m just holding on to the rail, and I look over my shoulder and I go, “Say it again.” And he goes, “One, two, three, jump!” And instead of swan diving, I just half-jump off. I go like, “No!”
However, I agreed to do that. I mean I didn’t agree – it was my own idea, nobody talked me into it. But I decided to do that because I looked it up online – nobody’s ever died. The thing’s been there well over a decade, and I figured I’m not going to be the first. And so why overthink it? And I have friends who’ve watched the video who were like, “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, not going to do it.”
The other thing is I’m kind of a city guy. All my vacations throughout my whole life have been New York, and Chicago, and Paris, and Rome, San Francisco. And this last couple of years, I have a daughter who’s very outdoorsy. She wanted to hike the Grand Canyon, so we went for three days to the Grand Canyon. And we stayed in the hotel, but we went hiking around and down the Grand Canyon.
With my kids, I do a thing. You have a young child. My wife and I do a thing – I’m going to pass on to you. When the kids turn 13, they get to plan a three-night trip anywhere in the country with their mom. Now, we take care of the airfare and the hotel to make sure they don’t overspend, but they plan all the activities, and it’s anywhere that they want to go. When they’re 16, they get to do it with Dad. Because otherwise, they go on all these family vacations, but it’s mom, dad, their sibling and all this. So this is the one-on-one time for three days with a parent.
And they look forward to it. People are like, “Your 16-year-old wants to go away?” She’d spent years planning this trip, and her answer was “Yosemite.” And I said “Boston? Is that what you said?” And she said, “No, Yosemite.” And we stayed in these tent-cabin-like structures, and the bathroom was a quarter mile down the path, and we had to eat in a mess hall, but it’s what she wanted to do. And so part of my “50 to 75 is the best years of my life”, we hiked 10 miles a day every day for the three and a half days we were in Yosemite, and we had an awesome time.
I did a TEDx talk with three weeks’ notice because I think someone had cancelled and they gave me a last-minute addition. But before, I would have overthought it. I would have had limiting beliefs saying, “Oh, TED talk is a big deal. That video’s going to end up online. Three weeks isn’t enough time to prepare. It’s a topic I’ve never really spoken on before.” And instead I just said, “Yeah, I can do that.” And so it’s all of these types of things combined that in the past, my limiting beliefs would have taken over. And so the answer is, “Don’t overthink. Just do more.”

Pete Mockaitis

Alright. Awesome, thank you. Well, Thom, tell me – anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Thom Singer

No, but I was doing a little research on you, and you’re the only person I know who has a custom-made Superman suit. And so I just am not sure all of your listeners know that. But I watched your video, I watched your speaking video, and there’s a picture of you in a form-fitting… Thank God you’re not old enough to have gotten fat. But you’ve got a custom-made Superman suit, which you said was for Halloween, but I’m a little curious if your wife has the matching Wonder Woman outfit.

Pete Mockaitis

She does not. Thank you for asking, publicly. [laugh] It’s funny. The backstory is, since we’re going here – I remember for Halloween, I always wonder, “Oh man, what should I be?” And I thought, “You know what? I really just want to be Superman”, because that’s what I always wanted to be as a kid. So I would just like the ultimate Superman costume. Christopher Reeve style is my preference.

Thom Singer

Sure, it’s cool, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis

And it was interesting because I got dumped numerous years ago, and I was kind of sad. And my mom had remembered the conversations we had about… I said, “You know what? I’d like to be Superman, but you can spend 300 bucks for an adult Superman costume that doesn’t even include the red boots. Isn’t that absurd?” And so she sent me, unannounced, a pair of red Superman boots.

Thom Singer

In your size?

Pete Mockaitis

Yes, exactly. And it was just like… As soon as I beheld them, I knew immediately what I had to do was to get the…

Thom Singer

$300 Superman costume.

Pete Mockaitis

It turned out I saved about half of that, because I found someone on eBay who made Superman costumes or other hero costumes to your precise dimensions. So it was not just a medium, small, or large; it was exactly my size. And it is my favorite thing to wear, and I do only wear it on Halloween.

Thom Singer

[laugh] Alright, we’ll go with that.

Pete Mockaitis

Alright. So thank you for bringing that up. [laugh] And so now people probably feel like they know me all the more, but it’s an illusion.

Thom Singer

So now people can say, “I know Pete and the Superman costume.” But you really don’t know Pete. You just know about the Superman costume.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s all you need to know. [laugh] Okay. Well then let’s hear…

Thom Singer

All the women listeners are going to look for the picture.

Pete Mockaitis

I declare. [laugh] Well, let’s hear a favorite quote from you, something you find inspiring.

Thom Singer

So I’m worried this might have been the quote I used three years ago. I meant to go listen to that episode to make sure I didn’t use the same quote. But my favorite quote actually comes from my dad. And I recently used it without giving attribution to my dad. I made it sound like it was my quote. And my 21-year-old daughter called me out on it. She saw it online where I’d said this, and it had my name next to it. And she said, “That’s not your quote. That your dad’s quote.” And I said, “Yeah, but he’s been dead for four years, and so who else did he leave the quote to? He left it to me, I’m sure.” So I told her when I was dead four years, she could take it. But it’s really a quote from my dad. And that is, “Be slow to anger and fast to forgive.”

Pete Mockaitis

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

Thom Singer

I’ve got to say this stuff I’m doing with people’s potential and how they feel about their own success in their careers. And I was surprised how many people don’t think they’re living up to their potential, so I found that to be quite interesting.

Pete Mockaitis

And how about a favorite book?

Thom Singer

Always go back to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It was a life-changer for me when I was 25.

Pete Mockaitis

And a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Thom Singer

My iPhone.

Pete Mockaitis

And I thought you were going to say handwritten thank-you notes, which you sent one to me, and it was very nice.

Thom Singer

[laugh] Yeah, probably my iPhone, but I still send handwritten notes.

Pete Mockaitis

And how about a favorite habit?

Thom Singer

Everybody asks about, “What do you do in the mornings?” I have bad habits, I don’t have really good habits. But I will say the best thing – and this is part of the age 50 life change – is, I used to weigh 35 pounds more than I do now. And I gave up sugar and wheat for the most part; I eat limited amounts of processed sugar and wheat. And then I started running. So I think health habits are the one that I didn’t know about until two years ago, but the ones I’m most impressed with because I feel better than I’ve felt in well over a decade. And I wasn’t in bad shape, I wasn’t unhealthy. I’m six foot three, so 30 pounds, it’s not like you’d go, “Wow, fatty.” But having lost that 30 plus pounds and eating a much healthier diet really has been a great habit for me.

Pete Mockaitis

And I’d like to hear, when it comes to giving up the sugar and wheat, how would you describe the difference in your mental clarity or performance?

Thom Singer

So the first three weeks I was an ass, if I can say that on your show. I was grumpy, I was horrible, it was not good. And then the clarity sort of came in and stuff somewhere around a month or two. And I never knew I was unclear, I didn’t know I was foggy. It’s not like I was having problems, but it was like, “Wow.” There was such a huge difference. And coupling that with a guy who was never a runner – I’d never run a mile in my life – and I started training for a half marathon.
And after I completed that… After you finish a half marathon, if you’re not a runner and you’ve never been a runner, all your runner friends start saying, “Now that you’ve done a half, you’re going to want to do a whole.” They’re lying. I don’t want to run that. I don’t even want to run a half ever again. But I am still running three to five miles about three days a week. And the combination of eating a cleaner, healthier diet with the running just makes me feel younger.

Pete Mockaitis

And is there a particular nugget you share in your presentations that really seems to connect and resonate with the audiences?

Thom Singer

I should have probably prepared for that one. No, nothing I share connects with the audiences, I’m sure. No. So lately it has really been around this whole issue of seeing people. Actually, I have a slide, and it says #seepeople. And it’s just a picture up close of someone’s eye looking out into the distance. And I talk about how people don’t feel anyone sees them.
And I’m surprised and saddened maybe how many people come up and say, “I feel invisible. I feel that people don’t see me in my family, at work, in this audience.” So this whole idea of putting your phone down and taking a little bit of time to just talk to people and see them as humans. They don’t have to be your best friend, just see them. And when you’re with people, choose people – probably is the thing that resonates the most.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And if folks want to learn more and get in touch, where do you put them?

Thom Singer

ThomSinger.com.

Pete Mockaitis

Not “Thom”Singer.com?

Thom Singer

It’s not “Thom”, no. It is Thom. So here’s the deal. How many Thomas’s do you know? Everybody is T-H-O-M-A-S. When they shorten it to “Tom” my question is, why did they take out the H? I just get rid of the “AS”.

Pete Mockaitis

Clever.

Thom Singer

Maybe stand-up’s not my thing.

Pete Mockaitis

[laugh] And do you have a final challenge or call-to-action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Thom Singer

Yeah, listen to podcasts like this one. I think the podcasts, the last five years they’ve really exploded. And I do a podcast – listen to mine. But I think the real big thing is I learn so much from listening to shows like yours and so many others, that I think when you’re out for your run, when you’re on the bike, when you’re going for a walk, when you’re in the car, whatever it is you’re doing where you can put ear buds in and just have a human university just broadcast into your head – there’s no way you’re not going to be better for it.
It’s like getting a Master’s degree. If you listen to the right people, you’re going to get all these ideas, these theories, these nuggets, these concepts. Some of them are going to stick. And so I think that listen to Pete’s show, listen to my show, listen to any one of the thousands of other shows that resonate with you. You cannot lose if you’re listening to the right stuff.

Pete Mockaitis

Beautiful. Well, Thom – not “Thom” – this has been a lot of fun yet again. Please keep doing the great stuff that you’re doing, and keep on rocking out.

Thom Singer

This was great. And I don’t know why we didn’t have you on my show three years ago, but we’re going to get that scheduled before we hang up today.

Pete Mockaitis

Awesome. Thank you.

298: Key Success Principles that Are Wrong (sort of) with Eric Barker

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Eric Barker busts the myths and uncovers truths behind some of the most popular maxims.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How alignment is a genuine key to success
  2. Why valedictorians don’t necessarily shape the world
  3. How to operate like a Navy Seal

About Eric

Eric Barker’s humorous, practical blog, “Barking Up the Wrong Tree”, presents science-based answers and expert insight on how to be awesome at life. Over 320,000 people subscribe to his weekly newsletter and his content is syndicated by Time Magazine, The Week, and Business Insider. He has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, and the Financial Times. Eric is also a sought-after speaker and interview subject, and has given talks at MIT, Yale, Google, United States Military Central Command (CENTCOM), NASDAQ, and the Olympic Training Center.

 

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Eric Barker Stanier Interview Transcript

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

Eric Barker
Oh, it’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I got a real kick out of playing around and looking at your website. The domain or URL is, if I’m saying it right, bakadesuyo.com, which has an interesting translation. Can you tell us the story here?

Eric Barker
Yeah, basically my last name means idiot in Japanese. Barker, basically, the Japanese syllabic system doesn’t have r’s, so Barker becomes Baka. Baka means idiot.

When I was first starting the blog like nine years ago and I was doing it on a lark. I didn’t even know where this would end up going. I was just like, “Hey, let’s play with this.” My URL – basically it emphatically states that I am Barker. It also says I’m an idiot because me introducing myself is – those are the same sentence…

Me introducing myself and me calling myself a moron are the same sentence in Japanese, so I have never had a Japanese – I’ve been to Tokyo three times. I’ve never had a Japanese person forget my name.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. It’s fun. It shows some humility, self-effacingness because really I would assert that I don’t think you’re an idiot. I think you have some pretty insightful things to share. You’ve got the book and blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree. Can you orient us a little bit to what that’s all about?

Eric Barker
Yeah, basically the blog’s kind of evolved over the years, but basically I wanted to look at – I wanted to get some real answers. When I first created … I was at a big turning point in my life and I wanted to get the best answers that I could, so I started looking at peer-reviewed scientific research, books, then I started interviewing experts.

Basically, I found that a lot of the questions – there’s this great William Gibson quote I love, where he says, “The future is already here, but it’s not evenly distributed.” I think that’s true with a lot of questions that we have about life is there is a lot of research and information, good information, about the questions we all ask, but they’re in dusty journals or they’re locked in the ivory towers of universities.

I’ve tried to just get good answers to how can we basically live a great life, so in terms of relationships, in terms of productivity, happiness, all these kind of things. The internet is filled with so much kind of junk information or unverifiable ideas that somebody came up with over lunch to at least get something that has some backing to it.

Then for the book basically after a number of years of doing the blog, the book is basically looking at the issue of success. We all grew up with these maxims of success we hear, like, ‘nice guys finish last’ and ‘it’s not what you know; it’s who you know.’

Pete Mockaitis
You’ve got to work hard.

Eric Barker
Yeah, and we don’t know where they came from. We don’t know if they’re true. We don’t know if they used to be true, but they’re not true anymore.

Basically I decided to play myth busters and each chapter of the book is one of those maxims. I go down the rabbit hole looking at the research, talking to the experts, and basically giving each one of these their day in court looking at both sides of the issue and trying to tell some fun stories and have a good time along the way.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Now, you say myth busters, I didn’t see anywhere on your blog, maybe I missed it in which you filled a pig’s stomach with pop rocks and a carbonated beverage, is that there somewhere or did I overlook that?

Eric Barker
I don’t want to talk about my personal life, but you know. No, that’s not on the blog, but I do have an appointment later today.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s fun. I knew I would like you.

Let’s dig into some of these things. I’m particularly interested from sort of a career and personal development vantage point, you say that much of what we know quote/unquote, if you didn’t hear that, there’s air quote all over that, about success is totally wrong. Can you expand upon that?

Eric Barker
Yeah, again, specifically I address these maxims, where they’re very black and white, you know, ‘nice guys finish last.’ It’s not as clear-cut as that. There’s many facets to the question, but most specifically I would point to Adam Grant, who is a professor at Wharton, and his research shows that nice guys do finish last, but they also finish first.

When you look at the results from a number of different careers, you find that the most altruistic people, the results are bimodal. They are actually at the bottom and the top of success metrics.

If you think about it, that may sound confusing, it actually makes sense because we all know somebody who is just a martyr, who gets taken advantage of. They’re just too nice. They don’t look out for themselves. But we all also know somebody who is just awesome, supportive and giving and everybody loves them, everybody feels indebted to them, and everybody goes out of their way to help this very giving altruistic person.

We’ve got these overly simplified black and white concepts of success and when you dig into it, you usually find that it’s a little more nuanced than that and in some cases a lot more nuanced than that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, I’d love it if you could unpack a couple of these maxims. ‘Nice guys finish last,’ that’s a great one to think through in sort of a career or work context. What are some others that leap to mind?

Eric Barker
One of the other things I talk about is the issue that ‘It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.’

When you look at the research in terms of extroverts/introverts what you see is that across a number of metrics, extroverts do do better. They have bigger networks. They’re more likely, in most situations, to become leaders. They generally make more money. In fact, there’s a very significant amount of research that shows they’re happier.

However, what you see is that introverts have their own kind of superpower as well. That is that introverts are far more likely to get better grades. A disproportionate number of PhD holders are introverts. A disproportionate number of top athletes are introverts.

What you’re seeing there is basically that while extroverts derive enormous benefits from having big networks and knowing lots of people; introverts often take that time that they don’t spend socializing and use it to become experts in the field.

Rather than simply saying, ‘It’s not what you know; it’s who you know,’ it depends on your career. If you are in business development or sales or something, hey, being more extroverted, having a huge network can benefit you. But if you’re something like a computer programmer or maybe even a blogger or an author, being an introvert is beneficial because your skill is going to be more valuable, in general, than your network will be.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s my excuse for having a poor quality podcast and writing on AwesomeAtYourJob.com is that I’m so extroverted. I can’t be held responsible. I’m just out and about socializing all the time, Eric.

Eric Barker
The key meta point I make about success in the book is the idea that what is really critical is alignment. Know thyself, the old classic maxim. Knowing thyself and then picking the right pond. Basically really having some information, not just theories: who you are, what you’re like, what you’re good at, what are your signature strengths, what are your intensifiers, and then finding an environment that rewards those.

The alignment between those is critical. Like you’re saying there, it’s kind of like if you know, “Hey, I’m extroverted. I’m really conscientious,” then say what roles, what jobs, what companies or institutions reward those, that’s the path to success.

Actually what the research shows as well is that as opposed to doing what you love, very often what studies show is that when you do what you’re good at, you actually grow to love it. Finding out what you’re good at and passionately devoting yourself to that actually ends up making you happier.

By starting with knowing yourself, aligning yourself with an environment that supports that, that’s a really good path to success. Like you’re saying there, self-knowledge applied is really powerful.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot. When it comes to signature strengths, we’ve talked previously on the show about strengths stuff with Lisa Cummings or Scott Barlow, but the word intensifier, can you unpack that a little bit?

Eric Barker
Yeah, this is a concept that was put together by Gautam Mukunda at Harvard Business School. Signature strengths is an idea that – this research is done by Martin Seligman University of Pennsylvania.

Signature strengths, not only obviously does it make you good at your job to apply things you are naturally and uniquely good at, but also makes you happier. There’s tons of research showing it has a range of benefits when you use the unique skills you have.

However, most of those are usually these kind of generally good things, like if you’re agreeable or if IQ, you’ve got positive – things that are just universally well regarded. That’s where the concept of intensifiers comes in.

What Gautam Mukunda realized is when looking at leaders, many great leaders had qualities that were negative at the mean. In other words, on average these qualities were considered a negative, but they had aligned themselves with a context where that quality actually became a positive. It became a superpower.

In other words, in general if I said you were argumentative, most people would consider that an insult, in general. At the mean, argumentativeness is considered a negative quality. However, if you were to decide to become a litigator, being argumentative might be an essential part of your job and might advance your career.

Some people might say you’re stubborn. Okay, well, stubbornness again, in your interpersonal relationships can be a huge negative, generally considered a bad quality. But, if you’re an entrepreneur, you have to be stubborn. You’re going to face rejection. You’re going to face difficulty. Stubbornness might be almost indistinguishable from grit and persistence.

Intensifiers are understanding the negative at the mean qualities you possess and then finding that, “Hey, I’m stubborn, but I’m going to be an entrepreneur. I’m argumentative, but I’m a litigator. That even my negative qualities are being put to good use because of the career choices I’ve made.”

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well said. I dig that. It’s very potent synthesis and distillation of this stuff. I love it. I’m just going to keep going for it. You also unpack a little bit and explore why is it that valedictorians in fact rarely become millionaires. What’s the story behind this one?

Eric Barker
Basically, this was research by Karen Arnold at Boston College. What she found is that valedictorians, they do well. They do very well. They generally go on to prosperous careers. They often get graduate degrees. They live good lives.

But in terms of going on to being the people that shape the world, lead the world, they very, very rarely do. That is because of the nature of – we think of valedictorian almost as – we give it this kind of halo effect where it just means you’re awesome in general.

Pete Mockaitis
Ahh.

Eric Barker
Exactly. It’s not that. What it usually is is a strong sign of conscientiousness. The big five personality trait of conscientiousness, which means you’re good at following rules. People who are good at following rules, they show up on time, they do what they’re told.

Those people do very well in school, in high school and college because a big part – once you reach a certain minimum IQ threshold, grades actually are not a very good measure of IQs. Standardized tests are a very good measure of IQ. Grades are actually a good measure of conscientiousness. Do you do what you’re told? Do you play be the rules? Show up on time? Cross your t’s, dot your I’s?

That means that means that these people who are conscientious get very good grades. However the world is not just like schools. School has very clearly defined rules. The world does not have very clearly defined rules.

When there’s not a very strict playbook, you check all these boxes and you get an A plus, the enormous success of the valedictorians starts to break down. Like I said, overall they do very well, but they’re not going to be the people who change the world because they’re actually followers.

They’re people who do what they’re told very well, but they’re not the ones who generally go out and try and reinvent the playbook, who innovate, who change things. They usually will check all the boxes, which means someone else has to create those boxes.

To do well in school, also generally means you have to be a generalist. You have to – even if you’re passionate about math, you need to stop studying math to make sure you get an A in history and English. It requires you to be a generalist.

Whereas, as we all know, once you get into the workforce, you are generally rewarded for a singular skill set. If you are an amazing programmer and you don’t know anything about history, Google is still going to hire you. They don’t care about those other qualities.

Again, you are actually penalized in high school and college for too singular a focus, yet what is often rewarded in the work place is expertise in a singular focus. Once again, something that benefits valedictorians in high school and college can be a big negative when they go out into the working world.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s really interesting, Eric, because I am a valedictorian. It’s really connecting that conscientiousness element when I’m getting into some territory that is sort of ambiguous because one of my strengths is input.

I like to collect a lot of different perspectives from folks and then sort of synthesize that and say, “Okay, given all that I know from the experts and my research and the data, it really seems like this is the best course of action.”

But it gets really tricky for me when I’m doing something new and then I’ve got five totally different voices saying totally different things. I go, “Ah, well shucks, now what?” I found myself in my entrepreneurial journey getting a little bit stuck in those zones.

It’s like, “Well, I guess it’s unclear and maybe I will have the presence of mind to push through and find the audacity to chart a new course, but other times it just takes way longer than it should to blast past that ambiguity.

Eric Barker
The thing about all of these personality traits like conscientiousness is that much like the overarching theory of success I have in the book, where it’s knowing yourself and then picking the right pond, it’s always it’s interaction with the environment. There’s not a singular this is always good and this is always bad.

Conscientiousness is a very powerful personality trait in most spheres in terms of earnings, in terms of successful marriages. Conscientiousness, being steady, predictable, consistent is very powerful. Yet, we can all imagine situations where we, perhaps in the arts, in media, in much more creative professions, where being a little too stickler or the rules probably would not benefit you as much.

All of these traits, whether they’re good or bad, and that’s going back to the issue of signature strengths and intensifiers depends on context.

Pete Mockaitis
Mm-hm, I’m with you there. I also want to get your view here, when I’m exploring all this stuff in terms of where you fit best and maybe not so great a fit when it comes to the whole confidence game. What are your takes from the research in terms of sort of bad advice for boosting your confidence versus the evidence-based advice?

Eric Barker
The issue with confidence – first and foremost, it’s a very tricky – it’s a tricky issue to discuss because they don’t write a lot of books on reducing your confidence. Most people don’t say, “My confidence is way too high. How can I bring it down?”

It’s so one-sided in terms of everybody wants to boost their confidence and anything that you see written on the subject is talking about increasing your confidence. It’s a little one sided. It’s only one side of the court room actually has an attorney arguing for it.

But basically it’s interesting because there are strengths and weaknesses on both sides. We’re usually not aware of them because like I said because it’s often a one-sided conversation. Too much confidence is a bad thing. Overconfidence is not a compliment, nor is narcissism and hubris.

When people get too confident, the research basically shows that a) they don’t listen to anybody. They think they have all the answers to a very unhealthy, unproductive degree. Also, they become a jerk. They just don’t listen to anybody else and they generally don’t respect people. And they’re actually more likely to cheat and lie.

But the benefits of confidence, obviously, it makes us feel good, confidence. Nobody likes feeling uncertain. Also, confidence has an enormous, it’s undeniable that it has an enormous effect on how other people perceive you.

One of the studies I site in the book is that given a choice between a person with a great track record, who doesn’t seem very confident, and a person with a mediocre track record, who seems extremely confident, study subjects pick confidence over a great track record. They actually picked just the way the person conveyed themselves.

Basically like picking a stock trader who lost money, but seemed really confident versus somebody who consistently made money, but didn’t come off as confident. People trust confidence over expertise. On the flip side-

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, so you’re saying we’ve got multiple studies across multiple domains and stock picking is one example where the majority of folks-

Eric Barker
I was using stock picking as an example for clarity, but my point is that there’s research showing that people will choose the confident speaker with an inferior track record over the less confident speaker with the superior track record.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. In terms of you’re going to hire somebody for a role and – that is striking. Wow. That’s –

Eric Barker
Yeah, I think we’ve all seen examples of this where, “Hey, he didn’t have the greatest grades, but we really clicked in the interview,” or, “He really made an impression,” or, “She really just came across well,” that kind of ….

On the flip side, less confidence obviously doesn’t – clearly doesn’t make a very good impression on people and doesn’t make us feel good. However, it helps us learn. We’re far more open to new ideas. We’re far more likely to listen, to explore possibilities, and to grow when we don’t think we have all the answers.

The problem is that there’s benefits – there’s strengths and weaknesses to both sides. You see some people succeed by a form of double think, which there is no system to incorporate double think. But some people are great, like thinking about the athletes who can be completely deferential to their coach, work hard in training, and then when they show up on game day, they are 110% sure that they’re going to do it. If you can balance that, great.

But in looking at the research what I found actually was the best answer was that the entire confidence paradigm is actually problematic at its core because it puts us on this constant up and down, where we often feel like we need to prove ourselves to support our self-esteem.

What seems to be a superior answer was actually an ancient Buddhist concept which has been scientifically validated by Kristin Neff at the University of Texas at Austin called self-compassion, where instead of building ourselves up to this superhuman ridiculous level where we will inevitably fail, basically to try and see the world as realistically as possible, but to be forgiving with yourself when you fail, to be very realistic, but to be very compassionate toward yourself.

Actually, that allows you to see the world for what it is. You’re not overconfidently deluded. But on the other hand, you’re not punishing yourself when you fail and you’re open to new ideas because you’re not being unrealistic. Self-compassion actually seemed to be a better paradigm than self-confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that. This reminds me of – and I don’t know – you can tell me if there’s a scientific name for this concept, but it really seems related to this confidence matter.

I’ve seen it in myself and in others in terms of let’s say you do something the first time and you’re really concerned, like, “Okay, I’ve never done this before. I’ve really got to make sure,” I guess that’s my conscientiousness, “I really want to make sure that I nail it and I do it just right. I’m going to look very carefully at all of the instructions and the best practices, and research-based insights to do a fantastically good job.”

Then I do that thing. I’m thinking about putting on a leadership seminar once. I did that. I was in my role as the chairperson. It went great, so good, good, good stuff.

Then the next year, I did it again, but this time I had a completely different attitude or mindset, which was, “Oh yeah, we rocked this last year. This should be no problem.” Then I put in less effort and had less curiosity and less diligence associated with doing all the stuff and then actually had in some ways an inferior result in that event that I put together.

I’ve seen this in other people. The term I’ve coined for it is second-time syndrome. You’re doing it the second time and through overconfidence or any number of factors, you do it worse than you did the first time despite that experience would suggest we should have a superior outcome. Is there a name for that in science?

Eric Barker
I don’t know if there’s a name specifically for that, but I think basically what you’re talking about is the development of overconfidence. Is that your initial success was attributable to a great amount of effort and diligence, but then subsequently, you didn’t do the great amount of effort and diligence. You attributed it otherwise. Then without the handwork and diligence, you didn’t get the same result.

There’s actually a similar study that Dan Ariely did that shows that we’re prone to just that sort of thinking, where basically they did a study where they gave people a test and they actually deliberately made it easy to cheat.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah. This one, huh?

Eric Barker
They made it easy to cheat on the test and they didn’t let people know that they would be monitoring this. They were able to monitor who cheated.

Anyway, they gave the test, some people cheated, some people didn’t. Obviously those who cheated did very well. Then they surveyed them after the fact and they said to people, “How do you think you would do on another test on this same subject matter?” The cheaters rated themselves as saying, “Oh, I think I would do great.”

What you’re seeing here is that they succeeded because of cheating, yet they somehow rationalize this into believing, “I’m actually good at this.” That’s something that I think is common.

It’s kind of like the example you’re positing, where you succeeded due to a lot of effort, diligence, and perhaps a fair amount of fear, and that really motivated you to work hard. Then we have this natural human instinct to be like, “Oh, well I must be like a like natural.” Then we don’t do the hard work and we find out that, well, actually it was the hard work that was responsible for the success.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. That was interesting. Netflix has a documentary that prominently features Dan Ariely.

Eric Barker
(Dis)Honesty or something like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that sounds right, yeah. I loved the scenes where it showed the fake shredders that only shredded like the fringes of the answer sheets they were turning in. I thought that was a brilliant little experimental maneuver there. It’s like, it sure looks and sounds like that thing has got shredded, but it wasn’t. I just thought that was awesome. Cool.

Maybe the last question perhaps. You unpack a bit of the secret ingredient how Navy Seals find that grit. Can you share what’s the master key to this?

Eric Barker
Yeah, this was – Navy Seals basically go through BUDS, which is Basic Underwater Demolition training. That’s the vetting process for Seals. After the tragedy of 9/11, the US military wanted more special operations troops like Seals, but obviously they didn’t want to lower the standards because that would defeat the purpose.

They had to commission a study basically to find what was it that separated psychologically those who got through the training versus those who didn’t because frankly, they didn’t know.

One of the key four things that really kept them going was positive self-talk, was basically we all have this voice in our head. We say hundreds of words to ourselves every minute and if those voices are positive, we tend to persist and if they’re negative, we tend to quit.

This aligns perfectly – I pointed at the Navy Seals as an example, but the underlying research that basically lines up with it pretty well done by Martin Seligman at University of Pennsylvania is that optimism is probably the strongest element of grit and resilience as we know it, having an optimistic attitude.

It makes intuitive sense. If you think things are going to work out, if you think you’re going to win at the roulette table, you keep playing. If you think you’re not, then you stop playing.

If we believe optimistically things are going to go well, we persist even when things are tough, even when it’s difficult, we keep going. Basically optimism and an optimistic attitude is probably the strongest predictor of whether people will be resilient through difficult challenges.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d like to get a little bit more precise when you talk about defining optimism. I’m thinking about Viktor Frankl’s work, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which there’s a bit of a distinction as opposed to, “Hey, we’re going to be rescued and saved out of this concentration camp next week, next month.” Then they’re disappointed and it falls apart.

Versus when you say optimism it sounds like you’re maybe in the ballpark of self-efficacy in terms of “I have a conviction that I will be successful in this endeavor,” is that fair.

Eric Barker
I think you’re making a really salient distinction, which is lying to yourself is not the path here. Merely telling yourself pretty lies is not the path here.

Pete Mockaitis
Tomorrow will be an easier day of BUDS.

Eric Barker
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Bad move.

Eric Barker
Yes. The big thing – the distinction that Seligman makes is basically he says what separates an optimistic attitude from a pessimistic attitude – he refers to them as the three P’s, which is seeing things that are positive as personal, pervasive and persistent.

In other words, optimists, when good things happen, they see them as personal, so I was responsible for this. They see it as persistent: this good thing will continue. They see it as pervasive: this good thing will affect many areas of my life.

However, when people have a pessimistic attitude is because they see negative things as personal, persistent, and pervasive.

What you really need to do is kind of a cognitive behavioral therapy style approach, which is we all have moments where we get pessimistic and we, “Oh, it’s all my fault. This problem is going to keep happening and it’s going to affect every area of my life.”

To actually question those thoughts – because we’ll just accept those thoughts because they’re in our head; they must be true, to actually stop and question them. To say, “This is really all my fault? No, it’s not all my fault. This is going to go on forever? No, it’s not going to go on forever? This is going to affect every area of my life? No, not every-“ To basically really question it.

Instead of saying just Pollyannaish, unrealistic lies to make ourselves feel better, if you look at those negatives, usually the negatives, we exaggerate those and to make those more realistic allows us to be more optimistic because we can say, “No, no, no, the reason I’m so upset, the reason I want to quit is because I’m exaggerating the negatives here and I’m not looking at the positives.” To be more objective and not to be overly dramatic in either direction.

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

Eric Barker
No, nothing specific. We can move on to the next phase.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, how about you share with us a favorite quote, something that inspires you?

Eric Barker
One of my favorite quotes is the William Gibson quote I mentioned, where he said that “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.”

I think that what’s really critical there is just having a little bit of resourcefulness in terms of this resourcefulness is a quality that I really appreciate that people don’t give enough attention to. A lot of the answers are out there, but usually we just shrug our shoulders and we stop.

To realize that usually if you’re asking a question, someone else has asked it. If you spend a little bit of time, you might be able to get the answer or get yourself closer to it. I think that’s something really powerful to think about.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. How about a favorite study? It seems you’ve gotten enchanted by so many. Does one really stick with you?

Eric Barker
I guess something I’ve read recently that really moved me was the idea that if you try to be happier and you live in the United States or the UK and you make a concerted, deliberate effort to be happier, you will fail. The reason for that – however, if you live in Russia, China, Japan, you will succeed.

The reason for that is that so much of what makes us happy is relationships with other people, yet the cultures of the United States and the United Kingdom are very individualistic cultures, meaning that usually when we try to make ourselves happier, we focus on our selves: be yourself, do your own thing, so the efforts we make are usually in the wrong direction, if we live in the US and the UK.

We need to think socially.  We need to think more collectivist countries. Ironically, when people do the usual things to try to make themselves happier in the US and UK, they fail spectacularly. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be happier. It just means we need to think a little bit differently than the concepts that our culture usually promotes.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. How about a favorite book?

Eric Barker
Favorite book, there’s so many. There is – I’m trying to think. One that I’ve read recently that I thought was pretty spectacular was – I definitely like Mark Manson’s, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F. I won’t use the full word there.

It is for people who are curious about Buddhism and a lot of the happiness concepts that have come out of that, it is a very accessible way to look at – one of the main ideas Mark describes in there, which I found useful, is basically he says for people to look through the lens of the idea of what challenges, what pain are you comfortable with.

Because some of us there are difficulties that we don’t like to have to deal with and there are other difficulties that we’re – some people are more comfortable with failure, but they have a short attention span and they’re not good with persistence. They’ll be happy to try lots of things and if they fail at 90% of them, but succeed at 10, they’re good.

Other people are really good at persistence, but they hate failure, so drilling down, grinding away for years is an option for them. To realize what kind of suffering are you comfortable with as opposed to saying, “What do I want? What’s my big grand dream?” Well, it’s going to take a lot of work. If it’s a big grand dream, it’s going to take a lot of work to get there.

Then to ask yourself, “Okay, what challenges, what suffering am I comfortable with?” can ask if you really are ready for that challenge or maybe a better challenge would suit you. I think it’s a very interesting perspective to look through.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. How about a favorite tool?

Eric Barker
Favorite tool. Well that would have to be my Mac Book.

Pete Mockaitis
Not the Pro, not the Air, Mac Book straight up?

Eric Barker
It is a Pro, but I used to love my Air, but now they’re all getting so small and thin, that I’m not sure how much of a distinction there is anymore. I love the Air, but right now I have a Pro. I don’t know. They’re pretty amazing.

But if there’s one tool I could definitely not live without, especially given what I do, it would definitely be my Mac Book.

Pete Mockaitis
Alright, and how about a favorite habit?

Eric Barker
Favorite habit, reading. Man, that one’s really paid off for me. I highly recommend – I’m kind of like an athlete saying they like to exercise.

For me, it’s something I love doing. I often joke or half joke that a lot of the work I do is just the exhaust that comes out of my natural habit of wanting to read, wanting to learn and then that machine, which is going to run anyway, happens to produce this exhaust which luckily I’ve found some weird way to make a career out of. I’m very, very grateful for that.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, we appreciate your exhaust. Thank you for sharing it.

Eric Barker
…. Sorry, I’m destroying the environment.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d also like to get your take, you shared a lot of things with a lot of people, is there a particular nugget or quotable gem that is attributable to you or maybe just even reformulated, restated by you, that really does seem to resonate with folks. They retweet it. They take notes upon it when you utter it. What’s something that really seems to stick?

Eric Barker
That valedictorian study, again, I didn’t do the research, really seems to resonate with people and the self-compassion concept really seems to resonate with people.

The idea of not having to lie, not having to brag, not having to blow yourself up, not having to be a jerk, but emphasizing forgiving yourself. I think that’s a concept that’s really resonated with people, especially lately is the idea that forgiving yourself is more important than blowing up your … to insane proportions.

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

Eric Barker
Given that as we established the URL is hard to pronounce, hard to spell, hard to – not the best marketing choice on my part, happy to grant you that one. If they want to see my blog, there’s a new post every week, which is a deep dive on some evidence-based way to improve your life.

Basically Googling my name, Eric Barker, that will come up and signing up for my weekly email is the best way to keep up with what I’m doing. The book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree, is available on Amazon and any of the other major book sellers.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh cool. Eric, do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Eric Barker
I would point to a piece of advice that a former Harvard researcher and now bestselling author, Shawn Achor, told me that he had done research that basically said when you go into the office first thing, first thing you do, sit down and send an email thanking somebody, showing gratitude.

Simply doing that gives people a boost in happiness and there’s plenty of research I’ve cited on the blog before that shows how you start the day, dramatically affects how the rest of the day goes. The challenge I would give people is first thing in the office, send an email, and send someone a sincere thank you email. Try that for a few days, see if it helps you out.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Eric, this has been such a treat. Please keep generating the great things you produce. The exhaust has a fragrant and a lovely aroma. It’s been a lot of fun.

Eric Barker
Thank you so much. I really appreciate it Pete.

280: How to Become the CEO Next Door with Kimberly Powell

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

Kim Powell of ghSMART shares research insights from her book, The CEO Next Door, and misconceptions, patterns, and best practices in improving your odds of ascent.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Where likability can help you–and hurt you.
  2. The 4 critical behaviors linked to successful CEOs
  3. Brilliant CEO tactics to accelerate your decision-making

About Kim

Kim Powell is a Principal at ghSMART. She serves leading Fortune 500 senior executives, private equity firms and non-profit leaders in the areas of management assessment, leadership coaching and organizational change. She co-leads ghSMART’s research on first time CEOs and is passionate about supporting leaders in accelerating their effectiveness in new roles.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Kim Powell Interview Transcript

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

Kim Powell

Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I learned a little bit about you and that you one time played a championship football game in the Notre Dame Stadium. What’s the story behind this?

Kim Powell

Yeah, strange factoid, right? Most people are familiar with Notre Dame’s obsession, if you will, with American football, but it may be less well-known that the participation rate in intramural football on campus is extremely high. So, I didn’t know how to catch a ball before I started college, and got roped into my intramural team, and we had a fabulous team. So the championships were at the Notre Dame Stadium, we played like the regular football team, we had a mascot and cheerleaders. And three out of my four years won the championship, and I have a bag of grass before they moved the turf somewhere, somewhere in a box in the back of my closet. But yeah, it was a fun experience.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, that is cool, yes. Well, my wife went to Notre Dame, and that’s always a little bit of a joke – it’s like, “How do you know if someone went to Notre Dame?”

Kim Powell

They probably have it plastered on their clothing, they are watching football every Saturday, yeah. Something that was a surprise to me, but certainly the collegiality of the game and the willingness to take someone who couldn’t catch and turn them into a wide receiver and a kicker – that was fun. It was a good experience.

Pete Mockaitis

That is cool. And so, speaking of experience, you’ve got loads of it over at ghSMART. And we interviewed a colleague of yours, Randy Street, from there, way back in episode 30. So for those who are newer listeners and didn’t catch that one, what is your company all about?

Kim Powell

Yes, ghSMART is a leadership advisory business. So, the core of what we do is assessing senior leaders. And in an assessment what we are doing is looking for the fit of a given leader to a particular job experience or job situation. I personally spend most of my time supporting boards and selecting CEOs, as well as CEOs and selecting their teams.
And we’ve branched out probably since you spoke with Randy, so a good, I would say half, 60% of our business is that core helping on key talent decisions. And the rest we branched out to do more broader leadership development, CEO succession, I do quite a bit of my work in the private equity space, supporting on human capital diligence prior to deal close. So we’ve certainly grown a little bit, I think, since episode 30.

Pete Mockaitis

Yes. Well, that’s so cool. And so have we. And I always love it when there is a rich, rich research base behind the stuff that you’re doing. So first maybe, while we’re talking about fit, I would love to hear in broad strokes how you think about that onto the macro-level, because I imagine you can break it down into numerous competencies and indicators and cultural parameters. But how do you think about a fit, because sometimes the word “fit” is really just a euphemism for “He or she didn’t do a good job. It wasn’t a good fit.” But you mean something different.

Kim Powell

Yes, yes. So, critical and I guess core to our methodology is what we call “first developing a score card”. And this is really sitting down with the board of directors, or the CEO, or the hiring manager in some cases, and stepping back to say, “What are the critical, call it 5 to 10 key outcomes that absolutely have to be delivered for you to have a smile on your face, that this role was successful?” And we get pretty granular to articulate what those outcomes are. Ideally a good chunk of them are measurable in quantitative ways, and we also get into how those outcomes need to be delivered.
And in that way we get into some of culturally what things work, what things don’t work, what are most likely the biggest reasons why someone might fail at a given role. And then what we do is, in that 4 to 5-hour behaviorally-based assessment we sit down and go through the entire career history, including education in the early years for the various candidates, and we’re looking for behavioral patterns. What we want to see is an individual who has operated in similar context and delivered a similar rate, size, pace of outcomes that this particular role is expecting, to define success.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, understood.

Kim Powell

Yeah, and obviously to your comment, it’s not just, “Hey, they just didn’t work out” or, “I didn’t enjoy working with them.” It’s we’re really looking for somebody who has a high probability of delivering – if it’s expanding international growth by 30% by opening the doors to two new countries, for example. We would be looking for behavioral patterns and underpinnings where they’ve done that in the past in different contexts, they have exhibited the agility, call it cross-culturally – those types of things.
To sit down with then the hiring manager and say, “Look, in these contexts they’ve successfully done it, or in these contexts they haven’t”, and guide them towards making choices where you’re putting people in situations where their strengths can come to life, and you’re identifying early potential developmental areas that could hinder them from success. And a lot of the conversations, what can you do to put the right supports in place, whether that be other people and their team, whether that be types of measurements, whether that be development, coaching, on-the-job training, that will help this individual increase the probability of delivering on those outcomes?

Pete Mockaitis

Understood. Well, that sounds like a ton of fun. That just sounds like a cool job to have.

Kim Powell

I was going to say, the best part is I get to hear these fascinating stories. And it’s really incredible to be a witness to people’s amazing accomplishments and how they address setbacks and how they bounce back from that. And you do really quickly start to see some patterns of success, which the reality is, we gather things that go really well, we gather a lot of things that don’t go well, and we hear how people talk and internalize and approach that.
And for me stepping in almost five years ago, it was fascinating that we had not adequately, in my opinion, taken full advantage of this amazing assessment dataset. So, I’d done writing and research in my background in strategy consulting, and I stepped in and said, “This is a rich, rich opportunity to mine this data in a way that could be really useful for aspiring leaders, managers out in the world.”
And teamed up with one of my colleagues who had that same intention, and started supporting a research effort, which we call the CEO Genome Project – how do we decode what makes a CEO. And conducted a bunch of research over a number of years, and ultimately delivered some insights that we thought were worthwhile, telling on a broader stage. So hence the idea of, maybe we should write a book. But it was really after already uncovering some interesting nuggets that we thought would really be useful for aspiring leaders, and only then did we decide to embark on the marathon of putting it to paper.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, and put it to paper you did, and the book is called The CEO Next Door. And by the way, excellent title. It harkens to The Millionaire Next Door, which is one of my favorite books – full of insights and counter-intuitive, data-driven goodies. And you delivered some of these within this work. So can you share, what are some of your central findings here?

Kim Powell

Yeah. And before I go there – to the title. Actually one of the things that sparked the desire to write this book was, in our assessment work over the years, we realized what we were seeing in amazing leaders didn’t necessarily match up with if you pull your latest Fortune, Forbes, name, your article about leadership and you get this portrait publicly in the media of this pantheon of charisma, amazing strategist, flitting from Davos to the next multi-cultural summit of talent. You just get this picture that they’re larger than life, and an iconic, kind of heroic set of leadership skills and capabilities.
And that does not match up with what we’ve seen or what I’ve experienced, what we’ve experienced as a firm. And when you dig into the covers and you get closer to these real CEOs, the CEOs if go beyond the Fortune 500, which usually is what’s profiled out there, and look at the 2 million CEOs over, call it a size of over 5, 10-people companies – you realize they’re real humans that make mistakes, that do also amazing things, but they feel much more accessible.
And the closer you get, the more it opens that possibility for more of us to aspire to larger platforms of leadership, or we can amplify our positive impact on the world. And that was really the kind of purpose-driven, I guess, motivator for the book for me, was unlocking that. If I could transmit that opportunity to more people, I think we would have a larger base of leaders out there wanting to change the world. And I feel like we could use that right now.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, I love that. That is inspiring, and it’s so true when you talk about the myth, or the kind of picture of what you think of when you see a CEO. I just chuckle a little bit whenever I see those magazine or Shark Tank. It’s like all of them, they love to fold their arms in front of them, I’ve noticed. That’s like the CEO super powerful, “This is what I look like”, ooh, like you’re a superhero.
And yet I remember when I was at Bain, the very first time I was in a meeting with a CEO of a billion plus dollar company, I thought, “Oh my gosh, it’s the CEO. I’m going to be in the same room.” I was so sort of excited and nervous and curious what this sort of mythical person would be like. And then he just listened very well and carefully to all the things we were sharing, and just asked the most fundamental of questions like, “Does this number include the benefits or just salary? The benefits, okay.” It was like, “Oh, he’s just a normal guy.” [laugh]

Kim Powell

It’s so true. In our research what we found is… We interviewed about 100 CEOs, just to compliment the quantitative research that we did, and to bring the stories to life. And what we found is 70% of them did not know they wanted to be CEO until typically the role just before, or potentially two roles before CEO. When they got close enough to work directly with the CEO and see what it is actually like when you start to break down those myths a little bit and see reality, and they realized, “Huh, maybe I could do this. And maybe this is something I would be interested in.”
And so, yeah, it’s something where you think people are destined for these roles, and the reality is, it’s not true. Back to your original question on the main themes – one of the main themes is the behaviors we saw that differentiated high-performing CEOs were all buildable. I mean they’re all buildable muscles. The things that popped out of the exploratory, quantitative research were not intrinsic things that you are born with; they’re things that these leaders honed over time, and they’re muscles that you can build. They’re not easy – it’s not like it’s a walk in the park – but I was really encouraged to see that these are things that you can practice and get better at. So that was one of the key themes or key findings.
The second is what gets you hired is not necessarily what drives performance. I guess it’s not surprising; we know there are biases in the hiring process – that’s certainly well-chronicled. But it came through in our research as well. And obviously the last thing we’ve talked about is just this – the role is more accessible if you kind of increase the aperture and look at a broader representation of CEOs. And our data said it extends across sizes, across industry sectors, it is much more representative of the CEO next door, as opposed to the Fortune 500. And so in that you do see that the myth isn’t necessarily reality, when you get closer to the C.

Pete Mockaitis

This is intriguing. So, let’s talk about each of those a bit. You mentioned they’re all buildable muscles. And recently we had Gary Burnison from Korn Ferry on the show, and I was so intrigued to get his take as I’m a kind of dork who will plum through their For Your Improvement competency matrix, and note that I’m so intrigued by how they’ve cataloged some competencies are much harder to develop than others. And I asked Gary to put a little bit of a context on that, and he said perhaps 200 times harder than others to develop. And so, I’d love to get your take on, when you talk about they’re buildable, but it’s challenging – just how challenging?

Kim Powell

Yeah, these fall into the middle set, I would say. The things that are really immutable that are hard to change are obviously the stuff like basic IQ capabilities. I mean, there is work out there that says that’s shapeable at some level, but man, that’s really hard to fundamentally change that. And again, some of this is how much are we looking to change, and how much do you need to change to be effective for what you want to do.
In this conversation we’re going to define success as growing in your role, but success doesn’t have to be CEO. They’re plenty of successful people who are not in that role that I admire. So, I do think it also depends on how much you need to improve to be effective. And I would say the four behaviors, just to call them out, that were statistically significantly different for high-performing CEOs compared to low-performing CEOs, were decisiveness – and this was all around the speed and conviction at which you make decisions, not necessarily be perfect or right or fully correct on all of your decisions.
The second was adaptiveness – your ability to change personally, as well as drive change and adapt your organization to the needs of the market and the shifting consumer or competitive context. The third is reliable delivery – so this is the ability to consistently deliver against expectations. And the last is engaging for results – and this is really about your ability to manage a very diverse and increasingly diverse stakeholder set, and moving them in an aligned fashion towards a common goal, which is really obviously tricky and gets more tricky as you grow in an organization.
So those are the four. These four behaviors all fall in the spectrum of changeable, and you can certainly improve, but it requires a significant focus. It’s like the Ben Franklin, pick a given trait, work on it relentlessly, build a new habit – and there’s plenty of work out there about how you build a new habit. But it takes that level of focus. It’s not something technical; for example communication skills – you get some guidance on how to structure a presentation, get video, get some feedback, you can improve more easily. I would put that as the “easy” category.
These are things that I think because of the nature of them, require very discreet focus because you’re making decisions at every moment. And you can practice and build better behaviors at every moment, but it’s not as simple as going to a training class, if that makes sense. I don’t know how that meshes with what you’ve heard before, but that’s why I would describe them as “changeable”, which is really encouraging. But it’s not easy; you’ve got to really focus on it.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. So let’s talk about each of the four there. Now, let’s kind of fast forward a bit.

Kim Powell

Yeah, sure.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, very cool. So I’d love to chat about each of those four. But first, Kim, can you tell us a bit about that point that what gets you hired doesn’t drive performance?

Kim Powell

Yeah, of course. So we gathered outcome data around who was hired and not hired. We also gathered, did they exceed performance expectations, meet or not meet. And what we found is those buildable muscles, those four behaviors that matter, were all correlated with high performance, but only one of them was actually correlated with what gets you hired, interestingly. And that was reliable delivery.
In our conversations we also talked to board members; we reviewed a suite of 70 CEO firings, so we spoke with the board to get underneath what drove that. And really what you hear is, reliable delivery clearly is important in delivering performance, but it’s also something that exudes safety in the process of hiring. If you’re someone who has met or exceeded expectations across your career, managed that effectively, put in rhythms, cadences, etcetera for your organization to deliver – you are someone who’s going to make the board feel very safe. And they feel very nervous in that critical decision around who should lead the company. And so safety is something that you can play to by ensuring reliable delivery.
The thing that did pop out that is a big driver of getting you hired, but is not correlated with high performance, is likeability. So the warmth and energy you exude in the interviews really matters. And if you combine that with the safety of reliable delivery, you end up as an individual that the board wants to back. So, while being likeable doesn’t help you deliver results – we have to do a little HBR – a little piece around being too nice can get you in trouble. Being very likeable in an interview does work to your advantage; at least that’s what the data would say.

Pete Mockaitis

Now that’s so intriguing, Kim. And I’m trying to be nice and I think I’m often likeable, and so I’m wondering, is it sort of no correlation or a negative correlation, like I’d be better off if I’m a little meaner?

Kim Powell

Well, it depends if you want to get hired or if you want to perform.

Pete Mockaitis

Perform.

Kim Powell

I would say the trick… There’s nothing right or wrong about being nice. The trick is… I think what we’ve seen and what we wrote about in that piece was, individuals who prioritize affiliation, who are motivated to affiliate, who define success as being liked by all, are unlikely to make the difficult calls when you are by definition going to disappoint a given stakeholder, group or individual.
There are natural tensions in a business always, between manufacturing and sales, I mean you could fill them in. There are always natural tensions and you as a leader of an organization are having to make difficult calls that won’t make everyone happy. And by definition humans don’t like to change. If you’re trying to improve your organization – again, there’s going to be resistance to that. And you cannot have as your primary goal affiliation and achieve the level of progress that is likely demanded by your shareholders, or whatever your governing structure.

Pete Mockaitis

Alright, noted. Point taken, thank you. So, I think we hit the point about the role is more accessible pretty well. So let’s talk a bit about these buildable muscles. So, decisiveness, adaptiveness, reliable delivery and engaging for results – could you give us maybe a picture for, first of all, what does “great” look like, versus “okay”? Because I think sometimes many people would say, “Yeah, I’m decisive, sure. I deliver reliably.” And so, I have a feeling though you’ve got a clearer picture on what “great” really looks like here.

Kim Powell

Yeah, yeah. Fundamentally – and I can’t underscore this enough, because this was the real insight and surprise for us – decisiveness is about speed and not about perfectionism and ensuring you have gathered the nth degree of data, that you are 99.5% sure that this is the right direction. The really good decisiveness looks like willingness to move with 60% of the data. It looks like willingness to push decisions down when you recognize they are not a CEO-level decision, or fill in your level of leader decision. You streamline what you are deciding so that others in your organization can speed up, make quicker decisions, and not everything is being elevated, for example.
The other litmus test that you see in really decisive leaders is, they really have a way of cutting through the noise, which helps them speed up their decision-making. And the way that they do this is really having a very crystal-clear picture of value drives in their business and they have almost like an inherent formula in their head: “These things matter, these other things don’t.” They’re very relentless about focusing on what matters and they understand the things that will move the needle, and they focus their decisions there.
A couple of leaders I really loved speaking with, they talked about continuously asking certain questions of themselves. One of the leaders of a tech business told me, she said, “Look, if I sensed that I was struggling with a call, if I had to make it in the next 30 seconds, what would it be? And 9 times out of 10 I would push myself to just do it.”
Another leader said, he’s like, “I tested myself with two questions. The first is articulating what is the downside of getting this decision wrong? And weighing that with, how much am I going to slow others down by delaying my decision here?” And he’s like, “By thinking about those two dimensions, I was able to push myself to move forward, even if it made me uncomfortable that I wasn’t 100% sure.”
And I think they recognized that they were setting the pace and the cadence of the organization. So if they’re slow, if they’re asking for their 100-page analysis – the reality is the organization is going to adapt those behaviors. And so it’s not just yourself; it’s actually the signal and the ripple effect that you’re sending throughout your organization.

Pete Mockaitis

Kim, that’s dead on, thank you. Please, unpack the others just like this.

Kim Powell

Yeah, yeah. So, let’s tackle “adapt”. This one’s really.. I was least surprised about this, just given the amount of writing out there. And I should have noted when we did the exploratory research with SaaS, they actually unleashed text-based analytics on our data, as our data’s text, which frankly we couldn’t have done 10 years ago, because they’ve progressed so much.
But what we did is said, “Here’s the outcome data, here’s the text-based data. Have at it, apply your models.” They do all the predictive fraud analytics for credit card companies, they have really fascinating, for a separate conversation, tools that they can apply. But they did exploratory research. We did not say, “Hey, go prove that adaptive behaviors are important.” They actually came back to us, and that’s why we were so surprised with some of these things.
But of those surprises this was least surprising. I think his name is Richard Foster of Yale, he did a piece of work that showed the lifespan of leading companies has shrunk to less than half. I think it was from 60-something years to 20-something years over the last couple of decades. Just the pace of what is happening in the market right now demands a level of adaptation that just wasn’t there for the prior generation.
So this I don’t think is very surprising, but really two elements, or two litmus tests, I would say, that I saw in very adaptive leaders. The first is that they had an openness, self-awareness and willingness to change personally. They were really humble to recognize that they do not know what they need to know, almost across the board. And so what you found is a willingness to let go of past behaviors and practices, even if they had been successful.
They were really good about proactively thinking about “What can destroy my business?” What about personally my behaviors that have led me to this place but may not lead me to the next ambitious goal?” And so they’re willing to let go of… … the book, “What got you here won’t get you there.” These leaders practice that, and it’s a really difficult thing to do. So that’s one litmus test, is willing to let go of what got you to the seat, essentially, and relentlessly question that.
The second is, they adapt more of a future-orientation. So you see these leaders really embodying… There’s no one else thinking 10 to 15 years in the future, most likely, other than the CEO. And so they don’t give up time with the customers; they double the amount of time they are thinking one, two, five years out, compared to the amount of time they spent looking out to the future in the role before CEO. So you see them shifting their attention to a longer
timeframe when they get into the C. So those are a couple of things to call out on adaptiveness.

Pete Mockaitis

Got it, thanks.

Kim Powell

Yeah. And then reliable delivery – this is the most boring one; however it is actually I think the most important – if you look at leaders who did this were 15 times more likely to be in the high-performance group. So it was a really strong behavior and it also helps you get hired. So, it’s boring but it’s important.
And essentially to deliver reliably, there’s a couple of things I’d unpack here. The first is these leaders are really good about setting expectations, as opposed to letting expectations get set for them. So they are actually very proactive and front foot around anticipating and setting expectations of those around you. And that’s important to note because as a CEO you have a board – call it, I don’t know, somewhere between 4 and 15, some public boards are way more – individuals coming from a different seat, with a different set of goals, a different set of expectations. And the CEOs who are successful really actively spend time setting an aligned set of expectations for performance, in a way that allows them to deliver. And this is not a one-and-done; they do it over time as the context changes.
So I remember talking with a board member who was really frustrated with his CEO, and I was like, “Wait, I saw the original value-creation plan – he hit that.” And the board member said, “Yeah, but the market changed. It actually opened up and this happened to this competitor, they went away. It actually should have been bigger.”
And that dissonance between changing expectations created friction and frankly sucked up time and was unproductive for the CEO to deal with on the board. And had they been ahead of that and proactively shaped that, they could have minimized the friction and transaction cost.
The other element to reliable delivery is, I think more the mundane one, which is these leaders try to show up consistently and build consistent expectations into their organization, and this removes ambiguity. So for people who are operating day-to-day, if you are working for a leader who you don’t know, “Is Jekyll or Hyde is going to show up today?, “Is your expectation to the questions you ask of my P&L going to be different than they have been the last month?” – it is hard to operate affectively. You’re constantly guessing, you’re in a world of ambiguity, it does not lead to your highest performance.
And so these leaders recognized showing up consistently removes some of that ambiguity for the team, and the clearer they can set expectations – they use score cards, they use metrics, they give clear feedback, they hold people accountable – and if that’s consistent, the organization operates at a higher performance level and a higher capacity than they would otherwise.

Pete Mockaitis

Right, makes sense.

Kim Powell

So a couple of things there, yeah. And the last one is engaging for results, and as I mentioned this is really around, “How do I herd the cats to a given bowl of food?”, in the simplest way. And the cats all want to go in different directions, and some like mice and some like chicken – I’m making this up. But basically you do need to spend the time with the important stakeholders, whether that be key leaders, key regulators, key industry titans, key board members, to really gain their perspective.
And often times there’s a lot out there around how you empathize, you imagine what it’s like in someone’s shoes. Actually these leaders are actively asking questions and getting the perspective directly from the individuals at hand. They’re not imagining; they’re asking smart questions and listening, and they’re using that intelligence and understanding of that individual or a group of individuals’ goals to harness that knowledge and move them towards a given intent.
They have a goal for most interactions, they know what they’re trying to get or where they’re trying to get to or where they’re trying to move this group or individual to, and they’re very deliberate about using the individual’s motivations and ambitions, knowing very clearly what the intent is, and then putting rhythms into the business or into those relationships that move those stakeholders forward in an aligned fashion.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And you mentioned a part of that in the book there is that there’s some conflict, some differences of opinion about what’s best in what stakeholder over another, and how do they navigate that well?

Kim Powell

Yeah. Well, sometimes they don’t – we could talk about a bunch of examples of that. But when they do, they are very good at… Again, it kind of links back to expectation-setting. They’re very good at listening, gathering input, understanding goals and finding other ways to move individuals towards that goal, and logically explain why this is best for the enterprise overall. They have an ability to link it to, “What’s in it for me”, me being the person sitting across the table from them. And they have an ability to make it relevant to that individual or group’s context.
And that requires really listening, not just imagining the goals, imagining the context. They have to really understand that stakeholder group or individual and find a way to translate the goals into something that’s meaningful, that’s in it for that party. And that does not mean not being disappointed, but it does mean being logical, transparent, setting expectations and delivering, and linking it to some sort of objective of that party.

Pete Mockaitis

Understood. Well, that’s a nice lineup there. And so, in addition to these keys, you mention some handicaps and career catapults. Could you maybe comment on one of each of those?

Kim Powell

Yeah, yeah. There are some other fun analytics we did on the data. The hidden handicaps are really around what can stop you from getting the job that you want, and there’s some basic… I would call these “linguistic” or “superficial” factors that we saw, that have little or nothing to do with what it takes to perform as a CEO, but can trigger biases in the interview process.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, sounds like a quick win. What are they?

Kim Powell

Yeah, so a couple that I’ll call out – one is using pretentious language or kind of ivory tower, elevated affectation, like using too big a word, not being down to earth – actually hinders you and hurts you in the hiring process. So, the more snooty you sound, the less likely you are to be hired. The other one we saw, which I took to heart, being a former management consultant – the more platitudes, consultantese and acronyms you use, the less likely you are to be hired. So, all those consultants out there – be wary of the consultantese when you are going for CEO roles.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, noted. So we can just cut those out. And it’s funny because people kind of become attached to them; it’s like the platitudes are their friends, or sort of comforting. And in a way – that’s a whole another conversation – I think they’re comforting because they give a little bit of an umbrella of ambiguity. So they’re less kind of conflicted.

Kim Powell

Precise. They’re not specific. And exactly – they play it safe and as a result they’re not precise or specific, and that I think is what really triggers the reaction. The more precise and specific and down to earth you can be, the more safety you exude. The more ambiguous, amorphous, hard to pin down – that does not elicit a sense of safety by your interviewer, if that makes sense. They’re not sure what they’re going to get, I guess, is the way to say it.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, and I love it when it’s dirt simple, like, “Customers don’t like this. We need to change that.” There it is!

Kim Powell

Yeah, versus the, “Well, we leveraged this and created amplitude in that.” What? What did you do? [laugh] Yeah, and then some of the basics came through that I think everybody is aware of, but the more meaningful numbers you can use, the better. You want to be memorable and relevant, was what we found.
And so, if you’re coming from an organization that’s not well-known, you don’t have it in with the organization to the extent that you have what we call “bona-fides”, but if there are ways to articulate a stamp of approval from somebody who’s respected by the organization you’re hiring or interviewing for, finding those connections and then being memorable and relevant, and numeric where you can, in terms of your impact and what you’ve done in the past, are all good things to file away for your next job interview.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, I completely agree and I see that. I’ve coached many people on their resumes and it makes a world of difference between just saying “improved” to “cut $20 million improved”. It’s like, “Oh, okay.” It’s sort of night and day. And I even see that myself. I was buying paper today and it’s like, “I don’t know what paper to get. Give me the numbers that show it’s great – the thickness, the brightness, the whiteness. Okay, that’s a good paper.” And I think it’s the same for humans – even though we’re hard to quantify, we want something that gives us that comfort, like, “This person has what it takes.”

Kim Powell

Yes. And even better, cutting 20 million in cost off a base of 100 million, versus off a base of a billion – actually means something different to me. And I want to see that you can cut it out of 100 million, ideally in a sustainable way, or in a way that predecessors haven’t done. So I also think sharing some of that context, like why do these numbers actually matter, why are they great, is also really important.

Pete Mockaitis

Excellent. Well, Kim, tell me – is there anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about a couple of your favorite things?

Kim Powell

Well, I think I would just say, for everybody who wants to be awesome at their job, don’t just accept any role. Pick the right role for your strengths and your skills and your values. One of the myths that we bust in here in this book is, there’s really no, we call it the “all-weather” CEO. The reality is I’ve met fabulous, really great leaders, that wouldn’t be great in the context for which we were making a hiring decision. And it doesn’t mean they are not a great leader; it just means that that wouldn’t be a good fit for them, for what the job needed relative to their skillset. So, be choosy and be thoughtful about where you can be at your best.

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

Kim Powell

Ooh, I’ve got one actually from my 10-year old daughter, if that’s okay. Her quote is, “You can still taste when you take small bites”, which has been a philosophical quote – it became philosophical for me around how much do I bite off career-wise, how much do I bite off in terms of my calendar and schedule? And the reality is I can still taste performance, success, impact, even if I take small bites.

Pete Mockaitis

I love it, thank you.

Kim Powell

So, not a famous quote, but it’s important to me.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, that’s fun, thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Kim Powell

Oh, I’ve got a lot. I think I saw somewhere that maybe you’ve had your first child.

Pete Mockaitis

Yes.

Kim Powell

So I’ll call out two. One is called NurtureShock – I think it’s by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman – data-based research on parenting – so that could be up your alley. The other one, I have a 10-year old girl… There’s a great book called Untangled by Lisa Damour, who again – data-based research on how to navigate the teen years. And then I would say from a business perspective, I love (Growth) Mindset by Carol Dweck.

Pete Mockaitis

Right, thank you. And how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Kim Powell

So, I use an app called Strides, which is I think originally an exercise app, but you can customize your goals. I’m very goal-driven and I use it to track nights away from my family. So, if a particular week is horrible I can zoom out and look at it by month, by quarter, by year, and realize I’m actually still on track.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, cool. And how about a favorite habit, a personal practice of yours that’s helpful?

Kim Powell

A personal practice is about every two to three years I actually try to take a recharge period, and I find that I am a much more effective leader and advisor and coach when I have a chance to catch my breath. And that’s a pattern actually than extends across my career.

Pete Mockaitis

And how long is a recharge period?

Kim Powell

It’s varied, but sizeable. So anywhere from four to six weeks, to four to six months.

Pete Mockaitis

And so you’re just not working during that time?

Kim Powell

Yeah, I’m just not working.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s awesome.

Kim Powell

I’m gearing up for one this summer actually, in late summer, to again, just unplug. I do a lot of fiction-reading, I tend to have a few personal goals in that time, whether it’s reconnecting with family or exercise, athletic-type goals. And then I come back kind of a new human. It’s hard to do in some roles, but at a point of change – if I’m changing roles, changing companies – I always try to build that in to the process.

Pete Mockaitis

Very cool, thank you. And is there a particular nugget that you share with some of this work that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, getting them maybe quoting yourself back to you?

Kim Powell

Two I would call out: “Engage for impact rather than affinity”, which we talked about earlier. The second is: “Connect before you correct”. When you’re providing feedback to your team, connect before you correct. It’s also applicable on the home front with your kids actually.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I think we could have a whole episode on this, but now I’m thinking that’s true kind of on the macro scale – hey, you want to have a deep, solid, firm foundation, relationship before you provide constructive feedback, otherwise it’ll often be sort of rejected, like, “Well, screw that jerk. They don’t know anything.”

Kim Powell

Yes.

Pete Mockaitis

But is it also… How are you thinking about it in the micro context, like, “I’m about to deliver a correction. What should I do beforehand, in this very hour?”

Kim Powell

In the micro – understanding what’s going on in their world. So often times they’ve had a terrible shock to their life and they’ve had a bad performance for the last couple of weeks, and someone passed away, or their dog died, or fill in the blank. Take the time to see what’s going on with them. Assume positive intent before you jump on the critical feedback.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Kim Powell

So I’d point them to CEONextDoorBook.com for more information about the book.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Kim Powell

I would say the whole notion of, “You’re destined to be a great leader”, is false. And so, my challenge or call to action is while there’s no perfectly planned or carved plan, there are ways to get stronger and make better choices. So, it’s really just an inspirational, evaluate the opportunities ahead and put yourself in positions where you can excel.

Pete Mockaitis

Beautiful. Well, Kim, this has been a lot of fun. Thank you for sharing these research insights, and good luck with all you’re up to, and have fun over the next recharge period!

Kim Powell

Thank you, I will.