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563: Accelerating Your Career by Thinking Like a Rocket Scientist with Ozan Varol

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Ozan Varol discusses how to make giant leaps in your career by thinking like a rocket scientist.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How success can hinder growth—and what to do about it
  2. How to turn worrying into productive preparation
  3. How rocket scientists see and use failure

About Ozan:

Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned award-winning professor and author. He served on the operations team for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers project, and later pivoted and became a law professor.

He’s the author of Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life. The book is # 1 on Adam Grant’s list of top 20 books of 2020. The book was named a “must read” by Susan Cain, “endlessly fascinating” by Daniel Pink, and “bursting with practical insights” by Adam Grant.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Ozan Varol Interview Transcript

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

Ozan Varol
Thank you so much for having me on, Pete. It’s a delight to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, I’m delighted to dig into this. I really like thinking about thinking so this should be a rich conversation. To kick us off, could you maybe share with us an interesting behind-the-scenes story from your days working on the Mars Exploration Rovers?

Ozan Varol
Sure. One of the stories that immediately popped to mind, it was my first few months of working on the project, so this was back in 1999, and I’m serving on the operations team for the project, and that year was a particularly bad year for NASA for a number of reasons. But one story that I have in mind involves a spacecraft called a Mars Polar Lander, and that year, the Lander was supposed to land on Mars but, unfortunately, it crashed. The landing system failed.

Now, this wasn’t our baby but we were planning to use the exact same landing mechanism on our rover and, of course, our mission understandably was put on hold because what we thought was a safe way of landing on Mars had just failed spectacularly. And so, we were scrambling to find solutions and figure out a safe way of actually landing us on Mars. And I remember distinctly my boss, who’s the principal investigator of the mission, walked into my office one day, and he said, “I just got off the phone with the administrator of NASA, and he asked me a really simple question. He said, ‘Can we send two rovers instead of one?’”

Now, up until that point, NASA had been sending one rover to Mars every two years, so that was the default. And this question, it was such a simple question but one that none of us had thought of asking before. And, of course, we were going to fix the landing system but the NASA administrator reframed the problem because the problem wasn’t just this defect of the landing mechanism. Even if you fixed that, there are so many things that can go wrong when you’re sending this delicate robot 40 million miles through outer space, and crossing your fingers that it lands safely on the Martian surface.

So, instead of putting all of our eggs in one spacecraft basket and hoping that nothing bad happens along the way, we decided to send two rovers instead of one, and I’m so glad we did for a number of reasons. One, with economies of scale, the second rover ended up causing just pennies on the dollar, but on top of that, double the rovers meant double the science. They landed on two very different parts of the planet and we built these things to last for 90 days, they were named Spirit and Opportunity.

Spirit lasted for about six years and Opportunity, and I still get goosebumps when I say this, but it lasted 14 years into its 90-day mission just because someone there to step back and reframe the problem and see just the obvious insight that was hiding before everybody else’s nose.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s really fun, and as you’re telling the story, I was thinking of, I think it’s from the movie Contact with Jodie Foster where they say, “Why buy one when you can have two for twice the price?”

Ozan Varol
That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
But it wasn’t twice the price instead it was much more cost-effective because you know what you’re doing and then it seems like that’s cool, like the learnings. I guess, it’s that the idea is the second one lasted so much longer because you learned some things and you finetune some things after doing the first or you just got a little lucky.

Ozan Varol
Not necessarily. I think we just got lucky. We had two shots on goal, one ended up being six years and then the other one just ended up lasting for 14 because we were able to send it to a different location on Mars where the geographical conditions, the weather conditions were different.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that was a fun story. Thank you. So, we’re going to talk about your book here about Thinking Like a Rocket Scientist. Well, first off, can you frame up the why for us. So, I’m thinking about professionals in particular, those with jobs who want to be awesome at them, why should we think like rocket scientists? What kind of benefits do we get? Or what about the landscape of work these days makes that a beneficial approach?

Ozan Varol
Sure. The world is evolving at a dizzying speed, and we all encounter these really complex and unfamiliar problems in our lives, and those people who can tackle those problems, with no clear guidelines and with the clock ticking, enjoy an extraordinary advantage regardless of what field you’re in. And so, the book isn’t about the science behind rocket science, so I’m not going to try to teach you the theory of relativity. More, it’s about taking these frameworks, ways of looking at the world, processes of thinking from rocket science, and then walking you through how you can employ them in your own life to make your own giant leaps.

One of the biggest conceptions about rocket science is that it’s celebrated as a triumph of technology, but it’s really not. It’s the triumph of the humans behind the technology and this thought process that they use to turn the seemingly impossible into the possible. It was the same thought process that allowed Neil Armstrong to take a giant leap for mankind. It’s the same thought process that we use when we worked on the Mars Exploration Rovers mission to send these rovers 40 million miles across outer space and land them exactly where we wanted. And it’s the same thought process that’s bringing us closer and closer to colonizing other planets. And, fortunately, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to think like one.

And one of the things I’ve done with my life after I worked on the Mars Rovers project and I left, I pivoted and became a lawyer, and then a law professor, and now I’m an author and speaker, is to take these principles from rocket science and not only employ them in my own life to very different fields, but also teach others how to employ them as well and how to think like a rocket scientist. And the book is a culmination of really a lifelong journey for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, so I’m intrigued. You laid out, “Hey, these are really cool results we got when you follow a thought process,” so that’s great. I’d like to have awesome problem-solving innovation abilities for sure. Can you maybe give us a cool story in terms of you saw someone, they were thinking non-rocket scientist-y, and they did something a little bit different with how they were thinking, and they saw a cool result? Could you give us a case study or a before-after tale that brings it together?

Ozan Varol
Sure. The one example that popped to mind that I talk about in the book is Alinea, which is the three-star Michelin restaurant in Chicago.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Chicago. That’s right.

Ozan Varol
Yeah, it’s an amazing place. And one of the things that they’ve mastered is thinking like a rocket scientist, I kid you not, across very different ways. So, one is even when Alinea was at its heights in terms of the accolades that they’ve won, basically every award that one could’ve imagined, and they were bringing in a ton of profit, they decided to take a sledgehammer to themselves. So, at the very top of their game, they said, “We’re successful now, we’re about to get complacent, and to fend off complacency, we’re going to tear the place down and start over again, and to get rid of the assumptions and the outdated thinking that’s cluttering the way that we’re running our business.”

And so, they created Alinea 2.0 which has also been massively successful. One of the other things that they do, so that refers to the principle from rocket science, from physics, really called First Principles Thinking, which is a way of looking at a system and distilling it down to its fundamental non-negotiable components. Everything else is negotiable. So, you hack through these assumptions as if you’re hacking through a jungle with a machete to get at the original raw materials and building it back up from there. So, when you apply that thinking, you go from being, say, a cover band that plays somebody else’s songs, to an original artist that does the painstaking work of creating something new.

And so, Alinea did that with Alinea 2.0. One of other things they did is, in the beginning, they would look at dishes and say, “What can we add? What ingredients can we add? What new spice can we try? What new cooking methodology can we try?” Now, they’re asking a question that rocket scientists ask, which is, “What can I remove? What can we take away? How do we get to the fundamental components of this dish to bring out their best as opposed to adding and adding and adding, which not only creates complexity, it can increase problems, but it can also take away from the taste of the dish as well?” And that’s a question that rocket scientists have to ask themselves and have to contend with on a daily basis because you run into constraints when you’re building a rover in terms of weight, in terms of space.

And the best way to, this is a quote I love from Antoni Gaudi, the famous Catalan architect, but he said, “Originality consists of returning to the origin.” And I keep that quote in mind, really, throughout my life, and ask myself, “How do I get back to the First Principles, to the origin, and build something up from there?” because that’s how creativity results.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s really rich and, boy, a lot to unpack there. And so, when you come to, say, the fundamentals in a restaurant business, for instance, I think it sounds like, from the very ground level, you might say, “Okay, we need delicious food people love. We need an ambience that is enjoyable.” Can you share with us what are some of the noteworthy things that they ended up removing that made a world of difference? When you say tore it down, actually I’m not familiar. You know, I live in Chicago. Do you mean literally, like, demolish or sell the space and…

Ozan Varol
They literally demolished the space.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Ozan Varol
They literally demolished the space, literally demolished the menu, which sounds really, well, astonishing in so many ways. Like, “Why take something that’s successful and then destroy it and build it back up from scratch?” But the founders of Alinea knew something that most of us neglect, which is that success tends to breed complacency. So, when you’ve been successful at something, what most companies do is they look at the rearview mirror and keep doing what they did yesterday. Now that can work in the short term but it’s a recipe for long-term disaster. If you don’t disrupt yourself in some fashion, then others will do it for you.

One practical way to implement that mindset, because not everyone is going to be able to take a sledgehammer to their business the way Alinea did, is to apply this exercise called “kill the company.” And the mastermind of the exercise is an author named Liza Bodell, and I first read about it in…

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we had her on the show.

Ozan Varol
Oh, great, yeah. I first read about the exercise in Adam Grant’s Originals, the book, and the exercise was conducted by Lisa working with Merck, and Merck’s CEO is Kenneth Frazier, and he wanted to bring more innovation to work, to Merck. Most CEOs ask the same questions, like, “What is the next big thing?” or, “How do we think outside the box?” Those questions have become cliché, which means that people are using the same ways of thinking, the same neural pathways essentially to try to get at novel answers but the answers don’t end up being novel because they’re just taking the same thinking that they used yesterday and applying it.

And so, the exercise basically, the way it ran at Merck, Kenneth Frazier asked his executives to play the role of a competitor seeking to destroy Merck, so this is called the “kill the company” exercise. Their goal was to put Merck out of business. And the executives played that role for an entire day and came up with ways to put Merck out of business, and then they switched perspectives and went back to being Merck executives, and the exercise was successful. So, this was sort of a metaphorical way of taking a sledgehammer to your company, not an actual one.

But the exercise was successful because we’re often too close to our weaknesses to evaluate them objectively. It’s like trying to psychoanalyze yourself. But when you step outside the box and actually look at the box from the perspective of a competitor seeking to destroy it, then you end up identifying problems that you may have initially missed because you’re looking at it from a completely different perspective. And you don’t have to be a business to be able to apply this mindset, by the way. You can ask yourself, “What might my boss pass me up for a promotion?” or, “Why may I not get this job that I’m applying for?” And then switch perspectives, and figure out ways to prevent the potential threats that you identify.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that is excellent, and I think that’s really the most constructive productive way to worry that you can do as opposed to just ruminating, like, “Oh, no, all these bad things could happen.”

Ozan Varol
Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
You can be proactive. And I like that for prepping for presentations in terms of saying, “Okay, what is the question I fear most? Like, if they’re going to ask me something that’s going to make me look like an idiot because I don’t know and I’m not prepared, like what is that question?” And then, “Oh, I’m going to go find the answer and the appropriate response and approach for that.”

We had a guest talking about what he called red-team thinking in military terms, like, “Hey, if this whole mission goes south, and it’s a mess, like, how will it have gone south? Like, what would be the cause?” And that kind of brings some heads up about doing it. And it’s so great because I think, in a way, our brains are very adaptive coming up with dangers and risks and things to fear if we go there.

Ozan Varol
Yeah. And I want to highlight two things you said, Pete. One is the idea of actually not ruminating about these worst-case scenarios. There’s something really powerful about writing them down because, one, when you let them sort of ruminate in your head, they tend to get worse and worse, and writing them down, putting them down, actually takes their power away, in my experience at least. And then you can look at them objectively and actually come up with strategies to fend off some of those worst-case scenarios as opposed to just letting them sit in your head and get stronger and stronger.

And then the second thing which you mentioned with respect to your preparation strategy for presentations where you think about like the worst-case scenario or what could go wrong, that relates to one of the other principles I talk about in the book from rocket science, which people can apply in their own lives, called “test as you fly, fly as you test.” And the principle is really simple. So, rockets and rocket components are tested on Earth before they’re flown in space, and the goal in rocket science is to make the tests as similar as possible to the flight, and in some cases worse than the flight, because if you find the breaking point of a component here on Earth, that means, well, you break the component on Earth where it’s going to cause far less damage than it will in space.

But many of us don’t apply that principle in our own lives. So, when we do practices or tests or experiments, they tend to be widely disconnected from reality. So, if you’re preparing for a presentation, most people will practice their presentation in front of their spouse while they’re wearing sweatpants in a very comfortable known setting. But if you’re applying the test as your fly rule, you’d be practicing your presentation in front of strangers who are ready to throw curve balls at you. And maybe drink a few espressos before the presentation to give you the types of jitters that you’re going to actually experience in practice.

Same thing with job interviews as well. The way that most people do it is they give a set of questions to their significant other or a friend, and ask them to run through this predetermined list. But that’s so different from an actual job interview. So, the goal should be to bring the tests, the experiments, as close as possible to the flight.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that. So, we’ve gone through a few of the strategies, the book has nine. Can you share another one or two that you think can make a world of difference for professionals trying to be awesome at their jobs?

Ozan Varol
Sure. One is the idea of proving ourselves wrong. So, our goal in life, the way that most humans operate, is to try to prove ourselves right, to try to confirm what we actually know. But progress, whether in science or in life, occurs only through generating negative outcomes, so by trying to rebut rather than confirm our beliefs. So, try this for a week, switch your default from proving yourself right to proving yourself wrong.

So, when your focus shifts to proving yourself wrong, you end up seeking different inputs, you open yourself up to competing facts and arguments. And the point, by the way, of proving yourself wrong isn’t to feel good, it’s to make sure that your spacecraft doesn’t crash, or your business doesn’t fall apart, or your health doesn’t break down. In the end, the goal should be to find what’s right rather than to be right. And I give a couple of examples in the book about how you can apply that way of thinking in your life.

Another strategy or principle that comes to mind is a rebuttal or a riff on this mantra that’s so popular in Silicon Valley these days, which is the idea of “fail fast, fail often, fail forward.” So, countless business books tell entrepreneurs to embrace failure. There are now conferences like FailCon dedicated to celebrating failure where thousands of people get together and share their failures.

Pete Mockaitis
I believe you did a podcast about sharing failures.

Ozan Varol
Yeah, I do, exactly. Totally. And Silicon Valley companies are actually now holding funerals for failed startups complete with bagpipes and DJs and liquor flowing freely. And, yeah, I do have a podcast on failure. But the goal, I think, shouldn’t be to celebrate failure, but it should be to actually learn from it. So, if I could change the mantra, and this is one of the things I talk about in the book, from “fail fast,” I would change it to “learn fast.” And this is something I stress in my own podcast as well in trying to get people to share not only what they failed at or how they failed, but what they learned from that failure.

Just because you’re failing doesn’t mean that you’re learning anything. And research bears this out, I cite a number of studies in the book, one involving cardiac surgeons, for example. The study shows that cardiac surgeons who botched a procedure actually perform worse on future procedures because they don’t learn from their mistakes.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a bummer.

Ozan Varol
Yeah, because what happens is when you fail, people instinctively, to feel good about themselves, they blame the failure on external factors. They say, “Well, I got unlucky,” or, “We don’t have enough cashflow to be an entrepreneur,” come up with some external reason for why we failed as oppose to looking at internal ones, the mistakes that we made, the bad calls we made, the bad decisions we made. And so, the goal should be, and this is the goal in science, of course, is not to fail fast but to learn fast, because all breakthroughs in life and work are evolutionary, they’re not revolutionary. People do things wrong. So, Einstein’s first seven proofs for E=mC2 failed, but he learned from his failure and applied it. Thomas Edison famously said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

We have an obsession with grand openings in society, but the opening doesn’t have to be grand as long as the finale is. And the way to make the finale grand is not to fail fast, but to learn from each failure.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. So, then I’d also love to get your view on next time we encounter a challenge that just seems tricky, puzzle-some, immovable, what’s sort of like the first thing you do, like the stop, drop, and roll, or the key questions you ask yourself, or the protocol, like, “Here we are, this sounds tough. Don’t know how we’re going to make that happen. Go”?

Ozan Varol
Sure. A couple things. The first is it goes back to the story I told about that simple question, “What if we send two rovers instead of one?” First, ask yourself if you’re tackling the right problem. Because, often, when we get a challenge or a problem, we immediately jump into answer mode, “Is the answer really efficient? I want to come up with a quick answer to this thorny problem.” But when you jump into answer mode, we often end up chasing the wrong problem. So, the first question is to ask, “Am I solving the right problem? Are there better problems that I could solve? Can I reframe this problem in a way that’s going to generate a better answer?” So, that’s strategy number one.

And then after you’ve done that, break down the problem into its smallest subcomponents. So, think about a challenge that you’re facing and, say, you want to get somewhere to an audacious goal in a year or two, and apply a principle called “backcasting,” which I talk about in the book, which is work backward from that desired outcome, and this is sort of the flipside of what we talked about before, Pete, in terms of imagining the worst-case scenario and working back from it. But working back from a desired outcome also works really well.

Work back from what you want to achieve and identify all the steps you need to get there. Because when you look at this, and I experienced this writing this book that’s coming out this week, just when this episode will be released, is when you look at this blank Word document with like 80,000 words to go, it’s really, really intimidating. But if you can take that big thorny problem and break it down to its smallest subcomponents through backcasting, then each step isn’t as intimidating. I can certainly, today, for example, write Subsection A of Chapter 1. But if my to-do just says, “Write book,” that’s really daunting, and this is one of the reasons why people procrastinate.

And so, identifying actual actionable steps is really important, not only because it’s motivating, but it also gives you some sense of progress so you can look back and say, “Yeah, this is what I accomplished today.” It also has the benefit of pivoting your focus away from the outcome to the actual process. So, we tend to, when we’re trying to achieve something, really hone in on the outcome but forget about the process that it actually takes to get there.

And so, for example, if you want to write a book, most people sort of fall in love with the idea of writing a book, and they want to have written a book, but not actually go through the writing process because it can be painful at times. So, doing this backcasting is also a good reality check because it makes you focus on the things that you’re going to have to do to get to that desired outcome.

And the final strategy is, after you outline these steps, so you’ve reframed the problem, found a better problem to solve, you applied backcasting and created some steps of getting there, I would suggest tackling the hardest thing first, the thorniest part of the project. Because if that thorny part ends up being insurmountable for some reason, you want to know that upfront as opposed to a year from now or two years from now.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really like that. I talk a lot about hypothesis-driven thinking and there are some overlap here when I’m working with aspiring strategy consultants or just teams that want to work better together in my training courses and such, and I think that is one of the best ways to prioritize. Sometimes you might want to start with something that you can sort of confirm very quickly in terms of like, hey, alright, so we can save a lot of time. But that gets to the same core. It’s like you’re tackling the thing that’s kind of like the highest risk in terms of, “Let’s get our answer on the highest-risk matter and then we can move forward.” So, when we talk about think like, I don’t know, a consultant, or like a rocket scientist, or like a lawyer, and I think about political scientists have sort of a whole another way of running their brain I’ve seen, and then maybe like designers.

Ozan Varol
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
I think of these very domains, and maybe there’s a book in here somewhere. But how would you sort of contrast sort of like the fundamental maybe priorities and principles of how a rocket scientist thinks differently than, say, a lawyer, or a political scientist, or a management consultant?

Ozan Varol
I think there are a couple of key differences because a lot of that, actually all of the principles that I outline in the book come from the sciences, and a lot of them take sort of a grander scale in rocket science because of the stakes involved. I mean, in none of these fields that you mentioned, whether it’s politics or law, or political science or law, or designers, I mean, in some cases, I guess, human lives are going to be at risk, but the scale involved in rocket science is so massive. Each time you fire a rocket, hundreds of millions of dollars, and for human space flight, lives are at risk. And so, all of these principles take on heightened meaning when you’re talking about rocket science. And a lot of the principles, again, come from the scientific field.

So, for example, I don’t really see lawyers, I’m a law professor, that’s my day job, I don’t really see lawyers think about this, but the idea of in science nothing is proven right. It’s simply proven not wrong. Only when scientists beat the crap out of their own ideas and fail to disprove them can they begin to develop some confidence in them and, actually, that’s something I rarely see in the legal field, for example. The very best lawyers that I’ve seen apply that thinking to some extents of actually trying to get to know the opposition’s argument better than the opposition does, but it’s not something that’s talked about because it hasn’t completely crossed over from the sciences into the legal field. And, again, many of the other principles, like test as you fly, for example, I’ve also really not heard about outside of rocket science.

And there might be some crossover, of course, but because the scales are so massive in rocket science, you have to build in all of these contingencies and ways of thinking in a way that you may not need to when you’re writing, say, an academic article on political science or drafting a brief for a legal case.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Ozan, I’m actually very surprised by that response. I thought you would say, “Oh, sure, yes. In the legal community, as I’m a professor, I see it over there.” In a way, I’m a little disappointed if I shell out over 300 bucks an hour for a big law associate, not a partner, an associate, I’m not getting these thinking tools at my disposal. That’s kind of disappointing.

Ozan Varol
Well, if you get one of my students then, sure.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Ozan Varol
Because I try to get them to apply that rocket science mindset to law every day, but it works for some people, it doesn’t work for others.

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

Ozan Varol
No, I think we’re all set with the book.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, you gave us one quote. Is that your favorite or do you have another favorite quote to share?

Ozan Varol
No, the quote from Antoni Gaudi is really my favorite. Another one that I think about often is a quote from Warren Buffett where he says, “We get fearful when others get greedy. And we get greedy when others get fearful.” I tend to think about that in my own life, and ask when I see a lot of people doing something, and ask myself, “How can I do the opposite of that? Or what can I do to do the reverse?”

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

Ozan Varol
It’s about this study of college students. The experiment just placed these college students in a room, they removed all of their belongings, so they left the participants on their own, and they told them to spend time with their thoughts for 15 minutes. That’s it, just 15 minutes. Now, there’s also a twist to this. If they wanted, instead of sitting there bored for 15 minutes, the students could self-administer an electric shock by pressing a button. So, you’ve got two options: you can either get bored or you can shock yourself.

In this study, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to shock themselves instead of sitting undisturbed with their thoughts. There was one person who delivered 190 shocks to himself during the 15-minute period, and I think that’s a really shocking thought, and it’s because boredom is becoming somewhat of an endangered state. And that’s a dangerous development because boredom is so central to creating new insights. I give a number of examples of this in the book. But creative ideas arrive during these moments of slack not hard labor, but many of us are too busy moving from one email to the next, one meeting to the next, one notification to the next, that we don’t build in those periods of boredom in our lives. And as a result, our creativity suffers.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. I’m most intrigued by the gender difference actually because what’s that about?

Ozan Varol
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Ozan Varol
It’s called Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress by Christopher Ryan. His argument is really simple, and I think backed by really compelling evidence. He says that there is a serious mismatch between our genetic makeup and the modern conditions of Western civilization. We’re essentially apes dressed in suits, eating a diet, and living a lifestyle just wildly out of touch for how our bodies and minds were constructed. And he offers some ways of adjusting our lifestyle to better match our genetic disposition. It was a really fun read.

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

Ozan Varol
I just signed up actually over the past month and I’ve been obsessed with it is called Readwise, and you can access it at Readwise.io. It hooks up to your Instapaper, so that’s the app I use to save articles and read them later, along with your Kindle account, and it will sync highlights, and it will send you, I mean, you can pick the number, anywhere from, I think, 5 to 50 highlights every day. And so, you open your email in the morning, and these are highlights from a book that you may have read three years ago or four years ago.

And I tend to read books and paperback or hardcover, and there’s a way of typing your notes or importing your notes into Readwise as well. It’s really cool because sometimes I’ll read a book three years ago and I’ll just completely forget about it, and having this system in place where you get an email with these random things that you highlighted from the book is a really good way to help retention. So, I’ll remember things and then I’ll end up using, say, a research study in a book that I’ve read five years ago, and I’ve just completely forgotten about. I’m really loving that tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And how about a favorite habit?

Ozan Varol
It goes back to boredom, but I’ve become very intentional about creating boredom in my life. And one way I do that is, I sit in the sauna for 20 minutes, I try to do this every day with nothing but just a notebook and a pen just to jot down thoughts that might occur to me. But some of the best ideas I’ve had in recent memory have come to me in that stifling solitary environment of the sauna.

Pete Mockaitis
Doesn’t the paper get wet?

Ozan Varol
It does. It does. But I can still read what I wrote so that’s all that matters.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a particular nugget, something you’re known for, you share and people quote it back to you frequently?

Ozan Varol
First thing that jumped to mind is, “It can be harder for you to survive your own success than to survive your failure.” And it goes back to something we talked about earlier in the conversation, Pete, about how success breeds complacency, and I give the examples in the book of the Challenger and Columbia disasters, two really tragic disasters that were preventable but NASA got complacent with its own success. And I talk more about that in the book and sure ways that people can use to fend off complacency and to identify the small stealth failures that tend to get concealed when we win because the instinct when we win is to celebrate not to look back at what may have gone wrong.

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

Ozan Varol
I have a weekly email that goes out to over 19,000 people called the Weekly Contrarian, and you can sign up for that at WeeklyContrarian.com. And then my book is Think Like a Rocket Scientist, it’s available wherever books are sold, and you can find all the purchase links at RocketScienceBook.com. And I do have a special offer for the listeners of your podcast, Pete. If people order the book by, let’s say, the end of April, I’ll give them a special bonus of ten 3-minute videos from the book with just action-packed insights, so practical strategies from the book that people can apply into their lives right away. And so, if you order the book, and forward your receipt to Rocket@OzanVarol.com, and just mention that you heard about me on this podcast, and you’ll get that video bonus.

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

Ozan Varol
Question the default. Instead of operating on autopilot and taking your assumptions, your habits, your processes for granted, take time every now and then to hang a question mark at the end of them, and ask yourself, “Do I own my assumptions or do my assumptions own me?” And just remember the research study about how employees at call service centers tend to perform better if they use browsers that don’t come as the default. So, if they use, for example, Chrome when the default browser is Safari, and it’s not because using Chrome magically makes you a better worker, but it’s because someone who questions the default when it comes to the browser choice, also applies the same mindsets to other areas of their job.

Pete Mockaitis
Ozan, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck with the book and your adventures.

Ozan Varol
Thanks so much, Pete.

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Gary:

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

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Gary Burnison Interview Transcript

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

Gary Burnison
Hey, great to be with you.

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

Gary Burnison
Not that you’re counting, huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Everybody agrees with you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

549: Who Gets Raises and Promotions? Rick Gillis Reveals the Metric that Predicts our Fate

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Rick Gillis says: "Your work does not speak for itself. You do."

Rick Gillis shares how knowing and improving your “quotient” can help you get raises and promotions at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The factor that determines your compensation at work
  2. How to speak up for your work to your boss
  3. The perfect time to bring up your accomplishments

About Rick:

Rick Gillis is a speaker, author, and personal career advisor. He has spent over two decades writing books and sharing techniques to manage and maximize careers across the country. He is the founder of the Richard Gillis Company, LLC which provides training and career coaching to help job seekers land the best possible position at the highest possible pay.

Rick has appeared on several media outlets like Forbes.com, NPR, and the Wall Street Journal. Rick and his wife, Mary, live in Texas where he spends his free time riding along the Texas gulf coast on his Harley or in his music room and art studio.

Items Mentioned in the Show

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Rick Gillis Interview Transcript

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

Rick Gillis
You bet, Pete. Thank you very much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. But, first, I think we need to hear a little about you and Harley Davidson motorcycles. What’s the story here?

Rick Gillis
Well, I’ll tell you what, it’s funny, I had a friend of mine one time say, “Gillis, I didn’t know you’re a biker,” and I said, “I’m not a biker. I just ride a bike.” And I do. I have a Harley, it’s a 2006 model, I’ve been riding for years, and I live south of Houston so it’s literally 54-mile straight shot to the Gold Coast, so that’s kind of my riding. I don’t do traffic ridings. Saturday, Sundays, get out on the highway, that’s what I do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds fun, and so you don’t have any family that tries to curtail those adventures. I don’t think my wife would go for that if I told her, “Yeah, I’m learning to Harley now.”

Rick Gillis
Now, that I’m old enough, I got back into it. I gave up riding motorcycles when, I don’t even remember now, 17, 18 after dropping two or three of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, man.

Rick Gillis
And I’ve only had this bike for, I don’t know, 10, 12 years. Like I said, I ride by myself, I go down two-lane highways, very little traffic, yeah, I’m not tough.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you’ll get no judgment from me. My wife is a safety enthusiast and motorcycles are probably not in my cards.

Rick Gillis
No, I appreciate that. I really do. They’re dangerous, there’s no question, because I have to drive for everybody when I’m on the road.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. All right. Well, so good to know to get a little background there. You’ve invented an interesting concept called the quotient. Can you, first of all, define that and tell us why professionals might care about it?

Rick Gillis
Well, I’ll tell you what, now we’re not sharing this with anybody, right? This is just between you and me.

Pete Mockaitis
I make no representations of that.

Rick Gillis
Let me tell you what, Pete, the quotient was an epiphany I had literally just over two years ago, and I knew it was developing, and it came out of working with job search, job seekers for so long. I did it for 20 some odd years. And I was literally riding my bicycle, not my bike, in the neighborhood and, all of a sudden, it struck me what this was. And let me tell you, like I said, just between you and me, this quotient thing is really a very rich new powerful concept and I maintain it’s going to be able to resolve the pay disparity issue.

And what it is, it’s kind of like taking from a salesperson’s point of view, which I am and have been for many years, you know, a salesperson knows that if we don’t sell something this month, we don’t have a job next month, and that’s just the way, that’s your mindset. I would like the person who gets a paycheck to start thinking like that because a person who gets a paycheck on Friday, takes off the weekend, comes back on Monday, gets back into the mental mindset of being at work, of producing value. The quotient is exactly this. I take your work contribution, which I spend a lot of time in the book telling the non-salesperson how to determine the value of their contribution to their employer.

Pete Mockaitis
In dollars.

Rick Gillis
In dollars.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s the unit we’re working with, or Euro as the case maybe to our European friends listening.

Rick Gillis
Right, exactly. It could be any. But you take the value of your contribution to your employer and you divide that by your base pay. Now, note, it’s not your net, it’s your base pay. And so, what happens, that creates the quotient. So, let’s say, for example, you work for me, and whether you have read the book and have figured out how to do this, or if I’m doing it for you, or mutually, we determined that you have raised, you generated $250,000 in value this year for my company, and I pay you $50,000 a year. So, $250,000 divided by 50,000, your quotient equals 5, which means that you’re a good employee, you generated five times more than I paid you so there’s value there.

But, now, let’s go a little further, because, let’s say I’m a male working with an equally-skilled female, my quotient this year was a 9, hers is like, say, a 23, but I get the promotion and the raise and the bonus. Is that a legal standard? It’s been suggested to me by some very knowledgeable people that it could be a legal standard. And when you consider the possibilities, and I got to tell you, Pete, this is an epiphany I had the fourth draft of the book, I’m about three months away from finishing the book, and I had been writing with the mindset all along of equal pay for equal work.

I even had to look up where that came from, and that’s 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, so I didn’t know where it had come from. And, all of a sudden, it struck me that’s not what this is about. This is not about equal pay for equal work because that’s really hard to define. How many people do exactly the same thing? But if we instead say that this is the proper pay for the best performance, that takes discrimination out of the discussion. All of a sudden, it doesn’t matter, male, female, black, white, Hispanic, old, young, any reason for discrimination goes out the window when you pay the best person who performs the best. That’s really what the quotient is.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I mean, that sounds like a beautiful vision and world there in which compensation is indeed proportionate to your contribution. That sounds fair and equitable and just. And for those who are awesome at their jobs and inspired to be more awesome at their jobs, it sounds tasty and lucrative, so we like that. Thank you.

Rick Gillis
Well, I appreciate that, and I say that because this is the motivated individual that’s going to use this. The person that’s really okay with things or has no motivation, see, I’ve actually got three levels of quotient. One is the quotient of 1, and that is when, let’s say, I’m paying you $35,000 a year to be a delivery driver for me, and you do a very good job. I’m perfectly happy. But a business cannot operate on quotients of 1. We need quotients of +5, +35, +3,000, it depends, so there’s a lot of different thought that goes into this, and there’s also the quotient of less than 1, which can be bad but it depends also on the person.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, there’s a lot here. And I think just conceptually thinking about things in this way is helpful already in terms of, okay, I think in sales, or fundraising if you’re a director for development for nonprofit, then it’s pretty clear. It’s like, “Okay, I see. I know what they pay me, and I know what I brought in, and I can see that I am very profitable, or I’m very not profitable for my organization, and that can indicate I’m likely to be promoted, or get a raise, or to be exited in the near future.”

So, now the game gets a lot more intricate when your value or contribution is not so readily quantified in terms of dollar sales brought in. So, can you help us, maybe give us some examples of how do I think through that in terms of, “I am a program manager, or I am an engineer, how do I kind of get after what my contribution is in currency?”

Rick Gillis
Well, fundamentally, first of all, there’s two ways that you bring value to an organization. You either make money or you save the organization money. That’s it right there. So, most people in a company do not deliver revenue, they actually save money, so it’s a matter of being efficient.
The fact is efficiencies, saving of money, doing your job better than somebody else, and I have, throughout the book, I have 14 Q studies and, of course, that came from “The Quotient,” so I call them Q studies, and they are real people I’ve worked with over the many years, helping them get ahead, because I found a lot of people could tell me what they had done. They could not tell me what that translated to in value. And, candidly, this was a lot of 50+ year old men who had crazy good jobs, who I think got lazy, complacent, and, all of a sudden, they weren’t realizing they were not generating the appropriate value for their payrate, and they got pink slips.

And so, when I talked to them, almost across the board, I would find that they could tell me what they did, they could tell me what that value was, and I actually have a chapter in the book called The Earning Curve where your earnings continue to go higher, your personal earnings, tend to go up and up and up, but the value you’re bringing to the company starts crossing down. And when those two axes cross each other, you’re the problem now because you’re no longer developing or generating the value you should be generating.

So, in my case studies, I have several examples of people from an executive assistant to a bank VP, I even have my own personal story in the book, which I didn’t even realize…by the way, I don’t have anybody’s real name in there so if anybody hears this and goes to the book, when you read Brad’s story, that’s actually Rick, me, so I changed everybody’s name in the book. But I did a deal when I was in the real estate business, and this was about 10 years after the fact that I remembered this. I had created a commercial-lease document that saved my company some $26 odd million.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, there you go.

Rick Gillis
Yeah, and that was a big deal. Now, I was in the business of managing properties, selling space, preparing that space, build out, maintaining the grounds, so I was a general manager. I had 14 buildings on 20 acres that I was responsible for. And I’ll tell you the story and I’ll keep it as brief as I can. One morning I got served by a Texas sheriff, And I got sued by a realtor that said that I owed him $8,000 on a deal that I said, “No, I did the renewal. You’re not entitled.” So, I went looking into the original lease file that my predecessor had done, and I saw that, by damn, they had agreed in handwriting that I had missed it, it was my mistake, that he would be paid on all lease renewals.

So, I called my boss and I said, “Send me a cheque for $8,000.” We had 26 office parks across the nation so it was a big company. He sends me a cheque for $8,000, I paid it, I paid the realtor, I went back to the office, and I told my secretary, “Gaye, you and I are going to go through every lease, and we’re going to put a cover sheet, and we’re going to note any anomalies that happened in these leases so this will never happen again.”

A few months later, my boss comes to town and he’s looking through some of the leases, and he goes, “What’s this cover sheet?” Well, long story short, I had solved a problem that I didn’t even realize was national. He took it back to corporate, and we had 26 office parks, so about three months later I had 25 general managers really upset with me because they had to do what I had done, but I saved the company an enormous amount of money in legal.

Now, I maintain, Pete, and I know this might be a little la, la, but I maintain that people regularly do good things above and beyond their regular daily job that they’re not aware of, they don’t watch out for this, I missed my own and I was a sales guy. So, ten years later, I was working with a client on the phone when, all of a sudden, I remembered this. I went to my whiteboard, wrote it down, and now it’s a story in the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. So, that is a fine example. So, that was outside your daily kind of your day job in terms of like your day-to-day normal recurring responsibilities, that you found something, you got proactive to make sure it didn’t happen again. And then when you shared that and it gets extrapolated over broader-based properties, it really adds up in terms of we would pay lawyers or whomever this much money to make that happen. So, that’s interesting. There’s a specific source of savings there, like legal fees not spent, that you can determine based on, I guess if you know, just how many hours legal work versus their hourly rate.

Rick Gillis
Well, I’ll tell you what, that’s an excellent point because, the fact is, the company has been out of business. It was acquired many, many years ago, so I didn’t have a source to go back and get hard numbers. So, one of the things that I’ve developed along this line is what I call the defensible statement. And that is if you walk in and tell me, let’s say I’m hiring a sales guy, and you tell me you sold a billion dollars or something last year, you better be able to prove it, you better have it in writing. But if you came to me and I’m used to doing million-dollar deals, half million-dollar deals, and you tell me that last year you did a million dollars, I’ll take that, I’ll accept it, we’ll question it, we’ll talk about it, give me some head up.

So, the defensible statement is a really important component to this. I did not have any hard numbers, it was well over ten years after the fact, I went and took, which if I was interviewing with a commercial real estate firm, and I told them that I saved 1% of my gross revenue annually by not having to spend these thousands of dollars in covering mistakes, and I had a little bit more information for this. I had the smallest office park in El Paso of the entire nation. I had 400,000 net rentable square feet. Some of the bigger guys in Miami, Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, and Atlanta, they had like two million square feet.

So, using my numbers and taking 1% of my gross revenue and multiplying that out, that comes to like $26,000 based on what I was supposed to be generating gross revenue at that time. And then I multiplied that out times 26 office parks, keeping in mind that I used my office park, which was the smallest venue, and took that across. My point is it’s very defensible, so you got be careful, you got to keep that in mind.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re super conservative there. It’s like at least this amount but probably much more.

Rick Gillis
But I’m comfortable saying more, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
If I may, how did we arrive at the 1%?

Rick Gillis
I figured 1%, at the time I was quoting $12 a square foot per space, I had 400,000 net rentable, so $12 times…it was $4,800,000 times 1%, I came down to where I was about $26,000, I think, I saved annually, or something. And then I multiplied that out times the 26 office parks because it was of benefit to the entire organization. So, that’s exactly how I extracted that number.

But let me give you another, for instance, because this is not all about just big-money players. One of the stories in “The Quotient” is a woman, a friend of mine, who is an executive assistant. A matter of fact, right now, she’s making about $84,000-$86,000 a year, and we were talking recently, and I told her, I said, “Certainly, there’s somewhere you have saved some money for your organization.” I mean, she’s the executive assistant to the CEO so right there she’s worth more than just another administrative assistant.

But she told me that one day she had been assigned to review some contracts, and she found $77,000 of unclaimed discounts that the person who was doing the job was supposed to have been doing, had not claimed it. This was one eight-hour day she achieved the $77,000 gain. And I told her, I said, “I know you’re not being paid $77,000 a month,” because, like I said, she’s making $86,000 a year. So, in that one instant, she had a value, a savings, that she could share that was above and beyond, and people do this stuff all the time. I really believe that, Pete. I really do.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yeah. Okay. So, you get after your value by any number of things, think about that, the money that you brought in or the money that you saved, and then you might need a little bit of help with Excel or Google Sheets to say, “Hey, what’s the value and what’s the parameter, and then why did I make…why did I say that’s the number? And here’s why it’s conservative.” So, it might just be three to ten lines of Excel, but that’s fine, to sort of make that defensible statement.

So, okay, we’re getting out the contribution side of things and your payment you know. So, then these numbers, sometimes you said 5, 35, 3,000, I mean, boy, what’s a good quotient? And what level of quotient makes you say, “Hey, I can probably get a raise now”?

Rick Gillis
I’ll tell you, that’s exactly based on, entirely based on what you do. Like I said, the quotient of equal 1, a Q1 is the person who’s doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing but a company can’t work on that. If somebody is hiring a coder, and they’re going to try to take on, let’s just say Facebook, their quotient might be a thousand to one, “Let’s pay this person $350,000, bonus, etc., options.” That person needs to deliver, at minimum, $3.5 million annually to be a quotient of 1, if you want to baseline all the positions in your company, which you can do if you want to get everybody down to a Q of 1. In other words, that is what that person would be required to deliver before they’d even can see a bonus or something like that. So, there’s lots of different ways to figure this.

And let me tell you another thing too, Pete, that’s really pretty fascinating. I’m not an MBA, I’m not a Ph.D., this comes from just 22 years of working with people and seeing these different kinds of values developing. I really had to stop and think about this from the employee’s point of view, from a manager’s point of view, from a regional’s point of view, see, because you can use the quotient across branch, division, department, you can use it in all. It works all across these different levels. And I’m not saying the controllers don’t already know this stuff. I do understand that. But I think there’s a need here for two things to happen.

Number one, the worker to embrace this and recognize what they’re doing, and also for the employer to understand that if they get somebody who’s more engaged and owns this, they’re going to be a better, more motivated, more engaged worker, and this thing is a double-edged sword. It also cuts the other way, and you get to find out the people who really aren’t carrying their weight because, too often, especially in the big companies, they’re working with a pool of people and it’s kind of like, “Let’s don’t rock the boat, let’s don’t shake things up.”

But, now, what is important to this discussion is that the individual is responsible for pointing out their wins. A company is not responsible. Your company is not required to point out when you have a really big win. For instance, when I discovered and saved my real estate company all that money, it was not their responsibility. Their responsibility to me was to pay me fairly, pay me what we agreed on, pay my, etc. my healthcare, whatever. But that’s it. If I do anything extraordinary, good for the company. That’s to their benefit.

But when I think back on this, and I saved the company millions of dollars, it would’ve been neat, it would’ve been smarter of me had I been able to go to annual review, annual end of your…and say, “Look, I did this. I’m worth a bonus. I’m worth a promotion. I’m worth something, a raise,” and that’s where I think the motivated individual who goes to their supervisor, and/or supervisors, I always strongly recommend you don’t just share this information with your boss but your boss’ boss, and her boss as well, because everybody should know you are an up-and-comer, you’re motivated, you’re engaged.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. So, you get some great achievements and hopefully they amount to your whole bunch of value and contribution. And so then, part of the game is quantifying that, capturing that, communicating that. And then, yeah, what are some of the best practices for sharing your accomplishments in a way that is not obnoxious and can get you some benefits?

Rick Gillis
Good question. Let me tell you what. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of people who are not comfortable with this. We’re taught not to brag, and I appreciate that. There’s no question, that’s really, really important. But bragging and boasting is not the same as informing and sharing those with you. Let’s say, for instance, you hop in the elevator and it’s you and the CEO, and that does happen to some people. What are you going to say? You have an opportunity to express your value to somebody who can really make an impact on your life, and you say, “Hey, grand weather we’re having today, isn’t it?” Well, you’ve just lost an opportunity.

So, one of the things that I’m about, and I do promote this in the book, you have to be continuously working these, you have to be continuously thinking these things, and you should always have one ready, I’m not joking, rehearsal ready, that you can say, “Hey, Mr. CEO, it’s really nice to see you. How are you today?” “Great. What’s going on?” “Well, I’d like you to know about this commercial-lease document I just created that saved the company, I think, on the order of several million dollars.” When you tell somebody that, first of all, they have been in your place, they do appreciate it. I maintain strongly that supervision, your immediate boss maybe not so much, but above and beyond that, really likes to hear wins, and that’s a fair thing that you can have something available that you could share with the CEO or somebody else.

Once again, I’m going to go back to the same place where this is for the motivated individual who’s going to study this, watch it, because one of the things that is going on, and as a salesperson, a sales professional is always doing this and always thinking about, “If I close this deal, if I close that deal, if I close this other deal, these create different revenue  streams, and etc.” But the person who is working the regular job, who’s only focused on that one thing, does other things and they really need to be thinking about the possibility that there could be quotients for their regular work, and there could be more than one or two or three of those, plus there can be those quotients for any value they create above and beyond what is requested of them to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, maybe can you share with us one of your Q studies, sort of a fun story of a professional who used this concept, ran with it, and found themselves with a whole lot more money as a result?

Rick Gillis
So, the Q studies come out of real people I have worked with in the past who landed very good jobs as a result of my helping them in their job search, but I went back to them, after the fact, in other words, I went through my files and I found, “Here’s Jeff, and here’s Hannah, and here’s whoever,” and I called them up and I said, “Hey, I’d like to use your story in this new book. Can you tell me what you were making at that time when you achieved this?”

See, where this came from, Pete, the secret sauce in my working with job seekers is, it was not negotiable, I required them to put together an accomplishments inventory. This requirement of providing me eight to ten very best accomplishments, I didn’t need to know the who, what, where, when, why and how behind each one, and so these people would prepare me 8, 10, 12, 15 pages of these things.

And I remember one chemical engineer, this woman I worked with, she handed me 18 pages, handwritten, of accomplishments, and she handed me this whole pile, and I glanced at the first one, I handed it to her, and I glanced at the next one, I handed it to her, and she got upset with me, she said, “You mean you’re not going to read those?” And I said, “No, that wasn’t for me. I don’t even speak chemical engineering. That was for you to prepare you for the interview, and now we have the information, the ammunition to create your resume, now we’re ready to set you out and get you working.”

And so, I did this with everybody, and anybody would not accept that they had to put together an accomplishments inventory for me, I didn’t accept them as a client. So, that has always been my secret sauce, and when these people get to interview, they’re absolutely ready. So, I went back and I took some of those accomplishment statements from different people, and I called them up and I said, “What were you making at that time?” And I was able to, and once again, this is really important to the Q studies, I had to use workarounds.

For instance, I had to use the dollar amount for this one guy who’s a construction supervisor, where he was able to build a bridge. It was a gigantic piece of cement they had laid for a construction, and he found that he was losing, literally at the rate of five to seven minutes a day, some 1200 workers having to walk all around this big monolith they had built.

So, he took it upon himself to build a bridge. He just had a bunch of aluminum and steel, and he fabricated a bridge that took these people straight across instead of going around, saved five, six, seven minutes, but these people were making on the order of $40+ an hour. And when you multiply that $40 times take out to get the minute rate, multiply that times how many dollars are out there or how many people were working, and all of a sudden, this guy was starting to save some real money.

And, at the time, he was making, I don’t remember exactly right now, but he was making on the order of $48 to $50 an hour, so I can take his hourly rate and see that he saved all these minutes when we divide that by 60 minutes, we get lots of hours, and then we’re able to divide that by that total by what he was making, and we do come up with good, reasonable, defensible quotient for my client.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And so then, he got a promotion or a raise as a result of this?

Rick Gillis
Actually, he left and he’s now reporting to the CEO with one of the biggest energy…one of the biggest electric-generating companies in the United States. And, yeah, I’ll tell you what, I’m going to slap myself on the back for this one because he actually took my accomplishments kind of concept and he’s now the director of best practices for this very, very large utility in the United States. And so, he took what I showed him, what I taught him, and took it and made it even better for himself. So, yeah, I’m really proud of him.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. Okay. So, then a real part of that is making sure that when you do that great stuff, you take a moment to capture it and quantify it. And then when it comes to conveying it, do you have any pro tips and do’s and don’ts for asking for some of that value you created to come back to you?

Rick Gillis
Yeah, and I tell you what, I think this really comes down to the annual performance review. I think one of the things that I want for performance reviews to become, and, by the way, I do have a model for a quotient-based performance review in the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, so once you’ve identified this value, how do you go and ask for it?

Rick Gillis
The fact is I think that annual reviews should be more objective than subjective. What that does, that puts the onus on the worker, the person who’s reporting, to walk in with this information and be able to share it and show it. And so, once again, I go back to the place where this has to be the motivated worker.

And, by the way, this keeping, having a source of keeping your accomplishments in front of you, it’s called your calendar. I can go back and look in my daily calendar, and go back several months, and I can see where I started working with X client who is now a senior vice president at such and such. And those are a value to me because I don’t have a hard dollar value because I don’t claim their salary. They pay me but I am very proud of the fact that that person back in the workforce is now buying a home and buying cars and sending their kids to school and spending that income to the good of the economy.

The annual performance review is when you need to go in and it needs to be a two-way conversation as opposed to the set your goals at the beginning of the year, review your goals in the middle of the year, and at the end of the year, take what your boss is going to tell you. One of the things that I say is do not assume that your immediate supervisor knows exactly what you do. I consider that tragic career mistake number one, and that’s also why I say don’t ever be afraid or ashamed of sharing your wins with your immediate supervisor and her boss and his boss and her boss, because up and down the line protects you in the sense that, number one, your boss may be very, very subjective and really run you into the ground and maybe you’re that quiet person that’s not good at defending themselves. Or the other side of that is when his or her supervisors know about you, and they turn in a subpar appraisal, maybe they’re going to modify some things
So, yes, there’s a little bit of politics in here but, mostly, I think it’s about being appropriate, and that’s a very big term for me, is being appropriate, no bragging, no boasting. And for the person who does not know how to do this, you can practice with your friends, practice with your coworkers. And let me say something about coworkers while I’m there. This is not about team. This is about I, me, and mine. This is always about yourself, because if you were part of a team, just like you would in a resume, bring out what your contribution was to the group. Don’t focus on what the big win was for the team.

Pete Mockaitis
And I like the example you made with the CEO in the elevator. It’s less like, “Oh, aren’t I amazing because of all of these things?” It’s just sort of like when that question naturally comes up, “Hey, what have you been up to? What have you been working on? What’s new?” you can tell them, and you maybe have some enthusiasm, and not so much that you’re awesome, but rather that this was kind of exciting that you captured an opportunity. It’s like, “Well, one interesting thing was, in reviewing our leases, we discovered this which can result in just about $26 million.” And then they go, “Oh, cool. Duly noted.”

Rick Gillis
You know, Pete, what I call this is the what and wow. I have a formula that is when you give me a list of your accomplishments, and I take one of them, I reduce each accomplishment down to “Responsible for blank that resulted in blank” and I call that the what and the wow, “Responsible for what that resulted in wow.” So, for instance, for me to tell you, to go back to my real estate win, is to say, “I was responsible for creating a commercial-lease document that resulted in the savings of the company of about $26 million.” The person hearing this, in their head they’re going, “Whoa! Wow!”

So, what they really are thinking though is, “If you did that for them, can you do that for me?” And that’s when you need to be able to discuss the who, what, where, when, how and why because they’re going to ask you, “How did you do that?” And when somebody says, “How did you do that?” they really don’t care about so much how you did it, but, “Can you do it for me?” And that also applies within companies, within branches, within departments within companies, hey, people are rating employees all the time within companies. So, they’re responsible for what that resulted in wow, that is a formula, and that’s very apparent in the quotient.

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

Rick Gillis
No. I’ll tell you what, that’s funny you say that because, and I hold on, and I even did homework for you, buddy.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, thank you. So, tell us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring.

Rick Gillis
Well, I’ll tell you what, my favorite quote comes from movie. And I don’t know if you know the movie. It’s about Alan Turing, World War II.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes, I did see that.

Rick Gillis
“Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine who do the things no one can imagine.” I use that in my presentations because I want everybody to know that they do have value and they are special. Now, one thing about that quote, I was so taken with it that I actually Googled it and I found that this guy who wrote the book about Alan Turing, I reached out to him in England, and he was just cranky as hell. He said, “I didn’t write that. Some scriptwriter wrote it.” And I went, “Okay, then I won’t give you credit.” And that’s why I tell people it’s from “The Imagination Game” movie, Alan Turing did not say that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s funny.

Rick Gillis
Yeah, but it’s a great quote.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay. And a favorite book?

Rick Gillis
But I’ll tell you one of my favorites, by Lou Adler. He wrote a book called “The Essential Guide for Hiring and Getting Hired,” and it’s a really smart book for job seekers. And the reason is he wrote it for staffing companies, recruiters, how to hire. And then, after each chapter, he tells the job seeker how to use that same information to their benefit. And Lou Adler, he’s a great guy, very smart.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Rick Gillis
My favorite habit would be on LinkedIn, and this is LinkedIn-specific, I try to respond to every request to connect with a personal note. And it doesn’t always generate a conversation, but quite often it does, so that’s my personal practice because I’m very aggressive.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a favorite nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate, and is quoted back to you often?

Rick Gillis
Yeah. Well, it’s the subtitle. It kind of became the subtitle to the book, and that’s “The proper pay for the best performance.” Equal pay for equal work, I just don’t agree with that anymore, now that I’ve really thought it through. So, the proper pay for the best performance.

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

Rick Gillis
RickGillis.com, and if they want to either connect with me or follow me on LinkedIn.

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

Rick Gillis
Yes. Your work does not speak for itself. You do.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Rick, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you lots of luck with your motorcycle adventures, and working with folks, and making the biggest impact you’re making.

Rick Gillis
Pete, thank you very much for having me. I appreciate your questions and I can tell you could go a lot deeper on this than I can. You’re the bomb, dude.

543: How to Build Skills Faster and Improve Mental Performance with Britt Andreatta

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Britt Andreatta says: "Our body is built for learning."

Britt Andreatta shares neuroscience insights for boosting your learning, memory, and creativity.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to make your learning stick
  2. The striking benefits of boredom
  3. How to deal with information overwhelm

About Britt:

Dr. Britt Andreatta is an internationally-recognized thought leader who creates brain science-based solutions for today’s challenges. As CEO of 7th Mind, Inc., Britt Andreatta draws on her unique background in leadership, neuroscience, psychology, and learning to unlock the best in people, helping organizations rise to their potential.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

  • Empower. Save more money, effortlessly. Get $5 free when you reach your savings goal at empower.me/awesome with the promo code AWESOME

Britt Andreatta Interview Transcript

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

Britt Andreatta
Hi, Pete. I’m super excited to talk to you today.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too. Me too. Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom associated with learning and I understand you’ve been learning some things about fabric art lately. What’s the story here?

Britt Andreatta
You know, I’ve discovered a new hobby for myself, which kind of surprised me, but I am just really into it and it takes me to that place of flow where I can do it for hours and not feel like I’m working. And because I’m a researcher, I’m always in my head analyzing stuff and it gets me out of that. And I just get to play with color and textures and build these beautiful fabric murals that I just take great joy from it. But it’s a new hobby so I’m now in that place where you’re trying to feed the flames of a new hobby and investing way too much in it and then figuring out where I’m putting it in the house and have scraps of stuff everywhere, so it’s kind of fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, a fabric mural, I don’t know if I have seen a fabric mural before. I probably have, I just don’t even realize it. Help me visualize that.

Britt Andreatta
Well, so you can draw something on a piece of fabric, and then instead of using paint to fill it in, you use pieces of fabric to be your paint, and so you’re sewing them on, or stitching them on, or quilting them on, whatever technique you want to use to build the image using fabric.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s interesting. I’ve heard that these kinds of activities, here’s a segue for you, like these sorts of things, kind of like knitting, is something that can sort of put you into a different brain groove. And I imagine you are one of the most qualified people to comment on this. What’s the story there?

Britt Andreatta
Well, whenever we have something that takes our attention but doesn’t require a whole lot of cognitive thought, you know, really concentrating on something or analyzing something, it can just take us to that zone, a little bit of a zone state where you can be really present.

I think we all have something like this. For some people, it’s running. For some people, it’s some kind of knitting or fabric art. For some people, it might be gardening. But there’s real pleasure in it because it acts as a mindfulness practice. It allows you to hit that place of presence and really just being in the here and now, which is, for me, it’s hugely relaxing. I find that I’m so much calmer and happier after I spend a little time doing this thing. The fact that I build things and then that I can give away as gifts is also cool. But even if I couldn’t, just the value of being in that state makes me a happier person to be around.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear that, yes. That’s excellent. Well, so we’re going to talk about brain science and learning and such, so maybe we can go meta for a moment before we do that. Do you have any quick tips for listeners right now because we’re about to learn something? What might they do in this very moment of listening to maximize the learning from the exchange we’re having right here?

Britt Andreatta
Great question. So, the big myth that we all believe but which is not true is that we can multitask while learning and we just cannot do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Uh-oh. Everyone doing the dishes right now, like, stop. Put the wash down.

Britt Andreatta
Put them down. We can multitask in other parts of our life, like you can cook and listen to something. But when you truly want to learn, and learning requires that you take it in and it gets pushed to your short-term memory and then ultimately your long-term memory, our brain really needs to be able to focus on it and gather all that information so it has a complete set of data to push into memory.

And when we multitask, we kind of flip back and forth, it’s called switch tasking, so if you’re also trying to look at your email and listen to this podcast, what your brain would do is I’d become the Peanuts character in the background, “waah, waah, waah, waah,” as you read the email, or you’re listening to what I say and you’re not really glomming onto what the words in the email are saying.

So, if you really want to learn, just focus on learning. If you’re listening to this for entertainment, it’s okay that you’re doing the dishes at the same time. But if you really want to push it into memory, give it the focus it deserves.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s the first thing is giving it the focus. But does anything else leap to mind?

Britt Andreatta
Yeah, with any kind of learning, learning is stickier, meaning you’ll be able to recall it better in the future if you try to find a way to attach it to something you know. So, as we’re talking today about brain tips and tricks, if you remember a time that works for you in the past, or you imagine a time doing it or it calls up a memory, and each time you can attach it, or it reminds you of something you learned in the class in college, hook it to something you already know and it makes it stickier than if you just let it be kind of a free-floating piece of information.

Now, good teachers will do the work and help you attach it to something you know, but that’s a trick you can also use for yourself, is find a way to connect it to something you’ve already experienced or heard or seen or lived through.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s funny, that really reminds me of when I was in high school in Economics class, I started thinking about the firm and profit maximizing and how, in a way, that’s kind of like life, there’s stuff you like doing, that’s like revenue, stuff you don’t like doing, that’s like cost, and you might try to maximize your profits, or you might say that’s a hedonistic way to live your life, and you shouldn’t. But, anyway, that’s how I was kind of like connecting with things and it makes a world of difference. And then, subsequently, I guess you might call these scaffolding or mental models, or there’s probably a number of terms neuroscientists use for these concepts we have to attach stuff to. What do we call those?

Britt Andreatta
It’s called a schema.

Pete Mockaitis
Schema, there it is.

Britt Andreatta
Yeah, so there’s schemas in your brain for all kinds of things, and they’re different for each of us, but the trick to good learning or to putting it to memory is to hook it to a schema you already have.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s funny, as I think about that, I’ve done this kind of naturally with a lot of things and maybe that’s why I got good grades. So, it’s interesting, like anything from a computer game I loved to play, it’s like, “You know what, this is a lot like a missile base, they’re defending a planet.” Tell me, what are some of your go-to schemas you find yourself naturally attaching new learning to frequently?

Britt Andreatta
So, I build learning for other people frequently, so when I’m trying to build an experience for my audience, I try to find something that I know is pretty common knowledge. So, for example, I have a change training and I’ve built it all around this idea of going hiking or mountain climbing, and even if you’ve never done it, you know what it is, right?

So, as I’m playing with the concepts and likening change to different kinds of terrain and journeys, your brain has a place in it because it’s heard of that before. So, if you’re designing learning for other people, this is what great science and math teachers did in high school and college, is they took something that’s fairly abstract and they found a way to attach it to something you already knew about, and how you did that with your own Economics class.

So, if you’re designing learning for others, think about that. And for yourself, whenever you can put yourself through that little pace of, “Huh, what does this sound like? What can I connect this to? Do I have an experience of this?” it just gives your brain something to physically adhere it to in a way that makes the difference in terms of how it is stored in the brain and the ways your brain can call it up in the future.

Because the way our brain calls up a memory is all of our senses are part of when we learn, so we’ve got the visual, the auditory, the taste, and the smell, all of those are like threads, and they get bundled up, these bundled up sensations get kind of packaged as part of the memory. And so, pulling any one of those threads can pull it back.

This is why if you’ve ever traveled in Paris, for example, and you were there and you were feeling the rain, and smelling the croissants or the stinky cheese, or whatever it is, if you ever smell a croissant in the future, it can pop you back to this picture of Paris, “Oh, my gosh, I remember I’ve been there.” So, memory is actually tied through all these senses, and if we’re intentional about that, then we can use those threads to help pull that thing back out of the brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that is interesting. And so, while we fast-forwarded right to some immediate tactics, but maybe we can zoom out a little bit in terms of so you’ve got this book Wired to Grow and now a version 2.0 even. Can you tell us, what’s the main thesis and what’s sort of like the hot new discoveries that warranted a second version?

Britt Andreatta
Great questions. So, I wrote the first book five years ago and it came out, honestly, for me, just doing research into neuroscience because I wanted to be better at my craft as a chief learning officer, so I literally did the learning for my own benefit. And then I ended up sharing it as a presentation, and people were like, “Oh, my God, you need to share this with more people.” So, I started doing it as a keynote, and then it turned into a book.

Neuroscience is still a relatively young field. It’s only recently that they’ve even had the technology, and new technologies coming online all the time, to even see inside of us and see what really is happening. So, neuroscience is relatively fresh on the scene in terms of giving us a new way of looking at any behavior. I happen to look at learning but you can apply it to anything.

And so, honestly, I had written two books since the first one. I’d done the one on change, which is Wired to Resist and I had done the one on teams Wired to Connect. And, like anything else, as I wrote books, I got better at it. So, then I kept looking at this first book, and it just looks so sad compared to the others. It wasn’t as well-researched. The graphics were terrible. I was just like, “You know what, it needs a refresh,” and I was really busy. And I thought, “Instead of writing a whole new book, why don’t I just refresh ‘Wired to Grow’? I can update some studies. I can clean up the graphics. It won’t take that much work.” So, I actually took it on as “doable” project.

Well, in five years, so much had change around what we know about learning that I literally had to rewrite the whole thing. I mean, it’s 90% new material and 10% some of the original concepts from the book. So, the reason I did, you know, the real reason I did a second version was to kind of get that up to speed with the other ones. But what was really exciting was seeing just how much more new information we’ve discovered about how we learn, what memories are, how we drive behavior change, what creativity is, like there’s just so many good things that the book ended up being twice as big as it was originally.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. So, can you share with us, like what is sort of a new discovery that is sort of mind-blowingly cool?

Britt Andreatta
All right. Well, there’s several of them, but let me give you a couple of them. One of the first is just really understanding what creativity is. They can now see when we have those aha moments, and a lot of our best ideas come from aha moments. Even if you’re trying to solve a problem, usually you don’t solve it in that minute that you’re concentrating on it. It’s usually when you step back and take a break, or you’re in the shower. Oddly enough, showers are one of the number one places people have moments of creativity.

That they can now see the aha moment, and they can see the brain waves change on the MRI machine a few milliseconds before the aha moment actually happens. And they can also see that right before the aha moment happens our visual cortex goes offline. Scientists call it brain blink. But, essentially, it’s all happening in that millisecond before we go, “Eureka!”

And what’s interesting now is, as they’re understanding what creativity is, we can now set ourselves up for having moments of creativity. So, some things to do are the resting neocortex, take a break, give your brain that chance to step back from what it’s concentrating on because that allows more regions of the brain to come online and those connections to happen, those synapses to fire.

The second thing you can do is prepare your brain to have connections. So, this is really about getting outside of your comfort zone, reading sources and topics that seem unrelated or that would not be your normal go-to. So, it’s kind of like walking into a library, and instead of going to your favorite section, you go explore a lot of different sections in the library and expose your brain, let it take in more stuff. You’re preparing it to draw connections that you might not normally see.

And then the third thing that you can do, it’s called sensory gating, which is stuff like taking a shower where we have the white noise and we’re warm and we can kind of setup this place for things. Sitting out in nature is another form of sensory gating. Being near water seems to be particularly effective. And so, you just allow these senses to kind of take a break, and it seems to setup that moment to create more aha moments.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, you got me wondering about hopping into a sensory deprivation chamber, a.k.a. float tank. Like, is there some science there? You’re gating all kinds of senses there.

Britt Andreatta
I haven’t personally sat in one, and I didn’t remember reading a study specifically about that, but it makes sense to me that that would work, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. It’s like, “I need my pen and paper though. Can I get that in here?”

Britt Andreatta
Exactly. This is what’s funny, is that before, I’m sure you’re like this too, like when I’m trying to solve a problem, I just want to keep at it, and I used to get annoyed when I would feel tired, or I just need to have a break. I’d feel like I was slacking. But since I read this research, I’m now like, “Great. Take a break. I’m setting myself up for the aha moment.” So, it gets me more committed to the breaks. And, honestly, it’s made work go better now that I’m kind of working with how the brain creates moments of aha.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I really appreciate that explanation associated with sensory gating, like that’s what these things have in common, that’s why showers do that because you are in an environment where some things are shut off, they’re closed, and so there you go. I heard a fun story, I guess I think it might’ve been Aaron Sorkin, got great ideas in the shower, so he just built a shower in his office and took like eight showers a day, which I respect.

Britt Andreatta
When I’m teaching this group to crowds of people, I’ll ask, “Where do you get your best ideas?” and shower is one of the number one reasons. In fact, I encourage people to read a book that’s written, it’s called The Blue Mind and it’s all about the research of why water, being in it, on it, under it, around it, seems to lend itself to both us feeling calmer and having more creativity.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s really cool. Well, so I want to talk about some calm for a moment. So, we’re talking about brains and working to process and learn information. It seems like quite an epidemic folks have these days is just information overwhelm, overload, too many emails, too many incoming things, competing priorities, like, “What even do I focus on? I just feel…” maybe like you’re drowning in all this stuff. So, can you tell us, what does that to our brain and what should we do about it?

Britt Andreatta
That’s a great question, and I definitely suffer from this as well. Well, it’s true. Technology has outstripped biology. We now have technology pushing things at us faster, bigger, better than we are biologically designed to consume so we are overwhelmed. And that’s why, I think, we’re seeing stress levels go up, people not taking vacations. Used to be that email was a convenient way to communicate, and now there’s just so much pressure. People want instant communications. There are so many different channels at which we can have information pushed at us, and we are living in the information economy, so everyone is trying to get our attention with, it’s about screen time now, “How long can we keep eyeballs on the screen?”

So, remember there is a capitalistic component of it where people are maximizing that because that’s where their dollars come from. That’s why when you’re on social media, it constantly is loading up more things to click on. You will never get to the bottom of the page or get to the last video because it’s designed to keep taking you down the rabbit hole.

So, with that, and I love technology, it’s beautiful and wonderful, and yet it can really stress us out so we all have to have some agency and some sense of self-control. I think this is why digital detox is really important. Like, giving yourself a day to just not be on any screens, coming home at the end of the day and just setting your devices down and not picking them up for a while, and definitely, so you don’t take your screens to bed. These are all important things to think about.

The other thing, too, is that, remember, we’re a tribal species. We are designed and built to live in tribes of about 150, and that’s what our brain was really built to keep track of, relationships we could manage. And so, now that we’re global, and trust me, I get the beauty of being a globally-connected world. I think it makes us more empathetic to our brothers and sisters of different cultures around the world. It also means, though, that we’re trying to track too many things. And, particularly, because news likes to send us all the negative stories, it can put us into that amygdala, a fight of flight response, of feeling stress all the time.

Because when we look at the news, what we’re hearing about is 10 people drowned in Bangladesh, and so many people this happened to them here, and a plane crash over there, and fires here. Not that we shouldn’t be informed, but if you’re not careful, your brain is literally feeling like you’re under attack all day every day, because your brain, these are all members of your tribe, and you should gear up to fight that foe.

So, I think it’s also a little bit about controlling access to yourself, not letting all these messages come to you. And then also, intentionally finding ways to find good stories and counterbalancing the negative spin that’s designed to sell things.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I think that’s well-said, and I feel it in terms of sometimes I’ll hop into an Uber and then they’ll just have sort of some news going, it’s like, “This home was broken into, and this thing burned down.” I kind of go back and forth with this in terms of like, “Just how much do I really need to know this? Like, being informed sounds like a good thing that we want to be, but then, again, how crucial is it?” And sometimes I get a little bit snarky with the newspapers or media, it’s like, “Here’s the news you need to know.” Like, “Do I need to know it today? Really? Is that a need? To what extent do I need it?” And I get all philosophical about the matter.

So, I guess, what I’ve come away with this in terms of, hey, different professionals at different times have different needs for news consumption. So, if you’re running a political campaign, yeah, you’re going to need to know a lot of those things about what’s going there. And if you’re sort of just engineering innovative technological solutions over at XYZ company, you may not need to know what the headlines are all that often.

Britt Andreatta
Exactly. And then it’s just about realizing that your devices and the companies that feed those devices are going to be trying to get your attention. They’re going to use whatever strategy they can to get more of your time. So, at some point, you just have to say, “No, I’m turning it off. I’m having a no-technology window of my day.” And then just pay attention to your body. Our body is really an amazing thing and it will give you information. If you’re getting a knot in your stomach, turn it off. If you’re starting to feel anxious, give yourself a break. Your body is giving you information about how it’s receiving it.

This is why mindfulness is so great. It makes us pay attention to our bodies. And it’s also why fabric arts and knitting and running and all these stuffs is great too because it gets us out of that zone. It gets us more into the here and now where probably we’re okay.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so you mentioned mindfulness, and I’m thinking about I was amused in our last interview, I asked you about a favorite book, and you told me, I’m thinking you said, “I haven’t read this book yet but it’s going to be my favorite. It’s Altered Traits,” because this is a topic you love and authors you love, so you know it’s going to be great sight unseen, which I thought was pretty awesome in terms of that’s how closely you’re following this stuff.

So, while we’re talking about mindfulness, maybe you can convince me and many listeners here, what were some of the striking research results coming from that book or elsewhere that you’ve seen to make say, “Pete, I am 100% certain you will see an amazing return on your time and energy invested in mindfulness practice”? Can you lay it on me?

Britt Andreatta
Okay. No tall task, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Britt Andreatta
Well, two things, boredom is a good emotion. Somehow, we’ve been convinced that being bored is bad. And yet, boredom is oftentimes where creativity comes from. Boredom is oftentimes when our brain makes those connections. Boredom is often calming for our system. So, let me just challenge the myth that boredom is a bad emotion. I think we want to cultivate a little bit of boredom in our lives. It’s not a bad thing.

Two, mindfulness looks a lot at different ways. So, for people like you and me, I can tell by just looking at the bookshelf that’s behind you right now that you and I both can, like, live in the world of the mind, and read stuff, and be into the study, and analyzing stat, like we live in the life of the mind. So, classical meditation is actually hard for me because my mind can really just chew on it. Physical mindfulness practices, like yoga, walking meditations, even doing the dishes can be mindful. This is why the fabric arts thing is really working for me because it gets me into my body and out of my head.

For some people, getting into their head and doing the traditional meditation of just kind of watching your thoughts and letting them go, that’s really valuable. So, each of us needs a different type of mindfulness practice. There’s a lot of different ones out there so play with them. Please don’t just give one class a try and say, “That’s not for me.” Try different formats and try a couple of different teachers because you’re going to find the one that makes you go, “Oh, yeah, that feels good. That made me better having done that.”

In terms of mindfulness, why you want to explore it, the research is pretty damn convincing and pretty darn consistent. It really does amazing stuff to us. So, there’s some immediate benefits that you get in terms of lowering your blood pressure, but that’s only if you’re in a mindfulness practice you enjoy. If you’re in one that’s rubbing you the wrong way, your blood pressure is probably going to go up. But, generally, when we find the right one, blood pressure goes down, our body gets into a more relaxed state.

The more we practice mindfulness, the more we can stay at a calm state, and even if we have an upsetting event, we don’t escalate as high as we would have before having that mindfulness practice. So, our highs are not so high. And we come back to stasis faster, being able to achieve that calm state longer.

In addition, it’s doing all kinds of things physically. Like, people who have regular mindfulness practices have lower risks of heart disease, have lower risks of age-related decline, there are just some good stuff that happens. And here’s the kicker, they’re actually showing that you live longer with a mindfulness practice, that the chronological age of your body shifts.

And so, one of my favorite researchers on this, Richard Davidson, one of the co-authors of Altered Traits which did turn out to be my favorite book, I was right. It’s amazing. Anyway, he has put Tibetan monks on MRI machines, like, he’s taken the people who have thousands of hours of meditation under their belt, and then he’s compared them to people who have never meditated. And what was astounding was some of these monks who probably are like world-class champions at meditation, they are many decades physically younger than their actual chronological body.

Pete Mockaitis
Many decades, like three, or four, or five?

Britt Andreatta
Yes, like it helps you live longer. And I don’t know if you’ve heard of this, but our DNA strands have these little things on the end, they’re kind of like the tips of the shoelace.

Pete Mockaitis
Telomeres?

Britt Andreatta
The telomeres, I can’t pronounce it correctly but there’s these telomeres things at the end. And as we live, those get shorter and shorter. And they say that, basically, that they predict how long we live. And when you kind of run out of the ends of those things, you’re ready to die. Well, people who have regular mindfulness practice, those telomeres tips, they slow down, they don’t shorten as fast for those people who don’t have mindfulness practices.

So, literally, the body, the brain was built for a mindfulness practice of some kind which is why you’ll find a form of it in every religion and every culture, it’s just that we’ve all kind of forgotten that, and so we’re kind of having to come back to something our body was built for. And I would just say, Pete, give it a try. Find the right channel. Find the right teacher, but don’t give up till you get one that makes you feel good.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. And I’ve gotten into some good grooves from time to time with, well, so, Simple Habit is a sponsor, and I think they’re great and I really enjoyed working through those. And I think it’s almost like any other positive habit like exercise or you name it, in terms of like, “Oh, I get on the wagon, I fall of the wagon,” so there’s that. Okay, cool. Well, go ahead.

Britt Andreatta
Well, I wanted to answer, I wanted to say one more thing when you asked me the question of, “What were like some big key findings?” So, I got into creativity, and there’s one more I wanted to highlight which I think is relevant here, which is our bodies can repair themselves in ways that are just astounding researchers.

And a couple of the things that have really developed just in the last decade is you can take people who are paralyzed and have been paralyzed for years, and using the right kind of neural stimulation, you can regrow the nerves that have been damaged. And so, they’re actually seeing people that have been paralyzed walk again. I have seen videos; the research is outstanding.

And so, there’s some things that we’re learning about our bodies and the ability of our bodies to regrow nerves, and it’s more that we just haven’t had the right knowledge to work with how the body can do it but now researchers are starting to get that ability. So, some of the things that I was seeing in the research was just neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, the ability for our nerves to be flexible and also to grow new ones is truly astounding. And so, yeah, if a paralyzed person can stand up and walk again, I can probably learn a new habit.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Britt Andreatta
There’s no excuse for any of us to say, “I can’t do it.” It’s really about, “Do you have the right teacher? Do you have the right motivation? And are you willing to put in the time?” But if you get enough habits under your belt, if you get enough repetitions under your belt, you really can rewire most parts of your body in significant ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s exciting. So, whew, boy, we’ve covered a lot of fun territory. Let’s see. Talk about learning again, so let’s hear, we’ve hit a few strategies associated with connecting things to an existing schema if you want to have some creative ideas, having some gating. I’d love to get your take on what are some of the most powerful learning strategies you’ve discovered that just make a world of difference in terms of what you absorb and remember and are able to, in fact, apply in life.

Britt Andreatta
Great question. So, one of the things that came out in my researching the second edition was our understanding of memory has actually changed a lot in the last five, six years. And scientists have actually identified that there’s nine different types of memory, okay? So, there are some memory we know of, like when we are trying to learn something academic and we’re studying facts and figures. That’s one kind of memory. It’s called semantic memory.

There’s a different kind of memory which is embodied memory. It’s called episodic. So, if I was studying about France and studying facts about Paris, that would be semantic. If I went to Paris and was standing at the bottom of the Eiffel Tower, about to enter the Louvre, I would now have all these sensory pieces of data that would be part of that memory.

No surprise here. Episodic memory is the most enduring. It’s the one that is the stickiest because it’s tied in our memory banks to a whole bunch of experiences and sensations not just, “Did we memorize it?” right? And then there’s some memory that’s kind of unconscious to us, stuff like the Pavlov dogs thing, right? We can create cues and get somatic responses. Habits, you know, when we do something over and over again, our basal ganglia turns it into a habit. That just becomes something that we can cling to and we don’t really have to think about it.

So, part of when you’re thinking about learning is to think about, “What kind of memory am I working with here?” and then build the learning to align with the right kind of memory as opposed to sticking the same approach. So, with that said, this is really pointing to why virtual reality is a gamechanger, particularly for certain kinds of things to learn, that when we can take something and literally put on a headset and be in the physical space, our brain takes a VR experience and codes it as a lived memory.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome.

Britt Andreatta
And it responds to being in that setting as if we’re really there. So, it’s tricking the biology enough that your brain really feels like it’s in that setting, and so then it’s coding it as a lived memory. So, VR has the potential. You wouldn’t use this for everything but certain things, like when you have people who need to learn a dangerous task, having them build up experiences in a safe environment is really important. Or when people need to learn a physical space and it’s not easy or safe to get them into that physical space, they can build the memories of the space in a virtual environment.

And, certainly, things that are about people, like having empathy or having emotional intelligence. When we are in a headset dealing with another person, that is also lived memory, so we can gain some of those skillsets. So, I would say virtual reality, because of how it’s aligning with our biology, is really worth looking at and, realize, it’s evolving quickly.

So, if you tried a headset a year ago, it was a little wonky back then. It’s already better and it’s going to get better every six months, so just keep trying it. But I think a VR strategy should be part of every organization’s learning plan for the future.

Pete Mockaitis
So, VR, interesting, you know, new tool available. And then let’s say if we don’t have that and we have kind of the basics in terms of audio-visual stuff, PowerPoint, keynote, projector, laptop, videos, audio, flipcharts, whiteboards, talking in person, these things.

Britt Andreatta
You’re going to run through the whole list, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, a few more. So, if you’ve got the traditional tools, and based on how people learn, how might we choose to, say, deliver or structure a presentation or a training differently such that more is absorbed?

Britt Andreatta
Great question. One of the things that I like to say is our body is built for learning. Like, we’ve been learning for hundreds of years before we ever had any of these technologies. So, what’s cool is we’re designed to learn from each other. Mirror neurons are specifically designed for observational learning. So, we’ve been learning each other since we were chasing down the woolly mammoth on the plain, watching each other do it. The original PowerPoint was the cave drawing, where we, “Okay, we all gather over here and we’re going to go do this,” and sitting around the fire and telling stories.

So, learning is innately in our DNA. We learn from each other, we learn through story, narrative. I always say, whatever you’re teaching, build it into a story because the brain is built for story. Whenever you can, show and tell. And then, more importantly, let people do it. This is where people fall down a lot. I’m not kidding, I’ve gone into Silicon Valley and sat through a two full day manager training where they’re spending thousands of dollars to take people “off the job” for manager training. and great visuals, great content, and yet there was no practice. Not one minute of practice.

[39:25]

Pete Mockaitis
Anything.

Britt Andreatta
Yeah, I mean, practice is how we change our behaviors, it’s how we change our habits, so you got to make sure that whatever behavior you’re trying to drive, whatever that looks like, what kinds of words and actions do you want to see out there, have them do it in the room and make it safe to make some mistakes, and do the coaching and the improving in the room. Because once people get strong in the room, they’re much more likely to go do that back out in the fields or on the floor, or wherever they have to go do their jobs. So, make sure that your learning elements have those pieces to it.

Then in terms of what kind of technology you’re doing learning through, it just depends on what you can afford and where your audience is. If they’re working globally, you’re going to need to be leveraging video conferencing and some digital assets. If you’ve got people in the room, then you could be dealing with a whiteboard and some conversation. So, I hesitate to tell people, “Go out and invest in a bunch of stuff,” because good learning can happen anywhere. You can make great learning out of any tools that you have.

And then, because of observational learning, I would say, if you have the ability to use video, it’s great because you can show people stuff and make that scalable because you videotape it once and then a bunch of people can see that. And so, scalability comes down to if you invest in something, then that may be usable by a lot of different learners over time. But all those bells and whistles don’t get you away from building good learning with aha moments and driving behavior change.

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

Britt Andreatta
I would say people learn best when learning is chunked in 15- to 20-minute segments. What we have found is that human attention span really can’t focus for longer than 20 minutes. So, even if I’m running a half-day program, it’s all done in 15-minute content pieces broken up by processing of activities and practice sessions. So, string a bunch of bite-sized stuff together to make a longer learning event, but don’t talk to people for more than 20 minutes because they just can’t retain it, and then they’re not going to have the thing that you want to push into their memory.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say processing activities, I guess I’m thinking of all kinds of interactive exercises that can take a while, but I imagine you’ve got a couple processing activities in mind that might just take a minute or two. What are some of those?

Britt Andreatta
Yeah, absolutely. Literally, it can be as short as take one minute and jot down some notes about how this applies in your own life or memory you’ve had with this, right? So, you’re just asking them to attach it to something. You can give them some kind of reflective questions to answer or a conversation to have with a partner. They could take a quick assessment. I kind of always do like five-minute activities, one- to five-minute activities. They don’t have to be long. But it basically just says, “This thing that you just learned, play with it for a minute.” And when you play with it for a minute, you’re naturally pushing it and attaching it to your schemas, you’re naturally personalizing it a little bit. And then the brain can be ready to learn more.

But if we keep giving people more content, not only does their attention span wane, but then they have more and more and more to try to attach to something, and then they’re going to miss some pieces. So, chunk it. Chunk it into bite-sized experiences. It doesn’t have to be big and showy. Literally, a couple good reflective questions or a dyad conversation and you’re good to go.

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

Britt Andreatta
I love this quote from Robyn Benincasa, she’s a world champion, and she says, “You don’t inspire your teammates by showing them how amazing you are. You inspire them by showing them how amazing they are.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I like that. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Britt Andreatta
You know, I’m still into what’s happening with mindfulness. I think that continues to be a great place for us to explore. But I’m really interested right now in kind of sense of purpose and innovation. So, I’ve been doing a lot of research on what drives innovation and also the brain science behind having a sense of purpose or a meaningful life, so those are some things that I’ve been really digging on right now.

Pete Mockaitis
And we mentioned Altered Traits. Any other favorite books?

Britt Andreatta

I’m really enjoying Bill Bryson’s current book called The Body. It’s just really interesting research about our whole internal working, but he’s also a comedian so he makes it really funny, so I’m enjoying the science behind that.

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

Britt Andreatta
You know, PowerPoint is my go-to thing for everything but I also have been doing a lot of video editing with Camtasia, and so those are two tools I use frequently to do the work that I do.

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

Britt Andreatta
I recently heard from some folks who went through the change training and they just said that they found that they were able to apply it to everything, not only work changes but personal changes. Even just kind of our response to things that are difficult in our life, that that’s a type of change journey as well, and how we resist. So, I oftentimes get people who email me and say, “Hey, thanks for sharing that. I now really see all the ways that I’m resisting or people around me are resisting, and have some new ways to try to help people move through it.”

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

Britt Andreatta
My website is the best place to go BrittAndreatta.com. Everything I’m up to is there. And then I love it when people connect with me on LinkedIn. I really do enjoy my community of folks on LinkedIn, so please connect with me. I’d love to hear from you.

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

Britt Andreatta
I would say give yourself permission to have a break. We need more breaks than we need more to-do lists. So, put down the device, go find your knitting or fabric art or running, or whatever gives your brain a break, and just let all this stew around for a while so that you can have some aha moments tomorrow.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Britt, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck and fun and all the ways that you’re growing and learning and connecting and doing your thing.

Britt Andreatta
Thank you so much, Pete. I love connecting with you. I love your podcast. I love your audience of learners. We’re all part of the same tribe. And I’m excited to stay in touch.

540: Making Recruitment Work for You with Atta Tarki

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Atta Tarki says: "Hire well, manage little."

Atta Tarki sheds light on the crucial practices that improve the hiring process on both sides of the recruiting table.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The strongest predictor of job performance
  2. What makes an interview answer excellent vs. terrible
  3. The most important factors that determine career fit

About Atta:

Atta Tarki and is the author of the book Evidence-Based Recruiting (McGraw Hill, February 2019) and the CEO of ECA, a data-driven executive search firm helping private equity firms with their talent needs.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

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Atta Tarki Interview Transcript

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

Atta Tarki
Thank you for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into a lot of your work, of evidence-based recruiting, and I want to talk about both kind of both sides of the recruiting table, as the candidate and the interviewer. But, first, tell us about painting murals. That sounds like a different part of your brain that you’re exercising in your off time.

Atta Tarki
Yeah, absolutely. So, I’m a father of three and a husband of one, and I feel like it’s fun for me to engage in my local community. So, when I have some spare time, I go and help out with painting murals.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, now, any particular murals that you’re especially proud of or fond of?

Atta Tarki
Well, I have to say there is one on Main Street in Santa Monica that has a particular meaning to me, and it was my younger brother who passed away when he was 16, sadly. And we did a mural to honor him on a location called the Bubble Beach Laundry on Main Street in Santa Monica, and it’s a silhouette of my younger brother flexing his muscles on the beach.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, that’s a famous beach, right, for like bodybuilders and stuff, right?

Atta Tarki
Absolutely. And he’s smiling there and I’ve seen countless people standing in front of him and also flexing their muscles and smiling and taking pictures, and posting it everywhere, so I feel it’s his way of passing on that smile to others. So, that makes me feel warm and fuzzy every time I think about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is really beautiful in terms of leaving a ripple that’s impacting a lot of folks and in a fun way. So, I imagine there’ll be some listeners who’s like, “You know what, I’ve been there,” or, “I’m about to go back there and make sure we get the photo,” so thank you for sharing that. That’s cool.

Atta Tarki
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
So, we’re talking about evidence-based recruiting, and I want to cover it kind of on both sides of the recruiting table. Maybe can you share with us what’s perhaps the most surprising and fascinating discovery you’ve made about how organizations do hiring, or should do hiring, as you’ve done your research and put this together?

Atta Tarki
Yeah, absolutely. And, Pete, like you, I started my career in management consulting and I started my own recruiting firm about 10 years ago. And the first thing I discovered when I came into consulting is that I wasn’t alone in having discovered that it’s really important to hire great people. Most companies talk about kind of like, “Hiring and retaining great people is our priority,” or, “Our employees are the true force behind our success.”

The second thing that I discovered, and maybe the most surprising piece then, was very few people actually mean those words.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Atta Tarki
These words were said by Frontier Communication and Sears, and based on their Glassdoor reviews left for these two companies, they were rated the two worst companies to work for.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we are naming names. This is going to be a juicy one. Keep going.

Atta Tarki
Yeah. Well, I guess what was surprising for me is that so many people talk a big game about wanting to have the best employees and their people being the true differentiator, but very few companies and hiring managers actually act that way.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that that rings true and that’s powerful and, yeah, I think it’s easy to say those words and in practice it’s pretty darn hard to systematize the practices and processes and, frankly, sacrifices necessary to make that a reality.

Atta Tarki
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then let’s dig into it then. So, there’s a gap there, and if folks want to be doing the best possible recruiting that they can be doing, what have you discovered are some of the key practices they need to be following?

Atta Tarki
I’ve discovered that a lot of folks follow old-industry norms and practices that they think are just practices that have developed over time, and are tested, and tried and true, but in reality, very few of these practices have actually been tested or are true in terms of producing better results.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Could you mention a practice that’s not getting it done for folks?

Atta Tarki
Absolutely. So, a lot of hiring managers when they start writing a job description, they start with, “I want X years of experience in doing exactly the same job.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Atta Tarki
And there is recent research that shows that experience in a job is one of the very least predictive factors in terms of on-the-job success. It’s not negatively correlated on the job success. It’s positively correlated, but its correlation is much lower than most hiring managers believe it is. And having worked with a number of our clients as well as also looked at our internal data, we can see that most hiring managers over-index on past experience and how predictive it is going to be for on-the-job success.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing. I mean, that is certainly a common practice and often, you’re right, the first bullet point you’ll see in a job description or a post for an open role. So, what, do tell, are some of the most predictive indicators?

Atta Tarki
It really comes down to what you’re recruiting for. So, I’ll give you an analogy which is 20 years ago, the old saying in marketing used to be, “Half of my spend is wasted. I just don’t know which half.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Atta Tarki
And today it’s almost unimaginable to deploy a large marketing budget without taking an analytical and data-driven approach to it, and recruiting is going down the same path. And when I talk to leading executives at companies like Amazon and Google, they’re telling me, “Atta, recruiting is going down the same path as marketing did 20 years ago.” Depending on what role you’re trying to recruit for and what problem you’re trying to solve for, you have to apply a data-driven approach to see what works and recruit for those skills that are most predictive of on-the-job success. So, unfortunately, there is no one silver bullet that works for all roles, but there are a few general rules. If you like, I can share some of those rules with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, I’d like to hear the generals that are available, and then maybe just an example of, “Hey, for this kind of a role, this is the skill that is the thing.”

Atta Tarki
Absolutely. The first general rule is don’t hire for quantity, hire for quality. It sounds a little bit cliché but I feel like when most hiring managers say this but then go back to saying, like, “Okay. Well, let’s get this hire done so I can focus on putting out a few fires right in front of me.” And maybe this can be best illustrated by the work that I was doing in consulting. So, I had worked in management consulting for six years, and working in consulting in Los Angeles, I worked with a lot of media and entertainment companies.

And a few years into my role, something a little bit remarkable happened. I was going over to the Blockbuster store where I would spend my Sunday afternoons and walked through the aisles to figure out what movie I was going to watch, when I noticed that it’s going out of business. And working in media and entertainment, it was pretty clear to me that one of the factors that led to this Blockbuster store going out of business was this tiny company at the time called Netflix.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Atta Tarki
But that was a little bit confusing for a management consultant, because from a strategies perspective, that shouldn’t happen and able to happen. Netflix was a tiny company.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right, market share. Pricing power. Economies of scale.

Atta Tarki
All of those things. And Blockbuster was a $6 billion company and, in theory, they had set giant barriers to entry for all these smaller companies to come in and kind of like destroy their kind of like business model, right? And why was that so? What did this tiny company have that this giant in the industry lack? You could argue that it was a better business model, or it was more innovative techniques, or whatnot, right? But why did they have a better business model? Why do they have these better distribution models, etc.? What did Netflix have that this $6 billion giant lack? And I would argue that you can summarize it in one word, and that is talent.

So, if you want to build a very effective organization, it’s no longer sufficient to set up these barriers to entry and hide behind them, you need to lead the change in your industry. And in order to do so, you need to focus on finding the best talent possible.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, that really resonates and one example that’s leaping to mind for me is Gary Keller, with the Keller Williams Realty franchise, his book The ONE Thing he wrote with Jay Papasan whom we had on the show, awesome book. I don’t remember how long he took off from being the CEO, it might’ve been a year, but he said it was so important for him to hire 12 people, or 13, in that ballpark, that he’s like, “All right. Well, this is what I’m going to do for the next year,” and just stop being the CEO, handed over the day-to-day operations to someone else to go hire, like, 13, 14 people. It was all he was doing in a year. Well, the results speak for themselves in terms of just how phenomenally successful that organization has been, and it really underscores that notion of quality versus quantity, and it’s not about checking the box and moving on to your next task.

Atta Tarki
Yeah, and I would say that that is a phenomenal example over someone actually putting it to action. And what’s more effective? Is it more effective to hire an average performer and spend a ton of time trying to mentor down and coach them and through the apprenticeship model, try to get them to be effective? Or is it more effective to obsess about finding the very best talent you can, and then let them run with things, and spending your time upfront and finding them and spending less time than training and coaching them?

And I’d say these few ideas have, kind of like, people have battled with it over the years. And these few ideas have been popularized by two different movies. One of them is Moneyball where Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Ace, one of the poorest team in baseball, obsessed about finding undervalued talent and building his team that way, and two years in a row made it to the finals. And the other movie is The Karate Kid where Mr. Miyagi took on a subpar performer, and with kind of like magical coaching skill…

Pete Mockaitis
Subpar performer. He’s just a kid.

Atta Tarki
He was a kid who knew nothing about karate, and within a few months turned into a superstar.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Atta Tarki
So, the question is, “Which approach do you think works better? Is it the Moneyball approach or is it The Karate Kid approach?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I don’t see why we have to make it an either/or because, hey, we get the best people and then resource them well, I think, is ideal when possible.

Atta Tarki
Okay. So, let me tease you a little bit here. So, you said, “I don’t know why it’s an either/or.” I’ll tell you why it’s an either/or.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Atta Tarki
You only have 24 hours in a day.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. In terms of how you allocate your time.

Atta Tarki
Your time. And you could take a year off to go off and find 13 to 14 superstars, or you could say, “You know what, I’ll manage to hire these 13 to 14 superstars, but during that year, I’m also going to spend 60 hours a week in meetings and trying to coach people and mentor people.” You’re not going to achieve the same results if you try to spend those 60 hours a week trying to coach and mentor people and at the same time kind of like half-assing your recruiting efforts. If you want to really achieve exceptional results in recruiting, you have to allocate a proportionate amount of your time and resources to finding the best people from the get-go.

Pete Mockaitis
That fits. So, there’s no shortcuts, you take the time, you take the effort, you’re putting the resources in. And then what are you doing with that time, effort, and resource?

Atta Tarki
Absolutely. So, first thing you’re doing is that you’re defining what good looks like, and what are we recruiting for, what are the skills we want, what are the traits we want. And then you have to create a feedback loop. You have to understand, “Okay, how are we trying to measure these traits?” And then you have to go back a few years later and check, and that’s how you create an evidence-based approach and see if it worked or not. And if you want to have an impact on the effectiveness of your recruiting methods, you have to just start measuring, and you have to start doing that today.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Certainly. So, then it sounds like I don’t have any quick secret tips and tricks that I can employ right away, but rather it’s the long game of monitoring, measuring, and tweaking the system.

Atta Tarki
I do have a few secret…

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, good.

Atta Tarki
…tricks that I can share with you from personal experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Please.

Atta Tarki
So, first of all, recruit more for skills and fit rather than just recruiting for experience, that’s the first thing I’ve learned. So, check what skills you need and also check for fit. The second trick I can teach you is to let employees interview you as much as you interview them, and be brutally honest with them about who you are and who you’re not, and why some of your happiest employees are happy at their role, but also why you might not be the right fit for some other folks.

A lot of employers are so overly-eager, especially in these times where we have a 50-year low in terms of unemployment rates, to sell the position and sell their firm, that they’re not quite forthcoming about the challenges in the role, and that leads to mis-hires. And people starting in the role who are not happy in the role end up leaving. So, that is the second thing.

The third thing is that I like to hire people who point fingers at themselves versus at others.

Pete Mockaitis
You mean like blame.

Atta Tarki
Blame others if things go wrong. They blame it on external factors as opposed to what they could’ve done to make the situation differently. I was recruiting for a CEO role, and I asked the candidate, “Tell me about a time when you failed.” And he said, “Well, I started at this company, it was a family-owned company, and I was recruited by the founder CEO. And after a year, I left the role because I was hired by the father, but then realized that the son was not on board with the initiatives that the father wanted to do. And since the son was not on board, I couldn’t make the change, and I decided to leave.”

Now, you could take that same answer, and someone else could’ve said, “Well, what I did wrong was that I didn’t really invest the time to understand this upfront of who is the real decision-maker.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s perfect.

Atta Tarki
“I didn’t invest the time to build a relationship with the son upfront. Once I discovered that, I could’ve taken these different actions to convince the father, or the son, to do these things.” But, instead, he just blamed it on the fact that the son didn’t want to do it, “And I couldn’t do anything about it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that is excellent distinction because I think people will ask questions in the course of an interview, and it’s like, “How do I judge if that story is good or not? Like, was it entertained by it? Did it keep my attention? Did he seem likable while telling it?” It was like, “No, here’s something to look at sort of beneath the surface in terms of are we taking responsibility or sort of shifting blame elsewhere?”

And what I think is so powerful about that is, one, it’s just sort of a more pleasant, humble human being to interact and work with, and, two, that’s a learner. That is someone who is actively reflecting on their experiences and thinking about, “How can I get better?” and so they’re kind of naturally growing, and they are some folks who are going to really take some ownership and drive things, and you can feel better about that. So, I love that trick.

Atta Tarki
You’re touching upon a very important point. One of the best ways you can improve your hiring results is to follow more structured approach interviews. Most hiring managers follow unstructured interviews where they come in and they have a few questions in their mind, but they haven’t really written out all the questions, and then they haven’t really thought about what constitutes a good answer versus a bad answer.

And what happens in those scenarios is that you end up liking someone or you end up like connecting with someone on a personal level, and regardless of what they say, you feel like, “Oh, that was a pretty good answer.” And you’re not really checking for the content of the answer, you’re more checking for if you connected with the person or not. And that is not a great way of predicting on-the-job success. A much better way of predicting on-the-job success is where there is a right or wrong answer, and you can grade the answers on a scale of, call it, one to five, one to ten, or whatever scale you want to use.

And then at the end of it, you go back and try to kind of like give them a gut feeling on overall, I think, this is how I would rate the candidate. But having had those objective answers upfront and grading system upfront, keeps your emotions a little bit in check.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, we’re talking about interview questions, and I would imagine you’ve got some approaches beyond taking a look at resume and a cover letter and conducting an interview to get some predictive insight and how a candidate might perform. Is that true? And what are those other ways?

Atta Tarki
Absolutely. I’m a big fan of skills-based assessments, and a lot of the companies that use evidence-based hiring methods also use a skills-based assessment. So, Amazon, Google, and a number of other companies give you an assessment that is similar to a task that you would perform on the job, and ask you to perform that task.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. That is exactly what I do and it works wonders. Go figure. “You are good at doing the thing that I need you to do, and I know that not by conjecture based on your experience, but, in fact, from having seen the fruit of your work, and saying, ‘Yes, that is good. I would like more like that, please.’”

Atta Tarki
It does work wonders. And it’s not only important for every senior-level roles, but one of the CEOs we worked with, he had gone through three executive assistants within a year, and he called me up and said, “Atta, I know you only hire senior-level people, but I’m desperate here. I keep hiring these executive assistants and they don’t work out for me. Can you help me hire them?” And I sat down with him, and I was like, “Okay, how do you assess them?” He’s like, “Well, I just have like a half an hour free-flow conversation with them, and then I make them an offer. It’s not that important. It’s not that complicated.”

I was like, “No, let them do something that you would do. Okay, so here’s an assessment you could use for them. Give them this task and say, ‘I’m going to fly to Hong Kong this weekend, I’m going to spend two days there, and then I’m going to fly to South Africa, and then I’m going to come back. You have 10 minutes with me. What are the questions you would ask me?’ And they would write up the questions.” And it was an enormous difference. He almost fell off his chair when he saw the difference of level of questions that he received from some folks.

Some people were like, “Okay, are you flying economy or business class?” He was like, “Of course, I’m flying business class. That’s not even a question. Or first class.” But someone else was like, “Okay, when was the last time you updated your passport? Have you checked how much time you have left on the passport? What would you like to do when you’re in Hong Kong? Do I need to send over your golf clubs? Do you need transportation to come pick you up? What are the hotel preferences you have?” and so forth.

And he was like just seeing that difference between the level of their answers, completely changed his mind about which of the candidates that he should hire.

Pete Mockaitis
That is perfect. Thank you. Well, let’s kind of switch the channel a little bit and sort of step into the candidate’s role. So, if we want to use some evidence-based recruiting to evaluate which workplaces are kind of great fits for us versus not so great fits, what do you recommend we do?

Atta Tarki
Absolutely. I’d say start again with you asking yourself the right questions. So, if you’re a candidate, try to understand, “What makes me happy?” And I would say that most candidates, the mistake they do is that they start with, “What is the job I want to do? What do I want to become when I become an adult or when I grow old?” “I want to become a fireman.” “I want to be a police officer.” “I want to do this job.”

But in my experience, how you do the job is almost as important for your happiness as what you do as a profession. And what I mean by that is like, “Okay, where is the location of the job? What are the work hours? How are you interacting with your colleagues?” Ask yourself, “What are the jobs that I’ve been happy in before? How did I interact with my supervisors? Was there someone who stepped kind of like by my desk five times a day and made him or herself available to me, or kind of like tap me on the shoulders and said, ‘How are things going?’ or is this someone who kind of like left me alone and checked in with me once a month? Is this a very high-performing environment where I feel like I got pushed to kind of like do my very best or was it a little bit more low-key environment?” etc.

And asking yourself, “Who are the supervisors that I had a great relationship with versus not? And what are the day-to-day activities of those roles that actually made me happy?” helps you to kind of like figure out what questions you can ask about the role to see if you’re going to be happy in those roles or not.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I think that’s excellent. And so, you’ve sort of laid out a few, I guess you might call them continua in terms of low-key versus intense high performance, checking in frequently versus infrequently. Could you maybe rattle off a few more that we might think about where we fall to make sure we don’t overlook something?

Atta Tarki
Absolutely. So, most people say when I ask them, “What made you happy in your last job or what you did?” They go to kind of like the mission of the organization, they’re like, “Okay, I really like the fact that this organization worked with topic X.” I was like, “Okay, but what made you happy about working with that supervisor? What in their style made them happy?” And they’re like, “Okay. Well, this person was fun.”

The question I would ask yourself as a candidate is, “How did that demonstrate itself in the day-to-day activities or my interactions with this person?” I’d say most people will not describe themselves as really boring people or mean people, but how you define fun or nice might be different than someone else. And most companies would say, “Oh, we have a very fun company culture.” “Great. How does that demonstrate itself? What is something fun you guys did in the last month?” And you might find out that what they think is fun is to go out and drink at 2:00 a.m. and you might not like that at all.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I always love it when…I never actually said this in college but I was so tempted when I heard all of these companies recruiting, and I said, “Oh, so tell me a little bit about your culture,” and they say, “Oh, it’s work hard, play hard.” And I was like, “What does that even mean? What does that even mean?” And so, I was always tempted to be like, “Oh, so play hard like we’re having a couple drinks after work, or play hard like we’re doing cocaine.”

Atta Tarki
Like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, totally. Like, “They play hard. Is that what you mean? I don’t think it is.” But these terms are quite ambiguous and that it’s well worth it kind of digging in another layer to get after, “What do we mean by that?”

Atta Tarki
Absolutely. “What do you mean by that? How did that manifest itself in the job and the culture of the company? What are some of the activities that you could say are examples of that trait in the culture? What are some of the activities of the people that you enjoyed working with?” Kind of like try to think about that and try to distinguish between it.

Another jargon that I hear from candidates as I ask them, “Okay, who are some bosses you enjoyed working with? Who are some of the bosses you didn’t enjoy working with?” They say like, “Well, I don’t like it when my boss micromanages me.” And I’d say, “Ninety percent of candidates tell me that. Like, what do you mean by that? Because I know that some folks, they do enjoy it when their boss kind of like provides them supervision and checks in with them frequently, other people don’t. And would you say that everyone who checks in with their direct reports are micromanagers or are they just being helpful?”

So, understand the right cadence. How often? What types of task that they would provide you feedback on? How often you got opportunities to kind of like take a first stab at things versus not? And how do you define micromanage-y so that you can find the right fit for yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that’s great stuff there in terms of getting really clear on, “What do you want? And what do you mean by that?” in terms of what do you want.

Atta Tarki
Yeah. And one other thing is I would ask folks in the role, or currently performing that role, is, “How do you split your time between various activities?” So, if you come in to work at my company, an excellent question to one of our project managers is like, “Okay, how much of your time do you spend speaking with candidates versus talking to clients versus thinking about what search strategies that are effective versus other activities, right?”

And that kind of like gives you a sense. If you’re someone who doesn’t get a lot of energy from talking to people, but our project managers say, “Well, I probably spend about a good four hours a day talking to candidates,” you’re like, “Oh, wow, that sounds draining. That’s like starting a search strategy sounds really fun but you’re only spending an hour a day doing that, but I have to spend four hours a day talking to candidates, and that’s going to drain me.” It’s not about kind of like a checklist of tasks and traits but also how much of your time is going to those different types of tasks and traits that kind of give you energy versus kind of drain you for energy.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I think that’s excellent. And so, let’s say, all right, so we got a really clear picture on what we want and we are looking at an opportunity that sure seems to be that. What are some of your top tips for just crushing it and looking fantastic during the course of the recruiting process from networking conversations to resumes to the interview to work samples? Like, how do you dazzle?

Atta Tarki
Absolutely. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Try to anticipate what are the questions that are going to come up, or work sample tasks, or skills-based assessments, etc. that are going to come up in the interview. If it truly is a role that you definitely want, do your research, go online, there are all these resources like Glassdoor.com, etc. See if you know anyone who used to work there or works there now, and ask them, like, “Okay, what could I anticipate?”

I’d say 80% of the questions you can anticipate regardless if you know someone there or not. And don’t just kind of think about them but write it out, and then role-play ideally with someone else. You’d be surprised how much more refined you’re going to be if you actually kind of sound it out once or twice versus you just try to wing it. I’d say the biggest mistake we see from people who want their dream job is that they think they can wing it, and then they come in and they’re just babbling on,

Atta Tarki
And then they blow their opportunity. But, also, then research not just the company but also the role and the people you’re talking to, and understand a little about them, and try to connect with them on that personal level when you’re going in there, and say, like, “Okay. Well, Pete, I noticed that you used to work at Bain & Company. How do you feel like that prepared you for your current job?”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, I could tell you the things I do with my engagement at them but I don’t think they’re very common amongst podcasters. But that’s another conversation for another day. Okay, so I dig that. So, those are prepare, prepare, prepare, do those things. And then you’ve done some research on how star-performing employees deliver just a wildly big multiple of value greater than, say, average-performing employees. Can we hear a little bit about that research?

Atta Tarki
Yeah, absolutely. So, this is also one of these things that you hear a lot about but then people don’t kind of know what to do with it. So, what I did is I looked at the lifetime prize money won in a few different sports. So, let’s talk about the prize money won by tennis players and poker players.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Nice and public data.

Atta Tarki
Absolutely. So, if you look at 24,000 ATP players, now, ATP players are phenomenal tennis players. They are the top-ranked players in the world. And you look at the lifetime prize money that is collected by these players, the top 10% of the players there collected 98% of the total prize money from these 24,000 players.

And poker, I found data on 450,000 poker players, and there, again, it’s a very large sample size so we’re not talking about a small sample bias with five poker players or 20 poker players in a small tournament, but 450,000 of them. And in this enormous dataset, the top 10% of the players took home 85% of the lifetime prize money.

So, what that means in reality and in practice for you and your organization is that if you hire a top engineer, this person might not write 100 times more code than an average engineer, but the value of the code that they write might result in billions of people using Google every day as opposed to AltaVista or some other search engine.

Pete Mockaitis
Lycos, HotBot, Ask Jeeves.

Atta Tarki
Yes, all of those. America Online. All those search engines that were so famous once upon a day but no one knows about them anymore. And when I was using this example in one of my seminars, someone raised their hand and says, “Excuse me, what is AltaVista?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, man.

Atta Tarki
Putting this to practice, it’s not just Google who’s put this to practice. But let me give you one example of how this has applied in a team setting. Apple launched its operating system, iOS 10, using 600 engineers in two years, and it’s considered to be one of the better operating systems ever launched. Microsoft launched AltaVista using 10,000 engineers in six years, and then they later on had to retract AltaVista. Now, if you’re building a team, which staffing model would you prefer? Would you rather have the 600 Apple engineers or the 10,000 Microsoft engineers?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And what’s striking here is so the multiplier can be huge. And I think it really does vary by role in terms of if there’s something that’s sort of like, “No, you just sort of have to follow this process repeatedly to go from input to process to output.” “Okay.” But there are other things like, “Hey, if you are generating patents, or coming up with a killer marketing campaign, or something, then the multiples become huge.”

And so, there are many kind of situations where the way the market or the environment is setup, it’s kind of like a winner take most, maybe 80/20, or even more concentrated.

Atta Tarki
I would say 90/10.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. So, the Apple employees, you know, I’m sure they’re getting paid more than the AltaVista employees, but they’re not getting paid that 10, 20, 100X multiple more. So, I always find this interesting, like we got many of the listeners in our audience. Like, let’s say you are that star-performing employee who is just really delivering extraordinary amounts of value, and, by golly, if you ask for a raise, it seems like you’ll get a little something, but there’s like budgets and dah, dah, dah, and that just sort of drives me bonkers. If you’re delivering 10 times the value than the average employee, how can you get paid at least two, or three, or four times what the average employee is getting paid so that you receive the rewards of the value?

Atta Tarki
Sure. And I’m sure that there are multiple approaches to this but the approach that I have seen works best is to, first of all, define the value upfront and agree upon that value with your supervisor and set those expectations upfront before you go off and do all that work, say, like, “If I’m able to get 5 billion users start using our search engine as opposed to kind of like 50,000 users, can I get a raise then?”

And when you do that, it becomes much easier to tie it to value and the results that you’re driving for the business and getting folks to, upfront, agree to that, “Okay, if I do that and I really kick ass, can I get a commensurate pay-raise?” As opposed to kind of like saying you hire from a business perspective, you hire 100 people to go out there and go look for gold coins on the beach here in Santa Monica, one of these 100 people comes back and says, “Look, I found a gold coin. I should get 90% of that value.” And you’re like, “Well, I have to pay for all the 99 other people as well that I hired to do the job, and I can’t give you 99% of the value of that one gold coin that you found.”

But if you kind of set the expectations upfront and say, “Look, I’m much better than everyone else at finding gold coins, or whatever it is you do, if I find you X, will you share Y percent of that profit with me?” if they say, “Sure,” go ahead and do it, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I like that because I imagine many managers have just never been asked that question before. It’s like, it’s never occurred to me that it was possible to achieve that level but, now that you mentioned it, yes, and hopefully you can get that kind of locked-in. And I imagine many of the…well, hey, Netflix does this, right? The top-performing organizations just sort of go in expecting that you’re going to generate way more than an average employee, and they go in compensating you like they expect it from the get-go, and then that creates all kinds of nice virtuous cycles there.

Atta Tarki
Absolutely. So, Netflix has a philosophy that they pay over market but then they also expect over market performance. Their role is that in procedural roles, a top performer is twice as effective as an average performer in creative jobs, like a programmer, or a marketing director, or whatnot. A top performer is 10 times more effective as an average performer. And, therefore, they might not pay 10 times as much for the top performers, but they definitely pay above market.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, that will do it. Boy, but there’s so many things I’d love to talk about.
Well, you tell me maybe in terms of just sort of burning issues in terms of absolutely candidates or employers need to start doing this or stop doing that, what’s something you really want to make sure you get out there before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Atta Tarki
Okay. So, I’m not going to repeat something I’m going to say there, but I would say that most consequential mistake people do when they are trying to hire superstars and they’ve kind of like already set their mind on the fact that, “Okay, it’s really important for me to hire a superstar,” is that then they overdo it a little bit. They say like, “Okay, who are all the superstars that I’ve ever worked with? Okay, Pete is a superstar, and Janice, etc., and all of these people were superstars.” And what made them superstars? “Well, Pete is a great strategic thinker, Janice is a great communicator, and this person has really good people skills.”

And then they say, “Okay. Well, I need someone who has all those things.” And they end up with kind of a job description with 17 different traits, and I call it that they end up recruiting for Frankenstein as opposed to kind of like superstar instead, and it’s the Frankenstein method of recruiting does not work. The Moneyball method of recruiting works. And the Moneyball method of recruiting is to reduce the number of factors that you deem are important to predict on-the-job success, not increase them.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. That’s great. Thank you. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Atta Tarki
Absolutely. My favorite quote is “Be the change.”

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

Atta Tarki
I find myself referring a lot to Jason Dana’s study. He works at Yale. And he did a study that is called the Dilution effect, and in this study, he essentially showed that if you give people more information about candidates, they make worse decisions about their on-the-job success rather than if you focus on just the most important decisions. So, keep that in mind, don’t replace quality with quantity when you’re trying to predict on-the-job success.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I really like that and I think that’s part of the reason why your pitch resonated with me so much is because I am doing some of this. And, like, when I’m hiring now, I’m all about, “Show me what you can do with the evidence so that I will, in fact, not even look at resumes until pretty late in the process.” It’s like, “You’ve already demonstrated a lot of key things. Now I’m going to look at your resumes because I just found them heartbreaking.” It’s like, “Oh, my gosh, you got all these incredible writing bylines. You must be an amazing writer.”

But then when I kind of put them to the test, I was like, “Hmm, actually not so much. Maybe you had a lot of help from an editor at each of those places where you have cool bylines,” or maybe they spent, I don’t know, ten times the amount of hours in creating those pieces as compared to my assessments. But, anyway, yeah, I buy that because I might be deceived because I think, “Oh, well, it must be pretty good because of this,” then it’s like, “Well, that’s actually not predictive after all, so, hmm.”

Atta Tarki
Absolutely. And keep also in mind that it’s almost like a little bit like chemistry there where a person might’ve been very good and effective in another setting. And let’s say they worked at a magazine where they had like three different set of editors that gave them detailed feedback and revisions, and they had a language editor that helped them with the language, and this person was just really good at coming up with brilliant ideas and statistics, and gather people, like, “Okay, as a team, we can make this happen.”

But in your setting, you might need them to be a single contributor, and it might not work as well for you in your settings. So, given them the skills-based assessment will show you, “Okay, this is what I need for this job. And do I think that this person is going to be effective in our organization or not?”

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Atta Tarki
Fiction book, 1984 George Orwell. Non-fiction book, I would say, Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool?

Atta Tarki
So, in terms of favorite tools, favorite thing works that have been like very helpful for me is the concept of ABC tasks. The way I think about them is A tasks are the must-dos that I will definitely not miss doing. B tasks are things that are important but I’m not going to get to them today or this week, but I know and I promise myself that I’m going to get to them later. And C tasks are like if I get to do it, great. If not, I’m not going to beat myself up about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And a habit?

Atta Tarki
Touch everything once. I try to drive tasks to completion when I start it. So, if I start an email, I try to kind of like just finish it. If I start writing on an article, or a chapter of the book, or a section of the book, I try to really drive it to completion so that I don’t have to start and stop multiple times.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your clients or audience?

Atta Tarki
Hire well, manage little.

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

Atta Tarki
Go to our website ECA-Partners.com and then click on my name.

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

Atta Tarki
Absolutely. So, if you do really believe that quality hires make a big difference for your business, quantify how much more valuable they are for your business, your division, on your role. Don’t just kind of like say it but quantify it, and see if you’re willing to act upon it. If the quality hire is that much more valuable to your organization, are you willing to invest in finding those hires or not? If not, it probably is an indicator that you don’t really believe in your numbers, and review your numbers until you’re willing to act upon them.

Pete Mockaitis
Atta, this has been a thrill. Thank you for sharing the good word. And good luck in all the ways you’re helping folks hire and get hired.

Atta Tarki
Absolutely. Pete, thank you so much for having me.