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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:

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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.

539: Preparing for the Future of Leadership with Jacob Morgan

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Jacob Morgan discusses what professionals need to succeed in future workplaces.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How professionals must change in the future
  2. The five skills of future leaders
  3. The surprising weakness of present-day leaders

About Jacob:

Jacob Morgan is a 4x best-selling author, speaker, and futurist. His new book, The Future Leader, looks at the skills and mindsets people need to have if they wish to be successful leaders over the next decade and beyond. He is also the founder of The Future Of Work University and can be reached at TheFutureOrganization.com.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Jacob Morgan Interview Transcript

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

Jacob Morgan
Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so intrigued about much of your work. You studied the future of work a whole lot. And, maybe to kick it off, could you share what do you think is one of the wildest predictions you’ve encountered about the future of work that you think actually might come true?

Jacob Morgan
You know, it’s tough because there’s been a lot of predictions that have been made, and I’m sure some of your listeners have heard of these, right? One of the predictions is that we’re not going to have any jobs in the future, and it’s sort of going to be like an episode from The Walking Dead, we’re all going to walk around with pitchforks and shotguns. I don’t think that’s going to happen.

I’m more of an optimist, so the prediction that I believe is that there will be some disruptions with technology and automation and all these things that we’re starting to see happen, but I think we’re also going to create a lot of new jobs, we’re going to focus more on the creative aspect of work. So, I’m an optimist, that’s kind of the prediction that I believe in.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so I want to hear a lot about your research. So, you went ahead and interviewed 140 CEOs trying to learn what’s the future leader look, sound, feel like. Can you share with us a bit about your research and some of the most striking discoveries you made there?

Jacob Morgan
Sure. One of the things that I wanted to understand, and why I even wrote this book, is because I started to get a lot of questions from people not on present-day leadership but on what’s coming in the future. To use a famous quote from Wayne Gretzky, he always used to say, “I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been.”

And so, I kept getting these questions, “Hey, Jacob, you know, we get it. We understand where we are now. What should we be prepared for in the future? What’s coming in the next 10 years? What should we be training our employees on? What kind of leaders should we be focusing on creating?” And I had my ideas, and I’m sure everyone has their ideas on this, but I wasn’t really able to find any concrete data and the research on this. And so, I decided to go out and create it myself.
And it was really cool because, basically, I got to grill all of these people for around 45 to 60 minutes, and I asked them about skills, and mindsets, and challenges, all sorts of different things. And so, that was the first aspect of the research.

The second part of this was I teamed up with LinkedIn, and they were very gracious enough to partner with me on this, and we surveyed almost 14,000 employees around the world to see how the perspectives of the workforce align with the insights that these world’s top CEOs are telling me. And that is, basically, the background about the research. So, let me stop there and see if you have any questions, then I can share some of the things that I learned.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yup. I hear it how you did it. So, what did you learn?

Jacob Morgan
So, there are a couple interesting things that I learned. So, the first is what are the most important skills and mindsets that we need to possess? And, by the way, the focus is all around the future leader, but we need to remember that anybody can be a leader. Even if you’re a leader of yourself, you’re still a leader in some capacity. So, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to be managing people. These are just skills and mindsets that anybody needs to possess.

So, the number one mindset that the CEOs identified as being the most relevant in the future is, well, there were two of them that were very, very close, neck and neck. The first one was the mindset of the explorer. And the explorer includes things like curiosity, it includes things like being a perpetual or lifelong learner, things like being able to be agile and nimble in your thinking.

And the second mindset which was the most crucial was the mindset of the chef. And the mindset of the chef is about balancing ingredients. And the two ingredients that leaders of the future need to balance are being purpose-driven and caring and technology. So, how do you balance these two components of wanting to use technology, automation, artificial intelligence, to be productive and efficient, but at the same time balancing the ingredient of making sure that the organization stays human, that you are still focused on a greater purpose, that you actually care about your people?

So, those were the two biggest mindsets. Now, there were others in there. I talked about the mindset of the servant, the mindset of the global citizen are two others, and just to give one sentence about each one of those. The mindset of the servant is about believing that, as a leader, your job is to help make other people more successful than you. And the mindset of the global citizen is about embracing and actively seeking out diversity, and it is about thinking big picture, thinking globally, not just paying attention to what’s right in front of you.

So, those are some of the most crucial mindsets that future leaders, that we, as individuals, need to have if we want to be successful over the next 10 years and beyond. Then I also talked about skills which we can get into if you want.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s maybe hear about the opposite of those things because, I mean, that sounds like it’d be great to do some exploring, it’d be great to be mixing some important ingredients. And so, what’s the opposite of that that is destructive and will make us bad leaders in the future?

Jacob Morgan
So, the opposite of having the explorer mindset is consistently believing that what worked in the past will work in the future, it’s consistently just focusing on what’s right in front of you, on doing what  you know, on staying in your comfort zone, on picking a single path and going down that path. It’s what we see in a lot of organizations today. We don’t have that explorer mindset. So, the exact opposite is doing things the way you’ve always been doing them.

And for the mindset of the chef. The opposite of that would be, first of all, not understanding that these are the two main ingredients that you have to play with, being purpose-driven and caring and technology. And the opposite of this would also be just focusing purely on technology because we are all so obsessed with automation, and with technology, and with the pace of change, that we ultimately forget that organizations are still about people.

Business is still done when you go out to lunch with somebody, when you shake somebody’s hand, when you look at them in the eye. Your business exists because of how you treat people, the experiences that you create for your employees. So, as much as we like to think about technology, we need to ultimately remember that business is still about people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. Thank you. Well, so then that sets up the mindset piece. And then let’s hear about some of the big skills.

Jacob Morgan
So, the skills I grouped into five categories, and I’ll just go over some of the most popular ones then I can give you a sentence about some of the others. So, interestingly enough, the number one skill that these 140 CEOs told me that’s going to be most relevant for future leaders is the skill of thinking like a futurist. And, basically, thinking like a futurist, so I play a lot of chess. I’m kind of obsessed with chess. And if anybody has ever played a game of chess, you know that what separates high-level players is their ability to think in terms of scenarios and possibilities. In other words, you don’t just make a move on the chessboard and only look at that move. You look at multiple moves. You look at multiple moves that your opponent might make. And you look at how all these things kind of play together.

Thinking like a futurist means that you’re not seeing around the corner but you are thinking in terms of possibilities and scenarios so that when one of these other things happen, you’re going to be prepared for it.

A lot of people think, for example, that the role of a futurist is help to predict the future but that’s not true. A futurist helps make sure that people in organizations are not surprised by what the future might bring. And the only way that you can keep from getting surprised is you constantly look at different options and scenarios and possibilities. And so, that’s the number one skill that CEOs told me is going to be most essential, and it’s because things are changing so quickly that you need to be able to constantly play around with these different scenarios and options in your head.

The second most important skill that came out of this was, well, there was quite a bit that were very close together on this. So, there was the skill of a coach, and the coach is about the motivating, engaging, and inspiring people, about helping create other people who are more successful than you, and those last two words there are very important, more successful than you. There was a skill of Yoda, and Yoda is all about emotional intelligence, specifically empathy and self-awareness.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. Now, Yoda was really pretty hard on Luke at times.

Jacob Morgan
He was.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s hear more about this empathy and Yoda.

Jacob Morgan
Yes, I mean, as you can probably tell, I’ve tried to create these unique personas for these different mindsets and skills. And so, I was really struggling trying to figure out what represents emotional intelligence, specifically empathy and self-awareness. Ultimately, I thought that Yoda was, I mean, many people consider him to be the most emotionally intelligent character who’s ever been created because he’s always giving advice to Luke about emotions and feelings and getting in touch with himself. And so, I thought that Yoda would be a very good representation of emotional intelligence. And, you know, I had a little bit of fun with it so that’s why I went with Yoda on that one.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Go ahead.

Jacob Morgan
And then, so the last two are the skill of the technology teenager. And technology teenager just means you’re tech savvy, and that you are digitally fluent. It doesn’t mean you need to be a coder. It doesn’t mean you need to know how to build things. It just means to know, it just means that you, as a leader, need to understand what are these different technologies that are out there, and what are the potential implications they might have on your business and on your company.

And I’m amazed how many times from a lot of these leaders that I’m speaking with, when these technology questions came up, many of them would say, “Oh, you know, IT handles that. I got to talk to my CTO about that.” But in the future, that’s not going to be good enough. You, as a leader, need to be aware of what’s happening in the realm of technology and what these potential implications might have.

And the last skill was the skill of the translator which went down to listening and communication, which have been timeless but at the same time these are also the two skills that are changing more than ever because we have so many different channels at our disposal that allows us to listen and communicate in different ways. I mean, there’s just a lot happening in that space. So, those are some of the most important skills for future leaders.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, I’d love to get your view in terms of the translator, the listening and the communicating, so there’s a bunch of channels. What should we do to build those skills and, in specific, the translator skill, and be excellent at that listening and communicating?

Jacob Morgan
So, there had been a lot of really good studies that have been done on this. So, Zenger Folkman is a research firm, and they put together a list of a series of six steps. And I don’t remember all of them off the top of my head in order, but these included things like, first, just paying attention to somebody if you’re listening to them. It looked at things like creating psychological safety, how to create a collaborative conversation with somebody instead of just letting somebody else talk, focusing on your body language, putting away any distractions. So, this is some of the in-person stuff.

But if you think about it, there’s a very big difference between listening and hearing. And I think a lot of us are very used to this very act of hearing. You go into a meeting, you go into a performance review, in fact, somebody very close to me, a couple of years ago, she went to a performance review, and the lady was simultaneously running a meeting while she was trying to give this person a performance review.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow.

Jacob Morgan
Because we’re very focused on this hearing aspect. And hearing, by the way, is just the unconscious act of letting sound enter your ear. Listening is about really putting the conscious time and effort and attention into something.

And you can imagine, as a leader, if somebody comes to you wanting to have a conversation with you, and the person who comes to you perceives that you are not truly listening to them, the repercussions of that are going to be damaging. So, as a leader, it is essential for you to understand the difference between listening and hearing, and to make sure that when you are having dialogue, when you are engaging with your people, with your coworkers, with your peers, that they genuinely feel like you are putting in the time and effort and attention in trying to understand what it is that they’re telling you.

And same thing for communication. One CEO that I interviewed, he’s the CEO of a company called Tokio Marine. I think he has around 32,000 employees. His name is Nick Nagano. And he was telling me that, on average, an employee might only see or him live 20 minutes a year, okay, because he has a massive workforce. So, during that 20 minutes when he gets to be face to face with a particular employee, he said, “I’d better make sure that whatever I’m trying to get across comes across.” And whether you are texting somebody, emailing somebody, having an in-person conversation, presenting in a meeting, using something like Slack internally, whatever it is, as a leader, and just as an employee, as anybody, you need to make sure that your message gets across regardless of the channel that you’re using.

And we’ve also experienced this, right? I mean, how many times, people listening to this, and you got an email from somebody that looked like a letter that should be written to a therapist? How many times has somebody on your team sent you a text that’s like five-paragraphs long and were asking you for a project update? And then you got to sit there and respond and write a white paper with your thumbs.

You need to understand the channels that you have at your disposal and how to best get your message across during those channels, or on those channels, which means if you’re going to have a serious conversation with somebody about promoting them or firing them, don’t send them like a frowny emoji or a happy face. You need to understand how these different platforms out there can be used to make sure that your message gets across.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, I also want to get a sense of with your LinkedIn study with those 14,000 professionals. What did you discover there?

Jacob Morgan
So, there were a lot of really interesting insights from this. So, from these 14,000 employees, we actually broke things up by seniority level. And so, in the survey, we looked at individual contributors on mid-level leaders and on senior-level leaders.

And what’s really crazy is that when we compared these responses, we found massive, massive gaps.

So, so imagine you’re a mid-level or senior-level leader in your company, and I would ask you, “How well are you practicing these skills and mindsets today?” A lot of leaders would say, “We’re doing pretty good. We’re not amazing but, you know, we’re doing pretty good.” Like, 60%, 70% of them were in the reasonably well or very well category. And so, I thought that, yeah, it’s pretty good, they’re self-assessing themselves on being pretty adept at these things.

And then I would ask the people who work for these leaders. I would say, “How well do you think your leaders are practicing these skills and mindsets?” And they had the exact opposite story. So, if 70% of leaders say that they are doing reasonably well or very well, 70% of people who work for these leaders would say that they’re not doing well or they’re doing just somewhat well. So, it was almost a complete 180 in responses between the leaders versus people who work for these leaders. And this is a bit scary because it speaks to a lot of the common things that we keep hearing about, right?

And, by the way, the more senior you become, I found that the more disconnected you become. In other words, the bigger this gap becomes between you and everybody else.

And perception is reality. So, if you’re a leader, and you’re listening to this, and you’re thinking, “Oh, you know what, I’m practicing the explorer, the futurist, the tech teenager, like I’m good.” If the people who work for you say you’re not, then you’re not. This is one of those things where like, as a leader, it doesn’t necessarily matter how you evaluate yourself, it’s how the people who work for you evaluate you, it’s how your peers evaluate for you.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then I guess from all of this, I’d love it if you could share sort of what are some kind of basic, like absolutely critical prescriptions you’d write for us in terms of everyday actions, behaviors that professionals should be taking, and maybe some things that we need to start doing, some things we need to stop doing, some things we need to make sure we continue doing so that we’re in great shape?

Jacob Morgan
Sure. So, for starters, let me ask you this. I’m very curious to hear what you think. What do you think the average age is for somebody who enters a leadership development program in a company?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I think I know that it’s atrociously high because companies under-invest in them.

Jacob Morgan
It is atrociously high. You are correct.

Pete Mockaitis
So, well let’s just say 46.

Jacob Morgan
You’re actually very close. It is in the mid-40s in a lot of organizations.

Pete Mockaitis
For 46 years old, I’m not saying you’re atrociously old. I’m just saying that, you know…

Jacob Morgan
Yeah, good disclaimer.

Pete Mockaitis
We should start developing leaders earlier than halfway into their career.

Jacob Morgan
Yup. And so, if you think about that, that number is just mindbogglingly insane, because most people inside of organizations actually become leaders in their 20s in some form, in some capacity. And so, what this means is that a lot of people inside of organizations go almost 20 years, right, two decades without having any formal leadership training or development, yet they are responsible for others.

And the reason why we don’t do this is because we all subscribe to the traditional climbing the corporate ladder mentality. In other words, “We will teach you how to become a leader after you’re at the company for 10 years, 15 years, after you’ve ascended the ranks.” And that is a completely outdated way of thinking about leadership inside of an organization. I mean, everybody needs to know these skills and mindsets whether you’ve been at the company for three days or 30 years. So, that’s the first thing we need to do is start these things early.

The second thing that we need to do, and I was also very surprised to learn this, the hardest question for CEOs to answer, was, “How do you define leader and leadership?” And if you think about it, and for those of you listening, think about how you would define that. Imagine somebody comes from another planet and they have no idea about the concept of leader or leadership. How would you explain it to them?

And what I realized, it’s sort of like trying to explain and define water to somebody who’s never seen it. I mean, you can’t say it’s a clear tasteless liquid because lots of liquids fall into that category. We don’t define water because, well, we all know what water is, we all know what air is, so we don’t actually really have to explain it. And so, what I realized is that we are surrounded by leadership in some capacity every day many times a day, you see and experience leadership in some form everywhere you go.

And because of that, we all assume that we know what good leadership is and what bad leadership is. But the problem is that because we, as leaders, don’t actually define this, it means our organizations don’t define this. and if our organizations don’t define this, then we don’t have the right filters in place that we use to promote leaders.

So, this is why it’s so crucial for leaders to really take a step back and to, first, define and explain what is leadership and who is a leader at your company. Because once you do that, then you’re going to have the filters in place so that only people who match those filters and those criteria will get into those leadership positions. So, that’s another thing that I think we need to do is to really take a step back and just define those things.

Another important aspect, and something that we don’t do enough of, is we need to look at ourselves today. And I was trying to figure out how to actually do this, and so I created an assessment, and it’s in the book, and it’s online. People can go to Future Leaders Survey if you’re interested in taking it, and it basically looks at, “How well are you practicing these skills and mindsets today?” And as bonus points, send this to your team members and ask them to evaluate you. So, really take a step back and ask yourself, “How well are you practicing these skills and mindsets today?”

Another crucial aspect of this is we actually need to practice these things. And unless we practice these things, if you do, if you improve 1% a day, by the end of the year, you will be 37 times better. So, 1% a day, these are small things. This means next time somebody comes into your office and they’re panicking and freaking out, and they want to have a conversation with you, instead of just responding, take a deep breath for 10 seconds, try to put yourself in their perspective, in their shoes, practice empathy, that emotional intelligence component, and then respond.

These aren’t complicated insane things that I’m asking people to do. I just want everybody to improve 1% a day, and by the end of the year, you will be 37 times more effective, 37 times better. And maybe one more piece of advice I’ll give, the visual, the image that I give in the book, and this is what’s on the cover of The Future Leader is an image of a lighthouse.

And the whole purpose of a lighthouse is to guide mariners and explorers to help them find their way home, and to help make sure that they can reach their destination safely. A lighthouse is useless if there are no ships in the water. So, as a leader, you need to build yourself up to become this lighthouse but you also need to remember that you have to shine your light onto others and onto this sea of uncertainty that we’re all a part of, because if you just do this for yourself and you’re not guiding the ships then, ultimately, a lot of the work that you’re doing has no meaning, so you have to remember to guide others. So, I’d say those are some of the best of pieces of advices I can give.

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

Jacob Morgan
Oh, man. I think that there is tremendous opportunity. And from the research, from all of the work that was done for this, it’s very clear that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. And I don’t want to make it sound like there are no good leaders out there. There are a lot. There are a lot of wonderful leaders out there. The problem is we don’t have enough of them.

And so, I don’t want this to sound like it’s doom and gloom, “We don’t have any good leaders out there. Everything is terrible.” That’s not the case. I want to paint this as a picture of opportunity. I think there is so much potential for us as individuals, for leaders out there to do better. And I want people to just visualize and understand the impact that it would have if leaders around the world practiced these skills and mindsets.

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

Jacob Morgan
When I was younger, my dad always used to say, “Be a leader, not a follower.”

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

Jacob Morgan
I’m probably going to be selfish on this and I’m going to go with the one that I did for this book just because I’m very proud of it and it was probably the hardest piece of research that I’ve ever done.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Jacob Morgan
A favorite book. I’m a big fan of science fiction, so one of my favorite books is actually a series of books by Isaac Asimov, it’s the Foundation Series and also I, Robot.” I also really like Ender’s Game, and Ready, Player One was a good book but a terrible movie.

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

Jacob Morgan
It’s not a tool in the sense of like a piece of software or an actual tool, but one of the things that I always try to do with my team, is I always ask them what I could do better. I always ask them to be very transparent and open with me. And so, I think that’s a very, very useful tool.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Jacob Morgan
I play a lot of chess. So, I’m always doing chess puzzles and watching chess games and stuff like that. That’s something a favorite of mine.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, they quote it back to you often?

Jacob Morgan
I always say that, “If you don’t think about and plan for the future of work, then you and your organization are not going to have a future.” So, really, what that means is you have to take things into your own hands, don’t wait for the future to happen to you, the future is something that you build and shape and create and design, and you got to be a more active participant in it.

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

Jacob Morgan
So, I’m pretty easy to find. My website is TheFutureOrganization.com. and for anybody interested in the book, you can just go to GetFutureLeaderBook.com.

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

Jacob Morgan
Yeah, it’s to be 1% better a day. Ask yourself, “What can you do to be just 1% better a day? What small improvement and tweak can you make?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jacob, thank you and I wish you lots of luck as you become a future leader.

Jacob Morgan
Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.

535: How to Conquer Doubt and Pursue New Career Opportunities with Nicolle Merrill

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Nicolle Merrill says: "We are swimming in opportunities to learn new skills."

Nicolle Merrill shares practical tips for changing careers–and beating the doubt that comes with it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why it’s OK to not have it figured out
  2. Powerful, clarifying questions for charting a new career path
  3. Smart alternatives to a second degree

About Nicolle:

Four-time career-changer Nicolle Merrill excels in professional reinvention. A liberal arts graduate, she has written for Four Seasons and National Geographic private jet tours, taught digital communication skills to global executives, and sold adventure travel programs in New Zealand. As the former Associate Director of the Career Development Office At Yale School of Management, she coached hundreds of MBA students and professionals through all phases of their career transitions. Nicolle currently freelances as a conversation designer and analyst at an artificial intelligence startup. Her human-centered approach to career change, combined with a relentless curiosity about emerging career trends, has led to speaking engagements across the US, as well as in Canada and Ireland.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

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Nicolle Merrill Interview Transcript

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

Nicole Merrill
Well, hey, thanks for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m excited to have you here and I want to dig into so much good stuff about punching doubt in the face. That’s a good title.

Nicole Merrill
Oh, thanks. It was actually harder to name my book than it was to name my child, so I’m always glad to hear that.

Pete Mockaitis
But, first, I want to hear about you and pinball. I understand you’re a pinball enthusiast, and that hasn’t come up much before. So, what’s the story here?

Nicole Merrill
Well, I grew up with my dad really taking the lead on that. He loves pinball and didn’t think much of it as kind of growing up that it was this weird thing that we were always trying to find pinball whatever arcade we went into or later, as I got older, at bars. And then come to find out not everyone is into pinball as I am it turns out, but I love the excitement of pinball. I grew up in Vegas and maybe it’s the flashing lights and noise, maybe that’s kind of the overlap there.

And it’s really funny too. I’m actually a huge extrovert so I love people and I love meeting people and being in social circles. And if I go to a bar and I see a pinball machine, I am just drawn in and cut off from everybody else.

Pete Mockaitis
I see.

Nicole Merrill
So, my love for pinball is real.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, is there an all-time favorite pinball machine or what makes a pinball machine great versus fine?

Nicole Merrill
Yeah, that’s a great question. I would say Mars Attacks is my favorite one because I think I just like the way that the machine reacts. And I tend to pick machines that have good multi-ball experiences. I like to get multi-ball, it’s kind of my personal quest on every machine. Some people want to get high scores. I want to get multi-ball.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood.

Nicole Merrill
I’m really into it.

Pete Mockaitis
Somehow there’s a segue between multi-ball and career changing, multi-careers. It’s lost on me but we’re just going to run with it. And so, you’ve done a whole lot of work with career development at the Yale School of Management. And I’d love to hear, so that’s a really cool position being able to interact with many, many folks of top business talent, hundreds of MBAs. So, could you tell us, what are some themes and stories that you’re hearing from them over and over again about their career doubts and desires and how they’re navigating it?

Nicole Merrill
Sure. I should just clarify, that was actually…I had a career change into that role, so I’m a four-time career changer actually since moved on from being a career coach. I’m in a different role now. But what was really interesting about that role was that I was working with people from all over the world, so it wasn’t necessarily just Americans. I was working with people from South America, from Europe, from Asia. And it’s really interesting to be able to work across cultures because a lot of times you start to notice some of the differences between cultures and how we approach things. But what’s even more exciting is figuring out ways that we’re very, very much the same.

And one of the things that I was discovering in that role as a coach is that a lot of people across cultures have similar doubts when it comes to their ability to make change happen, right? MBA is a professional degree. It is a degree where over 70% of people are going to be a career changer, so they’ve already decided, “Hey, I want something different,” right? But even though decided that, they still kind of weren’t sure. I’ve met MBAs who would come in to their program, committing to two years and have no idea what they wanted to do. And on the flipside, I have people that came in knowing for sure exactly what they want to do, and then they go through the interview process for it, let’s say consulting, and come to find out that’s not at all what they wanted to do.

And so, it was really interesting to work with students and, also, I work with alumni, to hear kind of their doubt about what they were investing in. They’d already made the decision to choose this program and to make a change, but they weren’t quite sure. And I thought that was really interesting because you would think if you chose a program, most people think, “Oh, you know what you’re going to do,” when, in fact, an MBA is actually two years for you to figure out what you want to do next. And I qualify that with next because most of us were taught that we would pick that one thing and that’s what we’re going to do for the rest of our lives, but we’re no longer in that world of work. Our careers are not going to be lifetime careers, we’re going to make multiple changes.

And so, when you’re going to get an MBA as a career change path, it’s one of many, it’s often assumed that people know what they want to do, but, in fact, I learned a lot of people didn’t know what they want to do but this was the path to figure it out.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, they didn’t know what they wanted to do, and they’re on a path to figuring it out. And so, I want to hear about doubt in particular, so you’ve got a book titled Punch Doubt in the Face. Let’s hear about some of that emotional stuff when people are changing careers and they’re feeling the doubt. Like, what are the sorts of insecurities, or self-talk, or things that you hear in terms of how that’s showing up?

Nicolle Merrill
Sure. Well, I think, starting off, career changers, and for most of us, like I said, we’ve been taught to kind of just pick this one thing, and you’re just going to do it for the rest of your life, and that’s what our parents did, but that’s not reality anymore. And, honestly, I’d argue, it’s not really the reality for some of our parents too, depending on how you grew up.

And so, the first thing that people go through when they’re thinking of changing careers is kind of this feeling of loneliness, like, “Oh, my God, I’ve failed.” They feel like they didn’t make it work, or they’re feeling like nobody else could possibly understand this because we’re bombarded by messages of success and everybody else doing it right. And I think we’re also in a culture that doesn’t share when we’re failing in a career. And I qualify that we’re not failing. You’re not failing when you’re not doing it right. It’s okay to change jobs.

And I think this doubt comes from that feeling that we should figure it out, we should be able to make it work, and so when it comes to change, people feel like they can’t quite do it. And on top of it, it’s not like we teach people how to change careers. I don’t have an MBA but when I go out to working, when I was at Yale and part of an MBA program that teaches people how to change careers, I was shocked by what they taught people. I had changed careers multiple times and nobody taught me how to do it. I kind of had to figure it out, right? Go against the grain almost.

And so, a lot of people have doubt about changing career because they haven’t really been taught how to do it. The other piece is that if you’ve been a career changer before or talked to career changers, a lot of times when you tell people you want to make a change, they want to know, “Well, what specifically will you do?” They want answers right away because it can make people feel uncomfortable when you don’t have an answer, right?

Pete Mockaitis
So, I’m telling you that I want to make a career change, and then you ask me what do I want to do.

Nicolle Merrill
What do you want to do?

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’re saying, I, the career changer, am uncomfortable, or my conversational partner is uncomfortable, or both of us are uncomfortable.

Nicolle Merrill
Well, probably, at this point, it’ll be both of us. But a lot of times when a career changer says, “Oh, I want to make a change,” one or two things happens. The conversational partner will be like, “Oh, great. Well, what do you want to do?” It puts a lot of pressure on that career changer to have an answer, and a lot of career changers don’t actually have an answer in the beginning. They have an inkling. They have a feeling, like, “This is not right. This is not working for me.” And there’s a variety of reasons we could go into as to why it’s not working. But when they first start talking about it, and I actually had this conversation with a friend a couple of days ago who said her partner was like, “Well, just go do it. Just go do it.” And she’s like, “I mean, the problem isn’t that I can’t go do it. The problem is I don’t know what it is.”

And so, career changers really need to make space for themselves, to really hold space for ambiguity, and that space that says, “I know I want to make a change, I just don’t know what it is yet.” And they commit to kind of figuring that out. And I think doubt really starts to creep in when people say, “Well, what do you want to do?” And if you don’t have an answer, that can cause you to be like, “Oh, my God, I can’t do this. I don’t know what I want to do.” And then we start going inside of that negative feeling of being really stuck without a path forward.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I want to dig into sort of each of the stages here from, “I’m sensing a change may be necessary,” to, “I’m figuring out what that thing is,” to, “I’m landing the job.” So, maybe to tee up that arch, could you perhaps share with us a cool story associated with someone who made an awesome change and how that unfolded for them?

Nicolle Merrill
Sure. Well, there’s been a couple of them. I’ll just tell you a story from my own only because I’m a four-time career changer. I recently went from being a career coach to I now work as a conversation designer for an AI startup, so I work for an artificial intelligence startup. And what that means is I spend a lot of my time using qualitative analysis skills to improve the product. And it’s an emerging job, and it’s a job that there’s no clear path for.

And I knew I wanted to go into artificial intelligence because I’m relentlessly curious about new technology, and I spent the better part of a year after I left career coaching to start to understand some of these AI products in the market. I was reading about them, I started reading industry trends, I started listening to podcasts, and then I started writing about them, I started writing about what I was reading in the news about artificial intelligence in the workplace. I started to narrow down my interests because when we talk about artificial intelligence that’s like a huge topic, right?

And I started to narrow it down into something that was a little more tangible, something that aligned with my background, and that was in HR, so looking at how does HR use artificial intelligence in the workplace. And so, again, I started diving into these products, writing about them, I started taking online courses to learn about artificial intelligence, not necessarily as an engineer but from the business perspective. And then, finally made the jump into a startup because I saw a job that was written for what I could do. It wasn’t necessarily written exactly for my background but I knew I could do it based on all the studying and the writing I’d done and my previous skillset. And so, I applied and I got the job, and I have now shifted into a new path.

And that is almost textbook for how someone should go about making a career change. It starts with your curiosity. It starts with specifically, “What are you curious about?”

Pete Mockaitis
What I’m curious right now, Nicolle, I’ve got some curiosity associated with what a conversational designer is. So, just so we can get closure on that point before we dig into your wisdom elsewhere, what does that mean?

Nicolle Merrill
Sure. So, conversation designer is someone who works on a chatbot, so the chatbot is to improve it. I tell people I make it sound more human, so I look for where the mistakes are at and report those mistakes back to the AI team. I also write scripts to make it sound better for different contexts. And then I review the conversations to ensure that the user experience is a positive one.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Nicolle Merrill
So, it’s a hybrid job. It’s a mix-up of writing, user experience, and just having a technical understanding of how natural language processing works. So, again, I’m not an engineer but I know how to work with engineers in order to make recommendations.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. that’s cool. Well, so let’s go through the arch then. So, when someone is in the midst of being in a career, not quite sure if they’re feeling it, they think it might be time for a change, what do we do now?

Nicolle Merrill
What do we do now? Well, one, like I said, make space, so claim that space and get comfortable with it, right? Get comfortable with the idea that you’re going to make a change, because depending on people’s level of risk, that could be a big deal, or it could just be like, “Yeah, I’m going to change things up. No big deal.” That’s going to be very personal depending on who the person is.

Then I want you to take time to figure out what you’re interested in because a lot of times when people are going into a career change, they’re doing it from a place of either being stuck, they might feel unmotivated. I’ve talked to people who were in toxic work environments and that can have a real detrimental effect on your confidence level. And so, really taking the space to reflect on the things that you’re interested in professionally. You can do some personal interests but, really, what excites you about work?

Self-reflection is pretty critical in this stage, and carving out space to do that self-reflection. And you’ll notice that’s a theme. I talk a lot about carving out space and that’s because we’re all very busy people, right? We’re managing a lot of different projects and people and our personal lives, and so taking out time for ourselves to step back and say, “Okay, wait a minute. What do I want in my job?” And there’s a series of reflection questions in the book, but really looking it through the lens of, “Who do I want to work with? What type of work do I like to do? How do I want my manager to treat me?” These are all things that you can reflect on without actually knowing what it is you want to go do, right?

So, really taking a step back and making that space for yourself to self-reflect. Then start looking at, “Okay, what are the opportunities?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, if I may, while we’re making space and self-reflecting, you listed a couple questions. What have you found to be some of the surprise super winning questions that tend to surprisingly surface insight frequently?

Nicolle Merrill
Sure. I think one of my favorite ones is, “What kind of work would you like to do?” So, a lot of times we tend to think of our work as job titles, like, “I want to be a travel writer,” or, “I want to be a firefighter.” No, think about the work. What does the work look like? What does it feel like? And that gets into things like, “Do you want to be in front of a computer all day?” versus, “Would you like to be building trails out in the wilderness?”

I think getting in depth about how you’d like to work. And then also thinking about what would you like the company to be like. I think this is another powerful one because we tend to think of, again, our job titles. But I know so many people that are trying to get out of toxic work environments, and that can be a big catalyst for changing careers and changing jobs, but also changing careers. And we start to talk about, “Well, how would you like to be treated by a company? What would it look like? What are the values that you’re looking for in a place of work?”

And that leads to other questions, like, “How would you like your coworkers to be?” And for some people, they might say, “I don’t really care about my coworkers,” and that’s okay because that’s for you if that’s your preference of work, that’s fine. But we need to at least dig into it and figure out what it is, because most people are just like, “I need to find a job,” and we’re not thinking about the environment in which that job takes place. And, as you know, as we all know, culture has a huge effect on our workplace and our daily jobs.

Pete Mockaitis
I really like the point you brought up about the coworkers there. It’s like you might not care and maybe the main thing you want from your coworkers is for them to leave you alone so you can have long stretches of creative time, or problem-solving time, or whatever. Or maybe the main thing you want from your coworkers is lots of fun collaborative back-and-forth stuff. Or maybe you want your coworkers to give you tons of feedback and tell you all the things that you’re doing that can be improved upon, and maybe you don’t because that’s really stressful and anxiety-provoking for you.

Nicolle Merrill
Yeah, even that, all those things that you just said though, those were great examples because within that you’re getting insights. So, maybe you do want a bunch of coworkers because you want to be able to collaborate, and there it is right there, collaboration, that’s one of your values. You want to be able to collaborate with people, so you want to make sure that a job that you’re going into, that you’re going to be able to have that, right? And chances are you might actually be good at that so that’s something that’s a skill that you can work on in your job. Or maybe you like the deep work and so you realize that you need to have a job where you’re going to be able to, I find this, I work with engineers, so that deep work piece is really valuable there. They need to block out three to four hours to code.

And so, again, within this reflection, even by thinking about what your coworkers are like, you discover things about yourself and how you like to work.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, there we go. We’ve done some reflection, and then you said next up is opportunities.

Nicolle Merrill
Yes. So, this is where it starts to get interesting. One of the things that always surprises me is that we tend to look at our opportunities as only in the context of what’s in front of us. I was having a conversation with one of my friends who’s a firefighter, and she had said to me, “You know, what’s interesting about firefighting is that there’s a lot of customer service involved.” And I went, “Wait. What?” And she’s like, “Yeah.” She goes, “You have to go. You show up to a scene. Obviously, you’re triaging but you’re trying to understand what is happening. You’re trying to help the person who called you.” And she’s like, “A lot of it is frontline customer service.” And I had never thought about firefighting in that way.

And it really was an aha moment for me because a lot of us, we tend to make assumptions about jobs whether because we’re familiar with them or maybe it’s the hot job of the moment but without knowing what those jobs actually are. Another great example, I met tons of MBAs that wanted to do product management. Hot job, right? Consistently high-paying job, usually over six figures, very in-demand job. And then I’d ask them, I’d say, “Well, what about product management interests you or where do you think you do well in that role?” And they’d say, “Oh, I don’t know.” And I was like, “Well, okay, we got to get to know what these jobs are.”

And I think, as a career changer, going back to kind of that pressure to figure it out, you have to give yourself space to be able to figure out what these jobs are, so really diving into the opportunities. And there’s two really key ways to do that. I call this exploring the field of possibilities. One is simply reading job descriptions. This is a tool someone gave me years ago, like ten years ago, and I thought they were crazy, I was like, “Why would I spend my time reading job descriptions, they’re boring?” But come to find out they’re like mini-stories. They’re a company telling you a story about themselves, and some of them tell really bad stories, badly-written job descriptions, and some of them tell you really good ones.

And instead of looking at job descriptions as, “Can I do this or not?” most people talk themselves out of it, we should be looking at it as, “Does this interest me? Is this the type of work that interest me?” It’s a very different mindset from reading job descriptions looking for a job. And that’s where you start getting into like, “Oh, this is a job I’ve never heard of before. This is a type of work that I didn’t even know existed,” conversation design being one of them that I’m currently in. So, that’s one of the ways to do it. And I’m not talking like spending hours. I’m talking like build 10 minutes into your day to read some job descriptions based on keywords that you’re interested in.

So, let’s say you’re interested in pinball, right? I don’t know what jobs they would be because I haven’t looked but I would put pinball into a job search engine and see what comes up.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, Nicolle, it’s hilarious that you mentioned job searching in pinball because that’s actually come up before on this show, Episode 167, with Nick Campbell. What are the odds?

Nicolle Merrill
Wow. Okay. I feel so connected now.

Pete Mockaitis
But, please, continue. Pinball exploring.

Nicolle Merrill
Right. So, you could go into any job search engine and just put in pinball. Or maybe you’re a writer and you want to get into pinball writing, put those keywords in there, and then read the job descriptions. What are they asking for? The key point of this is to not talk yourself out of it. You can’t be going, “Well, I’m not qualified. I’m not qualified.” Of course, you’re not qualified, right? You’re at the beginning of a career change, and one of the parts of a career change is once you figured it out you have to then go get the skills that qualify you. That’s a whole different stuff. But, right now, you’re just looking at what are the possibilities. And so, start making a list and familiarize yourself. That’s one way to do it.

The second way to do it, and this is actually my preferred way to do it, I want you to do both, but it’s through conversations. There’s an exercise in my book, my book has a ton of exercises in it, it’s called 50 Conversations, and in it, I assign you the task of interviewing 50 people about their jobs. And in the past, we’ve heard a lot about informational interviewing. This is that but dialed back. It’s more of an exploratory conversation, just to learn what people do.

I have a really good example of this. I used to be a travel writer for a private jet travel company, it was a job I fell into. And it was a really interesting job and I enjoyed it. I didn’t get to travel much despite the title. And at the time, I was interviewing someone from the staff, and that person told me that his job was a travel scout. I was like, “What’s a travel scout?” This guy’s job was to travel to different locations around the world and scout them out for our tour company. So, we were in luxury travel, he would travel to luxury locations, stay in their hotels, try out their activities, write a report, and send it back to the product team. And I went, “Oh, my gosh, that’s a job that exists?”

And it was like just this aha moment of like there are so many jobs out there that we don’t know exists and so you have to go out and investigate the opportunities. You can’t just sit there and say, “Well, I don’t know what fits me,” and then just stay with it. You have to discover and seek out different types of jobs. Because when you start talking to people and ask them what they do but, more importantly, how they got into it, it starts to become so much more interesting. And then you can start mapping yourself to some of those paths. You can start opening up possibilities and seeing yourself in those paths. And then, sometimes, someone might give you an answer, and you’re like, “That’s definitely not what I want to do,” and that’s just as valuable.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you’re having these 50 conversations, again, I’m curious about what are some of the top questions that really surface a good view of what those jobs look, sound, feel like in practice?

Nicolle Merrill
Yeah. So, a lot of times people don’t want to engage in these conversations because it’s the, “Well, what do you do?” and that feels so superficial. And a lot of times people don’t add follow-up questions to that. So, it’s the ability to add a follow-up question, and say, for example, in your case, you did it really well. You were like, “Well, what is a conversation designer?” I have a lot of people who I’ll say, “Oh, I’m a conversation designer,” and they’re like, “Oh, cool.” I was like, “Okay, right.”

Pete Mockaitis
“You don’t really think it’s cool or you would’ve asked more.”

Nicolle Merrill
Yeah, right. I mean, we all do that, right? And I’m not faulting anyone for that because conversation is tough. But, really, if you want to get to the bottom of it, it’s the ability to ask good follow-up questions, and say, “Well, that’s really interesting. Tell me…” if you don’t know what it is, “…what does that look like in your everyday job?” “How did you get into that?” is an even better question for career changers because that’s where the path starts to unravel.

I have found people say things like, “You know what, I just fell into it.” Or, “You know what, I went back to school, and went to a bootcamp, and then that taught me these skills, and I was able to combine it with what I did before and get a job.” There are so many different paths into careers nowadays, and that’s what I love about our new world of work. It’s not like our parents’ generation where you were like stuck on kind of just one path and you had to go get an MBA or a law degree to change, right? Those are professional degree programs that were designed for career changers. We have so many more paths and so when you start to ask people, “How did you get into that work?” you start to see those paths, and you start to see what you can and cannot do. If someone says, “Well, I went back to school for four years to be a doctor,” that might not be your path, right? Or maybe it is.

I interviewed someone, I have a podcast for career changers, and I interviewed someone who went back to school to be a chiropractor and that took four years, and that’s after they’ve been in the workforce for a long time. And so, this is a very personal decision, and that’s why I think being able to talk to people about why they made their change, what their path was like to get there, and really ask those meaty follow-up questions not only is it valuable for you in the beginning but it’s also impactful. It gives you connection and it gives you motivation. Because going back to the beginning where I talked about some career changers and their doubt, they feel alone. And so, being able to talk to people, it can be so motivational to hear how they did it. And that’s where I think the value is in conversations.

And as I write in the book, I was like you might think I’m crazy for saying 50 conversations, and that you can’t do that, but I’ve met people when I was a coach before who did a hundred conversations. And the insights from them were just incredible, and you can see their eyes light up, and they talk about where they were before they had those conversations versus where they were after they had those conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then let’s say you’ve had those conversations, and then you found an opportunity that sounds super cool, and you would want that job to become yours. What do you do next?

Nicolle Merrill
Okay. So, then it’s a process of figuring out, okay, where are we at in terms of qualifications. For most career changers, and again there’s variety so I’m generalizing here, but if you’re looking to make a big change, and let’s say you’re going into a new industry or a new role, it’s time to assess your skills. And this is really diving into what your skills, what you’re good at, what maybe you’re not so good at, and then knowing what the skills are for that next job on the new career path, right?

So, it’s really looking at both your skillset, the skillset required to get the next job, and then analyzing your skills gap. What skills are you missing? So, for example, I talk to a lot of career changers that are looking to get into tech. We look at, “Okay, is this going to be a tech position where you want to become a software engineer or a user experience designer? Or is this something where maybe you’re not working on the technical product, you want to be tech adjacent? Maybe you want to go into digital marketing, and you just need to learn some basics on digital marketing.” It’s really trying to figure out where your skillset is at and what skills you need in order to get the job, because that’s going to be the driver for how you choose a learning experience. And the learning experience is the program that’s going to give you the skills you need to make your career transition.

Pete Mockaitis
And program can take many different flavors.

Nicolle Merrill
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Whether it’s a particular educational credential degree or volunteering. Can you maybe show us some of the other angles and formats that can take?

Nicolle Merrill
Definitely. I think this is what gets me so excited because I dedicate a huge part of the book to it is walking through these examples because, again, people tend to think of kind of that old-school mindset, “Well, I got to go back to school for four years,” or, “I’ve got to get a master’s degree.” Those are possibilities but there’s also all these other ones. We’ve got online programs. And not only do we have online programs, we have short-term programs which are what I call the skill-building programs.

So, maybe you’re just going, let’s say it is digital marketing, and you need to know the basics. You could take a three-month course for $450 and, boom, you’ve got a learning community, you’ve got skills that you’re learning, and a portfolio that you’re coming out with. That’s a three-month program intensive. Or you could do something like Coursera. Coursera is a huge learning platform, or Udemy, or Udacity. Some of them have longer-term online programs, some you can take for free, some are a nominal investment. You learn on your time. You might get a credential out of them. Those are also paths.

And then you’ve got the wide world of bootcamps which can be on campus or online depending on, again, you want to get comfortable with understanding your learning style because, for some people, online is ideal, they’re like, “Yes, I can do it whenever I want,” and others are like, “No, I need that immersive on-campus, I need people around,” that kind of dictates what learning experience you choose. But those are also options as well. And those bootcamps really run a range from a year-long program to a three- to six-month stint. It really depends on your program. That’s an option for career changers as well. I think most bootcamps are made for career changers. They’re made for people that want to level up oftentimes in their digital skills or in their data fluency skills.

And then you have the entire world of DIY learning through YouTube and podcasts and newsletters. If you’re looking to get into an industry and you don’t know where to start, being able to watch videos from that industry, subscribe to industry newsletters, listen to podcasts, my God, the amount of podcasts, as you probably know, on subjects that you can just dive into and immerse yourself in these worlds. You don’t have to go back to school for that, right?

So, these are all your options for learning. And if that sounds overwhelming, that’s fair. It is overwhelming. We are swimming in opportunities to learn new skills, to learn new ways of work in new industries. And your goal as a career changer is to really sort through all of that and figure out what’s going to be the best learning experience that’s going to, A, get you where you want to be, your career goal, but, B, also work for your learning style.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, when we talk about learning, there are some very particular skills that you need to acquire for a given role that you’ve zeroed in on. I’d also love to get your take on what are some of the top skills that here, now, in the year 2020, every professional just really needs to be okay with or excellent at to stay nimble, agile, and adaptable – these are synonyms – able to capitalize on many opportunities?

Nicolle Merrill
Yeah, that’s a great question, and you hit it right on the head there, to stay agile because that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re heading into the age of agile worker, the people that collect skills and apply them in different contexts, right? It’s no longer kind of that siloed, “I do this one thing.” And so, there’s four skills that I’ll say consistently, I call them the power skills. It’s communication, digital fluency, data fluency, and creativity, and these are all very big buckets.

When I talk about communication, it’s this ability to meet audiences where they’re at. It’s an ability to write for diverse audiences on different channels. I use this example a lot. If you’ve ever had a manager, let’s say you have 500-word email that nobody read, that’s a really good example of someone that doesn’t know how to communicate. It’s the ability to synthesize your ideas and present them to people who are maybe outside of your department or team. The ability to speak publicly about your ideas. Persuade others to get on board. That becomes more relevant as you move up into leadership and so on. And, again, I talk about these skills. You don’t have to have them all right now. But they’re a set of skills that are going to allow you to work across both functions and careers as you move forward in your career.

Pete Mockaitis
And the digital fluency and data fluency, can you give us some of the sub-categories within those?

Nicolle Merrill
Absolutely. So, there’s been a big push obviously to learn to code and, depending on your age, you may have been involved in learning to code, you may not have. I certainly advocate for learning the basics of code and picking a language and just learning the basic syntax and how you think through it and the logic. But if that’s not as accessible to you right now, because I know some people are like, “You know what, that just doesn’t have a use case in my job.” That’s fine. At least learn what the languages are and how they’re applied in the context of projects.

So, for example, online, Harvard offers an intro to computer science, wherein across, I think, all nine weeks they go through all the programming languages. And it’s really insightful because it shows you just all the different use cases that programming languages are applied in the context of your organization. And for people, as we look at the future of work, our work is becoming interdisciplinary. It’s no longer siloed. In fact, Harvard Business Review just had a big article in September on “Cross-Silo Leadership,” and about how leaders need to ensure that their employees are working on projects that cross functions across teams so they can build up collaboration skills, problem-solving skills, and so on.

And so, if you think about you, I’m speaking not in a leadership term right now but you as the employee, your ability to work with engineers to understand how software works in your organization. I talk a lot about automation tools in my book to understand how automation tools are being implemented in your place of work, that’s critical. And I know there have been people in organizations that I have obviously come across in my work that have said things like, “Oh, technology,” and they kind of like make a face, like, “I don’t want to deal with it.” And that’s funny, but in the course of your career, you need to lean into the technology and understand it. You don’t have to know how to code it, but you need to understand how it works and understand how it affects your work and the organization as a whole. So that’s briefly on digital fluency.

Data fluency, very brief. Understanding how data is used in the context of your organization. Managers being able to make decisions based on data, like quantitative data. Being able to understand where data comes from in your organization and how it’s being used to make decisions about your job. How are you measuring things? Are you collecting data from users? What is the data and so on? That’s kind of a broader topic that always gets a lot of questions. I don’t want to dwell on it too much, but just to summarize, the role of data in the workplace cannot be overestimated right now. I think we all have heard that from our personalized lives. We hear a lot about data that’s being collected about us. The same thing is happening in the workplace.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, those are the skills, and go forth and learn them. Well, now, let’s hit the final step here. You know what you want, you’ve got the skills to get it, and then you are kind of actually job hunting, resumes, cover letters, networking, interviews. Can we hear some of your top tips here?

Nicolle Merrill
Sure. One thing I’ll note too on this job-searching piece, this is where a lot of the doubts starts to come in because you’re like, “Oh, I don’t have the experience. I don’t have the experience.” And this is where you really want to lean on the fact that you’ve already done the hard work. You’ve done the work to learn new skills, figure it out, so this is just completing the process, and I say that because the job search is pretty terrible. It can be really terrible especially to career changers because our doubts start to creep in. So, I want to acknowledge that that happens.

The second thing I want to talk about is the job searching itself is changing. There are new tools that are being used that use artificial intelligence and automation that are shifting how we search for jobs. So, now we’re seeing tools that come into the hiring process, that I was just learning about one the other day that is taking social data and scraping it and making predictions about you as a new hire.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, geez.

Nicolle Merrill
And that’s all really ethically a problem. I actually write about it in the book. But this demonstrates just kind of the experiments that are happening right now with AI in regards to hiring. We see it with HireVue, they are a company that does video interviews where you interview with a video, and an algorithm analyzes your 25,000-data points to see if you are fit for the job. Now, this isn’t going to be all jobs.

Pete Mockaitis
Based on the video interview.

Nicolle Merrill
Exactly. So, you’re essentially just interviewing with a video, like with your camera, with pre-written questions, you give your answer, and then an algorithm will evaluate you. The Wall Street Journal, wrote about this a couple of months back. And, again, I highlight these to really show these are some of the extremes but they are being used. And so, the world of work, as I talk about the future of work, it’s already here, these same tools with automation and AI are starting to affect your job search. So, yes, a resume is important. It will always, for the near future, be very important, so will cover letters. But that’s where your networking really comes in. It’s the ability to build relationships with people inside of organizations.

All that work, if you do the 50 conversations exercise, the other benefit of doing that is that you get comfortable having conversations with strangers. You build your conversational skills. You get comfortable asking strangers for advice, and you get comfortable talking about yourself. And, really, networking is that exchange of information, right, “Tell me about your organization. Tell me about your work. And then, also, let me tell you about me.” And it’s not something huge. Just a brief sentence. It’s your story. Who are you? What are you interested in? Why did you make this change? And what motivates you? Having that story.

And so, all of these pieces fit together but they’re all even more important now because of automation in the hiring process, because mostly bigger companies right now, not so much smaller businesses, but mostly bigger companies and corporations are using new technology that changes the nature of the job search so your resume might not be enough.

And so, I would encourage any career changer to get comfortable building a one-pager website that defines you how you want to be defined. If you’ve ever had a resume and thought, “This is not who I am,” a website is a chance to kind of show off a little more of you and really frame your career background and your story the way you want. And the other thing that it does is it shows employers, A, communication skills, B, it shows you can write for the web, and it’s a beautiful thing to add into your email signature when you’re conversing with people. Say, “Hey, take a look at my website.”

And I was just on Wix the free platform, the other day for my sister who was curious about how to build a website for herself. And they have some great portfolios on there specifically for job seekers, and it’s free.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you.

Nicolle Merrill
So, that would be my advice.

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

Nicolle Merrill
I just want to say to all the career changers out there, I always hear from people on the other side who are super thrilled that they did it, and I want to say that if you’re thinking about doing it, it’s completely worth it. Go for it. Don’t let doubt stand in the way. You have a ton of resources out there to help you, so start taking the baby steps right now.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, Nicolle, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Nicolle Merrill
It was actually when I wrote my book, And I spent a lot of time on Twitter, and I saw this quote by Ava DuVernay, and someone had asked, “Any tips to stop thinking your writing is terrible?” going back to this kind of doubt. And she says, “Just know that everyone’s writing is terrible. Until it’s not. No one’s stuff is right immediately. You gotta work it. Refine it. Shape it. Spend time with it. It’s a relationship. Between you and what comes from you. Not easy. Gonna be terrible before it’s not. And that’s okay.”

And what I love about that is that it mirrors so much of what it’s like to learn to do something, right? this ability to really sit with kind of that discomfort and know that, “Oh, it’s not quite right. I’m learning. I’ve got to figure it out,” and stay with it and build. That’s what I took from that quote. And it’s so relevant both for writers and also for those that are changing careers and having to learn something new.

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

Nicolle Merrill
Oh, yeah, I want to do just a book because it’s all of her research, it’s called Reclaiming Conversation by Dr. Sherry Turkle. And it’s about ethnographic studies on how digital communications is reshaping our conversational skills. And she does it by family, by individual, and in the workplace. So, it’s all of her research together in a book, and it’s probably one of the most impactful books that I have read to this day on communication skills.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you share with us one sort of mind-blowing discovery about how, indeed, digital stuff is reshaping our brains?

Nicolle Merrill
One of the things that she had shared was just the mere presence of a phone on the table, even face down, disrupts the ability to get into deeper conversation. And, again, this wasn’t a book that shames for using phones by any means. It was like, “Let’s talk about what’s actually happening in our conversation.” And one of the things that she points out in that book is that conversation is a skill. And because we spend in our time in digital environments, Slack, email, texts, social, all of those phases, we’re losing the ability to have open-ended conversations with each other.
And it resonated because one of the top things I heard as a career coach was, “But what should I say? What should I say?” And hearing that from her kind of gave me validation to say, “Okay, this isn’t just me that experiences this. We’re all kind of experiencing this.” And it was incredibly impactful. And now I work very hard on practicing my conversation skills and having those kinds of ambiguous open-ended conversations to make sure I can build relationships and engage with people.

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

Nicolle Merrill
Things that I use to be awesome at my job? Is it funny if I say LinkedIn?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no, LinkedIn is fantastic. And how about a favorite habit?

Nicolle Merrill
Oh, a favorite habit? Oh, I love walking. I walk. I walk because I need to get away from the screen and it’s so hard to do that, but walking is probably my absolute favorite thing to do. The clarity you get being outside, and I live in the rainy Pacific Northwest. I do rain walks, so, yeah.

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

Nicolle Merrill
I will say, “Say yes to the conversation” would be the top one.

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

Nicolle Merrill
I would point them to either on Twitter. I’m @pdxnicolle, or you can reach me through my blog which is FutureSkills.blog.

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

Nicolle Merrill
Yes, engage in conversations. I would challenge you to have 50 conversations with people even if you’re not looking for a new job. Transform it into something you’re curious about.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Nicolle, this has been a ton of fun. I wish you lots of luck and enjoy designing conversations and all you’re up to.

Nicolle Merrill
Thank you so much. I appreciate it. This has been a lot of fun.

531: How to Differentiate Yourself to Get Promoted with Stan Silverman

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"That's really the only way to be successful long term, you have to take risks... and try something new and different."

Stan Silverman discusses how being different and taking risks pays off for your career.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why failing is the first step to achieving more at work
  2. How to take calculated risks that win at work
  3. Why and how to break policy

About Stan:

Stan Silverman is the founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is also a speaker, advisor, and the author of Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success. He is a nationally syndicated writer on the topics of leadership, entrepreneurship, and corporate governance, writing for several publications such as the Philadelphia Business Journal.  

Silverman has served on several public, private, private equity and nonprofit boards and currently sits as the vice-chairman of the board of trustees at Drexel University. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University.  He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.

Items mentioned in the show

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Stan Silverman Interview Transcript

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

Stan Silverman
Well, Pete, thanks for inviting me. I look forward to our discussion.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m looking forward to it as well. And you’ve got a pretty unique story, well, maybe for nowadays. But I want to hear the scoop. First of all, so you had 11 separate roles at PQ Corporation and ended at the top, so that’s pretty cool. We’ll dig into some of that. But, I guess, I want to know first, what led you to stick with one organization for such a long duration in your career?

Stan Silverman
Well, I never intended to stay with PQ for so long but I kept on getting promoted. And the hierarchy above me was very, very supportive of what I was doing and it was just a great company to work for. And so, I stayed through 11 jobs, including a stint in Canada as president of National Silicates Ltd, PQ’s Canadian subsidiary, came back as president of PQ’s worldwide industrial chemicals group, became the COO of the company and then, eventually, the CEO.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, I’d love to dig into some particular moments in which you did some things that were differentiated and noteworthy such that you were the one they picked for the promotion. So, maybe we can go back in time and let’s start semi-chronologically in terms of towards can you maybe orient us to sort of what was your role, what was your set of responsibilities, and how did you win promotion again and again?

Stan Silverman
Well, thanks for allowing me to go through some history here. So, as I look back on my career at PQ, I did a lot of firsts. I was the first one at the company to use a computer to solve an engineering problem and a finance problem versus just pushing numbers around through the accounting system. And so, way back then, and a lot of our listeners are much too young to remember this but we did a lot of work with time sharing, so we access a mainframe computer that was remote through a teletype machine that did 15 characters per second that we ran at the time on the outside computer. And I was the first one at the company to build a model for doing this kind of cashflow calculations, looking at the financial attractiveness of various projects. And I did this while I was an engineer.

And so, I gravitated from process engineering to looking into the financial attractiveness of the projects I was working on and so that was a first at the company. And from that point, I moved onto production planning, to financial analysis where I was evaluating the various alternatives for placing a plan in this city versus that city, for doing this versus that, and at the time I was getting my MBA at Drexel University at night. And so, I tied in what I was doing at work with my work at the university. I wrote a thesis for my masters’ program which was a Monte Carlo simulation, which looked at various alternatives using probabilistic estimates for inputs into a cashflow analysis. And I was able to test this at PQ on the various projects that we were working on.

And so, gradually, slowly but surely, I moved from an engineering position to a financial analyst position, to my first product manager position at the company where I moved over to the marketing side of the company. I was responsible for three product lines.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Boy, there’s a lot in there I’d love to unpack. And so, well, let’s start with some of these firsts with regard to, so you’re the first to use a computer to solve some of these financial questions using the discounted cashflow analysis. Well, what got into you that made you say, “You know what, this is what I’m going to go do because I think it would probably be more normative for engineers to continue doing their engineering.” But you popped your head up and said, “No, I’m going to check out something different.” How did that come about?

Stan Silverman
Well, I’ve always been curious about things which would allow me to grow and develop my skills in other areas other than engineering. And when I got my chemical engineering degree, I decided that I did not want to rise up through the engineering route because I thought that was too limited. I wanted to follow the business route, and that’s why I got my MBA so that I would be in positions where I would make strategic decisions with respect to the future of my businesses and, eventually, the company rather than building plants for the products that we made.

And it was just an interest in doing that, in making decisions on the strategic side of the business versus the engineering side of the business that pushed me and led me to get my MBA degree. And I’ve always been very curious. I’ve been testing new things, looking at new things, trying out things, and, really, that’s what drove me my entire career is that curiosity. And it really goes way, way back to when I was a teenager. At the age of 12, my dad got me my first chemistry set and I exhausted all the experiments probably within three months, and I got a little bored and I decided that I would try something new. So, I thought it would be really cool if I made gunpowder to pack into a firecracker and set off the firecracker, so I started up on it and learned how to do that with my chemistry set.

Pete Mockaitis
That sounds like fun to me.

Stan Silverman
Yeah, it was really a lot of fun but the creative part wasn’t actually formulating the gunpowder. You can look that up anywhere and at the time we didn’t have the internet so, of course, I had to go to a library to do this. But it was actually designing the fuse to set it off so that I wouldn’t blow my hand apart, I decided that I would run wires from my Lionel train transformer to the firecracker that I built and bury these wires with a matchhead inside the powder and then set it off 30 feet away. And, sure enough, it worked.

And so, this is a future engineer at the age of 13 now, basically, in his backyard fooling around with this stuff. And, of course, in today’s world, you can’t possibly do that because you’d have Homeland Security and the local police department all over you for doing this. And so, we’ve really taken some innocence away from kids that just like to play in the basement or in the backyard or in the garage and just kind of tinker with things. And so, that’s kind of a negative to the world that we’re in. We’ve taken some innocence away from our children in terms of allowing them to just roam and develop.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I hear that theme. So, the curiosity, the testing, the exploring, trying out new things. I guess, I’m intrigued because I think that this is common, I’d say, part of the human experience, we’re curious, we want to explore and seek new things. And, yet, I think a lot of folks, in the professional setting, experience some fear or a resistance, internal and/or external, so that they sort of shut those instincts down. How do you observe the ways in which professionals kind of shoot themselves in the foot or prevent themselves from exploring and rising as a result?

Stan Silverman
Well, I think it gets down to a feeling of self-confidence in yourself. I coach and counsel a lot of students right now in my career and, of course, with the launching of my book, sort of my fourth career, which we’ll get into in a little later on in the interview. But one of the things I do is I talk to a lot of students today and I talk to a lot of professionals who are stuck, who don’t like what they’re doing, who want to know what the path is to leave what they’re doing and do something more interesting. And, of course, it’s completely up to them. They have to find their own path.

They have a safety blanket in their current position and in their current role, and for 45 years they just never do anything.

And you go to the other extreme, you have people that are constantly developing themselves, constantly pushing forward, trying things, failing sometimes, and, of course, failure is a normal part of life and we should all get used to that. And as I tell the folks that I counsel“You can feel bad that night but the next morning you get up and get back at it because it’s a new day and a new world, and you have to move forward.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with Seth Godin who is a futurist.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly.

Stan Silverman
He wrote a book called “The Icarus Dilemma,” and he writes about Icarus who, of course, is a character in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun, his wings melted and fell off his back, and he crashed into the sea. And what Godin says is, “Should’ve Icarus flown lower and safer so he wouldn’t crash into the sea?” And he says, “No, of course not, because it’s actually more dangerous to fly too low than it is to fly too high, because if you fly too low, you’ll never know what you’re made of, and you’ll never deliver the kind of results or contributions to society that society needs.”

And so, I added actually something in my book about that. I also said that if you fly too low and, all of a sudden, your job disappears and technology moves on, and you have to get a new job. If you fly too low, you’ll never know what you’re made of, and it’s harder to get a new job, so fly high, and if you fly too close to the sun and you fail and you crash into the sea, the next morning you get up and fly again.

And that’s what entrepreneurs are taught.  And so, that’s what drives a lot of the comments I make to folks that I coach and counsel.

Pete Mockaitis
But, you know, as you talked about that Icarus metaphor, and we’ve also been talking about finance, my mind is bringing them together as I think about sort of risk-taking and financial investments. Like, if you take no risk and just sort of do what your savings account will do for you, well, then you’re going to kind of crash in the sense of inflation is just sort of taking away your wealth. And so, in essence, in both instances, Icarus, financial investing, and career risk-taking, you have to take some level of risk because none is more dangerous than some.

Stan Silverman
Exactly. And what everybody has to do is learn how to mitigate their risks, so you try to control the risks. And the way you do an investment, of course, investing is that you diversity your portfolio, and so you don’t go after the homeruns every day. You go after the slow and steady. And the slow and steady, by all accounts, and by all the data and all the studies, wins over the long term. So, it’s slow and steady, slow and steady, so you mitigate your risks.

And in business, of course, a lot of people ask me, “Well, what do you mean by mitigating your risks? How do you mitigate risks?” And I always use the example, let’s assume that you’re a manager in your company and you need to make a decision which you have all the authority in the world to make. You don’t have to ask anybody else, you can either make it or not make it. You can go direction A or direction B, it’s up to you. But you feel that it’s risky and you want to mitigate the risk, well, what do you do? Well, you talk to people. You get other people’s opinions. You don’t have to do what they say but you get other people’s opinion so it expands your view of what you may do, or may not do, and you move forward.

A lot of people think that by asking other people their opinion, it’s a weakness. Wrong. It’s a huge strength and you should always be asking people, getting their opinions, getting their input, and you’re going to make the final decision on your own, but at least you have that input. A lot of people don’t realize that when they feel that something is very risky, or even a modicum of risk, and they want to get an opinion, it’s okay to get it. It’s okay to get an opinion before you move forward.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I was just about to ask about some strategies and approaches if you do have some of that fear of failure, you don’t want to let go of your safety blanket, well, I guess one point is just you have to.

Stan Silverman
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
But, emotionally, there’s still a bridge to cross. How do you suggest folks do it? One is to seek the wisdom of other counsel. What else?

Stan Silverman
Well, you have to fall back on your experience and your critical judgment and common sense. And so, a lot of the decisions we make, we don’t always have all the information we would like to have, we don’t have that information, and you can’t get it or you don’t have time to get it. So, what do we all do? We fall back on our common sense, a good critical judgment. And when we do that, and when we do have good common sense and critical judgment developed over the years through our experiences, because that’s how you get that, we make a lot more right decisions than we make wrong decisions.

And so, that’s just part of life. You’re going to be making decisions without having all the knowledge and all the information you would like. So, let’s flip it around for a moment and let’s assume that you’re the leader of a group, and you have one of your employees, or many of your employees, actually, making decisions, and sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they’re wrong. You have to allow your employees to make mistakes. It’s the only way they’re going to grow and develop.

And one of the prime responsibilities of every leader is to develop future leaders below them. The only way to do that is to tell them what your expectations are and make sure they have the right resources, and cut them loose to do their thing, and sometimes it’s not going to work out, and sometimes it will work out. But if you have good people reporting to you, and you’ve hired people with good common sense and critical judgment, and allow people to develop that common sense and good critical judgment, you’re going to win in the long term. You’ve going to have a lot more wins than you’re going to have losses, and you just have to tolerate that.

So, there are many bosses that won’t allow their people to make mistakes. Those kinds of people you don’t want in your organization if you’re the board or you’re the CEO. You’ve got to get rid of them because you’re not going to go anywhere. You’re just not going to get anywhere.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you said common sense and critical judgment, I was just chatting with some folks about how that seems to be not so common. And I would love to get your take on are there any particular decision-making frameworks, tools, key questions, you ask yourself to bring forth more common sense and judgment to situations?

Stan Silverman
Well, let’s take a real-life example. Let’s take Starbucks, for example. They’ve been blasted, they’re really blasted a couple times a year for what the baristas or not do in their cafes, and, of course, the most important one, and the one that had huge ramifications around the world, is the one that occurred in Philadelphia about a year or so ago when the barista, at the Starbucks in Center City, Philadelphia near Rittenhouse Square, ordered two gentlemen to leave because they claim they were waiting for their friend to arrive before they ordered something, and they were just sitting there, and she said, “Well, if you don’t order something, I have to ask you to leave.”

And they didn’t leave, so she called the police, the police came and arrested these two guys, they were two African-American gentlemen. And as they were leaving, their friend shows up, and their friend says, “What’s going on?” and they tell him. And, of course, this got blasted all over the world. And, in fact, Starbucks had to shut down their cafes to do sensitivity training in this area. And had the barista exercised good critical judgment and common sense, she would’ve said, “Okay, when you’re ready, you can come up and order something when your friend gets here.” That’s how you diffuse. See, you should always diffuse a situation. These guys weren’t harming anything, they weren’t creating a ruckus, they were sitting at tables that weren’t needed by other people. So, you always diffuse, you always diffuse the situation. And so, she got blasted.

In three or four other instances around the country, baristas have refused, I can’t remember the city, it might have been Arizona where a pregnant woman came in and wanted to use the bathroom, and the barista said, “You can’t use it unless you buy something.” And then the news report claims that even after her husband offered to buy something, she wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom. Well, what were they thinking?

So, therefore, one of my prime tenets whenever I coach and counsel future leaders and current leaders, is don’t hire anybody if they don’t have common sense and good critical judgment. Do not hire them especially if they’re customer-facing. Do not hire them even internally, even if they’re not customer-facing. You don’t hire these people. And there are tests to test for this which, of course, aren’t 100% but you don’t want to hire people who don’t exercise common sense and good critical judgment because why would you want to get blasted for a mistake they make on social media which, of course, happens within minutes around the world, and it kills your reputation. It kills your reputation. And then, of course, you have to rebuild that reputation but you never really regain it back.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And so, when you say test for this, are you talking about commercially-available assessments?

Stan Silverman
Oh, yes. There are tests for it.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a fave that you lean on or have historically?

Stan Silverman
No, actually, I don’t. When I hire people, I interview them at length and I talk about I want them to explain their experiences when they’ve had to handle certain situations which were sensitive. I do it through interview but there are tests, there are commercially-available tests which can test for that. Among other things, they can test for new employees.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s interesting, and I wonder, maybe it’s just too expansive and complex to boil down and to a couple of rules of thumb because it’s sort of like you would hope that you wouldn’t have to tell somebody, “Don’t make people leave. Allow folks to use the bathroom.” And I guess, hey, some operational manuals will spell it out, and that could be helpful, certainly, if folks don’t have that critical reasoning or judgment. So, it seems like you shared one principle there in terms of when possible try to diffuse situations as opposed to inflame them. Good rule of thumb. I think that would serve 99% of us well just about all the time. Any other key principles that you come back to again and again?

Stan Silverman
Well, I have a key principle which a lot of CEOs don’t agree with me when I give speeches in front of meetings of leaders. I get a lot of pushback on this.

And I’ll give you my aha. So, I’m a 26-year old business manager for my company and we’re making a product on the West Coast which goes into pharmaceuticals, and I get a call from the plant that the plant manager just discovered that there’s some iron filings in the product that weren’t picked out by the magnet, and he gave me the lot numbers. And so, this product had to come back. It will have to come back anyway but especially for going to a pharmaceutical, it has to come back.

The problem is I don’t have the authority to order a recall. My boss and the CEO were traveling in Europe, and this is the years before cellphones and before email and before text messaging, and every moment, almost every hour, every day that we wait to recall the product it goes further and further into distribution and, eventually, perhaps, gets into one of our customers’ final products, so the costs of recalling this product goes up exponentially every day.

And so, I made the decision at my young age to recall the product, and my people are saying, “Stan, you don’t have the authority to recall the product.” I said, “It’s got to come back. It’s got to come back.” And so, I said to them, “Either I’m going to be celebrated or terminated.” So, I recalled the product. And when the two guys got back, my boss who was vice president and general manager of the industrial group and the CEO came back, I told them what I did and they celebrated me, they said, “You did the right thing.”

So, here I am, a 26-year old, just starting out my career, a couple years into my career, thinking, “Boy, I’ve just learned something.”

And so, that has governed my management leadership philosophy that I give my people permission to do so.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, I think that’s dead-on and I can understand why senior executives, that makes them uncomfortable. It’s sort of like, “I’m not fully confident that I have the people in my organization I can trust with that.”

Stan Silverman
Well, let me give you the perfect example. So, I’m not going to name the company, okay? I won’t name the company. But I’m waiting for this to happen so I can write an article about it. And so, here you have a person who greets customers at the door when they come in, and that’s the person’s job, that’s the employee’s job. And the employee sees an elderly individual pushing a cart full of product that they just bought in the store out to their car, and they’re having trouble pushing the cart. So, I’ll use the masculine, he leaves his post to help unload the cart into the customer’s trunk and returns back two minutes later, or three minutes later. And because he left his post, and that broke policy, the store manager fires that individual.

Pete Mockaitis
This happened or you’re waiting for this to happen?

Stan Silverman
No, I’m just waiting for it to happen so I can write about it, right?

Pete Mockaitis
It’s probably happened somewhere, we just don’t know it.

Stan Silverman
I’m waiting so I can write about it, right? And so, this is all hypothetical and, of course, I’m not naming any store. And so, the store manager fires this individual, and so if I was the regional manager of all the bunch of stores in the region and I found that that’s what happened, I would probably fire the store manager because you didn’t allow your employee to break policy for the good of the company. It didn’t hurt for him to be away for two or three minutes. In fact, he created a lot of goodwill by helping this elderly individual load the car. So, he broke policy, so what? Again, you diffuse the situation. There’s no harm and it was in the best interest of the company to do so.

And you wouldn’t believe how many people disagree with me. I have a lot of CEOs and a lot of senior leadership, when I speak about this, I do a lot of speaking on various topics, and when I describe this, they push back and say, “No, no, no, no , no, that person should never break policy.” Well, of course, they should.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, I’m in your camp and I think it all just depends on who did you hire and how much do you trust them.

Stan Silverman
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
And really what’s at stake. Is the greeter also a loss-prevention person, and if they left their post, $50,000 worth of high-electronics are going to go out the door? I mean, maybe that’s a different scenario, but most likely there’s very little downside and very much upside to helping a customer out.

Stan Silverman
So, let’s look at the extreme. I always like to test the outside of the envelope. So, let’s look at the extreme, okay? So, that’s at one end of the extreme. The other end of the extreme is that you’re running a nuclear power plant making electricity. You never, ever, ever want the operators of that plant to break policy by themselves, ever, because the downside is catastrophic. And so, therefore, if something has to be done, and it could be different than policy, you want to get that checked up, up and down the line, and have a lot of people involved in that discussion before anything ever gets done.

And so, it depends on the situation that you’re in. Look at Boeing today, Boeing was announced that the CEO was terminated by the board because of the 737 max issues of the past year. And, of course, if you go all the way back, the FAA allowed Boeing to do a lot of the quality checks and balances that were really the job of the FAA. They delegated that down to the company and to the engineers within the company.

Well, I got to tell you that is closer to the nuclear power plant example that I just gave. If I was the FAA, I would never ever delegate that down. And if I was Boeing, I would never permit us to do that. That’s the job of the FAA. So, the best friend of the CEO at Boeing is to have the FAA do their independent checks and certification of a plane and not have my people do it. I would never allow my people to do it because the consequence of a mistake is catastrophic. They had two airline crashes.

And let’s go to the other end. So, I’m the CEO of my company, and in our chemical plants, we allow the chemical operators of the plant to do quality assurance on the product they ship out and so, therefore, they have ownership in the production because they have ownership in the quality. And so, the worst that can happen is the place don’t go down, but a product is out that’s off spec, and the customer tests it, and they send it back, so it costs us some money.

And so, you have to look along the continuum where that decision gets made. For nuclear power plants and for aircraft certification, you don’t want anybody making unilateral decisions that break policy. On the other end of the extreme, when you see a customer carrying out packages to the car and they need help, or when you’re testing a chemical product where the only downside is it’s off spec, maybe that’s way over to the end, so you got to figure out where you are in the continuum.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that really makes sense and adds up, yes. I’d like to get your view, then, when it comes to kind of zooming out and thinking across these promotions, you’ve said part of it was, first, curiosity and pursuing new things, and you’re finding the self-confidence, and managing your risks and delivering value. Any other kind of core things that you tend to see over and over again that makes the difference between those who get the promotion and those who are passed over for the promotion?

Stan Silverman
Yes. In fact, I’d like to tell you a story which is my favorite story which really was most impactful to me. And I think to answer your question, people that get promoted learn lessons from everybody within the organization. So, I’m president of our Canadian company and a subsidiary of PQ Corporation, and we had a small production unit which produced a product for high-temperature refractory cements…

Stan Silverman
Okay. And so, when I was president of our Canadian company, we had a production unit which made a product for high temperature, an acid-resistant refractory cements. The unit was sold out. It was at capacity. It was a very high-margin product. The product was growing, and we were basically out of capacity. So, the one gentleman who operated this unit was working all kinds of overtime so we needed to expand the unit.

And our marketing department came over with projections that we really needed a 50% increase in capacity to handle the demand over the next five, to six, to seven years. And so, rather than give the project to one of the corporate engineers, we decided that that would not be the best thing to do. This was a very small unit. I estimated that, to expand the unit by 50%, it’s probably half a million-dollar job, and the engineers, of course, want to work on millions and 10 million-dollar projects because that’s how they get promoted because they’re very complex projects. This is a very simple project.

So, the plant manager and I decided to give the assignment to the operator who runs the unit and ask him, “Well, how would you expand this unit?” So, we called Luigi Pail, the operator of the plant, of this production unit into my office, and he looks around and says, “Am I being fired?” I said, “Well, Luigi, why do think that?” He said, “I’ve never been to your office.” I say, “No, no, no, we’re not going to fire you. In fact, we want to ask you how to expand your unit because we know that you’re working all kinds of overtime hours, it’s hard work. We want to expand the unit. So, how do you think we should do it?” He says, “Oh, I know exactly how to do it but nobody’s ever asked me.”

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

Stan Silverman
“You’re the first person to ever ask me how I can expand. You know, I’ve been working over the last 10 years.” I said, “Well, would you work on it?” He said, “Yes, but I need the help of a mechanic.” And very quickly we said, “Pick your man.” He says, “I pick Don McNeil,” who probably was the best mechanic in the planet at the time. Excellent mechanic but he was terrible with respect to labor, management relationships, always filing grievances, always wanted to go on strike, bad mouthing, he was a negative-opinion leader in the plant, and I’m thinking, “This will be a huge disaster,” right?

So, we tell Luigi, “Well, you ask Don tomorrow morning and then we’ll ask him in the afternoon and see if he’ll do this.” So, we go out and see Don the next afternoon, and he says, “Oh, I spoke with Luigi this morning. I’ll do this but I’m not doing it for you. I’m going to help him expand his unit because Luigi is my friend and I’m not doing it for you. I just want you to understand that.” I said, “Okay, Don, we understand. Go to work.”

Pete Mockaitis
Noted.

Stan Silverman
Well, four weeks later, they come into my office and they present the scope of the expansion to get a 50% increase in capacity, and this is, of course, before PowerPoint. This is when you had these overhead projectors, and you had these slides that you put on the overhead projectors. So, they explained the scope, and I’m thinking, “My God, this is so creative. I never would’ve thought of this.” Don McNeil did something that we never asked him to do, he cost-estimated the project out. Well, of course, Don works with contractors all the time so he knows what it costs to do things. He comes out with an estimate of $260,000 to do the project, I’m guessing 500, right?

So, we say to them, “Okay, guys, we’re going to do it. You’re in charge of doing it. You’re in charge of managing the project.” “Well, that’s not our job. That’s a project manager’s job.” I said, “Hold up. The unit is going to be down for a period of time so you have to work in the construction along with the production. You’re the perfect people to do this.” “Well, okay, we’ll do it.”

Two months later, the plant is done, the unit comes back up on stream, withing seven days we’re at 50% increase in capacity, exactly what we asked him to do. Within two weeks they’re at 64% increase in capacity. The product is coming out much tighter within specification, perfect quality, much easier for Luigi to operate the plant and were often running, and Don brings the project in at $250,000, 10,000 less than what he told us it would be. I think he did that on purpose.

And so, all four of us changed fundamentally. Don McNeil is now walking through the plant telling his fellow union brethren, the blue-collar workers that operate the plant that, “You know, these guys in management, they’re not so bad. They trusted me for what I can do with my mind in addition to what I can do with my hands.” You know how powerful that statement is? And he’s now a positive-opinion leader in the plant. Luigi changed in this way.

And so, about two weeks after startup of his unit, I’m taking a visitor through the entire plant, we stopped at his production unit, and Luigi says, “I’ll take the visitor on tour of my production unit.” I said, “Okay.” So, he does so, and after the tour, we head off to the other six production units within the plant. The next day, Luigi talks to me and says, “You know why I did what I did yesterday?” I said, “What did you do?” He says, “I took the visitor for the tour.” I said, “Yeah, I know.” He said, “I did it because this is my plant not…” I’m sorry, “This is my unit, not your unit. This is my unit.”

We created a sense of ownership in Luigi for his production unit, and I’m thinking, “Oh, my God. How come I didn’t learn this right out of school?” You have to create sense of ownerships in everybody for what they do within the company, and then great things will happen. And that has stuck with me for the decades after that incident occurred. And, sure enough, it’s proven true every single time you create a sense of ownership in people in terms of what they do, and great things will happen.

And so, therefore, I learned something from an hourly guy, probably one, two, three, four levels below me in a production plant, and everybody realizes they can learn from everybody including the people at the bottom of the organization.

Pete Mockaitis
Stan, I love it. Good stuff. 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?

Stan Silverman
Well, I do. But I think let’s move on and I’ll kind of weave it in as we go along if the opportunity arises.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. How about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Stan Silverman
My favorite quote is “Never lie to yourself,” So, I have a chapter in my book, Chapter 1-5 which is about the Challenger explosion and disaster which all of us are very familiar with. And it turns out that the Thiokol engineers who designed the O-rings for the solid rocket boosters, basically, advised NASA not to launch the shuttle on the day they wanted to launch because the temperature outside, the ambient temperature, was 30 degrees Fahrenheit, and they designed the O-rings for 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

And they felt the O-rings were going to be too brittle and there was a huge risk of leakage of fuel around the O-rings because they were brittle which would, of course, cause a disaster. And the Thiokol engineers lost the battle because they faced a huge, huge pressure by NASA. And I’m just going to quote two comments, I’m looking it up now, by a NASA manager. I say one NASA manager is quoted as saying, “I’m appalled by your recommendation, Thiokol.” Another NASA manager said, “My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch, next April?”

So, they didn’t listen to their experts. They didn’t listen to their experts. They went ahead and launched, and, of course, we know what the result was. We lost the shuttle plus five astronauts. And that taught me a huge lesson. The lesson is you always have to listen to your experts. Always listen to your experts. Don’t discount them. That’s why you have them around you.

After I wrote my article, one of the engineers, one of the Thiokol engineers’ daughter, this is Robert Ebeling who was the Thiokol engineer, his daughter reached out to me because my email is at the end of all my articles. Now I talked with her half an hour about what her dad went through that day, and she was actually with him during that launch day, and she said, “He’s held himself responsible, personally responsible for 30 years, for the crash and the disaster of the shuttle when, in fact, he tried to stop it but the managers at NASA decided to launch anyway.”

So, I said to her, “Leslie, would you mind if I called your dad and speak with him on the phone?” She says, “He would love to hear from you.” So, I got his number, he was in an assisted-living facility, really dying of cancer, so I got him, he was very, very sick. I called on the next day and I spoke with him for a good 20 minutes, and I said, “Mr. Ebeling, you and your fellow engineers at Thiokol are true American heroes because you tried to stop the catastrophe but you couldn’t. But don’t feel that that’s your burden. You did your best.” He died five days later.

And so, that was a very, very compelling moment for me when I spoke with Robert Ebeling. And the quote that I wanted, or the author of the quote, “If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule, never lie to yourself.” It was by Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian novelist, a very renowned individual. And that’s my favorite quote because had NASA not lied to themselves, they would’ve listened to their engineers and not launched the shuttle. So, that’s a lesson for all of us. Never lie to yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Stan Silverman
Oh, “Good to Great” by Jim Collins, absolutely. It’s a book that a lot of people have written. I probably read it three times, I listened to a tape on it. And what Jim Collins says is that when you decide where to take your company, you need to pick the right people, put them on a bus, put them on the right seats, and they will decide where to take the bus. And so, you, unilaterally, aren’t going to be very successful, at least most of the time, if you decide where your company should go without your people got buy-in into it, and they have ownership in it.

And so, every time I’ve made strategic decisions and change in the strategic direction, I’ve had input from the people who work for me, who report to me. I trust them. I’ve hired them with good critical judgment and common sense, and we argue our points, we argue all the time. And I have a story to tell you about that in a moment.

And so, you have to staff your company with people reporting to you who aren’t afraid to talk to you, who aren’t afraid to say you’re wrong, and you need to listen to that. If you’re the CEO that can’t take being told you’re wrong, you’re not going to be very successful.

So, this is the story. So, when I was chief operating officer of the company, I would come up with an idea or a proposal and I would talk to the CEO about implementing it. And, more often than not, before I could finish talking about it, I would hear from him, “Well, it’s not going to work.” And I’d say, “Well, don’t tell me it’s not going to work. First, let me explain the whole thing, and then tell me it won’t work.”

And so, I started writing him memos which, of course, he would read without me in the room, and you’d have to read the whole memo, a page, a page and a half memo. He’d come in and say, “Boy, this is a great idea. Let’s get it done.” And so, that’s how we got stuff done. So, when he left the company and I became the CEO, I swore that we would change that cultural norm because he did that with everybody.

And the cultural; norm would be this. So, I would not often kind of give my opinion on how we should go somewhere and the direction, I would kind of tease it out of my folks. But, every once in a while, I would say, “You know, I think we should go direction A with a certain issue.” Well, if my CFO or the head of our chemicals group didn’t agree with me, I would expect him to say, “No, Stan, I don’t think that’s right. I think rather than go direction A, which is your direction, I think we should go direction B.”

Well, how I react to that comment will forevermore, in the future, govern the dynamic between that individual and myself. Rather than say, “I don’t want to hear it. Just go direction A,” which is bad, I would say, “Well, Bill, why do you think we should go direction B?” or, “Why, Mike, do you think we should go direction C?” And we would debate A versus B. we would bring in experts, we would bring people very knowledgeable, we debate for a day, for a week, for a month. And at the end of that discussion, one of three things would happen.

I would say, “Bill, thank you very much for suggesting B, but we beat A up against B, and B up against A, and I really think Ai is the way to go so that’s the way we’re going to go,” and we would go that direction. Or, I would say, “Bill, you know, thank you for suggesting B. After beating one up against the other, I think B is the better alternative,” and Bill would feel really good that I picked his alternative.

But more than not, and this is real live data, real live experience, more often than not, because we debated A versus B, we would find direction C better than A and B, and we would go direction C. Well, when we did that, we really made a mistake. And it’s one of the reasons why we drove earnings from $14 million to $43 million over a five-year period which included the year of 9/11 2001 plus the horrible recession of 2002. We never had a down quarter during that recession because we debated things as equals. As equals we debated things.

And that, I think, is just a huge, huge cultural norm within any company to really get great results, you debate, and then you pick the right one. Pick the right direction.

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

Stan Silverman
Well, they can read my book. My book is called “Be Different: The Key to Business and Career Success,” and it talks a lot about leadership, it talks a lot about tone at the top and culture, but the focus in the book is it teaches every business how to be better than their competition so that they become the preferred provider of product or service to the marketplace so that your customers, your clients, want to buy from them preferentially above any of the competition.

And it doesn’t matter whether or not you make widgets, whether or not you’re an accounting firm, whether you’re an attorney, you’re a doctor, you’re a surgeon, you’re a hospital, or whether you put roofs on houses, or you sell bicycles in a bike shop. You want to be the preferred provider so that anybody that needs a roof on their house, or medical treatment, or surgery, or wants to buy a bicycle, they want to buy from you versus the competition. And I teach how to do that.

The other part of the book is that all of us, as we all rise up through our careers, become better than our peers so that we get the next promotion or the next job on the outside the company. And so, that’s what the book is about. It’s about how to do that. And I have a lot of examples of great leaders, and leaders that aren’t so great, great companies and companies that aren’t so great, a lot of boards which are great boards and boards that aren’t so great.

And it’s really a handbook for success, future success, for your company or for yourself. And you can buy it at Barnes & Noble, or if you want to buy the Kindle version, you can buy the Kindle version on Amazon.com.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely.

Stan Silverman
Or BarnesandNoble.com for the hardcopy.

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

Stan Silverman
Well, yeah, I think you have to decide. We all have legacies. We all have to think about what our legacies are going to be. What do we want to leave this world? What do we want to leave this world when we check out? And my legacy is I want to be able to say that I created a bunch of great leaders and helped them develop and be successful. I want to help companies develop and be successful.

I start a lot of talks off, I say, “What is the holy grail of any business, of any individual? What’s the one thing everybody, every business, or what’s the one thing everybody wants? What is the holy grail?” And three or four people will raise their hand, and one of those responses is, “To make money.” I said, “Well, that’s certainly something everybody wants to do, but that’s a measurement of how well you do with something else. Money is a measurement of how well you do. It’s not the objective. Because if it’s the objective, there are other ways to make a lot more money.”

And so, I tell them that, “If you’re running your company, you want to be the preferred provider of product and service to your marketplace and give a great customer experience. Give a great customer experience, that’s what you want to do. And as you rise through your career, you want to be better than your peers, and that should be your holy grail as you develop your career. And, of course, at my point in life, my holy grail is to help other people be successful. And that’s what I do every single day by coaching and counselling and writing about this.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Stan, this has been a pleasure. Thanks so much and keep up the good work.

Stan Silverman
Well, thank you, Pete. It was really great being a guest on your show and I really appreciate having the opportunity to talk with you today.