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KF #16. Drives Engagement Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

637: How to Have a Happier Work Week with Nic Marks

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Nic Marks says: "Feelings are data. What I'm feeling is data."

Nic Marks shares the research and best practices for more happiness at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The five elements of a happy work life 
  2. How to draw the boundary between work and life 
  3. How to boost motivation and engagement in 5 minutes 

About Nic

Nic Marks was once described as a “statistician with a soul” due to his unusual combination of ‘hard’ statistical skills and ‘soft’ people skills.

He has been working in the field of happiness, wellbeing and quality of life over 25 years with a particular emphasis on measurement and how to create positive change. He is the founder of Friday Pulse and has worked with over a 1,000 organizations and teams measuring and improving their happiness at work.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Nic Marks Interview Transcript

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

Nic Marks
Thank you, Pete. Good to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom. You have been called a statistician with a soul, which is a nice little moniker. Maybe could you start us off with a statistic or two that stirs your soul? Is there a number you find yourself coming back to again and again and you’re like, “You know what, I find that hopeful or I find that troubling, but I think of this number a lot”?

Nic Marks
Well, I think there’s a really nice number, well, it’s two numbers, 5 and 15, about 350. They’re called Dunbar numbers and they are basically our circle of friends and that most of us tend to have an intimate circle of five friends who we are really close to, roughly, I’m talking. And then a next circle of 15, and then sort of a 150 is our tribe.

And, particularly during COVID, I think, and the fact that we’ve all got sort of restricted lives, I think it’s quite good to identify the 5 and the 15 and to make sure you’re really maintaining those relationships, and kind of let the 150 go for the moment, and you can pick it up when this is all over. So, I think those are really nice numbers I like at the moment, 5 and 15 and 150.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, could you give us an overview orientation before we dig into… What is Friday Pulse and your work there?

Nic Marks
So, yeah, I’m a statistician and I’ve been very interested in measuring people’s experience of life for quite some time now. I’ve sort of started doing quality of life statistics and then moved into more wellbeing and happiness lately. And Friday Pulse is sort of a merger between two different strands of my life, and that kind of is the statistician and the soul bit in that it’s about how people enjoy their jobs.

And so, every week we ask people, “How have you felt at work this week?” and we’re basically looking to try and support organizations to create more good weeks for people. Yeah, that’s basically what Friday Pulse is.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so happiness, hey, that’s great. We all like some more of it and it’s a good in and of itself. Nonetheless, on How to be Awesome at Your Job, I’m going to need to hear a bit about the connection associated between happiness and performance, at being awesome at your job, be it for individuals or teams or organizations. Can you draw that linkage there for us?

Nic Marks
Yeah, very explicitly in some ways. So, when we are enjoying our jobs…So, firstly, happiness is a sort of multifaceted sort of idea in that we can think about being happy at a music concert or festival or something, and I’m not talking about that type of happiness at work. I’m talking about happiness that comes from enjoying your work or liking the people that you work with, being curious, being inspired. And in that sense, we know very well that people who enjoy their work are much more productive, and that’s both in terms of the quantity of work they do if it’s more sort of piecemeal work and also the quality of the work that they do particularly links into innovation and creativity.

We’re not creative when we’re feeling…when we’re unhappy, we’re not creative when we’re not getting on with the people we’re working with, we’re not creative if we don’t care about our work. So, creativity and innovation is hugely, hugely linked to enjoying our work and enjoying collaborating with the people we’re working with. So, it’s very, very linked to productivity and creativity, and then, also, to other good things for organizations, like staff retention, reductions in conflicts, things like that are much better as well.

I can give you very specific stats if you want me to.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, actually I was going to go there, and we don’t have to go with every one of them, but maybe some of them that are the most eye-popping, like, “Holy smokes, happy folks stay at their jobs five times longer,” or kind of whatever is really striking.

Nic Marks
So, on the staying in their jobs longer, so we measure people’s experience every week. So, we can look at in quarter one how happy people were and did they leave in quarter two. And we know that people, who were unhappy in quarter one, are twice as likely to leave the very next quarter as other people. I mean, it’s not the only reason leave people leave, unhappiness. They leave for other reasons too, but it’s a major reason and it’s one that’s actually really deal-able with for organizations, so that’s very precisely, so.

And I think the fact that sometimes we think of it not in terms of just, it’s called as ratios. We can also think of it in terms of scales. So, we have a one to five scale, a five-point scale, and if a team moves half a point up, then that’s associated with 18% lower staff turnover next quarter. It’s also associated with a 7.5% increase in productivity, so they’re very tangible and very quick, some of these indicators in how much they translate into real bottom line stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then let’s talk about it in terms of the measurement. I understand there are five ways to happiness at work. Or, how would you begin chunking this up in terms of us being able to get our arms around happiness?

Nic Marks
Well, there are certain things. There’s the outcome that we’re thinking about which is we define very clearly as, “Have you had a good week?” basically. And we do it as a week because work experience ebbs and flows, it goes up and down very quickly. Weeks are really convenient length of time to do it over, so that’s our outcome. And then it’s like, “What drives increases in that?” and we know that there are particularly five main factors that increase that. We call them the five ways to happiness at work.

And they are connect, which is relationships are really critical; be fair, which is if a system isn’t fair, people, they get angry pretty quick; to empower people, so basically it’s about autonomy, delegating, using their strengths; to challenge people. It’s a total misnomer to think people are going to be happy if they’re not working. You’re bored, you’re not happy then. And, actually, we like a bit of stretch in learning. And then the fifth one is to inspire them. It’s about meaning, purpose, accomplishment. So, those are the five big things: connect, be fair, empower, challenge, inspire.

And if teams and organizations get those right, then people are much more likely to be happy at those workplaces.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that sounds right. I’m sure, yeah, I know, we’ve been finetuning it for a long time with many, many people.

Nic Marks
But it’s not exactly new science. You can see Maslow in there. You can see any theory you know. I mean, if you happen to follow something like Daniel Pink’s Drive, then his trio there, autonomy, mastery, and purpose, or Seligman in Positive Psychology his PERMA, they’re not dissimilar. The think that we do a bit different is we frame them in terms of positive actions to make them easy to act on, so we change it around a bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then in terms of the “Have you had a good week?” you’ve got a number of tools you work through from like 110 questions and 15 questions. And so, with that Friday check-in, kind of what are we asking? Is it just the one, “Have you had a good week?”

Nic Marks
So, the Friday check-in, so we do two main sort of pulse surveys, if you like. We do the weekly one, and the weekly one has to be really short. You’ve got maybe two minutes of people’s time on a Friday to capture a bit of data. So, we ask them how they felt at work this week, from unhappy to very happy. And then we ask them, actually, sort of text-based data which are things like, “What is a success for you this week?” “Do you want to thank anybody in your team?” “Have you got any frustrations?” And basically we’re trying to capture things that can be acted on, on a local team level, to improve their work in a weekly flow way.

And then once a quarter, we do what we call a culture profile which is 15 questions based on those five ways to happiness at work. And that’s a more in-depth, more like an orthodox style survey, shorter quarterly instead of annually or bi-annually, more actionable but it’s still a similar thing in the asking 15 questions. And then you’re basically trying to get into more of a planning cycle there or three months sprint about an organization doing some changes. Whereas, the weekly one is more like a sort of tech retrospective conversation about “How was last week? How can this week be better?”

Pete Mockaitis
And with the five ways and the 15 questions, I guess I’m curious, is there a particular question or two or three that seems to have a disproportionate amount of explanatory power or a correlation to the happiness? Like, “Hey, all 15 are important, all five ways are key. But, by golly, these one or two things sure do go a long way.”

Nic Marks
Well, as you briefly said earlier, I know I started off with 100 questions and I went down to 80 to 40 to 15, and you’re always choosing those on the power of their ability, not only to individually predict good outcomes but when you have the 15 together, that collectively, they create a good broad breadth as well.

So, you’re trying to do two things which are slightly contradictory in some ways, which is the sort of the biggest impact then have the widest impact, so they’re sort of carefully selected for that. Well, it depends what you mean. The fastest-acting is probably when relationships go wrong. So, if your team relationships go wrong, you become unhappy very quickly, but other ones are more slow-burning. So, if you haven’t got a sense of sort of your work is worthwhile, that’s more of a slow-burner.

We see differences between different sectors but, generally speaking, if you’re proud to work for the organization that you work for, if you’re using your strengths at work, and you’ve got good work-life balance, that’s a good start. Yeah, good start.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. You know, I’m thinking about my team right now. Hi, guys. They’ll be working on this episode. And sometimes, I think, man, I am probably too hands-off in terms of I’d love to do more of the regular check-in and coaching and feedback and guidance and motivating and inspiring, and then I don’t for any number of reasons but that’s not the topic for this episode.

Nic Marks
In some ways, it is. I think it’s an interesting point in that I think we can sometimes…I’m a very hands-off leader, I think, as well, and I think sometimes people want a bit from me than I realize that they do. And one of the things you try to do is really encourage team leaders to have a conversation each week but just a short one, 15 minutes. So, our data is all fed back to the team, and the team leader on a Monday, and they talk about what was a success, who they want to thank, or any frustrations. And, actually, it’s doing enough.

Your coach, when I was young, I trained as a therapist, and you’d learn from that process, that actual regular sort of ritual really helps.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, well, I guess what I was driving at then is that’s encouraging, is that I think that my team seems very happy and I think we are probably nailing it on this. I’m going to chat with them afterwards to make sure I’m not assuming things in terms of being proud of what we’re doing and the impact we’re making from the show, using their strengths and having the flexibility and the work-life balance associated with which hours they work and how many hours they choose to work in a given week just to kind of scale up or down. In most weeks, we’ve got some good flexibility there. So, that’s encouraging and food for thought in terms of, hey, where to start.

And that’s really what I want to zoom in now. I think we’ve built a great why here and really established that we have a rich, rich set of evidence underneath this. So, Nic, lay it on us, what are the top actions we can take to make a world of difference in our happiness at work and start seeing some of these benefits?

Nic Marks
Well, particularly now, in this really weird time of all of us having lived under restrictions for a very long period of time now, a lot of us are working from home, I think that work-life balance is one of the critical ones. As people got rid of the commute by working from home, and not everybody has but a lot of people have, structure of work, I think, has really got disrupted.

We used to use that commute or going to the office as a way of separating our parts of ourselves. So, we got our home self and we got our work self, and we have a sort of way of moving between that. And I think that a lot of people, absolutely myself included, have slightly struggled with the lack of separation between work and life that, we now, a lot of us are living with.

And so, I think that one of the top tips really for 2021 is to introduce a bit of structure to our lives that actually helps us demarcate work and work in the rest of our lives so we got a boundary there again. And I think that’s certainly one of the ways to be happy at work and in life.

Pete Mockaitis
So, yeah, let’s hear it. When it comes to the structure and the boundary, what are some of the great practices and things that you’ve seen is really handy for folks right now?

Nic Marks
So, rituals, I think, are good, and the commute, in some ways, was a ritual. And I think it’s about how you recreate those rituals. So, some of that might be that when you finish work, you turn off your computer. I know lots they’re going to watch Netflix again on the same machine. But, basically, “How do you separate that?” So, do you turn it off? Do you then go for a walk for 10 minutes around your neighborhood? Do you do something which really, before you go back into the family situation or the domestic situation that you’re in, that actually allows you to leave that behind? And, also, really strive to leave it behind.

There’s so much stuff about not taking your phone to bed, not checking emails late in the evening, and I’m as guilty as anybody else of doing that. But I do think those things are exceptionally healthy and introducing just some light rituals that work for you. It can be changing your shoes. It can be as simple as that. Just doing something, like changing your shirt. Doing something that actually says, “Right, I’m now not working.” And organizations need to respect that.

Actually, I moved my organization to a four-day week during last summer because I think everybody was struggling so much and everything was bleeding into every other day. I said, “Look, give me four good days, and then have another day off.” And, actually, it’s worked really well. We haven’t seen any dip in productivity, people have done really interesting things with their extra day, volunteering, or some of my coders are doing sort of open-source work. Obviously, some are doing child care and things like that.

But I think it’s about organizations and the employee having a new contract around that, and a new understanding about it that we’re all human beings and we’ve all got things to juggle. But boundaries, I think about finding rituals to mark the boundaries is a really good way.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that. And I’d like it if we could hang out there for a little bit longer in terms of, are there ideas coming to mind or you’ve heard from folks in terms of changing the shirt, changing the shoes? I was talking to my buddy Brad about how it’s been weird for him shifting to working from home, even pre-pandemic, in his role, and he’s like, “I’ve tried things like should I just hop in the car and drive around the block a couple of times since I don’t have a commute anymore?” So, yeah, think some people really are struggling with this to the extent that you’ve heard of more rituals that are working for people. Lay it on us.

Nic Marks
Well, I know some people, they’ve marked the boundary with their run of the day. I’ve never ran. I’m not a creature of speed but a walk is good, a run, a mediate, a yoga, a mindfulness, whatever, so you can break it with something else but it’s really leaving it behind. And, of course, for leaving behind at the end of the day, a list is very good, isn’t it?

Your write out the things that are still on your mind. Take five minutes at the end of the day, don’t just stop at the last task. You actually then just take five minutes, “Okay, this is what I’ve done today. This is what’s still open I must pick up in the morning. This is just another random thought.” Put them down, shut the notebook, and then it’s out of your head. I mean, it’s getting stuff out of your head. Because what happens, our minds, they don’t just sort of stop. They’re still processing lots of stuff so just set them in the book and do that, and leave them behind.

Bizarrely, the thing with creativity is that sleep works so well for creativity. So, actually leaving yourself an open question, which is a nice open question, you might dream about it, you might wake up in the morning with a new idea. There are all sorts of weird ways the mind works.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s an interesting little distinction there in terms of, on the one hand, writing it down, having it out of your brain, is a relief, and it lets you kind of be at peace and move on. On the other hand, having something in the background to noodle on does unleash some creative goodies. I guess maybe to have the best of both worlds, you want it to be sort of a fun, happy, positive thing to noodle on as opposed to, “What is his deal?”

Nic Marks
I guess so and I’m sure I’m contradicting myself there, and also because I’m slightly obsessed with my work, I never quite totally want to leave it behind, but I think it depends what type of work you do. Like, often one of the books I’ve got on the go, I tend to have two or three on the go at one time, is a sort of business-y book or book I’m trying to read for that. So, sometimes I’m doing that in the evening anyway. But it’s really the thing, it’s leaving behind the things particularly that are stressing you and getting them down or task or stuff.

People will find their own way. There’s not one way. It’s just a multitude of ways of doing but it is about how does it help you feel good in the evening? How does it help you be a good husband, father, wife, mother, lover, friend, whatever it is? Because relationships outside of work are more important than work, dare I say, but they probably are. Not many people go to their graves thinking they worked harder. There’s lots and lots of people who go there who wished they’d loved their family more or whatever. So, you do need to give time and attention to these people that are the cornerstones of your life. And if you’re always thinking about your work, you’re not going to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so let’s hear some other key practices, things that make a world of difference in boosting our happiness at work.

Nic Marks
So, I’m very interested in the team. We’re very social creatures. In fact, it would be my criticism of Daniel Pink when you look at his Drive. He’s very individualistic and he doesn’t think about the social environment very much. There’s a little bit about meaning and purpose which can connect to the contribution but I think our relationships are really, really important for our happiness at work. And I think that teams, the reason that we work together in teams is because one plus one equals more than two.

We have two minds and we get something more synergetic that comes out of it. And I think that teams are a really good way of us resolving any tensions that are around and building better collaboration. So, always, all of our interventions I try and build are around conversations. I am a statistician and I even like decimal places which I know makes me weird, but it isn’t the numbers that changes organizations. It’s the relationships, it’s the conversations, it’s the reflection process.

And so, encouraging teams to talk more about how their experience at work is going is one of the key things, and it’s sort of a problem shared, it’s a problem halved. And, actually, you’ll find unexpected sources of support or people with skills you didn’t know about if you ask people about stuff. And even if it’s something that only you can work on, just knowing other people have got your back and they’re asking you how you’re doing, if you’re in a particularly stressful part of work, you’re the only person that seems who can do that job, others might take other tasks off you.

I used to run a team in a think tank about 10, 15 years ago. If someone was working on a particularly time-deadline project, others will take other tasks off them so they could have more time for that. That’s teamwork. And I think that teamwork is really where awesome work happens. It’s unusual, it’s not impossible but it’s unusual if it’s all down to one person. It’s normally relationships between people and collaboration that makes work awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, those team conversations, I think I’m hearing one point is just that you’re having them as opposed to, “No, it’s all on me. I’m just going to do it. I’m not going to whine about it. They don’t want to be brought down and hear my complaining.” But rather, being able to, and engaging, and, “Oh, boy, this is tricky. I don’t quite know. It’s so confusing. It’s ambiguous,” just to be able to share and to have some listening ear and some validation as well maybe some ideas, solutions, taking work off your plate. So, it sounds like just having those conversations is the thing to do as opposed to saying anything in particular in those team conversations. Or are there some key specific conversations you really recommend folks be having?

Nic Marks
So, there are some key specific things I think to be having, and there is also the general effect. I think the two things are there. And the key things, I think, are In the modern workplace which is so fast moving, we’re really poor at celebrating successes and we tend to move straight on to the next challenge, “Done that. Moving to the next challenge.” And I think we should take a little bit more time.

And I’m not talking much. About 5 to 10 minutes a week to just go through about, “This went well, this went well. This person did a good job,” and actually appreciating some people call it catching people doing things right, recognizing that. That’s micro recognition. It’s not employee of the month sort of recognition. It’s just like, “Thanks, that’s good.” That humanness about it. That makes a huge difference and it gives people confidence in a sense that there’s this basic thing that if we get positive feedback, we feel good with positive emotions and actually we build resources for the future, we build our confidence, our ability to take risks. So, that’s all important.

And, in fact, our ability to take risks is really important. People call it psychological safety or dare to fail, or whatever they want to call it. But if you’re going to be an innovative team, not every time it’s going to work, and you’ve got to try them out. But that support to try and to pick each other up when something doesn’t quite work is very, very important too. So, there are some specific things like that.

And I think one of the things we can do, particularly about people’s experiences, is that we too often just accept people’s first answer. And if you go, “Are you alright?” “Yeah,” and if you ask them, “Are you really alright?” you might get a different answer. And I think, particularly, during these difficult times, we have to ask a little bit deeper. And it’s about asking, as a leader, people leaders asking a deepening question. You’re a coach, and you lead like a coach, it’s about noticing that a little door is open and just opening a little bit more, and just say, “Oh, what do you mean by that?” or “Give me an example of that.”

Just ask those deepening questions rather than come and charging in with advice or try to fix it for them. Open it out a little bit and let them explain the context of their challenge more or whatever it is because they’d have information you just don’t have. So, helping them to solve it with you rather than you doing it for them is a much better way of doing it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that rings true. Can we hear maybe one more practice that makes a boatload of difference in terms of being happy at work?

Nic Marks
Yes, I’m sure we can do. I think of happiness, and I’m going to find one that science talks about it, as a two-way street. There is about what we receive, that’s what’s nourishing and satisfying to us and supports us, and it’s also about what we contribute. And so, I think that a happy awesome employee is someone that gives as well as receives, so they’re not looking for what they need for them. It’s actually them reaching out to other people and supporting them.

And that can be your clients, it can be your supply chain, it can be people in your team, people in other teams, you can be a mentor to somebody, you can be a reverse mentor to someone higher up in the organization, but those conversations that you can have with people about their work and what you can offer to them. So, I think thinking about what you can give is a really good way to feel happy at work and in life actually. So, yeah, what you can contribute.

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

Nic Marks
I think that when I was designing Friday Pulse, I’m a statistician but I wanted to have a measurement tool and so you had to define a rhythm to that measurement. But what actually makes the changes are the rituals you build around that rhythm. So, if you’re doing something quarterly, make sure you do a quarterly ritual. If you’re doing it daily, make sure you have a daily ritual that can discuss it and process it. And if we go for weekly, ask people weekly, and we suggest you have a weekly start of the week team meeting.

So, you have the rhythm and the measurement and the ritual, and I think that’s the biggest design thing that we do with the tool and the statistics is all there that’s all fancy and there’s a bit of algorithms that processes them for you. But, actually, it’s the team meeting. If you do the team meeting every week, that’s when people really thrive and actually start creating better teams and experience for people.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we should probably give that a moment of time. So, the weekly team meetings, what are some of the most critical things that need to get covered there?

Nic Marks
Yeah, I think what we tried to help with the weekly team meeting is, I don’t know if you’ve ever used something like HelloFresh where they deliver a box of food to you each week, and it’s got the menus, it’s the got recipes, and all the ingredients. You don’t have to go shopping.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, they’re sponsoring us today. They’ve sponsored us before but sponsors eat it up when they come up naturally in the interview.

Nic Marks
Oh, well. Okay. Anyway, I think of what we do for team meetings is the same, is that often team meetings are a little bit, “Oh, we should have a team meeting,” and nothing very much happens, and it sort of feels good because you see other people. Now it’s obviously on Zoom, but whatever, but it’s like I think sometimes there’s not enough structure to them.

And so, basically, we present and we sort of give a PowerPoint thing is actually online but you go through and it says, “This is how people felt last week. These are their successes. These are the people that are being thanked. These are people’s frustrations,” and you go through them in order. And so, in a team meeting I think it’s very good to just, firstly, start with something fun. And people often think that we should have, “We’ll have a team meeting and we’ll have cookies at the end or we’ll have fruit or whatever,” depending on how healthy you are. Have it at the beginning because if people are in a positive mood, they have a better meeting.

So, if you’re going to do something fun in the meeting, do it to begin with as an icebreaker. Don’t do it as a reward at the end. Give it to them at the beginning, then you’ll get a better meeting. So, that’s one thing. And the next thing is making sure that everyone speaks. That’s a really obvious thing to say. But if someone is an extrovert, like I am, I can dominate a meeting quite easily. And it’s like, actually, extroverts like me need to learn to be quieter, and we need to learn to draw things out with the people that are more introverted. They very often hold a truth that you don’t know about, and if you don’t try and help them contribute, you wouldn’t understand that bit of critical data to you as a team.

So, that sort of facilitative style of making sure that, sure, the experts can be heard, but they should have their proportionate time, and the introverts, try and draw them out more. Try and get people to, without bullying people, but encourage them all the time and, also, being sensitive. We’re exquisitely sensitive at picking up signals. Maybe less so through Zoom but when we’re in a room with people, we pick up tensions, we feel them in our bodies that there’s something going on well before we understand what it is. Don’t ignore those signals.

I often say that feelings are data. What I’m feeling is data. It doesn’t mean it’s the truth. It could be a bit of data from 10 years ago from a fear I had. That’s when we get into problems and we probably should go put ourselves in therapy to sort things out. But it could be a bit of data that’s right here in the room. And so, how do you work with that? And how do you draw that out? And how do you find out more about it?

And I think being curious and sensitive and compassionate as a team leader, as a group leader, is a good way to get a lot out of your team whilst also needing to hold boundaries sometimes. You can’t let people run over you. You can’t. You’ve obviously got deliverables as a team that has to be met. This is work. This is not a support group. But it’s how you move towards together there.

A work team, a good work team, is a brilliant experience. It can be one of the top experiences of your life. A good marriage is good, a good family is good, a good sports team is good, but a good team at work is right out there because you spend so much time with them. And so, it’s worth investing in because it’s just a hell of a lot better when you enjoy working with your colleagues. It’s so much better.

Pete Mockaitis
Amen. Well-said. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Nic Marks
Victor Frankl, “The space between stimulus and response is where our growth is.” That’s not quite an exact quote but it’s something like that. I love the idea that we’ve got this ability that if something happens, we have a choice how we respond. It’s how I think about emotions and cognition interacting. Emotion, the feeling comes. We can apply our intelligence to actually decide how we act. And it’s that space which is the maturation process.

A signal comes into us, how do we choose to respond? So, something might make us angry but we don’t have to hit the person, particularly if they’re your boss, but we can respond perhaps in a different way. And that’s how we learn and we grow. In a sense, emotional intelligence for me is about having access to your emotional signals but using your intelligence in order to how to actually react to them. So, I think that’s a really nice one.

There’s an Aristotle one, which I’m not going to get exactly right, but it’s something about how we learn by repeatedly doing. We don’t suddenly learn from a book or whatever. It is actually by the doing that we really learn. Excellence is acquired by repeatedly doing things. And I think that if you want to be a good team leader, if you want to be a good colleague, it’s about what we do in the world. It’s a show-not-tell world. What we do, the piece we do, how well we do it is actually how we learn. And that’s probably why we should risk because if you don’t try, you don’t learn.

Pete Mockaitis
Those are good. Those are good. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Nic Marks
Well, probably the study that most changed my way of thinking about how to measure experience was a 2004 study by the stellarly brilliant Daniel Kahneman. So, Kahneman was starting to work on wellbeing in the early 2000s, actually about the same time that I was. I started about 2001. So, I was really interested when he entered the field because he already had a reputation in economics. And he produced something which came to be called The Day Reconstruction Methodology where he asked a thousand women, was the first study, about what they did yesterday.

And there’s a strong tradition in social science to do diary so they just asked people how they spent their time. The difference was he said, “How much did you enjoy the activity?” And by putting an emotional tone into the research, he made the data come alive in a way I just hadn’t seen. Most people are doing happiness research, wellbeing, quality of life research, we’re asking questions like, “How satisfied are you with your family life? How satisfied are you with your overall life?” And they’re perfectly good questions but they’re a bit dull.

And he suddenly asked, “What did you do? How much did you enjoy it?” And so, what he found out was that the activity they did most on the last day they were working, it was work, it was 6.9 hours or something, the activity that they enjoyed most was what he very delicately called intimate relationships but it was only 12 minutes.

And what he found was that if he asked people how much they enjoyed their work, he came second bottom. The bottom was the commute. And so, you had the activities that they did the most were people enjoying the least. And in that moment, I thought, “Sometime I want to work on work.” And it was another eight years before I did do. But in that moment, I thought, “It’s interesting. That’s where adults spend a lot of time. So, if I’m genuinely interested,” which I say I am, “in making the world a happier place, work is a really good intervention to think about, about how to do that because people spend so much time there.” So, that’s probably my favorite study, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Nic Marks
Oh, I’ve just read a beautiful book. I’m always into the last book I just read. I don’t know about you. And it’s called The Reality of Time, and it’s by Carlo Rovelli, and he’s a physicist. And it’s about how time doesn’t really exist, and it really blew my mind. I did physics at school. I loved science books. They take me out of my comfort zone. But I thought what probably the most amazing thing was that he had this whole sort of treatise of what time is, what constant time is, what thermal time is, and all this stuff.

I didn’t know that apparently time goes slower if you’re on top of a mountain than if you’re at the bottom of a valley because time is affected by gravity. I didn’t know that. I did know that black holes, you couldn’t get in them and out of them so time didn’t move through them. And I knew time was relative in the universe but I didn’t know that. And then but what I really loved is when he started talking about death, which is, I think, should be, is a favorite topic of mine and should be a topic of all us. And he goes, he summarizes Epicurus, and he goes, “When I am here, death is not here. When death is here, I am not here, so there’s nothing to be frightened of death.” He basically said, “Death is the end of the experience of time for us. And as there will be no time in death, there’s nothing to worry about after death.” That was lovely.

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

Nic Marks
Well, I really do like Slack actually. I think being in that instant messaging into the workplace has been really brilliant. We used another one called HipChat for a while and then we moved over to Slack. I think they’re really good tools. And I have come to love my CRM system as well because it just saves so much time. We use HubSpot. So, those are tools that I use at work for productivity. Of course, my favorite tool is Friday Pulse, but I’m not going to say that really.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Nic Marks
Oh, for me, walking. Walking serves a lot of purposes for me. I’m an overweight middle-aged man. I’m not ever going to be very fast. It’s my one exercise I really enjoy. Swimming I do as well but it has to be warm. I’m not very good at cold-water swimming. But walking because it’s my meditation as well, it’s my thinking time, my creative time. It’s my exercise. It’s time on your own. I do like walking with my wife but every other walk, not every walk, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate with folks and you have it quoted back to you frequently?

Nic Marks
One of my mantras is I really encourage people to take their happiness seriously and the happiness of other people seriously. It’s something to teach. It’s not a light frivolous topic. It’s a serious topic. I don’t know if that’s what you mean.

Pete Mockaitis
No, it’s good. Yeah. Thank you.

Nic Marks
But, certainly, sometimes people go to me, “Oh, yeah, I don’t about that.” I think people don’t think about their happiness enough, in my opinion.

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

Nic Marks
Yes. So, FridayPulse.com is our website. I have a personal website which is NicMarks.org. LinkedIn, if you like what I’m saying, then connect with me on LinkedIn. I love connections on LinkedIn. And we’ve also just created a sort of free personal reflection tool for people to think about their happiness at work and it’s a bit like one of those sort 16 personalities questionnaires but I would say it’s more actionable because it’s basically talking about the work you do now and what you can do to improve your work.

And you can just get to that, it’s just FridayOne.com, so it’s one because it’s one person. It’s one snapshot in time. But it’s FridayOne.com and you take the test and it will give you what I think is a rather cute report back with insights and reflection pieces in it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that sounds also like a call to action so we’ll take it. Nic, this has been a treat. Thank you and I wish you much happiness.

Nic Marks
Thank you. And you, Pete, keep awesome.

559: How to Unify, Motivate, and Direct Any Team by Picking a Fight with David Burkus

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David Burkus says: "Put to words the vision that's already in people's hearts and minds."

David Burkus discusses how crafting a compelling vision in terms of a fight can inspire your team to action.

You’ll Learn:

1) The three kinds of fights that inspire

2) A simple trick to greatly boost motivation and efficiency

3) The secret to getting along with the coworker you dislike

About David:

One of the world’s leading business thinkers, David Burkus’ forward-thinking ideas and bestselling books are changing how companies approach innovation, collaboration, and leadership.

As a skilled researcher and inspiring communicator, Burkus’ award-winning books have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and his TED Talk has been viewed over 2 million times.

A renowned expert, Burkus’ writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, USAToday, Fast Company, and more. He’s been interviewed by NPR, the BBC, CNN, and CBS This Morning. Since 2017, Burkus has been ranked as one of the world’s top business thought leaders by Thinkers50.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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David Burkus Interview Transcript

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

David Burkus
Oh, thanks so much for having me. Great title for a show, by the way. I just need to say that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Yes, well, I like it clear. So, that’s what you’re getting here. I understand one thing that you’re awesome at is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and you got a blackbelt. What’s the story here?

David Burkus
Yeah, so I have been doing Jiu-Jitsu since probably 2016. Like a lot of people, I have that exact same story of college student, etc., go to Blockbuster when it’s still around and rent one of those old UFC DVDs and watch this guy named Royce Gracie destroy everybody. And, suddenly, you’re going, “What is this weird art from Brazil that everyone is talking about?” So, you go to the first class and get just like beaten to a pulp, but you go, “That was so much fun.” And if you keep doing it for 13 years, eventually the hand you a blackbelt. You get to be not terrible which is about what I would rate myself now.

Pete Mockaitis
Blackbelt equals not terrible.

David Burkus
Yeah, yeah. There are some people, like one of our coaches has been doing it for, let’s see, he’s probably 50 so 40 years and he’s still pretty fit. So, you’d think that you could beat up an old man, but you really can’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, David, do you have any pro tips if, let’s say, someone is at a grocery store and they’re buying the last roll of toilet paper or hand sanitizer, and then someone attacks you, what do you advise?

David Burkus
Well, the first thing would be to not get in that situation, right? Distance is your friend. So, the more that you can, I think, have situation awareness about who that guy that’s been eyeing the toilet paper awkwardly is and realize, “This is a situation I need to walk further away from,” that’s really your friend. That should be the biggest goal. I think a lot of people end up jumping. I mean, you watch it now but you also watch it during Black Friday shopping and things like that. People jump into confrontation way too quick. Keeping space from people is your friend.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Now, that’s advice for personal safety. Now, when it comes to rallying a group of folks, you advocate that people pick a fight. What do you mean by this phrase?

David Burkus
Yeah. So, pick a fight, referring to… it’s a bit of a double meaning, right? So, I believe that, fundamentally, we’ve had these conversations about purpose for probably two decades now and, yet, a lot of people are still really bad at saying what the purpose of a company is. We do mission statements or we try and start with why. We try and do all those things and it doesn’t really rally people the way it should.

And so, I believe, fundamentally, when you look at the research that one of the best ways to give a clear and concise and motivating statement, a purpose, is if you can frame it as the answer to the question, “What are we fighting for?” As a leader, if you can do that, and individually if you can do that, it just seems to, like you said, rally and motivate people a bit more.

But here’s the key, you have to choose your fight wisely. So, that’s the secondary meaning, you also have to pick the right fight which is almost never competitors. For the average employee, you’re almost never motivated by, “I work for Coke, and I want to destroy Pepsi.” “I’m probably going to go to work for Pepsi one day,” or something similar. So, you have to pick what is that higher purpose, that bigger thing that you’re striving for, that’s what the right fight looks like.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s interesting. So, we’re fighting for something as opposed to against something. I guess maybe you could fight against something if it’s like intrinsically evil, like poverty or disease.

David Burkus
Yeah. The way that I phrase it is, “What are we fighting for?” not “Who are we fighting?” right? It’s not about the other because, again, you see. I mean, we’re seeing it right now as we’re recording this. This was totally unintentional, by the way, but we’re seeing it right now. This is arguably the first time in world history that every country in the world is fighting for the same thing and we’re all fighting against the same thing, and it’s sort of that proof of concept. There’s not time and situations like this for little squabbles over which country is right and all this sort of stuff.

And the same thing happens organizationally when you have that true sort of purpose worth fighting for. Those little silos, politics, turf wars, they all get squashed to that larger purpose. So, that’s why I really emphasized, it’s, “What are we fighting for?” not “Who are we fighting?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, when you’re picking what you’re fighting for, we got some pro tips and pointers already in terms of not who we are fighting against. And so, maybe paint a picture for us with an example in terms of maybe if you’ve seen some cool transformation stories or some contrasts like, “Here’s an example of an organization that’s fighting for something and it works great. By contrast, here’s an organization that’s not quite doing that, it’s not working so great.”

David Burkus
Yeah. So, my favorite example, and one we talk about in the book, of changing that fight midstream, because it’s easy to see, “Okay, this startup has this sort of big fight-based mission,” but it’s a lot harder to do with an established organization. But in the late 1980s and throughout the entirety of the ‘90s, a gentleman by the name of Paul O’Neill took the reins at Alcoa, which is an aluminum-manufacturing plant. They make a lot of different types of aluminum. Fun fact, they make the aluminum foil that goes around Hershey’s Kisses, or they did for a really long time.

And what they were running into when Paul O’Neill took over, stock price was declining, their efficiencies were declining, I mean, it’s a normal 1980s, 1990s story of losing out to offshoring and manufacturing in developing countries and that sort of thing, and a lot of people were wondering, “What are you going to do to turn this company around?” And the way O’Neill describes it, he says, “Part of leadership is to create the crisis,” but he knows the crisis of a declining stock price isn’t going to rally anybody. The crisis of “We need to be more efficient” isn’t going to rally anybody.

So, he chooses, as his fight, safety. He gets up on the very first day of his tenure at this press conference and says instead of, “Here’s how we’re going to increase profitability or shareholder value, etc.” We’re in this era where CEOs basically go right to buy-backs and try and back stock as a cheap way to raise the stock price. He doesn’t do any of that. He says, “I’d like to talk to you about worker safety. I’d like to talk to you about the number of people that lose a day of work because of preventable accidents and I intend in my time at the leadership of Alcoa to go for a zero-accident company.”

Now that’s unheard of in manufacturing but that’s something worth fighting for. It speaks to that sacred value of who’s to the left and to the right of you. And, ironically, if you make a plant more safe, you make it more efficient anyway, so he knows that there’s still this goal, “We’re going to turn the company around,” but just turning the company around doesn’t rally anybody. He chooses to name the enemy. And in this case, the enemy is safety, because if we beat that enemy, we’ll find a lot more things that we accomplish along the way as well.

In his time, by the time he retired in the late 1990s, the stock price had increased fivefold. The company ran more efficiently. Alcoa now is like a pinnacle of safety. There are other manufacturing plants that go to Alcoa to learn how to be much more safe. But, before he came, that was never a concern. It was an acceptable cost of doing business. It hints at the first of like the three templates of fights that I outline in the book. I call it the revolutionary fight, which is when you say, “This has been a norm or a standard that the industry does, and we refuse to accept it as normal any longer. We don’t find it acceptable.” In Paul O’Neill’s case it was safety, “We don’t find some level of acceptable loss acceptable anymore. We’re going for zero.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, that’s a revolution. While we’re at it, what are the other two?

David Burkus
Yeah. So, the other two, the underdog fight, my personal favorite fight because I’m from Philadelphia and we’re the city of underdogs, is about not necessarily about what the industry is doing but how you’re perceived by the industry. Sometimes it’s by competitors, other times it’s by critics, etc. You leverage the underdog fight when you can point to a way that people are disrespecting your team, disrespecting your company, or underrating it, and you can point to why they’re wrong. And this is really key, you need two things. It’s not enough just to be criticized because they might be right. You also need a rebuttal. You need rejection but also rebuttal for this one to work.

And it turns out, I mean, this is, like I said, I’m from Philadelphia. We know the Rocky story. Our favorite sports hero is a fictional character who lost a boxing match. New England gets Tom Brady. We get a fictional character who loses a boxing match. But it turns out, more modern research has shown that that really, that desire to prove the critics wrong, even in a business context with the way people frame their careers, the way people frame whether or not going into negotiations, like salary negotiations, etc., the more that you can frame that narrative, that this is about proving the haters wrong, the more you can actually inspire and motivate somebody. So, that’s the underdog fight.

And the ally fight is, I think, one that a lot of organizations look at because if they’re really a customer-centric organization, this is an easy one for them because the ally fight is not about our fight at all. It’s not about what we’re fighting for but we can point to a customer or some other stakeholder who is engaged in a fight every day, and we exist to help them. We exist to provide them what they need to win that fight.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, so I’m picking up what you’re putting down here in terms of these are kind of visceral, emotional, maybe even primal human things here in terms of like, “No more,” for the revolution or, “We’re going to prove them wrong,” like the Rocky story, or, “We are going to help someone who’s in need of our help,” and you sort of tap into that heroic action there. So, yeah, I’m digging this. So, then can you give us some examples? So, we got Alcoa in terms of, “Hey, efficiency in plants and let’s lower costs and stuff,” doesn’t do it as the way safety does. Can you lay out a few more to make it all click into place?

David Burkus
Yeah, a few more from the revolution or from the underdog or the ally?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s take them all.

David Burkus
So, my favorite revolution story, this isn’t actually in the book, so this is new for you, is I have this around my phone, and you can see it but everyone else is just going to have to like Google it. There’s a company based out of Vancouver called Pela Case, they make cellphone cases. The difference between them and every other cellphone case is theirs don’t sit in a landfill for 10,000 years when you get a new phone. If you throw it in a compost pile, it will decompose within 10 years. It’s totally biodegradable if you compost it.

So, their revolution is there’s this whole consumer goods company that finds using petrochemicals and creating plastics totally acceptable because we need to lower cost or whatever. It’s an acceptable norm that they’re using this thing that’s destroying the environment. They refuse to accept that. You ask anyone who works for Pela, “What are you fighting for?” they’ll tell you they’re fighting for a waste-free future. They’re never going to change consumerism. We’re not going to get people to, it’s not like a plastic bag, you can’t reuse it, right? As soon as there’s a new cellphone with a different design, it’s hard to reuse that case. But we can change what’s consumed to itself be waste-free.

And what I think is really telling, they just did this about six months ago, they launched their second product which proves that their focus is on this waste-free revolution idea, because their second product has nothing to do with cellphone cases, which no strategic advisor would ever say. You have this little niche inside of electronics, inside of smartphone case, the next thing you do is make an iPad case or something else. No. Their next thing was sunglasses because that’s the next thing that’s consumable that they could tackle, right? We buy sunglasses in May. We’ve lost them by September. So, if we can trust that they’re biodegradable, somebody finds them, they get put in that landfill, they’ll decompose, they’ll biodegrade eventually, then at least we’re making it waste-free even that. We’re never going to change consumerism but we can change what’s consumed to make it waste-free. That’s my other favorite revolution story.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and that reminds me. You talk about it doesn’t seem like a strategic adjacency from the classic strategy matrices type of thinking, but from that fight, that purpose perspective, that makes total sense. And I’m reminded of Pat Lencioni who we had recently, talked about a company and their purpose, why they were founded, was to provide good work opportunities for people in the community, and so they did roofing, but they’re like, “Hey, man, if people didn’t want roofs, we could shift to landscaping or concrete, that’s fine.”

And so, that might not seem like, I don’t know, the same skillset or whatever, but it fits in from that perspective and it continues to be inspiring even when there’s a shift afoot. So, that’s pretty handy. Well, so then how do we, let’s say, I’m thinking if we zoom into maybe an individual contributor or someone who has a small team, how would you recommend…I’m just going to throw you into the fire here. Let’s just say, “Hey, you know, we’re a marketing team, and what we try to do is get a lot of impressions, and conversions, and brand awareness, and our story out there.” And so, these are the kinds of the things that we measure and so maybe that’s a little bit flat from a fight perspective. How might we go about tapping into the power of the fight?

David Burkus
Yeah. So, the first thing, like if you’re running a small team, for example, the first thing you got to do is figure out which of these fights will most resonate with your existing people. This is actually the big misconception with a lot of the leaders that I work with is that you, as the leader, get to declare and cast the vision. It doesn’t work that way and it never really has. You get to put to words the vision that’s already in people’s hearts and minds but they haven’t really thought about enough. And so, there’s that idea. What’s going to resonate the most with you?

If you’re an individual, again, I think it’s thinking about each of these in turn and figuring out which of these narratives. I know a joke that I’m from Philly, but the truth is, the way that I’m wired, that underdog fight is actually what inspires me, motivates me to get to work, etc. And then you got to choose what stories you need to be exposing yourself to, to keep that up.

So, let’s say you choose the ally fight, for example. You’re that marketing team, you find out what the ally fight, meaning it’s, “Yeah, we’re measuring progress with impressions,” but what the larger company does can be framed inside that ally fight, then you have to figure out, “How can I make sure that I’m seeing evidence of that finished product?” This is, I think, the big problem in a lot of motivational research inside of organizations is that very few people inside the organization actually get to experience what, in psychology, we call task significance. They actually get to see the end-product of their labor and get to see how it helps people.

Adam Grant sort of did a lot of research on this about 10 years ago and reframed it. It’s what he called prosocial motivation, the idea that if you’re working to help people, you’re more motivated. But even task significance, even if it’s one of the other types of fights I think is hugely important. So, I think the biggest thing you can do, once you figure out what resonates with you, is, “How do I make sure that I’m catching that material, that I’m catching success stories from clients? If it’s the ally fight, how do I catch stories about what’s going on in the industry and why we’re doing differently so that I’m seeing that on a regular basis?”

Because most of us in the day-in, day-out, especially if our performance metrics and things like that, or how many impressions we get on random websites, we lose sight of that larger thing. And so, if you’re the only one that can do it for you, do it for you. If you’re running even a small team, that becomes one of your job, it’s how do you curate those stories. It’s not your job to cast the vision. It’s your job to curate those stories.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. That’s good. Well, that reminds me of right now is, hey, we’re speaking on the podcast and all I really see is you, and then I see impressions, downloads, etc. in my platform. So, we had a 10 million downloads celebration in Chicago, which is informal, we had some folks over for dinner. And then I’ll just give a shoutout here, we had a couple from Alabama, and Andrew told me that they started listening to the show on the way back from a funeral, and they were listening to kind of a heavy audiobook, like Tom Clancy, I think terrorists and stuff, it’s like, “You know what, let’s just mix this up and change it to something,” and then heard the show, it was really upbeat and it was useful and inspiring, and it keeps coming back. And so, I thought that was super awesome that, one, they valued it enough to drive from Alabama to Chicago just to have dinner. So, that was super cool.

And to remember that, these numbers, we talk about impressions, translate into human beings who are having an experience that is empowering and worthwhile and, boy, that can resonate hugely if it’s in sort of medical care. But even in smaller matters in terms of, boy, I’m just looking around my desk, a candle that makes for a nice intimate, positive experience for someone who’s having dinner or praying or just setting a mood that’s more pleasant for everyone there. And if you’re marketing candles, I think that does connect and resonate a whole lot more than, hey, 12,400 people saw our Facebook ad about our candles.

David Burkus
Yeah. You know, I totally agree. A lot of organizations, too, will rather than even create impressions, will just label growth, “This is how we’re growing and therefore that.” But growth isn’t a sense of purpose, right? That’s like saying, “Hey, we’re driving 65 miles an hour. Now we’re driving 70. We should all be excited.” Where’s the car going? Tell me more about that. And I think that’s incumbent on if you’re in any leadership role, even if it’s a small team, but it’s also incumbent upon us.

One of the practices I’ve had, admittedly it’s easier to do when you’re an author, but one of the practices I’ve had is to develop what I used to call the win folder. I don’t know what it’s currently called. I should look on my desktop. But it’s basically when people really do send you those thank you emails. I drag them into a folder so that when I need them, I can pull them back. We get those for any of our work.

Even if our work is the impressions and somebody elsewhere in the company said, “Hey, thank you so much for this. I know this project was rough. And look at this success.” When they give you that sort of thank you email or that success email, find a way to keep that because that’s going to be the easiest way to give yourself that reminder is to keep looking back on those sort of things because those are…I mean, we like to think that an organization’s customer are just the people that spend money with them. But your customers are everyone in the organization who benefits from the work that you do. So, finding ways to capture stories from all of them is hugely important.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely, yes. Well, why don’t you go ahead and tell us about a win that keeps you inspired?

David Burkus
Yeah. So, I have a bunch of them. So, I was a full-time business school professor for seven years, and this started as a non-digital, right? We taught business, and I taught a couple of the sales classes. We taught about thank you notes, and people actually listened to me and started sending them. So, I had a little box that was full of those thank you notes. Now, it’s been electronic. Probably my favorite one in the last six months or so, and this is why it comes to the top of my mind, is my prior book was called Friend of a Friend, which is a book about how networks inside organizations but also if you’re looking for a job,  or you’re in sales and trying to find more clients, networking works as well.

And I got an email from a woman who was totally dissatisfied with her job in PR and moved to New York thinking, “I was a PR major, this is where I’m supposed to go to get into film and television and news and media and all that sort of stuff,” and just hated it, loath it. Walked through Barnes & Noble, found the book, which is great but also a little depressing because I wish people like that would already know I exist, but that’s a whole other dilemma. Found the book, read it, and sort of started to develop a plan of action for moving into that world of fashion. And now that’s the world that she’s in. I have no idea why fashion appealed to her, but if you’re already in New York, it’s not a bad place to transition from media over to because it’s also based there.

And, literally, it was two emails. She sent one, I sent one, and then I think she sent one back. I have those two emails in my computer about her job transition over time. I look at it, especially when I look at the sales numbers for Friend of a Friend and we have an off week. I go back and I pull emails like that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful. Thank you.
Okay. So, then by contrast you say that it’s not so effective for the leaders to go offsite and go figure out and cast a vision or a mission statement. You say that they’re often terrible. What’s the story here?

David Burkus
Yeah. I mean, I think they all start well-meaning. The process that we use to develop a lot of them is really flawed. So, we go off to an offsite, usually we start with sort of a draft, we start with what we do which is just not necessarily why we do it but just what we do. Like your example of the roofing company, it’s not really why we do it, it just happens to be this is the business that worked best for the people we have. But we start with that description of what we do, and then everybody turns into like college English professors or parliamentarians and starts debating the specific wording, where this comma goes.

The first thing we need to do, because we care about everybody, is we need to make sure that everybody gets represented. And so, we talk about shareholders, and customers, and stakeholders, and the community, and a ton of different people. And then it’s not enough to say what we do, we also have to say how we do it, so we throw in buzzwords like synergy and excellence and innovation and all of that sort of stuff. And the end result is a phrase that ends up, and it’s way longer than the answer to the question, “What are we fighting for?” part of the reason for the question is just cut through the crap of a mission statement and tell me what you’re fighting for. But it also becomes incredibly difficult to even remember.

I have literally been in the room with CEOs of companies, and said, “What is your mission statement?” and seen them like look under the table, at their phone, or they have to look up their investors, or About Us page of their website to find it because we’re all excited when it came out two years ago and we put it on a glass plaque. But if it doesn’t actually inspire people, using one of the three levers that we were talking about, it gets very easily forgotten.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear you. Well, now I’m intrigued. So, some people might say, “Well, you know, that’s really great for any number of those examples, safety with aluminum, candles, writing books.” Have you seen some folks do a bit of connection to a fight in maybe an industry or a set of activities that would seem like the opposite of inspiring? Like, “It’s really hard to find a purpose here but, by golly, these guys did it and it worked for them.”

David Burkus
Yeah, there’s a couple different there. One of the big things we’re seeing is, like you said, I, after I wrote the book, became aware of a company in Cincinnati called Jancoa that is very similar, they’re a janitorial company, but their whole thing is to help people get settled. Usually, folks that are trying to climb the socio-economic ladder, or immigrants, etc., trying to find and get them settled and move on, so there’s that idea that what we actually do isn’t necessarily all that important, so there’s that idea.

But then there’s other things that people do or sometimes it’s supplied to you from the business model that makes what you do not necessarily all that important. Now, if I’m getting it, something that might be behind your question, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anybody properly leverage a fight and say, “We’re going to do evil,” right? “But we’re going to call it the revolution because the rest of the industry does good.” And this actually is an example that’s coming into my head but it reminds me of we were just talking about mission statements. Sometimes if you’ve got a good fight that you’ve adopted, the mission statement isn’t actually all that important.

So, there’s a little company, you may have never heard of them, they’re called Hershey, the Hershey Company, they make this candy. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it. And for a long time, actually, they had the worst mission statement I’ve ever seen. Their mission statement was literally “undisputed marketplace leadership. That’s our mission. In this industry, we aspire to that.” And, thankfully, they changed it over time mostly because people, like me, criticized them for a really long time. But the truth is they didn’t need that mission because their fight has been a part of the company DNA for a lot longer than that. Not a lot of people know this, but if you work at Hershey you definitely do.

Milton Hershey, before he died, set up a school for biological and societal orphans, the Milton Hershey School. It’s literally almost across the street. You basically, if you go to Hershey Pennsylvania, you have the headquarters of Hershey, Hersheypark, which is an amusement park, and then on the other side of Hersheypark is the school right there, all sort of laid out. Almost along the same street. And this isn’t like a corporate social responsibility, “We give some of our profits to this school that Milton started.” When Milton was preparing his estate, when he was getting ready to die, he set up a trust for the school and willed his shares to the trust. So, the trust and the school is still the majority shareholder of the school. It’s not the profits that fund the school. The trust owns the school. Milton Hershey School owns Hershey Foods.

And so, they could get into any industry they want at this point as a company, and there’s a lot of different divisions now, they’re in entertainment, they make a lot more than just chocolate, all of that sort of thing. So, I think they’re probably my favorite example of a company that you could go into any business, and as long as the trust still owns the primary business, you could change your mission statement to whatever you want to because the sense of purpose that people are going to feel is that ally fight, “What are we fighting for? We’re fighting to give those kids an education.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, so we talked about the fight a lot. I’d love it, adjacent to that or complementary to that, do you have any other best practices that make a world of difference when it comes to motivating a team?

David Burkus
Yeah. So, the task significance piece, I think, is a huge one. I think the biggest one that we are probably in dire need of in this world of virtual work that we’re about to face is, I think, we don’t often tell people how best to interact with us. Like, if you think about the majority of research that you read on people inside of teams, how you interact with your coworkers, etc., most of it is like, and I’m guilty of this, most of is content about how to deal with that coworker that disagrees with you, how to deal with this coworker that you can’t get along with, etc.

I think we’d be a lot better if we thought about us as the problem, and we actually presented to our team, “Hey, here are my little idiosyncrasies.” So, like mine is I’m very easily distracted not by little shiny things, but you’ll say something and then I’ll think about the ramifications of it, and you’ll keep talking but I’ll be over here thinking about how that affects some downstream issue. Like, it’s just I’m a systems thinker like that, and you may have to catch me up at times. You may also find me super excited about an idea that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about but it sparked in that meeting.

So, I try and present to people, “These are the little idiosyncrasies of how I work.” I’ve sometimes heard this described as an owner’s manual for yourself. What if you created an owner’s manual for yourself and gave it out to the rest of your team, and said, “Hey, based on people that used to work with me in the past and my own introspection, these are the things you can expect, strengths and weaknesses, so that we can get a little more clear”? I think that goes a whole lot further than just reading a bunch of listicles about, “How do I deal with a coworker that we disagree with?”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And it’s so powerful in terms of that display example of vulnerability invites others to do the same and just can go so far in building trust and camaraderie and all kinds of good things.

David Burkus
Yeah. Oh, no, I totally agree. I had this situation, in the spirit of trust and vulnerability, I’ll actually share this from two days ago. I was in a back-and-forth, more chat-based debate with somebody that’s, we’ll call him a colleague. Like a lot of the work that I do now is we don’t work for the same company but we’re working for the same mission, be it getting the book out or whatever, and we’re arguing back and forth.

We’re saying something, and he said, “Sorry, this was harsh, whatever,” and I said, “No, I wasn’t offended,” and then I immediately hit him back with, “No, actually, that’s a lie. I was but then I reminded myself of this.” And I forget what the this was but it was basically like, “No, in that moment, I really was angry at you for like 45 seconds but I got over it and here’s why.” And I don’t think he had ever had somebody actually say, “Yeah, you made me angry and I got over it because I care more about this project,” right?

So, those little, I think, displays of vulnerability, I think, are hugely important. I do want to caution here around vulnerability and authenticity that it’s also not an excuse to be a jerk. Like, this owner’s manual is not, “Here’s all the things you can expect about how I tell it like it is.” Right, this is not what we’re talking about.

Pete Mockaitis
Sometimes I’m going to scream at you.

David Burkus
“Sometimes I’ll just throw things and walk off.” No, that’s not what we’re talking about. But we are talking about, “Hey, here are the things I know about what it’s like to work with me, and some ways that I found are easiest. Here are my flaws so that we can work around them.” And, hopefully, that inspires a conversation. That works a whole lot better than like, “Let’s all do a book club, or let’s all take a personality test and talk about our differences.” I don’t know that those go all that far but that vulnerability and open sharing definitely does.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I think the tools whether it’s Myers-Briggs or StrengthsFinder, any number of things out there, can be a fantastic starting point in terms of like, “Yes, this is highly resonant for me, and so I will share it.” And it’s interesting, you mentioned that that person had never had anybody admit that they were upset or offended. I think that’s a whole other ballgame. But there have been some times where people have said that they did this thing, and they said they’re sorry, and I really was kind of ticked off, and I said, “Oh, I forgive you.” It’s like people are used to hearing that, and they’re like, “Actually, that feels more intense.”

David Burkus
Right. You’re supposed to respond with, “No worries,” or, “Oh, it’s no problem,” or whatever. Like, “No, it really was a problem, but I forgive you because I care about you.” Yeah, and it’s the same deal with like I learned this from my kids and like parenting books, which is, ironically, more relevant. Most of them are more relevant to the workplace than they are to parenting. But one of the other things around emotions is it’s always okay to say your emotion. It’s never okay to blame somebody else.

So, when we work on with our kids, you can never say, “Mom, you’re making me mad.” You can say, “I’m mad.” You can say you’re mad at me as much as you want, but you got to take responsibility for your emotion. And then when you say you’re mad, I’ll help you. That might be because I have to apologize, or that might be I need to help you calm down, whatever. It’s totally cool to label your emotions. But I think we’re in this game where we only got half of that in the corporate world where we were talking about you’re not suppose to use you-statements, use I-statements. We ended up just saying nothing instead, and we just kind of mask those emotions. So, people say, “I’m sorry,” and we say, “No worries,” and that’s a lie on both counts because they’re not sorry and we’re still angry.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s true. Well, hey, man, labelling emotions when we’re working out with our two-year old who’s been doing a lot of screaming, maybe you heard some, and so we got these emotion flashcards which are really helpful in terms of the different happy, disappointed, sad, angry, and that’s been going far. We also say, “Johnny, can you please stop screaming?” And then when he does, we clap, and he likes being applauded.

David Burkus
Oh, I like that. I like that. Mine are not two but I might still steal that. For my coworkers, I mean, not for my…

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

David Burkus
No, I think to bring it all together, I think emotions, again, are a powerful thing in the workplace, and we’re just sort of realizing that. And that’s one of the reasons I think this purpose thing, like you said, it’s almost primal, this idea of a fight because it taps into that emotional level. Purpose is great but if it’s just logically apparent, we see how AB equals C, and C is a good thing in the world. That’s not as motivating as let’s tap into that actual emotion of, “Here’s an injustice I need to fix,” or, “Here’s a critic I need to prove wrong,” etc. So, ironically, we hit from both angles, that power of sort of emotions that work used properly.

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

David Burkus
Yeah, one of my favorite quotes. I mean, I’m trained as an organizational psychologist, even though I always wanted to be a writer. And one of my favorite quotes from that world is W. Edwards Deming, “In God we trust, all others bring data.”

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

David Burkus
So, I talked about it a bit in the pro social motivation piece around, and some of Adam Grant’s studies. You probably heard these, because I know you and you’re smart, around the doctors and handwashing, very timely study for right now but also the call center workers and spieling the beneficiaries. But I feel like we need to shine more attention on a lot of those studies because one of the things you realize right off the bat is that organizations are pretty terrible at sharing those stories, at sharing those wins and those people who benefit from work. So, it’s a popular study already but it’s not popular enough.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And for those who have not heard it, now is your chance to popularize it. What should they know about it?

David Burkus
Oh, yes. Sorry, we’re all getting nerdy here. I apologize. I shouldn’t assume. So, Grant, while he was a Ph. D. researcher at the University of Michigan, the first study of this was a call center study looking at…especially if you’re going to a state school. I went to grad school at OU, and the very first thing I got in terms of any communication from the University of Oklahoma was a call from a student trying to raise money for scholarships. Every large school has these call centers where we’re just calling alumni asking for money all the time. And I appreciate him because they’re trying, they’re working, these are kids who were trying to pay their own way through school. Talking to them is a bit like talking to the Cat in the Hat, or the Green Eggs and Ham guy. I forget it. It’s Sam. It’s a bit like talking to Sam-I-Am because it’s like, “No, I don’t want to donate a thousand. No, I don’t want to donate in a box. No, I don’t want to donate $20 worth of fox.”

So, Grant looked at this, I mean, it’s incredibly sort of draining job, and Grant looked at it and thought, “How can we increase that task significance piece, leverage the pro social motivation?” is the term that he would use. And so, he designed this study where, basically, everybody in the call center got put into three groups. One group got an extra 10-minute break one day, another group, during that 10-minute break got to read letters from students saying how much they appreciated the scholarship that they earned because of these call center efforts, and the third group got to meet an actual student. So, they went to the breakroom for the normal break and there is a student who describes how the scholarship helped him, how he wouldn’t be able to afford to go to the University of Michigan without it, etc.

Interestingly enough, there’s no effect in group one or two. Obviously, there’s no group in group one because they just got an extra break. But group three made more phone calls afterwards for a number of weeks, raised more money per phone call. None of these groups received any training on how to be a better salesperson, anything like that. It was just the sheer motivation to, “I can put a face and a person to who I’m helping. I know what I’m fighting for at this point. I know it just feels like I’m on a phone call but I’m fighting to help keep those kids who would otherwise not have it, stay educated,” had a dramatic effect on their motivation with no other interventions.

So, Grant wrote all this up in a series of follow-up studies, too, and kind of labeled this term pro social motivation, which I think, personally, like I said, I think it needs to be more popular, talking about extrinsic motivation at all time, we’re talking about intrinsic. I think we’re going to start talking about pro social motivation like it’s a third lever of that level of motivation, that it goes alongside these other two.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thanks. And how about a favorite book?

David Burkus
One of my favorite books is by an intellectual hero of mine named Roger Martin, it’s called The Opposable Mind, and it’s about how, especially in business, but even in life, his thing was when we look at a lot of different mental models of how a business should operate, for example, it’s low cost or differentiation, or we look at how you interact with customers, either speed of service or quality of service, a lot of times those models that seem opposed are not actually opposed. And it’s the leader or even the individual contributor that can find a way to integrate those two models and leverage the strengths of both, that’s why it’s called The Opposable Mind, that can really thrive and create something new.

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

David Burkus
This is going to sound super, super low-fi, my absolute favorite tool is Facebook Messenger. I don’t know why. I feel like there’s a lot of stuff you can do in iMessages or Slack, but there’s a little bit more you can do inside of Facebook Messenger, but then there’s not all the other disruptions. And what I like about it is I probably could figure out how to do this better on my computer. But what I like about it is I can get at it from just about anywhere. I’m on my tablet, it’s auto-installed there. I’m on my phone, it’s there. I’m on my desktop, it’s sort of a click away. So, I never could get messages to work the way it should. I know that seems weird but that’s probably how I interact with more colleagues and that sort of stuff. And I don’t use Facebook for anything else. I literally only have Messenger on my phone.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome?

David Burkus
So, we talked about kids already so I’ll tell you this one and yours is at the age where you could start this. My wife brought this into our daily kind of shutdown routines. So, apparently, when she was growing up, it was a common question they asked on the dinner table. Our life is such that we have more family breakfast than we have family dinners, so we didn’t ask it there. But before we go to bed, we ask both of our kids, “What was the favorite part of your day?”

And when the oldest was about three, maybe three and a half, he started asking it back to us and wouldn’t let us put him to bed until we gave him an answer too. And so, that little, now we’d call it a gratitude practice and all of this sort of fluffed-up stuff, but I really just like that question, “What was the favorite part of your day?” Let’s spend 30 seconds and go, “What was the favorite part of today? What went absolute best today?” And so, we still do it. Now, they’re eight and six, but we still do it almost every night. We probably don’t remember every night but we still do it pretty much every night.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s a particular nugget you share that you’re known for?

David Burkus
I like to say that I’m trying to make the experience of work suck a little bit less, and I do that in a variety of ways. Pick A Fight is one of them, a lot of the other books that I’ve written, but we also put out a lot of content, just like you said, about how to interact better with coworkers and show motivation. I think work, the big grand overarching theme, or my personal fight, is that work is far more important to think about work-life balance as just the number hours because toxic work will drag itself home, and positive work will make homelife better as well. So, we need to be talking about the experience of work in a way where people leave it more energized than they came.

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

David Burkus
I would point them to the show notes for this episode because you do an awesome job of writing up all those show notes with all of these little lightning-round questions. And if you’re listening to this, you already know where that is. And, let’s be honest, both of our names are a little hard to spell so no one is going to remember that. I’d send you to DavidBurkus.com but you’re already listening to the show. You know where the show notes are. Find me there.

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

David Burkus
Find your fight. Look at the tasks that you do and the story that would resonate the most with you, and find a way to frame it, and remind yourself of that story all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. David, this has been a treat. Thank you and good luck in your fights.

David Burkus
Oh, thank you. Thanks so much. Thanks for fighting for people to have a more awesome job.

541: Increasing Your Contribution and Fulfillment at Work with Tom Rath

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Tom Rath says: "You can't be anything you want to be... but you can be a lot more of who you already are."

Tom Rath discusses how to find greater meaning in your job.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to find your unique style of contribution
  2. Two easy ways to recharge your energy
  3. A powerful way to make any job feel more meaningful

About Tom:

Tom Rath is an author and researcher who has spent the past two decades studying how work can improve human health and well-being. His 10 books have sold more than 10 million copies and made hundreds of appearances on global bestseller lists.

During his 13 years at Gallup, Tom was the Program Leader for the development of Clifton StrengthsFinder, which has helped over 20 million people to uncover their talents, and went on to lead the organization’s employee engagement, wellbeing, and leadership practices worldwide.

Most recently, Tom co-founded a publishing company and he is also an advisor, investor, and partner in several startups. Tom holds degrees from the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife, Ashley, and their two children.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Tom Rath Interview Transcript

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

Tom Rath
Thanks so much. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to be chatting with you. I have enjoyed reading your books for years and have taken the StrengthsFinder multiple times, so I was excited to dig into your latest work. But, maybe, let’s go back in time if we can, because I understand that some health news you got as a teenager really played a prominent role in how you think about your work, and life, and this particular new development.

Tom Rath
Yeah, a lot of my early experiences shaped especially this most recent book Life’s Great Question just to give you a short summary of it for your listeners, when I was 16 years old, I was having trouble seeing out of one of my eyes, and I was eventually diagnosed with several large tumors on the back of that left eye, and lost sight soon thereafter permanently in that side. And the doctors told me that that was likely indicative that I had a very rare genetic disorder that it essentially shuts off the body’s most powerful tumor-suppressing gene, and they said, “There’s more than a 50% chance you’ll have kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer, cancer in your spine,” and a host of other areas over whatever lifespan I might hope for. And I kind of did some research back then and realized that the over-ender was probably between 35 and 40 years.

So, what that did in retrospect, as I’ve kind of looked back on, as a part of this recent project is it certainly helped to get me focused on two things. And one of those things was just reading as much as I could every morning about what I could do to keep myself alive a little bit longer and help people to live longer in good health. That was part of it. And the second part was it really did help to get me focused even at a young age and early on in my career on, “What are all the things that I can work on each day on kind of an hourly or daily basis that contribute to growth in other people that I care about or serve, that can continue to live on whether I’m actively involved with that or not, a week, a month, or a decade down the road?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that is some great guidance there. And it seems like you’re statistically probabilistically you’re doing great, huh?

Tom Rath
Yeah, I’m doing really good. I have battled kidney cancer. Still, I have cancer in my spine and in pancreas recently, and I’m continuing to kind of fight through that on a bunch of different trials of drugs and trying to do everything I can to stay as healthy overall as I possibly can.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m glad to hear that there’s reason and room for hope and that you’re still here contributing, and we’re very grateful for your contributions. I know I am. And I want to give a shoutout to my buddy, Lawrence, who brings up strengths just about every week. And so, yes, it’s been quite a contribution. We appreciate you. So, yeah, let’s talk about this Life’s Great Question. What is it?

Tom Rath
Life’s great question, which a lot of this was inspired by one of my favorite challenges and quotes of all time from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who, I think, he put it so eloquently when he said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?’” And when I first thought about that question, it kind of haunted me for a few years. Then I realized what a powerful rallying call that can be on a daily basis. So, every morning for the last few years, I’ve tried asked myself, “What am I working on today that will contribute to others in their growth, in their wellbeing over time?”

And what I’ve realized is the more time in a given day that I can spend on things that just directly in a way that I can see serve others instead of worrying about my own priorities, or focusing inward, or trying to get through a bunch of busy work, the more time I can spend on that, the less stress I have, the better I feel about my days.

And I think all of us want to be able to do that on a daily basis and to do some work that matters for other people. We just don’t have a very clear way to talk about it and think about it, especially in teams and groups when we’re working on things, and as a result, we spend maybe too much of our time focused inward on ourselves and our own development instead of outward on, essentially what the world needs.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’ve got a number of ways that you recommend that we go about gaining some clarity on that. Can you share with us, you’ve got a phrase eulogy purposes? What are these?

Tom Rath
Yeah, you know, one of the things I realized quickly when I was talking with some organizational leaders and CEOs about this is that right now the main way that we have or the main method for summarizing a person’s life and work is a resume. And if I were to go back and try and create the most detached, clinical, sterile, lifeless thing I could, it would be the form of a resume of today.

So, the more I got into that and had some of these discussions, I realized that we need to help people put together a profile of who they are and why they do what they do, and what motivates them, and how they want to contribute, and to have that be as kind of robust from a detail standpoint as a resume is so that we can make the focus on contribution just as practical and tangible as we have when we assemble resumes and profiles today.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’ve taken this profile, and it was fun to dig into and think about. You’ve got a number. I believe it’s about a dozen different flavors or modes of contribution. My top were scaling, visioning, and adapting. So, can you maybe help us think through a little bit about what’s the goal here, so we’re going to understand those things and knowing them, what do we do?

Tom Rath
What I was trying to do to help readers, give readers something practical to do as a part of this book, and I have a code in the back where they can login and build this profile. But the profile also asks about, “What are the big roles you play in life?” So, as a spouse, for me, as a researcher, as a writer, as a dad. What are those big roles that are really the, as you mentioned earlier, the kind of eulogy values, the things you want to be remembered by?

So, to start there and then also bring in, “What are the most important life experiences, or miles, throughout your life that have shaped who you are and it could help other people understand why you do what you do?” And then we also ask readers to add their best descriptors of their strengths. As you’ve talked about, I think strengths are maybe the most important starting point for aiming a lot of your efforts in life.

And then, the fourth element, that you were just getting into is, “How can we help people to prioritize how they want to contribute to a team?” What happens so often right now is we get teams of people together to accomplish something because we’re all wound up and energized about a given task or priority and we all just hit the ground running and start moving forward and working, and we don’t take the time to, A, get to know one another, and, B, most importantly, sit down and say how each one of us wants to contribute to the effort in a complementary way.

So, if you’re helping our team, if we have four or five people on the team with scaling, for example, and that’s a big part of operating and making something great and helping it to grow over time, how do we also have people who are helping us to make sure we’re energizing the team and building closer relationships over time, and taking care of some of those fundamentals? And how do we help people to ensure that we’re teaching others about what we’re doing and challenging us to make sure that we’re focusing on the right priorities as we go along?

So, I started, instead of starting with who the person is, with this project I started with, “What are the things that the world needs?” And I went back and looked at thousands of job descriptions from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and try to kind of build those into big buckets and categories about what our society values and needs from people who are doing work. And then I think the challenge is for each of us as individuals to kind of go through a series of prioritization questions like you did and decide we’d like to contribute given who we are and who else is on a given team.

Pete Mockaitis
And is the concept there that certain modes of contribution will be more life-giving, energizing, enriching for us as compared to others?

Tom Rath
Yes. One of the things that gets ignored often when we go through inventories and prioritization exercises is there’s not a lot of work on what motivates us to do our best on a daily basis. So, I did tie in some questions in there about what motivates you to do your best work, and then how you want to contribute.

We all have very unique and different talents, and the way I contribute to one team may be different from how I’ll contribute to another one 6 or 12 months down the road. So, we really built this to be a team activity that a person can go through in unlimited number of times if they’re thinking about a new job, a new project, or a new team, because there is a balancing act, for lack of a better term, that needs to occur if you get three, five, seven, ten people around a team so that you’re all working as seamlessly as possible based on what you’d want to do and what you’re good at with as little overlap as possible essentially.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, you’ve, in fact, I understand, defined five amplifiers that help us see our jobs as more than just a paycheck and are bringing some of those cool vibes and enthusiasms for folks. Can you walk us through these bits?

Tom Rath
Yeah, you know, the first one that I think is important for people in the work world, in particular, is to, as much as I’ve talked to a little bit today about making sure that you’re focusing your work on others, the one place where I’ve learned where we really do need to put our own needs first is when it comes to our health and wellbeing and energy. It’s really the energy. We need to prioritize things like sleeping enough, eating the right foods, moving around throughout the day, in order to have the energy we need to be our best. Even if our sole intent is just to help other people, we need that energy to be our best. So, that’s one of the big elements.

Another thing in the workplace is that we need the freedom to do work in the way that matches our style. And so, one thing that’s been refreshing as I’ve learned about how people can uniquely contribute is most managers and leaders are very open to a conversation about, “How can you do your job in a way that fits who you are even though you may have the same goals and outcomes and expectations as ten other people?” You don’t have to do it the same way. So, a piece that I think has been underestimated and measured in more places is we need the freedom to be our best every day, and a lot of that is about finding the right work environment, the right manager or leader and so forth.

Another really important element that in all of the wellbeing research I’ve been a part of is probably the most common core that cuts across wellbeing and work experiences, we need strong relationships to not only get things done but to add more fun while we’re doing it. I have a good friend I have worked with for almost 20 years now, and I can call him up, in 15 seconds, I can get more done than I could in a 15-minute conversation with a stranger. And so, those relationships create a lot of the speed and trust and wellbeing, it keeps us going.

Another central element is that we’re working each day to ensure that we have kind of the sense of financial security and stability that we need to keep moving through the day. There’s a lot of talk about money shouldn’t be the only outcome and the sole basis of a contract between a person and an employer. I think those days are past us and we’d evolved from that, but we do need to make sure that early on in our career we’ve got enough money to pay for basic needs and food and shelter and the like. And until we get to that point where we’re not stressed about money on a daily basis, a lot of these other things are secondary. So, those are a few of the kind of basic needs in there.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m intrigued and I know wellbeing is a big theme and an area of passion for you. And I‘m right with you in terms of, boy, your energy levels make all the difference, and you did tons of research in your work. So, I got to know, do you have any secret strategies, tactics, tips in terms of having and bringing more energy to each work day? I mean, I think sleeping and eating well are critical and, at the same time, I think people, and maybe I’m guilty of this too, we want the cool new thing. So, is there a cool new thing and/or what should we be thinking about with regard to sleeping and eating well to maximize energy?

Tom Rath
Well, I learned a lot about this when I worked on the book Eat, Move, Sleep that kind of tied in some of those healthy experiences we’re talking about. The good news is one good night of sleep, even if you’re on a bad streak, one good night’s sleep is kind of like the reset button on a video game or a smartphone where it gives you almost a clean slate the next day. You’re more likely to be active throughout the day, eat better food, and so on. So, I think we really undervalue sleep at a family level and at a workplace level. It needs to be a part of the conversation because if people are half-asleep and nowhere near as creative or sharp as they need to be at 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon in a meeting, that’s not good for anyone.

And someone I’ve worked with, former Army Surgeon General Patty Hororo, she talks about how in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan that she knew the troops needed ammunition for their brain, and that’s how she prioritized sleep. So, I think we need to make sleep a critical ammunition for our brain-level priority, that’s one thing.

The second big one, I think everyone should be able to do their work without being chained to a chair for eight hours a day. The more I’ve studied this topic, and I started working sitting and standing 10 years ago, and I’ve been working 80% of my time on a treadmill desk for five years running now, and there are bolts falling out of the bottom of the thing now, but it still gives me so much more energy, it’s not even comparable to days when I’m stuck in planes and meeting rooms. I think we need to re-engineer our immediate environment it’s really about variance, or up and down and moving around every 20, 30 minutes throughout the day.

The good news is I think it’s more important to just build a little burst of walking activity throughout the day, and that’s more important for human health than the intimidating goals of 30 or 60 minutes of extreme cardiovascular activity, for example. We just need to find ways to have conversations with people and get work done while we’re up and down and moving around quite a bit more.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, so I think that might transition into something. You had a very intriguing book bullet point about how we can turn the job we have into the job we want. It sounds like one way is to re-engineer so you can move a little bit. What are some of the other main ways that we can see an upgrade in that department?

Tom Rath
Yeah, one of the things that I think we all need to dedicate more time to in that regard is to bring the source of our contributions or the people that our work is affecting, lives it’s improving, back into the daily conversation. So, when people in food service roles were preparing food, chefs and cooks, if they can see the person they’re preparing the food for, they make better-quality meals, they make more nutritious meals, and they feel better about their work.

If radiologists who are reading scans of MRIs and CTs all day, if someone is a part of an experiment, when they append a photo of the patient to the record, they write longer reports and it increases their diagnostic accuracy. And I’ve seen this across every professional, it’s been studied. The closer we can get to the source and see the people we’re influencing, even if they’re just internal customers and clients, for example, the better work we do and the better we feel about it when we get home each evening. So, I think that’s one of the most practical places to start. And if you struggle to do that yourself in a workplace, my best advice would be help someone else to see why their efforts are making a difference tomorrow. And just in doing that, you’ll set something in motion.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, that is powerful. And so, certainly, and so there’s many ways you can accomplish that goal. You can actually sort of rearrange the office so that you are getting a visual, or you can just have photos of those folks that you’re serving right there. So, you mentioned in the medical example, just having photos of the patient there made the impact. And so, that’s inspiring. It’s, like, I got to get some listener photos in my work environment.

Tom Rath
Photos and stories, I mean, there’s kind of the stories and legends we tell ourselves. The other is I talk about this a little bit in the book, but because I don’t have vision on my left side, I have a prosthetics so people think I can see out of both eyes. But I accidentally bump into people all the time because I don’t see them coming on my left. And it’s always an interesting experiment for me psychologically because I’m always the same but that person, sometimes they’re in a really bad mood, sometimes they’re frustrated and didn’t have the time, sometimes they’re very kind and apologetic. It varies so much.

But I get to see, even when I’m in a coffee shop or a grocery store like that, I can kind of see how if I react as good as I possibly can, and I’m really apologetic and tell them I’m sorry and everything else, in some cases I can take someone who’s kind of in a bad mood and diffuse it and turn it around where it’s a little bit better. And I think we all have, I don’t know if it’s 10, 15, 20 moments like that with strangers and people we know throughout the day. And, in any case, if you leave that person in a little bit better state than when you first engaged in the interaction, that is a victory that we probably need to do a better job of acknowledging in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I love it. Well, that’s the, “How full is your bucket stuff?” in action.

Tom Rath
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
So, in the realm of those small but sort of uplifting, bucket-filling things we can do in the workplace, could you give us just several examples of things that really make a difference and we can do all the time?

Tom Rath
Yeah, like we just talked about, I think it starts with those very brief exchanges and saying you don’t get to control the emotional tone that someone else brings into a room or into an office that you’re in at the moment, but we always do have control of our response. And I think if you start to view those little responses as an opportunity to turn things around, that’s one good starting place.

The other thing that I’ve learned a lot from over the years since some of the work on that How Full Is Your Bucket? concept is that if you can make it a goal to spot somebody else doing something really well that they might not have even noticed, ideally try to do that once a day, that’s one of the more powerful things that can have a real lasting influence on people over time.

I think we talked briefly about some of the strengths work, and because of my involvement with that, people often ask me, “What’s the most valuable strength? What’s the best one? What’s the most productive, and so on?” What I’ve learned and my real quick answer is the most valuable talent is spotting a strength in someone else that they had not been able to notice and encouraging them to build on that because, boy, when I’ve seen people do that, it’s so powerful it can kind of last a lifetime and change the trajectory of a career.

So, I think to look for those two things in a given day and then at least three, four times a week to look for moments to just recognize in an audible, in a written, or an electronic form great work, and to recognize and appreciate someone for specific efforts. And when you’re doing that, to try and connect your recognition with the contribution made to another person gives it a little bit more amplification.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes, I love that. Boy, Tom, there’s so much good stuff here. Maybe you could just regale us now with a couple of stories in terms of folks who had some career transformations in terms of before they did not quite have that clarity on how they want to contribute and what they’re going to do with life’s greatest question, and then they got it and it changed everything? Could you give us a couple of fun examples there?

Tom Rath
Yeah, you know, the one that’s most top of mind for me when you talk about kind of figuring out contributions as they went along it, a friend of mine I talk about in the book, I’ve started working with him maybe 20 years ago. His name is Mark. And he was really involved in Young Life, which is a student kind of a faith-based group and efforts to help kids get involved in communities and give back and do more. When I started working on some of the very early strengths work, Mark was passionate about college freshmen, and said, “I think maybe we could put something together that helps them figure out how to use their strengths to pick better classes and have better relationships.”

He was a pragmatic guy, and said, “I think if we can just get plug into these freshmen experience classes, maybe it could make a difference. We’ve just got to get a handful of professors to assign it as a textbook.” And that’s now helped, I think it’s two or three million kids in their freshmen year or two, essentially get a better handle on what they’re doing, and navigate, and hopefully end up in a little bit better careers as a product of that. It started with someone who had a real passion for doing things in kind of a pocket like that, and said, “How could we scale this out and have a huge outsize influence on the world?”

I had about a 20-year friendship with Mark and he’d battled a heart transplant and cancer a few years ago, and he passed away just a little bit over a year and a couple of months ago. I write about this in the book, but when I went to his memorial service, you know, usually you think of it as one of the sadder moments, but it was one of the most inspiring things I’d ever seen in my life because student after student after former student got up and talked about how they were doing things so differently in their relationships and their careers and their education because of the specific influence that Mark had had in his mentoring. As we talk about contribution here as a topic, it was just kind of a summary of an entire lifetime of enormous contribution to other people.

I know, for me personally, it was deeply inspiring and kind of what I hope to be able to continue to do over the remainder of my life is to make those kind of both broad directional contributions and the real specific deep individual mentoring contributions like Mark both did. So, that’s kind of the top of my radar right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, that is powerful. Thank you. Tell me, Tom, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Tom Rath
No, I think we’ve covered the main topic here.

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

Tom Rath
Ben Horowitz was giving a commencement address at Columbia two, three years ago now. And he talked really eloquently, if listeners have a chance to check it out, about real growth is the product of not following your passions but following where your contributions lead you.

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

Tom Rath
You know, I think what’s influenced me most in the last few years is some of the very important distinctions between daily wellbeing versus how we look at our life satisfaction and wellbeing over many, many years in a lifetime. For so long, scientists have just been saying, “If you look at your life as a ladder with steps numbered one through ten, where do you stand essentially?” and they ask people to look back retrospectively.

And when you ask people that question, it’s usually a very highly-correlated income. The more you make you buy more points on that ladder essentially. And countries like Sweden and Denmark and Norway are at the very highest of the wellbeing rankings when you look at rankings based on that broad evaluation. But, in contrast, when you ask people, “Are you having a lot of fun today? Have you smiled or laughed a lot today? Did you have a lot of negative emotions? Do you have a lot of stress?” And you really look at that daily experience to where you or I had a good day today, it looks very, very different.

And the happiest countries on a daily basis are Costa Rica and Panama and Uruguay and Paraguay, these Central American countries that are at the very bottom of the wealth rankings of gross domestic product per capita. So, I think that daily experience can be a great equalizer where even in the United States you don’t need to make a great deal of money to have really good consistent days. And once you do make enough money to stop worrying about your finances every day, the more you make an income doesn’t really make that much of a difference. In some cases, it might even lead to more stress and issues.

So, I’ve really been intrigued by a lot of emerging research, the body of it, on the influence and importance of just daily positive affect, as what researchers call it, versus negative affect, and how that can…I think the accumulation of those days may be a lot more important than how we evaluate our lives once at the very end.

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

Tom Rath
If I can, I’m going to do a paired trade of two books I read back-to-back, one being now getting a lot of press with a movie out Just Mercy. And the second one being Hillbilly Elegy which they are two night and day different books about two completely different experiences on different ends of social geographic and demographic continuums in the United States, but I’m really inspired by true stories that help me to understand experiences that are very different than my own. So, those have been well-written moving books I’ve studied recently.

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

Tom Rath
Over the last 10 years, everything I’ve read both in print and online, and conversations I’ve had, I’ve stored everything in Evernote, the app. And I was just joking with my mother-in-law over the weekend that when I’m her age, that’s going to be my memory because my memory won’t be that good. So, that’s been a great repository for all of the research and studies and things that I’ve been collecting over the last decade.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I want to dig into that a little more. So, in terms of you just sort of drag and drop a PDF of the thing you read into a given note then make your notes on top of it? Or how does that work if you have the actual documents in there?

Tom Rath
Yeah, online I can drag and drop PDFs or just clip any webpage directly from a browser with one button. And when I’m reading things in print, I still get some newspapers and magazines in print, I tear pages and shoot them through a scanner that goes directly into the cloud in Evernote just based on some tags and so forth. Even everything I get in the mail goes right through that scanner unless it’s just junk mail ad, for example. But it’s been a great way to kind of have my own kind of a separate Google for my own experience and everything that’s gone through my head but, by no means, will I be able to locate and process and search for without a lot of electronic help.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit, something you do that helps you to be awesome at your job?

Tom Rath
My favorite habit is I think I spend 80% to 90% of my time in a given day working while I’m moving around. And so, whether that’s having a conversation on the phone and walking around, ideally, outdoors. I try to get, all the time, outdoors every day. Walking. I try to walk my kids to school any day that we can just so that we all get a little head start on our mental energy let alone the physical exercise that helps. So, my favorite habit is just minimizing the time I spend completely sedentary in a chair in a day.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget that you’ve shared in your books, in speaking, that really seems to get highlighted a lot, or retweeted, or quoted back to you frequently, a Tom Rath nugget that you’re known for?

Tom Rath
Yeah, I think the one that I see most commonly highlighted out there, kind of posters and internet stuff, is the quote about “You can’t be anything you want to be but you can be a lot more of who you already are.” And I talk about that a little bit in this most recent book that I’m really confident, and I first wrote that maybe 10, 15 years ago, but I’m really confident that people, counter to some conventional wisdom, you really can’t be anything you want to be, if you think about it.

But I do worry a little bit about when people just try and be more of who they already are. I’ve seen that in some cases pull people too much towards looking inward. And that’s why in a lot of the recent work I’ve been focusing on trying to help people to say how can they take who they are and quickly focus that as point A outward to point B which is what the world around them needs, because I think the more they focus and hone their energy towards what their family, their organization, their community needs, it leads to even more productive application of their strengths.

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

Tom Rath
I’d point them to TomRath.org for any of the books that we’ve talked about and then Contribify.com for the new Life’s Great Question book and the companion website that goes with that.

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

Tom Rath
I would challenge people to spend even a little bit of time today determining how they can get even closer to the source of the contribution they’re making to the world, because the closer you get to that source, the more you can do for others over the years.

Pete Mockaitis
Tom, this has been a pleasure. Thank you. I wish you the best in health and all the ways you’re contributing in the world.

Tom Rath
Thank you so much. It’s been an honor and fun talking to you.

534: Moving from Top Performer to Excellent Leader with Ryan Hawk

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Ryan Hawk says: "Make sure your people feel the love."

Ryan Hawk shares how to transition from individual contributor to team leader.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why top performers often struggle as new managers
  2. What most managers fail to prepare for
  3. Powerful ways to build your team’s trust

About Ryan:

Ryan Hawk is a keynote speaker, author, advisor, and the host of The Learning Leader Show, a podcast with millions of listeners in more than 150 countries.  He is the author of Welcome To Management: How To Grow From Top Performer To Excellent Leader (McGraw-Hill, January 28, 2020).

A lifelong student of leadership, he rose to roles as a professional quarterback and VP of Sales at a multibillion-dollar company. Currently, as head of Brixey & Meyer’s leadership advisory practice, Ryan speaks regularly at Fortune 500 companies, works with teams and players in the NFL, NBA, and NCAA, and facilitates “Leadership Circles” that offers structured guidance and collaborative feedback to new and experienced leaders.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Ryan Hawk Interview Transcript

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

Ryan Hawk
Thanks so much for having me, Pete. Excited to be here with you, man.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to be chatting. And I want to hear, first of all, so you’ve got a cool sales career, doing great there. And, also, I’ve noticed on your podcast, you’ve had some impressive guests, some of whom kind of blew me off.

Ryan Hawk
Blew you off? Who blew you off?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I don’t want to name names but I might’ve gotten to it a little bit late, like, “Oh, you got a cool book coming out in two weeks.” It’s like, “Okay. Well, you should’ve talked to the publicist a month ago.” I think that might be part of it but I want to give you some credit. I think you’ve probably got some secret sauce over there. So, can you give us some pro tips, off the bat? I think you’ve got something to say about persistence and persuasion that is manifested in your sales career success as well as booking awesome guests on your podcast.

Ryan Hawk
Well, thank you. I think given that my first job after college, when I got done playing football, was on inside, so I was a telephonic sales professional where I was making 60, 70, 80 calls a day, a lot of the time people saying no, huge amounts of rejections, so you had to get creative. What I learned how to do was writing cold emails, which then I used that skill when reaching out to podcast guests.

This was especially hard at the beginning when I didn’t even have any type of platform or audience, so there was no reason for anybody to say yes. And so, just kind of this short formula that I would say I used with cold outreach, and this could work, I think, potentially, in other areas when it comes to selling is I like to name, in specifics, why I look up to that person, or why they impress me, or what I like about them, or the value that they’ve added to my life. So, there’s one quick kind of form of flattery but it has to be very specific and it needs to be honest.

Then I like to try to find some form of uncommon commonality, a way to connect us, me and that person. Then I will share some credibility, again, much harder at the beginning, much easier now, credibility of the show, perhaps some of the statistic that they may care about, about whom they’d be listening so it adds some of that from an influence perspective. They see the social proof. And then I will directly ask in bold for them to be on my show.

I also give them an out, “If now is not the right time. No worries. We can do it another time. Just let me know.” And so, I don’t end it with a hard close, do the opposite of that, in fact. And some guests, I will do that for three and a half years. And Jim Collins was one of those people, and I had multiple phone calls with his team, I sent countless emails, and, eventually, we got it to work.

Seth Godin, he’s kind of notorious for this, where if you ask him early on, he’ll say, “Come back to me after you have 50, 75 episodes where you’ve been doing it for a year.” He gave me that response when I asked him initially. And I emailed him exactly six months to the day at the exact minute of the email that he sent me because that’s what he asked, and said, “Seth, it’s been six months exactly. I now have, whatever, 58 shows, this many listeners in this many countries and Forbes wrote a story and blah, blah, blah. Are you ready?” He said, “I’m a man of my word. Of course.”

And so, there’s a variety and a lot of stories about, I think, just consistently not getting upset or frustrated when somebody blows you off or they say no, and just keep going. Just stay at it. Not being annoying but also never quitting when it comes to somebody saying no or ignoring you. I always believe, always, that no simply means not yet. And so, if you say no or you ignore me, that just means it just hasn’t happened yet. It’s going to, but it just hasn’t happened yet. I take that approach to, really, everything when it comes to sales as well as getting podcast guests.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I love it. You know, I had a feeling that there was something to it, so that persistence. What do you think is roughly the appropriate cadence for follow-up?

Ryan Hawk
You mean like if they ignored you and when to email again?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Ryan Hawk
Yeah, I’ll usually put a little thing in my calendar for a month, so it’s not really quick and I’m trying not to be annoying. Maybe they forgot it, maybe they never even saw it, maybe they just quickly deleted it, whatever it may be. But I’ll keep to it and try to tweak it or change it. I know how this goes because I get these notes from publicists now, as you probably do as well, and they’re promoting their clients to come on your show, and they send one, and sometimes they’ll send them every single day, and that, for me, that’s not a good process for me to want to work with you long term. That publicist may be ruining their shot, not only for that client but all of their clients. So, you’d have to be careful and understand that delicate balance between being persistent and being annoying.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you maybe give us an example or two when it comes to an uncommon commonality and a sincere bit of flattery?

Ryan Hawk
Sure. So, one of my favorite writers is Adam Grant. He wrote Give and Take, he wrote Originals, he’s really smart. Adam Grant went to graduate school at the University of Michigan. I played a football game against the University of Michigan at their stadium while Adam was in school.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

Ryan Hawk
So, I told him specifically why Give and Take how it had changed my life, it changed my view on the world that givers are going to be successful. So, I gave various specifics on what I learned about being a giver from his first book Give and Take. Then I told him, “You may have been in the stands and watched me score a touchdown in the south end zone at The Big House of the University of Michigan.” Then I said, “And here’s my podcast. I’d like for you to come on my show,” and then gave some of the social proof there, and he said yes. And so, that is one of the examples I do use. Now, that’s one of the better ones. I’m not going to lie, I don’t have that good of one for all of them.

Pete Mockaitis
You can’t play football everywhere.

Ryan Hawk
Yeah, but that is one. But I still had to dig, and do some work, and understand the timing, and look into it, right? So, my point is it does take some research, it takes some work, it takes some thought to, one, say specifically why that person’s work has impacted you, and then try to find something you have in common. It’s not always that tight or that good, but you could probably find something if you look hard enough.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. Well, thank you, Ryan. I’ve been curious about this for a while, and I think that’s helpful because many of us, we’ve got to do some cold outreach from time to time, we’ve got to persuade even though it’s not our…that’s like an appetizer, if you will, to the main dish.

Ryan Hawk
I wrote an article about this. I’m happy to send you the links so that you could look at it if you want.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes, thank you. I’d appreciate that.

Ryan Hawk
Yup, okay. Go ahead.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s like an appetizer to the main entree of this conversation, which is about getting started in management. So, I’ve got so much to dig into here. So, maybe why don’t you open us up by sharing a compelling story that really conveys how this concept is important and overlooked when you’re making that leap from top performer to excellent leader?

Ryan Hawk
Well, the interesting aspect about this, so I come from my first job, again, was a telephonic sales professional making 60, 70 calls a day. And as I learned how to do that well and performed at high levels, like a lot of sales organizations, there are stack rankings. And what they do when they get an opening, typically, is they look at the stack rankings, and the top three or four people get the opportunity to interview for the management job.

Now, I understand why this happens, I get it. I’ve done this as a leader. However, really, the thought that just taking the top performer and saying, “Well, you’re going to be the manager,” it doesn’t really make any sense. In fact, in sports, if you take the very best of the best players, almost none of them make good coaches. The best coaches are like the backup quarterback, the backup point guard, the catcher in baseball. These are the people who have to use more of their intelligence than just pure sheer athleticism or sheer talent in the business world.

So, that’s one of the first issues, is that we don’t always choose the right people. But, in my case, I got lucky. I was one of the top performers and so they did give me an opportunity, and I was able to lean on some of my experience as a leader in the sports world. I played quarterback in college and a little bit after college, and so I leaned and used some of that to share why I would be a good leader. But then I get into the job, and I was not prepared really for any aspect of being a manager within corporate America. I haven’t been trained on anything. I wasn’t ready for any of it.

And the very first week in the job, Pete, I’m 27, I’m in this nice, big, cozy office, an expensive chair, Herman Miller, right? I’m looking out this beautiful window which I never had before because I was in a cubicle, and I turned around after gazing out my window, and there’s a 43-year old woman, who is now one of my direct reports, looking at me, she’s crying, she slowly walks in my office, she shuts the door, she’s kind of quivering in a way, and says, “Ryan, my husband cheated on me. He wants a divorce.” And record scratch, right, and I said in my head, “Why in the world are you telling me this? What are you doing?”

And in that moment, I realized I had no idea what it actually meant to be a manager in a business. As an individual contributor, I didn’t have to deal with any of that type of stuff, like real life, the psychology of people, emotional intelligence, all those parts of the job, I was ill-prepared to have those types of conversations. I thought I could go in and coach about, like, “Okay, here’s how I was able to perform at a high level.” But, at best, that’s what I could do, is maybe lead like a training session on one particular topic. But the whole scope of the job, I just wasn’t ready.  And so, that’s why I focus on this specific time in someone’s life because I realized that this is something I needed when I was making that leap and I didn’t have it.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, now we got to know how the story resolves. You can’t do that to us, Ryan. So, what did you say and what happened with the woman?

Ryan Hawk
Well, I would love to say that I handled it great. What I ended up doing was just trying to be a compassionate listener, which that is, I think, a basic human skill that you develop. As a quarterback in college, it is part of the job having one-on-one conversations with each of your teammates to develop trust, to show how much you care, right? As a quarterback, you have ten other people that are playing alongside you. You need those guys to be ready to go. You need them to believe in you. You need them to want to play hard alongside you.

And so, I did use some of that and was able to, I think, be a decent listener, not really offer much advice because, who am I, this young guy who doesn’t know anything, and she’s lived…I’m in grade school when she’s starting her career essentially. I don’t know anything, and so I tried to listen. I remember I called my dad immediately after that conversation where I kind of fumbled around, listened, but didn’t do a whole lot, and I said, “Why would this happen? Who would do this?” And he said, “Dude, welcome to management. Like, that is part of the gig. That is, in fact, a big part of the job. And, unfortunately, if you decide to keep doing this long enough, you’ll have this exact conversation multiple times throughout your career and it’s very sad.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, the divorce one? Yeah, that is sad.

Ryan Hawk
Yes. “It’s sad, it’s not fun, but it’s life, and that’s part of the deal. So, learn from this and let’s talk about it.” And so, the first one I probably did not handle very well, and he was right, it did happen more than once again in that role, and it was crushing. And I mean, just soul-crushing each time like real life happened to people. But, as a leader, that’s part of the deal, that you raise your hand to be responsible to serve and help other people, and that’s part of the job is to help people in those moments that are toughest for them.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, okay. So, I’m totally convinced that, yes, that’s part of the job and, often, your individual contributor skills aren’t going to get you there in terms of being there for people and providing what they need to really flourish in their roles. So, tell us, you’ve done a lot of research here in the realm of performers becoming excellent leaders, have you made any particularly surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discoveries about how professionals can do that well?

Ryan Hawk
I think, first, there’s kind of a few steps, and all of these I did not do well initially, but did better after getting help from other people, and that’s actually part of the first step. When you’re making this transition, it is vital to create your own personal board of advisors, your own small group of people that have been there before, that you really trust, that are going to give you honest real feedback that you can go to and ask questions. They’re not going to judge you, they’re not going to think less of you, they’re going to be there to help you. So, creating your own little personal board of advisors is critical, I think, to be awesome at your job, especially awesome at this job where you don’t really fully know what you’re getting yourself into. So, think about that part of the job first is creating that for yourself.

Second, my dad also told me early on, and he’s still living a life of excellence and, certainly, led in corporate America for 30 plus years, and said, “Think about who is going to be on your team, who will you hire, who will you fire, and get very clear on that. Because if you get that part right, you’ll become rich and famous within this industry. If you get that part wrong, you will be poor and unemployed. Do not mess around with this. Understand and get it right.”

And so, I think, first, was I did a little project where I tried to deconstruct and understand what excellence actually was on my team and across the business, doing my own research on, “Okay, I see these people are the highest performers. Now, let’s understand why. What are their behaviors? What’s their makeup? What are the qualities that those people have? What are they like? What are their personalities like?”

I did my best to compile a bunch of my own personal research so that I can understand, “Okay, I’m looking for these specific qualities. We need somebody who knows how to handle adversity. We need some aggression. We want someone who’s thoughtful. We want a good interviewer.” Really listed out the important qualities and then developed questions to ask in the interview process to help uncover if our candidates possessed the qualities that we wanted.

And that I did not get immediately but after making some hiring mistakes and after not really having a strategy or a plan, really what happened when I got promoted is another manager just forwarded me this list of 25 questions. Now, they were just interview questions. They didn’t really make any sense. They were just decent interview questions to ask but I didn’t really know why I was asking them, or what I was looking for, or what I was trying to do. So, over time, when I got some good feedback and advice, I started having more of a strategy on the who of my team, and understanding how to find it. And I would say that was a critical turning point for me to start building an excellent-caliber team was when I got more clarity on that.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m so intrigued there now. I’m certain there will be different behaviors, traits, makeups, for individuals who can excel in different kinds of roles so there’s going to be some natural diversity there. But I’m thinking there’s also going to be some universals in terms of, “This is good stuff for a professional no matter what the industry, what the functions.” What the function? So, I would love to get your take on what are some of those universals you identified and how do you go about hiring people who’ve got that going on?

Ryan Hawk
Yeah, so a great question. I love it. I think there certainly are some universals of people. It’s funny, I was speaking with a friend of ours. My wife and I went on a double date with close friends, and we’re asking about how they met, and we told our story how we met. And Ashley, the wife of one of my good friends, she said, “Well, I made a list of non-negotiables. Meaning he had to have these few things.” I was like, “Oh, that’s interesting that you made that list.”

And so, I think that’s like kind of what we need to do as leaders is make our little list of, I don’t know if that has to be non-negotiables, but I would want them to have some qualities that we care about, we really like. And so, for me, a few of the areas that I really try that I want to be surrounded by are people that are intellectually curious. So, people who realize that they certainly don’t have it even close to figure it out, they’re trying to grow, learn, right? These people typically are well-read. They’re interesting people. Because they’re so curious, they’re willing to chase something down and go after it. I like those types of people.

My dad taught me the power of optimism. He’s the most optimistic guy I ever met. In fact, my wife and him are probably tied for first place there. I was so attracted to that growing up that I ended up marrying somebody who had that same outlook on life. I think that’s very useful and helpful to be around. That also creates great energy in the building or in the space. A good sense of optimism, believing that things will go well, I think is helpful.

I like, also, people who are the combination of confident yet humble at the same time, and understanding how to balance between those two, where they believe in themselves, they’re going to be able to aggressively pursue what they’re going after, but they’re also not always using the word “I.” They don’t think they have it all figured out. They know they need the help of other people. And humble people typically are more coachable. And I think being coachable is helpful.

And that’s why it’s funny. I ended up hiring a number of people who had military backgrounds as well as people who have played on teams, sports teams, because they’ve been coached and they know how to work in an environment when they need to collaborate with others. So, those are a few.

One bonus that I would say that I look for and I test that I love but it’s not always a mandatory is being a great writer. I think someone who can clearly put their thoughts on paper eloquently, straightforward, I think, is a huge plus, and it’s a skill we all should work on developing. So, I usually would ask people to send me sample proposals, or emails that they’ve written, or even blogposts if they publish. I ask to see that because that can be a huge plus if people had developed those skills.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that is a nice lineup there and some good ways to check for that. So, let’s say beyond the realm of hiring, let’s say you have entered management and welcomed to it, what would you say is the number one or two or three things that people just fail to prepare for? It’s like, “Oops, surprise.” So, you got one when you heard some personal issues, we got a divorce on the horizon. What are some other things that folks fail to prepare for and what should we do instead?

Ryan Hawk
So, the word “meeting” gets a bad rap because we’ve all sat through horrible meetings, right? And what happens when you’re a manager is you probably just follow the meeting structure of the person you work for. And so, if that person runs bad meetings, now you then go on to run bad meetings. That’s unfortunate. And as the leader of a team, you now are solely responsible for the success or failure of your meetings.

Meetings are imperative. Meetings are important. It’s where communication takes place. And that’s exactly what I did though when I became a manager. I literally took the agenda, the same agenda was used for every meeting, which is another conversation, another issue, but the same agenda was used for every meeting, and I just copied it, and just did that, and just kind of went through the motions of what the Monday morning meeting look like, and I started to become the manager who had bad meetings. And it’s critical. I just had a conversation with the great Patrick Lencioni about this who wrote The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and a bunch of other good books, The Advantage. And this is a big part of our conversation because that’s where the bulk of in-person dialogue happens, and it’s critical that you get it right.

And so, I think you just need to be very thoughtful about your intentions, the purpose of the meeting, what you’re working to get out of it, making sure you send each person the necessary documents leading up to the meeting to make sure they’re prepared to be productive in the meeting, not after the meeting, but in the meeting that happens. And then, afterwards, you, as the leader, writing your discussion summary of what was learned, and then who is responsible for specific actions, and what will be taken, and when they’ll get finished by. All of that is a big part that, as a leader, I didn’t do any of it when I was getting started. I had to learn the hard way by being yet another manager who ran bad meetings till he eventually learned a better way. And that took some time and, certainly, mistakes. And, again, that’s why the book is written, is to help people not make the same mistakes that I did.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Excellent. And so, we’ll avoid doing those things and get real clear on the meetings and the agendas and what we need to cover to be excellent. Well, so, let’s say, in particular, like I think that scenario you mentioned in terms of when you are managing someone who is older and more experienced than you, how do you navigate that?

Ryan Hawk
I think it’s really hard. Part of earning respect though, I think the ways that I try to earn respect is to show people, regardless of my age or their age, that I’m going to be deliberate about working on my skill development on a daily basis so they know that I’m the type of person who’s going to try to improve. I, also, will want to lean on them and ask them about, perhaps, if they have more life reps than me, they have more experience than me, then let’s tap into some of that. Let’s see where we can, we all as a team can benefit from that.

So, I’ve had people who are as old as my grandparents working for me. They obviously have some experience that we would be fools not to listen to. And I think, as a leader, to be secure in yourself enough to say, “Hey, we’d like you to take the lead on this specific meeting or this specific training session. I want to tap into some of your knowledge and wisdom that you’ve gleaned over the years.” Don’t make them feel any type of being left out just because you’re so much younger. So, I really like to lean on people who have more experience than me, figuring out where their kind of zone of genius is, and then let’s empower them to share that with the team so they have a sense of ownership within our group as opposed to maybe a weird or odd sense that they’re reporting to somebody who’s half their age.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I dig that. And then when it comes to just sort of the regular communication and delegation, sort of day in, day out, taking care of responsibilities, activities, tasks, any pro tips on what to do versus not do in your new management role?

Ryan Hawk
Well, it is natural, especially if you’re a top performer, in my world working in sales, it is very natural to say, “Do it exactly like me.” In fact, I got bad advice from someone who had not gotten promoted yet, he said, “You just need to try to hire 15 people that are exactly like you.” Literally, I was told this. And I was like, “Yeah, good point. Because if I had 15 me, they would just all crush the number and we’re good to go.” And it was such a mistake obviously. I didn’t really take the advice, but I did listen and think peculiarly for a second, “Hmm, is that the right move?” Obviously, it’s not. Diversity of thought is extremely valuable. There’s an immense amount of science to back all that up.

But thinking though that everybody should act just like you since you were successful is a big mistake. Everybody has their own style, their own personality, their own way. Your job is to coach and help unleash their power within them. Some of them don’t even fully realize what that is and so it’s on you to ask really great questions to learn about each of your people as individuals, to understand what they care about, to understand why they’re there. I had this exercise called a getting-to-know-you document. I give them this get-to-know-you document. I had about 25 questions. Again, I have a post on this, I can give it to you.

Twenty-five questions for me to get to know them as a person, what they’re about, what they like, what they don’t, working styles, kind of a user manual type. There’s a section of that for it so I understand how to best work with them. We both fill that out. We then have a long-form conversation about that so I really get to know them best. And then, at their specific areas where they really excel or it’s a strength, maybe they’re a person that we can delegate some sort of work to based on what we’ve learned.

But you’ve got to do the hard work upfront to deeply learn and care about each person as an individual because, as you know, nobody will care how much you know or what you know until they care that you really care about them as a person. And so, that’s the job of the leader to take the lead on making that happen from the very beginning with, again, a number of different exercises. But getting to know them is certainly one that I’ve implemented, and this seems to have worked pretty well.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, certainly linked to those questions, could you give us a teaser, a question or two, that often seems to result in some handy insight?

Ryan Hawk
So, I’ll share some basic ones and maybe some sneaky ones here. So, I will ask them the name of their spouse and kids if they’re married and have kids, and their address. And here’s why. If you happen to have somebody who is a top performer and you really want to make them feel the love, an advice my dad gave me, “Make sure your people feel the love,” and they’re doing really well, and, let’s say, they’re also helping other people. Like, their actions are, they’re really good. They’re people that you want to make sure that they feel the love. I would send a handwritten note to their spouse and kids, along with it I would usually send some cookies, and on the get-to-know-you document, I’m finding out not only the interests of that person but the interests of their family.

And so, in one case, I remember, it was a specific video game that the kids had wanted, and so I bought the video game, cookies, wrote a handwritten note to this gentleman’s wife and their kids, saying, “Your dad, John, is absolutely crushing it. He’s also helping others while at work, helping them be successful in addition to him being successful. I’m so grateful that he’s on our team. Because of him, we are much better off. You should be so proud of your dad. In fact, why don’t you eat some cookies and play this video game, and say thank you to your dad for working so hard.”

And one of the things I found is when you love on the people who your people love, right, so kids and spouses of them, there may be no better gift. I’m a dad, I want my kids to think I’m cool or that I work hard so there may be no better gift, and it shows that you’re thoughtful. So, those questions were put on that initial get-to-know-you document so I understood and knew his kid’s name, I didn’t have to ask for, I didn’t have to ask him for his address, so it was a complete shock and surprise when these things show up, they’re personalized, sent to the right address, and they actually make sense. They’re not just a fruit basket. They’re specific for that person. It can go a long way.

And I developed real relationships with these people that worked on my teams, and some of them I haven’t worked with in more than five years and we’re still friends to this day because we both took an interest in developing a real relationship and caring about one another. And that then created the environment where people wanted to come to work, and excel, and perform at excellent levels consistently because they knew that their leader cared about them.

Pete Mockaitis
That is an excellent story and I’m all about it. Thank you. You make reference to, also, having an operating framework. What do you mean by that and why should we have one and how do we make one?

Ryan Hawk
So, over the course of these 350 interviews on my podcast The Learning Leader show, I noticed that people kept using the word framework or standard operating procedures for themselves for how they behave, for their actions, for how they made choices, and I started thinking. I remember I was talking to Ryan Caldbeck, a CEO on Silicon Valley, and he was talking a lot about these frameworks, and I was a little bit embarrassed because I don’t even understand what he’s talking about, I don’t have a framework for how I behave or how I make decisions. So, right after that conversation, I wrote down, “What are the optimal ways for me to create a great day? What are the ways for me to think about how I make decisions, how I act, how I behave?” And so, that’s why I created my framework, and I encourage others too. And mine are simply four parts. This would equate to a really good day for me. Four parts.

The first part of that is that I have an intake engine. I’m going to be a consumer of knowledge, of information, so I’m going to read, I’m going to have long-form conversations on my podcast, watch TED Talks, listen to podcasts myself, right? Intake engine, I’m going to take in information to learn. Second, I’m going to experiment with what I’ve learned. You can’t just be a learner. You have to be a doer. You’ve got to put it into practice. So, second, I’m going to experiment with what I’ve learned.

Third, I’m going to take a step back, reflect, and analyze what I’ve learned and what I’ve experimented with, what works, what doesn’t, what I’m going to go keep doing, and what I’m going to stop doing. So, I’m regularly adding to what I do on a daily basis. And then, fourth, and really important, I found the best mechanism for learning is teaching.

And so, when I go out and teach what I believe to others, or what I’ve learned to others, whether it be in the form of  a keynote speech, writing a book, running leadership circles, whatever it is that I do, as I’m preparing for that time on stage, or that time with somebody else to help them, I’m going to get very clear on what I know, on what I think, on what I believe, and that process of preparing for the big moment is when so much learning happens.

And so, when you regularly put yourself in the position to be a teacher, you’ll learn as a byproduct of teaching. And that’s why you find so many really intelligent professors because they constantly have to get ready to stand up in front of a group of students and teach, and so you’re going to learn so much. So, for me, that is my framework, the four parts of it, that had been meaningful. And when I really distilled it and thought about it, it’s been extremely helpful as I’ve progressed in this world of leadership to try to help other people, is to have my own sort of framework.

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

Ryan Hawk
Man, hey, I’ll take it wherever you want. I feel like I’m just trying to answer. You ask great questions so keep firing away.

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Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. Well, let’s hear about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Ryan Hawk
My dad told me when I was young, he goes, “If you choose to do anything of significance in your life,” and this was relating to sports, for my brother and I at the time, “If you choose to do anything of significance, people are going to start talking and writing about you. Never get too high or too low based on what they say. If you don’t want people to talk about you or write about you, then don’t do anything.”

And I thought that was a really meaningful quote to us, especially in our formative years when my brother AJ and I were having some success in the football field, that it was a good reminder that, “Don’t think you’re too great just because you’ve had a good game and they put you on the front page of the paper.” And, subsequently, it’s not as bad as you think when you’ve played poorly or you’ve done something not as well. Stay composed. Have some moxie. And that has helped me in the business world as well because things are not always going to go well, and it’s how you choose to respond in those moments that can be very impactful, and so I remember that from my dad, and I’ve never forgotten it.

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

Ryan Hawk
I think one of the people I’m fascinated by is David Goggins.

Ryan Hawk
He wrote a book called Can’t Hurt Me. And I’m going to have David on in the future so I’ve been doing a lot of research on him. But he talks about the power of physical activity and how that is so helpful mentally. And I’m a big believer in this, I’m a big workout guy too, so maybe I’m choosing this out of selfish reasons. But he believes in developing and building mental calluses and those mental calluses can be built up through hard physical exertion, like pushing your body further than you think it could go, and he cites a lot of science to back all this up. But, really, it’s not necessarily about just being a workout theme. It’s about regularly putting yourself in challenging positions to understand the level that you can get to mentally to be able to push through difficult moments.

And I think the use of doing that through exercise, for me, is very attractive, and I’ve implemented that. And I think, for leaders, you may be saying, “Well, do I really need to go workout?” You certainly don’t have to do it that way, but I believe it is a great mechanism to understand how far to push yourself through challenging moments.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Ryan Hawk
It’s like asking your favorite kid. I’m going to go with The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. I live in Dayton, Ohio, the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop right down the street here in Dayton, Ohio. I think that book is beautifully written and the story is incredibly inspiring. And if you haven’t read it, you just heard about the Wright Brothers in school, there are so much to learn about those guys, including just how so many others were supported more than them, both in moral support and financially, both in the States and abroad, and yet these guys were willing to put in the work day after day consistently to build the first ever flying machine. It’s a really inspiring story, and I read it and re-read it regularly.

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

Ryan Hawk
Actually, this may be weird but I’m almost always in preparation mode for a podcast guest, and a lot of the podcast guests have written books. And so, I would say one of the biggest tools for me that I’m always in is the Kindle app on my iPad. I’m regularly using it to highlight, and then I take notes. I also then transfer my notes usually into some form of a Google Doc so I have that everywhere I go. And then I always print it out and handwrite my notes leading up to a podcast episode because there’s something to me about the handwritten form that it really ingrains the information in my mind. So, those are a few tools that help me, I think, do my job well.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Ryan Hawk
Every morning when I wake up, I have a wife and we’re raising five daughters, and so it is a chaotic household a lot, so I have to create space where I could be by myself and, usually, that is very early in the morning. So, my favorite habit is waking up before everyone in my home does, and I love to stretch. I stretch my body, and then try to stretch my mind through reading and then writing early in the morning. And then I push myself pretty hard in the gym every morning before I come home and have breakfast with my family. So, that, I would say, is a habit and a routine that I’ve gotten into over the past few years that’s been very helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a particular nugget you share that in your talks, etc., that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you and retweet it often?

Ryan Hawk
We’ve talked about some of them already, but I would say just remember the importance of your “who” and ask yourself who is your who. And there’s really three groupings of the people in your life that you should think about surrounding yourself with. Who are those people who are ahead of you, people who have done what you want to do? These are the mentors you look up to, maybe some bosses. Some of them are virtual mentors because you’ve just seen them online, you love what they do, and you follow them. So, who’s in front of you?

Who’s beside you? Who are those people you can walk along this challenging path? You can help one another out, you’re rooting for each other’s success. You’re not judging each other. You can share difficult moments and help one another. And then who are those people that you are helping? Who’s behind you? Who are you mentoring? Who looks up to you? Who’s asking for your advice? And how are you pouring into them to help them get better? I think it’s very critical to remember who is your who. And if it’s not clearly defined, take out a piece of paper and a pen, write that down, and then rate those relationships.

Level five relationships, at least on this grading scale, are those people who you have regularly-scheduled meetings on the calendar, and you schedule the next meeting while the current meeting is taking place so you know what’s going to happen. That’s a level five. Level one is someone that you’d like to talk to but maybe haven’t yet, and everything else is in between. But rate those relationships and be very intentional about making sure your who is clear and it makes sense for you and what you want to do.

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

Ryan Hawk
LearningLeader.com. Everything is there, website, you could get my book, you can listen to podcasts. And if you happen to be listening on your phone, and it’s easier, just text the word “learners” to 44222.

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

Ryan Hawk
Read books, man. Read books. I remember, when I read Good to Great by Jim Collins and the impact it had in my life, because not only did it change my viewpoint on what it meant to lead in business, it made me a more curious person, and it also made me want to read other books. So, reading begets reading. I just think I’ve never met somebody who’s well-read who’s not very interesting. And it’s that type of person we want to be. I like surrounding myself with really interesting thoughtful people. And, again, I’ve never met somebody who’s constantly reading book who isn’t the type of person who I want to spend time around, who isn’t very interesting. So, that would be my piece, is to read books.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Ryan, this has been a lot fun. I wish you lots of luck in all of your adventures, and keep it up.

Ryan Hawk
Thank you so much, Pete. Man, love being on your show with you.

528: Building High-Performing Teams through Psychological Safety with Aaron Levy

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Aaron Levy says: "The right type of leader you can be is actually just being yourself."

Aaron Levy discusses how to encourage your team to give and receive more honest feedback.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The deciding factor of high-performing teams
  2. How to make feedback less intimidating
  3. Four ground rules that allow teams to thrive

About Aaron:

Aaron is the Founder and CEO of Raise The Bar, a firm focused on helping companies address the problem of millennial turnover.

Aaron is an ICF Associate Certified Coach, a Thrive Global contributor, an 1871 mentor, the Co-Director of Startup Grind Chicago and a member of the Forbes Coaches Council. He has educated, coached, and consulted over 5,500 business leaders, helping them to define goals, create action plans, and achieve sustained success.

Aaron is on a mission to transform the manager role – by empowering each manager with the tools, skills, and training to be leaders of people who unlock the potential of their team.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Aaron Levy Interview Transcript

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

Aaron Levy
Thanks for having me on for a second time, Pete. I’m really happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Well, I’m happy to have you. And another fun fact we learned about you is you take some cold-water plunges in the wintertime. What is the story here?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, it’s been the last couple of years. My coach for his 60th birthday said, “For my birthday, you’re going to come plunge with me in the lake.” And I swim with him probably May through August, September, early October. He said, “We’re going to go for a plunge in November-December.” I said, “What?” He said, “It’s for my birthday.” I said, “Okay. You only turn 60 once so we’ll do it.”

And we got in, and we plunged, and it became one of those things that is there’s not really much better way to start the day than plunging into Lake Michigan and getting this just cold but also really refreshing feeling. So, I try and do it a couple of times a week and go in for a couple of minutes so I don’t get hypothermic, and it’s just a really nice refreshing way to start the day.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s funny you used the word nice because it sounds like torture to me. Explain.

Aaron Levy
Well, it is a little bit painful and it’s a mental challenge, and I think that, also, what’s interesting about it, as someone who does triathlons and racing, that whole sport is a mental challenge, and so you kind of love once you get into the water, it’s all leading up to it, but then once you’re in and you’re shoulder deep in water, everything slows down, and you can slow down your heart rate and your breathing. You just calm down. And you don’t want too calm in there for too long but you definitely calm down for a minute or two. It’s the leadup that’s much more crazy, I think, than the actual plunge.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I was going to say, are you sure that sensation isn’t you dying?

Aaron Levy
No, I’m not entirely sure it’s not me dying. We’ve done it enough times where we’d play with that, like, “Okay, at two and a half minutes at this temperature, that’s too much time.” Like, your whole body chatters for 30 minutes afterwards, “Okay, I was in there a little too long.” So, we learned to figure that out on our own.

But it’s just one of those things that’s really refreshing. And people ask me, “Well, what’s the science behind it?” And I say, “You know, the science is hit and miss. There’s cryotherapy, professional athletes going in ice baths after sporting events or races, and so it’s kind of following along that path. It’s very similar to that, but I’m not going to claim I do this for science. The reason I do it because it’s exhilarating, it’s fun, and it’s refreshing.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s intriguing and it’s come up before, so thanks for indulging us there. I want to say congrats. You have completed your book Open, Honest, and Direct: A Guide to Unlocking Your Teams Potential, so that’s cool. I think I want to go deep on a particular vein of it, but maybe you could give us sort of like the broad zoomed-out message, sort of what’s the main thesis of this opus here.

Aaron Levy
Yeah, the main thesis is that it takes work to lead people, and we are usually promoted into leadership roles because we’re good at doing what we’re doing, not because we’re good at leading people. And so, the path that this book takes is actually it takes all the steps we work with leaders on, is, “What does it take to be an open, honest, and direct leader? How do you listen? How do you ask powerful questions? How do you create this base for psychological safety to occur? And how do you ultimately realize…?”

I think one of the hardest messages of the book to realize is that feedback is a gift, and the act of giving it, even in a critical conversation, or sharing something that just might not feel good to share because you might be worried about hurting somebody else’s feelings, actually might be the best thing that that person needs or you and your team need, or all of the above need.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, boy, there’s lots to that and it certainly resonates and rings true. So, I want to talk in-depth about psychological safety, which is a theme that’s in the book and in your work. And so, first, how about, just so we’re all on the same page, can you define that term for us and why does it matter?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, the way I think about it when we think about psychological safety is it’s the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up, raising questions, concerns, or mistakes.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Aaron Levy
I can give you more of an analogy though if that helps as another way to think about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we’ll take it.

Aaron Levy
So, the way I tend to think about it is imagine you’re walking through, you know, you’re trying to not be sure who you can say what to. Like, this person, if you say that to, they might blow up at you. This person you say that to, they’re going to respond to it in a different way. This person is going to be passive-aggressive, and it’s like you’re walking through a field where there’s a series of landmines all around you and you’re not quite sure where those landmines are.

And so, you’re walking through the field slowly, unsure of what you say, and if you do it the wrong way, or if you say it with this tone, or if you email it in that way, that you’re going to get punished, or humiliated, or put down. And it’s just not hyper-efficient. It’s actually the opposite of efficiency because you’re slowly walking through that field as opposed to, in business, what we really want to be doing is moving at a rapid pace together towards the same direction.

And so, the lack of psychological safety is like you’re walking through a series of landmines.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that is a nice, well, maybe not nice, it’s a clear and illustrative metaphor, maybe kind of a spooky one as you really put yourself in the position. And so, I hear you that the belief that you’re not going to be ridiculed, etc., that sounds like a pleasant thing to be going on. But there’s really some excellent science behind psychological safety and the results that that unlocks for teams. So, can you refresh us on that as well?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, I think the most interesting thing about this came when I started to look at Google’s Project Aristotle. And when you look at Google’s Project Aristotle, it’s really a study where Google said, “Hey, we want to figure out what are the key ingredients for a high-performing team, what makes teams perform well.”

And their initial hypothesis was, “Well, it’s the right mix of people with this personality style and that personality style. We have the right mix of introverts and extroverts. We have the right mix of talent.” They thought that was the case. But when they did their research and they looked at teams within Google, but they also looked at meta analyses of other studies on teams, what they found was their hypothesis was totally wrong.

And two of the most important factors to drive high-performing teams had nothing to do with the people on the teams at all. Initially, I was baffled, and then after I had a chance to kind of absorb that and think about that concept, the performance of a team has nothing to do with the people on the team at all. The cool thing about that is that means that you, as a leader of a team, actually have the opportunity to impact the performance of any team that you’re working on immediately.

And the two factors that show up and came out of this Google Project Aristotle was the need for psychological safety in the workplace and also clarity. Both of those things combined, “Clarity on where we’re going, how we’re working together, and safety, and I feel comfortable in my ability to do what I need to do to work.” And that might mean asking a question without thinking it’s a stupid question, that might mean challenging my boss because we need to challenge his idea and not just accept the norms. That’s actually what drives team performance.

So, it’s not really a thing that we talk about in our leadership training, or with our clients, or in any of our work as a way to just feel good. The reason we talk about psychological safety is because it is one of the top factors which drives team performance and better outcomes within a business.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, it’s really interesting how I can really think about all kinds of conversations where there’s really some interrelationship there, which means psychological safety and clarity, because you might be afraid you’re going to be ridiculed and, thusly, you don’t ask the clarifying questions necessary to arrive at your clarity. And, in reverse, it’s like if you don’t feel clear about where you’re going, you’re feeling kind of anxious and edgy, like, “I hope this is maybe the right thing,” like the whole time that you’re engaging in conversation and hunker down and doing your work solo.

Aaron Levy
The balance and the play between the two are so, so important. And I say any great leader, their role is to provide context and clarity. Clarity on where we’re going, what we’re doing, how we’re going. And context as to why we’re doing it. But the underlying thing in that is, all along that way, people need to feel safe.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then let’s get into it. The psychological safety, how is it earned and gained and built? And how is it lost in terms of sort of real-life day-to-day exchanges, interactions?

Aaron Levy
Yeah. At the highest level, it is gained and lost through consistency. So, if you are not consistent in the way you show up, Pete, as a person with your family, with other people, they won’t know what to expect from you and, thus, psychological safety is lost. However, if you’re consistent in the way you show up, you are setting yourself up to say, “I know if I do this, I’m going to get this response.”

So, what you’re doing is you’re setting yourself up for psychological safety. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to guarantee you’d give it if you’re consistently yelling at people when they ask you a question. That’s not psychological safety, but it’s consistency in a few things. And so, I share consistency at the start because that’s probably the most important thing to remember. It’s not, “I just try, I’m going to share a couple of things that we talk about doing.” But it’s not trying to do one of those things or two of those things once in a while and seeing how it works. Psychological safety is created over a long period of time where you’re consistent in the actions that you do.

And so, one specific example of that is when you give feedback in person, right? And when I say in person, I don’t mean literally it has to be face-to-face with the other person. It could be over the phone or via a video chat. What I really mean is not giving feedback via Slack, via Instant Message, or text message, or email because it’s just not the highest fidelity mode of communication.

The best example I think about is, it’s like if you ever have that text message where you’re texting with somebody, and then you feel like they might be frustrated, and the text bubble comes up, and it seems like they’re about to text too but then it goes away?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Aaron Levy
And that’s the worst. “What’s happening is? Is he mad at me?” and then you go into the office and it’s your boss. So, you’re looking for your boss, and he walks in, and he walks right by you, you’re like, “Wait. He’s definitely mad at me. I’m in trouble. I did something wrong. I must’ve said something wrong in his email. What’s going on?” You build this whole story.

Little did you know, as you’re building that whole story, is you’re reading this feedback via text message, which isn’t a high-fidelity mode of communication, you’re building a story that he or she is mad at you for something that happened in the text message. But, really, they were just going from one meeting to another, and in between meetings, they really had to go to the bathroom, so they don’t even see you. They just walk straight to the bathroom.

And when we don’t give feedback in person, over the phone, or via a video chat, we’re losing that level of understanding the situation and we build a story around it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, this reminds me. This has come up once before on the show. If you’ve seen the Key & Peele text message confusion sketch, it is priceless. It’s not quite safe at work because of the language, but it’s hilarious and illustrates that point, how we can sort of read things in and misinterpret, and when folks truly have completely different intentions and things that they’re trying to communicate there. Okay, that’s one practice then, is offering feedback in a live, real-time environment.

Aaron Levy
Here’s the tip around that, too.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Aaron Levy
If an email or a text message is taking you more than five minutes to craft, like you’re typing it and then you delete because you’re like, “Oh, that sound passive-aggressive.” Typing it in again, deleting, you’re not really sure how to respond? Don’t send the email. It’s called the 5-minute rule. Just pick up the phone and call the person, or walk over their desk.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And what I love about that, I guess the nuance to that 5-minute rule is it’s not so much you have a lot of content to share. I guess if that’s the case, I’d recommend Loom. I love that screen recording stuff. They need to sponsor the show one day. Anyway, I love Loom for screen recording instant videos, so sharp. But it’s taking you more than five minutes not because there’s a lot of in-depth content but because there’s some emotional stuff there, “Ooh, I don’t know if that’s going to land this way. Hmm.” Like, those are the things that are making it get stretched out.

Aaron Levy
And that emotional stuff isn’t going to be conveyed well via email.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Aaron Levy
So, don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m with you. I’m with you. Okay, so we got the sharing. That’s one consistent action you recommend for building the psychological safety is sharing those feedback points in real-time live environments, in person or in Skype or something, or phone. What are some of the other key consistent things that make all the difference in building up psychological safety?

Aaron Levy
Avoid using absolutes like “always,” “never,” “can’t,” “won’t,” “don’t.” The truth is when you use absolutes like that, it just adds a layer of judgment to a situation that likely isn’t true and will most often lead to someone else being defensive on the good side or the bad side, “Pete, you’re always late.” You might look at me and say, “Aaron, I wasn’t late for this meeting and I wasn’t late for last meeting.” And I’d have to say, “Oh, you’re right. Pete, three meetings this week that you’re a part of, you were late.” That you can’t deny, but always late? That’s just probably not true.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’m right with you there. And so, it’s also a bit more honest. I’m thinking about the book Nonviolent Communication now.

Aaron Levy
Oh, amazing book.

Pete Mockaitis
In terms of just it’s an observation as opposed to judgment, and there’s a huge distinction and ways that you can sort of drift on over into the judgment territory and be evaluative in use of one of those absolutes. It’s so funny, it’s tempting to use an absolute about absolutes, “Never use absolutes.” Oh, no, I just used an absolute.

Aaron Levy
I was about to say every time. Most of the time when I deliver this and share this with leaders, in my head I’m having this dialogue of, “Watch out for the absolutes, watch out for the absolutes. They’re going to catch you in an absolute.” Because it’s such a big part of our language and the way in which we communicate, we communicate through themes and stories that we see on TV and in the world, and we communicate through absolutes. And both of those actually limit the truth of what we’re trying to say.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Well, keep it coming. Keep it coming, Aaron. What else, career practices?

Aaron Levy
What else? One of my favorites is simply be specific. Share what actions worked or didn’t work when you’re giving someone feedback. So, don’t share who they are or who they aren’t, right? “You need to care more.” “What do you mean I need to care more? What tells you that I’m not caring enough?” And when we break this down with leaders as they start to share this in our trainings, and they say, “Well, what tells me that they don’t care is the last email that they sent to a client had three spelling errors in it.” Okay. So, instead of telling your employee to care more, which has a lot of judgment, has a lot of weight, just tell them that what you expect of them is to send client emails without grammatical errors in it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that because, well, one it’s just very specific and actionable, and you can run with that and be enriched as a professional by hearing and adapting to that feedback. I would love to get your pro take on it in terms of do you want to share the context associated with the why behind that? Because, in a way, that might sound evaluative and judge-y.

So, I would say, “Hey, please make sure that you double-check your email so that you don’t have these sorts of typos go out. I noticed in this email these three typos. And my concern is that can create the impression that we are sloppy, or inattentive to detail, or rushing over on our side.” So, in a way, I’m giving you some context and some why behind my request. In another way, it sounds like I might be into evaluation, judging territory that they might trigger defensiveness. What’s your take?

Aaron Levy
“Well, so you did it twice unknowingly, so I’m going to give you a little bit of a reframe, take it or leave it. One of the things that you did, even at the start without noticing likely, was I want you to double-check your emails.” That’s assuming that whoever sent that email didn’t double or triple, quadruple-check it. I’m someone who can triple-check an email and still have plenty of grammatical errors in it. And so, I could look at that and hear what you say just from the start, and be like, “Well, I did.”

So, here’s a reframe of how to say it, “The expectation is, when you have a client email that goes out, it has zero grammatical errors. The impact of having grammatical errors is they think small errors means we have errors in other things that we do and it decreases our chance of working with them again.”

So, your ask was, “Hey, can I share this specific feedback and can I give a little bit of the impact of this specific impact?” Yes, you can totally give the impact of this specific feedback. I would just make it as insular as possible. What I mean by that is, as you and the experience focus, as opposed to saying, “When you do that, everybody on the team gets pissed at you.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Aaron Levy
“When you send that email, the impact is I don’t trust that you’re going to do what you say you’re going to do,” right? That is my judgment and evaluation, but, hey, I asked you to do something and send an email on time or send an email with no errors, and you sent an email late with errors. Now, I don’t trust that you can do what you say you’re going to do, as opposed to the rest of the team was pissed off at you. Because that is throwing too much judgment out there to the group.

And I know this sounds like nitty-gritty if you’re listening to it. As much as you can think of, “How can I just be specific about what actually didn’t work and the honest impact of it?” The honest impact is, “We’re worried that we might lose a client when we send them work like this.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Yeah, I like that in terms of it’s clear, it’s like, “This is the expectation for these underlying reasons or philosophies,” and then it gets more personal in terms of, let’s take a look at this example email, and let’s hear that part of the conversation.

Aaron Levy
Yeah. And so, sometimes with feedback, you don’t need to give the impact because they get it. it’s just especially when you do it in the moment or timely. It doesn’t need to be spur of the moment but it should be within one to three days. That’s one of the other things that’s really important. If you give feedback a week, two, three, six weeks, a month later, the person might not even remember what it was about, “What email are you talking about? What did I say in that client call? What did I do in that meeting? I didn’t even notice.”

When you give it in the moment, or within a couple of days, people are able to observe, understand what they did, and change it. So, if someone on your team is a salesperson, and they made a mistake in a sales call, and you wait two weeks to tell them about the mistake, how many sales calls are they going on making the same mistake over and over and over again?

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely, and it just doesn’t feel so great. I’m thinking about reviews in particular. It’s like surprises on the review that might happen nearly a year after the fact, it’s like, “What?”

Aaron Levy
Here’s the analogy I play with that just because it’s almost stupid-funny when you think about it. Think about Tom Brady and the Patriots, and I say Tom Brady not because I like Tom Brady but because he’s one of the more recognizable football players, athletes in the world. So, he gets into the huddle, there’s two minutes left in the game, and he’s getting the play calls into his helmet from his coach, and he’s talking to his teammates, and he’s hearing what’s going on, and he lets them know the play, and they all break and they spread out into the field, and he sees the defense, and they’re moving around, and his offense is looking at him.

And then he sees this wide receiver, and he’s not in the right spot. And he looks at him, he goes, “Oh, I don’t know. Should I? Well, we’re going to have a review of the game on Monday. Maybe I’ll tell him to move over on Monday. You know what, we’re almost at the end of the season, we’re going to do our annual reviews at the end of the season, so I’ll tell him that he’s not in the right, or I could just send him an email, too.” We would think that’s ridiculous. That just doesn’t happen. Tom looks at the guy, and he says, “Move over!” He might even say, “Move…” insert swear word “…over!” And the receiver doesn’t think twice of it, he needed to know how to be in the right spot so that they could move forward towards a common goal together efficiently and effectively.

Yet, in the workplace, we do that. In the workplace, we say, “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just send him an email. Well, I waited too long to send that email, so I’ll tell him when he have a debrief on this client. Well, I didn’t do it then because we didn’t have time, so I’ll just do it at the annual performance review.” That’s not helping anybody grow. That’s not being consistent. And so, one of the really important things is actually just to be timely when you give feedback so they know when to expect it.

On our team, one of the things we do is we have a feedback debrief in between each workshop that we do. I actually have to send one out to the group on the last workshop that I did yesterday and the day before to say, “Here’s what worked. Here’s what didn’t.” If I only sent an email out when things were going really well, or when things were really bad, then people would be afraid when they got an email from me, and they’d say, “Oh, no. Is this…what did we do wrong?” But the consistency is each session that we have, each week that we do it, people will know, “Here’s the email. You know to expect something that worked, something that didn’t work.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that’s huge and powerful. And I’m thinking about this football analogy in terms of, yeah, you’re right, that would be ridiculous to think about giving feedback in that way. I guess I’m also thinking about my experience of when I’m working with sort of creative types, like, “Hey, we’re making a logo, or we’re doing whatever,” I find it so interesting is when I share feedback in terms of, “You know what, that white space, it just seems like it’s so tight, it’s kind of uncomfortable, whatever.”

And it’s funny because sometimes I think that I sound kind of weird talking about design-type things, or art-type things, or I was talking to my audio people, it’s like, “I think my voice sounds a little robot-y at times. I don’t know if it’s being processed in a certain way.” And so, they appreciate it, like, “Oh, that’s great. Thank you. Yeah, I’m really going to dig into that.”

And so, as opposed to I guess that it’s just rare that I work with someone in my kind of creative capacity and they get really defensive or angry or irritated, like, “How dare you? You don’t sound robot-y. We mastered your voice perfectly,” or, “You don’t know jack about logos. What I made is excellent.” What do you think that’s about in terms of the mindset if it’s a football player or a logo designer versus an office professional? And why sort of feedback is often not given the same way and often not received the same way?

Aaron Levy
Well, I think you’d find it interesting if you go to that same logo designer and sit in in one of their internal meetings or discussion with a boss about a project, because I think it’s not that certain types of people do or don’t do it. I think, yes, that does happen. It’s also the culture and the team by which we operate and agree to do it. And so, it’s kind of part of the agreement with the client if you’re doing something creative with them that there’s going to be a bunch of iterations in the process, right? Iteration is part of the process.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go, yeah.

Aaron Levy
Yet, are we agreeing to iteration when we’re determining the next steps to go forward or the strategy as a business, or when we’re trying to figure out how to be better at sending client emails? Are we agreeing to iteration? And that iteration, that understanding that there’s a back and forth, that’s how you get to the best possible outcome that you need feedback from all points of view and different perspectives to get to the better outcome is something that is often missing.

And that’s also why when you’re able to create psychological safety, that’s one of the things that drives team performance. It’s what’s missing from a lot of teams, is the ability to feel like, “I can give that feedback and can say what needs to be said even if I’m a first-year person in this company, and I’m saying it to the senior director.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I like that a lot that it’s sort of, like, “Are we agreeing to have these iterations?” Like, “Is there an expectation of iteration?” Oh, is that trademarked yet, Aaron?

Aaron Levy
It’s not. It’s not. It’s a good one.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s see, maybe it needs to be, one of us. Is there an expectation of iteration or is there not? And so, if someone is sharing something and they kind of think, “Well, hey, I’m a genius. I’ve got it figured out and this is the way forward and what we’re going to do, and you all need to respect that.” And then they get challenged, like, “Oh, hey, what if we did this?” Like, “No, Aaron, actually, I’d like to do it the way I said I wanted to do it,” like a little snippy there. It’s like, “Oh, okay. Note to self: Don’t speak up. I don’t feel psychological safety.”

And then, yeah, I think you’ve nailed it there. It’s, “Do we or do we not have an expectation of iteration?” And I think, for the most part, it’d behoove us to have that about most things. Is that fair to say in your view?

Aaron Levy
I’ll give you the way in which I think about it. I go on a daily basis to meet with new groups of people and do, we’d dive into trainings. And most of the time, they’re 20 or 40 hours over the course of 6 to 12 months, but sometimes it’s just a day, or a day and a half, or it’s an hour. And even in that amount of time with a group that I’m just working with the first time, I create a set of agreements with them and we establish agreements for how we’re going to work together in this room.

And one of the agreements, to what you said, Pete, is do the next hard thing. And what we mean by do the next hard thing is challenge yourself, get out of your comfort zone, speak up, try things out and make mistakes, challenge me. And so, in doing that, the expectation is someone to raise their hand and say, “You know what, Aaron, I disagree with you.” That’s what we look for because that’s how you breathe and grow great learning and great development. It’s how you process information. It’s not supposed to all be clean and logical. It’s supposed to be a little bit messy.

And so, when you ask, “Is that something that should happen all the time?” Yeah. Let me just extrapolate. If I’m doing that in an hour of session with a group that I’m meeting with once, imagine what you could benefit from if you’re doing that with people you work with on a daily basis.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so what I’m loving here is that you’re so gung-ho on these agreements. I’d love to hear what do you find are some of the top agreements that make a world of difference in unlocking high performance?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, I think the number one agreement that makes the world of difference in high performance and also, in my mind, just the world a better place, and the way in which I describe it is it’s called embracing a beginner’s mind. And I go back to this quote by Gino Wickman from the book Traction where says, “The mind is like a parachute. It has to be opened for it to work.”

And if we’re not coming into a room, a situation, an environment with our minds open to different possibilities, then we really have a narrow perspective. And when you have that open perspective, it just creates so much more possibility, so much more growth, so much more learning, so much more development, so much more opportunity.

And so, that is the key indicator of success with employees on my company, with leaders that we work with, with clients that we work with. If they have that, which we seek out of all those different constituents, then success will be there, and high-performing teams will thrive if you have, at least, a beginner’s mind. So, a beginner’s mindset is the biggest one in my mind.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That’s a great one. And lay on another one or two for us.

Aaron Levy
Yeah. Act with authenticity and humility. The way in which I describe this is it’s almost like you can sit back in your chair and you can finally take a breath. You don’t have to put on a mask of the work you. You don’t have to be the leader that has all the answers. You don’t have to be the Steve Jobs who is brash and rude, or the Bill Gates who is measure three times then cut once. The right type of leader and the right type of contributor you can be is actually just being yourself.

Trying to be somebody else, being inauthentic, people see through that. We’re trained at understanding and seeing facial expressions and emotions, whether we know we’re trained or not, we’ve been doing it since we’re little kids before we could even talk. We can understand facial expressions and body language.

And so, when we’re inauthentic, it feeds and it breathes to other people. And so, being authentic, and humble, too, not just braggadocious, but also humble and having some humility to how you show up in this world is one of those things that is just freeing. It kind of unlocks and releases this mask that a lot of us tend to put on when we go into work and want to be awesome by trying to be awesome, as opposed to being ourselves, embracing beginner’s mind, doing the next hard thing, and doing the work.

Pete Mockaitis
Good stuff. Aaron, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, I would say one of the agreements that I constantly bring up is assume positive intent. Oftentimes, when we’re in the workplace, we can read an email or a text message, we go, “Oh, why did she…?” And think that somebody else is out there trying to hurt you, and we constantly go like it’s a battle, like people are trying to hurt us, that we’re working with.

The truth is that most people are just trying their best to do their best. And they might’ve made a mistake, they might’ve done something to really just figure something out, and if we can assume that everybody is doing their best, assume positive intent, it’s going to make the team that you work with a lot happier to be on.

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

Aaron Levy
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. And in that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response.”

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

Aaron Levy
I’ve really enjoyed the Bloomer’s experiment. Do you want me to dive into it or just a high level?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s hear a sentence or two and the setup and the results.

Aaron Levy
Yeah. What they did was they looked at a group of students and they randomly assigned certain students to be high performers or bloomers, and another group of students to be non-high performers. They just picked them out of a hat basically. They didn’t tell the students that they were labeled as high performer or not but they did tell their teacher.

And as they looked at the course of the year and saw what happened, what they realized was the people labeled as high performers dramatically outperformed, statistically significantly outperformed, the non-high performers. And what’s interesting is, again, the students didn’t know. But who knew? The teachers.

And what the teachers did, subconsciously, is they gave more energy and attention and focus. They actually just spent more time listening and hearing those students that they thought were high performers. The coolest thing about this, to me, is the question that comes out of it, which is, “What if we treated everybody like a high performer? What would be possible then?”

And so, that’s something I keep in my mind and have our leaders think about, “What if instead of treating your high performers like high performers, what if you treated the other people in your team like they have the opportunity to be high performers? How much better would they do? How much more would they grow? How much better would your team do as a result?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, this reminds me of – what’s that educational teacher movie, Stand and Deliver?

Aaron Levy
Oh, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And Jaime Escalante, he says that students will rise to the level of expectations. And I think there really is some truth to that. Thank you.

Aaron Levy
You’re welcome. Totally. Yeah, thank you for asking that. That’s just a fun one that I’ve really enjoyed lately.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Aaron Levy
I’ll go with a recent book that I just really, really enjoyed, which is Give and Take by Adam Grant. I took a while to read it because I thought I knew what it was about, it’s about givers and takers. But it’s just diving into it more. It talks about, really, the way in which we show up with other people and what we get when we give.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, I like the way you said that. It took you a while to read because you thought you knew what was in it. I’m in the same boat. So, I’m putting you on the spot. Can you share with us an insight that you didn’t have until you actually read it as opposed to just thinking you already knew it?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, I’ll share one insight. It’s actually from a study by Elliot Aronson, it’s called The Pratfall Effect. And in it, what came out of this was, as a giver, or just as a person, you don’t always have to have the right answer, you don’t always have to be perfect. Actually, what the studies show is you’re liked more if you make some mistakes, if you screw up a little bit. As long as you’re still seen as competent, if you screw up a little bit, you’re seen more as human and so people like you more.

So, if you’re a lawyer who has a stutter, that actually could improve your likelihood of winning a case. And so, that’s just something I wouldn’t have imagined was in Give and Take, and it was. And the way it was explained and shared and the stories behind it, Adam Grant is awesome. I’m just a really big fan of the way he thinks about the workplace, the way he thinks about people, and the way he shares stories.

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

Aaron Levy
So, I have been using, just lately, honestly, lately, the Google Tasks button. And so, Google Tasks is on my phone, Google Tasks is on my calendar and on my email, and it’s just really easy to just put things in a checklist. For a while, I would email myself, “Do this, do that,” and I’d had it come to my inbox after out for a day with 20 emails from Aaron to Aaron that just has a different task, and it was silly. And so, just compiling them in a simple to-do list. The thing I like about it is in the place I work so it comes up right in my email.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Aaron Levy
Meditating.

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

Aaron Levy
Feedback is a gift.

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

Aaron Levy
They can go to RaiseBar.co or the book website which is OpenHonestandDirect.com. On there is a whole toolkit of some of the tools we actually talked about today.

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

Aaron Levy
Yeah. Pick one thing from today’s conversation and practice it and aim for consistency over the next week. So, just one thing that you took away, whether it’s waiting five minutes and having a phone call as opposed to drafting an email, or it’s practicing avoiding using absolutes. Work on being consistent on just one thing, that’s my call to action for people listening.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Aaron, it’s been fun once again. Keep up the good work and keep raising the bar.

Aaron Levy
Oh, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for having me on.