Liz Wiseman uncovers the small, but impactful practices of exceptional performers.
- Why it’s okay to not be working on what’s important to you
- The five things impact players do differently
- The trick to leading without an invitation
UPDATE: Sign up for Liz’s new masterclass and learn what the best professionals do to stand out and perform at their best. Early bird registration is FREE with your purchase of Liz’s new book Impact Players.
PLUS, we’re giving away copies of Liz’s book! We’ll be picking 5 random winners who share a link to this post on LinkedIn, along with their favorite nugget of wisdom from the episode. Don’t forget to tag both Pete and Liz in your post! Giveaway ends August 27, Saturday, 11:59 PM Central time.
Liz Wiseman is a researcher and executive advisor who teaches leadership to executives around the world. She is the author of New York Times bestseller Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter,; The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools, and Wall Street Journal bestseller Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work.
She is the CEO of the Wiseman Group, a leadership research and development firm headquartered in Silicon Valley, California. Some of her recent clients include: Apple, AT&T, Disney, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Nike, Salesforce, Tesla, and Twitter. Liz has been listed on the Thinkers50 ranking and in 2019 was recognized as the top leadership thinker in the world.
She has conducted significant research in the field of leadership and collective intelligence and writes for Harvard Business Review, Fortune, and a variety of other business and leadership journals. She is a frequent guest lecturer at BYU and StanfordUniversity and is a former executive at Oracle Corporation, where she worked as the Vice President of Oracle University and as the global leader for Human Resource Development.
- Liz’s book: Impact Players: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact (website)
- Liz’s book: Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter (website)
- Liz’s book: Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work (website)
- Liz’s Twitter: @LizWiseman
- Liz’s website: TheWisemanGroup.com
- Study: Dunning-Kruger effect
- Book: Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace
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Liz, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.
Well, thanks, Pete. I hope I walk away feeling like I can be a little bit more awesome at my job. This is your thing. This is what you do.
Well, I think I’ve mentioned, before we pushed record, that numerous people have mentioned you by name as being awesome at your job from your book Multipliers. And you’ve got another one freshly out Impact Players: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact. All things we love doing here, so this is going to be a lot of fun.
This is going to be a fun conversation, I can tell.
Well, so maybe to kick us off, could you share with us your favorite story of someone who made a transformation into an impact player and kind of what happened? What was the impact of that and kind of their before and after, and the results flowing from it?
Well, so many of the people I wrote about were already awesome when I stumbled onto them. And the one I think, like if I could pick someone in the book who made the biggest transformation, it might’ve been me. Like, early on in my career, reorienting myself.
So, I came out of college like a lot of people, kind of fired up, knowing…I mean, some people don’t know what they want to do. I knew what I wanted to do to a fault. And I kind of was like knocking on people’s doors, like, “Hi, I’m Liz. I want to teach leadership and I represent good leadership. And ridding the world of bad bosses, that’s what I want to do.”
And so, I tried to get a job at a management training company and somehow wiggled my way into an interview with the president. He looked at my resume and was like, “You know, if you want to teach leadership, maybe you should go get some leadership experience.” I was like 22 years old and thinking, “That’s sterile-minded of him.” It’s kind of like he doesn’t get me. This is what I’m passionate about. It’s what I want to do.”
So, I went and took my backup job, and that one was at Oracle, which was a great place to go to work but it wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do, which was somehow teach managing and leading. So, I took this kind of consolation job, and about a year into that, I had an opportunity to transfer to another group inside of the company. This was back when Oracle was like a couple thousand people, and today they’re like well over a hundred thousand people.
And it was a group that ran technical bootcamps and I was hoping that their charter would expand, like the company is growing, they’re surely going to be building some management courses, young people are being turned into management, like wreaking havoc on the company. And so, I went into the interview, answered the questions from the VP, so it’s like the final interview for this job, and then it was my turn to kind of take charge of the interview. And so, I made my case for why Oracle should build a management bootcamp, not just a technology bootcamp. And, of course, I offered my services, like, “I would be happy to build this.”
And I thought, for sure, he would say, “Oh, that’s great, Liz. Yeah, I can see you’re passionate about that. Here you go.” And his response, it really, really imprinted me. And he was polite but essentially what I heard him saying was, “Liz, make yourself useful around here,” because his reply was, “That’s great, Liz. We think you’re great and we’re excited to have you join this group but your boss has a different problem. She’s got to figure out how to get 2,000 new college graduates up to speed in Oracle technology over the next year. And what would be great is if you could help her to do that.”
He was saying, “Liz, figure out what needs to be done and do the things that we need.” And I wanted to teach leadership and now he wants me to teach programming to a bunch of nerds, you know, programmers. And I’m like, “Oh, that’s not my thing. That’s not the job I want.” But I could see he was teaching me something. I’m like, “That’s not the job I want,” but what he’s saying was, “That’s the job that needs to be done.” So, like, “Point yourself over there, please.”
And it really shaped me because I said, “Okay, I don’t want to do that but I will do that and I’ll figure out how to be good at this.” And, Pete, I’m woefully underqualified to do this job. I came out of business school and had a teaching background, but I had taken like two and a half programming classes in college, and now they want me to be teaching programming to a bunch of hotshot programmers coming out of MIT and Caltech but I did it and it was amazing what happened after I reoriented myself, and, in some ways, subordinated what was important to me to work on what was important to my boss and my boss’ boss.
First of all, I figured out I love this job. Like, this was fun. I was having the time of my life. And then the second thing I discovered is that by doing that, all these opportunities opened up to me. And they came and tapped me on the shoulders, and said, “Liz, we want you to now manage the training group.” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m having fun teaching.” They’re like, “No, we want you to do this.” I’m like, “Yeah, pick someone else who wants that job.” And they said, “No, we want you to do this.”
And I don’t know if it was because I understood the technology or it was because I was willing to serve where I was needed, but, yeah, I finally said yes to that job. And then I just kept getting bigger and bigger opportunities, and I think it was because I learned to channel my energy and passion around what was important to the people I work for rather than focusing on what was important to me.
And it shaped my whole career and just allowed me to do work that was far more impactful. And it wasn’t too many years, if not even months, after that that I was able to argue that, “You know what, we really need to invest in management training and I’d be happy to do that.” And then, I, essentially, got a blank check, like, “Liz, absolutely. Go build that. Build a team to do it.” And that work had so much more impact when I decided to work on the agenda of the organization rather than on my own agenda.
Well, that feels like a golden key to a whole lot of career things right there. And I guess what’s intriguing is, well, one, you were fortunate in that you got to do the thing you really wanted to do anyway afterwards. And, two, I suppose, I’m thinking, that approach, in a way, it feels rather noble and virtuous in terms of, hey, there’s some humility and there’s some service and generosity that you are engaging in when you’re working on the job that needs done as opposed to the thing you want to do.
I guess I just might want to hear to what extent was there drudgery? Or, it sounds like in your story, this path was actually plenty of fun even while you were on it prior to doing the thing that you really wanted to do originally. Is that the case with the other impact players, generally speaking?
Well, I think it is. And you said it was sort of a noble choice, and I think it was a humble choice. I wouldn’t characterize it as a noble choice as much as a savvy choice. And it wasn’t like I was just like, “Okay. Well, what’s good for me in this?” I could see there was a real need there but something happens when you are working on something that’s important.
So, like if I’m off working on my own agenda, I’m pushing a boulder up a hill. I’m trying to get people to meet with me. I’m trying to get someone to pay attention to the thing I care about. Now, some amazing things can happen when you go down that path. But, like, what happens when you’re working on something that’s important? It’s what I call when you’re working on the agenda.
Well, every time I put myself on this path of impact, working on something that was important to the company, the executive, one of my clients, I always find that people have time to meet with me, resources flow. Like, I’ve done a lot of work with executives over the years, and one of the things I’ve noticed is I’ve never noticed like a senior executive at a corporation tell me something was important to him or her, and then not have budget for it.
It’s like funny how that when you’re working on the agenda, people have time for you, resources flow, decisions happen quickly, there’s more pressure but there’s also more visibility for your work. Like, it’s not drudgery. It’s actually fun because you’re making progress. And when you say drudgery, Pete, it makes me think about something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is burnout. We’re dealing with this burnout epidemic, the Great Reshuffle, the Great Resignation, whatever you want to call it. And I think we’re quick to assume that burnout is a function of effort and work. Like, we’re working too hard. We’re working too much. We have too heavy of a load and we’re going to burn out as a result.
And I’m not opposed to anyone taking time off. Like, a little R&R is probably good for a lot of people particularly right now, but I think burnout, based on all of my research, it tends to be a function of too little impact, not too much work. That what causes us to burn out is when we’re expending energy but not making a difference, not seeing how our work makes a difference.
So, like the beginning of being high impact and doing awesome work is doing work that is valued and important. And even if some of the work is tedious, like, oh, man, I remember like nights I stayed up till 5:00 in the morning trying to learn how to do correlated subqueries so I could teach them the next day. I couldn’t sustain that all the time, but I was making a difference. I was having an impact. I was doing something important. It was energizing not enervating.
And, yeah, there’s details and drudgery and hard things involved but it’s rewarding. It’s what I’ve seen in my own experience in studying these high-impact contributors. It’s a buildup experience not a burnout experience.
Yeah, that’s beautiful in terms of that’s just a fun mental distinction that does so much. When you’re working on the agenda, what’s important to other folks, so many of the roadblocks that are annoying and frustrating and yield to burnout and exhaustion disappear. People are available, they make time for you, they make money for you, they take your meetings, you’ve got some support and backing as opposed to being ignored, and follow-ups. So, yeah, like that’s pretty fine.
And you build voice. You build voice in the organization, and it’s how we build influence and credibility is by making progress on things that matter to our stakeholders. And so, as we do that and as we serve, people listen to us. And by working on the agenda, you earn the right to help set the agenda.
Okay. Well, I’m loving this and that’s a lot of insight right there. So, tell me, is that pretty much the core idea or thesis of Impact Players? Or, how would you articulate it?
I just think it’s one of the starting points is how people orient themselves. And I think if I were to kind of try to crystallize the thesis of Impact Players, let me start with the research. We looked at the difference between individuals who were considered by their leaders smart, hardworking, and capable people who were doing a good job, like doing well, versus smart, hardworking, capable people who were making an extraordinary impact, doing work of extraordinary or inordinately high value.
And so, this isn’t like top performers versus bottom performers. In a room full of equally smart, capable, hardworking people, why are some people stuck going through the motions of their job while other people are making a big difference? So, that’s what we looked at. And when I looked at those differentials and all the profiles that we built through interviewing 170 managers is we found that the ordinary contributors, typical contributors, people doing well, they’re doing their job.
And this is how managers describe them. They do their job. They do their job well. Often, extremely well. They follow direction. They take ownership. They are focused. They carry their weight on teams, which sounds great in some ways, like ideal team members and contributors but there’s stellar and unordinary times, but they tend to fall short in times of uncertainty and ambiguity. This is where the impact players handle these situations very differently, and there were five.
And it was how they handle messy problems, like, “Your job is not my job. It’s like no one’s job. It’s not really owned by this department. It’s like no one’s job but everyone’s job.” And this is actually where I think the most important problems and opportunities of an organization is in that white space between boxes. Now, in this case, ordinary contributors tend to do their job. Whereas, the impact players go do the job that needs to be done.
The second is how they handle unclear roles, where, “Okay, I know we’re collaborating, but who’s really in charge?” We have a tendency, organizations want to have more collaborative teams, flat in organizations but in these situations, typical contributors tend to wait for role clarification or direction, like wait for someone to tell them who’s in charge or give them formal authority. Whereas, the people who are having a lot of impact tend to just take charge but they’re not like take charge all the time.
They step up and they lead, maybe a particular meeting, maybe a project, but then they’re willing to step back and follow other people when they’re in the lead. So, it’s like they bring kind of big leadership, let’s say, to the 2:00 o’clock meeting, they’re the boss, but they then walk down the hall to the 3:00 o’clock meeting and they serve as a participant with the same kind of energy that they led the team. So, they’re able to step in and out of these leadership roles really fluidly, which really builds our credibility because we trust these kinds of leaders, the ones who don’t always need to hold all the power.
And the ones who care when it’s not “theirs.” That’s sort of endearing. It’s sort of like, “Okay, you care about this because you care about the team, the leadership, the project, the company and not just you care about your babies.”
Oh, absolutely. It’s like they work with the same kind of level of intensity. They don’t need to be in charge but they’re willing to be in charge. And I think it’s a really powerful form of leadership. And it’s very much like sort of you take like the pyramid shape of an organization, and you turn that on its side. It’s more like the V formation of a flock of geese, where the flock can fly a lot further because they rotate that leadership.
One bird goes out in front, leads, breaks that wind, creates drag, sort of creates an ease for the other birds behind in that formation, but that lead bird doesn’t stay there forever like until it tires and then falls from the sky in the state of exhaustion, which is what happens so often in corporations. The leaders are running around with their hair on fire. They’re like all fired up, they’re working hard, but other people sit underutilized. Like, when the lead bird has done their duty for the team, they fall back and another moves into that role.
And then there’s three other situations where we see this differentiation when unforeseen obstacles drop in the way, things that are really out of your control. Most people tend to escalate those, whereas the impact players just tend to hold onto them and get them across the finish line. Not alone, pulling in help but they tend to just hold ownership all the way through.
When targets are moving fast, typical contributors tend to stay on target, they stay focused, whereas, the impact players adjust. They’re adapting. They’re changing. They’re like kind of waking up assuming, “While I was asleep, the world changed, and I probably need to adjust my aim so I stay on track with what’s important and relevant.”
And the last is what we do when workloads are heavy, like when there’s just mounting workloads, when there’s more work than…when the workload is increasing faster than resources are increasing, and most people, they carry their weight, but when times get really tough, they sort of look upward and outward for help to ease that burden.
Whereas, the impact players, we found they really make work light. Like, they don’t take all the work, they don’t take people’s workload away from them, but they work in a way where hard work just is fun. They bring a levity, a humanity, that just sort of eases the phantom workload so that people can focus on the real workload.
That’s kind of what I found.
All right. Well, I was going to ask exactly that, so thank you for sharing. And so, that’s sort of like the five core distinctions. And I want to zoom in on a couple like super specific practices, habits. But, first, maybe I’d like to get your take on what discovery, in the course of all these interviews, did you find most surprising or counterintuitive?
I should probably tell you I’ve got a little bit of a pessimist in me which maybe makes me a better researcher. But when we went in to study, like, “What is it that the top, real top contributors are doing?” I expected there to be a fair number of hotshots and superstars and people around whom the team revolved, and what I found was exactly the opposite. There were 170 of these impact players that we studied, analyzed. Not a single one of them was a prima donna, a bully, a bull in a China shop. Not one of them worked at the expense of the team, like, “Hey, I’m so good at what I do that you all need to kind of like be backup for me, or sort of accommodate me, humor me.”
They were superstars and everyone knew it. Like, that’s one of the things about impact players is everyone knows who these people are but they work and I think they’re comfortable with their stellar-ness, their awesomeness, like they get it.
They don’t have to prove themselves or flex or show off.
Yeah. In some ways, and I’m just realizing this, Pete, is one of the things I found in the multiplier leader, so the other research I’ve done, like, “What is it that leaders do that allow people to be impactful and contribute at their fullest?” And the ones, the leaders I want to work for are the ones that are really, really comfortable with their own intelligence and capability. Like, I want to work for someone who’s an absolute genius who knows it, which you think, “Ooh, well, isn’t that like a know-it-all, a bully?” Like, no, I want to work with someone who’s so comfortable with their own intelligence and capability that they’re over it.
It’s not like, “I have to show up to work every day proving how amazing I am.” It’s like, “Yeah, I get it. I’m smart. I’m talented. I’m over it so now I can spend my time as a leader seeing and using the intelligence of others.” And I think these impact players are similar in that they know that they’re really valuable contributors, they know they do important and valuable work, but they don’t need to be proving it all day long. In some ways, it’s so obvious. They were comfortable with it.
Okay, that’s cool.
I thought there’d be some brilliant jerks in the lot but there weren’t, at least not in my sample.
And then these 170, they were identified by their managers, they’re saying, “Boy, this guy is really an impact player”?
Yeah, they were. And so, we didn’t go in and decide who was. We asked managers to consider the people that they have led over their career and identify someone from each of these two categories – impact players, ordinary contributors – and we also had managers identify someone who I later called an under-contributor – smart, capable, talented, should be amazing, like someone you hire, like, “This person is going to be awesome,” but yet they’re not. Like, they’re under-contributing relative to their potential and capability. And that was interesting. There’s like a whole set of things to learn there.
It’s different than the five key distinctions that we already covered? Like, they don’t do the things that the impact players do or is there more?
Well, I think kind of in that ordinary contributor station, like you would see people who are well-meaning, working hard, and they’re doing their job. When you see people in that under-contributor kind of position, sort of on the stratification, you see a lot of people who are really pushing their own agenda, you often see people who are trying so hard to be valuable, trying so hard to like get ahead, maybe that they’re honestly annoying.
Like, “Hey, hey, how am I doing? How am I doing? Am I doing great? Was it good work? Hey, hey, coach, what? Can I sit next to you on the airplane? You know what, hey, let’s go hang out.” They’re needy, maybe needing too much attention, needing too much feedback, and they end up becoming more of a burden than a contributor on teams, but, yet, they’re people who are trying really hard.
Interesting. Cool. Well, so then I love how we’ve laid out the five distinctions. And now I’d like to get really specific in terms of what are the particular mindsets, or habits, or particular practices, words, phrases, just like the super in-the-moment tactical, practical stuff that we’re seeing in terms of an impact player? I sort of got the conceptual. Could you give us a couple examples of, “Hey, these are the specific actions that we’re seeing over and over again”?
We talked about the first distinction kind of through my own experience, is this willingness to do the job that needs to be done. It’s about extending ourselves like beyond our job boundaries. One of the favorite impact players I got to write about in the book is someone named Jojo Mirador, and he is a scrub tech. He works at Valley Medical, which is part of an academic hospital chain.
So, there are a lot of residents there, doctors who have graduated from medical school. They’re now in their training. They’re in residency. And he’s a surgical scrub tech. Now, Jojo’s job is to prepare the surgical tools for an operation, to make sure they’re sterilized and available, and to hand them to the surgeons when the surgeons ask for them. That’s his job.
But Jojo approaches his job differently than other scrub techs. First of all, he looks on the calendar, and he’s like, “What surgeries do we have coming up? Are there any that I’m not familiar with? Let me look. Let me just like Google that and figure out what’s going on in the surgery.” And during surgery, he’s not just listening for the requested instrument.
Yeah, scalpel. Exactly. It’s like such a moment. He’s watching the surgeons’ hands, he’s like, “I want to know what the surgeon is doing because I want to know what their next move is going to be because I want to be thinking about the tool they need, so I’m ready.” And one of the surgeons told me, “Jojo doesn’t just lay out the instruments. He lays them out in the order they’re going to be used so he’s got them ready.”
And when the surgeons ask for an instrument, he doesn’t just hand them the one they asked for. He hands them the one they actually need. So, let’s say they’ve asked for like a scalpel, and he provides a gentle suggestion, he’s like, “Why don’t you try this one instead that might work better?” Of course, these residents, they’re young, they’re new, and you can imagine the pressure on them to look like they know what they’re doing when they’re holding someone’s life in their hands. And you can imagine how grateful they are that he doesn’t just do his job. He extends himself and does the job that needs to be done.
And you would think that the senior surgeons wouldn’t want these suggestions, but they do, in fact. He said, “It kind of feels good. They come seek me out before a surgery.” They say, “Jojo, here’s what we’re going to be doing. What kinds of tools do you think are going to work best here?” And they line up outside of the scheduler’s office, they kind of fight a little bit over who gets to have Jojo in the OR with them.
And they found this nice gentleman’s way of sorting this out. It’s whoever has the most complicated procedure is the one who gets Jojo. And I love the imagery of this, which is just extending ourselves out of our job scope, but not doing it in an aggressive way of taking over. It’s done with this kind of sense of finesse of, “I think I can be helpful here.”
Another one of the behaviors we see is that these impact players, they don’t tend to wait for an invitation. I think a lot of people want to be amazing at their job, who have a lot of passion, who have a lot of talent, or maybe holding back a little bit, too much waiting for someone to come along and discover them.
And maybe it’s because I’ve spent most of my career teaching leaders, coaching executives, part of my message to people is like, “Ooh, your leaders probably aren’t thinking about you nearly as much as you think they’re thinking about you. They’ve got their own set of things and they probably don’t have time to figure out, ‘Okay, wait a minute. I’ve got this meeting coming up. Who are all the possible people who might be valuable contributors?’” Like, sometimes, we need to invite ourselves in and go where we’re uninvited but do it in a way that people are glad we showed up to contribute.
Yeah, that’s really interesting because I think this has come up a number of times, like, “Oh, so many things you attend, it’s unnecessary, it’s a waste of time, and you should figure out polite ways to excuse yourself from them.” And this might be the first time I’ve heard someone say, “There may be times where you want to try to get into a meeting that you weren’t invited to.” And the way that could be super appreciated, like, maybe can you give us some verbiage or an example there, because I can imagine ways you might say it that could come across as appreciated as opposed to like, “Whoa, stay in your lane, buddy”? Could you give us an example there?
Yeah, let me share two. One is about just initiating meetings that no one’s asking you to do. Eli Van Der Kamp at Target, she’s a project manager there, and her job is to get all the technology in a Target store up to speed and ready to go before a store opens. Well, this isn’t her area of responsibility but she can see that, “You know what, we’ve been dropping phonelines in here.” And her job was to get them up and running, but she’s like, “I don’t think we actually need those phonelines because, now that we have fiber optic cables, the phonelines that were needed for the alarm systems in the store, like fire alarms, we don’t need those.”
But it wasn’t that they didn’t need them, they sometimes needed them, and it was sort of complicated, and no one’s asking her to do this, but she realizes the company is wasting money on this. It’s a $92 billion a year company, it’s not a significant amount of waste in a company that size. But it’s significant enough, she decides she wants to do something about, so she just kind of invites herself to lead this meeting, calls people together, explains the problem with no sense of judgment whatsoever, “But we have this problem, and we’re like buying phonelines that we don’t need and it’s wasting money.”
And she just lays it out and invites people to step up and solve it. It was a complex decision tree. They worked it all out, owners stepped up, emerged, the problem is solved and she steps back. It’s sort of like inviting yourself in to lead and volunteering to lead where nobody has asked you. Now, it could be inviting yourself to a meeting nobody is inviting. So, I had experience with this, it was probably midway through my career. It preceded the most valuable piece of work I ever did for Oracle.
And I think, at this point, like I’m the vice president of Oracle University. I ran training for the company in human resource development, and I’ve particularly been focusing on some executive development, and had been working with three top executives to build this what was our flagship leadership development program. We called it The Leaders Forum. And it really consisted of two parts, which is teach our executives around the world like our strategy so they really understood that, and then build some leadership skills.
And in the process of doing this, it became clear that the strategy was not clear. So, we were bringing executives in, like 30 people at a time, presenting the strategy to them, building some skills, setting them on their way, and they’re like, “You know, the strategy is not clear.” So, the three executives I was building this program with, we heard the feedback, and we tried to make some adjustments, and it’s still not clear.
Finally, it comes to a head and we realized we have to stop these training programs until the strategy for the company is clear. I’m in that meeting. We decide this needs to happen. One of the three executives says, “Okay, you know what, I’ll get together a meeting of all of our product heads, all of the senior executives, and we will clarify the strategy.” Okay. So, I know that meeting is happening but I’m not included in this meeting because it’s a product strategy meeting and I’m responsible for training. But the meeting was happening the next week, and I decided that I probably should go to that meeting, not just to listen in, but I felt like I could really help.
And so, this is, I don’t know, this was a meeting of, let’s say, nine of the top 12 executives in the company, and I just decided to show up. And so, I show up, I knew the president would be thrilled that I was there, maybe not some of the others, but I get there early, I sit down, and one by one, like the various executives are coming in, they’re kind of like, “Hi, Liz,” and they know this is a product strategy meeting and they’ve got the head of training there. And they’re like, “Hi, Hi.” And then one particular executive came in, his name was Jerry, and he looked at me, and he’s like, “What are you doing here? Like, you’re the training manager. This is a product strategy meeting.”
And this was an important moment for me because I kind of squared my shoulders, looked at him, and said, “Jerry, we’ve got a really convoluted strategy right now that leaders around the world aren’t able to understand. Like, this group has got to take a lot of complex information about our products and distill it down to something that’s simple and clear, and that’s actually something that I’m pretty good at and I thought I could be of help.”
And he still wasn’t entirely convinced but I think the president said something like, “Yeah, Jerry, Liz is really good at this. And trust me, we could use her help.” And then I just paid attention, and I listened, and I listened to this conversation. Now, the fact that I had taken that job teaching programming helped me to really understand what they were talking about and be trusted to even be in the room, but I’m like taking notes.
I’m like, “Okay, what about this? And I like this pattern.” So, I’m now starting to reflect back to them, “Well, here’s this issue that I see coming up and I hear this, and it seems like these seem to be the three biggest drivers.” And they’re like, “Could you say more of that?” And it’s a longer story but, cutting it short, after two or three more of these meetings, they finally decided that they’re going to kind of obliterate the whole strategy, rebuild it from scratch, and they’re like, “Liz, we want you to be the author of the strategy. Like, we’ll all give you input but we want you to be the one that puts shape to this.”
And it was something I was able to do and it made a pretty big impact in the company, and I just think it’s so funny that maybe the most valuable work I did for the company was work I kind of forced myself into just a little bit. And I wasn’t forceful and I wasn’t rude but nobody asked me to do it. I just knew it was something I could be helpful with.
Beautiful. Thank you. Okay. Well, so then any other examples leaping to mind in terms of a particular practice that makes a load of difference, sort of a small difference but huge leverage?
Well, one of the ones I found was so interesting was this how people handle moving targets. And do you kind stick to what you’ve agreed to? Like, someone gave you a target, “We’re trying to increase market share by 12% year-over-year.” That’s like your goal, maybe your business development meter. What we find is that ordinary contributors tend to stick to those targets and they stay focused, whereas the impact players are constantly adjusting. In some ways, they’re reactive.
I wouldn’t say they’re reactionary but they react differently. Like, they’re assuming that they’re off target. So, it’s kind of like the metaphor I would use here would be like a violinist. So, if you play the violin, you know that you have to constantly tune that instrument. And, honestly, it was kind of mysterious to me when I was younger, like maybe younger up until like just a couple of years ago when I was like, “Why can’t they tune their instrument before they get up onto that stage? Like, why do they play poorly before they play well?”
And it’s like because even that movement from their backstage to centerstage, they’ve got to tune it before they perform. And it’s this tuning mentality, like lots of little small adjustments. And what we found the impact players do is they respond well to feedback but they don’t wait for feedback. They’re asking for feedback before it’s offered.
Shawn Vanderhoven, is someone who works on my team, and when Shawn started working for me, he would ask questions when he’d start a project, “Okay, what’s the target here? What does a win look like? What are we trying to accomplish?” And once he understood that, he would then start submitting work as part of that, and then he would ask a different set of questions, like, “Are you getting what you need? What can I do differently? What do I need to change so that it better fits the need?”
And he does this with such frequency that he then goes and corrects his works, comes back, submits it. But in the five years I’ve worked with Shawn, I can’t think of a single time I’ve ever had to sit down and have a tough conversation with him. I’ve never had to sit down, and say, “You know, Shawn, this is off and I need you to get it back on.” And it’s not that he doesn’t need that correction, we all do, but he always beats me to it. He’s fixing and changing and adjusting before I ever ask. Like, he’s doing the asking. And it’s so easy to give him feedback.
And one of the other like little distinctions that makes a really big difference is that people aren’t…these impact players aren’t focusing the feedback on themselves, like, “How am I doing? What do I need to do differently?” The focus is on the work, “How can I make this work better?” So, where others are maybe reacting to feedback people give them about themselves and their performance, the impact player is getting information to help them constantly adjust and tune their work so that their work is relevant and on tune.
Beautiful. Thank you. Well, Liz, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
Well, maybe if there was an overarching theme that separated the impact players from everyone else, and I should say it’s not really about people. It’s more about mindsets that we tend to operate in. It’s like what separates an impact player mindset, that I and others tend to go in and out of from sort of a contributor mindset, is how we deal with uncertainty and ambiguity. And the difference we found is that the impact players, when they encounter situations that are out of their control, they tend to dive head in to these situations, kind of like the way an ocean swimmer, or a surfer, like seizes massive oncoming wave that’s kind of scary, like I would turn and run, panic, and get tumbled in the surf, but they dive head into and through this wave.
And they tend to move into uncertainty and they tend to look at that uncertainty and ambiguity through an opportunity lens rather than a threat lens. Like, where other people see, “Ooh, that’s uncomfortable. Roles are unclear. That’s messy. That’s out of my control. Let me back away from it.” The impact players kind of wear opportunity goggles and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, that’s messy, uncertain, uncomfortable, but there’s…let me find an opportunity to add value.” So, they tend to bring clarity to situations that other people tend to steer clear of.
Lovely. Thank you. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Criss Jami, “Find a purpose to serve, not a lifestyle to live.” And when I saw that, and I just saw this today, I thought, “That really captures a lot of what I’ve learned studying these people who were having a lot of impact is that they are not like pushing an agenda, they’re not necessarily pursuing a lifestyle. It’s they’re finding a situation that needs them and contributing wholeheartedly in that.”
Well, thank you. And now could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
I think maybe the one that is most useful to the work I do is just this idea that we tend to overestimate our capability, that I think it’s the Kruger-Dunning effect, that we tend to think we’re better at things than we actually are. And this is the dynamic that I’ve seen play out in my work, kind of studying the best leaders, is that when we get put into a leadership role, we tend to focus on our intent, and we tend to not see our impact on others. Like, most of my work is about looking into this space between our intent and our impact, like learning not to operate based on our best intentions but to actually operate based on the effect that we’re having on others.
And how about a favorite book?
I’ll give you one that this is a book I like because it made me so mad. I was really jealous when I read it, like kind of green with jealousy because the book is Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull. And the reason why I love it is because, A, it’s an amazing book, and Ed Catmull is an amazing storyteller.
And it’s a story of Pixar, if you’re not familiar with the book, so it’s really like looking into “Why does Pixar consistently produce amazing films. Like, is that an accident or is there actually a system behind that?” And the answer is there’s a system behind it, there’s a reason why, and it’s not coincidence, and it’s how they lead and it’s the culture they built. And the reason why this book made me so mad is I got that reading and it was not too long after I had written Rookie Smarts and I’m like, “Wow, this is an amazing illustration of Rookie Smarts. It’s like what happens when you’re new to something and the innovation that comes out of it.”
And it’s an amazing example of what I call multiplier leadership. Leaders like Ed Catmull who use their talent and intelligence to bring out the best in others. And I’m like, “Wow, how did he do in one book what took me two books to do? And he did it better than that.” But I really loved that book and it’s full of fun, interesting, very practical ways of leading.
Okay. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?
Index cards. Succinct is not my strength and so I have to work at succinct in writing and in speaking. And so, I use index cards, and when I’m pulling together final thoughts before giving a talk, a presentation, if it can’t get on the index card, it’s not part of it. So, I use it to really boil down my thinking.
All right. And a favorite habit?
I think a favorite habit would be, I guess, I call it check in before diving in. And I’ve been there, like some people would say that I’m a workhorse, like I’m definitely not a racehorse. I’m a workhorse. I’m one of those people who just like grind through stuff. And I usually like to get right to work and I’m excited about it, I jump in. And one of the things I’ve learned to do with my own team is before we start working on something, to just take sometimes up to half of our allotted time and just check in, like, “How are you? How are you doing?”
And it’s gone well beyond pleasantries, and it’s typically like a chance for people to say, “You know, I’m not doing well. I’m struggling.” And sometimes we’ve spent hours, like we had a day blocked to work on something, and we spent hours just on, “How are you?” Sometimes it’s like, “Well, I’m disappointed that I thought by now I would have this done, and I don’t.” So, there’s been these moments where you could really check in and connect with like how people really are before we work on stuff. And it’s made all the difference for our team who’s gotten us through really some tough times.
Thank you. And is there a key nugget you share that tends to be quoted back to you frequently?
It would probably be something…it would be better said than this because I think other people would probably say it better than this. It’s just like, “Be the genius-maker not the genius.” It would be some version of that.
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
Well, I’m pretty easy to find. TheWisemanGroup.com is a little bit of information about the work that my team and I do. ImpactPlayersBook.com, MultipliersBook.com, I think RookieSmarts.com, RookieSmartsBook.com, I’m honestly sure about that one, or, like I’m @LizWiseman on Twitter.
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
Maybe a challenge and a suggestion. The challenge would be to ask yourself, “What might I be doing with the very best of intentions that is a barrier to impact? Like, what is preventing me from doing the most valuable meaningful work?” And it’s often things that we’re doing with our best intentions.
And if someone wants to get on the path of impact, maybe a challenge to start here, which is to find out what’s important to the people that you work for, whether it’s a client, a boss, internal customers or stakeholders. Find out what’s important to them and make it important to you. And all the right things tend to flow from that.
All right. Liz, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and impact in your future endeavors.
Thank you. It’s nice talking to you.