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KF #23. Organizational Savvy

383: Driving Adaptability in your Organization with Michael J. Arena

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GM’s Chief Talent Officer Michael J. Arena explores the idea of ambidextrous leadership to help lead your organization in its current state and in its future – at the same time.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Ways to positively disrupt the way you work
  2. Concrete ways to mine the ideas of your organization
  3. Why conflict is essential to the evolution of ideas

About Michael

Michael is the Chief Talent Officer for General Motors (GM), where he launched GM2020, a grass roots initiative designed to enable employees to positively disrupt the way they work, which was highlighted in Fast Company and Fortune. Michael is the author of the book Adaptive Space, which is based on a decade long research initiative that won the 2017 Walker Prize from People + Strategy.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Michael J. Arena Interview Transcript

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

Michael J Arena
Thanks Pete. I’m looking forward to this.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh me too, me too. Well you’ve got what sounds to be to me like a pretty fun job as the chief talent officer at General Motors. Can you orient us a little bit to what does that mean in practice?

Michael J Arena
In essence it’s really about how do you optimize human capital across the overall corporation, so how do we bring in the best people possible. In short, I’d like to say, how do we bring in the best people possible and then bring the best out in those people. That’s all about human capital and how do we get those people positioned to be able to leverage what they know. Yeah, it’s quite fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Now in practice over the last few years you’ve been doing a lot of bringing out the best in people it sounds like. If you look at sort of the financial picture at General Motors in 2009, they’re filing for bankruptcy and now you’ve got some great profits. The business press would point to cultural shifts as being an essential part of making that transformation.

Could you give us a little bit of the behind-the-scenes or in-the-middle-of-things narrative for how this came to be and the human capital pieces play into it?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, absolutely. Just to clarify, I joined the company in 2012, so I can tell you – I can describe that journey from that point forward and more precisely around this role here in HR. I do think it’s about culture. It’s certainly – it’s been quite the journey.

I can remember when Mary Barra took over as CEO. One of her very first quotes and comments was this industry is going to change more in the next five years than it has in the last 50. What that means is you need to rethink everything you’re doing.

Culture is a core element of that. It’s not the only one. It is either an enabler or a stifler of what you want to do with things like business strategy and how you’re going to drive operational management, how you’re going to think about new consumers and new business models and all that sort of stuff. It’s been quite the comprehensive journey from that point to this with much of it still in front of us.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so could you give us a little bit of the particulars with regard to before the culture was more like this and now it’s more like that and here are some of the key things we did to bring about that shift?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, and again, I think it starts kind of with the industry. This was an organization and an industry that was all about driving execution, all about continuing to drive scale across the world. The game’s changed quite a bit. It’s now – we’ve got a – it’s now the future mobility.

We now need to think about what are customers demanding, what are customers – the best illustration I can give about that, then I’ll go back to the specifics of your question is people are moving to cities, just to put it in a real live external marketplace example. People are moving into cities and everyone’s becoming connected. The way you think about mobility inside of a city versus mobility in a suburban environment is very different.

We need to then get the business to start thinking about things differently. That certainly requires us to instill new sets of behaviors and to challenge everybody to think bigger than perhaps they had in the past. Again, to move faster as well because the world outside is moving super fast compared to what we’ve been used to.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, so it seems like we’re changing sort of the total focus in terms of what General Motors wants to be excellent at in order to succeed in a different environment with more people in cities and sort of car sharing and ride services, sort of a different landscape than it was in 2009. I’m curious to hear what does that look like in terms of day in/day out humans at GM interacting with other humans and how they’re doing it differently now?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, one of the big things we did to start to drive this transformation is we plugged in a program that we call Transformational Leadership. This was a partnership with Stanford. It’s a year-long cohort program with Stanford where we take the top of the organization, 35 people on an annual basis, go through this program.

The reason I call out that program is because it answers your question rather directly in that we’re not just shifting to the future, we’re thinking both about the current state of the business and the future state of the business in the same moment. We call that ambidextrous leadership if you will. That came out of that program.

Everything we talk about here is growth and core. We’ve got to be excellent at the core of the business. We’ve got to continue to be – operations, we have an operational excellence program. Operations have to be maniacally precise and everything we produce has to be durable and everything else, but at the same time, which is what makes it ambidextrous, we need to be thinking about the future. We need to be thinking about where is the customer tomorrow going to be and how can we get there sooner than anybody else.

There’s a lot of people talking about agility in the world today. The way I like to talk about it is most large organizations shouldn’t talk about themselves as being completely agile. They need to be agile in places. They need to be agile on the edge. They need to be agile in the growth side of the business because the growth side of the business is where the future is. They need to be disciplined and operationally excellent in the core.

In fact, one of the studies that I read recently that talks about this, and then I can share exactly how we’re doing that, was a Mackenzie study where they said organizations need to be both fast at times and stable at other times. About only 12% of the companies they reviewed were able to do those two things at the same time.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that makes a ton of sense with regard to boy, if you think about sort of any organization, sort of what it can handle well and what it can’t, I even think about customer service interactions in terms of it’s like if you want to check your credit card balance or sort of get some basic information and sort of – or get a replacement card or report a stolen card or do some fraud stuff or change the credit limit, it’s like that’s kind of very basic.

But if you sort of go out beyond the edges, suddenly it gets really I guess confusing for the people in terms of what they’re trying to do. It’s like we’re really built up and tooled up to do these dozen things very quickly and efficiently and systematically.

But now I’m trying to get my private mortgage insurance canceled with my new insurer – my new mortgage holder because they transferred them over as they do. It’s been rather challenging. It’s like, “No, no, no, I understand your policy, but in fact if you looked at the original text, the original mortgage, this is kind of how it’s supposed to work, so can we do that?” They’re just so flummoxed, like, “We’re going to have to look into this, sir.”

I think that’s intriguing to think about it. In some ways you want to just be high-scale, high-efficiency with doing that thing repeatedly with, frankly no innovation because it’s working great and other areas where you really got to adapt and see what’s new and what are people starting to really ask for.

Michael J Arena
Yeah, 100%. 100%. It’s funny that you mentioned banking as your example because I grew up in banking.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Michael J Arena
I remember that exact question coming to me at one point in time when I was asked by the president, the company I was working for, “Michael, how can we become more innovative?”

I told the same story you just did a moment ago. “Are you really sure you want to be innovative where you’re driving precision and you’ve built expectations for consumers and you want to be reliable and you want to create a consistent set of interactions or are you asking if you want to be innovative on the edges?”

At that point in time, this was before mobile banking, so it’s a great illustration. When it comes to something like mobile banking before it had existed, you have to be innovative there because no one’s ever done that at that point in time. No one had ever done that. You have to be agile. You have to think differently. You have to move, shift, flux, understand the consumer, shift with the market. You have to do that super fast.

That’s where we are now as a company on things like car sharing and what we’re doing with Maven, what we’re doing with electification, what we’re doing with self-driving vehicles. You have to be completely agile and you have to manage that side of the business with a whole different set of muscles while continuing to keep an eye on the core of the business and making sure that you’re doing that flawlessly.

My analogy for this is every organization is both a super tanker, which is critical to getting stuff done precisely and at scale and a set of speed boats that are being sort of tossed out into the white water so that they can move fast and agilely shift with the environment and then ultimately grow themselves into what the next core of the business is and should be.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you talk a little bit about sort of the people practices that bring that about? I’d be curious to hear if in the course of having meetings or interactions one-on-one, you’d say whereas before at GM people more so spoke or interacted or accepted or challenged these kinds of things, now it looks different in terms of their interactions.

Michael J Arena
Yeah, so the first thing to know is that in that model the era of one-size-fits-all solutions is inappropriate. You’ve got to use different solutions for the different parts of the model. Some of the practices are – we use a lot of design thinking on the growth side of the business. We’re out talking to consumers. We’re out engaging consumers in Manhattan and San Francisco and places that we might not interact with on a day-to-day basis traditionally.

Then we’re thinking about how do we bring those ideas back into the business and connect up with other parts of the business, build bridges, if you will, to do agile design and to move fast. Amazon calls them small two-pizza teams, very small teams that can first of all build something, like a minimum viable product or solution and then ultimately the reason the bridges matter later is scaling. That’s the growth side of the business.

Now on the core side of the business, you just incrementally have to ask yourself the question, how do we make this better every single day. How do we continue to get more nimble and more agile even in the core so that whenever the new growth part of the business comes to fruition, that the core is already ready to sort of cast it up onboard and take it on?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then in forming these teams, can you give us an example of something that you’re able to quickly react to and how it was done?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, so a couple different examples. The one that I can think of most notably off the top of my head is what we’ve been doing with Maven, which I’ve mentioned already. Maven is our car sharing platform. Maven by its very definition is access to a vehicle as opposed to ownership of it. We sell cars and in the core of the business we continue to and will continue to for quite some time.

But on the other hand just like there is Uber and Lyft, which are ride sharing applications, there’s a need to get from one point to the next inside the city. We found this sort of whitespace that no one was serving, which is how do get outside – how do you not own a vehicle, but maybe take that vehicle for longer durations than just from one of the end to the other end of the city.

Maybe you’ve got it for a couple hours. You’re driving it as opposed to someone picking you up and you’re actually deploying an asset – someone else’s asset – that may be sitting in the garage at some point in time.

This whole shared economy model, we went out – to be very precise – we went out and started interviewing people in the streets. It was in design thinking. What we found out was owning a vehicle inside of a city may be more of a burden than a benefit for some, but we can build a solution around that so that they still have access to a vehicle in such a way that they get the conveniences of it without the burdens of it. That’s where Maven really evolved from.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Now you were big in pushing a concept called GM 2020 throughout the organization. What does this mean?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, it’s, again, we’re now back in the core of the business. One of the things we want to do is we want to think about the core of the business in regards to how do we build the culture where people just can’t wait to show up to work the next day. People just really want to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Back in 2014, we launched this, I’ll call it a movement. We launched this movement where we invited – and this was back when we were really trying to attract young people into the organization. We were really just starting to as corporations as a whole create different environments that were, at that point in time, I would say were more Millennial friendly. I don’t believe that any more. I think that’s true for anyone and all of us.

But we launched this initiate where we thought about okay, if we were to recreate the culture or rethink culture or rethink the workplace, why not invite the people in the room that will actually be living with those outputs in the year 2020.

Literally using some design thinking methodologies and inviting 30 people into a two-day event, we went out, we took them out on buses, and we went and looked at all these creative workplaces first across Detroit. That movement, those 30 people, ended up growing into a movement that we call GM 2020, how do we positively disrupt the way we work.

They continue to grow into a much larger body of people. It’s thousands now of people that show up into these events, constantly thinking about how we can get better and all volunteers, but constantly thinking about how we can organically get better on a day-to-day basis.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent. Then what have been some of the key adopted practices that have shown up in terms of doing work better and in a more enjoyable way?

Michael J Arena
The great part about this is that all kinds of ideas emerge out of this. One of the – perhaps my favorite story, there are plenty that I can share, but perhaps my favorite story was we were about ready to open up a new building.

It was a ten-floor building where generally what happens is you go in, you bring a facilities crew in. You bring in some architects. They look around the space and they decide what the footprint should look like. They plug in standard furniture and everything else. Well, rather than approaching it that way, what we decided was why not invite the people who are going to be working in that space into designing it.

We did what we called a two-day co-lab, kind of like a hack-a-thon, if you will, across two days. We invited in 35 people. We put them into teams of 5. We asked them to – we walked them through the space. We gave them the same parameters that any facilities team would have in regards to cost constraints and architectural barriers and all that sort of stuff.

We literally had these teams and teams of five build prototypes. After giving all those constraints and talking to individual users, which were their fellow employees, we actually had them build prototypes of what that space should look like. They competed against each other.

At the end of the – I said two days, it was actually 24 hours from beginning to end, from 12 o’clock to 1 o’clock the next day – at 12 o’clock the next day, they presented their working physical prototypes to a design team and the winning team actually created the design of the way that that building ultimately was created.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. Then how did they like it?

Michael J Arena
Again, it was very different then perhaps what would have been designed for them. One of my favorite stories was the winning team actually cut a hole in the – they said if you want to collaborate, you need to be able to look up and down across multiple floors, so they actually cut a hole in the center of the building in their prototype three floors deep. They said “This is will be the collaboration zone. The two floors above that will be the concentration/deep work zone.”

Whenever they did that, well, of course they’re not architects, so they weren’t thinking about how sound this was, so there was all this push back on, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but architecturally that doesn’t stand up.” I’m thrilled to say that that team ended up becoming part of the overall design team.

They didn’t cut a hole in two floors, but they ended up – or in three floors, but they ended up cutting it in the two in order to make their solution work. They were thrilled, the short answer. They were thrilled at the end of the day with the new design.

That’s not a huge example, but there are all kinds of those everyday examples that I’m giving you now, like where people designed an onboarding app or people designed a learn and share so that they could do a career fair and all these little things that manifested throughout this community so that they’re able to move really fast and organically create these new solutions.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. With the hole in the floor, you could – one person could stand on one floor, the other person stands on the floor above and they look down at each other?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
You could accidently – if you weren’t paying attention, walk into a hole and fall down.

Michael J Arena
No, no, it’s not quite that way. They had the railings and all that stuff up. But it was really much more to illustrate that we’re not separating ourselves from different groups. If we’re going to collaborate, we at least need to have this sort of proximity to one another as opposed to hitting our floor button and showing up.

It’s, again, a small thing, but as you engage people in making those decisions themselves, they become very, very proud about those outcomes and they figure out how to iterate on it and make it better over time.

Pete Mockaitis
So people don’t speak to each other through the floors? It’s more of a symbolic-

Michael J Arena
Yeah, absolutely. They see each other.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Michael J Arena
So they can certainly correspond back and forth. I guess I’m just sort of the dispelling the safety myth.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, got you. The railings certainly, that makes sense. We’ve got the safety covered. They would in fact speak through the hole from one floor to another.

Michael J Arena
Completely.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s cool. That’s fun. Now, you’ve also got a book, Adaptive Space, that captures some of these principles that you put into practice. Can you sort of share with us kind of what’s the book all about?

Michael J Arena
I’ve talked around a lot of it already, but it’s this core concept of why are some organizations adaptive and are able to respond to the changing marketplace and the other organizations perhaps aren’t quite as adaptive.

As a researcher, this was even prior to my time I come into General Motors, as a researcher, four of us actually launched a research initiative, went out and studied 60 different companies, all Fortune, really, 100 companies, and asked that question, why are some adaptive and why are others not.

What we found, and this is the part that I talked around a bit already is that those were – every single organization had two things. They had these sort of core systems, we call them operational systems, which is the formality of how you get work done and they all had entrepreneurial pockets, even organizations that aren’t adaptive have innovative entrepreneurial activities happen within them.

What the adaptive ones had that the non-adaptive organizations didn’t have was what we ultimately called adaptive space, but basically it’s the bridge to get those ideas through the organization and pulled into the formal systems.

Think of it quite literally as how do you more intentionally mine the idea, everyday ideas throughout your organization, both big and small in such a way that it becomes part of the adaptive fabric of an organization that can respond differently to the outside market. That was a lot, but-

Pete Mockaitis
What are some of the – what was that?

Michael J Arena
No, I was just saying, so that was more than a mouthful for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh no, that’s cool. Then what are some of the practices associated with getting those bridges up and going in terms of these things make all the difference if you’ve got them versus don’t?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, yeah. The interesting part about this is it’s a social phenomenon. The interesting thing is the connections that you create inside an organization are more important than I think we ever believed they were before.

Think about it this way, we all want to think about who are the – how do we build a bigger network and how do we build our network inside of an organization. What we discovered was your network matters immensely, but your network needs to be different for different intentions.

I talk a lot about social capital. I’m in the talent space and spend a lot of my time talking about human capital, but I also talk about social capital. Human capital is what you know, social capital is how well positioned you are to leverage what you know. Remember, I said that every organization had entrepreneurial pockets, but not everybody was able to leverage that and that was because they weren’t connected appropriately.

A couple of the practices to get very precise with you is there are times where you need to create discovery networks. A discovery network is a network that’s actually going outside of the insular walls of an organization and finding out what the customers of tomorrow really need and want, like the Maven story I shared with you a few moments ago.

There are also times that ideas were too. Organizations, all organizations have lots of ideas. You’ve got to bring those ideas into the world. It’s important to have discovery connections because that’s how you stay relevant, that’s how you can move – you can keep pace with the outside market, but you’ve got to bring those ideas in and you’ve got to actually put them in the very small, tight, what Amazon calls two-pizza teams. We call that agile design in many organizations or scrum teams.

That requires a different set of connections. You want very trusted small groups of teams of maybe six that are taking ideas that were discovered and then bringing them into the world and iterating them, move them fast.

Then once they built a minimum viable product, this is where a lot of companies sort of fail, once you build a minimum viable product inside of a small pocket, you then have to start to think about how do I get that scaled on across the broader business. That requires yet a different set of connections that we call diffusion connections.

That’s – when you think about those different practices, it’s a different set of connections and a different set of practices for each of those steps, if you will, on any given product lifecycle or any given solution lifecycle into the business.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m really intrigued by the notion that you said that the ideas are a dime a dozen. There’s tons of them in a scaled organization. Boy, I imagine a critical lever that is really make or break here is effectively choosing, selecting, deciding which of these ideas are worthy of getting a two-pizza team to advance it and go after it a bit. What are some of the key ways that these decisions can be made optimally?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, you’ve got to be disciplined in that process. I’d say ideas are cheap. I say that somewhat tongue in cheek. They’re cheap if nothing’s done with them. If somebody just shares an idea and they don’t do anything with that idea to bring it to life, then who knows if that was a good idea or not.

An idea is nothing but an abstract, but if you actually take that idea and you build something around it and you go test that idea, which gets into your question, the best way to find out if an idea is worthy is to actually build some aspect of it, low-resolution prototype and get out and test it. Test it first with some friends inside the business, find out if some colleagues get excited about it. Then ultimately test it with consumers or would be consumers.

Then that’s not enough because it’s still this low resolution sort of fragment of an idea. It’s better than the idea itself I should say, but it’s still a fragment of a concept. You then have to decide, okay, what are the thresholds to know whether or not we can win with this idea or this is a real idea that would have real market impact or this an idea that’s worth our investment.

That’s a whole different series of practices and the only way to know that is to set up milestones around that concept or an idea and hold people accountable for getting to those milestones. If they don’t, you kind of decommission it and you say we can only take so many of these at a time.

Every organization has a finite set of resources, so you just simply decide how many people am I going to invest in this idea, how many people – what do they need to prove between now and the next milestone, whatever that is, and if they don’t prove it, do we have the courage to shut that idea down so that we can take those resources and reinvest them into something else.

In short, what you just heard me describe is there are parts of the organization where you need to act and think much like a startup.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. I think that’s excellent in terms of having that discipline and those clear thresholds that you’re identifying. I guess I’m thinking about backing it up a little bit earlier in the process. I imagine GM has thousands of ideas emerging. Then you may only pilot test out dozens at a time. Why don’t we say 1 out of 80, little ratio, shows up and gets the minimum viable product treatment.

How do you decide what hits that initial threshold, like, “You know what? We are going to spend some time, money, resources six people on this one.”

Michael J Arena
This is where I think it truly is a social phenomenon. I think our inclination – when you or I have a new idea, our inclination is to go take it to a leader and to go get it formalized. That may be the worst idea possible. That may be the worst step forward possible because you don’t even know if that idea’s good at this stage.

What I’m – and we’ve done this very much in the GM 2020 community, where we basically say, “If you think you’ve got a great idea, go find a friend.” That first friend is really social proofing your idea. That first friend – somebody who you trust, somebody who you respect, somebody who you think would get this – is your first litmus test.

Once you share that idea with that friend, if they look at you like, “Michael, this is really stupid. I have no idea what you’re talking about,” well, you might just be wrong and you might just decide that it’s time to shut it down. But if they’re excited about it, then our next step, what we talk about a lot is, go follow the energy.

If I share this idea with you and you’re excited about the idea, then okay, so who else might be excited about this idea. At this point it becomes more than it’s Pete’s idea, Michael’s idea together and we go find a few more friends.

This, what I’m describing to you, is much more organic than mechanistic, which is how we want to tend to think about innovation inside of a company. It’s much more social than process driven.

At some point, you need formal support. At some point once you know you’ve created network buzz and people are excited about this idea and they believe in the beauty of this as it’s co-created and it’s no longer just my idea, it’s all of our ideas and we can all find ourselves in it, well then the likelihood of securing support and resources is amplified ten-fold.

That’s the way that you get these, as I stated it earlier, these entrepreneurial pockets fired up and linked up across the broader organization for grander success.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Awesome. Well, any other kind of key practices you think the typical professional needs to know or do you want to move ahead to hear about some of your favorite things?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, well I guess one thing – because I haven’t talked about one – there’s one thing that everybody who’s listening to this conversation is wondering. Okay, that’s all fine. That sounds great. But what about the resistance? What about when somebody doesn’t like my idea? Then what do I do?

One of the things that I like to talk about is conflict sometimes – charge into the conflict. The conflict later – once you believe your idea is good, once we’ve got a band of a half dozen or so of us, then the conflict is really critical to the evolution of that idea. The conflict is essential to getting it scaled.

One is take that conflict as a compliment because you’re probably not doing anything innovative if you haven’t created some disturbance. Charge into it and start to think about it. Oftentimes what I like to say is you can’t really have a breakthrough without something to break through. If you’re not expecting some degree of resistance or some degree of conflict, then you’re probably not being so bold.

A lot of people ask me, “Well, what do you do with conflict? What happens whenever the antibodies kick in?” What I say is, “That’s awesome.” It’s about how do you pivot in response that that, how do you bring them in to the process so that you can pressure test those ideas, you can morph them and you can challenge them in such a way that you make them bigger and more scalable both within the business, but far more importantly outside into the marketplace.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you.

Michael J Arena
I just would not want to underplay sort of the value of tension even more than conflict, I wouldn’t want to undervalue that, but what I will say is tension too early in the process actually prematurely kills ideas. Tension later in the process becomes almost like this pressure testing sort of amplifier, if you will, to get lift off sooner.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Thank you. Well now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michael J Arena
You probably have noticed even though I live inside of a human capital job that social capital is an area that I spend a lot of my time.

One of my favorite quotes and this will get a little bit into the conflict thing is it’s a quote by Colonial Picq. This quote goes like this, “Five brave men, who do not know each other well, would not dare attack a lion.” I know that’s masculine, so I’ll pivot it in the next part of the quote. “But five lesser brave men or women would do so resolutely.” I think this is a team activity. What I’m talking about, you have to have friends. You have to find friends. You have to have people who are in it with you.

One of the things that I know is that if you try to do this alone and you try to take all the credit for yourself and you try to hold onto an idea, you try to hoard it – this idea can be anything, any kind of solution – you will not succeed. But if you find and enlist friends and you work together as a team, you’re chances of succeeding are amplified significantly.

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

Michael J Arena
Again, this whole networking space, I studied a lot of network theory. I guess the one that just jumps out at me right off the bat is a professor over at University of Michigan, Wayne Baker, a good friend of mine, went out and studied – we didn’t even talk about this – but went out and studied energizers and people who bring energy into an organization, which is one of the core network roles that I talk a lot about.

What he found out was that high performing, agile adaptive organizations have three times as many energizers as average performing organizations. That’s a study, where in the HR space we talk a lot about engagement. My belief is we’re going to be talking much, much more about energy moving forward.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. How about a favorite book?

Michael J Arena
I guess in the last couple years books that I’ve read, the one that jumps out the most is Adam Grant’s Give and Take, like givers and takers. His whole philosophy, if you haven’t read it, is that long-term, givers, people who are constantly helping, supporting and lifting each other up are the winners in the long-term game. It’s a phenomenal book.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Michael J Arena
I think it’s easy to live inside of an organization and become somewhat inculturated. One of the disciplines – I don’t know if this is a habit – one of the disciplines that I have instilled for myself is to – I have, on my calendar I have, literally this is what it says, ‘critical distance day.’

Literally once every six weeks I have a day on my calendar where I have prescheduled, I’m getting out of the day-to-day business and I’m going to go do something very, very different. I’m going to talk to consumers. I’m going to go to a conference. I’m going to a university campus. But I’m going to do something to refresh myself to think differently than I would if I were just managing the daily business.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate and get quoted back to you frequently?

Michael J Arena
Yeah. I guess the one that I think of is we live in the era of disruption. We’re all talking about digital disruption these days. We want to talk about things like agile, but I personally believe that in the era of disruption, social is king. We’re going to be talking much more, much, much more about both energy and social capital as we move forward over the next decade.

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

Michael J Arena
The book, there’s a website for the book, AdaptiveSpace.net. They can certainly go on there. I’ve talked a little bit around some different network roles. There’s another website out there called NetworkRoles.com that they can actually go sort of take a self-assessment to better understand their own individual network role.

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

Michael J Arena
Stop talking about it and start doing it. Go find a friend. That first friend matters more than you can ever imagine. Find a first friend to partner with on whatever it is that you’re thinking about it is the first step forward. We oftentimes think of things and oftentimes don’t act on those.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, Michael this has been a lot of fun. Thanks so much for sharing the good word. I wish you and GM lots of luck in all you’re up to.

Michael J Arena
Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.

289: How Executives End Up in the C-Suite with Cassandra Frangos

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“Executive Whisperer” Cassandra Frangos outlines what it takes to become a Chief Something Officer and how to garner needed  support along the way.

You’ll Learn:

  1. When to follow—and when to disrupt— company culture
  2. One thing our listeners and most CEOs have in common
  3. How to pick up on social cues that can make or break your career

About Cassandra

Cassandra Frangos, Ed.D., is a consultant on Spencer Stuart’s Leadership Advisory Services team. She collaborates with Fortune 500 leadership teams on executive assessments, succession planning, leadership development and top team effectiveness. Previously, Cassandra was the head of the global executive talent practice at Cisco, where she was responsible for accelerating the readiness of the talent at all levels of the organization to transform the business and culture. Through partnerships with the executive team, she deployed innovative approaches to organization design, succession planning, assessment, coaching and development programs to drive business results and innovation. She also played an integral role in the 2015 succession planning for Cisco’s CEO, one of the most respected and longest-tenured CEOs in the tech industry.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Cassandra Frangos Interview Transcript

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

Cassandra Frangos
Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m a little bit interested to hear your story, how you made the leap from being a vice president of Global Executive Talent at Cisco over now to your current role.

Cassandra Frangos
Yes, so it’s actually a funny story, where I actually worked with Spencer Stuart at Cisco.  I worked on our CEO succession, and C-suite succession.  And Cisco was really just I think a great company that was able to partner with many firms, and in my role of Executive Talent I did a lot of executive assessment and succession myself with my team.  But when it came time for CEO succession, I really wanted an external partner and Spencer Stuart was that for me, and just was fabulous at helping me think about, how do our internal candidates compare to the outside and what are some other things we should think about as we go through the CEO succession process?
So we became friends and partners along the way, and then a few years later, after Chuck Robbins, the CEO of Cisco, was well established, Spencer Stuart came knocking at my door and said, “We’d love to have you as part of the team.”  And for those listening, they did not violate any non-compete, so it was all above board.  But yeah, I was happy to go work with many of the people that I had worked with previously.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s excellent.  And I’m sure, boy, with that role, doing talent at Cisco, I’m sure you must have just learned so many things and seen so many things, in terms of applicants and interviews and just the whole process of folks coming on board.  I’d love it if you could maybe just share a tip or two, when it comes to, “Hey, as someone who’s done a whole lot of hiring and supervising of hiring, here are some do’s and don’ts”.

Cassandra Frangos
Yeah, I think part of it is, there are so many ways that people look at you in terms of your brand internally and externally, and people have ways of being a few degrees of separation.  So sometimes you think, “Oh, they haven’t called my direct boss”, but actually someone has called your direct report from few jobs ago to find out who you are as a leader.  So, I think the world is hyper connected and just know that don’t burn any bridges as you go along in your career, because that is so important.
And as I was in the role of talent, that was always a key part, is, what’s this person’s brand and what would they bring to a company like Cisco?  And then even as they were looking at internal jobs in Cisco, what was their brand in terms of the last team they worked with or what were they like as a young manager and what would they be like as an executive?  So there’s always interconnectedness there.
And then always just be mindful of how you treat people.  I think that’s always something where, how did you treat the person who actually walked you into your interview, or the admin who was helping you get everything scheduled?  How you treat those people is actually even more important as you think about even marketing yourself for a new job.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely.  And I’d like to follow up on your point about not burning bridges there.  In putting together this course about changing jobs and whether or not you should stay or go , it’s been interesting how a lot of listeners have said they’re really scared to burn bridges and maybe they ought not to leave as a result.  And so, my intuition about this is that there’s a good way and a not so good way to leave, and burning bridges specifically refers to kind of leaving people in a tight spot.  So, any pro tips for exiting gracefully and how to not let that fear stop you from taking the opportunity?

Cassandra Frangos
Right, it’s a good question.  So my advice would be, if you’re a senior and you’ve got a huge team that you’re responsible for or a large part of the business that you’re responsible for, is always be thinking about your own succession.  That’s one way to not leave a company in the lurch.  So many senior executives are constantly thinking about their own succession, so that they’re not leaving a company in the lurch.  Or even if they move on to a different internal role, there’s somebody who is really ready to take over the business or take over the team so there’s some continuity there.
The other is, I always like to give people the advice of, leave a job on a high note.  Don’t think about leaving the job when you are on a downhill.  Think about changing jobs internally or externally when you really feel like you’ve maxed your potential, everything is running well and it’s a good time to hand off to somebody else.  Don’t necessarily think about leaving it when it needs a big turnaround or it’s a mess, because chances are you’re going to need to be fixing it and it could burn a bridge if you’re leaving it into complete shambles.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you, that’s helpful.  And so, let’s talk about your book here, Crack the C-Suite Code.  What’s the main idea here?

Cassandra Frangos
Yeah, so it’s actually inspired by a lot of executives or aspiring executives that I’ve worked with over the years who kept asking me, “So how do you get into the C-suite?”  It seems like this mystery of a question sometimes, and I felt bad that everybody thought it was such a mystery.  So I just wanted to write something that outlined different paths to the C-suite and make it inspirational, in the sense that there are many paths, many different ways to get there and it doesn’t have to be just one answer for everybody.  It can take many different turns for each person.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.  Well, share with us.  What are some of the main insight takeaways here?

Cassandra Frangos
Yeah, so there are a few different paths.  One that you would probably think of is, stay at a company for a really long time and reach the top.  There are so many executives who have inspirational stories where they started out on the front line and then reached CEO, or they started out really not qualified for some of the jobs that they had and they ended up in the C-suite.  So tenured path is certainly one that I talk about in the book.
The second is you’ve reached maybe a peak at your company and you say, “I really, really want to make it to the C-suite, but I don’t think I’ll make it here.”  And they jump out and actually become part of the C-suite of maybe a smaller company or just a different type of company.  I see that happen all the time, where someone’s dream and they can’t sleep at night if they’re not a Chief Financial Officer or they’re not a CEO, and they just won’t necessarily make it at their current company.  So if they go to a different company or a smaller company they reach the top and absolutely love it and enjoy being part of the top.
The other path is the founder path, where you’ve worked maybe at a smaller or larger company, you’ve had great experience and you have such a passion for starting your own company, and that’s where you take the path of founder.  And just really have an idea that you feel passionate about and you really want to make a difference with your own company.  That’s another path.
And then finally the path that’s probably least likely for you to be able to control it, but leapfrog succession is something that’s actually becoming more of a trend, which happened at Cisco, where leapfrog succession is where you were a couple of levels below the C-suite and you jumped over a level to get into the C-suite.  So for example Cisco’s CEO jumped over a level to become the CEO, and that’s becoming more and more common.

Pete Mockaitis
That is intriguing.  And what are the circumstances that make that occur?

Cassandra Frangos
I think there are a few different ones.  One is the company is really ready to embrace a new leader, who is a bit more innovative or even has some new ideas to embrace new technology or take the business in a different direction.  It doesn’t necessarily mean a full turnaround, but it is someone who has some different ideas and is able to leapfrog the company, if you will, and to integrate success.
The other thing is they have established themselves internally as really being someone who has great followership across the company.  So when we announced Cisco’s CEO Chuck Robbins – standing ovation from across the company.  People just saw him as a natural fit and somebody who would really take Cisco into the future.  So if it’s a leapfrog it does have to be someone who has great followership.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool.  Well, so we have a few pathways there, in terms of segmentation and arriving at the C-suite.  And I’d like to maybe sort of go back in time a little bit for folks who are not a year or two or three away from that point just yet.  Can you also share, within the book you’ve got some kind of universal accelerators and derailers that can really make a world of difference, when it comes to the rate of progression?

Cassandra Frangos
Sure.  Accelerators can certainly be looking at something that you haven’t done before.  So if you are a few levels or even several levels below top executive roles, it’s taking on the white space or a new assignment, something that you’ve never done before, it sort of reinvents yourself, you get to know different executives across the company.
The other is just collecting experiences, and I love this.  One executive I worked with – he would always describe it as each experience he’s collecting little nuggets that help him become even more valuable to the company and his career.  So that can often be accelerating.
And then the other is really having the right sponsorship internally and externally in the company.  So if you are inside a company and you’re thinking about making the next step, do you have the right sponsorship of key people who would really say, “Absolutely promote this person.  I would bet my bonus on this person.  They will get results, they’re the right kind of fit, they’re absolutely the right person to accelerate the company or in that particular role.”  So you do need really good sponsors along the way, and people who will really take a risk on you as well, because chances are not everybody’s done these jobs several times over.  Many CEO will say, “I’m not really qualified to do this job”, but somebody is willing to take the risk on them.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing.  And do you have any pro tips for how you go about identifying those sponsors and winning them over?

Cassandra Frangos
Yeah, I think one of them is chemistry.  If you don’t have great chemistry with someone, they’re not going to sponsor you.  So it can start off as a mentoring relationship where you are just asking for advice and then over time you build a relationship, and then it really grows into more of us sponsorship where they are willing to say, “I’m going to take this person on and make sure they get promoted.”  So it’s being smart of who you’re connected with and who you might have chemistry with, because if you don’t, then you can’t really force it.  It’s not something that you could just say, “Pete, I want you to be my sponsor.”  It’s not going to happen if we don’t have a relationship, or there hasn’t been some way where we’ve been successful together.  So I think that’s important as you think about sponsorship.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.  Well, how about the flipside of this, the derailers?

Cassandra Frangos
Yeah, so this one is fun, where if you think about…

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, is it?  Doesn’t found fun, Cassandra.

Cassandra Frangos
[laugh]  Yeah.  This is a question that I asked many senior executives, and I said, “What’s been something that you’ve seen derail other executives?”  And they said, “Too big of an ego.”  And you just hear the funniest stories – that’s the way this plays out.  Arrogance really doesn’t get you too far in the world, and a lot of senior executives will make it to a certain level and then you just see them derail because of too big of an ego.
And I think with also the way the world is going, in terms of more interconnectedness, and think about collaboration – no one wants to work with somebody who has too big of an ego or is just arrogant, where they only want to hear themselves talk and they don’t want to hear anyone else’s point of view.  So that can be something to really watch out for.  You need to have confidence of course, if you’re going to make it to the C-suite, but if you’re too arrogant it really won’t get you anywhere.  And you know all those people you’ve met; I mean you know them right away.

Pete Mockaitis
I want to hear the stories.

Cassandra Frangos
[laugh] Yeah, I’ll tell you one.  One was where an executive who constantly got feedback that he would not listen to anyone’s point of view.  So he’d be in meetings and he would interrupt you every two minutes.  Doesn’t matter who it was that would interrupt them – could be a brilliant engineer that really had a great point; just kept interrupting, wouldn’t listen to anyone’s point of view, everyone left the meeting deflated.  And then if they received feedback or, “We might need to move the product a different way” or, “We might need to think about this differently”, just said, “No, I’m right.  I know I’m right.  I’ve always been right, and thanks for the opinion.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, noted.  Don’t do that.  Thank you.  I want to also dig into your take on, you say a lot of times when there is a failure of leadership it is largely due to a cultural misfit.  And sometimes I wonder when I hear “fit”, if it’s just a euphemism for something else entirely, like, “I’m not going to tell you that this person is a jerk” or, “We hated him” or, “He completely failed to deliver all the things that we wanted.”  … to deliver upon.  But I think other times there’s something that’s really true, in terms of cultural fit, whereas this person is A, the culture is more so B, and it’s not a fit.  So could you just really lay that out in terms of several examples for what shows up as, “Hey, these things fit” or, “These things don’t fit”?

Cassandra Frangos
Yeah, I think it’s looking at what kind of environment people can flourish in.  So, we’ve all met someone who would probably be great in a very structured, thinking culture, and they just would really flourish in the way of having procedures, policies, doing the same thing very reliably, and would just get really excited about doing that every single day.  On the flipside you can think about someone who would probably absolutely love to work for Apple – would love the innovation, love different ways of creating new products, and they’re probably willing to take some risk.  Maybe it’s a little bit more agile.
So you can think about two different spectrums and you can even think about yourself as to where you would fit most readily inside a culture.  And you can really feel it because you can get a sense of, “I’d really be excited to work here” or, “I think this would stifle me and I don’t think this would be the best culture for me.”  So I think it can go different ways, where certainly people can use culture as an excuse to, “Well, this person just didn’t work out”, or they really do breed the culture.
You can also think about… I live in Boston and around great universities, and there’s always this debate of what’s the difference between Harvard and MIT.  And I have actually a friend who’s a professor at each.  And the MIT professor is really entrepreneurial, loves to do things different ways, tries different things in the classroom.  And then Harvard Business School is really grounded in case study method.  So this professor that I’m friends with, he is very reliable in the way that he teaches because it’s through the case study method and that’s how he was taught and that’s how he knows how to teach.  So if you put him at MIT, he actually might not succeed because he can’t teach cases over and over again.  And if you put the MIT professor at Harvard, he may not actually be great at the case study method.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so that’s a nice dimension there, in terms of stable repetition, follow the process, versus new, bold, innovation, different stuff.  So, that’s a cool one where we could see a misfit.  Could you give a few more examples?

Cassandra Frangos
Sure.  I think the other is a little bit more nuanced, in terms of, are you a fit with the top team or the team that you’re part of?  So there was one executive that I worked with, where just could not get to the right place in terms of finding his way in the culture; just couldn’t really find a way to establish himself in a way where he was respected.  And respect is everything in an organization, and your ideas are intangible.
So he couldn’t get his ideas through because he just wasn’t really catching some of the subtle cues in the culture.  And it was just a shame because he was brilliant, but without having that acceptance on the team or the team saying, “Hey, let me help you learn this culture.  It’s pretty complex and I want to help you succeed.”  So that can be just something really subtle, where someone can be not successful.

Pete Mockaitis
And what are some of those cues that one might miss?

Cassandra Frangos
I think it’s how people communicate.  So if you’re a person who tends to just love to communicate by email and actually not walk down the hall – that can be a cue that you’d miss where actually if you observed a little bit you’d see actually everybody is buzzing around the hallways and they love to say, “Hey, let me catch you for two minutes to run this idea by you.”  Instead you’re just kind of doing it all by email and you’re wondering why you’re not getting anywhere.  So that could be a cue.
The other is it’s a highly social environment, so the way you can get work done is actually by building strong relationships.  And not that you have to go to dinner with them every night, but it’s that you actually do show an interest in them personally and you want to really understand them and build a relationship so you can get work done.  If you’re missing that cue and actually just jump to, “Alright, here’s the agenda, here’s what we need to get through.  How are you going to help me get this done?” – probably they’re not going to help you because you didn’t build a relationship with them.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m curious now, do you see it in the reverse, in terms of, “We’re a very task-oriented kind of a culture and your attempt to build a relationship with me is unwelcome and a waste of time.”

Cassandra Frangos
[laugh] Yeah, absolutely.  Yes, I’ve seen that many times over, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, understood.  Well, I like these dimensions because it makes it all the more real and tangible for me.  So we’ve got innovation versus stable, is it more email versus walk there face-to-face, is it more task-oriented versus relationship-oriented?  What are a few more distinctions?

Cassandra Frangos
I think the other is how hierarchical is it.  Some organizations really rely on the work structure and you must go to this person and then that person, and follow somewhat of an order or a hierarchy.  Other organizations are really, “It doesn’t matter.  Go to the best person who has the answer, or just find your way through to the right set of people who will help you.”
So that can depend, where I have seen some stumble where you actually didn’t follow the hierarchy and now you’ve gone sort of several levels that it didn’t make sense and you’ve actually caused some conflict just because you didn’t observe how some of the hierarchy and order worked.  Or if you are actually just trying to go more to the source and people are seeing you as, “Why did you jump down to talk to all these different people that they don’t know who you are and it’s intimidating?”  So just finding those subtle cues is also important as another dimension.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love to get your take on, in terms of cultural fit.  I guess at times there’s something that could be helpful about breaking from the norm.  And so, what’s your thought on when is it optimal to zag, as opposed to toe the line?

Cassandra Frangos
Yeah, sometimes you’ve been hired actually to zag outside of the line.  So sometimes I’ve seen people who’ve been hired where you are actually hired to be disruptive and I don’t want you to listen to, “Well, this is the way we’ve always done it”.  That’s often an annoying line for many people.  So, they might actually have an explicit charter and if they communicate that that’s their charter and they are looking for new and different ways to accomplish something or a new way of doing business, it can often be I think a great accelerator for a business.  It can be a lot more challenging if you have a culture where they love to say, “We’ve always done it this way for 50 years, so who are you coming in and telling me to do this different?”  But yeah, it can be really interesting when that happens.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing, yes.  So now could you give us a little bit of detail in terms of, if folks are looking to rise quickly, we talked about some universal accelerators and derailers.  Are there any other smart approaches – you used the word “brand” several times – in terms of really making that pop, in terms of you’re deploying your experience and everyone’s thinking, “This person’s great.”

Cassandra Frangos
Yeah, I think first of all life is short so it’s finding what you love.  I think if you’re passionate about what you do and you love what you do, that’s going to show through, and chances are you will accelerate on your own in the sense of people can really see you’re great at what you do and you love what you do.  If you have those two things, it can really take you far.  And that’s where also sponsorship can come in.  If people see that you’re really loving what you do and you’re good at it, they will more likely sponsor you.
The other thing is, I wouldn’t be afraid of failure.  There’s been lots of readings around this lately, where people are really willing to openly admit their failures and learning from them.  If you don’t learn from them, then certainly that can be just failure.  But thinking through, what are some risks you can take that could accelerate you?  Many, many times I’ve seen executives take a big risk and it paid off and they accelerated right to the top.  So that can also be something important.
The other is, you also have to think about, do people want to work for you?  So if you are going to accelerate to the top chances are you will have people who work for you, and what are you like as a manager or as a leader?  It can’t just be that you are great at managing up, or your boss thinks you’re fabulous.  It’s now more important to think through, what do your direct reports think, what do your peers think in terms of your effectiveness, and what do your leaders think about you in terms of your effectiveness?  So it’s having that 360-degree relationships, but also followership and having the impact you need on all of those different stakeholders.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, good, thank you.  And I’d also love to make sure, while I’ve got you, to get a little bit of the insider perspective, if you’ve got some tactics or tips, tricks or stories from many of the executives that you’ve gotten to interact with personally?  What are some insider goodies that anyone who wants to be awesome at their job should know?

Cassandra Frangos
Yeah, I think it’s certainly thinking about your career and your profession as a way where you’re almost putting the company interests first as well where it’s not about you.  I think that’s where the ego part came in where we were talking about before.  So if you’re out for yourself people will see right through it.  If you are out for creating impact for your company and the profession or whatever it might be that you’re part of, I think that is often something that differentiates many leaders.
Also, I can’t emphasize this enough – being willing to listen and really being a sponge for learning and really thinking through, “What did this person just say, so that I can really think through how I can act on it or make a difference based on what I’m learning and seeing?”  Many CEOs will say they’re lifelong learners, because they’re always listening, they’re always curious, they’re always thinking about some of the signals they’re seeing from customers, from the market, from employees.  So I think listening and being curious and learning all the time is something important.
The other I would say is reinvention.  Reinventing yourself always is something that will take you, I think, very far.  John Chambers, who I used to work for at Cisco, who was one of the greatest CEOs in the tech industry and also a wonderful person – he’ll say that he reinvented himself every three years.  And it was something that always accelerated his career, because he never wanted to be stuck in old business models or old ways of thinking.  He had to keep reinventing and being fresh and keep learning and always thinking about all the different senses and all the different pieces that would help him reinvent himself.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.  Now on that listening point – I’d love to get your take on, how would you paint a picture for what outstanding world class masterful listening looks, sounds, feels like, versus kind of run-of-the-mill or what passes for listening in day-to-day interactions?

Cassandra Frangos
Yeah.  So I think wonderful listening is, you really are listening with all senses.  That’s why many people study body language, because what people actually do when they’re watching body language and they think about, “How did my words have impact on me and how did that make that person feel?” – I think that’s a really important way of listening, is really looking at someone’s body language.
Also just intently really hearing them, and pauses are okay – I think people are so afraid of pauses – where you really are just taking it in, what they just said, and you’re soaking it up.  And sometimes taking notes by hand.  We often all now take notes by a computer or iPhones, and actually taking notes pen and paper or your iPad pencil, you often can remember what somebody said a whole lot more by actually writing it down.
And then also just being aware of subtle cues and the tone.  If someone said, “Oh, I’m doing great today!” or, “I’m… I’m doing… I’m doing good today” – there are different ways that you can hear the fluctuation in someone’s voice.
And then on the flipside I think a terrible listener is somebody who’s just waiting to talk.  I often see that in some of the settings where I coach different teams of executives, and I can just tell the executive who is just really not listening to you at all or listening to the group, and they can’t wait to talk and get their point out.  And their point actually had nothing to do with the previous point, so the conversation actually feels like ping pong, versus it builds on each other and they truly listen to each other and build on each other’s points.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love your take – if you see that a lot in executives, how do you imagine they got to be executives?

Cassandra Frangos
[laugh] Yeah, I think some of it is, do they stay executives if they have that behavior still?  So I think there’s one thing to become an executive.  So some people can actually get there, but to stay there also requires another kind of finesse, where you and I read the newspaper every day and hear of an executive who didn’t make it or suddenly was abruptly leaving their company.  Chances are they probably had some of these derailing behaviors.

Pete Mockaitis
Now you end your book with a final question.  What is it?

Cassandra Frangos
Question is: Do you really want to be in the C-suite?  And I pose that because it’s not for everyone.  Not everybody really wants to be in the C-suite.  It takes a lot of work, it’s also a lot of responsibility, a lot of I think tenacity, and it takes a pretty big toll on your family and your personal life.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, thank you.  Well, tell me – anything else you want to make sure to highlight before we shift gears and talk about some of your favorite things?

Cassandra Frangos
I think you touched on a lot of it.  I would just say that finding your own path you don’t necessarily have to follow a perfect formula, but finding your own path can be really fun.  And setting your own career vision is something really inspiring.  I actually read my paper that I wrote for my master’s program and the vision I wrote is actually what I’m doing right now.  So, if you can think longer-term and think about what’s motivating to you, you can have a really fun career.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful.  Thank you.  Well now, how about a favorite quote, something that inspires you?

Cassandra Frangos
Yes, I actually have it on my desk right now.  It’s, “Be yourself, because everybody else is already taken” by Oscar Wilde.

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

Cassandra Frangos
I love Boris Groysberg’s study on stars.  So what really makes stars in different companies.

Pete Mockaitis
Alright, thank you.  And a favorite book?

Cassandra Frangos
Love the book Resonant Leadership, because actually it’s two of my professors who are in different schools, and I didn’t know that it’d actually be in the school of these two different authors.  But Richard Boyatzis taught in my master’s program at Case Western, and Annie McKee who taught in my doctorate program at University of Pennsylvania.

Pete Mockaitis
We had Annie McKee on the show.  Very nice.

Cassandra Frangos
Yeah, yeah.  She’s wonderful, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool?

Cassandra Frangos
I love the Hogan Assessment actually.  It’s a tool that actually helps a leader understand their leadership profile, but also their derailers.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.  And a favorite habit?

Cassandra Frangos
Thank-you notes.  Handwritten Thank-you notes.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a particular stationary, or how do you do it?

Cassandra Frangos
Yeah, I actually got a gift from someone that I coached of stationary with my name on it and my favorite color of purple.  And so, I love just writing – whether someone did something small or big for you – just writing something personal to them.  Because you can do an email – it’s too fast, it’s too quick, it’s actually not that special anymore.  So, handwriting it and getting something in the mail is pretty special.

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

Cassandra Frangos
I think actually relates to my favorite quote of really being yourself.  I think that often resonates with people, where I just often say, “This doesn’t sound like you.  Are you trying to do this because you think you should do it, or do you really believe you should do it?”  So, I do hear people thanking me for that often, where they’ll say, “You know what?  I was myself and it paid off, and I’m really happy that I wasn’t trying to do something that I wasn’t comfortable with.”

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

Cassandra Frangos
LinkedIn.  I’m on LinkedIn all the time, I’m posting different things.  But my personal email is on there, or you can just write to me directly from LinkedIn.

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

Cassandra Frangos
I would think about how to reinvent yourself.  Back to the John Chambers piece, where just what are some of the ways you’re going to reinvent yourself, either small or big, to make sure you can really, truly succeed?

Pete Mockaitis
Alright.  Well, Cassandra, thank you for the book and for this conversation and demystifying this stuff.  It’s been a lot of fun and I wish you all the best!

Cassandra Frangos
Well, thank you.  Same to you!

243: How to Be More Popular–and Why that Still Matters at Work with Mitch Prinstein

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Mitch Prinstein helps us understand the different types of popularity and teaches us how to boost our popularity by working on our likability.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Subtle ways to boost your likability in meetings
  2. How and why to distinguish between the two kinds of popularity: likability and status
  3. How to get people to stop looking at their phones to talk to you

About Mitch 

Mitch is a professor, scientist, university administrator, teacher, author, speaker, and an exhausted dad.  He and his research have been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, U.S. News & World Report, Time magazine, New York magazine, Newsweek, Reuters, Family Circle, Real Simple, and elsewhere.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Mitch Prinstein Interview Transcript

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

Mitch Prinstein

Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I think we’re going to have so much fun chatting, but first I want to get your story behind, you had perfect attendance for 12 straight years, kindergarten through high school, or is that 13 years? Yeah. How is that done?

Mitch Prinstein

Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m not sure. I think I was a little bit of geek who liked school, but also I seemed to get sick on Friday nights and be better by Monday mornings. So, I don’t know exactly how that happened.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s a pretty convenient timing. Well, it’s interesting you talk about school ‘cause as I was prepping for this interview, you reference in your research adolescence and the impact it has and it lingers with us. And so, could you orient us a little bit to what were you like in adolescence?

Mitch Prinstein

Yeah, that’s a great question. I think what’s important is that people when they think about their popularity they recognize that there are two very different kinds of popularity. But for the kind that everyone probably thinks about – who is cool and who is most well-known and most influential – that was not me. I was a short statured, kind of skinny, bifocals-wearing kid who was doing pretty well in school, I guess at the time. And so, I was kind of a geek, I would say.

Pete Mockaitis

And I was really intrigued as I was prepping for this here. I kept thinking back to those years and I feel like I really did sort of live on both sides, of being popular – and we’ll talk about the multiple definitions there, with regard to, in grade school – I’d say pre-fourth grade, I was sort of teased a lot. I liked Star Trek, I liked computer games, I was a smart kid and had good grades. And then I met a good friend, who I guess was cooler and popular in that sense, so folks sort of laid off.
But then I went to a bigger high school and all of a sudden few people knew my prior self, and I naturally really liked meeting people. So, in that environment I just flourished. And it was just nuts how I was sort of like a super, I guess nerdy, teased kid, and then in high school it’s sort of a fresh start. And then I became the homecoming king. It was like, “Whoa!” I felt both sides and it’s intriguing how both of the experiences really do kind of shaped my perceptions of things that are going on now in some ways.

Mitch Prinstein

That’s interesting, ‘cause a lot of people do say that there’s a part of them no matter how old they get that still really resonates with that adolescent version of themselves. Somehow what they perceive every day, as you say, the way the interpret social experiences – it somehow still rings back to how they felt about themselves in adolescence.
There’s a pretty cool study actually that looked at earning potential and how much adult men made, their salary, and tried to correlate it with their height. And of course they found that tall men tended to make more money than short men, but what they found was that it wasn’t the height of the men as they were adults. The much stronger predictor of their performance as adults was how tall they were when they were 16. It’s just a really great example about how much that version of ourselves we were back then – it kind of sticks with us. It’s still inside us somehow.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, that is wild. So, I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. For folks who don’t have as much the back story, could you orient us a little bit to what’s the central idea behind your book Popular, and why is that important particularly for professionals?

Mitch Prinstein

Sure. Well, there are two different kinds of popularity. One kind is really focused on our likability, and the other kind is our status. And we have a natural human biological tendency to care about others think of us, even a little, but for some people a lot. And if we don’t understand the difference between those two kinds of popularity, we might just be searching and caring about the wrong one for the rest of our lives.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. So could you expound upon that a little bit? What does likability mean and what does status mean?

Mitch Prinstein

Absolutely. So our likability is really the kind of popularity that five-year-olds experience. In fact, even kids as young as three can tell you who are the most and least likable. And without intervention that tends to stay really stable for a very, very long time. The people that are likable are those that make others feel good, make them feel included and valued. The people that are leaders by helping everyone to feel important and that they’re working together, they’re creating group harmony. So that’s important.
That’s very different from the kind of popularity we all remember and think about back in those high school years. That kind of popularity, or that status as it’s called, is defined by being kind of powerful, visible, really well-known and influential. And actually the thing that makes you really high in that kind of popularity are a couple of things – physical attractiveness, but predominantly aggressive behavior. The bullies tend to be very popular, even if we don’t like them very much.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, interesting. So now, aggressiveness can boost status in the sense that they are powerful, they’re visible, they’re well-known and they’re influential. But it sounds like they are not necessarily folks who have a lot of people on their side. Is that fair to say? I guess I’m thinking about homecoming king stuff again, so it’s sort of like when it comes to a vote count, it sounds like the likable people are going to do better in that contest, but when it comes to a, “Ooh, that’s that guy” – that’s more of a status category there.

Mitch Prinstein

That’s right. So, our status is really going to be based on things that are often out of our control, and ways that people regard us ‘cause they’re looking up to us, because they want us to kind of give them attention. There’s actually research that shows that even being high status, getting markers of high status or having people treat you as if you’re high status, creates a kind of biological response that’s kind of in the pleasure center. It’s very similar to the response that someone might get from some kinds of recreational drugs. So it can be a very addictive type of popularity to have.
It’s kind of what social media is in large parts based on – having lots of likes and followers and retweets, things like that. That’s different. The way to get that is to try and put others down to make yourself seem more important, to try and get all the attention on you, rather than calling attention to other people. And many of these tactics are exactly the opposite of what it takes to become likable. And the reason why that’s so important because the people who are very likable tend to be more likely to be hired and promoted, they end up making more money, they enjoy their work experiences more, they’re liked by their coworkers, of course, and they’re actually more satisfied with their jobs. And that’s not necessarily the case for those high in status.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, now that’s intriguing. Now at the same time it seems like if you have high likability going for you and you just keep following that life to where it leads you, you may very well find yourself as a CEO or a head of state or cut a big deal, who then also has status.

Mitch Prinstein

That’s right. People who are high in status and also likable tend to do very, very well. But people that try and go for high status without recognizing that it’s more important, at least initially, to also be likable – that’s the problem. Everyone can remember that boss or knows of some manager who led in one way or the other – the person who was very domineering and aggressive and was only interested in using all their employees as a pawn to increase their own elevation in the company, versus the person who really took the time to get to know the people they were working with, and the status kind of almost came for them incidentally.
The reason why that’s important, not just for people who are one day wanting to rise up the corporate ladder, but also for companies, is that we are likely to follow that high status leader to the extent that we have to, but we’re not bought in to what they’re asking us to do. There’s no loyalty, there’s no investment. But a likable leader – we will follow them to the end of the Earth. We will do whatever they want us to do because we feel genuinely connected to them. And that leads to so much more innovation, productivity and satisfaction.

Pete Mockaitis

I’m with you here. I think about companies as well – the ones I like versus the ones that just have the power, whether it’s a cable company or a service provider for an area where you live. It’s sort of like, there’s not much loyalty there. The second I have another option, I might very well choose to switch, because they’ve got power but I don’t like them. And so then, I’m intrigued by what you say with regard to aggression. So now, aggression can increase your status. Can you give me maybe an example or two for how that could play out?

Mitch Prinstein

Sure. So, the person that kind of enters into a room or a group discussion and says, “All of your ideas aren’t correct; mine are the best. Let me explain to you why I have more understanding of this or I have more authority” – people resent that. People don’t appreciate that they weren’t heard, that their input wasn’t incorporated. Likable leaders can accomplish the exact same objective by saying, “I hear what you’re all saying, I understand that. It’s making me think about an extension of that or an idea related to that.”
And even if they ultimately give the exact same idea as the aggressive person, the fact that they’ve tried to make it sound like they’ve heard and listened and incorporated what others have said, makes a tremendous difference. That’s the way it tends to look in a corporate setting more. Of course in the news there are plenty of different examples of more egregious ways of being aggressive, whether we’re seeing it in the world of politics or in Hollywood right now, we’re seeing other ways of being very aggressive and powerful and letting that power kind of go to your head. I think people can easily think of examples of that.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. So I guess I’m sticking a little bit on aggressiveness increasing the status, because I hear that no one likes to be aggressed upon – that sucks. And the likable way is a more productive way to get buy-in and good relationships and engagement and long-term followers. And so, could you maybe give us an example of how an act of aggression boosts someone’s status?

Mitch Prinstein

Yeah, absolutely. It turns out that it’s many different species where this happens, it’s not just humans. But if you think about how we all kind of got to this point, status was developed as a way of helping to organize groups, so that way people knew which were first to get food or a mating partners or resources of some other sort, and which were last.
And the truth is, being aggressive does lead to very short term, quick solutions. It’s not a healthy way to do that, of course, but rather than having everyone in the entire herd battling over every single decision, an aggressive hierarchy, whether it’s in chimpanzees or in humans, makes very, very clear who’s alpha and who’s not. For that reason there’s this way in which our brains are built that have programmed us to care about high status, to be understanding that groups are going to be organized by that status hierarchy.
The thing that’s different of course about us is that we’re not chimpanzees, we’re human beings and we don’t hand out resources based on who’s the alpha and who’s the toughest. We also have relationships, and we’re also able to focus on likability. So, this is where we see the short term gains of someone who’s high in status, but it leads to long term problems because we are not an animal kind of society that only cares about the alphas.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And so then I can see maybe an action of a bully – for example someone would say, “Oh, we all know who that person is. They’re powerful; we don’t want to mess with them. We may well do what they say.” But you don’t like them, and so when they do their acts of aggression, that just sort of resurfaces it all over again, like, “Ooh, look at the power there.”

Mitch Prinstein

A bully is a great example, and it’s the same for a corporate manager. If you do assert your aggression and you get your way, then everyone says, “Well, they actually were able to get what they needed.” So, that did make them higher because they made someone else seem lower. So it does have the intended effect – it makes everyone hate that person, it makes them want to topple that person, but it is at least in the short term a way of demonstrating, “I do have more power.”

Pete Mockaitis

Now, is it aggression that you said was the biggest predictor of being disliked, or is there another one?

Mitch Prinstein

No, that’s it.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s the one, okay. So, it can boost your status but it will decrease your likability, and likability is a better asset to have, it sounds like, for making things happen. So, could you maybe give us some examples – is it possible to accidentally be aggressive? When I think of the word “aggressive” and imagine the things that an aggressive person does, it almost seems like they are a jerk and they just don’t give a darn about anybody. But I’m wondering, can we be aggressive just sort of accidentally or unintentionally, and are there any sort of particular things we should watch out for?

Mitch Prinstein

Yeah, we absolutely can. I think one of the mistakes that most people tend to make is by being dismissive. And it’s not meant to be aggressive – it might be that someone’s preoccupied, they’re not responding to emails, they’re not acknowledging other people’s comments, they’re not inviting everyone they can to teams or even to go to lunch. Things that might have nothing to do with others – maybe just they’re very in their head – but people tend to see that dismissiveness as potentially an act of hostility or as a slight or an exclusion, in a way that really can hurt others.
And for that reason a lot of people are seen as being aggressive, even when they genuinely don’t mean to be whatsoever. So it does take energy to kind of invest in the human aspects of our jobs. No matter what job we’re in we’re still humans interacting with each other, and we do need to engage in those things that continually remind others, even if just infrequently, that they are valued, they’re heard, they’re people we wish to connect with. That tends to be one of the biggest ways that you see people accidentally being aggressive towards others.

Pete Mockaitis

Excellent, thank you. And so, I’m curious, how do we get a gauge or a read on how likable we truly are? I imagine we tend to overestimate our likability the same way we overestimate… What is it, some huge percentage of people say they’re a good driver, or above-average driver. And so, that’s not possible statistically. So, how do we get a true sense for how we’re doing?

Mitch Prinstein

Yeah. I always joke with people to ask everyone who likes you to meet you in Conference Room A, and if you get there and you’re the only one in the room, that’s your answer. It’s really very hard for us to know this for ourselves, because we surround ourselves with those people who do like us, or at least will tell us to our face that they like us. And it’s very difficult to know. In fact, very many people tend to overestimate or in some cases underestimate their likability. The best thing to do is to get information from peers directly. So the way that it’s done in research of course is that we ask people to simply tell us, “Of everyone in your contacts, who are the people that you like the most?” And you can literally take a vote and get a tally of how many times people are nominated to that question. And that gives us the information that’s needed, but when we ask people to tell us where they think they would fall on that scale, very few people tend to be accurate. And that might be okay; I think the problem is when people are egregiously off from where they actually are.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And so then, I’m curious about what are the most sort of top bang for your buck highly-leveraged things that professionals can do to be more likable?

Mitch Prinstein

Well, I think that there are a few different things. One of them, let’s just say, interaction and behaviour in meetings. This is kind of the time when people really get an impression of one another, and ideas tend to take hold or not take hold in part based on the value of the idea, but also in large part based on how likable the person is who offered the idea. A great idea offered by someone that no one around the table likes is maybe not going to get any pick-up or follow-through, simply because of the messenger.
So, one of the key high-leveraged things to do is to kind of be aware of what psychologists would call the “social norms”. What is the vibe in the room? What are people thinking and wanting, and what is the mood? What really likable people do very well is that they’re able to assess and move that just little by little. If everyone’s happy, then they’re also going to be happy. You don’t want to be the one cynical person in the room. And if everyone is very upset or stressed, you don’t want to come in and unrealistically be too positive either. People want to feel validated and joined. They want to be met where they are.
Paying attention to those norms, and then trying to move them slightly, little by little, is what when you watch the most likable people in meetings – this is exactly what they do so skilfully. So, a good idea is to kind of be patient, bring up ideas not with the big idea right away, at the beginning of the meeting, but let it grow, plant your seeds, let people start to pick up on the idea on its own. Don’t be in a rush to get credit for it – that’s a way of seeking status. And ultimately by the end people will recognize that you led them there, but they’ll feel great about how they got there. So that’s one of the key ways to think about the minute-to-minute behavior in, let’s say a meeting, that leads people to become very valued and very well-liked members of a team.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s really interesting, and I’m thinking about speakers on stage right now, in terms of everyone’s kind of sleepy, it’s a morning session. And then they appear on stage and they say, “Good morning!” And there’s a grumble back, like, “I said good morning!” I don’t know, it sounds like what you’re saying is yeah, that’s annoying to everybody and it’s not just me. Because I’m often the chipper person, in terms of, I feel good, I’m enthusiastic, I’m genuinely delighted to hear what you have to say, so much so that sometimes… I’ve gotten this feedback before – it’s been helpful – that folks say, “Is this guy for real?” It seems like it’s almost too much, in terms of the enthusiasm or the interest or the positivity or cheeriness.
That happens, and so that’s a good tip there, is to read the room and to shift it little bit by bit, and to not be the super cheery, “Good morning!” big and loud cheerleader figure right off the bat. But so, could you maybe give us a couple, I don’t know, if you’d say scripts or key words, phrases, things you’ve seen in action that are just masterful nudges in the positive direction?

Mitch Prinstein

Yeah, I see that people that are very successful at this are very good at reflecting what they hear. So, if someone offers an idea, they don’t tend to just say, “Okay, here’s another idea.” They summarize the room very well and they say, “Okay, so what I’m hearing here is that Jane is thinking that it would be good if we worked on it this way, and I see some values in that. That’s helpful. Okay, Joe, you were saying this.” And everyone gets an opportunity to feel heard and that their information was really sunk in – someone gave them pick-up, someone took what they said and moved it forward down the field a little bit.
That’s really skilful, that’s a very good thing to do, even if at the end they say, “Well, I have some questions about that. If we put all those ideas out there, what might be some of the things that would be difficult about executing that? Or what about this tweak to it?” And again, you can get to the same exact place. It might take a little bit longer, but it doesn’t have to take much longer. That’s very, very helpful.
So, a lot of people when you talk about reflecting are just simply – even in a one-on-one with an advisor or a supervisee – kind of just repeating back what you’ve heard and seen: “Let me just make sure I’m hearing this right. Let me just throw this back at you here and make sure I’m hearing what you’re getting at here.” People find that to be a conversation that they say, “It was so deep. We were connecting, we really understood each other’s language.” And honestly, the person did nothing, other than just say back what they heard. But it changes the dynamic so dramatically that it really enhances likability.
And we’re all in so much of a rush that we think we know what people said before they even finished saying it. We’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay. I know what you’re going say. I’m already constructing my response.” And it’s about slowing that down and saying, “Let me just make sure I’m really getting what you said there.” And obviously you don’t do that after every sentence – that would be silly; but doing it every once in a while is remarkably powerful.

Pete Mockaitis

It really is magical on the receiving end. I’m thinking back to, I had a chat with this insurance guy, who was just masterful at talking about selling life insurance or their products. So, we had one chat about all my life goals and aspirations and things, and then we met up a little later and he said, “Pete, I heard you say this and this and this. And it sounds like what’s really important is this.” And so it was so weird because it’s like I knew I told him those things, and yet as shared them back to me, it felt like he was reading my soul.

Mitch Prinstein

Exactly, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis

It was fascinating, and I just realized if this is noteworthy to me, then it must be pretty darn rare.

Mitch Prinstein

And interestingly, most people don’t even realize when it’s happening. So people will say, “Yeah, yeah, that’s right. That’s a great way of saying it. That’s exactly what I was thinking.” And people won’t realize, “Well, actually you just said it before. This is someone just repeating it back to you.” They might repeat it back with a slight elaboration, but people love to feel heard, they love to feel validated, they love to feel like someone’s taking the time to truly listen to them. And it’s such a simple strategy, but it’s one that really, really enhances likability because it fosters this sense of connection, of bonding. It’s almost simplistic, but it’s beautiful in that simplicity because it’s so powerful.

Pete Mockaitis

Absolutely. And I noticed in your example that you used the name, and I imagine that would pack an extra punch.

Mitch Prinstein

Yes, sometimes so. I think it’s always important also that when talking with people about being more likable, you don’t have to shed your personality. If you’re the kind of person that uses names and it sounds natural, then great – yeah, I think that it can add that extra punch. But at the same time, if that’s just not your style and it’s not something that comes out naturally, I think it’s never going to come off okay if someone’s trying to become someone that they’re not. This is all about how to enhance and exaggerate the best aspects of oneself, rather than trying to suddenly act in a way that feels awkward to them.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And so now I’m imagining another scenario, in which folks are just kind of grumpy, and who knows why? It’s early in the morning, it’s a mandatory training that nobody wants to be at or something. So folks are just sort of grumpy, and you know it, and maybe you even ask folks “How are you doing?” and they’re like, “Oh, fine.” And so, I’m wondering in that milieu, what are some pro tips for doing some of the nudging, even before we are kind of actively contributing content that can be actively listened and parroted back?

Mitch Prinstein

So, like you say, coming in and screaming “Good morning” and trying to get everyone to match your enthusiasm – if you’re one of those speakers, for instance – that doesn’t work. That is annoying, as you say, because that’s kind of saying, “I’m going to railroad your feelings. I’m going to force you to fit me, even if the entire group is feeling differently right now.”
The best thing to do is kind of more of a matching, and again, a slow movement – say, “Wow, yeah, this is a pretty tough morning.” Maybe even ask a few people, “Tell me a little bit what’s going on for you, or what are you so stressed about. I think everyone’s stressed.” Do a lot of just focusing on, “Yeah, that makes sense, I can validate that, I agree with that.” It can be very, very brief, even just nodding of the head: “Yup, sure, makes sense.” Like, “Well, I guess if we’re going to move forward on this, let’s think about this piece a little bit.”
And rather than jumping in and saying, “I’m going to change everyone’s mood in one instant”, slowly, gradually kind of getting them there. And people say, “Well, okay, I get it. You are where we are, but yeah, we have a discussion we have to have, so let’s start moving there.” And within 10-15 minutes the mood can change. But don’t force it. Read the room and don’t ignore what you’re reading. Follow in kind.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, cool. Well, any other top recommended actions to boost likability?

Mitch Prinstein

I would say that it’s the kind of thing that we shouldn’t need to talk about anymore these days, but just taking a couple of minutes at the beginning or end of a meeting to check in with people more generally, is so remarkably powerful. But we are all so interested in optimizing every minute and not thinking about socializing at work or anything like that, but that’s unfortunate – that message – because there really is a lot that comes from having something that is just a general “I care about you” check in.
And it doesn’t have to be mushy or obviously inappropriate, but some way of saying, “Hey, how are you doing? How is it going?” Or even saying back to them, “You seem a little bit stressed, or you seem a little bit more tired. Are you okay?” Just a little thing like that builds such allegiance and kind of alliance between people.
And believe it or not, it’s discouraged in a lot of places, kind of, “This is just business. We should only be talking business, and if you’re not saying something productive, it’s not a valuable use of your time.” And people are told, “Don’t spend any time on that.” But a company that treats everyone like robots gets a company full of robots working for them; and we don’t want that. We want people to be bringing their most innovative, most energetic selves.

Pete Mockaitis

Absolutely. And I’m imagining the scenario right now, in terms of you walk into the conference room and you’re two minutes early or the rest of the attendees are two minutes late. And so, you sit down and there is a colleague or two near you, and of course they are up in their phone. And so, I’m thinking this is a prime opportunity for you to engage a little bit in the “How are you doing? I care about you” small talk. But I think that odds are without some sort of, I don’t know – provocation, interruption, jolt of some sort, they will just continue to be on their phone until the presenter or meeting presider begins speaking. So, any pro tips on nudging in the direction of “eyes off of the phone and toward a conversation”?

Mitch Prinstein

Yeah. Isn’t this exactly what happens all the time? We stand in a room with 100 people, but none of them are talking to one other, because everyone’s head is buried in their phones and emails. Yet research is showing that the more we become electronically networked, the less connected we actually all feel and the more lonely people are feeling over time.
I think that taking it from the online to the offline, creating that bridge is always what’s important. So, two people looking at their phones in an elevator and one person saying, “Hey, did you see this latest report about what just got tweeted out?”, let’s say . And that right there – people will look up and say, “Oh yeah, I heard it” or, “No, what happened?” And it’s referencing again: “I get that we’re both looking at our phones, so I don’t want to just break into something that’s not related. But I’m going to bridge from that to talking to each other off of that.”
And some people will be interested and some will not, but it’s a really important way of trying to reestablish some human connection when we do have those times to do it, because we have less and less opportunity to have real voice-to-voice conversations anymore. And research is showing that that’s having pretty bad effects on us, as really a species. So it’s very important that we try and reclaim some real human connection, even just a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, I love that nudge, that bridge is so brilliant. It’s like, “I too am among you, looking at my phone, and here’s something I noticed on my phone I would like to discuss with you.” That’s good, very nice. Well, we could probably have another whole episode on this, but I’d love it if we could touch for a minute or two how do we think about this whole likability, status thing in the world of social media, and how should we use it in a prudent way that will not leave us depressed and feeling miserable?

Mitch Prinstein

Well, social media is not the problem. There’s actually a lot of research that says that social media can be very good – it can be good for kids, it can be good for adults, it can lead to really positive outcomes. The issue is how we’re using social media, and granted, it’s designed to really get us to focus on status. When we log in, it immediately is telling you how much activity you had, or any new followers that you had, or how many people liked your posts, which has nothing to do with likability, despite the use of that word; it’s really a marker of status.
So, I think we need to recognize that there is, again, this addictive reaction that we get biologically from that on social media and despite the opportunities to do it for fun, we can get addicted, we can get too sucked into it. We need to be really careful that we also use these new great tools for interaction to engage in some real relationship-building as well.
That means that sometimes the posts have to be directed to specific people, maybe using the private message feature. Or your relationship needs to exist both offline and online. So, take what you learned about them online and continue that conversation on the phone or at work or an actual get together. A lot of our relationships have been replaced by what we do on social media, which everyone knows is just far more superficial and artificial as well. People post only what they want other people to think about them. So I think that’s a really important piece.
I think there are ways that we can get sucked into the caring too much about what we think will get us more activity. And there’s actually some recent research that shows that could be very dangerous. Research that also looks at the brain and shows what happens while you’re on social media says that if you look at something that’s very immoral or dangerous or illegal, there’s a part of the brain that actually is responsible for your inhibition and it will appropriately kind of make you think, “I don’t want to engage in those behaviors” or, “I don’t want to have those thoughts.”
But if you see the exact same image with indicators saying that it’s been liked a lot or retweeted a lot, it shows that the inhibitions center of the brain stops getting activated; it shuts down. In other words, just seeing something that’s popular on social media is literally changing the way that we might be responding to these images at this neuro level.
This is not at all different from the way that people kind of exploited the whole “fake news” phenomenon months ago to try and perpetuate the sense of ideas being popular and therefore true and desirable. And so I think people just need to recognize that this stuff is manipulating with our brains a little bit and changing our values, whether we realize or not, and we just need to be a little more careful.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh yeah, I like that a lot. And I think you just nailed the distinction, in terms of, “Am I doing this in order to get a bunch of likes and sort of affirmation?” You just articulated what kind of puts a funny taste in my month when I’m looking at some people’s Facebook quotes. I remember someone put a photo of themselves and then someone said, “Oh, you look so gorgeous!” They just said, “Yeah, that’s why I picked this photo, obviously.”
And I thought, I guess in a way that’s obvious, but in another way that troubles me, and I don’t quite know why. So Mitch, thank you – you’ve put that mystery to bed. It’s because yeah, you put it up in order to seek affirmation, as opposed to just sort of share. That’s the distinction – are you building relationships, or are you trying to get plugs?
Because if you share something about your life – and you might look great in the photo – but in the course of taking the photo it’s like, “Oh, here’s a cool thing that happened to me, world. Now you know it.” And then your friends that you’re out of touch with said, “Oh, that is so cool. I didn’t know you were doing that. I’ve been experimenting with that as well. Check this out.” And then there you go. You’ve sort of built a bridge and nourished a relationship, as opposed to said, “Praise me, world. I need it.”

Mitch Prinstein

Exactly, exactly. So well-articulated, I agree. And kids are always ahead of us on everything with social media, and I’ve been doing a lot of talks recently with corporations, but also with high schools. And what adolescents are telling me is that they have started to recognize that on social media – they’re starting to recognize the artificiality. And they’re creating on Instagram in particular two different profiles – one that they call their “fake” profile and one that they call their “real” one.
But the interesting thing is that they call their real profile the profile that has all the curated images on there, all of the things that are trying to portray a public persona. But the one that they call their fake profile is actually where they express their real feelings, their real desire to connect to other people. So although the semantics are a little bit backwards, they’re starting to trend. Or the pendulum is starting to swing the other way to say, “Maybe we should be using this in a way that’s actually about true connections and not just PR opportunities.”
And I think that’s interesting, because for many people that are in the workplace right now, you’ve got a couple of different generations – you’ve got people, increasingly so, who have been raised on understanding communication exclusively through social media, and you have people who have never experienced social media; and somehow they all need to work together, although their understanding of the way to think about popularity and social relationships is diametrically opposed. It’s a really interesting time for thinking about how that’s affected the way that we interact with each other in the workplace.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, that’s so good. And so then when you say “fake” and “real”, I guess the nomenclature they’re referencing is, “Does it have my real name on it, or does it have my super secret name that people who know me…” And I remember I had a friend who was like, “Oh, that’s going to go under the SteffersMarie handle, as opposed to the full name handle. I was like, “Okay, this is sort of silly”, but no, now I see what she’s on to. It’s like, “I’d like to have one to meaningfully connect and just be silly and me, so the public face can’t see it; and then I have one that is my name, and so I need to look awesome so that people associate that to my name.”

Mitch Prinstein

That’s exactly right. And it’s a great swing of the pendulum, I think. I think that people are maybe starting to get a little bit sick of the idea that everything that’s on there is really a bit fake, or a bit more status-seeking, which also tends to be a way that leads to dislikabilty. If people think that you’re trying too hard, it’s a really good way to turn people off.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, Mitch, this is so good. Anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and quickly hear about some of your favorite things?

Mitch Prinstein

No, no, go for it.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, cool. Well, could you start us off by sharing a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Mitch Prinstein

Yeah. I’ve been thinking about that a little bit recently in fact, and I don’t know where this is attributed to, I’m afraid, but I know for me at work I have continually tried to follow the adage, “Have learning goals, not performance goals.” I think people who tend to be high-achieving or perfectionistic or at a stage in their life where they’re really trying to do well, forget that no one’s expected to know how to do everything perfectly right off the bat. Everyone throughout their job is in a developmental process and is constantly having to fall down in order to learn how to do better the next time. So, I love that quote and I think it’s a good one to keep saying as much as possible, especially in a high-pressured work environment.

Pete Mockaitis

Alright. And how about a favorite book?

Mitch Prinstein

Oh, there are so many. I think it would be a little trite if I talked about Malcolm Gladwell’s books, but I do absolutely love them and I think that The Tipping Point is a great way of also talking about the power of popularity and why it is that we’re so just naturally tuned to trends and what others do as a way of guiding our own behaviour.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Mitch Prinstein

Well, there’s recently been a study that shows that our popularity, or I should say our lack of it, ends up affecting us in ways that we never even knew about. Believe it or not, at the moment that we feel excluded or isolated, we now know that it activates dormant DNA in our bodies to turn on and prepare us for imminent injury or attack, which of course in 2017 doesn’t tend to happen very often. So instead it throws off the regulation systems in our brain and affects our neuro transmitters. We’re literally learning that popularity is now changing the very blueprint of our existence, and yeah, it has the capability of changing which DNA is being expressed in our bodies. And to me that’s just incredibly cool and incredibly powerful.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s wild. Now I’m wondering, with the inflammation or the DNA expression, are you strengthened by having a stress response and recovering from it? Are you healthier for having had an unpopular kind of bout, or are you sort of damaged or diminished by having a so-called attack of being unpopular?

Mitch Prinstein

It’s the latter, unfortunately. Research now shows that people who are not popular and more socially isolated are twice as likely to die as their same aged counterparts of equal health. In fact, research has shown that the only factor that is a stronger predictor of illness and mortality is heavy smoking – that’s how powerful this popularity effect is.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. So if I have good friends I can just go ahead and smoke, and they’ll counter it?

Mitch Prinstein

I don’t know about that, but…

Pete Mockaitis

I can reach no other conclusion that this, Mitch. I’ll tell my wife. Okay, cool. And how about a favorite tool?

Mitch Prinstein

A favorite tool. Oh, that’s a good one. But why don’t I go old school and say the telephone? Anything that gives you an opportunity to make a true, human social connection. I’ll go with that.

Pete Mockaitis

Alright, cool. And how about a favorite habit?

Mitch Prinstein

Oh, I would say exercise, working out, without a question. And for psychological reasons as well – there’s nothing more important than… Everyone knows that the minute they stop working obsessively on something is when all the good ideas come. And there’s no better way to stop thinking about whatever you’re stressing about than to try and lift 200 pounds off of yourself for fear of death. So I would say exercise is a great way to shut off your brain and get it to start working again.

Pete Mockaitis

Awesome. And is there a particular nugget or piece that you share in your teaching or writing or speaking that really seems to connect and resonate, getting folks giving you all those status retweets or Kindle book highlights or vigorous note-takings?

Mitch Prinstein

I would say if you feel like you were not the most popular person in your school, and there were times in your life where you wished you were, I would say that you’re in the 99% majority and you should be very happy, because it turns out that those who grew up being the very, very most popular, in some cases are at higher risk for problems in the long run than those of you who were just average.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, now I think we have an over-representation of the 1% in this audience, so I will follow up. What are the risks that folks who were popular early on may suffer?

Mitch Prinstein

The people who were the highest in status, but they were not likable – and that’s an important distinction, but the ones who were not likable – research shows they tend to continue to view the world through their status lens. They continue to think that the only way to get ahead is to make themselves seem higher in status, even at the expense of others, and to constantly be evaluating their own position on the status hierarchy. For that reason, research has shown that the highest status, but simultaneously not likable people have greater risk of relationship difficulties, addictions, depression and anxiety.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Mitch Prinstein

Probably the best would be MitchPrinstein.com, or check out the book.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Mitch Prinstein

I would say take a moment to think less about how everyone is thinking about you, because people aren’t thinking about you; they’re all thinking about what you think of them.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. [laugh] That’s good. Mitch, thank you so much for coming on, sharing this wisdom and expertise. I hope that you have way more cool research, insights and publications and all that good stuff, and you’re both high in status and highly likable.

Mitch Prinstein

Thanks so much, it’s a pleasure.

213: Surviving and Winning Office Politics with Dorie Clark

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Dorie Clark outlines how to flourish amid office politics by using electoral campaign strategies.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to create a campaign plan for your career
  2. The power mapping approach to smarter people decisions
  3. A genius tactic for highlighting your achievements without sounding boastful

About Dorie

Dorie Clark is an Adjunct Professor of Business Administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, which was named the #1 Leadership Book of 2015 by Inc. magazine, one of the Top 10 Business Books of the Year by Forbes, and was a Washington Post bestseller. A former presidential campaign spokeswoman, the New York Times described her as an “expert at self-reinvention and helping others make changes in their lives.”

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193: Neuroscience Insights on Survival, Belonging, and Growth at Work with Dr. Britt Andreatta

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Dr. Britt Andreatta surveys how our brains are wired for optimal work and best practices for creating an environment for thriving.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why our brains are not built for today’s workplaces
  2. The fundamental conditions required for teammates to thrive
  3. Best practices for developing trust within your team

About Britt

Dr. Britt Andreatta knows how to harness human potential. Drawing on her unique background in leadership, psychology, education, and the human sciences, she has a profound understanding of how to unlock the best in people. Britt is the former Chief Learning Officer at Lynda.com and has over 25 years of experience consulting with Fortune 100 corporations, businesses, universities, and nonprofit organizations.
Dr. Andreatta is the author of several titles on learning and leadership. Her online courses have over 4 million views and her books are best sellers. Her latest book, Wired to Resist: The Brain Science of Why Change Fails and a New Model for Driving Success is available now and her next book on the neuroscience of teams, Wired to Connect, will be out Spring 2018.

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