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KF #29. Demonstrates Self-Awareness Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

575: How to Coach More Effectively using Reflective Inquiry with Dr. Marcia Reynolds

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Master coach Marcia Reynolds talks about the importance of reflective inquiry and why to think twice about giving advice.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Key questions to challenge your thinking 
  2. Why it’s more important to be present than perfect 
  3. The value of a coaching buddy 

 

About Marcia

Dr. Marcia Reynolds is a world-renowned expert on how to evoke transformation through conversations. She is the Training Director for the Healthcare Coaching Institute in North Carolina, and on faculty for coaching schools in China, Russia, and the Philippines. She has spoken at conferences and taught workshops in 41 countries on leadership topics and mastery in coaching. Global Gurus has recognized her as one of the top 5 coaches in the world for four years. Her books include Wander Woman; Outsmart Your Brain; The Discomfort Zone; and her latest, Coach the Person, Not the Problem. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Marcia Reynolds Interview Transcript

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

Marcia Reynolds
Yeah. Thank you, Pete, for having me on.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited because I think it’s true that you were the only guest, out of over 500, who told a story that made me cry. So, that was way back in episode 14, in a good way. In a good way. That was way back in episode 14, and the majority of our listeners weren’t with us then, so I’m going to put you on the spot. Can you bring us back to the time in which you were 20 years old, in jail, you instigated a riot, and then had a meaningful conversation with your partner in crime? I won’t give away too much. Go.

Marcia Reynolds
Well, you know, Pete, I was a rebellious teenager like many other people. I’ve since looked back at my life and realized that I had advantages a lot of other people didn’t have but I was throwing them away and it went down this dark rabbit hole of drug abuse, and ended up in jail. And I was told by many people, as well as myself, that that was it, that my life was over, that I had ruined everything that I had created, and there was no positive path out. Not a lot of people believing in me.

And so, you just survive in those situations, and that’s what I did. But I’d gotten to know my cellmates and helped them as much as I could because I was far more educated than they were, and I’d even motivate them to take advantage of whatever they could in the jail, but I never saw the advantages for myself. But I did want to make a difference for them.

And so, I was trying to get a reporter down to talk about bad conditions, and it kind of backfired, and we ended up, the whole cell block, on restriction, and I said, “This is crazy. We need to do a protest against this.” So, I didn’t see this as a riot. I saw this as a protest. Of course, my cellmates all thought I was crazy but they said, “Well, whatever. It sounds good. We support you.”

And it was in my mind, it was a non-violent protest. We were just making a lot of noise, and then when they wouldn’t listen to us, we threw our dresses off and tried to get their attention. Well, it did, and what happened was my cellmate and I who had kind of instigated this protest, they grabbed us and threw us in isolation. And it was like hitting bottom, not only figuratively but literally because they threw us on the floor and everything was ripped and bruised, and I just felt so badly that I had dragged her into this.

So, I looked at her, and I said, “I am so sorry. I’m sorry I brought you into my crazy scheme and my awful life. You shouldn’t listen to me.” She pushed herself up off the floor, she came over to me, she pinned me against the wall, and said, “You have no idea who you are.” She said, “You’re so smart, you’re strong, you care about people, you want to make a difference. You have to get who you are in here…” and she pointed to her heart, “…so you can make it out there.”

And it was at that moment that I recognized that I did have a spark inside of me, I did have the power inside of me to make a difference for my life and for other people, which was essential. But it was her and her courage and her seeing me where nobody else would. Everyone else said I was a failure, but she saw me and she brought that out of me. And I think that’s what I’ve spent my whole career, it was like, “How can we see each other and bring out the best in each other?” So, she launched me on that path.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is just…it’s powerful and beautiful and just deeply resonates, in particular, with what I’m about. And it’s interesting because just as I was prepping, I watched the scene from “The Lion King” in which Simba’s father appears and says, “Remember who you are.” And it’s like that same notion of when you see and you recognize and you call it, it’s powerful and beautiful. And so, well, I’m delighted to have you back. And thanks for sharing.

Marcia Reynolds
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you got some new stuff coming out “Coach the Person, Not the Problem: A Guide to Using Reflective Inquiry.” We’re going to talk about the…we’re going to use the word coaching a lot so maybe we should define that. What exactly do we mean by the word coaching?

Marcia Reynolds
Well, you know, I and so many people say, “Oh, I’ve been doing that all my life.” Well, when I really learned how to coach, I realized, “No, I haven’t,” because it’s a specific technology and it’s a learning technology. It’s where we help people take these stories out of their heads and put them out in front of them, and say, “Let’s take a look at your story and see where it works for you and where it’s not working for you. What are the beliefs that you’re holding?” Like, I believe my life was worthless. “And what are the assumptions about the future that you’re making? And if there’s a conflict of values, how is that holding you back? And what is it you really need?”

When we help people think about their thinking, then they can actually see beyond the stories that they’re holding. We always tell people to see outside of the box but they don’t know how to do that because they get stuck inside the box. So, in coaching, we’re helping them see outside of it by helping them, first, see the box. You have to see it before you can see outside of it.

And so, the book “Coach the Person, Not the Problem” is to help the person see their situation. It’s not about me solving it. It’s about them seeing their situation more broadly so they can see other possibilities and find a way forward on their own, and we use reflective inquiry. So, I’m just summarizing what I hear you saying, and maybe paraphrasing it in a way that you might see it differently, and then I ask questions.

And so, I get you to think about your thinking. I become your thinking partner. So, it’s totally different from therapy or consulting. It’s a technology in and of itself. And it works on the middle brain which is really where we learn and create behavioral change so it’s very effective. All the degrees I’ve earned since being in jail, and there’s been multitudes, has brought me to recognize the great value of when we help people think about their thinking, and expanding who they think they are and how they see the world, and their ability to solve their problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that all sounds grand to me. I’d love to follow up when you talk about value and effectiveness and results. Can you share, what are some of the most striking studies, results, case studies, that really illustrate, “Hotdog! Coaching delivers a whole lot”?

Marcia Reynolds
Well, it’s hard to measure coaching exactly to separate it out and say, “Okay, I did this and this is the result you got.” But I can measure it by impact, by what people say changed their life, which often they will say that, “Wow, you saved my life.” “You saved my marriage.” “You kept me from telling my boss off.” So, there are stories like that. Certainly, there are now ROI studies. The International Coach Federation has amassed thousands of studies that show that coaching in companies increases engagement, increases productivity, stops turnover, because when we talk to each other using coaching, we connect.

But on a personal basis, everything from I coached a bank president for years and I provided her the only safe space where she really felt she could show up totally as herself, and just say what was on her mind, and show whatever emotions and she wouldn’t be judged, and it wouldn’t have an impact and scare people, which helped her to sort through her problems. And she would always say at the end, “You are so important to my bottom line because you helped me to think through things.”

I had a client call me and say, “Oh, I’m so overwhelmed. I don’t know where to start. I need you to tell me how to prioritize.” And, certainly, I could’ve done that but I said, “Well, this is really interesting. You hold a very high position in this company. Prior to that, you’re a very successful attorney. You went to a big law school. I have to think that somewhere along the way, you knew how to prioritize. So, I want to know what’s stopping you now.”

And, after a long pause, which always tells me they’re thinking, she said, “I’ve lost my way. I used to have a vision. I don’t have it anymore. I don’t know why I’m here.” I said, “Well, that’s a different conversation if you want to have that than me telling you how to prioritize.” And, of course, for her to rediscover what was her path forward, where she wanted to go, what she wanted to do, why it was the value for her to be at that company, she knew how to prioritize. She just needed to get her path back in order.

So, it’s, again, simply that that I challenged her thinking. I didn’t solve her problem. I challenged her thinking that made her recognize what her block was and how to solve it. I have tons of stories where almost each session they think about things differently and have a different way forward. And I think that happens all the time with coaching.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’d love to get your take then in terms of everyday professionals, if we would like to be helpful in this way to our colleagues and friends, and we don’t have years of coaching experience and training and certifications, what are your tips in terms of how we can be helpful, and what to do, and what not to do?

Marcia Reynolds
Well, the first thing is just don’t jump in and tell them what to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Marcia Reynolds
Which is what we normally I do. I mean, I do it too. Somebody comes to you and says they have a problem. You turn around and say, “Do this.” Well, they’re not likely to do it, and that’s also annoying. And so, the first thing is just, “Okay, so tell me about the situation, how you see it. What is it you want that you don’t have? And what’s getting in your way?” And then just let them tell their story. And the best thing you can do is start by just summarizing, by saying, “So, you’re telling me this…” and narrow it down because they’re usually all over the place, “So, this is what it is you want, and this is why you think you can’t have it. Is that true?”

Right there, you’re already helping them to see through the fog of all the craziness that’s going on, and the fear, and the uncertainty, when they can really nail down what it is they want that they don’t have now, and what’s getting in the way, how valuable that is. So, we summarize, paraphrase, encapsulate key words, when they say, “What I really want is this,” to just give it back, “So, what you want to create is this.” Or we might even ask for a clearer definition. So, if somebody says, “I’m tired.” I might say, “Are you physically tired or are you tired of doing a job you don’t like?” There’s a difference. So, sometimes it’s just to clarify.

And we can all do that. We can summarize, we can be curious about the meaning of the words they use, we try to sort through if they name a number of problems. Just list them out and say, “Which ones do you want to tackle first?” Those are all, you know, three really useful tools that anybody can use.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that. And could you maybe expand a bit in terms of some, I don’t know, key phrases, or questions, or scripts that are really excellent and frequently yield good stuff as well as maybe the opposite, things not to say? And one of them, it sounds like it’s just a broad category of immediately dispensing advice, which Michael Bungay Stanier mentioned as well, the advice monster he called it.

Marcia Reynolds
Yeah, yeah. Sure, sure. He gave me a nice testimonial for my book. Well, sometimes we ask questions that are really giving advice, like, “Have you tried this?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s clever.

Marcia Reynolds
Don’t do that. I say, “That’s just advice disguised as a question. Don’t do that.” I always say they have to beg me to give them suggestions, and then I’ll say, “Okay, I’ll give you a few ideas to consider.” But in terms of a script, I don’t like giving people a list of questions because the questions should be organic. But we always start with really trying to get clear on the destination, “What is it you really want instead of what you have?”

So, people come to you with a problem, and say, “Well, if you didn’t have that problem, what would it look like?” I need to know the destination of the conversation, “Where are we going with this?” Too many times, coaches get lost chasing clients because they don’t have a clear destination. So, be clear on where you’re going, “What is it you really want here?” and they’ll backtrack so you have to keep coming back to, “Are we still working on that?” So, it’s not the problem, it’s the outcome that we need to get clear on.

And so, I say it’s the bookends of coaching, we have an outcome. And at the end of a conversation, you need to say, “So, what is it that came up for you in our conversation? What did you learn? What emerged?” And when they say the insight they got, then you ask, “So, what are you going to do with that? What step will you now take?” to make sure there’s a commitment to action, to make sure there’s progress. And, “When are you going to do it? And is there any support you need?”

So, the bookends are far more structured, “Where are we going? What did you learn? What are you going to do with that?” But then in the middle, it’s a more spontaneous interaction where, again, I use a lot of summarizing. I start with, “So, you’re telling me this. Is that true? Did I get it right? So, you’re telling me…” And I don’t say, “I heard you say…” because it’s not about I don’t want them to agree with me. I want them to look at their story, “So, you’re telling me this,” or, “Can I see if I understand how you described the situation?”

A lot of times, again, I bottom line it, “So, you said you want to create this, and here are the three things that are getting in your way. Is that what you told me? Which one do you want to work on first?” So, again, I’m just trying to drill down to the essence of what they want and what they think is getting in the way. This is really critical, especially times like right now where everything is a mess in our heads even more so than outside, to help people sort through the fog so they can see clearly what they want and why they think they can’t get it. And maybe some of that is true but, oftentimes, some of it is not. They’re just making it up because it’s based in fear.

So, just laying it out, summarizing, paraphrasing, bottom-lining the distinctions, like I said, “Are you tired physically or are you tired of the work you’re doing? Or is it that you want to find more energy in the job you’re doing right now, or you want to find the energy to get a new job? What is it exactly that you want when you say tired?” So, I’m just trying to help them sort through their words that they use because we don’t do this on our own.

So, I’m having you become…turn on your observer mind to observe your stories. Or, as the educational reformer John Dewey said we get people to climb a tree in their mind, and look down on their thinking so they can objectively observe their stories, and see the gaps in their logic and the inherited beliefs they’ve been saying forever that, if you say it back to them, they’re like, “Huh, I wonder where that came from?” or the assumptions about the future that they have no idea if this is true or not.

And so, it’s really just, I receive what you say and what you express with no judgment, and I give it back to you to look at, and then I’ll ask you questions to help you sort through what is true, what is not true, what is real for you. And then I ask you, “What did you get out of that? And what are you going to do with it?”

Pete Mockaitis
Cool.

Marcia Reynolds
And so, I don’t do like Michael, like, “Here’s the seven questions you should ask.” I think that’s okay but if you’re sitting there trying to remember questions, you’re not present with the person you’re with. I think my thing is they want you to be present more than they need you to be perfect, so they don’t need you to ask the perfect question. They just need to know that you see them, you hear them, you value them, and you’re going to help them think.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Lovely. So, then can we hear more about what not to do? So, we say…your subtitle is “Coach the Person, Not the Problem.” So, what does “coaching the problem” look like? One is giving advice, or, “Have you tried this?” What are other ways that we may inadvertently go down the wrong path?

Marcia Reynolds
Well, coaching the problem is the external problem, not the person. And so, there’s tons of problem-solving techniques out there, the five whys, “Why? Why? Why?” or SWOT analysis, where we look at, “So, what have you tried? What do you think you’ll do? What are the consequences? What are the risks? What are the rewards?” That’s all fine but they could probably do that without you if they just took the time to do it, so that’s the external.

Or, somebody said to me the other day, “Oh, yeah, I had a leader once tell me to look at what it is that I want to stop doing, continue doing, or do more of.” And I said, “Yeah, that’s good advice, but that’s still outside of you. Why are you doing what you’re doing in the first place? What’s the value? Each thing you choose to do, are you not doing it because you don’t like it or you’re afraid to do it? What stopped you in the first place?” So, again, I want to help you think through your choices not tell you to go make choices.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so could you maybe bring this all together by maybe a demonstration? Like, here and now, if you would like to reflectively inquire with me, let’s see how it goes.

Marcia Reynolds
Well, do you have a situation that you’d like to explore a little bit?

Pete Mockaitis
I think I am less energized, fired up, than I have been historically. And I guess I think I remember, not that I relish these days, but there were days in which I could crank out 13 hours of work in a day and just feel like unstoppably like The Terminator or something. And now I’m just like, “Whew! Half of that is challenging.” And so, yeah, that’s kind of on my mind, it’s like, “Hmm, what’s going on here?”

Marcia Reynolds
So, what I’m hearing, I heard a couple things. One is that it seems to be situational, it’s new for you to not have the store of energy that you had before. And I’m wondering if it’s just like are you worried about it? Or is just like, “Oh, I have to do something and I don’t know what to do”?

Pete Mockaitis
Am I worried about the lack of energy? I guess I just want it. It’s like, “Huh, am I…?” It’s like I guess I fear, “Uh-oh, am I on a trajectory in which I just sort of get old and lethargic and get sleepy all the time, and this is the beginning of that?” I guess that’s my fear in terms of, “What’s going on here? And what do I do about it?”

Marcia Reynolds
Okay. Isn’t that interesting how we do that though? We’re going to, “Oh, I’ve got this forever now and it’s not going to go away.” So, that’s an interesting belief that probably makes you even more tired.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, maybe, yeah.

Marcia Reynolds
So, when you say that though, Pete, I’m going to go back to what I asked before. Is this a sense of just physical tired that you just don’t have the energy for what you’re doing? Or is it because the routine has changed and it’s not as inspiring as it was before?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think it’s physical tired in terms of sometimes it can happen in the morning, in terms of, “Hey, seven hours of sleep and yet not feeling as zesty.” And, I mean, I’m excited to have this conversation, I was looking forward to it, and so, that’s still there. Yeah.

Marcia Reynolds
Okay. So, you said feeling zesty in the morning. So, is this about how the energy you wake up with or the energy at the end of the day? Or all day?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess it’s both in terms of I would like to have more energy left when the kids are asleep to have quality time with my wife and such, but it seems like, “Oh, man, just doing these dishes seems hard before I can fall asleep.” So, yeah, I guess it’s on both sides.

Marcia Reynolds
Hmm, all right. So, it’s an all-day thing. Okay. So, what you would like, what I heard you say, is you would like to not only have more energy at the end of the day, but you want to wake up with more energy. You know, I’m just wondering, is it when you say wake up with more energy, is it the energy to hop out of bed, or just to feel more excited about your day?

Pete Mockaitis
I think it’s a bit of both but I think more about the hopping out of bed. It’s like I don’t wake up and go, “Ugh, I dread what I have to do today.” I don’t feel that.

Marcia Reynolds
Okay. So, it’s a physical energy. Okay. So, what’s changed for you that would create this?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we got the whole coronavirus business, for one. We’ve got…yeah, and so with that I guess we would sort of don’t have as much support in terms of the nanny’s not coming by, so that’s different. I guess the diet has changed in terms of more packaged foods. So, yeah, those leap to mind there.

Marcia Reynolds
All right. So, you named a couple of things. Diet has changed. You said the coronavirus thing. So, what does that mean? Is it because of the worries around that or just that it changed your schedule?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it changed our schedule and we have less sort of concrete support in terms of like the nanny doesn’t come anymore. And so, yeah, I think worries were a part of it, and I’ve kind of just conscientiously decided, “All right, we’re just going to dramatically reduce the news intake,” and that was helpful.

Marcia Reynolds
Okay. Well, I want to point out, well, you started by saying you were worried, like, “Oh, is this the downhill road now in terms of age?” But then you named all the things that we’re dealing with right now, there’s situation, all that. Hopefully, at least in a year from now, we don’t be looking at life this way. Maybe it might take two years but it’s situational. So, now that you’re saying all this, do you think this is just a situational problem? Or do you really think that there’s a degradation physically?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, it may very well be. It’s interesting when you said, “Maybe two years.” It’s like I was feeling riled up, like, “I’m not going to live like this for two years.” Like this in terms of low energy. I mean, I guess I might be able to comply with safe practices.

Marcia Reynolds
Okay. But I want to point that out, that’s great, “I’m not going to do this for two years.” You had a reaction.

Pete Mockaitis
Uh-huh.

Marcia Reynolds
So, if there was this, “Okay, this is going to go on longer,” what would you change right now to give yourself more energy?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s funny. I’ve sort of thought along those lines a bit. Well, you know, I guess more just sort of basic, like fruits and vegetables would be swell. I’ve made some headway in hydration because I kind of sort of forgot a little bit about that.

Yeah, it’s interesting. I think it’s like I’m kind of capable of generating a bunch of things here. And I don’t know, maybe that’s the answer, it’s like, “Hey, Pete, it’s not one thing. It’s a dozen things.” Most of the time I find that one or two things is way more leveraged than a lot of things.

Marcia Reynolds
Yeah, okay. So, what I hear is that you know what it is that you need to do, you just haven’t sat down and said, “This is what I need to do,” and done it. So, what’s going on, Pete, that you are not doing the things you need to do?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh. Well, in a way, it’s sort of a vicious cycle of tired, it’s just like, “Oh, that seems like a lot of work.”

Marcia Reynolds
That’s a great excuse.

Pete Mockaitis
Then you don’t do it, and then you’re tired because you didn’t do it, so I think that’s in the mix a bit. Yeah, I don’t know. Nothing else is leaping to mind. I guess sometimes it’s just sort of boring, you know, like eating a salad, or drinking water, and putting my time and attention and thought to those matters is way less interesting than preparing for this conversation we’re having, Marcia. Or exploring this really cool opportunity that just landed in my inbox, “Hey, Pete, why don’t we do a course where we…?” “Ooh, that’s interesting.” So, yeah, that’s part of it. It’s just kind of boring, mundane, not as interesting as all the other things I’d like to think about.

Marcia Reynolds
Okay. So, that’s the belief that you have around it, that hydration and eating salads is boring.

Pete Mockaitis
I suppose I do, yeah.

Marcia Reynolds
Yeah, I’m wondering if there’s a way of making your salads interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, there are these zesty tortilla strips which I love. I have run out of them. I have been out of zesty tortilla strips for a while.

Marcia Reynolds
Well, there you go.

Pete Mockaitis
And those are fun.

Marcia Reynolds
Well, how important is it to you, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, can you calibrate me? Is there a scale? I’d say pretty important. I mean, I won’t die if I don’t do it but it’d be pretty lame to subsist like this for years.

Marcia Reynolds
Well, so I want to go back to, again, your first thing was you were worried that, “Well, what if this is it, that I’m just losing my energy because that’s the way it goes biologically?” to you’ve told me that, “Well, there’s just some things that I know that will help but I don’t want to do them.” So, what does that mean to you?

Pete Mockaitis
What does it mean to me? Well, on the one hand, it’s hopeful. Like, “Okay, cool. I’m not doomed.” On the other hand, I know shameful is the word, but it’s like, “Come on, man. What’s the deal?”

Marcia Reynolds
You know, it’s just changing habits, you know that. It’s not about torture. It’s just changing the habits of what you’re doing right now. You said, too, that’s part of what’s happened, is because of everything that’s going on. You’re eating more packaged food than normal. So, again, it’s changed your habits in a non-positive way. But since you’re aware of that, and you know what it is you need to do, what would you be willing to do just to test out if it would give you more energy?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I mean, yeah, we can get a good salad situation going here. I’ve got my giant salad container which I’ve used many times for a bulk salad prep in advance, which had been a nice habit that I kind of fell out of. So, yeah, that’s one thing I’m happy to do.

Marcia Reynolds
Okay. So, when are you going to do that?

Pete Mockaitis
I will order the food items today.

Marcia Reynolds
Okay.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, there we have it. Thank you. You did not say, “Well, Pete, what you got to do is there’s this amazing energy drink. It’ll solve all the problems.” “I mean, hey, a lot of people, with the coronavirus, have been forgetting about the exercise, and so you need to do that.” So, that’s what you didn’t do, and we heard what you did do. Do you have any additional comments on the exchange we just had?

Marcia Reynolds
Yeah. I mean, of course, there were things I wanted to tell you. I just had my salad right before our conversation. I exercise every day. I’m probably about twice your age. And I’ve found the things that I enjoy. But it doesn’t matter what I do. It’s what you do and what you want to do. And is there anything that you can create that would be acceptable that you’d stick to?

And so, I intentionally avoid telling you what I’d do. But that’s what most people do. They go into their own stories, and say, “Here, Pete. Here’s what works for me.” That’s okay if that’s what you want, but most of the time we don’t want that. It’s like, “Pete, you’re a smart guy. You know what it is you need to do. What’s stopping you from doing this? What’s gotten in the way right now? What has changed and what’s the rut that you have put yourself in that’s keeping you from doing some things that you know would be useful? That’s what I want to know. And I think, because that’s what I want you to know. Because as soon as you see that, you’ll know what to do.” So, that’s what coaching is about. So, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, thank you. Well, so now, I’d love to get your view. So, hey, if folks want more of this, well, one, we could hire a coach. But, alternative to that, how would you recommend that we kind of ask for and get more of this good stuff in our conversational life?

Marcia Reynolds
Well, short of hiring a coach, and you know there’s plenty of coaches out there that need to get their hours for their certification, so you can certainly find coaches that maybe haven’t been coaching for years but are working toward mastery. But you heard these skills are not hard. And we have coaching buddies when we go through coaching school. I think that if you could just get a good friend that you trust that’s not going to sit there and try to fix you, but that would want to learn how to do this, that you can be a coaching buddy for each other and practice the skills.

Short of the book, if you look on my website, I have all kinds of lists and videos of how to do this in an easy way. I’m creating a little video series of like two-, three-minute videos on these skills that you can practice no matter who you are. So, I just think, get somebody who’s interested in learning how to do it, and practice with each other.

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

Marcia Reynolds
Just to recognize that there’s great value in helping people think instead of just giving them good ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you.

Marcia Reynolds
That they’d rather you be with them and listen to them than to tell them what to do.

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

Marcia Reynolds
There’s a quote right on my wall over here that says, “When I operate in the service of my vision, it no longer as important that which I’m afraid.” And so, if we have a vision, if we have a picture of where we’re going in life, and just keep moving to that, then, yeah, fear is going to be there but we move forward anyway.

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

Marcia Reynolds
There’s a lot of research out there in terms of the value of coaching, but there’s one that I always go back to that says your greatest coaching fears. And we’re always afraid that if we don’t give advice to people, that we’re not valuable. And that’s just not true. So, this guy did a study on the many coaching fears we have. And that was it, it’s that we think either we’re not valuable or we’re going to hurt somebody by coaching. And my mentor coach always said, “Nobody ever died from coaching.” So, I really like looking at, “What are the fears and how much of them are true and not true?” like in anything. Most of the time our fears are not true.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite book?

Marcia Reynolds
I do like Michael’s book, Michael Bungay Stanier, “The Coaching Habit.” I like the way it’s laid out, and that it’s simple, and it’s very useful for leaders to really think through, “What is it that I’m doing in this moment that’s really helping someone to think forward?”

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

Marcia Reynolds
You know, a lot of what I’m talking about comes from, I mentioned John Dewey. He’s an educational reformer. But he wrote a book in 1910 called “How We Think.” And he really laid out coaching. To me, he was the father of coaching. And he said, he was trying to get teachers to get students to think more broadly for themselves, and he was the one that coined the term reflective inquiry. And I would say that’s the tool that I use, that it’s not just about the questions we ask, but the reflections we use. And so, his use of reflection, of summarizing, paraphrasing, encapsulating, bottom-lining, those are my favorite tools.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a favorite habit?

Marcia Reynolds
Habit. I wake up like 3:30 a.m. every morning.

Pete Mockaitis
And when do you go to bed?

Marcia Reynolds
I go to bed at 8:30 p.m., but I love waking up early and getting work done, and talking to my clients in Asia and Europe very early in the morning. But I grew up…I was born in Arizona, and I still live here. And so, it’s just hot. If you don’t go out very early, it’s just too hot. So, that habit was created when I was a child.

Pete Mockaitis
And you say you’ve been quoting yourself a lot. Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate, and get quoted back to you?

Marcia Reynolds
“Mastery is the deepening of presence not the perfection of skills.”

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

Marcia Reynolds
Well, my website is Covisioning.com, and I’m just Marcia@covisioning.com. I’m always online like everybody and answering questions. I’m on LinkedIn and everywhere else you can find me. So, happy to connect and answer the questions you have.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Marcia, this has been a treat. I wish you all the best in your reflective inquiring and adventures in Arizona and around the world.

Marcia Reynolds
Thank you.

571: How to Crush Self-Doubt and Build Self-Confidence with Dr. Ivan Joseph

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Dr. Ivan Joseph discusses the critical practices that build unshakeable self-confidence.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The fundamental building block of self-confidence
  2. How to control the negative tape in your head
  3. A powerful trick for overcoming impostor syndrome

About Ivan

Dr. Ivan Joseph an award-winning Performance Coach, Sports Psychologist, author and recognized educator and mentor. His TEDx talk on self-confidence – with over 18 million views to date – has been selected by Forbes magazine as one of the 10 Best TED Talks about the Meaning of Life. 

Dr. Joseph travels extensively around the world to speak to organizations and teams about the power of self-confidence in leadership, career, sports and life – and how to build high-performing teams that exceed expectations. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Ivan Joseph Interview Transcript

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

Ivan Joseph
Thanks for having me, Pete. Appreciate it. Looking forward to this conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m looking forward to this conversation as well. And I have to chuckle a little bit. So, your book is called You Got This: Mastering the Skill of Self-Confidence and I couldn’t resist sharing that my mother really hates the phrase “you got this.” And I want to hear if you’ve heard that before.

Ivan Joseph
Yes, indeed. In fact, I’m looking behind you in your bookshelf to see if you have it. I don’t see it back there, so, clearly, your mother has won the day.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve clicked in depth on your virtual version, so. So, yeah, tell me, what’s…I’ll tell you my mom’s take, but what are you hearing in terms of the pushback on the title?

Ivan Joseph
You know, there’s two things. People say it’s really catchy, and they love it. It’s easy and it’s a good affirmation for themselves. And then some folks say, “Oh, man, I wish it wasn’t so contemporary and so pop culture-ish.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, pop culture-ish. Well, I kind of like it. I think the first time I heard the phrase was in a movie or something, I was like, “Ooh, yeah, that resonates.” But I think my mom, it’s the specific context in which someone’s on social media, they’re sharing like a real challenge, like someone has cancer or something, and then people comment, “You got this.” And my mom is like, “That is so inadequate. What they’re going through deserves so much more than a flippant…” That’s kind of her thing.

Ivan Joseph
When we were writing the book, we were vacillating back between You Got This, and The Skill of Self-Confidence. If I had to do it again, I’d probably stick with The Skill of Self-Confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that is your area of expertise. I’m really excited to dig into it. So, self-confidence sounds like a good thing. We’d all love to have it. Could you maybe share some research that reveals how more self-confidence can really translate into actual results for professionals, particularly if you’ve got those examples, as opposed to just feeling good?

Ivan Joseph
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
I mean, it’d be nice to feel confident, but what does it mean in terms of results and victory?

Ivan Joseph
Well, I think the first thing you have to recognize is let’s start with the definition of self-confidence. So, everybody’s playing and starting at the same place. And so, the definition I use in the research is this genuine belief in your ability to accomplish the task at hand – self-confidence. And I want everybody to know it’s not this magic pill that you just take and you can swallow, and you can just, “Oh, I’m, all of a sudden, self-confident.”

But the research that started looking at this goes way back to some foundational work that talks about optimism and happiness. But the big one that I started that got me in this venue was looking and reading about Angela Duckworth and Grit. And she was studying grit, which is the belief in your ability to accomplish tasks despite setbacks, and she was looking at how people, what they’ve told themselves, how they believed in themselves, how that really influenced their ability to move forward.

And she studied a bunch of military personnel. It was Beast Barracks week during West Point Military Academy. And, you know, the Military Academy, they’re really interested in, “How do people decide that we should make it through candidate training school?” because it’s hell. They don’t get to sleep, they don’t get to eat, there’s noise pollution, all these things, because they’re testing those candidates to make them ready.

And so, they did aptitude tests, they did physical testing, they did all these leadership scores, they did a battery of tests. And when they looked at these tests, they were somewhat predictive of who would be successful. But when Angela Duckworth came to these 13 items to predict grit and resilience, she found those 13 items more reliable than those hundreds of questions combined.

And when I read that, I’m like, “Whoa! Grit is a reliable predictor of performance and your ability to succeed?” And when I started really looking into grit, I studied just the first half of it which was this genuine belief in your ability to accomplish the task at hand. And then there was further research that went into how affirmations played a role in that, which is another word for self-talk, how focus played a role in that, how repetition played a role in that. The research is out there and it’s all saying the same thing. you can’t start with talent. You have to start with this belief in your ability, and only then will the talent get a moment to shine.

Pete Mockaitis
it’s intriguing. You talked about a given task at hand in terms of self-confidence. Then I imagine you may very well have self-confidence in one domain and not at all in another because those are very different tasks, and some you think you’ve got totally covered, and others you feel woefully unprepared for. Is that accurate?

Ivan Joseph
This is really accurate, your concept about, “Is it global?” I want you to think about the first time you had your first job, right? You’ve got it, you’ve mastered that skill, and, all of a sudden, your boss comes in and says, “Here’s your promotion and you’re ready to roll.” And imagine the doubt and the fear. We all hear about impostor syndrome, that now starts to creep in. You are master of your domain, you had it taken care of, you were the queen of your ship, or the king of your castle, whatever it is, the term you want to use, and, all of a sudden now, you’ve got to manage people, or you’ve got to lead this presentation.

And because these tasks are typically novel to you, and you haven’t had the affirmations and the feedback that says, “You got this,” to coin a phrase from the book, then that whole self-spiraling doubt and negativity starts to spiral into you, which affects your performance.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, so then if we find ourselves in a space where we’re not so self-confident, and we would like to be, what do we do?

Ivan Joseph
That’s a great question. And I always tell people this story, you heard me earlier in the podcast talk about this magic bullet. When I give a speech about this topic, I say it’s not like you’re at the Las Vegas, and Celine Dion is on stage, and I’m Canadian so I’m going to pick Celine Dion, and she gets food poisoning. And, all of a sudden, the manager comes in and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we can no longer close out the show. Celine Dion can’t sing her amazing closing song because she’s sick.” And you stand up, Pete, you say, “Yeah, I got this. I’ve watched Titanic a hundred times.” That’s not really confidence. That’s somewhere on the edge of delusional, I’ll say.

When I talk about confidence, the task can’t be novel to you. So, there’s a series of steps to really move towards confidence, and the first one is repetition, repetition, repetition. Gladwell talks about it, there’s a 10,000-hour rule, whatever it is for you to have confidence and genuine belief in your ability. And so, I want you to think about it. For some folks and some listeners out there, about the first time you drove stick shift. You drive stick, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
I tried a couple of times then I stopped. It didn’t go very well.

Ivan Joseph
Right. The first time you drive stick on a hill with a car behind you, oh, my God, your heart is racing 100 miles an hour. By the time you’ve driven stick for a year later, a year and a half, whatever it is, that skill is so automatic. And so, the number one thing is, like, find a way to get to your practice, to your repetition.

And if you’re a leader and you’re getting ready to present, present in front of the mirror, present in front of your partner, present in a small group of friends, get the feedback, so by the time you got onto that big stage, you’re no longer scared. So, that would be the first step.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly.

Ivan Joseph
After you get to repetition, for me, the next thing to do is to really control that negative tape that plays in your head. You know that tape, “I wish I was this. I hate myself in this look. Oh, I can’t do this job.” As a sports psychologist and a performance enhancement consultant, I work with a lot of athletes. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Olympians and NBA athletes and the national team of basketball for Canada, and we do a lot of what we call centering or thought-stopping.

The next time you’re watching a professional athlete, watch the different physical cues that they’ll use: pointing, clapping, finger-snapping. Whenever they make a mistake, they don’t dwell on the mistake. The phrase we use is “Live in the moment,” or, “Be in the presence,” right? And what that is about is about being in the moment, meaning forget about the mistake. Stop that negative talk, whatever that negative doubt is. Use a physical cue to bring you to the present and replace it with a positive talk, whatever that might be, “You got this,” “I got the next one,” “I’m ready.” The power of affirmation is really critical.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. So, are you telling us that frequently, when we observe such physical snaps, claps, etc., from athletes, this is exactly what they’re doing?

Ivan Joseph
Oh, 100%. I guarantee it. I remember one time, the first time I noticed it many years ago into my dissertation, there’s a famous soccer player by the name of Thierry Henry, and this is a guy making millions of pounds a year. And he missed a wide-open goal, right? And all he did was point back to the person that passed him the ball, and said, “Nice job. I got the next one.” And you could read it on his lips and see it on TV. You don’t get to be excellent by focusing on all the mistakes and all the inadequacies that you have.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, excellent. Well, so then I like that notion of the physical gesture to kind of just make it really clear, “Hey, we’re stopping that now and we’re transitioning to something else.” So, snaps, claps. What are some other good ones?

Ivan Joseph
You’ll see some athletes that will take a little rubber band and move it from one wrist to the other, sometimes they’ll snap it. You’ll see some folks that will jingle some coins. Watch the next time you’ll see an athlete just take a deep breath in, and that reminds them, “Okay, I got this.” I remember the one time, the very first time I was doing a big speech, and I’d spoken before, but you get paid in a bottle of wine or like a coffee mug. But the very first time I was on stage and it was 4,000 people, and then the night before Maya Angelou was on stage, and this was like the big deal. I was about to be big time, at least as big as C-level celebrities are, or maybe E, or G, or whatever the number is. But I was so nervous. Behind the stage, I had to clap, clap, clap, “You got this. You got this. You got this.” I had to physically remind myself that I was good at what I do, and that was really critical for me to be able to get on stage and speak in front of 4,000 people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Excellent. So, well then what’s next? So, we got the physical indicator or anchor, and then shifting gears from the negative to the positive talk. What’s the next step?

Ivan Joseph
Well, I want to remind folks that the affirmations must be really simple and bite-sized, right? Mine is, “I got this,” “Nobody outworks me,” and, “I can learn anything.” And you asked me about research before, I want to turn your readers to a study from Harvard that talked about how three affirmations a day, if you’re in the problem-solving world, increased your efficiency to solve that problem, something like 26%.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding?

Ivan Joseph
And if you’re in the sales marketing world, your revenue went up 30 some odd percent by using three affirmations a day. And that’s that. What you tell yourself you start to believe and how it translated directly to the output of your work, your production, your ability to solve complex problems. And so, that affirmation and that self-talk moves right into that next thing which is reminding yourself of how good you are.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Well, this affirmation stuff, that’s juicy. I love a good study with some numbers behind it. So, we had Hal Elrod who talked about the six morning habits of high performers. He wrote the The Miracle Morning and such on the show earlier. And he gave some great distinctions associated with what makes an affirmation good versus delusional and problematic. So, I’d love to hear your take. So, from the research, what are some of the ingredients or do’s and don’ts for a positive affirmation? What I’m recalling, I think Hal used the example of, “Money flows effortlessly to me. I am a magnet for wealth,” is not so helpful because your brain goes, “No, it doesn’t. I’ve got to hustle and bend over backwards to make things happen.” And so, can you give us some pro tips on making those affirmations effective?

Ivan Joseph
I think it’s a great question. And one of the things I recognized early on is in order to have an affirmation be meaningful and have genuine belief, you have to have genuine control over it. And so, that locus of control for an affirmation is really important and critical. “Nobody outworks me,” so I can control that. “I can learn anything,” I can control that too, right? And so, when you listen to those things, are they within your circle of influence? “I’m the wealthiest guy in the world,” I mean, maybe if I was reading The Secret and I wanted to put that out there, and I wanted to start putting it out there. But the magic, for me, as a sports psychologist, is to always give agency to the people to control their affirmation. So, it has to be something that you can master and you can own.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. Well, then proceed. So, that’s the affirmation side of things. What’s next?

Ivan Joseph
So, then from there, I talk about a letter to yourself. And I think this is a really important piece. We all will feel self-doubt, or it will creep into us when we get a promotion, when we get a new opportunity, or when somebody will criticize us, or be really hard on us, and you have to be able to pull out a letter that you’ve written to yourself at good times.

I remember when I became the Director of Athletics at Ryerson University, it was a university of 40,000 people. I came from Iowa, a university of a thousand people. Oh, my goodness, I’m in charge of millions of dollars, I have to manage people, and I remember that whole impostor syndrome kicking in, and I read this letter to myself.

And my letter goes something like this, “Dear Ivan, thanks for choosing the right person to marry. Nice job on accomplishing your Ph.D. before you hit 40. You’ve launched a business with an amazing partner.” All these things I wanted to brag to myself. It was my own personal brag sheet to remind myself, when I was going in the dumps and going this way, “No, no, no. Let’s remember all these things and all these challenges that you’ve had.” And I pull it out and I needed to read that day in, day out, day in, day out.

Now, a lot of folks out there will say, “Well, a brag sheet, that’s ego, man.” And I want people to recognize this is not a letter to others. That is arrogance, right? This is a letter that you’re writing to yourself. And so, people are like, “Well, how do you define confidence over arrogance and ego?” That’s it. Confidence is what you tell yourself. Arrogance and ego is about what you’re telling others about yourself. And so, it’s important to take this letter, look at yourself in the mirror, take your quiet spot, and engage in this personal reminder of all the amazing things you’ve done.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I really like that. You had it in a letter, I have it on my shelf. There is a black Mead spiral notebook. I haven’t looked at it lately, which might be good or I don’t know if it’s good or bad. I haven’t needed it or felt the need.

Ivan Joseph
Well, that’s it, Pete, right? When you get to that next space, wherever your career or your life will take you when you’ll need it, you know where to get it. You found it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. And it really is so handy. And I think I borrowed this from maybe Tony Robbins who talked about if you have a belief, I still see this diagram in my head. I read this when I was a teenager. It’s like if you have a belief, you need to have some supporting legs, like a table, for your brain to be like, “Yeah, okay, that’s true.”

And so, I think this was in college, I was feeling kind of like a loser because in high school I was just like, I don’t know, I was kind of the man, if you will, in terms of, “Oh, I’m valedictorian and homecoming king,” and I was getting lots of praises and affirmations in all kinds of directions, and then in college, I was like rejected from the sketch comedy team, and the business consulting group, and the other business club, and then the other…and I was like, “What is wrong?” And so, I was feeling pretty down about my capabilities.

And then I just sort of thought, “Well, hey, maybe I’ll just make a list of reasons why the belief that I’m capable of rocking and rolling is true.” And I was like, “Holy smokes, this is a pretty long list. Okay, I guess I’ve just had a bad luck streak, and I’m going to keep trying.” And, sure enough, I found some clubs that would take me and a good college career.

Ivan Joseph
I love what you’re saying because you’re doing what we call as self-confident people interpret feedback differently. And what you’re able to do right now is, “I guess I had a bad streak.” After using some skills, instead of like, “My God, I’m a loser. I’ll never do any good.” And then you start to dig yourself what we call, “Lord, the snake’s belly and a wagon rut,” right? You interpreted those failures differently. That is so key. How we interpret setbacks really sets us apart.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, thank you. And it’s funny, and it wasn’t immediate. I’d say there’s definitely, I don’t know what the time period was, some weeks or so of just like, “Ooh, I suck.” But, eventually, that turned around. So, now, let’s talk about, Ivan, right now, as we’re recording, the coronavirus is a hot topic everywhere on the news, etc. and I’ve been chatting with a few people who have admitted to really experiencing a healthy dose of depression, anxiety, mental health challenges, that is not so typical for them under normal circumstances but, hey, not getting out, not seeing people, not as easy to get to the gym, or all these sorts of rituals habits, routines, healthy good things they got going on are disrupted, and they’re now kind of reaping what they’ve had to. So, hey, help us here. If listeners are experiencing this right now, how might we apply some of these tools to help shorten the time and the funk?

Ivan Joseph
Well, it’s a great question again, right? And so, one of the things you recognize is that we know that thoughts influence our beliefs which influence our actions. And so, when you’re in a funky space, you know that’s you’re thinking, and then it’s influencing your beliefs, and then how you get to the action part.

And so, one of the things that’s really important is in this whole world that we’re using the term social distancing, and the psychologist in me says, “I don’t know if that’s the right term that we should be thinking about. I think the term should be physical distancing, and we should be engaging with the people that are important to us, who add value to us.”

A lot of times when I talk about the lens of confidence, I talk about getting away from the people who will tear you down, which is the negative people, the people who are giving you negative feedback versus critical feedback. But I think the opposite is also true, which means get close to the people who will build you up.

And so, you know who are you and who those people are, and you can know and you can see what are the tells that are telling you, and you’re going off into a place. And you need to pay attention to your physical tells that say you’re getting to a point of stress, and then you need to put yourself in a place where you can connect with those people. And, in today’s world, it’s going to have to be virtual, but with Zoom, with Microsoft Teams, with FaceTime, with Google Hangouts, there’s a way to infuse yourself and your relationships with positivity to help build you up and to help pass you through these troubling times.

When we say we’re all in this together, nobody does it alone. And sometimes we’re so proud and we’re so afraid to share our vulnerabilities, that’s not what confidence or high-performance life is all about. It’s about recognizing that we are in this together.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s good. Now, you mentioned physical stress tells. Please, flag them right up front. So, some listeners might be like, “Huh, that’s been going on.”

Ivan Joseph
You think about it, right? We don’t recognize we need to always talk about stress. There’s two types of stress. There’s distress and there’s eustress. Eustress is the positive pieces that raise our levels and help us perform better. And distress is the one that overwhelms us, how we react to that stress overwhelms us.

I remember when I was first leading, a stressor for me that I was not ready, the skin on my hand started to peel. I started to get like serious, like bad cotton ball mouth. But there’s also a point where I need to be at the right level of performance anxiety in order to get the best out of me. When the butterflies are in your stomach, when you’re feeling your heart start to raise, I know I’m ready. I’m at my peak game.

Have you ever had a client or a guest on your show where you are like, “Man, I was on. I brought my A-game to this guy,” and thought about how you felt just before that moment?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, you know, it’s funny, just before we spoke, I was feeling a little bit like, “Meh,” my energy level was sort of lower and, yeah, I was just sort thinking, “Well, how would I prefer to feel?” I was like, “Well, I’d like to be fascinated and powerful and curious.” So, yeah, I guess that’s how I feel before a great interview.

Ivan Joseph
Right. I think it’s really important about how we connect with those around us, and not just the energy we give but the energy we draw from those people.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you. Well, let’s see, so in your book you mentioned five skills, and it sounds like we’ve hit a few of them: positive thought, team building, grit, higher expectations, and focus. Are there any of these that you think we’ve covered too shallowly and we got to give a little bit more love to before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Ivan Joseph
Well, I think the one that we haven’t touched is this ‘higher expectations’ one, and I think this is really key about we talk about it from the Pygmalion Effect is what we call it in the world of leadership or sport in which people will rise through a minimum level of expectations. And I think this is really important for leaders that are out in the field. It’s about, “How do you lead people to be excellent and confident? And how can you influence them?” And one of the ways is about catching them when they’re good because they’ll raise your minimum level of expectations.

And what I mean by that is we know that if you are critical, if you give negative feedback, “Hey, I need this presentation to look like this. Hey, this chart didn’t have what I needed on it. Hey, I need you to do this, this, and this,” that we know that we’ll get the behavior we want. But, typically, it erodes the relationship. Typically, it creates conflict.

If we can, instead, forget about that, the negative things that people are doing, and instead focus on the team member that might be doing it right, meaning, you’re in a meeting, “Hey, folks, thanks for coming on time to this meeting. It helps us get started.” Or somebody presented a report, “Hey, I love how this report was. Notice the font size is the way I want it. I love that the logo is here on the bottom left.” Instead, what happens is you catch people when they’re good. And what we’ve known and what we’ve seen in the research is that improvement exponentially improves over when we catch them when they’re bad.

In the world of psych, we call this the social learning theory, is that people learn through observation. If we can focus on the excellence, now, what happens is instead of us tearing down a player over here who was really sour or bitter or angry because of our feedback, we built up somebody else, and they feel great and aligned to you and really increase their loyalty and their willingness to follow you, and we’ve said somebody else over here is like, “Oh, I better pay attention. I want that same feedback.” And the whole organization rises because you catch them when they’re good.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it’s excellent. Thank you. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Ivan Joseph
Well, I think the last piece is just to remind people that this is a skill. The skill of self-confidence isn’t about just sitting here and, “Okay, I’ve tried. I wrote this letter, I read it once, it didn’t work.” “Oh, I said my affirmation today, and it didn’t happen.” “Well, I tried praise and it still hasn’t happened.” We have to be willing to persist just like the master of any task in the workplace, and give it an opportunity to grab hold.

And so, for the listeners that are out there, be patient with yourselves, and be patient with the people that you’re leading, because good things will happen if you give it an opportunity to shine, and you will see a cultural shift in the people, and, most importantly, or just as importantly, a cultural shift in yourself in how you approach leading.

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

Ivan Joseph
Well, one of my favorites is an old Apple commercial. I always attribute it to Steve Jobs but I know it’s somebody different, but it was after Steve Jobs had been kicked out of his company and he came back, and they launched this commercial in the Super Bowl, and it was called “Here’s to the crazy ones.” I don’t know if you know. It’s really a poem. “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo.” And I’ll fast-forward to the last line, “Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” I love it because it speaks to a higher purpose.

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

Ivan Joseph
Oh, gosh, being a psychologist, I have a whole bunch. But one of them is a study by Jacobson and Rosenthal. Jacobson and Rosenthal studied the Pygmalion Effect in a New York high school, and what they did was they brought some teachers, and then they said to these teachers, “Hey, we developed this late-blooming acquisition test. It’s an amazing test. It will tell of all your students who the best late bloomers are.”

And so, of course, the teachers said, “Yeah,” and so they administered the test. And these students in the back of the class, the very back, the ones you would think would be the dumbest, most bonehead, because that’s what they sit. At least, that’s where I’ve sat but don’t tell anybody. They said, “These students here scored the highest on the late-blooming acquisition test. We’re going to come back at the end of the year and see how our test works.”

So, Jacobson and Rosenthal show up, and sure enough, at the end of the year, the teachers were excited, “Ah, your late-blooming acquisition, this was amazing, it worked. It did everything what it’s supposed to do.” But, as you can imagine, the magic of it was there was no such thing as a late-blooming acquisition test. It was a confederate. It was a ploy. In fact, what happened was the teachers, because they expected more from these students, they called on them more. They didn’t ask, they didn’t take the dog-ate-my-homework as an excuse. They didn’t say, “I don’t know good enough.” They didn’t say, “Okay, you know how you avoid eye contact when you don’t know the answer?”

By those teachers interacting differently with those students, those students exceeded their own expectations and rose to the expectations of the teachers. And this has been a key tool in my leadership toolbox.

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

Ivan Joseph
Oh, well, one of my favorite books, and don’t tell anybody because it’s one of those things. It was Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, hey, we have some more Tony Robbins references here, yeah.

Ivan Joseph
Right. Have you read that one?

Pete Mockaitis
I believe it is on my shelf, yeah. When I was a teenager, Tony Robbins was who I wanted to be. Fun fact, I was a weird kid. But, yeah, what’s something useful from that book that was impactful for you?

Ivan Joseph
You know, at the time I read that book I’d flunked out of school and I hadn’t told my parents. And, for me, what I liked about it was it gave you the ownership and the control. It was about awakening the giant within. Stop blaming everybody else outside, external reasons for why you’re not succeeding. It’s time for you to really take ownership, and you have the ability to control your destiny, where you want to be, who you want to be, and what you want to do. And I remember taking that to heart and really just taking my life right by the scruff of the collar and just deciding I was going to drive where I wanted to be.

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

Ivan Joseph
Well, I’m a big believer in surrounding myself with the right talent. And so, for me, that tool is I’m really careful about who I choose, and I really pay particular attention about who I hire and how I hire. And you always talk about it, it’s like fire fast, hire slow. I don’t think people think enough about building culture, and these other things that when you’re asking the questions around the workplace or in the interview process that will get at, “Who do you want and do they fit?” because that fit is so important. That values alignment is mission critical.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Ivan Joseph
I’m a morning person and I found this out by accident. But one of my favorite habits is getting up early to make sure I align my day up right. That time before anybody gets up is so productive. I’m not part of Sharma’s, 5 AM Club. I’m not that, but I’m probably a 5:30-5:45 club. But the ability to set your day out to really think about what those three big buckets, or four big bucket things are, that’s the way you move your needle.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And tell me, is there a particular nugget that you share and you’re known for, people quote it back to you often?

Ivan Joseph
I think it’s about getting away from the people who will tear you down. I think that’s really important because you will start to believe them. And if you can’t be really careful and mindful of who those people are, then you’re setting yourself up for failure, and they will undo all the good work you’re doing for yourself.

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

Ivan Joseph
Well, I would point them to You Got This launching soon as an Amazon website, or an Amazon book but I’d also point them to my website Dr. Ivan Joseph coming soon, so stay tuned. You can find me on Twitter, I guess, @DrIvanJoseph.

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

Ivan Joseph
I think one of the things that I want to remind people is that you’ve got to remember that if you don’t think you can or if you don’t believe in yourself, nobody will. And I want to remind them that they’ve already achieved success, if they’re in a position right now where they’ve done a really nice job, or they’ve been promoted, and so we already know that you’re capable and competent. Just remind yourselves of that and keep reminding of yourselves of that when you go out into that next-level job and opportunity.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Ivan, thanks so much for taking this time. And I wish you lots of luck in all your adventures.

Ivan Joseph
My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Pete. I really appreciate it.

542: How to Turn Your Adversity into Advantage with Laura Huang

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Harvard professor and author Laura Huang shares how to build your edge and be perceived positively.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why the myth of hard work is so dangerous
  2. How unfair perceptions can quietly limit your career–and what to do about it
  3. A formula to turn embarrassment and bitterness into enrichment

About Laura:

Laura Huang is a professor at Harvard Business School, who specializes in studying interpersonal relationships and implicit bias in entrepreneurship and in the workplace. Her research has been featured in several publications like the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and Nature. She was also named as one of the 40 Best Business School Professors Under the Age of 40 by Poets & Quants.

Laura has also previously held positions in investment banking, consulting, and management in several companies such as Standard Chartered bank, IBM Global Services, and Johnson & Johnson. She received her MS and BSE in electrical engineering from Duke University, an MBA from INSEAD, and a PhD from the University of California, Irvine.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

Laura Huang Interview Transcript

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

Laura Huang
Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. But, first, I want to hear what you’re allowed to tell us about your first job offer out of college being to work at the CIA.

Laura Huang
How did you know that?

Pete Mockaitis
We dig. We dig deep in your background. Maybe not as deep as the CIA did but…

Laura Huang
I know. You must have an in with the CIA. Most people don’t know that, yeah, that was my very first job offer, actually. And I wasn’t actually sure what it was about, to be honest, because I was an engineer, and I had applied for this role, and it turned out to be a different role than I had expected. Well, suffice to say that that’s what I was offered. And I sort of tried a conversation with a couple of my family members about it and I, essentially, was forbidden from taking that job. So, that was the end of that, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
What are the key drivers that lead to that being off the table immediately?

Laura Huang
It was things like, “They trust you with a gun? They would trust you with a gun?” So, things like that. And I speak multiple languages and they weren’t quite sure exactly what situations I was going to be placed in, what kind of counterintelligence projects I was going to be involved in. And so, instead, I became a professor.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I guess some professors still do get recruited into intelligence agencies depending on what they study. I’m not sure in a personal relationship.

Laura Huang
Sure. Well, you never know.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a good one. Interpersonal relationships and implicit bias doesn’t sound as much like something that they would recruit for, but maybe. Maybe they will.

Laura Huang
Well, every so often, you know, when my husband is being particularly difficult or something, I’ll say, “Just be careful because you don’t know, I might still be in the CIA.”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, so the intrigue is sown. And so, I love the forced segue, but I’m also intrigued by the work that you’ve been doing talking about getting an edge. And so, I want to hear, maybe we’re going to cover a lot of good stuff. But perhaps we could lead off with what’s perhaps one of the most surprising and fascinating and counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made about how people successfully attract attention and support from others?

Laura Huang
Yeah. You know, I think the most surprising thing that I’ve discovered over the last decade or so of my research is that how very many people from just a young age were taught that success is about hard work.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Laura Huang
To just put your head down and keep working hard, and that your hard work will speak for itself. And the thing is, is that hard work is critical. I would never say that it’s not critical. But I think there comes a time when people realize that hard work alone is not enough, and that hard work leaves us feeling frustrated. And we hear so many super successful people, you know, we ask people that are at the top of their game, people who are CEOs of companies, on top management teams, people who are Olympians and in professional sports, and we ask them the secret to their success, and they will inevitably say something along the lines of, “It’s hard work. Just keep working hard.”

But that often leave us frustrated because we can see how much effort we’re sometimes putting in and how much hard work, and how even when we putting in all that hard work, the rewards seemingly sometimes go to somebody else. And we realize that it’s often about the signals and the perceptions and the stereotypes of others that are actually dictating who gets the rewards and who gets those coveted outcomes. And so, I think that’s something that I realized is that we all sort of have this implicit understanding of that but yet we keep telling this narrative around keep working hard, putting your thing, and just keep working hard.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, I’d say that adds up to me in terms of that sounds true, but you’ve got more than just anecdotal stuff. Can you share some of your most compelling evidence or data out there that shows this is absolutely a big force affecting professionals all the time?

Laura Huang
Yeah. I’ve studied this in a range of different contexts, with a range of different qualities and characteristics, because I wanted to see how much we could push it, how much this could hold. So, I found, for instance, people who have an accent are much less likely to get hired for top executive-level positions. They’re less likely to get raises, they’re less likely to get promotions, they’re less likely to get funding for their ventures, even when we control for all other factors. The type of venture it is, what industry it is, it’s overwhelmingly people who have an accent have this negative, have this sort of disadvantage.

We see this with women. Women are only receiving 2% of the venture capital financing out there. They’re less likely to get raises, less likely to have the same salary or the same position, a host of different things. I’ve studied this with gender, or race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, across a whole different host of things. Probably the most appalling or surprising one to me was when a couple of my colleagues and I wanted to try and find a context in which bias and disadvantage should not occur, where we should see no difference at all.

And so, what we decided to look at was people who were suffering from heart attacks and were in the emergency room. And we figured, “This is a situation, this is an instance where the physicians, the emergency room physicians, their only job is to save that patient regardless of their gender or regardless of other factors.” But, indeed, we found, again, that when women were having heart attacks, they were more likely to die from heart attacks when they’re being treated by male physicians than when they were treated by female physicians.

And so, it was this amazing sort of revelation that even in life or death situations, we’re seeing the impact of signals and perceptions and ways of communicating, and how that has an impact. But I should say also that it’s not just men, for example, that are discriminating against women. I find in venture capital and in entrepreneurship, female investors and male investors are both equally likely to bias against women entrepreneurs in a host of different ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, boy, yeah, that’s so intriguing and I could just imagine all kinds of contexts and all sorts of combinations of times in which folks are discriminated against. I’m trying to imagine sort of the reverse as I thought you were going with, and I think men might be discriminated against when folks are hiring a nanny.

Laura Huang
Yeah, absolutely. This is what I talk a lot about. Everybody has something. Like, everyone has something. We tend to think a lot about the typical cast of characters – gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, religion. But, really, it has everything. Everyone is susceptible to the perceptions and the stereotypes of others.

You go into any situation, what happens is that you are being perceived by your counterpart, and it’s based on their background and their experiences, and your background and your experiences, and so every time you go into a different situation, when you change one thing, whether it’s the context or the person that you’re interacting with, those perceptions will change as well.

And so, we are all susceptible to these sorts of first impressions and stereotypes and obstacles that others present on our behalf.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love to get a sense, and it’s okay if you don’t have every datapoint right off the top of your head, but maybe just a quick sense for the order of magnitude here in terms of like with the accent here, for example, or whatever example you happen to know the numbers. Is this like a 4% difference or like a 40% difference, or more?

Laura Huang
No, we’re talking 30% to 40% differences.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding?

Laura Huang
Yeah, and it’s very, very robust in terms of repeated over different contexts. And, you know, the interesting thing about that, which is really sort of where this book came from, is that for the last decade, I had been studying inequality and disadvantage and people who are underestimated, and it’s starting to get really depressing in the sense that I saw all of these disparities and all of these disadvantages. And people would sort of ask me these questions around, “What can we do about it? Is there a way to prevent against these disparities?” And I don’t have the answers.

And so, really, what I set out to do, and over the last couple of years, what I’ve tried to do is figure out, “Are there things people can do, are there strategies that people can take to sort of inoculate against these biases and flip these signals and perceptions, these stereotypes in your favor?” And I found, indeed, we could, that there are ways to flip stereotypes and obstacles in our favor, and then we can find and create our own edge.

So, in the example of the person, if people with the accent, what I found, for instance, was that people typically think that people who have an accent are not able to communicate as well. But, in fact, it’s not about communication. When I did blind studies where I had some people with accents and some people without accents, giving pitching their ventures, I found that the people with accents were just as likely to communicate as much information, if not more, and people were just as likely to comprehend and understand what their company was about, if not more.

Instead, it was around perceptions we made about people with accents. Things like the fact that they may not, you know, we would perceive them as being not as interpersonally influential, or not as good at team interactions, or being a team player, not able to think out of the box, or be innovative. And so, preventing against these things, well, we had those same people with accents go into an interview situation and say things like, “Let me give you an example of a time when I fought for resources for my team,” or, “Let me tell you about a time when I didn’t stop until I had closed the deal.” Hence, showing how interpersonally skilled they really were. That actually prevented against these negative outcomes.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Okay. Well, so then that’s a rather particular instance, folks with accents trying to acquire venture capital money, sharing particular stories that combat where the bias is going. Can you share with us, to the extent that it’s possible, what are some of the best recipes in terms of, “Hey, if you have this adversity, here’s what you do to turn that into that advantage”?

Laura Huang
Yes. So, there are so many things embedded just within how we do this, which is, number one, it’s really the more that you make it authentic and recognize the way in which you are being perceived, the more equipped you are to stop and redirect. Like, that’s really the key. When you realize that somebody is perceiving you in a certain way, just stopping that sort of perception and redirecting it the perception that they should be having of you.

And people often want sort of, “What are the 10 steps to doing this?” I wish I could give like a recipe, or like the 10 steps to do this, but it’s so personal in terms of how you’re being perceived, who that other person that is perceiving you is, and how you redirect that in sort of the best way. But that’s, really, essentially what it is, is knowing yourself really well and being able to know where your strengths are, trusting and relying on your strengths as well as your alleged weaknesses, and turning those underestimated strengths upside down to succeed in both business and in life.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so what are some of the best practices to go about decoding that stuff in terms of how you may be perceived?

Laura Huang
Yeah, so there’s a number of different things that you can do. I talk a lot in the book around knowing what your basic goods are. Your basic goods, those are really the things, those are like your superpowers, the things that you’re really good at that really make you who you are.

For example, you could be somebody who is really hardworking and trustworthy and compassionate. When you get to somebody else who’s really hardworking and trustworthy, but maybe isn’t compassionate, and it totally changes things. It makes you a completely different person even though two out of the three of those traits very much embody you. It’s understanding things like that.

And then it’s understanding that when you are engaging with someone else, that those aspects, those traits of yours are going to interact with that other person. So, creating and gaining an edge is really edge stands for sort of the framework for this perspective around how you can gain that advantage for yourself.

The E is for enrich, and that’s those pieces are your basic good. How are you enriched? What do you bring to situations? What is the value that you provide to other people? The D is for delight. How do you delight others? Because, often, even if you know how you enrich and the value you provide to other people, you don’t have the opportunity. Like, we don’t belong to the right group, we don’t belong to the right networks, and so we don’t have the opportunity to show how we enrich or provide value. Your ability to delight, really, is your way of getting that entrance, getting that opportunity.

And then once you get that opportunity, G is for guide. Guiding those perceptions of others so that you can continue to show how you enrich and provide value. And, finally, the last E is for effort. And effort and hard work comes last in this framework because we often think that effort and hard work should come first, that it comes first and that it’ll then speak for itself but, in fact, that’s where we get very frustrated where we don’t know how we enrich and how we delight and how we guide, and when we do know those things, that’s when our effort and our hard work works harder for us.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then I’d love to get your view in terms of to gather this self-awareness. Are you sort of interviewing people, doing 360-degree surveys, just sort of asking your good friends and family sort of? What’s maybe the intelligence gathering look like in practice?

Laura Huang
It’s a sort of continuous process, right? There’s no sort of easy solution to this. There’s a number of different ways that I sort of present this. One way is by following patterns and looking for patterns in your life. I talk about this a lot as life rhymes. So, your life really rhymes, and when you’re able to look for these patterns, things that maybe you had this feeling as a child, and you weren’t sure exactly what that was, but it either made you uncomfortable or didn’t sit well with you, or somebody had said something to you, or had interpreted you in another way, in some way, and then a couple of years later you might have a similar situation. You feel that same type of feeling. Something didn’t sit well. You start to develop an understanding and an awareness of what those sorts of things mean, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Laura Huang
That’s something that we implicitly start to get an understanding. The other sort of way is that it’s much more explicit, and I always say that anybody can learn how to do this. Anybody can learn how to really have that authentic self-awareness, but not everybody is willing. Everyone is able to but not everyone is willing to. And the reason why not everyone is willing to is because it does mean putting yourself out there and asking for that uncomfortable feedback from people, putting yourself out there and allowing yourself to have the humility and also be embarrassed.

I talk a lot about how being embarrassed is so key to growth in our lives, and having this real understanding, because a lot of times we’ll be in situations and something will happen and we’ll be…it won’t go right, it won’t go the way we expected, or sort of we’ll be embarrassed about it. And then we’ll say, “Never again.” We won’t ever put ourselves in this situation again. We don’t ever want to feel that way again, “That just made me uncomfortable and I didn’t like it, especially when the stakes are really high.”

But when we push through in those moments of embarrassments is a lot of revelation. And there’s a lot of revelation about ourselves, and why we felt uncomfortable, and what it was that made us feel uncomfortable, and how we can sort of go past that in the future, but sometimes it takes multiple times where we’re embarrassing ourselves in the same sort of situations before we learn how life rhymes.

And so, it’s sort of those types of situations. And there’s also this element of we’ve all been burned before, we’ve all had people who have…it’s amazing how you can ask pretty much anyone to name an instance with somebody or some situation still bugs you. Like, you still have this chip on your shoulder because that person wronged you or burned you so badly. Like, within seconds, we can bring up two to three, at least, examples of situations where we still bitter, or we feel jaded, or we still have a chip on our shoulder because we still feel wronged, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Laura Huang
Those types of situations where we really allow ourselves to experience that bitterness and think about, “Is this making me bitter? And how can it make me better?” Let it make you better not bitter. That’s also a situation where we can learn a lot about ourselves and who we really are, and those perceptions that others have of us.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that is intriguing in terms of, like, if you feel super bitter and wronged, I mean, I’m right with you. It’s like that is indicative that, hey, there’s a deeply-held value here that you think has been flagrantly violated. And by sort of digging into that a little bit, you can kind of deduce what that is.

Laura Huang
Totally. That’s exactly it. Because it still leaves us feeling that way, there is something there, there’s something substantive there that tells us a lot about our deeply-embedded beliefs and values and what we really care about. But, instead, we sort of avoid those because they’re so painful, and we sort of chalk it up to frustration because, often, those are the instances where our hard work didn’t speak for itself, and somebody else sort of wronged us or our hard work didn’t speak for itself, our hard work was not enough. It left us frustrated. It didn’t go according to how we think it should go. There’s this myth of meritocracy. For some, that was the meritocracy was violated. And it tells us about our values and how we think the world, the orderly world should be and how things should work.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, so I’m thinking about my own life and examples. But I’d love it if you could share some cool stories here in which someone came to terms with some situations that were embarrassing or caused bitterness, and what they learned and took away, and were enriched from those when they really dug in.

Laura Huang
When I talk about sort of life rhymes, there’s multiple instances where I didn’t advocate for myself because of inexperience, because I didn’t know better. And then later on something else happened that was really similar and I sort of learned how to advocate for myself and then advocated in the wrong way.

And then you sort of learn through the years. I think it still stinks every time I read about frivolous lawsuits, people who lose lawsuits because they don’t have the resources, or the know-how, or the people, it doesn’t seem always like justice is being served. It seems like the people who are getting out on the right side of things are the ones who had some sort of secret inside understanding, or had the resources and the money to continue hiring the best lawyers, and so the other participant couldn’t sustain it anymore.

It’s these instances where you…like for me, loyalty is so huge. And so, instances where I really gave my all to somebody and someone took advantage of that. Or instances where I had somebody’s best interests at heart, but then they were very willing to, for their own personal gain, even just a little bit of personal gain, create huge disadvantages for others. And those sorts of situations, I think I’m speaking on behalf of situations that lots of us have had.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And then can we sort of hear the conclusion of that in terms of, all right, so there you felt it, you noted it, you captured it. And then what?

Laura Huang
Well, I think the painful part of this is that you don’t win. You don’t win everything, right? And you only win when you take these experiences and, like I said, you let it make you better. That you allow it to inform you in some way so that in the future you can try and flip things in your favor. The tough part of this is that because it’s so often about the signals and the perceptions and the stereotypes that other people have of us, it’s these soft things that are really the poison. But, at the same time, because they are the soft things, they also become the anecdote.

We’re able to shift things and reposition them and flip them in our favor. We’re not able to put in the same thing, things when it’s a hard anecdotal of sorts of things. So, just like those signals and perceptions are the things that are leading to disadvantage, so, too, can we flip those things in our favor.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love it, if possible, if we could maybe zoom out a bit. So, much of the work you mentioned is certainly getting that deep knowledge of yourself, and then your potential, how you’re being perceived. Are there any things that you see just show up again and again and again that are maybe nearly universal in terms of, “Here are some easy little things that just about all of us should start doing or stop doing to help positively influence how we’re being perceived”?

Laura Huang
You know, a lot of it is about recognition. A lot of it is about going into situations, and realizing that people are going to have these perceptions. But, at the same time, I think it’s really important to understand that people are very complicated and varied and embracing the fact that there is not just one version of each person. What I mean by that is that it’s very easy to go into a situation when somebody says something, and then, all of a sudden, we equate that person with that statement and personify that person as everything that that statement encompasses, rather than sort of seeing it as just one aspect or one facet of that person, understanding that they are also very complicated sort of people.

I think we can all identify situations in which we said something and it came out, it would come out in a way that we didn’t intend for it to come out. And we sort of think, “Oh, I hope that that person didn’t misinterpret it, or I hope they didn’t think that I meant this.” But we don’t think the same when somebody else says something to us, that past, if ended. No, we don’t think, “Perhaps they didn’t mean it that way, or it came out the wrong way. And let me sort of understand what they meant,” thinking then as that person. So, we don’t often look at the intent of other people but we evaluate things that we say based on intent.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yes. It’s funny, when you talk about bitterness, for me, personally, that’s one of the best ways that I personally found to resolve some of that, is when someone says something I think is just outrageous, like, “What on earth? That is just so out of line,” etc. I stop it. And sometimes, hey, it’s worth just acknowledging and addressing and digging into it, but other times it’s not. But if it sticks with me, that’s kind of what I think as like, “Well, hey, there have been times I’ve said things I didn’t quite mean to and it came out wrong and I regretted and felt like, ‘Oops, I made a mistake.’” And they, too, very well may be experiencing those same emotions, like, “Oh, man, that is not what I meant to say there. Oops.”

Laura Huang
Yeah, I mean, it was really funny. Just the other day, we were having this conversation, a couple of us were having a conversation, this person said something that was like so out of left field that we all looked like, “Whoa, wait. Where did that come from?” And one other person was like, “Whoa, where did that come from? I know you didn’t mean it in that way. It totally must’ve come out.” Like, just give that person the benefit of the doubt, and so we’re laughing with that person being so, so out of left field, but he didn’t mean it that way, like, “What do you mean?” Like, that other person was, “Oh, yeah, yeah. I totally meant it that way.” And they sort of clarified, right?

But who knows, they could’ve meant it that way but in a benign way. Give that person an opportunity to like learn, to realize, like, “Oh, I shouldn’t say things in that way.” So, it could’ve just come out the wrong way, and then we gave them, in a really safe way, a way for them to clarify. But even if they did mean it that way, it also gave them an opportunity, in a very safe way, to kind of understand and have this dialogue with us. And that’s really what getting at this really deep, rich interpersonal sort of interactions is all about, it’s like understanding and coming to this recognition and overlap and shared sort of experiences and values. That’s where you really start to enrich the lives of other people and really show where you can add value.

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

Laura Huang
Yeah, I mean, I just think one of the things that I always sort of emphasize is that when we’re trying to sort of shift the perceptions and the stereotypes of others, and flip these perceptions in our favor, I often get the question, which is, “Well, you know, it just feels like manipulative. It feels strategic. I don’t like when other people sort of do that and act manipulative. And I really don’t want to do that either.”

And what I always point out is that this is something that’s very different. This is about people are going to have perceptions of you regardless of whether you guide them to who you authentically are or not. But it’s actually much more authentic and much more real and not manipulative at all when you are guiding these perceptions and you’re not passively letting others write your narrative. You’re writing your own narrative and guiding people to who you really are. And that’s where you get much richer and much more authentic sort of relationships.

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

Laura Huang
If I had to pick just one, recently I love “Keep the main thing the main thing.” And what really is like behind that is, like, no, you know what the main things in your life are, the things that really are important, the things that really drive you, and the things that you feel are like worth fighting for. But we often get caught up in the things that are more immediate or the things that demand more of our attention, and we lose sight of what that main thing is.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Laura Huang
I write non-fiction but I love to read fiction. There’s just something about fiction, so I love “When the Legends Die” it’s one of my favorites. “Because of Winn-Dixie” is another of my favorites. These are sort of like the Young Adult books that really impacted me. I love “Girl in Translation,” which is like a really powerful story about identity.

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

Laura Huang
I used the timer functionality on my phone a lot to keep me organized. It’s really easy to get off course, and so sometimes I’m like, “Okay, I have 30 minutes.” And if you set your timer for 30 minutes, you sort of focus, like, “I’m not going to work on this for longer than 30 minutes so I better get this right.” So, it’s such a simple funny thing. I tend to use really simple tools and try and leave the more in-depth things to projects I’m working on, the papers, the writing that I’m trying to do and so on and so forth.
Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And how about a favorite habit?

Laura Huang
I have one that’s really aspirational. I really want to spend like 10 minutes every morning meditating and just thinking through, and just having like silence. I’ve been really, really bad at that so I can’t say that that’s a favorite habit but it’s one that I see as very valuable and I’m really working on.

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

Laura Huang
One of them is “Hire slow, fire fast.” And it applies to entrepreneurship very much so because, as you’re growing your company very quickly, the tendency is to hire very quickly and it sort of destroys a lot of companies because you’re bringing on lots of the wrong people but, yet, you feel like it impacts you.

But it also applies in life a lot too, which is like, really, we’re not as careful about sort of pruning the things in our life that are not good for us and, instead, we try and bring on lots of things that we think are going to help us without knowing that we already have all of this other stuff that’s going on that’s kind of interfering. And so, it’s like get rid of the bad, so fire quick, fire fast, get rid of those things and then hire slow, being really careful about what you introduce, whether it’s habits, people, or experiences. Being really methodical and thinking, not even methodical but being really intentional about how you do that. So, that’s one of them.

Another one I’d say a lot, that I used to say a lot in my entrepreneurship class is, like, you got to stop the bleeding. And a lot of times we start to think about all of these bigger more macro-level issues but we’re not focusing on stopping the bleeding. You got to stop the immediate bleeding. And then, as you’re doing that, sometimes you’re discovering and figuring out. But just stop the bleeding but you also have to look at what’s the root cause. And so, both of those are really important.

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

Laura Huang
Yeah, so on my website LauraHuang.net there’s lots of resources, how-tos, there’s a downloadable guide to finding your edge that has strategies and tips that you can find or exercises for how you can do exactly some of the things I’ve been talking about. I’m also on a variety of different social media, I’m on Twitter, Instagram. Laura Huang is my handle on Twitter, Instagram and a bunch of other things, Facebook, LinkedIn, all of those sorts of things.

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

Laura Huang
Yeah, the call to action is really just practice this, know that you can do it, and share with us your experiences of how you’ve been able to flip these stereotypes and obstacles in your favor.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Laura, thanks so much for taking this time and good luck in forming your edge.
Laura Huang
Thanks so much. Take care. Appreciate it.

540: Making Recruitment Work for You with Atta Tarki

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Atta:

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

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Atta Tarki Interview Transcript

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

Atta Tarki
Thank you for having me, Pete.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atta Tarki
Absolutely.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

Atta Tarki
Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Atta Tarki
You only have 24 hours in a day.

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

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

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

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

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

Atta Tarki
I do have a few secret…

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, good.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Please.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
You mean like blame.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
That’s perfect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Nice and public data.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Lycos, HotBot, Ask Jeeves.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, man.

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

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

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

Atta Tarki
I would say 90/10.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool?

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

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And a habit?

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

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

Atta Tarki
Hire well, manage little.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Nicolle:

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

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Nicolle Merrill Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
I see.

Nicole Merrill
So, my love for pinball is real.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood.

Nicole Merrill
I’m really into it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicolle Merrill
What do you want to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
But, please, continue. Pinball exploring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And program can take many different flavors.

Nicolle Merrill
Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, geez.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Based on the video interview.

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you.

Nicolle Merrill
So, that would be my advice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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